Old tricks to encourage user involvement

Mario kept me involved for many hours!

Irishionary.com, the collaborative Irish dictionary that I have been building, depends on user involvement. It’s the active users that keep it going. The whole idea behind the site is that the actions of many people are more effective than one person attempting to build a dictionary alone. At least, such a site is what I’m attempting to implement. It’s difficult to get a critical mass of people involved (meaning there’s not enough people currently involved).

To get started on promoting community involvement, I first picked up a copy of Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter (creator of ABTests.com). I’ve been searching for best-practice ways in which to promote user involvement in online applications. That’s what Facebook does: they try to maximise your number of clicks, a goal above simple building of traffic numbers.

So how the hell do you get users involved? What’s so sticky about Facebook or Flickr? It seems like it all comes down to human nature, and the question is how to tap into that nature. People are selfish, they want to know what other think about them, and they want to snoop on what their friends are up to. I’ll leave that to Facebook, it’s not the reason for creating an open collaborative Irish dictionary. Instead, I have to create an environment where people see what they’re part of it, that they see what others think about their contributions, and where it’s easy for them to participate.


Mario finished a level

I got a celebration for finishing the level.

One thing I learned is that measuring and reporting behaviour can be used to emphasise wanted behaviour. You can then reward that behaviour. In this view of the world, everything can become a game. Computer games are great at giving you feedback, making you want to continue to earn more and more game points, and getting you to collect stuff. Game mechanics are used by sites like YouTube and eBay to maximise user involvement.

Building on top of this, sites that I use including StackOverflow.com and Reddit.com both allow you to build up a reputation or “karma” based on feedback by other users. StackOverflow.com is basically a questions-and-answers arena for programmers. It’s easy to see which users that are highly active and respected on the site, as they have accumulated a high reputation score. It makes it easier for other users to identify them as ‘trusted’ users. At the same time, I’m certain that the high reputation score of power users serve their own selfish need to be recognised by the community.

Building on this thinking, I implemented a simple reputation system on Irishionary.com. Let’s be honest, I want you to accurately add new words and translations to the dictionary. Once you add a word, it is reviewed and validated by a user with editing permissions (more on that later). If your word is reviewed and validated without needing to be edited, you earn 10 reputation points. A word that is validated after an edit will earn you 5 reputation points.

With this basic reputation system implemented:

  1. The person can tell their behaviour has been appreciated and validated by others.
  2. By measuring their activity, they have a goal to increase that reputation score.
  3. It promotes them to take care in adding accurate complete information.

Once reputation is earned, we can also use it practically! StackOverflow.com uses reputation as a measure for how in touch you are with their community. Based on that, your reputation decides what level of control you have as a member of the community. Once you have amassed lots of reputation, you are given better moderation and editing powers on the site. In effect, earning reputation is a way to become even more involved with the project.

Feed the selfishness

Or perhaps narcissism is a better term for it. There’s nothing cynical in this type of self-interest, it’s how we’re designed. For me, Flickr brings me back because of comments on my photos. It’s as simple as that.

On this note, Robert Scoble recommends to make it easy to share success with others. Celebrate the person’s actions publicly.

Mininova.org allows you to say “thanks” to the original contributor. Along the same lines, I wanted people to be able to thanks the original contributor of a word to the dictionary. For any headword in the dictionary, you can click a button to “Say thanks” to the original contributor.

Encouragement on Mininova

On Mininova, you can say thanks.

My intention for my project is that the author will be notified in their activity stream whenever someone else thanks them. A “thanks” also earns the author one reputation point (reputation is always earned from others’ feedback). Others will also be notified that the author has been thanked as a result of having added words to the dictionary.


It’s easy to think that today’s social media is a doodle to implement. However, only a tiny number of sites are “sticky” to their users. Social interactivity is neither a silver bullet. It comes down to building a useful focused site that people want to keep coming back to. Simply allowing social interaction is far from enough to build up an active community. Let’s be clear about it: I’m still learning!

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