Authentic Incentives

How online communities, like Medium, can amplify their users’ intrinsic motivations.

Digital marketing is, loosely translated, the business of making people do things online. Its tools are often crude: crowbars made of coupons and cash prizes. They get the job done, for some values of “job.” More often than not, they just create sharp spikes of temporary and valueless behavior. Communities of practice, like Medium, need to aim higher.

The science of making people do things online… well, that doesn’t really have a name. Nir Eyal calls it “Behavior Design;” it’s the cross-section of computer-mediated communication and social psychology. It has a lot to say about artificial incentives.

The Overjustification Effect

The classic experiments on overjustification were conducted in classrooms. Researchers gave children a token reward for doing things they already enjoyed, like drawing pictures or solving puzzles. Sure enough, the kids started doing those things more. A lot more.

Later, the children were given an opportunity to engage in those same activities on their own, when no rewards would be forthcoming. The result: the kids chose those activities less often than they had in the first place.

Powerful rewards overshadow weaker rewards.

This effect is usually summarized as “extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation.” Another way to think about it is that powerful rewards, like cash, overshadow weaker rewards. Authentic motivations, like altruism and self-esteem, tend to be significantly weaker than anything with cash value.

There’s one more important difference between authentic and artificial incentives. The authentic variety reward people a little bit each and every time, while artificial rewards are usually available for a limited time. The former is a slow build, while the later produces sudden peaks followed by precipitous drops that often bottom out below baseline.
(See also: A behaviorist account of overjustification.)

Amplifying the Authentic

There are two kinds of “external” rewards that don’t lead to overjustification: performance feedback and praise. (This is one reason I think the external/internal distinction is off the mark. Feedback and praise are external, but they’re also authentic.) The trick for Medium, or anyone who wants to make people do things online, is to find their users’ authentic motivations and amplify them.

Medium is definitely headed in the right direction, with its focus on quality content and collaboration. No artificial incentives here. However, there are a lot of other tools in the shed.

Yelp does an excellent job of amplifying its reviewers’ intrinsic motivations in targeted ways. It prompts users to compliment reviewers for being funny, cool, etc. Carefully selecting the kinds of compliments Yelp makes available subtly steers the community towards the ephemeral qualities that support Yelp’s brand.

A Yelp profile provides plenty of performance feedback and praise.

Medium’s new “Stats” page is aimed right at its user’s intrinsic motivation: to be read. It tracks views, reads, and recommendations. (Shares on other social media sites, like Twitter, would also be appreciated.)

These numbers are great for our egos, but Medium could make them more meaningful by giving them some context. Bullet graphs that show us how we’re doing relative to the median would help us make accurate judgements about our work. Sparklines that summarize the activity around each post would make that data more scannable.

Bullet Graphs

(See also: Authentic Incentive Systems for Online Communities)


Good ideas can come from anywhere, but Medium needs to provide its contributors with robust performance feedback, if it wants to cultivate high-quality, thought-provoking content.

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