The Role of Leaderboards in Online Communities

Q. What are social network leaderboards? A. They are a list of members and content, a way of finding cool stuff, a reward system for members, a tribe unto themselves, an enforcer of good behaviour, marketing device to find influencers. Anything more? Leaderboards are lists A leaderboard is a list. The most of something, or…

Q. What are social network leaderboards? A. They are a list of members and content, a way of finding cool stuff, a reward system for members, a tribe unto themselves, an enforcer of good behaviour, marketing device to find influencers. Anything more?

Leaderboards are lists

A leaderboard is a list. The most of something, or the best (quantity or quality). The most posts on a forum, the most friends, the most Diggs. Or, the best as voted by 10,000 members that sort of thing, the funniest member, the best staff member. A directory of most viewed content, most rated videos, most favourited photos.

The lists can be fully automated – every time someone views a page (Google Rank). Or it can be manual – whenever a member votes 1-5 on “I LIKE” scale.  Or a mixture.

Sometimes when we have a list, we have a place to go – so leaderboards are in fact a social space. We visit the Leaderboard as part of the sites virtual rooms.

Leaderboards are Awards and show and reward value

We use leaderboards to show currency, and value. If someone spams Viagra ads, or even “thanks” on every thread or discussion, we don’t want them to win “most submitted answers/content” awards. Consequently leaderboards are constantly being tweaked to provide value.  In one virtual world, there were two leaderboards – one for the member with most ingame gold, the other for the most generous with donations. This kept hoarding down to a minimum – the Warren Buffet/Bill Gates of the virtual world would amass billions and then donate it to guilds on their server. Interesting behaviour. They spent a lot of time to gather resources so they could make massive cyberdonations of pixel currency.

shortyawardsDon’t click on the Shorty Awards – it will take you to the best sexual twitterer leaderboard.

We do want people who’ve worked hard to be on a list that is meaningful to them, and us. Most popular Twitterer, most watched YouTuber.  The leaderboard recognises their value to the community in which they are placed.

Discussions on these lists highlight variable value systems. Someone thought Joe should be on the list, someone else thought Darren should be on it. Reading the discussion will highlight what value the lists bring the community.

Here’s an interesting take on Twitter friends at Building Web 2.0 Reputation Systems blog of the book:

If it looks like a leaderboard, and quacks like a leaderboard…

Even sites that don’t display overt leaderboards may veer too closely into the ‘comparative statistics’ realm. Consider Twitter, and its prominent display of community members’ stats.


The problem may not lie with the existence of the stats but—perhaps—in the prominence of their display. They give Twitter the appearance of a community that values popularity and the sheer size of your social network. Is it any wonder, then, that a whole host of community-created leaderboards have sprung up to automate just such comparisons? Twitterholic, Twitterank, Favrd and a whole host of others are the natural extension of this value-by-numbers approach.

The post is Leaderboards Considered Harmful. Absolutely Twitterers value the profile of followers/following as a) it’s a bit different from mutual friends sites and b) they don’t have much control over a quick and easy way to build identity, trust and reputation on Twitter other than through 140 character tweets. (added)

Leaderboards help us find stuff

A show of worth, if you will. It can help a community search, filter and reward participants. By search and filter, I mean that newbies like top lists to see who looks interesting, who they should follow, at least at the start. While some people take time, and trip over interesting content and members ad hoc, others use the top lists to see what every one is connecting on. So Leaderboards are a shared experience.  The Top Twitterers for Australia might help a newbie Twit get started. Or maybe not, but at least it’s a start if they don’t know anyone else on Twitter.

Leaderboards are about relationships and  behaviour

Remember – social means relationships. And we categorize our relationships ourselves in real life, leaderboards exhibits the relationships outwardly.

The “most helpful” list will reward your welcomers, teachers and other natural leaders. It will also cut down on naughtiness – who doesn’t want to be a boy/girl scout at heart? Oh ok, unless it’s a mothers-and-babies forum, that might not help manage behaviours. But then again it just might.

Certainly if you are running community moderation, a leaderboard for most helpful, most knowledgeable, most giving builds better behaviour – the community figures out very quickly that you choose voluntary moderators and community leaders from the leaderboards.  Don’t put in a bad boy leaderboard (a list of banned members). Bad boys love to be on that list. Only reinforce behaviours you want to grow.

Leaderboards are about Leaders

If you are trying to identify influencers in a network, have a look for leaderboards. Who has committed the most content? Answered the most questions, organised the most BBQs, forwarded the most articles?  Each one of these influencers reveals their modus operandi.

Leaderboards allow influencers to connect.

