Zero-sum social

Ralph Koster’s comprehensive presentation about social game mechanics at the most recent Game Developers Conference includes some pithy and striking definitions of social concepts and how they relate to games:

* “Identity: Means of displaying status and role via rivalrous goods.”
* “Gift: “transferring a rivalrous good to another actor to increase their status.”
* “Community is where we play games on you.”
* Mutual improvement is anathema to games

All of these posit a zero-sum, competitive definition of the concept. Of course, competitive and egocentric motivations are mixed in with most social activity. Identity entails self-expression, affiliation with kin and tribe, and expression of status. Gifts involve generosity, understanding of the other, reciprocity, and status for giver and recipient.

One of my favorite Rabbinic tales is about the necessity of selfish and competitive motives in human life. But defining these concepts as the zero-sum aspect is rather shocking. And it’s not even true of all games. Players of World of Warcraft talk about the games as means of self-expression, play with identity, and affiliate with a tribe. Folk who are more involved in game cultures may be able to come up with examples of gift practices that aren’t just about rank. Sesbastian Deterding notes Pandemic as an example of a cooperative game where players work together to find cures to diseases.

I’m not much of a traditional “gamer”, and the zero-sum orientation is part of the reason. The gamelike experience I’ve been involved with designing lately is the Drive Less Challenge, which invokes competitive, goal-oriented, and cooperative motivations to help people reconsider their habits of driving alone in a car.

A non-zero-sum orientation toward social experience may be new to gaming culture. In a writeup from a recent Game Developer conference, a Zynga developer talked about discovering alternatives to zero-sum conflict.

One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

As game techniques are applied to a broad range of activities, will the broader understandings of social design be used to expand the social attributes of games, or will the zero-sum social definitions from game culture be applied to more aspects of social life?

Who likes being mayor? On the narrow appeal of FourSquare

Who gets a thrill from the being mayor of their local coffee shop? According to a recent Forrester study the users of location-based services (such as FourSquare, Gowalla, and, Brightkite) are 80% male and 70% are aged 19-35. Usage is concentrated among a relatively small number of very heavy users: “only 1% of those that use them do so more than once per week” – but this tiny minority has accounted for over 100 million checkins to FourSquare, the current leader in the space.

Does this narrow appeal mean that location-based services are a fad? In a quote in the Read Write Web article linked above, FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley makes the case that tech-savvy young men are early adopters and leading indicators for a broader market. This often true, but leaves out another potentially important distinction. The addictive feature of FourSquare for those who love it is the competitive game dynamics – the ability to be annointed mayor of the local bar or coffee shop. Based on the numbers, this win/lose competition is addictively appealing to a small number of mostly young men, leaving many others cold. Of course, people are all individuals, gender trends don’t determine individual preferences; there are women who love FourSquare competition, and men who don’t see the appeal – the point is that the numbers show that the FourSquare dynamic has a narrow appeal.

FourSquare has recently been adding a greater diversity of badges, for events like the World Cup and ComicCon, brands including Louis Vuitton and Intel, travel-related services like Zagat’s and San Francisco BART. But the core dynamic is still competitive, and that is limiting it’s appeal. Last fall, I wrote about how FourSquare’s conflicting social incentives – to meet up with friends and to defeat them – leave me cold. It seems like there are more people who aren’t yet attracted by the desire to be the Mayor of Potrero Safeway (no offense, tweet or comment if you know who you are).

When adding game dynamics to software, it’s important to consider the varying motivations of potential users. I expect that over time, location-based services will be developed with affordances for a wider variety of motivations – social connections, group affiliations, geographical exploration, product promotions, loyalty programs and more. The different affordances will help location-based services appeal to people who have motivations other than competition, and to demographics broader than FourSquare’s core participant base of young men.

So, does the current narrow appeal mean that marketers should forego FourSquare and the location-based trend? Probably not, but they should be sensitive to the design of their program, the social motivations the program cultivates, and the relation between those motivations and their intended customer base.

Information vs. conversation?

This Edge blog post suggests that Facebook’s problem isn’t that it violated people’s expectation about privacy, but that it’s trying to change the social dynamic on the site from conversation between friends and family to sharing information. I think this distinction is misleading regarding people’s communication, Facebook’s strategy, and Twitter’s strategy too.

