Solving distribution of wealth in digital communities

This post follows a recent conversation with 4chan’s creator Chris Poole.

Many communities and especially games use points systems to increase engagement – Foursquare shows you a rolling one week total of your points earned, compared to your friends. People have a natural inclination to accumulate as many points as possible and have more than those around them. Some communities reinforce this urge by allowing points to be traded for virtual items, used to unlock new features or otherwise giving them some value. For example, Turntable.fm’s DJ Points unlock different avatars skins.

However, as soon as points are converted in other items, distribution of wealth starts becoming a problem. Whilst new users in the community enjoy seeing other wealthier users around them to begin with, it is because they aspire to that wealth themselves. If that wealth seems unattainable, then they may well lose interest in the whole community.

Furthermore, the community dynamics can become disrupted by trading, even where this is not explicitly allowed. Users tend to find a way to reciprocate actions to effect trading very quickly. I wonder how many users on Turntable.fm are voting up songs, and thereby awarded DJ points to others, not because they like the songs they are playing, but because they want others to reciprocate this. The ecosystem can even spill out into real world currency – you can buy virtual items of other players in World of Warcraft for USD. When many people use online communities for their egalitarian nature, allowing users who are richer in real life an advantage is hugely destructive.

So how to avoid the problems of distribution of wealth, without removing the highly positive influence that a points system can have?

Make wealth less conspicuous

If it is easy to see how much wealth other users have, and how far you are behind them, then the problems associated with wealth distribution are exacerbated. Conversely by reducing how conspicuous people’s wealth is, these effects can be minimised. In many communities (as in real life), a user’s wealth of points cannot be directly observed, but the items they can purchase with these points can be.

Making items that users can buy with points exponentially more expensive for marginal gains in functionality or form can allow “richer” users to have some value to their wealth, without putting them too far ahead of less well off users. Most level systems adhere to this principle, with the first few levels easily achieved, and higher levels requiring a far great number of points to reach.

Expire points after set time

One of the simplest ways to prevent some users from getting too much richer than others is to have points expire after a certain amount of time. This way experienced players need to keep engaging with the community to maintain their wealth, and the maximum wealth that anyone can achieve is limited to the amount that they can earn in the lifetime of the points. Foursquare keeps a record of only the points you have earned in the past week, and British Airways reset their frequent flyer programme members tier points (but not the actual miles) to zero at the end of the year in this way.

Adopt a welfare system

Many community based points systems have some form of welfare system, where users are given a certain amount of points each day or week automatically, or simply for logging in. This allows users to get started immediately and taste the benefits of accumulating more points, but also means that users without the skills to accumulate huge numbers of points just need a little more patience. A welfare system alone is unlikely to be a solution, but it can be helpful in many communities to get users started.

Create seasonal virtual goods

Instead of expiring points after a certain time period, virtual goods can be given a temporary nature instead (or indeed, as well). This could either work in the sense that users pay a certain number of points to lease virtual goods for a set time period, that virtual goods only exist for a finite time period and need to be renewed, or that new virtual items are constantly being released in seasonal cycles like fashions. In this last case, the items might have different forms but identical functionalities. In any of these cases, users have to maintain their points earnings to have the latest virtual items, and new users can get up to speed quicker, by only buying the most recently released items.

Migrate more experienced users to a new area

Some games migrate more experienced, richer users away to a completely separate environment from new users. This way the environment that users interact in always has a limited variation in wealth. Call of Duty allows users access to a new set of hard core multiplayer servers in return for handing back all the weapons and virtual items they have accumulated and starting again. Many MMORPGs have a newbie town where new players are sheltered from the wealth (and dangers) of the wider, virtual world.

There is no reason that a large number of different areas cannot exist, each for a particular wealth of user. Furthermore, users don’t need know that it is possible to enter other, more advanced areas before they have accumulated enough points to enter them. Indeed, having “secret” areas that reveal themselves just as users think they are exhausting the possibilities of the original one is undoubtedly a hugely compelling feature for many.

Wrap up

Giving users in a community points has a tremendously positive effect on engagement, at least initially, and this can be amplified by allowing users to trade points for virtual items or features. However, communities with a wide distribution of wealth can quickly run into problems with new users feeling points “wealth” is unattainable, or puts them at unfair advantage. There are several ways in which the negative effects of distribution of wealth can be moderated, and these can be used in conjunction with one another if needs be. The right solution for any given community is likely to reflect that its overall value system and culture, and should augment rather than supersede this.

Image from zzzack’s Flickr photostream