The mystic terrains of online participation

The ever nuanced world of online participation (XKCD)

Continuing my online education adventures, I watched a great Stanford HCI lecture discussing the nuances of online participation. Since I am a complete novice in this field, it was really gratifying to have many of my own budding thoughts put into much more eloquent (even if pseudo scientific!) terms. I want to write a little bit here about both what I learned, and some of the things that it got me to think more about.

1. The irreplaceable requisite of a meaningful community
There is a lot of hype around gamification as the new hot stuff but rather little thought put into how to use it effectively. A better way to think about gamification instead of games perhaps, is as an interactive representation of motivations and incentives, that helps users to display or reinforce these underlying notions more effectively in their online identity. Most of the time when people want to quantify their accumulation of something, it is often because this display signifies something to the external world. Points, badges, and levels by themselves are not alluring or engaging to users unless they exist in a socially meaningful context– i.e. in a community that matters to the user. (I do note that it is not always external though, it can also come from internal motivation)

Hence, more important than building a kickass badges system is to create a meaningful community where people care about the community. While this seems so duh! on some level, a lot of people these days do seem to miss the point and believe that vacant stamps of approval will lead to more activity. In every ‘socially open’ platform that exists on the internet, people contribute for a range of motivations– it is important to identify what that is in every context and use gamification as an reinforcement or playful quantification of that.

The lecturer also mentioned an interesting point about the incremental difficulty of building a meaningful online community as you cast your net wider– it is simply a reflection of what is true in real life as well: the common interest and purpose get diluted pretty quickly as the network expands (a converse reason of why FB is so phenomenally successful). Mozilla and MacArthur foundation’s attempt to build an openbadges community is a good example of this challenge. Their attempt at a wide-scale community will need to be really clever about identifying different stakeholders’ motivations for it to take off– I like the ideological motivation, and I will be fascinated to see how they go-to-market.

2. User typing with more nuance and intelligence
One of my favorite takeaways from the lecture is the idea of utilizing more user typing. Again, it seems so obvious, but a one-size interaction model should not fit all given the complexities in people’s preferences (among other factors). I am really fascinated by this notion because there is just so much data that comes with an online platform, and it makes sense that people ought to make more use of that. Even with the seeming complexity, we seem to be pretty reducible to countable prototypes– after all, even with the millions of users it has, Gmail has been able to identify six main types of users and designs itself around that. There should already be countless implicit clues that are floating around our public online participation. I don’t know exactly what the end product and use of this would look like, it could be a horrific sci-fi scenario (the machine knows you better than you know yourself!!), but it could also help to elicit a lot more meaningful experiences online… which brings me nicely to my next point!

3. Meaningful participation- what is it and how do we elicit it?
We keep talking about getting more online participation– but ultimately what is the participation that we want? How do we get not just more, but more meaningful participation? In the context of online businesses, this is usually pretty easy– more revenue, which is translated into metrics like more purchases (e-commerce), more clicks, or longer session lengths. We don’t care about the quality of your content per se, as long as it indirectly gets us more $.

But what if what we are after is using the online platform as a way actually creating and curating knowledge, or enhancing some form of quality content or experience? How do we measure and guide that behavior then? My hunch is that the more intent you are in having meaning and quality, the more guidelines and postmarks you need to give to users to guide their behavior. For e.g.: think Wikipedia guidelines vs the looseness of some Youtube comments. Ultimately, what is meaningful participation of course depends on the goal and context of that particular platform, but what is clear is that if you intend on having a quality experience, it requires much more effort to actively guide and suggest behavior.

Much of the internet today is not built around that, save for a few non-profit enterprises/projects. Most internet co’s measures of participation– stuff like clicks on a link, seem to be better measures for frequent but shallow interactions. It leads to a strange world that rewards addictive but shallow content consumption, as well as plain fake, exploitative behavior. That said, I would love to write a post on spam bots and Pinterest sometime soon.

Long post with lots of fancy words, but ultimately I think it all comes down to this really: let’s try to not ever forget about the humans behind the machines!!


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