The article argues that Facebook was initially set up as a way to talk with friends and family. But the new default-public settings make it more of a tool for sharing information. A lot of what people do on Facebook is to share stuff – photos, links, videos, etc. Thing is, that sharing is social activity – people sharing stuff with family and friends. This sharing on Facebook is increasing rapidly – the stats in the Inside Facebook article don’t say why, but I very strongly suspect it’s because Facebook has made sharing very easy, not because people are suddenly thinking themselves as publishers.

By contrast, Twitter’s leadership has seen Twitter as more of a broadcast platform. Features like follower counts and the retweet feature supported that strategy, and did less to support conversational use. (The retweet feature removed the ability to add a comment, and emphasized the number of times the tweet had been shared). But recent speculation is that they might come out with conversation threading, which would make conversation easier.

I think that the perceived polarity between “sharing information” and “conversation” does everyone making and using social tools a disservice. When there’s two-way communication, people share information and talk to each other. That was the initial insight about social objects from Jyri Engestrom. One of the cultural fundamentals in the modern world is that people socialize around common interests, symbolized by things we share with each other. Sharing bits of content doesn’t mean we’re being less social, it means we can share a clip when we talk about a sports game or a link when we talk about a news story – familiar types of social conversation.

The experience around social objects has several elements – who you think you’re talking to (as danah boyd and Kevin Marks described), the affordances for sharing the object (where Engestrom focused), and the ways the dynamics of listening and interchange work and are visible to participants. (where Adrian Chan focused).

Picture 107

The problem with Facebook’s changes and clumsy user experience to set levels of sharing are about Facebook trying to influence people’s decisions who they share with, and proliferating confusion about who people share with. They messed up the “who I’m talking with” attribute. Twitter’s focus on the competitive aspects of talk hampers the social dynamic of sharing. Information and conversation go together. There are design and business opportunities in getting the blending right.

Social media subcultures

Bora Zivovic recently pointed out an interesting study by Christina Pikas, which looked at link and comment connections between science blogs to look for clusters in the community of science bloggers. Her study revealed a few interesting things. Scientists read blogs by discipline, not just their own subdiscipline, but a variety of related subfields. In addition, there is a cluster of science blogs by women across multiple fields who comment on each others blogs especially often.

Ever since the Clay Shirky popularized the fact that there are power laws in the distribution of attention in social media, which focused attention at the top of the fame pyramid I’ve been wanting to see more studies like Pikas, which focus instead further out on the curve, closer to the long tail. Instead of showing who’s at the top of the pyramid – information that many people already know, use tools to discover and understand subcommunities, where a lot of the interesting human interchange, culture, and creativity. Within these subcultures, a closer look can show the distinctive attributes of the community itself. It’s helpful that Pikas herself is a member of the science blogging community – she knows enough about it to interpret the results of the social network analysis in a meaningful way.

A lot of the interesting dynamics in social media is at the level of subcommunity and microfame. More like this please.

The revival of groups in the age of the network

In a recent blog post, David Weinberger writes about how networks have surpassed groups in recent years, as ways of defining social connections online. “In the past decade, we’ve gone from talking about social circles to social network. A circle draws lines around us. Networks draw lines among us.” Social network messaging, where communication centers around the individual user (such Facebook and Twitter), have rocketed to prominence, far ahead of group-based tools (such as found in Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, other age-old forums, and special-purpose tools such as MeetUp).

Weinberger implies that groups are obsolescent: “(Yet more evidence — as if we needed it — that networks are the new paradigm. Bye bye, Information Age!)” Networks are more visible and addressible now, but I don’t see groups becoming obsolete. As networks grow, groups are poised for a major comeback, as a way of expressing context within networks.

Scale and context

One of the reasons that social messaging networks have surpassed group forums is that networks scale around the individual. When you join a group, the level of noise depends mostly on other people – when the place gets too popular, the experience degrades for individuals. In a network, each person controls who they friend and follow, and this puts the limit under the control of the individual.

