We are a species that depend on one another. Scientists theorize humans have specially adapted neurons that help us feel what others feel, providing evidence that we survive through our empathy for others. We’re meant to be part of a tribe and our brains seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included.
Many of our institutions and industries are built around this need for social reinforcement. From civic and religious groups to spectator sports, the need to feel social connectedness informs our values and drives much of how we spend our time. Communication technology in particular has given rise to a long history of companies that have provided better ways of delivering what I call, “rewards of the tribe.”
However, it’s not only the reward we seek. Variability also keeps us engaged. From the telegraph to email, products that connect us are highly valued, but those that invoke an element of surprise are even more so. Recently, the explosion of Web technologies that cater to our insatiable search for validation provide clear examples of the tremendous appeal of the promise of social reward.
The endless search for rewards of the tribe, and the variability that often comes with it, are key components of the Web’s largest technical question and answer site, Stack Overflow. As with other user-generated sites like Quora, Wikipedia, and YouTube, all of Stack Overflow’s content is created voluntarily by its members. In Stack Overflow’s case, over 5,000 questions are posted and answered daily, all of which cost nothing to view. Many of these answers take hours to complete and require a high degree of technical expertise.
Despite having to take time away from their work and family lives to add new content to the site, some users are so enamoured answering questions that the site’s creators had to put usage limitations in place for fear of creating exploitative addictions. Jeff Atwood, a co-founder of the company, told me about a man with a full-time job and an autistic child at home who frequently reached the maximum allowable time on the system despite his many other seemingly more important commitments.
The question of course is “why?” Why do so many people voluntarily spend so much time creating free content on sites like Stack Overflow when they could spend their time elsewhere? According to Atwood, part of the reason is the “social reward of doing something other people find important.”
To make the reward more tangible, the company implemented a points system with an elaborate mechanism for earning certain rights on the site. Users in the top tiers of accrued points literally run the site. Top contributors have editing privileges and can even ban other users. However, collecting points is not just another game mechanic, the points confer special value.
“What makes the points valuable,” Atwood says, “is that they are earned as a proxy of the value created for other users. They embody peer status.” The points system on Stack Overflow is an example of a variable reward of the tribe. Contributors are uncertain of how many points they will accrue by answering a question. The only way to find out is to write the best possible response and hope the community values your contribution.
Points give people real power on the site, but that status is only attained through a meritocratic process that determines who is most valued by the community. The search for rewards of the tribe is driven by status given not from an arbitrary algorithm intended to control the user, but from other users of the site. The distinction is critically important. Reputational status conferred by the community has real value, while badges or points given by a machine have only temporary benefits.
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