“Beware the Dollhouse Mafia” & other guidelines for using social reputations in the enterprise

How do you help people build a reputation on-line? More and more companies are using reputation systems to “motivate contribution and tap into whole new veins of revenue growth and productivity.”

Such systems generate real value. And it looks deceptively easy. (“We’ll use points and badges, too!”)

But, the key idea isn’t easy to implement, as it isn’t simply about gamify-ing work. Reputations are more nuanced than that, and have to be customized to an individual set of people, their kind of work, and their culture.

Here are some guidelines.

Understand the range of possibilities

The reputation systems used by Amazon and foursquare are wildly different. Each is tailored to their user base and to the behaviors they’re trying to motivate. (The same holds true inside a firm, too, as what works for technology people won’t work for private wealth managers.)

To help understand the different approaches, the single best resource is “Building Web Reputation Systems.”

The book describes different systems, including their benefits and pitfalls, and demonstrates the importance of thinking through all aspects of what you’re trying to accomplish. Stressing, in particular, the audience you’re trying to reach. The behaviors you’re trying to motivate. And the array of unintended consequences you’ll need to anticipate.

By researching the many options you have for recognizing contributors, you’ll be better able to tailor a system that best suits your needs.

Beware the “Dollhouse Mafia”

The book describes all the unintended consequences and kinds of abuse that can plague each reputation system. And one particularly striking example showed just how badly things can go.

In 2006, Electronic Arts introduced a social on-line game called  “Dollhouse.” To help you find other people to play with (this was in the pre-Facebook era), you could identify other players as trusted or untrusted.

Sounds simple enough. But it didn’t take long before the “Dollhouse Mafia” appeared. This group would threaten new users with dozens of “untrustworthy” labels unless they gave up all their virtual currency. If the user didn’t pay up, a barrage of negative labels would render the user a virtual pariah and they’d quit - and stop paying Electronic Arts their $10/month.

So, before your you hand out your first point, badge, or star, you’ll need to anticipate various kinds of abuse of your system and how you’ll deal with it.

Highlight the value to the individual contributor

The most important aspect of your reputation system is answering the question “What’s in it for me?” After all, it’s the individual’s perception of value that will drive their contribution, whether that’s giving more of their data to LinkedIn, writing an Amazon review, or sharing their trading portfolio.

LinkedIn, for example, urges you to complete your profile with both a tempting “profile completeness” percentage graph and a clear value message: “Users with complete profiles are 40 times more likely to receive opportunities through LinkedIn.”

Amazon tells you your reviewer ranking and percentage of helpful votes. (I’m ranked #44,377 with 81 of 88 helpful votes.) But they also give you something to aspire to by promoting top reviewers. Being on that list is highly sought after by people who care about reviews - people like Joanna Daneman, who contributed over 2000 reviews with an astounding 97% helpful rating.

Similarly, Covestor, a community of traders sharing their portfolios, highlights their top traders. At the top of the charts is Mitch Jones, a software engineer. More than getting bragging rights, being atop such a list provides social equity that readily translates into career opportunities.

Be very careful if “value” = money

Explicitly linking an individual’s contribution to the value they get is very important - unless it involves money.

Imagine, at your next holiday dinner, you gave your mother-in-law a $50 bill instead of a nice bottle of wine. What would happen? And why are the two so different?

In “Predictably Irrational," MIT professor Dan Ariely describes people as living in “two worlds simultaneously - one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules.” For certain kinds of work, we’ll perform better for social rewards. But once money is introduced, we change our way of thinking.

For example, he paid students to do some routine tasks on a computer. The more he paid, the better the performance. No surprise. But the best performance was when he didn’t pay anything at all - when the task was requested “as a favor.”

For creative tasks, he found money not only affected performance. It affected whether people contributed at all. He cited an example where a group was looking for legal help for needy retirees. When they asked lawyers to offer less expensive services (at $30 per hour), no one accepted. But when they asked for free services, they received an overwhelming response.

When it comes to reputation systems and encouraging sustained contribution, money - whether it’s cash or gift cards or iPads - is not the answer.

How to take a step

With all of these difficulties and possible pitfalls, is it still worth trying to craft reputation systems at your firm?

The answer, given the size of the benefits seen by firms in last week’s post, is a cautious “yes.”

But it’s clearly not a game. Learning to build a reputation system is one experiment that will require particularly careful research, planning, and close monitoring to avoid the “Mafia” hijacking your good intentions.