the frequency a kenny chung blog

January 19th, 2012
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Note: This article is not about verifying identities in social media; that’s way too boring. This post is about the sense of validation that motivates people to use social media more and more.

The need to be validated is what drives modern society. It falls within the top two sections of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs (New Year’s Resolution: Stop relating every marketing concept to Maslow?). And this need translates over very nicely to social media and its users. The first word is the key one: social. Social networks are about interacting, but networking is also about creating new connections that did not previously exist. And therein lies the promise of social media for the everyday users- the ability to receive validation from another person, whether it’s the cute girl from Chemistry class Liking your status on Facebook, a customer service rep responding to your complaints on Yelp, a movie star responding to your Tweet/answering a question, striking up a casual conversation with the CEO of a tech startup you’re interested in working for. Whatever the case may be, the (potential) feedback loop is what drives many users to engage. I’m going to use this post to highlight a few social networks that are doing this right.

Why do people use Quora?

Quora markets itself as being THE place where anybody is able to receive expert answers to any question. In this sense, Quora mainly relies on the quality of responses to drive engagement. But sometimes this even lends itself to some surprises. Take the example below: in this thread, someone asked a general question about how JJ Abrams started his movie-making career… and JJ Abrams himself popped by to personally answer the question!

JJ Abrams answering questions on Quora
JJ Abrams was definitely the expert on the subject matter (click to enlarge)

Amazing that he would take the time out of his day to answer an anonymous person’s question just because he knew he would be the best source for an answer. It also shows that he cares for his fans and is willing to reward them for their fandom and devotion. Really awesome. No one can argue that that isn’t the single best answer for that question. (Full disclosure: I love Fringe!)

Why do people use Reddit?

In the same vein, Reddit has become the “it” social sharing site. It has completely eclipsed Digg, StumbleUpon, and all the others. It has done so by fostering a community where any and all questions can be asked and answered, with no apparent limits to genuine curiosity. And the community has grown so large (and full of educated students and professionals) that there’s almost always someone qualified to answer your questions, no matter how obscure (consider this thread about hair dryers.) The AskReddit threads are similar to Quora, but with a typically lower signal to noise ratio.

And occasionally on Reddit (actually at least a few times a month at this point), someone famous creates an account solely to answer Redditors’ questions. In recent memory, there’s been Louis CK, Jeopardy Champion Ken Jennings, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen T. Colbert, and countless others. During these days, a lucky few have their questions answered by someone they likely revere, or at least respect, for their body of work and also for allowing random Internet users to ask them almost anything. It’s a bi-directional relationship- the users that help build the community are rewarded with recognition from people who would otherwise likely never be able to interact with them. Now that’s powerful stuff.

Reddit AMA 2 Girls 1 Cup
Admittedly, sometimes not the most powerful stuff

Why do people use Twitter?

Twitter is arguably the most frictionless social media service there is. Anybody can create an account and there are no barriers to Tweeting something at anybody else, celebrities and other famous individuals included. I myself have had some fleeting conversations with music artists I adore, industry thought leaders, Google Webspam Team Overlord Matt Cutts, among others (#HumbleBrag). And that’s the kind of validation people are searching for when they first hear about Twitter, decide that it’s not too stupid, and then sign up and write their first Tweet directed at someone they don’t personally know. Twitter is the social media platform of aspiration.

You can even get a response to the most inane of requests, like having a RoboCop statue erected by the mayor of Detroit.

JJ Abrams answering questions on Quora

What does this all mean to brands and individuals active in the online or social media space? In short, technology has enabled more of us to communicate with each other and with strangers who had once only been available through very specific channels. Now that it’s socially acceptable to ask questions/make comments and expect answers/responses, doing so has become a routine part of our online lives. Whether you’re a musician on Facebook, a blogger with an active comments section, a customer service rep on Twitter, or whatever else, it will only work to your benefit to provide users with the best answers (barring any huge PR gaffes). You need some give and some take to complete the feedback loop.

