In my last post, I talked about how difficult it was to try and decide what groups of people you can trust in an online community.  Outside of my simple and naive "Why don't we just trust anybody?", most online communities use a "reputation system" to establish trust and order on their sites.  Some common examples include:

Even technical support sites, such as Experts-exchange.com and Apple.com Discussions use reputation systems to give users on their systems some sense of personality and let the community know how "trustworthy" that particular user is.  Even Microsoft's own Xbox.com Forums have a rich reputation system. Simply put, the most successful online communities--the ones that people want to come back to time and time again--have reputation systems.

The reputation systems are based around a few common principles:

  1. Activity Based--This one is obvious.  People get better reputation by doing something that is considered "good".  Selling an iPod on Ebay and actually sending it in good condition.  Reviewing a book with thought on Amazon instead of writing a mindless mess.  Posting something intelligent on Slashdot.  Alright...maybe the last one is less likely... :)
  2. Community Rewarded--The best reputation systems allow other people in the community to reward "reputation points".  I get to choose whether or not the seller I bought from on Ebay gets a point.  Users on Amazon can choose whether or not a particular review was helpful to them.
  3. Visible--The results of a reputation system must be visible.  Ebay has its stars, Amazon has a "Top Reviewers" list, Xbox.com has awesome user profiles/avatars.  If a user is acheiving reputation, and nobody can see it, it's not really worth anything.
  4. Linked to Additional Privileges--Once a user acheives a certain level, there should be some sort of reward that makes a user care that they have acheived that level of reputation.  Typically, this is more moderation privileges--think of it as becoming a "deputy" of that particular online community.
  5. Obvious on How Reputation is Determined--Some sites do this better than others.  Ebay and Amazon have clear, great pages on how you get a better reputation--sell more stuff, or write more reviews.  The more difficult it is to determine exactly how you get a better reputation, the less likely it is that you'll behave in that way.
  6. Time--None of the online communities I mentioned above are brand-new.  Most have been around for years.  It takes years to establish reliable reputations and build a community around them.

So, what am I getting at?  Well, I'm priming people for my next few posts, in which I'm going to propose a reputation system that should be used for all of the Microsoft Forums, starting with the MSDN Forums.  I'm currently working with the Microsoft.com Forums team on this, and I'd love to get broader feedback from everyone on this.  Stay tuned!