Incentivizing online activism – a proposal

An idea popped into my head this afternoon. Readers who are enthusiastic users of services like Foursquare or Untappd will get it immediately, but the rest of you might need some explanation first.

Typical game elements from two gamified web sitesFor some time now I’ve been writing about things skeptics can do online to advance the cause of skeptical outreach. Of course blogging and podcasting are obvious avenues, but lately I’ve focused on crowd-sourced projects such as editing Wikipedia skeptically or rating sites in Web of Trust.

I think these projects could have a broader appeal (and perhaps a broader effect) in part because they lend themselves to small, incremental investments of time and effort. Blogs and podcasts generally require a substantial commitment of time, something not all skeptics are able or willing to do. But making skeptical edits to Wikipedia (for example) can be done in very small slices that can easily fit into an otherwise busy schedule. You can spend as much or as little time on it as you see fit, and it all still counts.

But therein lies a problem. For their huge investment of time, bloggers and podcasters get ample recognition for their work.  We all know their names, as they have thousands of readers or listeners.

But how do we provide some recognition or incentive for skeptics to devote little slices of their time to these crowdsourced projects? These tiny incremental efforts normally go unnoticed. Read on for my proposal.

Let’s Make Skepticism Fun

What I am proposing is to make it fun. I’m proposing the gamification of online skeptical outreach. It would be like a special Skeptics-only version of Foursquare.

The thing that makes this possible is that many of the relevant services have open APIs. These APIs allow the history on those services to be queried on behalf of skeptics who opt in to the game. Many also support OAuth, which would allow the opt-in process to be handled in a nice secure way. (I.e. you don’t have to hand over your password to let the game see your activity history on Foursquare).

It would work like this:

  • Create an account on the skeptic game server
  • Opt-in your accounts on the supported services you use
  • Connect with your skeptic friends in the game
  • The site measures & scores your skeptic activities
  • The site notifies you when you reach certain milestones and how your score compares with others
  • Compete with your friends for bragging rights!

The site would continuously scan your skepticism-relevant activities on the compatible sites that you chose to connect. It would give you “points” for each activity. You could also earn “badges” for certain key milestones.

Your points and badges will be totalled up and shown on a friends scoreboard as well as a global scoreboard. They could optionally be automatically broadcast elsewhere such as on your Twitter or Facebook, or if you do have a website a widget could be supplied to display them there.

It sounds silly and superficial, and it is. It’s designed to be a game, to turn tedious skeptical activism into play. The whole idea is to inject a little fun into what can often be a very unrewarding process.

What Would Be Included

Here are some of the online outreach activities I think could be automatically included if you opted them in:

Almost all of these have API and OAuth support, the ones that don’t (i.e. Wikipedia) make the user history information we need public, so that data could simply be scraped.

A Hybrid Approach?

When I first floated this idea this afternoon on Twitter, Reed Esau suggested that a “hybrid approach” which would allow inclusion of other activities that aren’t entirely online. I think he may be right. These could include:

  • Presenting at a Skepticamp
  • Donating money to a skeptical organization
  • Donating skeptical books to your local library
  • Reporting sites to agencies like ASA, MHRA (not through fishbarrel)
  • Successful rulings by ASA, MHRA, etc.
  • Any of the other 105 suggestions in Daniel Loxton’s What Do I Do Next? guide

To keep the competitive game atmosphere and avoid accusations of cheating, we might need to draft some volunteers to supervise adding activities like this to the game and crediting them to the right players. But guess what – volunteering to manually do this could itself be a score-worthy activity in the game!

You’ll notice that I do not include things like blogging, podcasting, commenting on skeptic blogs and forums or bombing online polls. This is deliberate. I think history has shown that skeptics don’t need any encouragement to engage in those activities. So why incentivize them?


If you’re not familiar with Foursquare, you may have been confused earlier when I mentioned badges. Badges are used in Foursquare and other gamified sites to add an extra element of incentive, surprise and fun. Several Foursquare badges are pictured in the graphic at the top of this story.

