Tiffany B. Brown

18 June 2008

Plurk.com: "Karma" and Community

I’ve been splitting time between Twitter and Plurk lately and having discussions about online communities, incentives, and rewards.

One of Plurk’s signature features is “Karma,” a rewards system that awards or removes points based on how users interact with the Plurk community.

Plurking daily builds karma. Taking a few hours or a few days away can lower karma. Having plurk-arrhea lowers karma. Invite your friends and your karma goes up. Get de-friended, and your karma goes down. Get your friend request rejected and you lose some more.

Karma, then, is a system that rewards users who practice good community behaviors — being active, but not obnoxious — and penalizes those who don’t.

But the weighting of user activity to calculate Karma has concerned or annoyed some Plurk users. Disappearing karma points = a disincentive to using the site.

I suspect users feel that way because karma is something that you earn. To lose it because of a busy day at work or a web-free vacation feels unfair. Couple that with a lack of transparency — which, much to its credit, Plurk has addressed — and you have a system in which some users opt out of the system of rules because they don’t know which rules they are being penalized for breaking.

I am still intrigued, though, by Plurk’s idea of rewarding or penalizing user behavior algorithmically rather than by community reporting or internal policing. One obvious advantage is that you mitigate some dumb mob effects.

On the other hand, your site runs risk of being perceived as a digital disciplinarian. You’re not the boss of me, dang it! Screw you and the karma-removing-horse you rode in on. I’m taking my ball and going home … or back to Twitter full time.

I think a better karma-style behavior system would:

  1. Be transparent about the rules, norms, and expected behaviors.
  2. Be very, very obvious about where users can find those rules, norms, and expected behaviors.
  3. Always reward for use. Stay neutral on a lack of use. Deduct points only for more serious violations such as obvious spamming, or maybe obvious friend-whoring.

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