UGC: Tribal Elders and Noobs

[This post is part of a 4 part series on the key tensions in growing a high quality community-generated content site. It was presented at PubCon, Las Vegas, 2011.]

“Given that you have worked on this tool … I believe you should recuse yourself of any discussion of this feature.”

Wikipedia user suggesting WikiMedia product designers should have no say in the future of the features they design

When you’re running a community you desperately want to give your members a strong sense of ownership, the feeling that this is their community. But that can go too far. There’s a great video from The Onion of Star Trek fans hating the latest Star Trek movie because it was “fun, watchable.” Fans complained that because the Klingon dialogue had subtitles you could enjoy the movie even without having learned the imaginary language.

So on the one hand you want your community members to feel a strong sense of ownership, on the other hand you have to remember that your most committed members’ instincts and interests aren’t always the same as your company’s.

Here are some of the natural desires of the most committed and admired members of a group:

  • Maintain their status within the community (and prevent others from matching or challenging that status).
  • Have others “pay their dues,” go through the same initiation that they went through.
  • Protect the community from bad changes.
  • Maintain what makes the community so great (for them).

None of those desires are bad, but you have to be aware of them, work with them, and make sure they’re working for the entire community.

This is a classic leadership problem. You need to give people ownership, and at the same time you need it to be clear that the community has certain values and goals that you have the authority and responsibility to uphold and to pursue. And that includes doing things that welcome newcomers, and that help you grow the community without diluting the brand.

One spot on some community sites that can be hostile to newcomers is your points system, if you have one. Randy Farmer gives an example of The Sims Online, where some veteran players actually formed a mafia to shake down newer players. In less dramatic examples a site displays a leaderboard, which can be a great incentive for the few top contributors, but signal newcomers that until they do a million contributions they can’t earn respect or recognition.

If you want to have a leaderboard, consider having a Hall of Fame or something to recognize lifetime achievements, but then have your normal leaderboard refresh monthly.
Another issue with newcomers is to make sure you’re guiding them to proper behavior. Wikipedia has a bot called “Huggle” which makes it easy to send semi-automated messages to people who make bad contributions. But they’re really trying to get their senior members to give personal, constructive feedback to new users.

I went to StackOverflow, a Q&A site for programmers, and I asked “what kind of computer should I use for programming, a Mac or a PC.” OK, not a great question, I was just trying to explore their site. But my question got quickly closed as “Blatantly offensive.” Blatantly offensive, really? I mean that’s like coming into a store, asking for a tangentially related product, and having them push you out and slam the door in your face.

Some people think “just get the vandals out of the system quickly, don’t waste time and effort on them.” But Wikipedia found that of their current dedicated editors, 30% had their first edits reverted. And perhaps others had mediocre first edits that managed to slide through. So don’t assume that if a user is imperfect in his first interaction with your system that he’s a loser and that your system is better off without him. You want your existing community to personally engage the new members and help them join the community.
When you’re trying to encourage new users, you really want to focus on that first engagement. Get the user to do something. Ideally you’re looking for some kind of pubic commitment that makes the user feel she’s declared herself part of the community.

In his talk on Tuesday Tim Ash mentioned a classic experiment. The experimenters knocked on doors asking people to put a big traffic safety sign on their front lawn. 92% said no. Then they went to a different group, and asked them to sign a petition to “Keep America Beautiful.” Later they went back to the people who signed the petition, and more than half agreed to put the big sign on their lawn. So you want to get people to take that first, small, public action that makes them part of the community.

Wikipedia tried to lower the bar to entry by adding ratings boxes at the bottom of their pages. They used the Pringles metaphor to explain this. “Can’t stop at just one” is true for potato chips and for contributions to a site.

But the discussion pages on this feature are interesting. Some community veterans don’t like the feature and they demand it be removed. My favorite is the guy who tells one of the feature’s designers that he should recuse himself from the discussion because he worked on the feature. That’s where we’ve come to, some community members feel so empowered that they demand not only to be heard, but that no other groups be heard.

I don’t want to say “the inmates are running the asylum” because you can’t think that way. If you think “us” and “them” you’re on the wrong path. Some people think you should encourage your more experienced users to retire, to make room for the new generation. I disagree. You want your veterans to nurture the newbies. There should be enough room in a growing community for them all.

Last thing related to Wikipedia’s effort. Gizmodo had an article that said that ratings would ruin Wikipedia. These kinds of ratings are not going to ruin Wikipedia. But the article highlights another threat to quality content. Does your system encourage quick and sensationalist posts or thoughtful and nuanced posts. This isn’t just a UGC issue, or just a web issue. The term “yellow journalism” is more than a century old.
To sum up, you need to make sure that you and your senior community members are working towards the same goals, which should usually include welcoming and nurturing newcomers. Give your veterans lots of ownership, but make sure they’re helping, not hindering, your community’s growth and improvement.

Also in this series: