If you’re a long-time reader of The Viral Garden, you know that in the summer of 2008, I was pretty much in love with Plurk. If you’ve never heard of Plurk, it’s a micro-blogging site like Twitter, but the main difference is that its timeline doesn’t scroll vertically, it scrolls horizontally. And when you leave a Plurk (as opposed to a Tweet on Twitter), you can click on the Plurk and reply directly on it, very similar to the old IM windows on AOL. So it’s possible to have a conversation among several people right below one Plurk. This bit of functionality addresses one of the problems that Twitter users have always encountered: Keeping up with the conversation flow among multiple users.
In 2008, a lot of people started checking out Plurk because Twitter was having a ton of outages at the time. Since many of us couldn’t get on Twitter, so we experimented with Plurk.
One of the tenents of building an online community, whether it’s on a site or a blog, is to reward the type of behavior you want to encourage. Plurk users are given a Karma score when they sign-up, which starts at 0.00. As they use Plurk more, their karma score rises, and when they reach certain point totals, additionally functionality is unlocked. I believe most/all of the functionality revolved around additional emoticons (dancin’ nanner FTW!). The point is, Plurk did a great job of rewarding users for engaging in the exact type of behavior they were trying to encourage.
But the problem is, just as your karma score rises on Plurk as you use the site, it falls back down if you stop using the site. By the fall of 2008, Twitter had become much more stable, and a lot of us that were trying out Plurk over the summer started spending more time on Twitter. Which meant we were spending less time on Plurk. In my case, I didn’t spend a lot of time on Plurk in the early fall, and the few times I did visit Plurk, I noticed that each time my karma had dropped a dozen or more points. And so had my access to certain emoticons and what not.
So just as Plurk had encouraged me to use the site more by giving me additional functionality in the early summer, by the fall as my karma score fell, they were taking that functionality back away from me. And as you might have guessed, they were also taking away my desire to use the site anymore.
So Plurk did one thing really well: It rewarded the type of behavior it wanted to encourage via the Karma score. The problem was, it also PUNISHED you if you did NOT engage in the type of behavior it wanted to encourage. Which would lead to some users changing their behavior, and it would lead to some users leaving the site.
Which is what I did.
This can happen on blogs as well. I’ve seen plenty of bloggers that replied to every blog comment when they were 1st getting started, then after their blog got popular and they went from getting 5 comments a post to 50, suddenly they stopped replying to comments as often. Which then led to fewer comments.
So if you are trying to build a community on your site or blog, make sure you are rewarding the type of behavior you want to encourage, but also make sure you are NOT punishing users as well.
Kathryn Lang says
I completely understand the reward issue – there are three boys running around my house. I just need to figure out ways to better apply the concept to my own blogs. Are there certain rewards you find work best – besides just returning comments? How about sending out a little freebie to those that leave their emails?
Mack Collier says
Returning comments are a great way to…get more comments. So if you want more comments, then replying to existing ones is rewarding that type of behavior.
Personally, I’m not a fan of giving stuff away to readers. If you do that often, then you have to wonder if they are simply engaging in that behavior to ‘win a prize’.
Tanya L. says
This is the exact reason why I left Plurk. It was fun and new at first, but if you weren’t constantly Plurking, Karma would fall as you mentioned. After awhile the new and fun started to feel like work. Eventually I left Plurk completely since I tend to avoid working for free. 🙂
Anyway, this is a very valid point you are making, I never compared Plurk to a blog, but it certainly makes sense.
Mack Collier says
I know, right? It really was that we were being rewarded on the way up, and punished on the way down. And why stay with Plurk that was punishing us, when Twitter wasn’t?
Chris Bailey says
Mack, there’s a detail here that bears highlighting…it appears you experimented with Plurk when Twitter started borking. And when Twitter returned to normal, you put less time into Plurk. So the real question might be why you chose to head back to Twitter and not put more time into building community at Plurk? With this in mind, I wonder if Plurk really did build a community in a sustainable way.
Here’s another interesting question you raise. At what point does a reward system become a detriment to the overall application? It’s kind of like how Foursquare’s badges were all the rage not that long ago but have since lost much of their luster. I think the real issue here is that points and rewards and scores and badges and all that other jazz just aren’t that sustainable…but what is sustainable is the group of people already there (the community). It’s one reason why Twitter thrives while Plurk and other similar services failed to capitalize on their opportunities.
