How social media succeeds by being serious fun

How social media succeeds by being invisibly serious fun

Danah Boyd, a well-known researcher in social media, recently shared her thoughts about “number games and social software“. In essence, she gave examples of a trend she noticed where people would be naturally inclined to optimize or improve their “numbers” within a system. At times she see no real gain for performing accordingly, as if “it’s like a mouse in a cage determined to do well cuz they can“.

Relevant examples she gave included:

  • How she would try to maximize the Miles Per Gallon (MPG) on her friend’s hybrid car.
  • How the personality score mattered on the popular dating site, Consumating.
  • How people on Yahoo! Answers spend hours answering questions to get high ranks.
  • How possibly even being the #1 mass murderer mattered (think Bowling for Columbine).

Danah see this all over social software (e.g. Neopets, social network sites, blog visitors) and asks what kind of psychological and social dynamics it raises:

  • Who is motivated or demotivated by such numbers?
  • How does it change if this number game were within group vs. the individual?
  • How these number games work as incentives?

Many who commented on her post mentioned how this “infatuation with numbers” runs parallel to how games work. Indeed, I saw the relevance as I’ve been witnessing how users of various social systems rise to prominence either by doing well in that system, or finding an exploit to rise fast (e.g. levelling up in World of Warcraft vs. becoming a Digg Top User). Depending on your genre of blogging, we might even play this game subconciously where we tend to aspire to be popular or to become experts in our fields. Monitoring our blog readership, web traffic, trackbacks, comments and so on are all numbers we take into account to measure how well we are doing. In particular, I’ve been most interesting in disruptive methods in doing better in social media (like legally cheating in games). We see this in it’s most ugly fashion in the form of splogs (spam blogs) where they do everything possible to increase traffic and to sell their ads and wares (i.e. using SEO, irrelevant trackbacks).

I responded to her post accordingly:

Gaming is an excellent example of how earning numbers matters. Microsoft monetarized this in Xbox Live by allowing players to earn Achievement Points from games which can later be used to purchase media from their online marketplace (e.g. game add-ons, videos, demos).

In the case of Social Media, we’re already seeing this in popular web services like Flickr and Digg. Netscape has “bought” over the top users on these services as determined under various metrics. Digg makes it very apparent since they now have a Top Digg Users page aggregating popular users based on quality submissions. It’s almost essential for social media participants to have this as a side-mission while they read and post new material. This gives users the opportunity to level up and have their voices recognized by the masses.

On the flipside, I’ve recently read that Del.icio.us is on the decline and while it is a popular site, I think their downturn is due to the lack of attention to popularity or some form of metric as a driving force. Del.icious does currently show what’s popular, but having a new space to track popular users might be useful too.

In conclusion, thinking of social media as a game might help sustain that particular user community better than if there were no goal-like measure at all.

A later comment by Amy Jo Kim revealed that she has been working on this exact concept and she is even running a company specializing in embedding game concepts in social media. She mentioned her talk for GDC and eTech that addresses exactly this question (slides available here) . For an idea of what she’s about, see this BusinessWeek article.

Now all this reminds me about concepts behind Getting Things Done (GTD) where you collect, organize and act on various tasks you do. Part of the process of GTD is making things visual so you know what you need to accomplish. If only there were a specific way of visualizing writing academic papers such that we can “turn each chapter into game stages”. If anyone can write an application which lets us specify our paper goals and visually indicate when we hit them, writing in solitude wouldn’t be half bad!

4 thoughts on “How social media succeeds by being serious fun

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