Who Can You Trust?

Awhile ago, my manager and I were kicking around ideas to solve a problem in the MSDN Forums.  By default, every new thread started on the forums is tagged as a "question".  The question is considered "unanswered" until a reply is posted to that question that is marked as an "answer".  The answer can get marked in two ways:

  1. The original question asker can mark the reply as an answer.
  2. Any moderator on the forums can mark replies as answers.

We track our metrics on how "healthy" the forums are based on percentages of questions that have been marked as answered.  The problem Josh and I were trying to find a solution for was that the extra answer-marking step just wasn't happening all of the time.  Often, the original question-asker was new to the forums, and didn't understand the "Mark as Answered" button.  We have very few moderators relative to the vast size of our forums community, and they simply can't read all of the questions.  But somebody must be reading all of those replies...

We came up with the idea that we should give many, many more people "answer marking" rights in the forums.  Why not?  After a user had answered just a few questions--5 or 10, they would have the ability to mark any reply as an answer on the forums.  We did a quick check, and it looked like that would make about 3% of our users "answer markers".  I said:  "Why hold back at all?  Why can't we trust even a new forum user?  Let's just give everyone answer marking rights."  I went and made a post in the forums and in the DDCPX Team Blog asking customers what they thought about this idea.

What was interesting was that people generally disliked the idea.  People said that replies were already marked too aggressively now--that the basic new user on the forums couldn't be trusted to know what really was an answer.  Somebody even replied that the original question asker couldn't even know if their question was answered enough to mark it!

The entire thread was interesting to me--who and what do you trust in an online community?  I don't mean "trust" as in letting them watch your dog while you are on vacation, but who can you trust to not spoil the the community experience?  Should people be given the benefit of the doubt, until they mess up (the Wikipedia philosophy, where anyone can edit or create an article), or should they have to earn their stripes before they get those rights (the MSDN Forums current philosophy)?  I firmly believe the more controlling we are with those rights, the less interested newbie users are in joining the community...but other's believe that control is a necessary evil in making sure there's true structure to the community.

As for the forums, we added a work item to our request list to the forums team to please give answer marking rights to everyone with over 5 answers contributed.  Time will tell if we're going to create bedlam or not... :)