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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

It may seem odd, but a question I get asked quite a bit is “Should we pay our staff extra, or provide some sort of bonus, for engaging with social media?” Sometimes it’s asked in the context of getting people to use an internal wiki or blog, sometimes it’s about getting them to engage externally with business-relevant communities.

My answer is always the same: No.

I have based this answer on an understanding of what drives people to engage with social tools, an understanding I have developed over the years through experience and observation. People generally use social tools because they find them useful or helpful in some way, because to do so increases their status amongst their peers or wished-for peers, because they are curious, or because the tools are enjoyable to use, amongst other reasons.

Putting a financial value on the use of social tools feels wrong. Not to mention simplistic, patronising and a gross misunderstanding of what social software is all about. I think it feels that way because social media is all about relationships, and we don’t explicitly “incentivise” (what a horrible word!) the creation and maintenance of relationships in any other context, so why would social media be different?

If I said to you, “I’ll give you £5 for every friend you make” you would rightly understand that this incentive both encourages you to be promiscuous in your friendship making (quantity over quality) and implies that you are incapable of going out and making some friends without financial reward. For some people the incentive itself would devalue the action that it is designed to encourage, thus leading to contrary behaviour.

This interpretation of my gut feeling turns out to be correct, as Samuel Bowles explains in the Harvard Business Review article, When Economic Incentives Backfire:

Experimental economists have found that offering to pay women for donating blood decreases the number willing to donate by almost half, and that letting them contribute the payment to charity reverses the effect. Consider another example: When six day-care centers in Haifa, Israel, began fining parents for late pickups, the number of tardy parents doubled. The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.

It seems that scenarios where altruistic, or other social behaviours, are involved a financial incentive devalues the behaviour to the level of an economic transaction, removing the moral and ethical aspect and making it easier to behave badly.

The psychology of social tools has not been adequately* examined, but I suspect there is an altruistic component, despite the fact that I often appeal to self-interest when discussing adoption. When you look at a healthy wiki, some people spend time tidying up other people’s work for no real recognition or reward, a behaviour that could easily be interpreted as altruistic. There are similar altruistic or semi-altruistic behaviours in other tools too. Using tags/categories on blog posts to enable discovery could be an altruistic behaviour if the author themselves never actually benefits from having used tags/categories, e.g. never goes back to look a their old entries.

To social media people, all this is blindingly obvious, but the incentive question is one that I get asked often enough that it’s something I feel we need to address and nip in the bud.

* Did I say ‘adequately’? Aah, the wonders of British understatement.

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4 Responses to “Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?”

  1. Carl Morris Says:

    Well put.

    Re: people who tidy up wikis

    Altruism is a component. But maybe another component is that they are fastidious or even slightly compulsive?

    It could be the same motivation which compels someone to rub out the chalk of a rogue apostrophe when walking past the grocery, say. Or makes somebody feel unable to relax in my living room because a picture frame is askew.

    Either way, hooray for those people!

  2. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    To be honest, I don’t entirely believe in pure altruism. I think there’s always something driving the behaviour, whether it’s just satisfaction at the removal of a stray apostrophe or something else. But I do think that it’s helpful to think about the altruistic components of behaviour as if altruism existed, otherwise we drown out important points with talk of self-interest.

  3. Carl Morris Says:

    BTW, you might know this but the example of the day care centres is covered in the book Freakonomics which gives a bit more background detail and data.

  4. Gordon Ross Says:

    A bit late to the commenting on this one Suw, but a great investigation about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation and how the model of “do x and you’ll get y” might work in the short term but has long term repercussions is covered in Alfie Kohn’s work Punished by Rewards. And Dan Pink gathered further attention on the matter back in September at TED when he spoke about <a href=”“>motivation and the science behind it.