Saturday, January 31, 2009

How to Alienate a Community 101: The "Gurus" Program

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.


Vivian said...

what if the nomination of the gurus is through a community process rather than Google's decision.

John Schneider said...

Pamela, good post. Social engineering is hard. You should check out how the StackOverflow guys have thought through ranking folks on their site for their contributions. In one of their podcasts they go through it in detail. The upshot is that there is an objective method for granting status to the contributors.

Pamela Fox said...

John - that sounds really interesting, but I can't find that podcast for the life of me. Can you dig it up and post here?

Vivian - I think that the community would wonder why they were doing the nominations for this one "Guru" title, what purpose it would serve. Just looking at the stackoverflow stats page, it's interesting to see that they give quite a range of badges to people, indicating stuff like "asked a popular question" to "got answer voted up". They seem to have designed it so that the badges cover the spectrum, and in a way that recognizes all the different ways people can contribute. The badges serve the purpose of letting me immediately see what kind of contributor is replying, and encouraging contributors to do more.

John Schneider said...

Here you go Pamela,

The first link is to the series of podcasts which is hands down the best
podcast on software devlopment out there. You need a high Spolsky-tolerance
index, but if you can take it, these are filled with sw development gems.
The next two links are the podcasts that discuss the social networking
design aspects.

episode #19
episode #26

Pamela Fox said...

Thanks, John. I listened to them-- my first podcasts! (I don't quite have the attention span for such things usually).

StackOverflow does a lot of interesting stuff, it'd be great to integrate some of their features with Groups. (Though not likely to happen anytime ever/soon).

John Schneider said...

I listen to pod casts while riding my bikes,so I'm pretty captive. Good way to learn about new things...

The good thing about google groups is that some of the base info needed is already being collected (like who posted and when) so experiments could be done to see if wheat could be separated from chaff, I agree introducing the voting is a big step

Rob said...

FWIW, the third option (a designation acknowledged privately, and not paraded around) is prettymuch how Amazon Web Services runs their programs - there is usually an invite-only beta underway, and you tend to get invited back into future ones.

So the 'gurus' get invited, and they know each other anyway, but its not paraded around so much infront of the regular users.