Upvotes, Likes and Karma: Incentives of Social Media Participation









‘Gamification’ ‒ a term coined by Nick Pelling in 2002 ‒ has become a ubiquitous, though somehow transparent layer of social media. The concept describes the transfer of elements, typically known from video/computer games, into non-gaming contexts. Characteristic strategies of gamification are the inclusion of achievement badges, levels and progress bars, providing virtual currencies or points. In contrast to games however, social media usually do not offer objective procedures in order to gain achievements and rewards of participation. Following a games’ pre-defined structure will usually lead to in-game rewards ‒ at least in terms of progress in the gameplay. On the other hand, arbitrarily posting on Facebook cannot warrant likes from your friends; content which is considered boring or promotional will not give you upvotes on Reddit; in order to be retweeted or faved on Twitter your initial tweet needs to be of some informational or entertaining value for other users. Superficially seen, participation is led by incentives similar to gaming, however users do not interact with a calculable programme. Hence, if they want to gain rewards for their participation, they have to acquaint themselves with content logics, audience preferences and communication habits of the respective social media. In order to achieve and maximise feedback ‒ or rather gratification, they adjust their social media participation to an assumed audience.

This strategy can be observed in several forms among users of the social news aggregator Reddit and currently polarises the overall user group. To give an example, users provide narrative teasers of possible stories they would be willing to tell, if only other users would give them upvotes in advance. The effort of participation is only made under the condition of a noticeable reward:




In an earlier post, I have mentioned another user strategy which has been described as ‘karmawhoring’ by Redditors. As cited before, Karmawhore

“(…) means someone who submits cheap, circlejerky posts, or appeals to the lowest common denominator in order to max out their karma. In more or less the same reason why, in other creative endeavors, the effort that makes the most money isn’t necessarily the most culturally or artistically valuable. And some of us view some of those creators as not even trying to make anything artistically or culturally meaningful, but generally lowering the overall quality of both while cashing in a fat paycheck. Karma whore means basically the same thing, except they’re making karma points rather than, you know, actual money.”

Such a strategy is particularly remarkable since Reddit claims to represent a rather altruistic user ideology which is semantically emphasised by labelling users’ points as “Karma”. Structurally, this claim is undermined though due to the website’s encouragement of participation motivated by users’ desire for points. Users such as Apostolate or Andrewsmith1986 even monitor and quantify their Karma-achievements through the external website karmawhores.net. Within the community of Redditors, such an “econometrization” of participation is seen critically. One main reason for critique of users who are mainly posting in order to achieve Karma is that they merely multiply content at the expense of Reddit’s uniqueness and quality. A similar claim is that the multiplication of Redditors (due to its recent popularisation) has had a similar effect. Within Reddit, one can determine a strong meta-discourse with regards to these matters (see r/TheoryOfReddit,  r/circlebroke, or r/circlejerk).


The aforementioned quote implies another relevant aspect: it reminds us that game design and game elements – which are utilised for gamification – are already a ‘remediation’, or a revision of incentives as we know them from work-related contexts. An interesting side note in this context is that recently in-game economies started being merged with the real-world finance market. When Diablo 3 was published it combined the virtual economy (which functions mainly through the auction house) with real-world currencies. In-game items and gold can be bought with real mone which sometimes results in profit-oriented gaming strategies. This intertwining of virtual with real currencies is also a reminder that the term gamification is somehow misleading, since even typical game elements address motives and desires as they are relevant for labour and monetary profit. In this sense, the ‘gamification’ of Reddit and other social media may be perceived as infiltration of intrinsically motivated participation and interaction. Users’ discontent can be seen as resistance against a degeneration of community-oriented communication and altruistic interaction into functionalistic, efficient content production. It seems however problematic or rather debatable, how to determine when participation in social media is still encouraged by an inherent desire or a craving for likes, favs or karma. There seems to be a critical tipping point when a mainly (at no time exclusively) intrinsically motivated participation turns into a mere aspiration to gain socio-virtual gratification.


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