Incentives matter. We do what is incentivized, avoid what is disincentivized, and ignore what is not incentivized. A key way to set incentives is through rewards. Give someone a trophy for winning, and they’ll try harder to win.
“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.”Charlie Munger
Rewards shape everything we do, including communication. Since internet communities are built on interactions between people, communication is critical. Members must be able to say what they want, understand what others want, and share information seamlessly. Without proper rewards, this happens less than it should. Good communication, such as high effort posts, often are not rewarded enough (if at all). Other times, poor communication, such as troll comments, is rewarded too much. Both create bad incentives.
To understand how to improve the rewards, first, we have to understand their makeup. We can then understand how to improve them by looking at areas with high-quality communication using similar types of rewards. We’ll find that using rewards to tighten feedback loops and increase stakes leads to better communications. The rewards used are a combination of the community’s platform and culture. Both are levers to incentivize different behaviours.
An internet community’s platform provides options for rewards. Features like reactions, upvotes, top posts, awards, likes, and comments are all examples of what a platform provides. A community almost always combines these features with its unique culture to create rewards.
Core platform features rarely change. A community may be able to modify them (with bots or automations), but there are only so many ways to react, upvote, or send a message. Members can do a lot with the limited options they have.
Types of communication not rewarded by platform features are not done. For example, many platforms do not reward longer posts any differently than they do shorter ones. This incentivizes members to post many shorter ones. This not only impacts rewards but shapes the entire culture of the community.
Culture represents the unique aspects of a community that are combined with platform features to create rewards. Examples include the content of comments, messages, praise, custom emojis, and support. Culture is shaped by the platform then created by the members.
Community managers and members control culture more than they control the platform. Culture does not require product changes or coding knowledge, only changes to people, rules, or incentives. It is more flexible and, as such, allows for more experimentation. A single member can shift an entire culture by introducing their own rewards, such as a style of response or an emoji reaction they like.
Culture requires more effort to maintain and decays faster than platform features. It disappears if people do not care about it. Parts of culture must be continually reinvented and reintroduced. Members must serve as examples and creators for the maintenance of culture. Without all this, the cultural aspect of rewards decays.
Communities can improve rewards once they understand that rewards exist. Improved rewards make communications better, and that makes communities better. Platform features and culture are the levers for improvement. Communities must figure out how to pull them to create beneficial incentives.
To figure that out, we can look at areas with similar levers and communicate well. One area that stands out is video games. Over my many years of playing video games, I’ve heard friends and strangers communicate in service of a combined goal better than nearly anywhere else. No coaches or coordinated practice was needed to improve. The key is that they leverage the platform and culture to create high stakes and tight feedback loops.
Take “Call of Duty: Warzone” for example. If you communicate well, you obtain the instant reward of killing bad guys. If you communicate poorly, it is more likely you will die. This makes the stakes feel high. There are many situations where a player will have to communicate, so they get lots of practice doing it. The feedback loops are short and clear. If you communicate well, you and your team are rewarded by being more successful.
(To get a sense of what I mean, I’d recommend watching 10-20 minutes of team Warzone gameplay on Twitch. It is a bit chaotic, but just listen to the communication between players.)
Video games have the same platform features as communities. All communication is done through voice, “pings” (setting notable points on the map), chat, and in-game feedback. It is largely the culture that creates the rewards for good communication, and this is good news for communities.
Gaming culture is shaped in a way where the stakes feel high, you get repeated opportunities to communicate, and clear feedback for doing well or poorly. There is no reason communities could not do the same. Although the communication stakes may not actually be so high, rewards can be put into place to make them feel high.
A way to raise the stakes is by making communication scarce. Communities can take advantage of tools platforms give them to slow down. Slower communications will likely be more thoughtful and force members to prioritize and reward them more. Longer posts or messages can also be the norm. Internet communities have the flexibility to do what they want, and the defaults aren’t always the best options.
For example, a chat-based platform like Discord incentivizes short, rapid-fire comments. This is not ideal for many communities on the platform. They could use slow mode (setting a time restriction on messages, e.g. one per minute) and threads to allow for more thoughtful communication. It requires platform and culture changes away from the defaults.
Another way similar communities could improve communication is through tightening the feedback loops. They could do this by encouraging more reactions and replies. This helps sort good messages from bad and makes it clear what members want faster. It increases the pace and density of rewards within the community.
Increased reward density helps members show what culture they want by serving as taste-makers for the community. Examples of taste-makers are moderators on broadcast channels, members who browse new posts on forums, those who write guides, and more. Tightening feedback loops requires members to learn and teach each other what is good, bad, and ugly, and provide rewards accordingly.
Better Rewards, Communications, and Communities
Every community should think about how they can leverage platform and culture to improve incentives for good communication. Platforms are rigid but often not optimally utilized. Culture is more flexible but requires higher maintenance. Both platforms and culture combine to create rewards and guide communication within communities.
Many members and managers do not realize what they are rewarding within their community. Their actions may show that good communication isn’t even important. Being conscious of the rewards and what a community prioritizes can shift it in a better direction. Understanding how other areas (like video games) leverage the same platform and culture levers provides examples of what to be conscious of. Communities can learn a lot from each other about what to reward.
As a member, you do not have to wait for the managers to change the rewards to have an impact on them. You can shift the culture yourself. You can react, reply, comment, and message people who are moving in the right direction. You can create new communication norms. Rewards are yours to create.
Thanks to Derek van Pelt, Rohan Pal, Tom White, Amrita Mishra, and Beccy Lee from Foster for the feedback. Also, Thomas Holland for the initial conversation that inspired this piece.
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