Ah yes, the much talked about bubble system. There seems to be a serious disconnect between what the administrators feel the system accomplishes, and what it's actually doing. This post will attempt to summarize and analyze the problems surrounding the system, while attempting to provide plausible solutions.
The blog post is meant to engage the news-reading N4G'ers rather than just the forum go'ers, and to promote a meaningful discussion towards a better commentary system.
TLDR; Get rid of bubbles, it's a form of censorship. Use a simple agree/disagree where trolls/spam can be buried. Also, a possible 'exp-based' reputation system around rewarding users for good comments but not censoring different opinions.
<<What's the point of it anyway?>>
Essentially, the bubble system is an attempt to allow the community to self-moderate. That is to silence trolls, flamers and spammers meanwhile rewarding posters the community deems proper.
<<What does it really do?>>
It effectively strangles commentary through a number of ways:
a) Opinions by their nature are subjective.
Therefore not everyone will agree. Sure, this is an alternative 'agree/disagree' but we all understand how heated console wars are--how often are people hitting 'disagree' and then de-bubbling too? It's a system that builds fanboyism in itself, since the 'community' feels justified in de-bubbling when there are lots of disagrees.
b) 'Community-driven' is inaccurate.
Bubble votes are counted differently based on the person de-bubbling--the more bubbles the more power. This perpetuates *their views* while marginalizing others. If everyone had an equal say in de-bubbles less griefing would occur. Essentially, the 'community' are actually those that the community itself deems worthy. Therefore the 'community' is a self-perpetuating body made up of members who all share the same opinion.
c) Builds superficial reputation.
A posters comment is only as relevant as their bubbles. Posters are pre-judged based on bubbles, making their comments seem false before some even read them. This also communicates to other posters that whatever this commentator says is not what the community as a whole believes--hence their lack of bubbles. A better reputation system is suggested below, which unlike the current one does not vilify it's own users.
d) 'One-hitter' posts
When a user has one bubble, no conversation can be permitted. This provides incentives for users to post 'one-hitters' or rather, single posts that try to communicate one idea while attempting to pre-empt possible replies (since they themselves cannot reply). This often leads to troll-like flame posts rather than anything meaningful, because after all, why post something meaningful if you cannot even continue the conversation? Creating a new account only get you banned, so essentially, if you do not agree with the 'community' you are permanently reduced to sound bites. Sounds like censorship.
<<So far, what are the results?>>
Fanboys. Yes, the system that is meant to keep them at bay only perpetuates it. The gaming news media knows it, hell even developers know it. This site's full of 'em. Look at the news posts we've seen, tons of sensationalist fanboy titles. What comments are really being de-bubbled, even disagreed? If you take a close look, most aren't trolling, offensive or destructive--they're different points of view often being de-bubbled by fanboys. Sure some are often abrasive, but surely discussion can have tension--it's in the very nature of debate.
When opposing views are be-bubbled it simply justifies the 'community's fanboyism'--whatever side that may be. Posters who are punished for their views leave the site, or return to antagonize others--strengthening the opposing 'community fanboys' and adding to flame wars. Ultimately, the point of debate is to not only prove your own argument, but to provide others with different perspectives. The bubble system prevents that, marginalizing any intelligent conversation into carefully worded sound bites which aim to either piss off fanboys, or are too meek to add anything interesting to the conversation (ie. "cool game bro").
<<What can be done?>>
First, N4G needs to swallow it's pride. It's not the first news aggregator with a large community. Many, many other sites have similarly built communities but do it much better. Part of building a site is not only maturing the features and technology in the backend, but also maturing the community by allowing it to grow through it's own commentary (see NeoGAF).
Reddit is a crucial example of how the internet can self-moderate but not censor itself. There are articles for fanboys, agnostic gamers and casuals. Commentary ranges from outright fanboys to casuals and even developers. Why can't N4G be like that too?
The bubble system is flawed. Period. No other community site uses a system which marginalizes opposing views, stifles intelligent discussion, and reduces commentary to sound bites. It needs to go.
The best method is to continue with agrees/disagrees, but instead when a comment hits a certain ratio (which the user may be able to customize) the comment is 'hidden'. Hidden does not mean gone--it will still allow others to post and continue the dialog whether it's flamebait or not. This just means the rest of the community doesn't have to be subjected to it if they don't want to be. This still allows conversation to flow meanwhile hiding unpleasant troll-like comments or flame wars. While we're at it, deeper comment nesting would be nice too.
But what about reputation? How about this:
This was a concept developed using other CMS-PHP 'points' systems as way to built reputation. This was based of early CRPG's and their 'karma' system using 'posting EXP', essentially it works like this:
Everyone starts off 'neutral'. Let's say a heatscore of 100. Whenever people 'agree' with their posts their score 'cools down', when others disagree their score gets 'hotter'. The more people agree with them, they cooler they get--that is they are labeled as people who's comments appeal to the masses. The more people disagree well, you're a 'hot' commentator. Those who straddle the line are considered neutral--neither fanboy nor crowd favourite (aka community fanboy).
The words 'hot', 'cool', 'neutral', etc. can be called anything to sound appealing. The point is, just as Fallout 3's achievement for being neutral is called 'True Mortal' neutral is where you want to be--you're not ruffling feathers, but you're also not kissing fanboy ass. The 'neutrals' become the coveted position of the community, a poster who can see both sides of the story--a position that can challenge the community to maintain. You can even add awards and 'titles' based the poster's patterns to encourage meaningful participation.
NOTE: Neutral (and other positions) is obtained through an overall ratio (not on just individual posts), that is one post may get 5:1 agrees, another 1:5 disagrees which overall is a 1:1 ratio. These positions would also have a range, that is a 0.9-1.1 agree ratio might still keep you in neutral.
This system can be a good gauge at exactly where the community lies. If most commentators are 'hot' then this place is a battleground. If everyone's 'cool' then no progressive discussion is happening--that is, everyones agreeing with everyone else--hence a 'community' of fanboys.
The important thing to note is 'heatscore' is only for reputation. It should not affect anyone's ability to post.
<<Solution: Final Note>>
I'm not pretending this suggestion is the end-all-be-all, I'm just trying to start some kind of dialog towards solving the problem. There has got to be a better way to nurture intelligent commentary than this current bubble system.
<<Moral of the story>>
Control does not solve problems. Communities solve problems. The bubble system is a flawed form of control masquerading as the 'community's voice'. It's not a voice, it's a hammer. A hammer that punishes different opinions, stifles fluid commentary, incites/creates more fanboys and reduces the beloved N4G community into a veiled fanboy-fest.
I enjoy this site and will continue to participate in it. I have deep respect for the moderators and administrators here. I sincerely hope the administrators are willing to considering alternate ways to manage the comments, especially by looking at great internet communities that do it successfully.
P.S. Yes, my N4G account has only one bubble left--but please, consider this post and judge me not by my bubbles, but my commitment and interest in this community. Thanks for reading.