But networks eventually scale out too. The number of people to friend and follow is under your control, but subject to social pressure and information greed – like chocolate you can get too much of a good thing. Keep adding friends, followers, and eventually there is too much information and not enough context.

The solution to too much information is more context. As Clay Shirky says, there is no such thing as information overload, only filter failure. One of the most important ways of filtering is adding context. Context helps people focus on who and what they care about it, when they care about.


Lists are a way of putting followers and friends into context that is centered around the individual. With the list features in Twitter and Facebook, each person can organize others into sets, using their own personal taxonomy. Lists help individuals manage attention in personal context. Twitter lists have a tiny bit of sharing – it is possible for one person to subscribe to another’s list. A list that is very popular could conceivably provide a shared view of a set of people. But there is no collaborative ability to curate lists or nominate oneself for a list.

Because lists are personal, they don’t create shared identity or enable shared action, which are powerful drivers of context. This is where groups come back.

Groups and identity

As Stowe Boyd and Adrian Chan remind us, identity is socially constructed in social context. Now, the assembly of a social context doesn’t require a formally defined group. Social context is shaped by people’s interactions and mutually recognized signs of affiliation, not by defined membership. In an open network (Twitter), social ties can be inferred from patterns of tag use and replies, more strongly than than mere follow lists, and despite the fact that there is no official group. Networks of replies and posters to a common tag become familiar faces. For example, on Twitter I’ve recently stumbled upon an informal network of Icelandic musicians and their fans.

But people often want persistent affiliation, recognition, and communication in groups. This is deeply human; basic traits that anthropologists catalogued when they decided that the behaviors of people were interesting to study. Within networks there is a basic need for a groups to express a greater level of affiliation, recognition, communication, focus.

Groups and action

Groups are handy for affiliation and shared identity; they are necessary for sustained action. Networks can be very effective for ad hoc action. Think about the way that the call for donations to help with Haiti emergency response spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter. But to coordinate action over time, you need ongoing communication and longer sequences of actions.

In open source software development, the classic model of self-organized coordinated action in the internet age, a new project sets up a code repository, mailing list/forum, a wiki, and an IRC channel for ad hoc synchronous communication. The basic toolset for coordination includes group collaboration. The best practices in internet self-organization allow for increasing levels of organization, starting at a very lightweight level, where participants can read information, start to ask questions, and make small contributions, on to very high levels of dedicated contributions.

By enabling groups to form within larger networks, people get the benefits of a larger network, with more manageable, lightweight communication, while also being able to communicate and collaborate more deeply with a set of people with shared interests and goals.

Focus, not privacy
Often people consider the topic of social sharing in terms of “privacy”. The information overload symptom of “oversharing” is seen as a privacy problem. As Stowe Boyd and others observe, the issue of oversharing not primarily about information should be kept hidden, and much more about who to share with in what context. Even if you don’t care who knows who else knows your workout routine, fellow fans of rowing or weight-lifting might care more than other friends and colleagues.

Groups frequently aren’t private – in fact, they are more useful for many purposes if potential participants can easily find them, look around to see what’s going on, and join if they are interested. FriendFeed groups were quite popular among scientists and journalists online. Most of these groups were publically listed. Users could choose to join them. Another convenient setup is groups where a member can request to join, and a moderator needs to approve applications.

In most cases, the goal of a group isn’t to keep information secret – it’s to allow people to affiliate, to collaborate. And to focus their attention and communication within these defined social contexts.

Groups and networks – summary

In summary, I don’t think it’s true that the rise of networks is going to wash away groups. Groups and networks are complementary. Networks help people get to know other individuals, and to manage attention by constraining the number of people to follow. Groups help people focus attention, share identity, and collaborate more deeply within networks.

As ReadWriteWeb describes, a big part of the solution to information overload is increased context. And groups are key to re-establishing context in the network era.

Game design for filtering

Conventional wisdom is that ordinary folk won’t learn filtering. Bruce MacVarish blogged this point of view yesterday: “social / information / conversation overload is taking its toll on the value of social applications to many users. While the answer may be the introduction of more advanced “filters” (a la Shirky’s suggestion [there is no information overload, only filter failure]) not everyone will be ready to manage their social streams through finer and finer filters. The “Geeks” maybe… the “Normals” … no way.”

