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We're getting closer to launching the commitment phase on Area 51, but before we do we thought we'd gather some feedback on how it's going to work.

Joel describes the goals of the commitment phase in this question:

So, we created a commitment phase... a phase where we gather a list of people for two purposes:

  1. So that we can email them all when the site opens, bringing in a critical mass of people all at the same time.
  2. So that we can gauge whether there are enough people interested in Q&A on a given topic.

Since the primary goal of the commitment phase is to get people to sign up, it makes sense to reward people for getting others to sign up.

We imagine it working roughly like Amazon affiliate links (or Mafia Wars, as Jeff likes to refer to it):

  • You email anyone you think might be interested a special link which includes a token (available now in the "Share It" popup)
  • If they follow the link, they get a cookie with your referrer token in it
  • If they commit to the proposal, you get +5 reputation (tentative)
  • If they follow through on their commitment and participate in the site, you get +25 reputation (also tentative)
  • On the commitment page, you can see your referrals, and see how many people others have referred (a list of top referrers, perhaps?)
  • New badges will be available for referring your first user, 10 users, 25 users, etc.

Questions? Concerns? Love it? Hate it? Already figuring out how to game it?

Edit: We should also credit this question for the initial idea of rewarding referrals

Edit: Based on feedback, we're now proposing giving a small amount of rep for the commitment, and a big chunk of rep if they actually follow through. Also keep in mind that we won't just be looking at number of committers in order to get to Beta, we'll be looking at how those users have contributed to existing sites.

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Good luck finding a proposal with 20 questions each with 30 upvotes that is a candidate for the commitment phase! –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 15:28
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@The Proposer/Welbog: as I said elsewhere, the final number is going to be a lot less than 30. See meta.stackexchange.com/questions/52662/… –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 15:29
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@David: Fair enough! Obviously I should spend more time on meta. –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 15:31
    
For which site are you planning on rewarding the rep? To Area 51 itself or to the site that's in the commitment phase? Because if it's just for Area 51, who cares? If it's for the proposed site, that's another issue entirely since gaming it could be considerably more damaging to a fresh community than to Area 51. –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 16:06
    
@The Proposer Area 51 reputation only –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 16:08
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@David: Well then who cares? Area 51 rep isn't even plainly visible on Area 51. Even if people game it they're still not in a position to ruin new sites. As long as the rep gain from suggesting good questions and proposals is greater than the rep gain from referrals, it should be fine. –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 16:12
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That original suggestion was mine and I was thinking Area51 rep at the time, but I agree that the rewards should go to the new site akin to the Beta badges. Area51 rep seems to be mostly useless, aside from helping to weed out trolls. –  squillman Jun 9 '10 at 16:48
    
@Proposer I agree that Area 51 rep/badges don't mean as much as on other sites, but people still use them as cues for what they should and shouldn't be doing. We want to make sure that the system aligns with what we want you to be doing, which is inviting other people. –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 17:55
    
Hey! I love rep, no matter where it is @prop @david –  jmfsg Jun 9 '10 at 21:03

8 Answers 8

One caution I would raise is that there needs to be sufficient friction of some kind to keep people from committing just because someone told them to.

Commitment is supposed to be a reasonable approximation of how many people will use the site when it opens. Yet, petitioners can wander the mall and gather thousands of signatures on any nonsensical issue because it is often easier to sign than to muster up the mental effort to ignore them. Zero friction = high compliance.

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We'll be watching closely to see how commitment translates into beta activity. Also, committing will be slightly more work than clicking a button –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 16:09
    
Use a very difficult captcha to commit, something like solving the Riemann hypothesis will much more effectively block trivial committers than "what is 2+2?" –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:16
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we're tweaking it so the initial commit is a small token bump of rep, but when the committing user follows through there is a much larger rep bonus for the person who referred them. –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:46

reward people for getting others to sign up.

What can you give me that would beat seeing a site I want to participate on go live with a healthy group of contributors? Are you looking to build communities, or some shady MLM...?

