Play & Reputation Economies

Amazon.com has had, for about a year, a beta feature/forum called Askville.com. According to the web site:

What is Askville?

Askville is a place where you can share and discuss knowledge
with other people by asking and answering questions on any topic. It’s a
fun place to meet others with similar interests to you and a place where you
can share what you know.

The idea of an online Q&A community is hardly new, of course. There’s the defunct Google Answers, the non-defunct Yahoo Answers, and there’s even things like USENET, that virtual community where netizens still share and discuss knowledge, ask and answer questions, etc.

What’s intrigues me about Askville is not the substance of the exchange, but the incentive structure they have wrapped around it. There are experience points and Quest gold that can be earned by answering questions. For instance, if you look at the charts on that FAQ page, you’ll see that in order to be a level 4 user on Askville, and get a 20 gold payout bonus, you’ll need to have 1,500-2,999 experience points.

More on what I find interesting about this after the fold…

Quest gold is supposed to be valuable at an upcoming website, Questville.com, but the opening of that site has been delayed a bit and it isn’t clear exactly what folks will be doing at Questville with their acquired virtual loot. Maybe you’ll be given a quest to do combat with 10 mechanical Turks. Maybe you’ll be tasked with setting information policy for the e-commerce bookstore of Babel. The possibilities are endless, but who knows.

In the meantime:

8. Can I redeem my Quest gold for anything, such as money?

Except for any special limited time redemption offers that we may
make available from time to time, Quest gold are not redeemable for
anything at this moment. Once Questville.com launches we hope to have
exciting new ways to use your Quest gold. Until then, keep on stocking
up on your Quest gold!

So the question is: why would you want Quest gold if you don’t know what you can buy with it? At another point in the FAQ, the site states “collect as many Quest gold as you can and show everyone how active and helpful you’ve been on Askville.” Apparently Quest gold is roughly symbolic of your community standing in Askville.

(And actually, there’s a potential monetary payout as well. Quest gold was recently redeemable for Amazon gift cards of up to $100 value. So collecting Quest gold shows everyone how active and helpful you’ve been, plus it has shown how close you are to earning a gift card. Interesting.)

Tech Crunch took note of all this a year ago. Virtual World News made mention of it over the summer, which caught some attention among virtual worlds bloggers, and recently Alice Taylor picked it up, then James Au from her, and then yesterday Nick Carr pointed it out.

Nick Carr finishes his brief post with this provocative thought: “One thing’s for sure, anyway: If you can pay your workers with virtual money, you’ve got a helluva labor strategy.” In other words, he seems to imply that anyone who “plays” on Askville is actually working for Amazon for nothing.

That notion is interesting to me because I’m finishing a symposium essay (for this symposium) on the topic of user-generated content and virtual worlds. One thing I’m interested in exploring for that essay is the tension between what I’ll call: 1) market economies, 2) reputation economies, and 3) ludic economies.

Both reputation and ludic economies are my personal shorthand for social systems where important types of value are exchanged but the intrusion of pecuniary economies is limited in certain ways. I’ve pondered what the term “reputation economy” might mean here at Madisonian and a bit more in this paper. As for ludic economies, I don’t have a short or long definition of that term (yet) but it is related to the acquisition and transfer of what Mia Consalvo calls “gamer capital” in her recent book and ties into some ideas that Thomas Malaby has worked on in this essay.

In reputation economies, complete market transfer of one’s reputation to another is generally not possible, though personal endorsement and community membership might be described as a type of value exchange. Reputation is also invariably situated in the context of particular communities and even specific webs of relationships. (See this interesting little essay by Clive Thompson on the microfamous.)

In ludic economies, communities set up systems where status is earned only according to investments and accomplishments obeying set rules of play. Rules of play usually limit the extent to which market economies can intrude into certain aspects of play. (Which is part of what interests me about popular reactions to the Mitchell Report.)

Web 2.0 businesses often seem aimed at monetizing reputation and ludic economies. Essentially platform owners are trying to find ways of profiting from the activity of online communities that are ostensibly premised on sharing and non-market competition. As I explain in the Digital Attribution paper, this has interesting implications for how we should react to some of the rhetorical claims that follow Web 2.0.

Nick Carr has been an astute observer of the gaps between rhetoric and practice in Web 2.0. He claims that many Web 2.0 models amount to sharecropping the labors of sharing communities. So I find Carr’s confusion about how to read “Quest gold” very interesting. He says:

In July of 2006, I entered into a quasi-wager with Yochai “Wealth of Networks” Benkler about the ultimate economic structure of the most popular social media sites. I predicted that the dominant sites would pay for their content – that they would, in Benkler’s terms, be “price-incentivized systems.” Benkler predicted that the sites would be pure “peer-production processes” existing outside “the price system.”

So what happens if people get paid with virtual gold: Is that price-incentivized or not? I would argue that it is. If you’re working for gold, whether real or fake, you’re putting a price on your labor. I mean, if you take beads in trade for something of value, then the beads are money, right? But of course I’m biased, being a participant in the wager. Maybe Benkler would argue that fake gold is more like a token of esteem or a gift of the heart than like a wage.

Ah, there’s the rub. But another question we might ask is: why would this matter? Other than for tax purposes or interpreting the language of wagers, do we really need to place Quest gold in one of two boxes: money or esteem?

If you can exhange Quest gold for an Amazon gift card, then it can be converted into money. But if it also “show[s] everyone how active and helpful you’ve been on Askville” then it can also serve as something else–a token of esteem. So, like many status markers out there that people might pursue (e.g. the Nobel Prizes or an NFS grants), Quest gold belongs in both boxes at once. The same prizes can be valued, with different valences, in market, reputation, and ludic economies.

The most interesting thing for me at the moment is looking at the ways these various forms of social value (market, reputation, ludic) are permitted to be exchanged and are prohibited from being exchanged. For instance, if Askville were to replace Quest gold with an indication of the dollar value earned on an Amazon gift card, would that be more or less conducive toward the formation of community?

And would it be fun?

2 thoughts on “Play & Reputation Economies

  1. I’ve always found Yahoo Answers to be a fascinating example of motivation. They have been able to create a wildly successful service motivating people with “points.” Amazon gold might be hokey, but I don’t think it is any different than Yahoo points.

    The real question is whether the reputation economy exists outside the market economy. I don’t think it does. Linux programmers motivated by reputation-seeking want to capitalize on that by being hired in the traditional market, right? Reputation has very real implications in the market economy and I think that drives people to be of renown.

  2. Yes, I agree completely that there is an intersection between reputation economies and market economies. “Fame” and “Fortune” often go hand in hand — I have several pages looking into that in the Digital Attribution paper.

    The interesting thing, for me, is how they don’t go hand in hand at time. Certainly there’s a very different rhetorical tone that we see employed with regard to economies based on sharing (Mike talks about this in “A Pattern-Oriented Approach to Fair Use”). See, e.g., the way Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation approach IP issues vs. credit issues. Reputation economies are much more easily tied into normative and moral concepts, which are more suppressed in market economies.

    And I don’t think you’re suggesting this, but I think we’d make a mistake if we thought of the pursuit of reputation as something that can be easily subsumed in a market economic approach. If anything, it ought to be the other way around.

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