Well, at least in my own experience, reputation as a motivator is a bell curve. You'd need to get pulled into being an SE regular for reputation to matter. I turned up on Super User because a site about computer stuff seemed interesting and branched off from there. And the last time I actively cared about reputation was when I was trying to work my way to 10k to see a deleted answer of mine (the system changed halfway through me trying to get it... but I got my 10k anyway!).
Most of this isn't actually about reputation. Bear with me; I'll come to a point eventually ;)
TLDR: Reputation is overrated.
Unfortunately, some of the actions taken to try to fix new user onboarding - I think Joel spelled out the problems really well 10 years ago but to be really blunt, quite a lot of what was done was rather hamfisted and... didn't work quite well. He is right about the community dynamics here, just not how it was handled.
To quote Joel
After a few years, an insider group of old-timers forms. They get to know each other. They know the rules. They know the history and the legends of the community. And it’s only natural to get little bit irritated when newbies show up who don’t know the rules.
And there's so much more here than the reputation. Even if a new user gets past the reputation hump - growing that circle of 'insiders' is essential. The newbies see the number and think that's important. It’s an entirely arbitrary number, and frankly past a point gets you nothing.
The problem isn't as much 'reputation' as much as how newcomers being onboarded. A new user with quality posts, or maybe even an intuitive understanding of the system is going to have an easier time than someone who just walked in via Google and/or is expecting a forum. There's different user stories for either as a new user and... neither is going to go "Hey! How do I make this number bigger?"
They are going to remember helpful comments, people editing/improving their posts and guiding them through their fledgling stage.
But as we’ve seen, our system and community in its current state has a high barrier to entry. Asking or answering a question back in 2009 was a lot easier as we were building the library of knowledge that exists today. There were a lot more questions yet to be asked!
Not entirely true. Our standards were much lower and we ended up often needing to change scope as time went on. Even as a very experienced user, there are new technologies I'm messing with (I'm currently working on and having trouble with Nebula VPN for example) and software and software UXes evolve over time. That there are fewer questions to ask, or we'll ever be done with new questions is a misnomer.
The definition of a good question and answer , and the barrier to that has gotten higher. As an oldtimer, working/asking mostly about personal projects on my techie sites, I'm happy to refine a question in my head for weeks before asking. I go back and work on old answers and write new ones over several writing sessions because I've had years to work this out.
I'm pretty sure if I started a new account, picked up a few projects, and started using the same tricks I used as a new user, I'd probably be able to hit 10k in a year. It’s not a reputation learning curve; it’s a skills and spoons learning curve.
We still want users to be able to participate on our site and feel as though they are a part of this community. But unfortunately, we’ve heard from so many of our users, particularly newer ones, that the learning curve is steep and it’s difficult to find ways to engage on the site.
I don't think anyone comes in here worrying about the depth of the mechanics and reputation. Much of the friction is not mechanical and about reputation; it’s cultural, with a mismatch of expectations between new users and experienced one.
The 'learning' curve is as much about learning to deal with how to ask 'good'/better questions, dealing with criticism (textual and votewise) and the mechanics of the site. Worrying about votes is very much an early/middle lifecycle thing for a user—when you're wondering 'can I ask my next question' or 'can I unlock the next privilege?'
I've often said that SE builds communities in spite of itself. Healthy communities need to go beyond the utility of knowledge sharing. As much as main site use, things like chat and meta are also really good, neglected onboarding tools.
Reputation isn't broken other than the attention put to it. 5 reputation vs 10 for a question upvote didn't 'break' the network - the reasonings behind it did.
Reputation as a number isn't 'unfriendly'; it’s the actions and meanings behind, say, a downvote that matter more. There are folks who tend to be a little too focused on reputation, but people are going to come here to find answers and stay for the community.
By the time you 'worry' about reputation, you're already hooked, so any new user who complains... isn't really new, just someone who's engaged already, but who is still finding their feet. It’s better to teach them where the ground is, than move the ground to their feet.
As an old user - well, what's the value in my 145k reputation here?
At this point I have name recognition on the site, so my reputation isn't just reputation. I've not unlocked any additional benefits from being a high rep user. My motivation isn't reputation for most parts - it’s what I can do to try to, depending on the time period, protect my other sites (where its the same story), push (what I think are) positive changes...
Reputation isn't as important as people think it is. Reputation is broken because people focus on it too much. It’s also a handy, mildly arbitrary way to gauge how well people know the system, even if it’s how to break it.
And because of that, well, I don't think 'major' changes are needed. Our privilege system, tied to reputation, could use some consideration though. What would be positive actions that could be rewarded outside reputation gain? What are actual pain points for new users? (Downvotes? Not getting the structure of a good post? Not being able to find help and mentorship?)—these feel more important than trying to 'fix' the reputation system.