If you want to track referrals for fun or internal use, then maybe throw a badge or two at the referrers. But don't make too big a deal of it. This seems like exactly the sort of scenario where you really, really don't want to screw with the motivating factors.

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One of the goals with these mechanisms is to let people know what they should be doing. In the commitment phase we want to let you know that you should be inviting people. And as long as there's enough friction that those people are mostly actually interested, it seems like a win for the site as well. –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 17:53
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@David: Badges are also used to encourage/guide behavior; I also question using rep, making the referral rewards too complex, etc. But three badges along the lines of "Referred X people who defined/committed/participated-in-beta" seems just about right. –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:23
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we are going to measure whether the committers actually did what they said they would do and this will trigger a much better increase in rep than the token +x you get for a commit. –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:46

I agree that we want the system to encourage getting the right experts and enthusiasts to commit, but I think too much of a rep reward for getting just any individual to commit may backfire:

Even if we think we can control for outright sock-puppeting, you're still going to get a large number of commitments from friends and family of real 'users':

Dear loved ones with unique email addresses,

Please click this link and commit to this proposal, so my friends and I can start the world's best belly-button-lint site. It takes 30 seconds and is free!

While I think it's crucial to garner support and commitment from users outside the A51/trilogy community for a successful launch, if you don't have a core group of users that have already demonstrated some commitment to sites like these, you may wind up with ghost towns.

Maybe the rep reward (of N) should be given for:

  • Anyone you refer who commits and has (or subsequently earns) a rep of at least 15 on any of the sites (this allows poeple to show a little commitment to the proposal and system)
  • Any five people (or whatever) you refer who commit and provide a legit(confirmed?) e-mail address, but have no history of participation.
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It's mentioned elsewhere that participation in existing SE sites will be involved in committing, so this shouldn't be a problem. –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:18
    
@The Cat, you're right that it was mentioned earlier, but that was in an early concept phase. I didn't take that away as a given from @David's more specific post above. –  Jaydles Jun 9 '10 at 19:29
    
It was reiterated by Jeff too: It will be extremely difficult to reach the commitment threshold without substantial amount of aggregate multi-site reputation. –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:33
    
(I realize you probably had absolutely no chance to find that post, since the Q&A model doesn't work well for discussion.) –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:36
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the current thinking is, small +x rep boost for committing, much bigger +X rep boost for actually participating in the private beta (if the site makes it through to that stage) –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:47
    
@Jeff, thanks for the info - that seems to dovetail with my suggestion, and would seem to give enough instant gratification to motivate action, but weighs the reward heavily enough toward referring the good users that people will focus on that, rather than carpet-bombing friendlies. –  Jaydles Jun 9 '10 at 20:56

(was going to put this in a comment, but you did ask about gaming it)

How well does sockpuppet recognition work if all the puppets use different emails and don't vote anywhere? Should there be some further requirement (rep?) for the referred users before you get the bonus?

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Wait, were the Persian/Myanmar proposals actually backed by puppets are are you just speculating? –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 15:29
    
@The Proposer: the Persian / Myanmar proposals appear to be legit...we're actually seeing a spike in traffic from Iran / Myanmar –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 15:31
    
That's what I thought. It's just that mmyers' comment threw me off. I'll get you for this, mmyers! –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 15:34
    
I wasn't talking about any proposal in particular, just thinking out loud. –  mmyers Jun 9 '10 at 15:39
    
We could only award rep if they actually contribute in the beta –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 15:48
    
Agreed. Pushing traffic to the site is worth something, but pushing the right kind of traffic is worth so much more. A secondary requirement should be put in place before the rewards are awarded. –  Jason Punyon Jun 9 '10 at 15:49

Clarification:

My opinion on this is that rewards for referrals shouldn't be immediate - at least not tangible rewards. A badge or two is fine, but anything beyond that would just encourage referral-spam.

Instead, referrals should be thought of as investments in the site - that is, if and when the site goes live (beta), tangible rewards would be provided if the users whom you referred actually participate. Only when there's actually a site can you actually measure the value of those referrals; it seems silly to me to reward numbers when you have no idea what they mean.