Sometimes they are given as rewards for specific milestones that players can target, such as checking in to several different movie theaters. Sometimes they are given for things the player can’t entirely control themselves, such as the Super Swarm badge given for checking in with 250 other players.

Badges help make the game play less a sheer numbers game, and give it more serendipity. Skepticism is so rich with topics, I can imagine many different badge ideas. Maybe a “Behind Enemy Lines” badge could be given for checking in at an event like the infamous Mind, Body, Wallet festival in Australia. Or a “Team Randi” badge could be given for checking in to 5 JREF-sponsored events.

If you still aren’t getting the idea, take a look at this list of “Science Scout” badges suggested by Seelix. I particularly like the “I punch moon-landing deniers” badge, which we could adopt as-is.

Side Benefits

There might also be some interesting side benefits that would come out of implementing the game. In order to reward Foursquare checkins at skeptic or believer locations and events, we would have to identify those events. The result would be a database of locations worldwide that are relevant to skepticism.

In order to credit skeptical edits in Wikipedia, we’d have to identify which articles or categories are relevant to skepticism. The resulting list of articles could be used for other purposes, for instance researching the total skeptical page-view volume on Wikipedia.

There could be more, it would depend on the full scope of the system.

In Conclusion

The goal is to focus attention on those activities that inch us toward skeptical goals, but which currently go largely unrecognized in skeptical circles. By attaching numbers and goals to these activities, we could help recognize those tireless volunteers who may not be up on the stage at TAM speaking to 1,500 people but are still advancing the cause of skepticism.

I think this idea will draw considerable discussion, so please do comment below. But in the interest in opening up the discussion to folks who might not frequent this blog, I’ve also started a thread over at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s forum for further comment.

27 thoughts on “Incentivizing online activism – a proposal

  1. Reed Esau

    As a promoter of open skeptic events (in the BarCamp model) I take great interest in the dynamics of participation. For example, I’ll ask what it takes for a skeptic to get involved where they were not involved before.

    The reasons to participate in a given activity vary widely, but the basics appear to be (1) a low threshold of entry, such as merely showing up at a lecture, and (2) anticipated benefit, such as gaining the respect of one’s peers in offering a talk at a Skeptics In the Pub or SkeptiCamp event.

    Tim’s proposed gamification could be another such avenue (or ecosystem) for individuals to provide that low threshold of entry and realize a benefit, both as an individual and for skepticism at large.

    However, as I’ve found with adapting an open event model to skepticism, creating a new ecosystem of participation is notoriously tricky where failure of the initial effort is FAR more likely than success. For the badge gamification, the participation of a mere handful of skeptics would likely be considered a failure. That’s a notable loss if substantial effort has been invested in building and hosting a game server.

    How to improve the likelihood of success in an effort as this? I’d offer that one must start small with clear, achievable goals. That would notably exclude the effort of engineering a game server — instead building on existing, if imperfect, infrastructure found elsewhere. It involves reducing the barriers to joining in, as well as providing a range of benefits to potential participants. It involves keeping the effort visible on an ongoing basis without being perceived as spam. And interestingly, it can involve rethinking and a second try if one’s initial efforts fall flat.

    Even with the risk of failure looming so large, creating a new ecosystem can be an enormously rewarding experience with the potential to influence and benefit the future of skepticism. That’s why we innovate with efforts as this.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Low barrier to entry is one reason I focused on online interactions that could be totally automated. If you were actively involved in Fishbarrel and Wikipedia, all you’d have to do is go opt in to the game and you’d start receiving scores. No need to “check in” at all.

      As for the engineering effort, there are ways to make it less painful. For instance, we could build it on Google App Engine, which is free for low levels of use.

  2. sgerbic

    Well I read this post last night and had to sleep on it before replying. Still not sure.

    I like the idea (actually LOVE the idea) of reaching out to gain more involvement. If it takes games like Foursquare to do it then I’ll all for it.

