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Game mechanics applied to social media: Keeping score April 6, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Internet, social media, social networks, user generated content, web 2.0.

I’m still fascinated by what lessons social media can draw from game design, and Amy Jo Kim’s work in the area.

One of her game mechanics is “earning points”, and this is one of the ways that social media sites can incent the behaviour they want.

One way to earn points would be to keep a create a complex scoring system rewarding multiple user behaviours that you want exhibited. If you were worried about it getting “gamed” by users, you could go so far as to keep the scoring system opaque so that users didn’t know exactly how points were earned.

Another, simpler, way, is to simply keep track of each behaviour that you want separately, and prominently displaying those metrics for each user. This works especially well when the points are “awarded” by other players – taking advantage of another of her game mechanics – Feedback.

Yelp does a nice job of this second approach. Look at a typical Yelp user page

Yelp Profile Page

Note that each number (circled in red) corresponds to a user behaviour that Yelp wants. Most important of all is the number of reviews – in this case 26. But almost as important is that those reviews are of high quality – that they are Useful (45), Funny (4) or Cool (11). Readers of reviews can with one click rate a review as Useful, Funny or Cool, and this positive feedback incents users to write reviews that will earn the appropriate feedback.

Another important metric for Yelp is Firsts (7) as this helps drive the coverage ratio of businesses that have at least one review.

All these metrics help drive overall usefulness of the site for a casual visitor to Yelp . The remaining metrics help drive Yelp ‘s social network, their mechanism for rewarding review writers without having to pay them. Hence Yelp tracks the number of photos you’ve uploaded, the number of compliments you’ve received (by type) and the number of friends that you have. I suspect that these are all positively correlated with the number and quality of reviews that a user writes.

An interesting point to note is that while reviewers rate businesses with 1-5 stars, users can only rate a review as Useful, Funny or Cool. There is no option to rate a review as Useless, Lame or Boring. Thumbs up, but no thumbs down. Why the difference? I suspect its because reviewers drive Yelp . Positive feedback is more likely to drive more reviews than negative feedback. (One of the “compliments” that Yelp users can send each other is even more explicit – “Write More!”). On the other hand, giving a business a poor rating (1 star for example) won’t change their behaviour towards the site one way or the other, and it is valuable information to users.

I like this “keep it simple” approach to earning points far more than a single point score based off of multiple behaviours.


1. Robert John Ed - April 6, 2007

This is a terrific idea on many fronts for increasing traffic, usage rates, overall improvement of a social site. It’s only natural for people to become competitive with a scoring system and that means big benefits for the site.

A system such as this is great in a web 2.0 site…but it can work well in any area where the score is publicized in some manner. People yearn to be recognized for their efforts. The idea of black belts in karate comes to mind…

2. Adam Nash - April 7, 2007

I think this concept is spot-on with understanding engagement opportunities around consumer engagement with the web. Ironically, I posted on this exact same topic just a day before this post appeared.


3. Ted Rheingold - April 7, 2007

One reality social sites need to be very careful of is that displayed numerics create a competitive mindset which have the potential to disrupt the original usage patterns. The calmest people can suddenly become obsessed with their numbers, obsessed with others numbers and change their participation patterns from happy interacting user to goal-minded robot. Friendster, for example went from a place to laugh with friends to a place to see who has the most friends.

This is not a warning – game mechanics are a wonderful way to add depth, purpose and fun to an online community experience – it’s simply a suggestion that you give deep consideration of who your community is and how it could affect their usage.

No doubt about it, comparative numbers fire people up by adding meaning and purpose to simple sharing. Just want to make sure it doesn’t create any fires you can’t put out ;>

4. The Praized Blog » Blog Archive » How to “Reward” Your Users in a Social Media Environment: the Yelp Example - April 12, 2007

[…] worked in the videogames industry in a previous life, I was intrigued by this blog post by Jeremy Liew from Lightspeed Ventures Partners. In it, he discusses how point systems can reward […]

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6. Social Media: More on how points can be used to drive user behavior « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - August 22, 2007

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[…] sites should be careful to think through the implications of their UI (including such mechanics as keeping score and exposing popularity) as their choices will likely have long term implications that can’t […]

10. Adrienne - May 13, 2008

While in theory this works well (and in cases of the highlighted user), as a high-volume Yelp contributor, I know that these numbers are not actually representative of actual participation/effectiveness as reviewer.

For example, users will often UFC (useful, funny, cool) each other as an alternative to complimenting or sometimes just to boost their own numbers. I also have a best friend who often is disturbed by odd numbers on my profile and will useful, funny, or cool me in order to make the stats even numbered.

The more users join the site and the more they see this sort of congratulatory, random behavior based not upon the review itself but upon the social placement of the reviewer in the food chain that is the Yelp website, the more these numbers will be skewed.

While this may have been effective in the early years of the site, as it transforms, I think it will lose almost if not all relevance.

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