You could maybe award a few badges on Area 51 for referrals alone, and transfer them to the beta site when it goes live, but I don't see the point. Joel keeps telling us that this incubation phase is all about getting the diehard fanatic users, and they already want to see the site succeed; they don't need any additional incentives in the commitment phase, because a commitment is, well, not really a commitment.

In fact, it's probably more important to discourage frivolous referrals, otherwise you risk launching a site too early - and if that happens, and the beta site dies in utero, it will become known as a flop and have almost no chance of ever succeeding, no matter how many retoolings it goes through. People should only refer those who they seriously believe will participate - and the best way to incentivize that behaviour is to pile on the rewards when those people participate.

Let's not be like the nightclub industry where promoters spam all over the place to pad their guest lists, knowing full well that 90% of the people on it won't ever show up. Instead, we should be like the open market, where people invest in an idea and their investments pay off great dividends if the idea succeeds.


So, here's what I'd like to see:

  • A bronze Pioneer badge for either asking or answering any question during the commitment phase. New users will see the badge being awarded and go "hey, cool!" and be x% more likely to continue participating.

  • A silver Committed badge for attaining X rep during the commitment period from questions and answers (not referrals). I'd peg X at maybe 50 or 100. If it's complicated to disambiguate referral rep from "real" rep then make it based on total upvotes instead.

  • A token rep reward of, say, 10 or 20 points to the referrer for each new referral.

  • A more significant rep reward (say 50-100 points) for each referral that becomes Committed.

  • A tiered set of badges: Referral, Advocate, and Evangelist for referring 1, 5, and 25 users respectively. Badges are ultimately pretty meaningless so I don't think we need to try to "protect" this from being gamed, it's just to give people tangible goals (rep is less easily defined).

The first two are to reward the people who actually accept the invitations, which is an important element that's been neglected from the original idea. It's a trivial reward, obviously, but new users seem to like the shiny badges, and it's really important to reinforce their positive behaviour in the beginning.

I think that overall this is pretty hard to game while still being useful. If you refer 50 users who all do nothing, you get 500 rep - whoopie, who cares. But if they all actually participate then you could grab 2500 rep, and well-deserved in my opinion.

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Do you mean during the beta phase? The site hasn't been created yet in the commitment phase. –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 18:21
    
@David: Yes, I'm essentially saying that any tangible rep rewards should be deferred to the actual site if and when it gets created. The tiered referral badges could be awarded right away, but why? You want people to bring in referrals for the right reasons, so I prefer to think of it as an investment in the site, with referrals being a sort of startup capital. It's really the only way to tie referrals to actual participation. I'll clarify this in the answer. –  Aarobot Jun 9 '10 at 18:47
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@aarobot this is basically what we are doing -- if you follow through on the commitment, you get the big +X rep bonus. There's only a token amount for the initial commit signup. –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:49
    
@aarobot I like this. Keep in mind, though, that we're not just going to look at number of committers for launching a site, we'll look at how they've contributed to existing sites –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 20:56
    
@David: Fair enough, although the concept of a referral pretty much implies that the referred user hasn't contributed anything anywhere (yet). It might be a bit of a crap shoot there. –  Aarobot Jun 9 '10 at 21:04
    
@Jeff: Glad to hear it, have you already described somewhere how this works (I'm guessing a blog entry)? I didn't see any links in the question to that effect. –  Aarobot Jun 9 '10 at 21:06

One thing I'm curious about is that Atwood's Angels must have thought of adding this feature to the Stack Overflow core at some point but never did. I'm wondering why such a feature wasn't added to Stack Overflow proper.

Now, it seems fairly easy to game, as mmyers points out, but the argument for having it in Area 51 also applies to Stack Overflow: SO is better the more good users it has, so it makes sense to reward people for bringing in demonstrably good users, right?

I want to know why SO doesn't have this feature, and whether that reason applies to Area 51 as well.

