Every day, more of our activity is being tracked–and more of our lives can be measured. We are known by what we consume, buy, and share. Score aggregators like Klout even purport to tell us our approximate social value on the Internet. But one startup wants to track something else: kindness. PersonalHeroes is a social platform that tracks the positive impacts you have made in other people’s lives, weighs your good deeds in a custom algorithm, and gives you a kindness score to display to the world.
PersonalHeroes founder Stephanie Knopel feels that the five-star rating system we use to evaluate Etsy vendors and others we do business with online says very little about them as people. PersonalHeroes hopes to be more than a way for online shoppers to choose the nicest vendor or for employers to rank job candidates by kindness. PersonalHeroes wants to give users a way to own their reputation beyond social media followers and likes. Prior to founding PersonalHeroes, Knopel was a trend-hunting consultant who, over time, started to see companies and individuals doing more good because, according to Knopel, doing good has become cool.
“Good is the new sex,” says Knopel.
Here’s how PersonalHeroes works: People tag other users in a compliment in the PersonalHeroes app (“Amy held the door open for me,” or “Steve returned my wallet”)—and the algorithm decides how much that positive action was worth and boosts the user’s kindness score accordingly. High-quality good deeds have the biggest impact on a user’s score, not sheer volume of good deeds: PersonalHeroes’ scoring algorithm also analyzes a user’s good deed in terms of impact scale (i.e., whether their action helped a single person or had global impact). PersonalHeroes is not a popularity personal metric–and a non-famous person will have the same chance of getting a high kindness score as someone like Taylor Swift.
“Taylor Swift is a good example for this,” says Knopel. “What happens is that her profile will be quite populated: there will be tons of stories about her, and probably a lot of people will review her and rate her good deeds. But her score won’t go upward if more people rate her.”
The PersonalHeroes team consulted with mathematicians, a game designer, and even religious experts as it built its algorithm, in order to hone its points-based score system and figure out a way to reward positivity without creating an easily tricked system. Scores range from 0-1000–but few people will reach higher than 900 on PersonalHeroes’ scale, says Knopel.
It could be discomforting thought to think that your level of kindness will be determined by other people–people are still getting used to Uber drivers rating their quality as passengers. But there is absolutely no PersonalHeroes down-voting: You cannot tag someone in a negative way or take your points back from them. Nor does your score atrophy if you have not been awarded kindness points in some time.
Knopel says “the idea is not how to gamify the system so I can always have high scores, but to make the thanking process and recognition among people permanent.”
PersonalHeroes is looking to debut itself to consumers this September. They purposely delayed their launch until they could hit a “critical mass” of user behavior information and found the perfect beta testers: corporate employees. PersonalHeroes partnered with Coca-Cola for a pilot program that began back in in January. The beverage titan wanted to track performance relative to kindness starting with workers in its Atlanta, Georgia headquarters–but quickly spread the pilot program to its offices in Japan, Argentina, Germany, and Mexico, says Knopel.
This global expansion of the program was a boon for PersonalHeroes, but was an unusual diversion from the startup playbook, which often prescribes gaining a large userbase in a single market before incurring the costs of expanding to other countries. Knopel, who is from Latin America, believes immediate global expansion of PersonalHeroes is necessary in order to create an algorithm that understands cultural differences around kindness. This is reflected in the app: Users who are complimented for returning a wallet in Israel might get 25 kindness points, says Knopel, while users who are complimented for doing the same thing in Chile might get 200 points. That’s because it’s far rarer for someone to return a wallet in Chile than in Israel, alleges Knopel, so the algorithm dispenses points accordingly. No matter the country, PersonalHeroes purposefully obscures how many kindness points each “action” is potentially worth, which will ideally keep users from trying to gamify the system through their behavior–and will also hopefully keep the data gathered pure for the PersonalHeroes team as they attempt to better understand kindness patterns related to geography, age, gender, and other factors, says Knopel.
Corporate beta testing alerted Knopel to something that many brand-new apps find out the hard way: if you don’t instantly engage and reward people for interacting with your service, they will leave. So new PersonalHeroes users get points for just signing up, and the app immediately prompts new users to compliment five people. The user gets points for complimenting those people–and in the Coca-Cola testing, the compliments were reciprocated, forming a positive feedback loop, says Knopel. On the macro scale, that’s what the app wants to do: illuminate positive deeds done by everyday people, while quietly encouraging graciousness. That may sound hippie-dippie, but numerous schools of thought encourage thankfulness as a path to greater personal well-being.
But what if people end up creating numerous sock-puppet accounts to artificially boost their score? That would take a lot of time, says Knopel–and PersonalHeroes is refining its algorithm to flag compliments that appear artificial. Finally, there’s the ultimate what-if in our age of Internet narcissism: What if people just do good deeds in order to boost their PersonalHeroes score?
“Other people have asked me, what if a lot of people are doing random acts of kindness just to be recognized? Okay, that’s fine for us!” says Knopel. “If we are able to create more random acts of kindness, be my guest. If that comes from a place of ego in the person, that’s their issue.” That’s what happens today anyway, Knopel claims.
People often commit good deeds that don’t get noticed, Knopel claims, especially in corporate environments. This is a challenge for employers trying to hire millennials–a generation of people Knopel alleges who require more praise and attention to their performance. PersonalHeroes wants to appeal to corporations that hope to increase their millennial employee retention rate. This dovetails nicely with PersonalHeroes’ plan to build closed communities within companies, like Coca-Cola, as a primary revenue stream. After the app is released to the public, PersonalHeroes plans to release an SDK so other networks like LinkedIn can pay to post PersonalHeroes scores on users’ profiles.
There are still many unknowns for PersonalHeroes before it launches to the public in September, but that’s to be expected: PersonalHeroes seems to be the first reputation metric for kindness.
“We’re not replicating a business model. We’re not replicating an idea or a brand name. There’s no system for what we’re doing,” says Knopel.