A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a woman from England who is doing a thesis on the psychology of online communities (discussion boards). During the conversation she dropped a phrase that I immediately stopped and wrote down so I could think about it further. Here is the basic question that was invoked by her comment:
What is the difference between recognition and reputation?
After mulling it over for a while, I decided that there is a very distinct difference. I believe that “recognition” is something that can be provided by technology and that “reputation” is something awarded by other board members. I would like to provide a formal definition of each word and then try to describe why I think that. After that I would like to discuss the impact of both on an online community.
What Is Recognition?
When I first heard the phrase I said to myself that recognition is what the board software provides each member. It can be as basic as a post count or something more sophisticated such as a rank. It’s a reward of some kind for participating on the board, and as such is associated with a specific event or point in time. One definition that I found reads as follows:
To give a token of thanks for (a service rendered, etc.)
Isn’t that what board software packages do today? Every time a post is made in a “valuable” forum (one with post counts turned on) the poster is recognized by incrementing their post count. As a post count increases the poster may be awarded further recognition by attaining various rank titles. Some boards grant additional privileges like access to formerly hidden forums, the ability to upload or change an avatar, or even earn “cash” or “points” that can be used at a community store. Some years ago I wrote a MOD for phpBB2 that recognizes years of membership by awarding a star (or other icon) on a member profile.
But my point is these are all system-generated awards. They are driven by specific events, occur at a specific point in time, and are the results of code execution. How is this different from reputation?
What Is Reputation?
Here is what I consider the most appropriate definition of reputation for this topic that I found:
The general estimation in which a person is held by the public.
How is this different from recognition? Reputation is not awarded by technology but by other community members. This could be formally acknowledged by the board software (by systems like “karma” or “points” or “kudos”) or it could just be informal. In either case, I suggest that reputation is not something that occurs at a point in time but instead is earned over longer periods. For that reason, I would add the following words to the definition listed above: “… based on behavior over time.”
On a default phpBB2 board there are no formal systems for reputation. There is a variety of karma or points MODs. I have a couple of different MODs that I wrote in this area myself. One allows people to increase the value (reputation) of a topic by awarding it points. The act of awarding the point is “recognition” while the overall point total adds to the topic “reputation.” See how that works? My search process uses topic points to weight search results so that more valuable topics bubble to the top.
Why didn’t I write a user point MOD? It’s quite simple. To my way of thinking, users will build their own reputation by participating on the board. There is no need to create a way for board members to formally rate other users; that will happen naturally. People don’t come to my board looking for users, they come looking for information… and information is contained in topics.
Ultimately I did write a user “medals” MOD and we have used it to award “member of the year” status for the last three years. For what it’s worth, I am planning on canceling that program from this year forward due to very low participation in the voting.
Recognition, Reputation, and Board Management
Since recognition, at least according to my way of thinking, is system generated, it can be abused. People can post nonsense posts just to increase their post count. (That’s one reason why we have MODs for phpBB2 and a standard feature in phpBB3 for no-post-count forums.) People may falsely assume that users with the highest post counts are the most knowledgeable about the subject. That is quite frequently not the case. Anything that is subject to abuse can make more work for a moderator team.
Reputation, on the other hand, is hard to fake. I have seen it on every board I have participated in to some degree. The community doesn’t take too long to figure out who is providing value and who is fluff. The problem for board owners is to figure out how to formally recognize reputation without opening the process to abuse. I don’t have a perfect answer for that, but I do have some thoughts.
Which I will save for my next post on this subject.