    I played Foursquare for about a year and then gave up. It was too time consuming to have to find the screens to check in on. Then it got discouraging when I saw how many points people racked up for checking into the highway, their house, their car, the city they live in and so on. I grew more frustrated when I would arrive at an airport and Foursquare’s server would be down and couldn’t register my check-in. Then it just seemed like there were too many hits for one place, and you could have multiple mayors and so on…

    What I guess I’m trying to say is that it was just too buggy, and too many people adding places and “cheating”. I did like knowing what my “friends” were up to. I also liked knowing the name of the place I ate at last time I was in a city, also knowing its address and reading comments from past players.

    I liked that you don’t give points for podcasts and blogging, and I do like the idea of Loxton’s “what more can you do?” being put in.

    I’m wary of getting people to do something they should be doing just to earn an imaginary badge. It reminds me of getting people to do good works so they can go to some awesome imaginary place after death and get extra fluffy wings. People need to be doing all of these things because it improves our community, and outreaches to the world and on and on.

    But, if it is what gets people off their asses and doing something for the movement instead of just bitching over a beer at a skepics-in-the-pub meetup (which I highly encourage people to take part in) then its a good idea.

    But (yes, another but) Tim. You are FAR too valuable to our movement to be involved in something this time consuming, other than maybe as an adviser. Far be it from me to tell you want you can and can’t do. If you feel passionate about this then go for it. But what I really think is some clever person (and some more to help out) will get in contact with you and take this on as their passion. It would be very consuming, they would probably receive a lot of attention from the community and be a great learning experience for them (and something they can put on their resume)

    In the mean time, if people reading this blog start saying, “yeah, I guess its time for me to actually get involved instead of just sitting around posting science links to Facebook and Twitter, maybe I’ll look into something”. Go to the Loxton article that Tim mentioned, there are a lot of great ideas there. If you are interested in the all-important task of improving critical thinking to the world and really making serious changes to how people think, but getting no credit for how amazing you are… then come to my blog and contact me, I will get you all started editing Wikipedia. You won’t earn a badge, but you will make an important impact on society.

    Oh yeah, do go to your next skeptic meet-up. If you don’t have one locally, then start one.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      I don’t know about “far too valuable” but I agree with you that this might take up too much of my time for me to be the core person for it. That was one of the reasons I went ahead and posted this rather than just starting to secretly build it – I’m hoping that like the Wikipedia idea which you picked up and ran with, someone will just love-love-love this idea and want to build it. I can certainly help out, but I’ve got to stay focused on some other things too.

      Lets continue to discuss over the next few days and maybe a champion will emerge. If not, then maybe its not a great idea to begin with.

  3. Prala (@LinusHatesMe)

    I really like the idea, particularly as I am one of those skeptics who would like to participate more. Between work, family and other commitments I have been at a loss for how to participate in a way that is contributory, rather than just consuming skeptical media.

    I’m not really technical – I work in marketing –

    Two things come to mind that are somewhat similar – one, I’m also a knitter and a few years ago, based also on the Science Scouts model, a number of knitters started a “knitting scouts” badge system ( It was entirely self-reported, though so more of a fun thing than a “game.”

    The second is that I used to run my local professional organization. In an attempt to get involvement from members – both going to events, contributing to the organization and encouraging volunteers – we set up an incentive program based on doing a number of different things. I found that it worked marginally well – though, those who were most active already appeared to be most active with the incentive program. Would be interested to see if it would suss out that way here, or if those of us who want to get more involved would because of it.

    1. sgerbic

      Prala, “I am one of those skeptics who would like to participate more. Between work, family and other commitments I have been at a loss for how to participate in a way that is contributory, rather than just consuming skeptical media”

      Editing Wikipedia fits this lifestyle. I will totally teach you how to edit if your intimidated.