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I thought this was actually proposed and declined at some point, but I may be confusing it with another suggestion. –  mmyers Jun 9 '10 at 15:49
    
@mmyers: If you can find it on meta, I'd like to see it. I can't personally remember seeing this suggestion, but it's too obvious for Jeff to have not considered at least somewhat. –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 15:51
    
A quick search for "referrals" turned up a few old posts, but Jeff never responded to any of them. –  mmyers Jun 9 '10 at 15:59
    
@mmyers: That crafty Jeff... –  XMLbog Jun 9 '10 at 16:22
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this is a very different site than the trilogy, though -- this is the governmental site where we try to create bills and get support for them. So there's a certain amount of promotion that's necessary for democracy to work.. –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:48

I would think nothing should happen if I'm logged in and I click my own affiliate link but I get this popup.

alt text

If I were to unfollow after I got my affiliate link and after coming through the link refollow I don't count towards my own reward right?

Also, I'm noticing that my referrer ID isn't unique per proposal (and the links work even if I'm not following a proposal), couldn't this encourage unscrupulous individuals to blast out e-mails with links to every proposal with their single referral id tagged on the end?

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We show you the message so you can see what it would look like for others. We'll make sure that you can't refer yourself. Also, the referral will only work the first time you commit, so you can't uncommit and then recommit to give someone bonus rep –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 16:10
    
@David: Sorry I just added a second part... –  Jason Punyon Jun 9 '10 at 16:11
    
@Jason we will make the referrer ID unique per proposal –  David Fullerton Jun 9 '10 at 17:28
    
Why shouldn't the links work if I'm not following the proposal myself? My granddaughter is heavily involved in gardening, but I'm not. Can I not refer her to the Gardening proposal unless I follow it? –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:41
    
If someone wants to spam referral links, they'll do it regardless of whether each has a unique ID; you just make it a tiny bit harder. I don't see the point. –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 19:44
    
@The Cat: If all you're doing is telling your granddaughter about it why wouldn't you just send her the link? Why would you care about referring? –  Jason Punyon Jun 9 '10 at 21:03
    
@The Cat: O(1) <<<<< O(n). Combine the unique ID's with rate limiting proposal follows and you'd really make it difficult for someone to spam everything and tie it back to a single account. –  Jason Punyon Jun 9 '10 at 21:11
    
@Jason: What is the intention of "share it!" if it's not to make it easy to share with anyone? Why wouldn't I use it to send to my granddaughter, and thus automatically include the referral part of the link? –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 21:33
    
@Jason: Big-oh notation misses tons of detail. However, you already have to visit the site to find valid proposals, and that's O(n) in the number of proposals. Adding another step to get the referral id is still O(n). –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 21:39
    
What I'm saying, perhaps better phrased: Regardless of unique referral ids, if someone will try to spam them, then you have to deal with that. Anything you come up with to deal with that, handles either case (unique referral ids or not), so I don't see the point in more complexity. And here's a valid use case for non-unique referral ids: let me use the API to get proposals I'm following, and display links on my homepage (without spamming to any service). @david –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 22:06
    
(And if you make the referrals IDs unique, but also available through the API... what's the point?) –  Gnome Jun 9 '10 at 22:10

I do not think reputation should be given for this.

You want people to follow a project because they want to see the site become a reality. Same thing with getting people to join. I have a feeling that rewarding rep for this will lead to one of two things

  • Reputation becoming worthless on Area 51. Basically this means that no one cares about getting reputation, therefore no user-desire to post example questions etc.
  • Reputation becoming precious. Everyone is trying to hoard rep. People follow proposals only to ask questions so they have a chance at getting rep, same with referrals.

Both of these we definitely want to prevent.

Therefore I propose only badges or maybe at the most like 1 or 2 points of rep per referral. Users should not be trying to refer people to get reputation though, they should be trying to make the proposal get to the next step.

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the only time large-ish chunks of rep will be given, is for following through and doing what you said you'd do vis-a-vis commitment. We measure this.. –  Jeff Atwood Jun 9 '10 at 20:49

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