Ok this is a bit echo-chambery but rewarding leaders on leaderboards allows them to tribe up or subgroup into an elite group. Which others want to be a member of. If you give them a badge like the Power150 badge, they self-identify and others aim to identify with them. It can grow certain behaviours online. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a top media and marketing blogger? *tongue in cheek* Or in Leroy Jenkins guild in World of Warcraft or referenced by Robert Scoble in Twitter/Friendfeed? What do you mean, you don’t? Ah well, find a leaderboard/leader list you value.

A key task is to take someone from the leaderboard and spotlight them on the site. Guest articles, minor voluntary roles (guest reviewer) or something. Spotlighting leaders brings their audience to your site. Or rewards them if they are already there.

Gaming or “faking” Leaderboards

Because the community does value leaderboards, some rogue elements try “faking it to make it”. Effectively they are breaking the social contract to be seen as popular. A typical Twitter behaviour is to “follow” (befriend) someone on Twitter. This tells them that you find their comments meaningful. They will follow you back, usually, as a show of goodwill to see if your tweets are interesting. But then you drop them. The member is not informed that you are no longer following them. Rinse and repeat a thousand or two times. This brings you several thousand followers, yet you might only be following 50 or 100 “Leaders”. You look popular – wow, thousands of followers! – yet are only listening back to 50 or so. See? Breaks the social trust in order to game to be on the “leaders” list. I have noticed an increase in Follow, Direct Message “thanks for following, looking forward to reading your tweets” then Drop.

So social leaderboards, like all things that rely on technology to help decipher human relationships, is an imperfect model. But it’s one that we use, rely on, and is popular in building and retaining a social network. By the way, it’s one of the reasons I agree with Facebook that they are not an online community but an online community tool. They miss a lot of these fundamental features of social networks by not having leaderboards or spotlight leaders or other stuff.

Real life Leaderboards

The Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes. The Walkleys, Nobel Peace Prize, Pulitzer,Top of the Pops, Employee of the Month, Circulation figures for newspapers.  Golf. Football. Netball. Democratic elections.

Anti-leaderboards include the Raspberries? y’know, the dud movie lists? and Darwin Awards, dying to get on that one. Heh.

I forgot to mention: being on top lists means you get random gifts/crap thrown your way. PR people love them… (added)

Alternatives to leaderboards

Friends lists act as search/filter. The Leaderboard works well in introducing strangers, and breaking down the 6 degrees of seperation, but Friends/Buddies lists can act as a recommendation too. In closed gated communities like Facebook, friend of a friend (FOAF) often works well.  Expert testimony – though be careful, this is the host choosing the leaders, not the community. Still, it covers the reward aspect. Social bookmarking reveals tagged content – the keywords will open up content for the members.

toplistsDunno about these guys, but if they did KNOW me, they wouldn’t put me on no friggin’ list!

Other leaderboards

Leaderboards don’t have to be people, they can be content. Gary Hayes has a list of the Top lists of Social Media lists

  1. The best of’s – Ordered lists based on some open or secret formula of the good, bad an ugly personalities or online sites.
  2. Great tools/software – Really simple pointers to applications that are going to make your online life easier.
  3. Tips/tricks – A plethora in this category as we all want to list our prioritized strategies for engagement, ROI, KPI, SYF and other acronyms.
  4. Case Studies – we all want to know what is working and who is making Social Media, PR, Marketing etc: work.

I’ve focussed on the social nature of leaderboards, but his post is a great one if you are looking for a “top lists” resource in social media.

One of the most common questions I am asked is “how do I find the top *insert industry* blogger”. So, the top fashion blogger, the top car blogger, the top “mommy’ blogger.  If you are working in social media, start to bookmark interesting lists. The top law blogs, the top real estate communities. You never know when you might need them.

This is a snippet taken from my Building and Managing Your Own Branded Microcommunities course that I’ve been running since 2006.  I just spruced it up a little.

Edit: just found this

While everyone would agree that leaderboards drive additional retention of users who go on to compete with strangers or friends, Jameson Hsu from Mochi Media shared some details on exactly how much additional retention can be expected. Jameson said that they have seen leaderboards increasing retention by up to 30%.

(from Inside Social Games)

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  1. If a leaderboard is there for no other reason than to be a leaderboard (like twitter’s) then it’s useless.

    If it shows real achievement (Xbox live’s ratings based on achievements within games, money raised, etc) then it’s worth showing leaderboards and where an individual is in that leaderboard.

    Would I build one into a social network? That depends entireley on who the members of the network are and what the leaderbaords’ purpose is.

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