Above is a screenshot of gameplay in Hearthstone. Those six bubbles are the entire world of communication in the game. No matter how angry, upset, excited, or happy you are — the entire social interaction you will ever have with the person you are playing will be confined to just those six preset options. There is no direct messaging unless you’ve added them to your friends list. There is no audio. There is no chat.
But there are still trolls.
Notice the “Oops” option. This text is actually new in a patch made in the middle of last year. It used to read “Sorry.” But players would spam it throughout the game to grief and annoy their opponent. Imagine playing a game against someone. Every 5 seconds witnessing a sarcastic “I’m Sorry.” As the opponent was winning. As they were losing. As they waited until the last possible second to end their turn just to waste your time. Now they do the same thing with “Oops.”
Why not just mute the other player? You can. But at that point you’re just playing against a computer. Is it really a social or online game if you can in no way communicate with your opponent? It’s not, and I know several friends who just couldn’t stand the loneliness of this so-called social game. They’d rather be trolled but at least engaged in communication than face silence.
Although this is a small sample, it does bring up the idea: maybe limiting communications is not the answer to crafting an enjoyable community. Whether it’s a game or a social platform, the importance of the social element cannot be minimized because it is a core aspect of the product itself.
But if that’s the case, then what can we do? What could have helped products like Yik Yak and Secret escape the people who used them to bully and spite?
In order to do that, I think we need to analyze what makes a good social interaction in the first place. By reinforcing that behavior, we get a good conversation. Reinforcing that, we get community.
The first and foremost is cooperation. The community needs to share the same general goal.
They have to share what the product’s mission statement is. In a game, this is easy: be the best, complete the quests, have fun. You have players who engage in other motives — but games are usually structured enough that most people are funneled into a general singular direction.
Cooperation is important because if we have different goals, our interactions most probably won’t add value to each other. If your goal in Yik Yak is to express a secret but mine is to judge others, one of us is leaving that exchange worst off — if not both.
Formally defined as a structured set of rules to guide behavior, this is basically just the norms and conventions that need to be present in any social exchange. Because etiquette doubles as both validity and self-policing. It creates an ongoing standard for communication and incentivizes others to respond in kind.
Sunday school teachers were right when they told you to do unto others as you would like unto yourself.
A Sample Success: Downvoting
How would you force etiquette into a user base? Do you just not allow them to enter their text unless the word “please” is somewhere within their message? Or how would you make users use your product only for the purpose that you’ve set for it? That seems impossible.
But it’s not. And I think the best product to have illustrated this is Quora. If there was anything clear about Quora at its inception, it was its purpose: to spread valuable knowledge in a professional way. For its userbase, that was an immediate alignment of Cooperation. Users knew what the goal of the product was. Through the first contributors, the users saw the quality and epitome of the results of that goal. And they are continuously reminded of this fact through the promotion of such answers to the top of their feeds.
That’s not to say that there are no bad actors within the community. But that’s where understood etiquette comes into play through the functionality of downvotes (also used by Reddit). The primary reason why bad actors are rare isn’t because people are afraid of consequences — people aren’t good on Quora just because their real identities are attached to their content (posting anonymously is an option). It’s because being a bad actor yields no results. Good actors will see the negative comment, be able to compare it against what they know as the product’s proper etiquette, and downvote it.
The worst fear of bad actors is not punishment. For some of them, that serves as validation. Their biggest fear is silence and the lack of an audience.
In the case of bad online behavior — if a troll behaves badly in the woods does it actually happen? I’d say no.
Is It Possible to Develop a Universal Design for Online Communities?
Downvoting is just one way to govern and craft a community personality, and it may be one that only works for a product that follows the goals and formats of something like Quora or Reddit. Every product needs to find its own systems best suited for its needs. But I think some universal elements that can be incorporated are things like having users needing to earn their voice and installing persistent identities, which is a topic for another time.
The reason it works for Quora is because the purpose and value of the platform has been very carefully linked to and characterized by professionalism and reputation. That’s why voting matches so well with the product, because votes themselves are the building blocks of reputation and confidence in something. Through votes and views, the best content and information is being vetted constantly.
For something like Twitter, this means that more than likely they would need something drastically different — something that fits their proposition of “information without borders” and emphasizes the speed and frequency at which the product is used. Something that doesn’t impede the process of relaying information, but also ensures that only those with a history of proper posting are able to broadcast information that may bring repercussions. Perhaps something like an anonymous but persistent profile.
In all cases, the systems and specific features appropriate for engineering a community are going to be heavily dependent on what the exact value proposition of the product is. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One thing that we can say for sure however, is that this is a design problem that cannot be ignored or solved through limiting communication. Because users will always find ways to be social — no matter how few buttons you reduce them to.