  4. Tim Farley Post author

    On a related note, for an example of another public-service oriented online game project, check out Commons: The Game. It is a project to have folks point out things in New York City that need fixing, vote on their favorite ones, and then go fix them.

  5. Mike 'Case' Wagner (@CaseWagner)

    If someone were to do this, I think the best approach would be to create a framework that treats communities as plugins. So you could have the skeptical community operating within the game system, but if you’re also part of an RC Flyer community you might have a plugin for that too.
    The framework developer can then see the fruits of their labor in the communities that succeed with it, and it doesn’t hinge on one community living or dying on the vine. Of course then you end up with Randi vs. Chopra communities :)

    1. Bastard Sheep

      That’s a really bloody good idea, otherwise there’d be complaints about the system being biased towards certain types of actions (ie, wikipedia entries).

    2. Tim Farley Post author

      The more I kick this idea around, the more I think it might be applicable to multiple communities. Essentially one way to look at it is a gamification layer on top of existing websites, or a meta-game that is played using data from other game-like sites.

  6. The Armchair Skeptic

    Some questions sprang to mind when I read this:

    1. Who would decide on what activities count as skeptical? Based on what I’ve seen over the last year or so, there is quite a bit of disagreement, even among our prominent “skeptics” (sorry for the scare quotes, but IMHO, some have exhibited some blatantly un-skeptical behavior). Which projects are inching us toward skeptical goals?

    2. As Susan pointed out about Foursquare, an automated game-style system such as what you propose can really only measure quantity of activity, not quality. Is mere activity, with no account for the quality of that activity, really worth counting?

    3. Aren’t there already enough Internet systems for self-promotion out there?

    I’d like to encourage people to get involved in advancing skepticism, but I’m not sure that incentivizing people to simply do *something*, without any way of gauging whether or not that something is actually making a positive contribution, is going to achieve the desired result.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Well, I agree of course. Quality is not unimportant.

      But one of the things I’ve been perceiving lately in comments from around the skeptisphere is many skeptics are at a loss for what they can do to help. They perceive “big name” skeptics as the movers and shakers and don’t see where they fit in. This frustrates me, because I see so many great projects like Nightingale Collaboration, Wikipedia and WOT which can benefit from small actions taken by just about anyone.

      So at this point I’m of the opinion that we need to encourage people to do something, and worry about quality later. A variation on Wikipedia’s “Be Bold” principle. To put it another way, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

      1. The Armchair Skeptic

        I dunno, TIm. Haven’t we been operating that way for too long already?

        Did you look at some of the 10:23 videos that were posted, several of which were factually incorrect? Remember the vaccination campaign that claimed that vaccines were 100% safe? The recent YouTube video by a prominent skeptic about homeopathy that doesn’t even get the basic facts right?

        To put it another way, “What’s the harm when skeptics praise activism that spreads misinformation?” (sorry, couldn’t resist :))

    2. Tim Farley Post author

      On the other hand, quality could be incorporated into the scoring in some cases. For instance, if you make an edit on Wikipedia that is later reverted, the system could notice that and take away your points.

      1. Tim Farley Post author

        Armchair, what are you proposing instead? A central quality assurance authority for all skeptic pronouncements? Firing all skeptics except the ones you approve?

        Yes, skeptics make mistakes and say dumb things sometimes. News flash: we’re human. So if you’re proposing that we should go slow and wait until we have the “perfect solution” to online skepticism, I think we should all close up our blogs now and head home.

    3. The Armchair Skeptic

      In a way, I think you got my point; the person or persons controlling the game would be, in essence, that central quality assurance authority — enhancing players’ reputations by awarding them points for what they consider to be activities of value. As Jason mentions below, I think that needs to be thought through carefully.

      I like the idea of making it an open platform that organizations could plug into; the players could then opt to gain reputation within those organizations, which already have goals/missions that they’d be supporting. That would probably be more meaningful to people.

      1. Tim Farley Post author

        Okay. I guess it still comes down to me seeing a great opportunity for us to incentivize, and you worrying about it being misused somehow. I’m not clear on what that misuse might be.