Mack Collier says
Good clarification, Chris. In my case, a big chunk of my community on Twitter refused to try out Plurk. Or some of them did, and were immediately turned off by the different interface and functionality.
So it was like 20% of my core community went to Plurk, but 80% was still on Twitter. So if i wanted to interact with that 80%, I had to go to Twitter. And then when Twitter started working again, much of that 20% started using Twitter again as well.
I think in general, rewards are a good idea if they help the user better or more easily perform the core tasks that they use your site for in the first place.
Chris Bailey says
Right, so what was needed by Plurk were the users with strong influence (such as yourself) who told their core community that if they wanted to interact with you, it would need to be at Plurk. You would have had to find enough benefit to develop your hub on the new service. That’s where Plurk really dropped the opportunity…and what any up-and-coming competitors to Twitter and Facebook need to carefully consider.
Heck, Plurk is still there and continues to have a user base. So here’s another big question that would be worth exploring…what would it take for enough people to build community at Plurk to make it relevant again?
Hey there, Mack,
What prompted your post at this late date? Is it that you’ve noticed a lot of people are expressing dissatisfaction with the site? There’s been a lot of turmoil lately there, and when I saw the title of this post I expected it to be about that. It wasn’t, and I’m left feeling that you are missing the point somewhat.
It’s not as if Plurk has been a dead service since late 2008. That’s when I and many friends joined it; most of us are active daily. Yes, I get what you’re saying about losing karma/punishing users. But that’s actually irrelevant these days, since Plurk introduced a feature called “karma vacation” that allows users to freeze their karma so they don’t experience any repercussions if they don’t plurk. The karma issue is in no way the reason people are dissatisfied with Plurk at the moment.
Plurk is undoubtedly killing their community, at least in the English-speaking world. (There are multitudes of users from other, mostly Asian, countries; just because your clique doesn’t use the service doesn’t mean nobody does.) This has nothing to do with karma, as I said. It’s because Plurk has been introducing features that users dislike while refusing to work on other issues, like failure to show responses and other bugs. When asked about their failure to listen to the users, they became extremely rude, saying we don’t deserve customers because we’re free users, and that the English-speaking community isn’t important enough to listen to. That rudeness and lack of concern for users is what’s killing the community, NOT a feature that’s been there the whole time. Interesting article, but perhaps research next time when you’re making such bold statements about the failure of online communities.
Mack Collier says
Eileen thanks for educating me about the Karma and ‘vacation’ option. That’s a smart move by Plurk, I only wish they had adopted it a couple of years ago.
Gah! Make that “don’t deserve customer service,” of course.
the only think karma does is allow you access to more smileys…smileys you can get the gifs for on free smiley sites and just post the link if you’re so inclined. Karma really isnt that big of an issue if you….*heaven forbid* actually BE social on a social site. Shocking, i know.
Cindy Marie Jenkins says
Just after I read this, I commented on an educator’s blog and saw it is powered by plunk. I never used it outside of commenting, but completely agree with your assessment. Punishment is never good customer service.
Eric Brown says
Are we running out of things to blog about? Plurk was over two years ago.
The post title; What Plurk can teach you about building an online community, and killing it, well What did it teach us? Nothing really, except that folks stay where the crowd is, not where a better product is. That has plagued business forever. Is a Big Mac the best burger, nope, but they aren’t going away anytime soon.
Mack Collier says
Eric we could always talk about writing better comments 😉
Shailender @ Romantic Getaways says
Well, I never heard about plurk before here. It looks a interesting blogging site well I have to check first about it for deciding anything about it.
Gabriele Maidecchi says
Reminds me a lot about Blizzard’s approach to World of Warcraft.
In the early days (~2006) the model was to punish inactivity and reward constant activity.
The actual model is to reward activity, slightly punish over-activity (not to frustrate people simply not able to be active as much, imagine in your case if there was a weekly karma cap) and not punish inactivity at all: what you earn stays with you, no matter what.
It works on so many levels, if you think about it.