Success is nothing but being a quote.
--Andy Partridge, XTC
15 Minutes of Fame
Credibility and Egoboo
Take Bruce Sterling as an example. The noted science fiction writer and journalist (author of The Hacker Crackdown, Globalhead, Islands in the Net, Holy Fire and other fine books, ‘Chairman’ of the cyberpunk SF movement in the ‘80s, and regular feature writer for Wired and other magazines) is a nethead from way back. He has been a tireless propagandist for the potential of the Internet for the last decade. The transcripts of many of his speeches and articles are available online. In fact, the text from his book The Hacker Crackdown was posted to the Net in its entirety, for free, shortly after its publication, a good seven years before the current brouhaha over ‘electronic books’. The Mirrorshades List <www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades/>, Sterling’s forum on The Well, has spun out a plethora of Web sites based on the writer’s ideas (including cyberpunk science fiction; the Dead Media Project– an attempt to list as many of the various types of media used throughout history as possible, and the Viridian movement – a radically pragmatic strain of environmentalism.) Sterling’s good reputation among Net users is based on his consistently interesting and useful hypotheses about the effects of technology on culture.
In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond states that the open source movement has rechanneled the selfishness of individual hackers to focus on difficult goals that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation.[i] The fuel behind this rechanneling is ‘egoboo’– the satisfaction and ego boost gained from doing something well and knowing that others know that you did it well.
Egoboo is a suprisingly powerful motivator. Skeptics would expect a culture like the open source community to be fragmented, territorial, wasteful, secretive, and hostile. But it’s not. Open source hackers, for example, produce copious amounts of documentation for Linux – even though it’s well-known that programmers hate documenting. In contrast, the carrot-on-a-stick motivation practices of corporate documentation sweatshops produce the barest minimum of documentation. And most of it is lousy.
· Reputation in a gift economy may carry over into the off-line world and earn you higher status.
The Signal: Noise Ratio
Instant Karma: Respect as Reward
Everyone wants to be liked, but it’s most gratifying to be liked for making some positive contribution to a group rather than for your hairstyle, your clothes, or your collection of original Star Wars action figures. Many parts of commonspace have developed systems that provide user incentives for contributing to and improving commonspace. .
The Slashdot karma system is a great example of egoboo in action. Karma points are a reflection of each Slashdot user’s contribution to overall discussion onsite – registered users, that is: people who post without registering are identified by the epithet ‘Anonymous Coward’, a little bit of negative incentive that pushes some people into active membership more quickly. (Evidently, when the Internet powers-that-be grabbed the Grade 3 sticker-based motivational strategy, peer pressure and name-calling came along for the ride.)
Users receive karma points based on how their comments to news stories on Slashdot are received by the site’s administrators, who review every submission before allowing it to be posted onsite. For each comment that users attach to a given news story, moderators select an adjective like ‘Flamebait’ (negative) or ‘Informative’ (positive) from a drop-down list that appears next to the comments in their special moderating windows. A negative rating reduces the comment’s score by a single point, and a positive rating increases the comment’s score by a single point. All comments are scored on an absolute scale from -1 to 5. Logged-in users start at 1 (although this can vary from 0 to 2 based on their karma) and anonymous users start at 0. Each user’s Info page lists their current karma rating, and the number of comments they’ve posted in the past few weeks (including those that have been rejected).
When a user’s comment is adjusted positively by a moderator, their karma will rise by one point. If it is moderated down, they lose a point. In addition, users can gain karma by submitting a news story that the moderators decide to post. Also, users can gain and lose karma through metamoderation, a system that allows any logged in Slashdot user to ‘rate the rating’ of ten randomly selected posts for fairness. Metamoderation encourages good moderating practices and helps to ensure that moderator access isn’t granted to poor moderators on a repeated basis.
Slashdot has also developed checks and balances on moderators to ensure that they do not become all-powerful demigods who crush other users according to their whims. When users gain access to the moderator window, they are given a number of ‘points of influence’ to apply to comments. Each comment they moderate deducts a point from their total, and when they run out of points, they are done serving until their turn comes up again. Moreover, moderators cannot participate in discussions that they are moderating, and moderation points expire after three days if they are left unused.
So what do karma points do, really, other than make you look good? Answer: (this is the nifty part) karma points determine which users are selected to be moderators, so the maintenance of the system closes in on itself in a beautiful little loop. There are also other selection criteria in the Slashdot moderator selection system, including the following, which could well serve as guides for anyone choosing moderators:
· User must be logged in to the system.
· User must be a regular reader. The scripts which select moderators track the average number of accesses by each logged-in user, then choose from eligible users who read the site a set number of times. Simply accessing the homepage doesn’t count; the user must be actively burrowing down through the site to follow particular stories. The scripts also pick users from the middle of the pack to avoid obsessive-compulsive people hitting the Reload button or people who’ve only read one article.
