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Can Gamification Help Solve the Online Anonymity Problem?

A lot has been written recently about the issue of online anonymity, particularly how Google (GOOG) believes that a “real names” policy is necessary so that its Google+ network can maintain a certain tone and level of trust. We’ve talked at GigaOM about ways in which Google could allow anonymity (or pseudonymity) and still maintain a healthy community. Now media analyst Ken Doctor has put his finger on another option—one that some news outlets are experimenting with. That’s “gamification,” or rewards for reader behavior and engagement. If Google is serious about creating an actual community on Google+, it’s an idea it might well think about.

Despite a torrent of criticism from users and anonymity advocates such as sociologist and Microsoft (MSFT) researcher Danah Boyd, who argues that Google’s real-name policy is “an abuse of power” in favor of a privileged few, the search giant seems determined not to budge on its requirement. In a recent interview in Edinburgh, Google chairman and former Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt argued that the Internet as a whole would be better off if real names were the norm. He also made what appeared to be a case for Google+ becoming an “identity service” on which the company could build other services.

As we’ve argued, there are substantial benefits in allowing anonymity or what some call “persistent pseudonyms,” including the fact that this enables those with unpopular or even politically dangerous views to use such networks, as NPR journalist Andy Carvin notes in a recent interview about his use of Twitter and Facebook. But whenever the issue of anonymity comes up, advocates say that anonymous comments allow trolling, flame-wars, and further offensive behavior, an argument Financial Times columnist John Gapper made a few days ago in defending Google’s real-name policy.

Gamification to Build User Engagement

Could “gamification” help solve this problem? The concept has come in for criticism over the past year or so, since it became a trendy buzzword and popular idea with marketing agencies. In many cases, adding badges to an existing service doesn’t really accomplish much. But as Ken Doctor notes in a post about how some news sites are using a gamification-style approach to improve reader comments, the idea has some merit when it is part of a broader outreach program.

Citing, a site run by the Redding Record-Searchlight, a newspaper in Redding, Calif., Doctor says: “The goal here isn’t simply to build core customers. It’s to bring greater civility and perspective—what [Editor Silas] Lyons calls ‘insight’—to the site. Readers now can mark others’ comments as ‘insightful,’ resulting, over time, in higher ranking of commenters the community seems to value.”

The site Doctor describes isn’t the only news outlet to experiment with reader badges and reward programs as a way of influencing behavior: The Huffington Post launched reader badges last year. While it hasn’t released specific numbers about the effect on traffic or comments, the site’s former social-media editor Adam Clarke Estes told me the program was seen as a success, both in terms of traffic and its impact on behavior.

It’s not so much that badges or other rewards—Slashdot, a pioneering geek community, has long used “karma points” to reward users and select moderators—cure bad behavior or prevent trolls from coming to a site. They merely make it easier to distinguish between what Slashdot calls “anonymous cowards” and participants who have gained the trust of the community. Over time, it becomes obvious (theoretically) who is worth listening to and who isn’t. (Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has also written about the advantages of reader badges for news sites.)

Leveling up: an Investment Users Make

When I tried to describe this idea to a marketing person at the newspaper I used to work for, I had a hard time getting it across until her young colleague said: “You mean readers could level up, just like in World of Warcraft.” He was right: The whole concept of “gamification,” whether it involves badges or points or other features (extra powers as a commenter, added profile enhancements, and so forth), is designed to provide incentives to engage, just as the ability to add new armor or spells invites greater participation in World of Warcraft.

That’s not to say that “griefing” or other kinds of bad behavior don’t occur in online games or other communities with game-style rewards. The odds are somewhat lower because users don’t want to jeopardize their standing in that community. I remember a friend agonizing over quitting World of Warcraft because he had spent thousands of hours getting his avatar to a certain level of experience. It had taken a huge investment and he would have done anything not to endanger it, though his real name didn’t appear on his gamer profile.

There are key differences between World of Warcraft and newspaper comment sections—and between online games and what Google is trying to create with Google+ (which may just be a way to connect people to other Google services and improve search results, rather than create a real community). No one pays to be a member of a newspaper comment section or Google+. Not many spend thousands of hours in these communities the way they do with WoW.

But Google and other companies still might be able to take advantage of such incentives, as is doing with its experimental program. Instead of simply trying to ban or exclude anyone who doesn’t want to use a real name, as Google is doing with Google+, why not try to design a system that rewards the type of behavior you want to see—and lets community users decide whom they wish to pay attention to?

Also from GigaOM:

Flash Analysis: Prospects for Google+ (subscription required)

Consumer Interest in Apple Not Dampened by Jobs’ Departure

Check-In Services Still Struggling to Win Over Consumers

Sprint Sues to Stop AT&T-Mo Takeover

The Under-the-Radar Hot Solar Markets for Investors

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