Knowing Your Role: The Impact of Reputation Signals on Participation in an Online Community
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Generating and maintaining participation in online communities is critical to their success. In this research, I investigate how the design of the reputation system can influence user participation. Specifically, I explore differences in individuals’ perceptions of the two most common reputation signals: points and labels. Using theory from sociology and social psychology, I argue that reputation signals vary in role clarity and signals with greater role clarity foster a community atmosphere, leading to greater user connectedness and participation behaviors. By observing a natural experiment on the T-Mobile support community, which changed its reputation signal from points to labels, Study 1 demonstrates that labels drive greater user participation (more discussions and comments) than points. To test role clarity as the underlying construct, Study 2 compares points and labels differing in role clarity, and shows that high role clarity is critical to generating the positive effects. Study 3 shows that providing additional role information can strengthen the impact of low role clarity labels on participation intentions. The final four studies address situations in which role information is more or less critical to the user experience. Study 4 surveys members of a newly-built online community, and finds that users’ community tenure moderates the preference for labels, such that new users’ participation is influenced by the reputation signal, but not long-term users. Study 5 shows that low status users are more willing to participate when labels are used, but high status users are driven to participate when the community uses either reputation signal type. Study 6 finds that when community membership turnover is greater, points and labels have a similar effect on participation intentions, while labels drive participation when there is little community membership turnover. Finally, Study 7 confirms that face-to-face interaction mitigates the positive advantage of labels. These findings have important implications for the use of reputation signals as a strategic tool when managing online communities.