Reddit & Karma: 3 Lessons from an Awesome Online Community

Abstract: Reddit.com is far more than a social bookmarking website, it’s a vibrant online community. Users are given points for participation by other users. And, while this “Karma” is meaningless, it has proven a highly effective tool for driving community engagement.

Originally published right here.

Growing up, video games were banned in my house. I suffered through a childhood of that stick and hoop game you see in colonial reenactments. On the days I escaped The Village, Super Mario Bros. on NES was my sweet bliss. Unlike my friends, I never collected the coins. I wanted to experience the game, why waste time with something that didn’t matter?

Similarly, on Reddit.com there are points to be collected that don’t matter. They are called Karma and they won’t win you rewards or special preferences, a higher level or a “power user” status.  And yet, Karma points are a driving force behind this vibrant online community. 

Reddit Logo

Reddit is oft called a social bookmarking site. People submit links to funny/interesting articles, pictures etc., they find out in cyber land, and users vote these submissions up or down. These up-votes translate to Karma points for the user who submits a link.

In the end, top voted links make it to the front page, where the whole community can enjoy what the hive mind has selected as what’s “best” that day. Tada, social bookmarking!

Each user may only give one up-vote per submission. Thus your Karma score represents the number of people who have approved of your submission. Or as Reddit’s FAQ explains: “[Karma] reflects how much good the user has done for the reddit community.

Key learning 1: Karma is metric of approval by the community at large. Similar to the “Like” button on Facebook, it provides direct feedback to one user on the quality of their submission. That is, Karma points = approval by others. 

Interestingly, while Karma is completely meaningless, users don’t give it away for free.

Up-voting a submission places it on your favorites list, and this list is coveted space. Content moves quickly across the pages of Reddit, and your “favorites list” may be the only way you’ll ever find that funny cat picture again. Therefore, most users seek to keep their list neat and clean.

This mechanism is a powerful motivation for users to up-vote only submissions they actually care about. (Further, this functionality keeps them on the site rather than stopping to bookmark or save things to their hard drive).

Key learning 2: Being able to give out rewards is nice, but it should be a two way street. Reddit users don’t just give Karma to be nice, they are compelled to up-vote the things they really like and stay away from the bad.

Virtual interactions on Reddit go far beyond simple up and down votes in the comment section—in fact, this is where the community lives. Unlike Facebook or Youtube, Reddit’s commenting system allows for a rich conversation about submissions.

Further, comments can be up-voted as well, lifting only the best, most productive pieces of the conversation to the top. This discourages bad comments and encourages people to participate.

I cannot stressed enough that these comment threads are where the Reddit community lives! Each submission is fun in itself, but it is also a jumping off point for conversations. Here is where people meet, discuss, and hang out. This is the town square, the café, the clubhouse — and on Reddit the users get to feng shui the interior.

Key learning 3: Communities can’t exist unless people have a place to gather and talk. Comment Karma is one of several elements in Reddit’s design that facilitates conversation, elevates the conversation, and ultimately makes the clubhouse more fun.

Final thought: We all know that getting a “Like” on Facebook feels good. It’s a simple virtual interaction, but research shows that our brains interpret it as real. Karma points mean nothing, but really they mean everything. They provide a metric for social interaction that’s simple and straightforward. Further, by linking Karma to bookmarking, users are compelled to up-vote submissions they like.

In the end, what goes around comes around. Karma moves the best submissions and the best comments to the top. By organizing the community space in this way users know they can count on quality content that’s never more than a click away. That’s a big motivation to visit, stick around, and participate. That’s good karma. 

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