About a year ago, it was decided that we'd pilot a "gurus" program in various API support forums, including my own Google Maps API forum. We would declare a small number of developers to be the gurus in the forum and give them a title next to their nickname. We hoped that it would be a good thing for the gurus in terms of resume/reputation building, a good thing for newbies in the group in that they'd know who the most prolific posters were, and a good thing for us as it might encourage the gurus to post more, and perhaps contribute in other ways (articles/blog posts). So, I analyzed my forum, selected 4 developers that consistently and constantly delivered helpful posts, informed them over email, and then posted an announcement in the forum about it. Bad idea.
About 15 un-happy developers replied to the post, and their concerns all boiled down to one basic issue. I had created a black&white situation where there was formerly a wide spectrum. The Maps API has been around for a while now, and so there are quite a few developers that are familiar with it enough to answer some of the questions posed in the group, and hell, there are also quite a few expert developers as well. By designating only 4 developers as the one and true "Gurus", I had shoved all the people near the top to the other end of the spectrum, and they rightfully didn't feel they belonged there. They were worried that people seeking freelance developers would disregard them due to lack of the "Guru" title, and that newbies asking questions in the group wouldn't value their responses as much - and, to be honest, they were also offended by the implication in my announcement that some developers weren't as trustworthy as others. After realizing that I'd lost the trust of many top members of my community (and possibly their participation), but also deciding I didn't want to strip those top 4 posters of their well-earned title, we kept the "Guru" designation around but reduced the messaging around it.
The gurus program, atleast in the form I executed it, was a failure. The only positive aspects of it was that it gave me a way to formally thank my top posters for their hard work, and it gives me an excuse to email only that group when I want to discuss a Maps API issue with a small group ("Dear gurus.."). But the negative aspect - alienating the rest of the community - outweighed the positive. I do think the program could have worked if:
- The Maps API community was 99.9% newbies and .1% experts, and I nominated all of the .1% as gurus. This is what happened in the AJAX APIs group, and it worked great because that 99.9% felt incredibly indebted and in awe of the 1 guru. OR
- There were multiple levels of titles, and designation was done automatically. This is how many bulletin boards operate, and every message is coupled with stats about a poster: nickname, designation, number of posts, date joined, etc. There is a way to view most of this information in Groups (except an automated title), but it requires clicking on a person's name, and very few people do that. OR
- The gurus program was a designation acknowledged privately, and not paraded around in the main forum. This would be a similar concept to having a private beta testers group. The people in the group feel good that they're in this elite group, and other people don't feel bad that they're not in it - since they're not aware it exists, or at the very least, it's not shoved in their faces.
Generally, I learned that it's a tricky thing to single out and award a small group of people in a community where the participation levels are so distributed, and that it has the effect of de-motivating the rest of the community to participate. I'd be interested to hear how this relates to other communities on the web, and what experiences others have had.