Creating a reputation economy

The Little J project was never intended to be about the technology. We have always known that whatever we create technologically can be copied by anyb

The Little J project was never intended to be about the technology. We have always known that whatever we create technologically can be copied by anybody with similar technical skills, the time and the inclination to do so. Instead it is about building a motivation structure; motivating communities to get involved over the long-term with their local news teams. So, over the past three weeks whilst we have kept moving forward with the technological development, we have really focused on creating the motivational structures that will keep people engaged.

Looking over the many books and papers on ‘gamification’ has been very interesting. The term itself refers to the application of game mechanics to non-game situations. The idea being that people love playing games and so if we can apply similar dynamics to areas where we want engagement, it will help people keep interested (for a fuller introduction I have written a blog post called Gamification For Newbies on the ¡Design Thinkers! website).

“Gamification is the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.” –The Gamification Wiki

There are many examples of projects applying game mechanics to create an engaged community, and they vary in their levels of sophistication and success. Foursquare and the other geolocation services use badges, mayorships and leaderboards to encourage people to ‘check-in’ to share places they visit; Fitocracy invokes levels, points and challenges to help people stay fit;  Choremonster makes a game of your household chores; Practically Green sets challenges and promotes social transparency about living a sustainable lifestyle; SuperBetter uses game mechanics to help people recover from illness or injury; and even Al Gore is getting on the gamification wagon with his Reality Drop project.

A common feature of a ‘gamified‘ project is the application of points, badges and leaderboards (collectively known as PBLs). Some projects use them very well to help people see how they are doing alongside others, but some slap PBLs onto their project without much thought about what they are actually doing. Obviously, we want to consider what we’re trying to do here and not just apply mechanics blindly to Little J. What we are really trying to do is create an economy built around reputation; reputation earned through engaging with the local news and becoming a useful member of the community. We want to reward people who take the time to engage, openly recognise their contributions and give them greater abilities as they increase their reputation. However, we have no physical rewards to offer – but that’s OK. Research from psychology shows that offering tangible rewards is actually very demotivating as it distracts people away from the intrinsic benefits and instead focuses them on the extrinsic reward (look up Self-Determination Theory for more details). For example, if Little J gave £10 for every report used then people start doing it just for the money, whereas we want people to feel the ultimate reward is getting your story in the paper. 

We worked with the team from JOMEC to come up with a structure for Little J that actually reflects how a journalist may move through their career. Below shows the basic flow of how people can move through the ‘levels’ of Little J. 

Little J Flow

The idea is that when people sign-up they’re shown how to use the website or app and encouraged to submit a report or photo. At this stage they are a ‘Source’ and have limited abilities within Little J. For instance, they can see ‘Assignments’ set by the local news team but can’t take part in them or see posts from other Little J’s. By submitting a report or photo they are quickly promoted to be a ‘Newbie Reporter’ and suddenly they are able to start taking part in the ‘Assignments’. By continuing to submit reports, stories, assignments, photos and videos they keep building their reputation within the system. The local journalists can reward more reputation to Little J’s when a submission is used or they feel it was a useful piece of information. This way it’s not just quantity that creates reputation, after all submitting hundreds of useless reports is not a good thing, and so real leaps in reputation come from quality reports. This way the system should discourage people whom the local news team don’t want to promote and natural selection should let the ‘strongest’ Little J’s rise through the ranks.

We have also included the idea of letting people show that they have a specialism in a certain area. We have called these ‘Desks’ and people can get a reputation for certain desks by submitting reports and stories under those categories. For instance, a local amateur historian could rise to be the Local History Desk Chief for their area within Little J.

One idea we are still keen to explore further is how Little J’s could increase real-life reputation by engaging with the system. Would the National Union of Journalists be able to offer a level of membership for people who have built up a high Little J reputation? Would they be able to become an editor alongside the local journalists and publish directly to the paper? There is a lot of potential here I think to bring the virtual back again to the physical world.

We are now applying the basic set of mechanics to the technology and we’ll soon start letting people into it and see how they react. We’re sure some ideas will fall flat on their face but we hope enough will work for people to find it interesting enough to stick with for a while and help us smooth out both the mechanics and technology. Our first outing will be on Saturday 13 April in Port Talbot shopping centre where the team from the Port Talbot MagNet and Cardiff University will be out showing people this new way of getting involved with their local news. From this I’m sure we’ll have lots more to do and write about in future blog posts.