motivations: karma

[written for Media Economics & Participation at ITP]

Slashdot users are seeking karma. However, gaining positive karma at Slashdot is just a means to an end; Slashdot users are seeking (limited) power and status among their peers in the form of fleeting moderator access for the vibrant comments component of the highly active, technology-focused news aggregation site. Moderators are chosen from among the registered users using a somewhat obscure algorithm which incorporates each user’s karma rating (a scale of Terrible, Bad, Neutral, Positive, Good, and Excellent), length of membership and randomness. Selected moderators are given special status and 5 mod{eration} points with an expiration window of three days. The moderation status ends when the points have been used in the act of moderating comments or have expired.

The moderation system has been borne out of necessity as the Slashdot community has grown large, bringing the signal-to-noise ratio down and decreasing the satisfaction in reading the raw comment threads. “Flamebait” and “trolls” contribute little more than instigation for starting arguments and fights among the users with typically strong opinions on matters which usually appear on Slashdot. Rob Malda, founder of Slashdot, explains this phenomenon on the Slashdot FAQ:

“One of the unfortunate side-effects of the increasing popularity of Slashdot is that the number of trolls, flame-warriors and all-around lamers increases as well, and it only takes a relatively small number of them to make a lot of noise. Keeping this noise to a minimum is one of the primary goals of the moderation system” (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm500)

Comments are moderated by labeling them as either offtopic, flamebait, troll, redundant, insightful, interesting, informative, funny, overrated or underrated. These adjective labels translate into positive or negative values and are summed to provide the final score. The scoring system for comments is an absolute numeric scale from -1 to 5. Readers can use this scale to filter out comments which have been modded down. While moderators are encouraged to view the comments unfiltered, non-moderators can simply set a viewing threshold which omits the low ranked comments. At times, this creates a disconnect when a highly modded response appears for a hidden comment, however it creates a better overall reading experience (and hidden comments can easily be displayed ad hoc).

Of course, since the moderators are sourced from the same membership pool which is creating the comments to be moderated, controls have been established to limit the influence (or damage) of any one moderator. The small number of mod points provided at a time, short expiration period for them and a somewhat obfuscated moderator selection process make taking advantage of the system by particular users difficult. There is also a metamoderation (m2) system where the larger Slashdot membership can rate the validity of mod points as they have been awarded and can directly influence the karma status of the moderators which awarded them.

Aside from being used to set viewing filters on comment threads, mod points are a direct factor in awarding karma to comment authors. According to the Slashdot FAQ, contributing (good) comments and submitting articles are the primary ways to achieve positive karma, which then increases the chances of being selected as a moderator (for a day, or so). Paraphrased from a story submitted by Slashdot user dkh2: “Post Intelligently, Post Calmly, Post Early, Post Often, Stay On Topic, Be Original, Read It Before You Post, Log In As a Registered User, Read Slashdot Regularly…Come to the party and play.” (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm1900)

In terms of motivators, attaining moderator status provides a sense of all four intrinsic motivators. Being bestowed moderator status confirms a sense of membership in the community, as well as grants a small degree of autonomy. Moderators can recognize competence in other members (as well as affirm their own competence) by modding up particularly good comments, and also display generosity in giving up their limited mod points (although perhaps out of some self-serving drive rather than communal altruism). Modding down poor comments seems similar, but perhaps the generosity is directed toward the community while providing satisfaction at venting ire over undesirable users.

It’s important to note that posting comments is not limited to Slashdot members. “Anonymous cowards” are welcome to post comments on any story. While it seems as though this creates an easy vector to enable trolling and flamebait, the Slashdot chooses to recognize potential utility of anonymous posting:

“We think the ability to post anonymously is important. Sometimes people have important information they want to post, but are afraid to do it if they can be linked to it. Anonymous Coward posting will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.” (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm515)

Anonymous comments begin with zero mod points, so simply adjusting the viewing threshold to 1 and above omits anonymous posts which have not be explicitly modded up and reduces the need for moderators to use up mod points to curtail anonymous flamebait (unless it’s been already modded up for some reason). The stated guidelines for moderators explain Slashdot’s objectives:

“Concentrate more on promoting than on demoting. The real goal here is to find the juicy good stuff and let others read it.…The goal here is to share ideas. To sift through the haystack and find needles. And to keep the children who like to spam Slashdot in check.” (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm600)

While the editors of Slashdot determine which of the submitted stories actually make it to the front page, there has been a conscious decision to keep the commenting system organic. Editors have unlimited moderation points, but comments themselves are not removed. In response to the question “Will you delete my comment?” the resounding answer on the FAQ is:

“No. We believe that discussions in Slashdot are like discussions in real life- you can’t change what you say, you only can attempt to clarify by saying more.…In short, you should think twice before you click that ‘Submit’ button because once you click it, we aren’t going to let you Undo it.” (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm150)

The moderation system has created motivators of its own to keep it self-propagating and self-healing, however the primary motivator among (positive) members of Slashdot is recognition from peers. The tagline for Slashdot is “News for nerds. Stuff that matters.” and there is a real sense that the membership is intelligent, highly competent and well regarded (despite the actual demographics or what can be inferred by the quality of comments). Having a comment deemed as valuable and subsequently modded up provides satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. There are often choruses of “mod parent up” by non-moderator members imploring peers with moderator status to recognize good comments.

Analysis of larger motivators describing members contributing to a discussion board or comments thread is outside the scope of this examination. However, Slashdot has implemented an interesting self-sustaining system to provide free expression while minimizing inevitable elements which are distracting or possibly damaging to the community. The system is designed to self-moderate and self-select future moderators using recognition of past contributions and actions as indicators of responsibility and competence. A striking element of this system is that lowly moderated comments are not censored but filtered; all contributions are available for viewing by any readers of the site at all times. This is a compelling balance between control and transparency which would be intriguing to experiment with in other contexts.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “motivations: karma”

  1. Phillip Smith: Comments are dead. Long live comments! | Firefox Latest News Says:

    [...] content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or [...]

Leave a Reply