Lessons from Thomas Vander Wal: Reputation and Social Comfort

M. Jackson Wilkinson, Former Viget

Article Category: #Design & Content

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Earlier this month, we hosted a workshop here at Viget led by Thomas Vander Wal centered on Social Design in the Enterprise. I think it went great, and thanks to those who attended as well as to Thomas.  A few of us went bowling afterward, and for those who didn't: you missed out.

Thomas led us through a series of challenges and practices that try to help the necessary challenge of pushing the needle in an enterprise environment -- while the consumer web may be satisfied with a 1-9-90 model and widespread participation inequality, the enterprise web requires a much higher level of participation.  Thomas was a tour de force when it came to knowledge-dropping; I don't think I'm unlike other workshop attendees when I say that I spent the weekend sparking new ideas as some of the concepts Thomas talked about sunk in. 

The thing is, while some of these concepts are crucial to enterprise products, most of the concepts are still very relevant to the consumer space as well.  I just want to take a second and look at two things that I found interesting during and after the workshop.


The enterprise has a big advantage over consumer social tools when it comes to reputation. Inside an organization, everyone's reputation is either known or easy to find out, and participants in enterprise social tools generally know the audience consuming anything they write and produce. The larger the organization, the less this is possible, but there's always way to find out about someone else within a company.

This is both a blessing and a curse. In organizations that foster open communication, are tolerant of risky ideas and failure, and actively reward contribution, participation is far more likely.  In those organizations that don't, the fear of altering one's reputation with a bad idea, misunderstood information, or just spelling errors is going to keep may along the sidelines.

When it comes to the consumer web, reputations are much different, as we only see them in one context, if we see them at all. Users hide behind often-fictional personas and avatars, knowing that their reputation in a particular online community is unlikely to affect or be affected by the other parts of their online and offline life. This is a good thing sometimes, when we want people to do something they might not otherwise do, and it's often useful for promoting voluminous action.  Much of the time, though, it negatively affects the community by allowing users to create provocative, inflammatory, false, or misleading content.  While some users may care about their reputation within a particular community, there are few consequences for not caring.

Improving communities probably has a lot to do with improving reputation systems, and improving reputation systems probably has a lot to do with making a connection between a user's persona in one community and in others, including offline life. When working on SpeakerRate, we've been playing around with this idea by encouraging users to validate their accounts against a LinkedIn profile, which we perceive as having a value significantly higher than one's SpeakerRate profile, and which reflects the user's offline life in a significant way.  If you look like a tool on SpeakerRate, it could possibly reflect on you past the friendly confines of the app.

While this could have a negative impact in the sense that some folks might be afraid to post something connected with their real identity, it also conveys to new users that the community is built on mutual respect, open discussion, and constructive criticism.

There's a lot left to do when it comes to making decent reputation systems, and it'll be interesting to see how that science advances.

Social Comfort

Thomas also talked about a concept he called Social Comfort, aka SoCo. He attributed a major piece of a user's likelihood to use a product to this factor, which involves three major pieces:

  • Social comfort with others in the community.
  • Social comfort with the tools involved.
  • Social comfort with the subject matter.

Going too deeply into each of these areas is beyond the scope of a blog post, but it does mean that effective communities have an emphasis on feeling like you really know others in the community, tools that are a pleasure to use and easy to learn, and provide security in the understanding of the subject matter.

Does your social app provide users with a high level of social comfort from all three areas?

If you missed this workshop, we should be having another one on another subject before you know it. Stay tuned!

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