Political economies in self-moderating communities…

10/13/2003

Derek Powazek wrote an interesting piece last year about rating-based moderation systems: Gaming the system: How moderation tools can backfire. One of the most important lessons in online community management is that top-down management is seldom particularly successful in forcing people to act in a certain way. Certainly if the image of the community that the administrators wish to enforce is radically different from what the community itself wants, then the site is more likely to rip itself apart than to fall in line. Online communities are not made social by the presence of these administrators and nor is the quality of their social interaction defined by that administrator. Groups of people self-organise, self-maintain and even – to an extent – self-moderate. An administrators job is to (more or less intrusively or architecturally) facilitate the creation or the maintenance of these self-organising aspects and to build a community space that suits them.

Moderation systems that are based upon ratings schemes are radical attempts to help people self-organise by choosing people and content worth reading and by ostracising bad users. The most well-known sites of this kind are Slashdot and Kuro5hin. But Derek’s piece reminds us that even these attempts to replicate concepts of reputation and rating online can have problems:

Still, it’s important to remember this essential truth: Any complicated moderation system that makes its algorithms public is eventually going to fall victim to gaming. So my advice is, if you’re going to use a community moderation system, make it as invisible as possible. No karma numbers, no contests, no bribes. Rely on social capital and quality content to get your community talking, and develop a system that helps you moderate without a lot of fanfare. The bottom line is, if you take away the scores, it’s hard to play the game.

I think Derek’s position on this is fundamentally correct – albeit a little strongly worded. I suppose my biggest problem is trying to work out to what extent gaming the system is an abuse of or a fundamental aspect of real-world analogies to these moderation schemes. Perhaps the problem is not that the social structures built within the game are too complex and take away from normal human interaction, but that they’re simply not gameable enough. The online political economy of a site like Slashdot seems to me to have some clear analogies with the problems of inflation in the virtual economies of MMORPGs. It could take many years for the UI and the ‘market’ to come together in gameably useful ways…