· User must be a long-time reader. The system throws out the newest few thousand accounts before beginning its moderator selection process. This prevents people from creating new accounts simply to gain moderator access. But more importantly, it ensures that new users understand the community before they gain access to the controls.
· User must be willing to serve as a moderator. Each user’s preference page contains a button that allows them to designate themselves as ‘Unwilling.’ It’s that simple.
· User must be a positive contributor to the site. A user with positive karma has posted more good comments than bad ones, and is therefore eligible to moderate. This weeds out spam accounts.
The end result is a pool of eligible users that represent average, positive Slashdot contributors. Every 30 minutes, the system checks the number of comments that have been posted, and gives a proportionate number of eligible users ‘tokens.’ When any user acquires a certain number of tokens, he or she becomes a moderator.
Slashdot is also a working example of a community where lurking actually makes sense. Most often when we’re online, we’re part of a community of readers more than we are a community of talkers. A quarter to a third of any forum’s users are active in discussion at any given time; everybody else is lurking, watching for a moment when they’re compelled to participate. Lurking allows users to learn how the site functions and helps ensure that when users decide to participate, their first efforts are smooth and successful. For the user, a lurking period also builds anticipation about participating more actively in the life of Slashdot – sort of like waiting for dessert.
If At First You Don’t Succeed: The Value of Persistence
Off the Net, most people have never heard of James ‘Kibo’ Parry. But among long-time Internet users, he’s a minor legend. In his own words, Kibo is to the Internet what Charles Nelson Reilly was to Match Game ’77. Kibo’s realm is USENET, where for over a decade he’s held forth on all manner of topics in all manner of groups (especially those named after him, such as alt.religion.kibology). Kibo’s homepage on the web <www.kibo.com> isn’t much to look at; but as Kibo writes, ‘This page has a philosophy. That makes it better than yours.’ The Kibo philosophy is odd but interesting: that everything online should be legible (i.e. text-based), even if it’s dadaesque nonsense. What the site does offer for the pragmatic surfer who’s willing to sift through the sacred mountain of Kibological documents is some solid advice about how to configure a USENET newsreader for maximum efficiency. (If you’re going to try to stay on top of even a fraction of the 35,000+ newsgroups currently in existence, some of which get thousands of posts a day, you’d better be pretty proficient at writing kill files and bozo filters.) For everyone else, Kibo’s site is carries a powerful message: if you stick around for long enough and keep writing, people will eventually listen, even if they haven’t the slightest idea what you’re trying to tell them.
Kibo is on a grand scale what many users of the Internet’s ‘free advice’ community aspire to be (whether they realize it or not). While most of the users of Epinions <www.epinions.com>, iVillage <www.ivillage.com>, AskMe <www.askme.com>, Abuzz <www.abuzz.com> and similar sites don’t have religions or even newsgroups named after them, many of them display a Kibo-like determination to hold forth on, well, whatever. (Sometimes, the reviews are even produced in streaming video, which can produce unintentionally bizarre results. Check out Epinions user Jen’s review video of an electric breast pump at < www.adcritic.com/content/epinions.com-breast-pump.html>. Watch the cat lick the leaky pump! Watch the pizza guy’s reaction! Reality TV has nothing on this stuff.) What’s more, the free advice users long desperately for someone – anyone – to approve of their epistles.
On a free advice site, the Grade 3 sticker chart is hauled out once again, but this time with a vengeance. Any posting on Epinions can be rated by any user as as Highly Recommended, Recommended, Somewhat Recommended, or Not Recommended. In addition, on your Epinions home page, there’s a sidebar listing other users that you trust – and those that you mistrust. In other words, on many free advice sites, it’s possible to punish people as well as to reward them for their opinions, justly or unjustly.
The majority of advice site participants are well-meaning and sincere, striving to communicate with each other and solve problems for no more reward than the satisfaction of a thank-you. (Oh, and a ‘Highly Recommended’ rating while you’re at it. Calculated altruism is the flipside of mutual self-interest.) However, there are also always a percentage of ‘trolls’ – people who lurk in commonspace looking for easy targets for flaming. This exchange on iVillage – which allows users to post follow ups to expert answers – is instructive:
Cooking on the Grill
"Help! My husband just bought a gas grill. We love cooking on it, but my kids are picky. They won't eat anything but hot dogs and hamburgers. Any suggestions? I'm desperate." --iVillager Chapmanville
What would you do?
EXPERT SAYS :
Maybe your kids would like these!
Grilled Parmesan Turkey Burgers
* 1 pound ground turkey
* 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
* 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
* 1/4 teaspoon pepper
* 1/8 teaspoon salt
* 4 hamburger buns, split
Mix all ingredients except buns and onions. Shape mixture into 4 patties, about 1/2" thick. Cover and grill patties 4 to 6 inches from medium heat for 12 to 15 minutes, turning once, until no longer pink in the center. Add buns to grill, cut side down, for last 4 minutes of grilling. Serve on buns with grilled or raw onions.
