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I've recently read Jon Skeet's blog post on Stack Overflow and it seems that there are some clearly obsessed guys out there (sometimes I observe similar symptoms in myself too), who, without the daily reputation limit, would answer even more questions, thus contributing even more to the community, because, - let's not forget -, these guys tend to give high quality answers.

Instead of the absolute limit, we could try some degressive model like:

  • above 200 daily reputation points, an additional upvote would earn you only 5 more reputation points,
  • above 500 daily reputation points, an additional upvote would earn you only 3 more reputation points,
  • etc.
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5  
complicated for little benefit. I believe Jon would hit the rep cap every day even if he never answered another question, due to votes on old answers, yet he still answers and answers and answers. Rep cap serves many purposes beyond encouraging people to stop for a while, and I think it serves them well. –  Kate Gregory Nov 17 '11 at 17:12
    
see for example meta.stackexchange.com/questions/96226/… for another purpose of the rep cap –  Kate Gregory Nov 17 '11 at 17:25

3 Answers 3

In addition to the points brought up in the other answers, also note that the rep cap serves to "slow down" the accumulation of reputation. Higher rep equals more privileges—ability to edit other peoples' answers, vote to close questions, etc—and the rep cap serves to makes sure people don't hit too high a value, and get too much concomitant power without first being a part of the community long enough to learn how things work.

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This may damage another indirect incentive that comes as a result of the reputation limit. Reaching the limit isn't entirely a trivial task and I imagine it really only happens to:

  • Quality contributors
  • Rep farmers
  • The occasional lucky answer ("lucky" defined as a simple answer to a simple question which happens to become very popular in the short term)

Clearly the rep farmers are very likely to cease their efforts when they reach the limit. This is arguably a good thing for the community because, even though they're providing community-approved content, the intent just isn't the same. They've done a good bit of contributing for the day, and we thank them for it, but we don't want them to go overboard and start diluting the signal with noise.

With the occasional lucky answer, the community benefits from the rep limit because a single good answer (or just popular answer) doesn't necessarily make for a quality contributor. I believe this is the most common stated intent of the rep limit. It's a mechanism to help prevent one hit wonders from becoming highly privileged users too quickly.

But what about the quality contributors? (Your example of Jon Skeet, for example.) I think the rep limit actually provides an indirect incentive for them that also benefits the community. There are a couple of ways the quality contributor can look at the situation:

  • I want to continue to earn rep
  • I want to continue to help people

If the latter condition is the driving factor, then the rep limit doesn't really stop them. Jon has used the term "long tail" multiple times (in a comment on the blog post to which you linked, on Twitter, etc.) in reference to where he gains much of his rep. He has well over 10,000 answers, and people stumble across them via Google all the time. At this point he's hitting the rep limit just as a matter of statistics and not even through any effort he has to put in on any given day.

So why does he continue? While I don't know Jon personally, I tend to think that the latter condition is a significant driving factor. But we can't ignore the former condition. We're human, we like to win at games, we like to get high scores. The "gamification" is indeed a major part of Stack Overflow's success. So how does the quality contributor continue to earn rep in this case?

Keep in mind that awarded bounties and accepted answers aren't affected by the rep limit. It's a limit on up-votes only. So the rep limit is sort of a way for the system to give a little nudge to the quality contributor and say, "Hey buddy, thanks for the contributions today. I really appreciate it. Since you're clearly pretty good at this, why not take a look at the bounty questions? They're a little more challenging, but they're worth it. And while you're at it, take a moment to make sure your answers weren't just drive-by helpfulness but were really well-crafted and high quality answers. They're more likely to be accepted that way."

Just my two cents.

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Two cents worth a mint! I especially agree with "It's a mechanism to help prevent one hit wonders from becoming highly privileged users too quickly." That will always be the sole reason the cap should/will never go away. –  TryTryAgain Jan 9 '12 at 20:47

Regardless of how much information is in one's head, no one is a fount of unlimited good answers.

Smart, geeky people have jobs, families, hobbies, and (don't forget!) code to write.

Without a rep cap, one could answer and answer all day, and never feel "done", but that's not necessarily a good thing. It's nice to come and go and feel like one has accomplished something. Jon specifically mentions liking to hit the cap every day.

I suspect that there is a not-insignificant number of users for whom the rep cap provides that feeling of "I accomplished something" each day they spend on SO or one of her sister sites. It's nice to feel like you've "won" even if you aren't up at Jon's level of reputation.

Without a rep cap, one could sink hours into providing thoughtful answers and it would never feel like enough. There's no point at which one has "won" for the day. In addition to preventing certain kinds of rep distortion, the daily cap provides a target for the most obsessed helpful of us to shoot for. It is a powerful motivator in its own right.

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2  
So basically the rep-cap is the boss at the end of the level in a video game? –  Michael McGowan Nov 17 '11 at 17:37
    
@Michael, nice one. The rep cap even has two phases: you reach "the boss" at 200 rep, then you can get some more (depending on your number of accepted answers / awarded bounties that day) until upvotes start yielding 0 rep. At this point, you "beat" the boss, and you can choose to yield or "play" again on meta. –  Frédéric Hamidi Nov 17 '11 at 17:50
    
+1 for teaching me "fount" (and for making sense, of course) –  Pëkka Nov 17 '11 at 18:00
    
"Without a rep cap, one could sink hours into providing thoughtful answers" => It takes me hours to even reach the rep cap on any given day (not that that stops me though -- your post is right on, after I do spend hours and build up to the rep cap, it gives me a sense of accomplishment, just for having an enforced goal; also gives me a good stopping place, otherwise the addiction could be significantly worse). –  Ben Lee Mar 26 '12 at 21:37

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