I’m going to lead off by saying that I could have named this blog post many different things, and they all would have been accurate. One title that I threw around was “Crowdsourcing 2.0 – Translating Reward Systems to Web 2.0.” Another was “Quora vs. A Tale of Two Reward Systems.” But alas, I ended up with a title somewhat amalgamating the two: “Quora vs. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in Crowdsourcing.” While I’ve written about the value of crowdsourcing before (Crowdsourcing- wisdom of the masses?), this post is not so much an update, as it is an analysis of two sites that I feel are doing it right.

I’ll start off with a brief introduction of the services, as I am wont to do: Quora is a question and answer site, much in the vein of Yahoo! Answers. The main difference is that it’s not anonymous, so the answers are typically of higher quality and many respondents are actually professionally qualified to give their opinions (as long as you stay out of the Psychology Quora page). Users can vote up or down each answer that a question receives, and they can also “Thank” someone for their answer. The difference (at least from what I’ve read in a Quora thread) is that voting means you think a response is the most appropriate answer, whereas Thanking someone could mean you appreciate their effort or unique input. is a crowdsourcing music website where the “audience” listens to up to 5 users (DJs) take turns playing songs. The crowd can vote a song up if they like it or down if they want it to change. Each positive vote gives the DJ who selected the song 1 point. Alternatively, if enough people vote down a song, the song skips and the next DJ gets to have their shot in the limelight. Points can be used to change your user avatar into something either ridiculously large or just ridiculously “expensive”.

Quora vs. Turntable.fmQuora vs. – Slightly different audiences

Obviously, Quora and are about as different as you can get in terms of social media websites. I’ve been using both a lot more lately (just to plug, here’s a link to Quora/Kenny-Chung, where I answer questions about SEO, Graphic Design/UX, Psychology, etc.). Both were quite addictive to use, but the area that interested me the most was how different their reward systems truly were.

And now (as I am also wont to do), I’ll provide some basic psychology 101 terminology. Intrinsic motivation refers to when someone does a task or chore because they want to (because they like doing it, if they like helping others, etc.). Extrinsic motivation means that someone is doing something for reasons outside of themselves (money, to avoid consequences, to be better than others, etc.). Those are highly simplified explanations, but they’re adequate for the purposes of this blog post.

With regard to these two sites, Quora uses intrinsic motivation to drive user responses (the votes and Thanks don’t amount to anybody’s profile being quantitatively better than someone else’s, unlike on sites like Reddit). Yahoo! Answers has the opposite approach. There, users gain points for answering questions, for being chosen as the best response, or for voting. This is a form of extrinsic motivation, and it can be argued that that’s why the community answers there are so… terrible. Because Quora targets knowledgeable and educated people to begin with, intrinsic motivation is more naturally suited for its user base. And from personal experience, it actually does feel good to know that I could help someone out with the knowledge that I’ve accrued over the years.

On the other hand, is driven by extrinsic motivation (for its DJs). The reason people spend their time picking songs for others to listen is for points. While it’s very possible that people enjoy the music they choose, sharing a space with others, and spreading knowledge of their favorite bands, I’ve found that most rooms are an exercise in self-affirmation, with the DJs choosing popular/safe songs in fear of being skipped and not gaining any points. But for a site where the focus is all on the audience’s enjoyment, I think it works well.

So is one reward system better than the other? Yes and no. It depends on context. It’s hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg, but reward systems attract certain types of people, and certain people are attracted to certain types of reward systems. There’s a barrier of entry to answering questions on Quora (actually possessing knowledge), whereas is more for fun and anybody can join (well, only if you’re Facebook friends with someone already using it).

I’m going to end with a well known idiom- “different strokes for different folks.” Especially in this growing online environment of crowdsourcing, the most important consideration when building a loyal fanbase is whether or not users are engaged and if they have any reason to be. And the best way to do that is by motivating users properly.

So next time you’re on a social networking site, take a step back and see how they’re getting you to do what they want you to. And if you’re thinking of starting your own web service with a reward system, my only advice is to choose wisely.

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