        The scoring is not going to be haphazard, we’re going to carefully choose how many points you get, and for what actions, in the game. I already said I take a dim view of incentivizing things skeptics are doing a ton of already.

        As for the plugging in, I do think we’d want to segregate the scores and incentives by organization. I.e. I don’t think your score as (say) an endangered species advocate should be compared to my score as a skeptic.

  7. Bastard Sheep

    I do like the idea, and would love to see it going ahead. I don’t however see that as being feasible, especially if it’s just going to be a volunteer created/run thing. The logistics behind setting it up to begin with, and initial setup of what does/doesn’t count just seems a bit overwhelming to me for a volunteer run thing that isn’t designed to be used en-masse by the general public like foursquare and untappd are.

    For starters, there’d need to be a half-decent server backend to track everything which wouldn’t exactly be the cheapest.

    How would the Wikipedia, WoT and Skeptic StackExchange things be handled? The only way I can think of are browser add-ins that monitor your activities (ie, look out for you being on those particular sites and once you are wait for you to perform certain tasks). I’m not sure how open people will be to installing more addins for their browsers, especially ones that monitor activity.

    Fishbarrell I’m sure we can get modified to also check in to the badges system when it lodges a report which is fine.

    Meetup/other group meeting sites/Foursquare, do they even have an open API? I haven’t seen any other apps that can interact with those sites? For all of them as far as I’m aware it’s the company-built app only.

    For those sites that do have open API’s, do they allow regular queries of large numbers of users?

    As far as venues go for Foursquare, we’d then need a team of trusted people globally to mark certain foursquare venues as being skeptical or woo. This will be especially important for when it’s getting off the ground as there’ll be so many venue’s to add. Skeptical groups tend to be small and spread out, so we’ll need people from each group (skeptics/freethinkers/humanists/atheists/etc) in each city/part of city.

    I love the idea, but all these questions spring in to my head instantly when I think about it. Once I get them behind me, I’m sure I’d be able to come up with many more positive ideas & suggestions for badges, points, and how they could/should work etc. :)

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      No, no browser plug in required. All of the modern sites like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and Meetup provide APIs that let third party apps query data on behalf of a user using their OAuth credentials. These credentials are what are being stored when you “authorize” or “opt in” to the game by clicking a button for each service. The service would periodically query (once a day? once an hour?) the foreign services using those credentials to see what you had been up to.

      For some services, we’d just directly scrape or get a feed of the results – all we’d need is a user name. For instance, here’s an Atom feed of my recent contributions to Wikipedia. All you need to know is that I’m “Krelnik” over there and you can get that info.

      WOT would be a direct scrape of user comments pages. I don’t see a way to get user ratings unless you are logged in.

      StackExchange has a documented API, we would also piggyback off their scoring and badge system.

      I don’t think we’d even really need to build an app, just a web site. Anything that you’d need to do on the fly you’d use the other service’s apps for, like the Foursquare app to indicate you are visiting relevant locations.

      As for the data gathering part, yes it would be growing pains at first. Venues sucked in the early days of Foursquare, too. But we could reward those who want to do the work with scoring.

      Some things we could pick up heuristically – for instance, given the Skepchick calendar of skeptic events and the Foursquare venues APIs, we could make a pretty good stab at guessing which checkins at pubs were skeptic-relevant, eh? An algorithm could do most of the work, with a few slaps on the head by volunteers as necessary.

      I’m not saying it will be easy to build, but it won’t be crazy difficult.

      1. Bastard Sheep

        That pretty effectively covers all the questions and “problems” I had in my mind. Now I can get on with constructive ideas for it. :)

        As far as moderation goes for it, I like Foursquare’s method of different levels of superusers that anybody can apply for. Each has different levels of changes they can perform to try and limit vandalism and get consistency. This would be great to be as encompassing of all the varied skeptic/freethinker/humanist/atheist/etc groups and locations as we can get it rather than it just being a clique-ey system.

