I’ve been mulling over motivation in the wake of Jason Calacanis’ $1,000 per month offer to top Digg users – old news now, but it takes me a while to process things. Like David Lewis, I thought the move was razor-sharp. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with companies that set up a framework for ‘user-generated content’ and then proceed to take 100% of the value those users create. If people are adding value, those people should have a chance to get paid.
It doesn’t surprise me that three of the top twenty Digg users have indeed taken Jason up on his offer, as well as a smattering of top users from other social news sites. Cash is a great motivator. But why just three of twenty? Kevin Rose of Digg suggests non-financial motivations, claiming that “users like Digg, Del.icio.us, Reddit and Flickr because they are contributing to true, free, democratic social platforms devoid of monetary motivations.” This is a little too high-minded for me to believe, and doesn’t jive with the top-heavy way Digg’s contributions are distributed – according to DuggTrends, 66% of front-page stories come from the top 100 users. Instead, I’d argue that for Digg’s active user base, a rank on Digg’s Top Users page is a clear positional good – unable to be mass produced or bought, the value of one’s position on the Top Users page lies in its relation to others. Anyone can go get a job and earn some money, but there’s only thirty spots on digg.com/topusers.
If, as Calacanis put it, “Darwin is coming to Web 2.0,” positional goods like Digg’s leaderboard just might be the mutation your cash-strapped zero-revenue startup needs in the fight against AOL’s deep pockets. You really should be paying your users for the value they create, but if that value is still an acquisition or advertiser base down the road, keep in mind that for many, being cool or prominent trumps being paid — and design your product with those users in mind.