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Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Karma, Oh What is it Good For?

I don't believe in karma. At least, I don't believe that people demonstrably get what's coming to them based on their past behavior. Still, that's not what we're here to talk about. We are here to discuss internet karma.

Karma is that elusive number, setting, hidden voodoo that many sites of the Reddit and Digg variety use to elevate certain users above the wild fray. Karma, in theory, encourages users to submit quality content with the hopes that quality will equal higher karma. Higher karma, in turn, can also be used by the site itself to push content submitted by those users up higher than those submitted by newcomers or trolls.

Sounds pretty good doesn't it? Well, many many things have a tendency to sound good in theory and to then fall apart when us irrational human beings actually get our hands on it. Internet karma is no different.

Karma is intended to work as an incentive system, and for a lot of people it certainly does just this. That little number can become an obsession. Getting it higher, getting to be the highest, can turn into a goal that undermines the essential point of a site like Reddit. How so you ask? Well, it's the karma whore issue you see.

karma whore: originally coined at slashdot, a karma whore plays to the prejudices of the masses to get positive moderation on their comments (via urban dictionary).

There are, of course, folks who take that definition to the very extremes, but to small degrees almost every member of an online community is going to end up at least a little susceptible to this phenomenon. The reason is, after awhile posting content that doesn't see a lot of traction and never makes it to the front page, a user is likely to take one of two paths:

1. Leave

2. Start posting content they know the community likes.

So, thusly, the community feeds it's own interests and only those who are willing to play along see their karma increase.

This isn't that different from how we interact with other people offline of course. Like minds hive together, that's human nature, but what if we wanted to see something different happen in cyberspace? What if we wanted to create a community that instead of feeding our existing interests and beliefs expanded and challenged them? Karma, the way I've seen it used today, is an ideology that keeps that from happening.

On Reddit, karma accumulates if the net up votes on your submitted content goes up. Imagine a situation in which instead, the level of controversy on your content resulted in a karma increase. Instead of incentivizing the user to submit content they know will appeal to the beliefs of the community, this encourages the user to submit content that will be polarizing in some way. Net result will be a very different picture of the overall content submitted to the site. Certainly, you can view the controversial items on Reddit, but there's no system that outright encourages users to submit that kind of content.

Maybe we can go the other direction entirely. After all, the best way to firm up your beliefs is to have them challenged. Try this site idea on for size: instead of positive karma, we encourage negative karma. The more down votes you get the higher your score. 

Clearly, there's still a failing in all of these systems. That failing is that it is still always possible to game the system. So what if we abandon the idea entirely, at least as a visible, measurable entity. Hide the karma from users and tweak the algorithm on the back end to get your desired results. Will users still submit content if they aren't 'rewarded' in some fashion? I think so, provided your algorithm still works well enough that interesting, varied content crawls its way to the top. 

So, karma, be it good or bad or controversial, certainly produces interesting dynamics in an online community. I'd love to see it used in a more varied or dare I say, backward fashion.

Keep it real guys, and keep your karma whoring to a minimum.