        Something like all users being able to report violations/changes, level 1 being able to add venues/stuff (especially important for initial rollout and new groups/locations), level 2 able to change & act on reports etc.

        Most of my ideas will be around events/locations/functions as that’s more my thing. As I come up with ideas I’ll be sure to provide them.

  8. Jason Brown

    The “gamification” thing has floated past my brain a couple of times. Notably when I check in to a skeptical event venue on FourSquare, (or drink a beer on untappd while in a thoughtful mood)

    I love the idea of making it fun, but it also has to:

    – not distract from the actual reason we’re doing this
    – not result in people “gaming the game” just to get badges (inherent in all these systems)
    – handle the more sensitive topics we deal with in a fitting manner, rather than trivialising them
    – actually be mostly useful (with some nonsense fun ones thrown in)
    – as mentioned above, distinguish between “good” and “bad” skepticism (no idea how to do that up-front)

    I think this does bear a lot more thinking about. Perhaps we should take this into a mail thread or some other forum where we can really thrash it out? I’d suggest a skype call or google huddle but we’re all in very different timezones.

  9. Lei Pinter

    I have read through your proposal a couple of times and have been watching the comments, too, looking for help in organizing my thoughts.

    If this came to fruition I would probably play but I truly do not think it would change my behavior. Sure, it would be helpful to have some proof that it is not just me against the world trying to edit Wikipedia, but with a gaming system if you are not one of the top players it can be counter-motivational.

    1. Tim Farley Post author

      Taking clues from Foursquare again, they do a couple of things to make scores more interesting, even to players who aren’t at the top.

      1. Insofar as the scores are visible, they only cover the last 7 days. That way, folks who have spent tons of time on the game over years don’t continually dominate – they have to keep playing.

      2. Your visibility into the scoreboard normally only goes so far as your friends list. So if you are not interested in comparing what you do with some Wiki editor X, just make sure you don’t include them in your friend group in the game.

      I suppose there could be some value in a team concept too, especially since Skepticism covers so many sub-topic areas. So for instance you could have Team Psychic or Team Bigfoot for folks that focus on one or the other. And you could compare the team scores instead of the individuals.

  10. Esowatchcom (@Esowatchcom)

    Well, hate to be skeptic here. I have just read “Reinventing Discoveries”, a book about how science is put on steroids by communities and I am a big fan of collaboration. Still, I am not quite convinced.

    WoT showed for quite some time the member “level” (bronze, silver, gold, platinum) for all users everywhere. The ranking was solely based on activity. About a year ago, it was decided (and most long-time members supported it), that those levels should be removed. They are now only visible on a persons page, not in the forum, not on scorecards.

    Those levels had created a false impression of authority in the forum. Some platinum members new less about website rating than some silver members. They were just more active. But people respected platinum opinions more. And of course, platinum members with more points.

    Also, I know a forum where a guy posts to each and every thread something like: “Welcome … bla”. Has thousands of postings and in some way a high rating. Everybody ignores him. But he is the highest ranked poster…

    I don’t think that an activity based system can work. A system for skeptics has to be quality centered. And I don’t think, it is too difficult. I mean, politics? Puh. What is true, what is false? But for science it’s different!

    We skeptics share a lot of common ground. An information is scientifically correct or not. A treatment is proven to be efficient or it isn’t. Of course, there are exceptions. (e.g. I am not convinced by the dark matter theory. I have nothing better, but it sounds like aether to me). But basically, we are in agreement about true/false.

    So, rankings should be made by persons. I see an edit on an article I am interested in. I like it. +5 Points. I think it is stupid. -5 Points. Something like that. And of course, we should have categories. Somebody might be a rockstar in physics. And a noob in medicine…

    Of course, an activity rating would be nice too, but it shouldn’t be the aim. A person that makes an excellent contribution once a month should be higher ranked than a person that contributes crap 10 times per day.

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