Thursday, July 05, 2007

Your Karma Just Ran Over My Dogma

Ideas about how reciprocity and reciprocality function on the Internet are important for any theory of online community. For example, some -- such as Ellen Strenski and Erika Pearson -- take an anthropological view and have posited a gift-exchange model in which users participate in a circuit of social obligations based on the transfer of digital objects. Others take a dim view that denies any egalitarian symbiosis in relationships created and maintained within online communities, even if pyramid schemes give enough rewards to encourage continued participation, as the current fad for zombie applications for social networking sites may indicate.

In this posting, I'd like to take a quick look at the concept of Internet "karma" as a reward system that provides incentives for pro-social behavior.

For many years, Slashdot has offered its contributors "karma" to serve as "a reference that primarily represents how your comments have been moderated in the past." Although Slashdot has been a longtime Internet institution, its supporters have explained in their FAQ that the terms for earning karma have somewhat changed over time. In other words, Slashdot karma used to be a number, but is now a named state with "Terrible, Bad, Neutral, Positive, Good, and Excellent" as the only possible designations. As Slashdot explains the rationale for moving away from a numeric score, "People like to treat their Slashdot Karma like some sort of video game, with a numeric integer representing their score in the game. People who do this simply are missing the point. The text label is one way we've decided to emphasize the point that karma doesn't matter."

According to their FAQ, Reddit also offers editors karma if they post popular links in order to encourage increasing the quality and quantity of their submissions. Some have suggested that Wikipedia also adopt the karma model to improve editorial reliability. In all these senses, "karma" is another scheme for indexing one's Internet reputation and would thus be very different from actual Buddhist karma, as this podcast explains.

Some nonprofits who do online social marketing have attempted to associate the term with a more traditional meaning of net ethical value earned through disinterested charity. Last month, I received an e-mail encouraging me to play Karma Tycoon, which opened with a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. and labeled "Good News of the Day." It read as follows:

A New York-based nonprofit is hoping to strike a philanthropic spark with Karma Tycoon, a new online game for teenagers and a creation of the non-profit The idea was to put a twist on popular video games in which players try to maximize profit in order to amass wealth. "Why not create a game that maximizes karma in order to make the world a better place?" asks Aria Finger of Do Something. Karma Tycoon was officially launched on Dec. 21, 2006. Players who register at the site can pick the type of nonprofit they would like to administer, such as an animal shelter or a homeless shelter, helping them generate an interest in social entrepreneurship as well as teaching fiscal responsibility. According to Finger, the early response has been very positive and version 2.0 is on its way.

Ironically, their pitch aims its incentives at precisely the videogame ethos that Slashdot is now disavowing. Furthermore, I'm certainly not someone with a short attention span, but I tried to play the game several times and found it very difficult to become engaged with the game play. Although it uses Google Earth-style graphics, it doesn't do much with either "big data" or information design that could make a game about humanitarianism one with some aesthetic pleasure. Largely, its a game about accounting, where you must balance expenses while opening new facilities. The player must do this by applying for grants and ensuring a revenue stream. Perhaps the multi-player version is more fun, but I found my opportunities for creative input in the single-player version to be limited to naming centers for my philanthropic empire.

The branding of karma is also being employed by Amnesty International, which is sponsoring the Instant Karma campaign to save Darfur by encouraging visitors to sign an online petition and then buy an album of digital music sponsored by John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono to help their humanitarian fund-raising. The tunes are actually okay, in the universe of charity albums, but I still didn't buy the Instant Karma tracks.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right, Karma in the slashdot context is completely unrelated to any other meaning of the word. You accumulate slashdot karma by having your comments moderated "interesting" or "insightful" by other slashdot users who have accumulated karma through the same process. Thus through this form of evolution a species of high karma poster / moderator selects itself.

You would be wrong to to think that slashdot is a forum, it is in fact a simple and very addictive game. Try it yourself, don't worry you don't actualy need any technical insight.

Post an early response to a new story, you must be quick, make it banal but give it a pretence of insight. In fact a good description of a slashdot post that gets moderated up would be

"A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

Watch your your karma rocket !

8:01 AM  

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