How would you satisfy a picky child? Share your recipe suggestions with us.
Two waldorf salads with fries to go. I'm going down the sidewalk to the mall where I can buy some sneakers and pants.
10:47AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by American twat
Can you help. Dooncan would love to meet your kids so long as they are over 16....
10:47AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by Ivor Bigun
I would very much like to clarify the behaviour of my Uncle Thomas after his retirement from front bench politics. He was actually appointed Keeper of the King's Dew Flaps by George V a position entitling him to all the stout he could drink and an annual pension of four bob.
10:47AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by Colonel Henry Ramsbottom
They could always eat my shorts.
10:45AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by The Boxmaster
I am dismayed at the self indulgence rearing it's pathetic head on this page. Why don't you all think about something that is more important than your pathetic little spoiled children who only eat burgers or who can or can't drink alcohol. How about something more important like - paint drying
10:51AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by Tony
Webmaster! Please do something! I can't find my pants!
10:51AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by Robert Pritchard
I AM STUPID AND HAVE NO FRIENDS! I LIVE ON SPAM! MAYBE THIS WILL HELP ANSWER THE ORIGINAL QUESTION! FEED YOUR KIDS SPAM! IT IS GOOD
10:51AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by ROBERT PRITCHARD
Why dont you just feed them hagendaz and pancakes with syrup. Kill the buggers off before they are 30 and we wont have to put up with them coming over here wearing white socks and sandals, talking loudly and having cameras that just ask to be mugged !!!!
10:48AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by Ivor Bigun
This is so much fun! You have succeeded in driving traffic to your site, now show the traffic stats to you AD companies and tell them to pay more!
10:53AM EDT 06/28/00
---Posted by cricket
…and so on. This last post, from ‘cricket’ is perhaps the most interesting: it demonstrates a technical understanding of the business side of free advice sites that’s far more sophisticated than the level of discourse itself. The bread and butter of free-advice commonspace is controversy, because controversy creates mountains of free content and does in fact drive traffic to the site, creating an attractive venue for advertisers. Clearly, beyond a certain bare minimum level of decorum, it’s not in the best business interests of such a site’s administrators to moderate too closely.
This exchange also demonstrates the type of obstacles faced by those who aspire to online fame. Many people simply don’t have the filtering skills that allow Net-demigods like Kibo to tolerate the online torrents of crap and abuse. (The full extent of the iVillage flamefest cited above went on for over 65 pages of text when we found it, and may still be going on, for all we know.) But as we all get better at learning what we want and where to find it and stop tripping over each other in the process, the overall amount of noise in the channel will drop. And for the most part, we’ll be a happier species as a result.
Your Last 15 Minutes
So what happens when the flames get too hot, or people find other corners of commonspace that they’d rather spend more time in than your site? Answer: your site dies.
All online communities, not just the business ones, are transaction-based, whether the transactions are of a restricted-economy nature (financial) or a gift-economy nature (egoboo, conversations, free advice). And communities last only as long as the transactions conducted by their members. Though it might take a long time, even the busiest communities will eventually cease to exist.
Online communities also have a finite size limit and a lifespan that’s directly related to the exceeding of that size limit. What we used to call the ‘I was a punk before you were a punk’ syndrome is important in determining that limit. People want the feeling of having been there first and will often leave when they lose that feeling, or they will form new communities to regain that lost sense of control or innovation.
Even when the founders leave, many communities continue to live on and to evolve. The WELL is a good example. It isn't the lively home of nethead impresarios that it once was. While some of the original community leaders still keep an affiliation, they don't spend the hours everyday sitting around the WELL's virtual coffee table that they once did. They have moved on, but the community still thrives. There are new members, new owners (Salon) and new energy. It is still the WELL.
On the other hand, some communities just fade away and die when the founders leave. The Internet is filled with the dusty skeletons of newsgroups, mailing lists, discussion forums and Web sites long since abandoned by the people who once inhabited them. But unlike ghost towns, these dead communities still provide value to commonspace. They serve as a collective memory. In writing this book, we often found the most useful information was in dusty old mailing list archives, information long forgotten by everyone but the search engines.
It's essential that we view this cycle of commonspace – with some communities growing, morphing and others fading away – as a healthy one. It helps us grow and learn. It helps us sort through what is still useful, and what is still not. It allows us to move in and out of leadership roles as we need to. And, unlike the firmly entrenched world of old media, this cycle allows new ideas and institutions to grow quickly as they are needed and old ones to fade away gracefully when they are not. Let's hope the cycle continues.
And the people who’ve used those communities to vault into the public view? Many of them, like Rheingold and Sterling, have gone on to even more impressive feats, and we probably haven’t heard the last of them. Even Mahir is trying to do his bit for world hunger with his second homepage, ‘I hug u then I kiss u anytime!!!’ Like Smilin’ Stan Lee, the author of Spiderman used to write, with great power comes great responsibility.