“One of the reasons social networking sites are popular is that they appeal to our instinct for collecting,” writes Jill Walker Rettberg in her book, Blogging. “Even social networking sites [like Orkut] without any clear purpose apart from collecting as many friends as possible have become popular, at least for a while.”
By today’s standards, Google’s Orkut social network seems to have lacked a purpose or goal, especially compared to the wild ambitions of the company’s more recent Google Plus. It seems like an experiment, like Google was testing how sites like these encourage certain user behaviors. Two years after Orkut, in 2006, scholar Lisbeth Klastrup keenly observed in a review of social networking site LinkedIn how producers of technology were actively designing their products with game-like features:
“Objective of game: You can go either for the single-player mode: to gather as many connections as you can, in the shortest time possible and reach the 100% network cap (state of progress helpfully depicted in the ‘network’ stat-bar); or the multi-player mode: to gather more ‘people in my network’ than your fellow players.”
LinkedIn steeped the use of its site in what I call “collection meta games”—that is, games within the website—that had users gather something for a reward. In LinkedIn’s case, users were encouraged to gather connections: by giving an arbitrary time limit and maximum number of connections, LinkedIn set goals and rewarded users with an ever-increasing stat-bar; and the human competitive instinct was tapped in what Klastrup equates to a “multiplayer mode.” These meta games are commonplace today. WordPress even sets an arbitrary goal of posts for new users, applauding them after every post with a congratulatory message in large font.
This collection instinct is but one component in the broad concept of gamification, the process of implementing game design techniques in non-videogame things to drive user behavior. In 2010, Tom Chatfield gave an enlightening TED talk in which he described seven ways to reward the brain, all of which are used in the standard videogame design process. He notes that $8 billion is spent yearly on in-game virtual items—intangible things like character clothing and virtual weapons and warships. Gamification works, apparently. The $8 billion spent on virtual items (a 2010 stat sure to have increased since) is spearheaded by those whom some companies refer to as “whales,” a demeaning term describing users with an addictive personality or other trait that compels them to spend mass amounts of money on microtransactions.
Spending, Chatfield says, is encouraged by putting gamers on a reward schedule, ensuring incremental rewards and progress as impetus for them to pursue larger, long-term rewards as well. The reward schedule works by appealing to basic human instincts including competition, comradery, and of course, collecting. Facebook and Twitter prey on the same instincts, especially collecting but to a lesser extent competition and comradery. We “collect” friends and followers and we compete amongst the rest of the internet to find exposure for our content in the virtual ether. It’s all becoming a science.
My take: The fact that companies understand our psychology well enough to manipulate us into buying things like $2.50 virtual horse armor freaks me out. What do you think? And have you felt pressured by a game or website to purchase virtual content? Let me know!
This was my second post today discussing social media topics from Jill Walker Rettberg’s Blogging. For the first post, which argues that social media is by its nature an echo chamber, click here.