The assumption that ordinary folk won’t learn filtering is built into designs like Facebook’s news feed. On one tab, a raging stream of every single update; on the other tab, a set of highlights, chosen by Facebook’s algorithm, that is completely opaque and non-configurable to the user – Facebook knows best what is interesting to you.

I think the assumption is false, and related to a blind spot in conventional UI design. Nicole Lazzarro observed on Twitter yesterday that “GameDesign builds systems over time. UI/Interaction Design often looks no further than one click ahead.” In games, kids learn very complicated routines step by step. Games don’t present every tool and feature and clue all at once. Instead, they teach things a bit at a time. And it’s not presented as teaching, it’s discovery. Games pose challenges and enable people to discover solutions and gain skills, a bit at a time.

I suspect that people can learn, and designers can build ways for people can learn how to filter what they want to pay attention to out of the stream of noise. It will take principles of game design, progressive disclosure and progressive discovery.

On new concepts for public and private

Pronouncements of the death of privacy are clearly premature. Google’s initial choice to reveal one’s email contacts was a significant mistake – disturbing for some users and harmful or dangerous for others, such as consultants whose clients were revealed, and abuse victims whose networks were revealed to stalkers.

The clear violation of the boundary shows that there are, in fact, real boundaries that can and shouldn’t be violated. That said, there is also real change happening in technology and in social norms relating to the changing infrastructure of society.

So, what is the same, and what is getting different?

Privacy protection is still needed, in fact and concept

Tim LeBerecht presents the perspective that privacy is done for, collateral damage of the trend toward online broadcasting. This has been disproven.

Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda. With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable.

Adrian Chan doesn’t say that privacy is dead, but suggests that the conventional thinking around privacy regarding protection, security, and safety from exposure is the wrong frame.

Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.

The buzz launch privacy error shows that the conventional frame about protecting the individual is still necessary and important. (Which Adrian acknowledges in a recent post on the Buzz launch privacy mis-steps.

Privacy doesn’t express identity – identity is created socially

A base level of privacy protection is needed. Given that, the concept of privacy protection is not adequate to describe the needs of individuals around identity and expression.

Adrian Chan and Stowe Boyd seem to disagree about terminology, but have related opinions about the social construction and expression of identity.

In Adrian’s words, ” I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.”

Stowe Boyd describes a similar concept, and adds nuances about the ways that people form identity in social contexts. The problem with the concept of articulating identity in terms of privacy, says Stowe, is that it frames the self as something that exists outside the social realm and is shared in the social realm. Instead, the self is to a large extent generated in the social realm, and its expression depends on the social norms in various different social circumstances.

From a privacy viewpoint, this fracturing of the totality of experience is viewed as selectively revealing potentially overlapping classes of information about my personal life with different subsets of my world. In the privacy take on the world, a person might be defined as the union of all the personalities they present to the world. People’s personalities in this worldview are thought of as atomic, but multifaceted….

From a publicy viewpoint, something very different is going on. In this zeitgeist a person has social contracts within various online publics, and these are based on norms of behavior, not of layers of privacy. In these online publics, different sorts of personal status — sexual preferences, food choices, geographic location — exist to be shared with those that inhabit the publics. So, in this worldview, people are the union of a collection of social contracts, each of which is self-defined, and self-referential. The norms and mores of a foodist service — eat everything and post everything you eat — may be completely distinct from those about sexual interests, or sports, or social technology on the web. These streams of updates don’t have to add up to a picture that defines the individual, any more that we are defined by the stamps on our passports or the complete sequence of hats we have owned.

In this worldview, a person is a network of identities, each defined in the context of the form factor of a specific social publics. There is no atomic personality, per se, just the assumption that people shift from one public self to another as needed.

Stowe’s perspective focuses on the content and norms of the environments in which social identity is created, while Adrian is focusing more closely on the individual negotiations within those environments; both emphasize the way the self exists socially and is created socially.

So what is public?
Adrian takes issue with Stowe’s use of the new word “publicy”, suggesting that there is no need to re-invent and modify concepts of the public sphere.

Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don’t really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is “constructed” on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.

I disagree with several elements here. Adrian implies that the concept of the public sphere exists and is stable – I think that there are fundamental changes in progress.

The concept of public sphere that we have today was formed in urban public squares and they heavily reshaped by mass media – newspapers, radio, television. As Adrian notes, in the age of mass media, individuals are strangers in the crowd – people do not act or interact. Also in the age of mass media, power of the press belongs to the one who owns the printing press – the power to broadcast is concentrated, the range of information is limited.

The new public network is substantially different from the old broadcast forms. Ubiquitous publication is new. 2-3 Billion people can now share text; hundreds of millions are sharing videos. Ubiquitous discoverability is new. And participants in the new public sphere increasingly aren’t anonymous strangers – more than 400M people are active users of Facebook, which requires real identity.

What people do in public is visible, discoverable, and increasingly linkable to real identity. This is a new circumstance in the world. Social forms and norms are morphing in conjunction with these new things. (I’m not saying that technology shapes society; technologies and social realities co-evolve).

The new discoverable public sphere isn’t quite universal – google doesn’t reach everything. Firewalls contain large amounts of information within organizational boundaries, but within these boundaries, search engines and links make massive amounts of information discoverable. And organizations are seeing that there are powerful benefits to be gained by sharing and discovery, inside and across organizational boundaries.

With defined firewalls, overlapping follow lists and group memberships, and changing relationships and group lifecycles, the map of the more-public sphere is complicated.

Tim Leberecht sees the new public sphere not in opposition to privacy, but on a continuum with it. “Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Also, Tim sees sharing in terms of control – On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.

I agree with Tim that the binary opposition between “public” and “private” is wrong. But I disagree with Tim’s spacial metaphors to describe the relationship. I don’t think there is any single scale that runs from “more private” to “more public”. I prefer Kevin Marks’ discussions of overlapping publics, and Stowes descriptions of how identities are constructed within associations. Also, I disagree that the primary operation in sharing is about “control”. It is about constructing identities, as Stowe describes. It is about the flux of relations between individuals, and among individuals and their groups, as Adrian Chan describes.

Stowe Boyd sees the difference in the online public sphere as an orientation toward time, vs. space. “Online, we share time, not space. We are not actually in a restaurant together: we are using Brightkite, and I am playing along with the premises of the social conventions of Brightkite by posting that I am in Momofuku, The Slanted Door, or Fatty Crab.”

This is an interesting distinction, but not the most salient one, I think. The old world of mass media was also about sharing time – it was about millions of people seeing the same sitcom and the same news broadcast on the same night. Digital media do as much to break up shared time as they do to unify time – for example, people watching movies on their own schedule, and using comments, likes/ratings, and share gestures to express opinions, affiliations and connections.

Even when people do share time in near-synchronous exchanges on Facebook or Twitter or Buzz, the increasing ability to search, curate, and browse shared artifacts and identities will be very important aspects of discoverable life. In the physical world, edifices and public spaces were used to express shared identity, and the decoration of houses and homes expressed personal and household identity. In the online world, profiles were the first step, but the curation of streams will be important forms of expression of both personal and shared identities.

New norms

With this new public sphere shaped by discoverability, there are emerging norms that favor more sharing, transparency and discovery, for individuals participating in social life, and for organizations pursuing some mission or goal. There are also emerging and disputed norms about the discoverable expression of varying aspects of identity. Some workers get fired – and some get hired – as a result of personal expression online.

Stowe contends that the new social contract will be that faceted expressions will be seen as mutually exclusive.

Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent…. and any individual’s participation in a specific online public does not have to be justified in a global way, any more than the cultural mores of the Berber Tuaregs need to be justified from the perspective of modern Western norms.

I don’t believe this is quite how the new norms will play out. I suspect we’re entering a world that is like Jane Jacobs’ urban village, where people are keeping an eye out for what’s happening on the street. There is a lot of visible information and people choose what to pay attention to when.

Another changing sphere of norms and practices is in the area of presence and attention, given that sharing time is one of the properties of the new public sphere. How are people available to each other, what modes do they use, when do we attempt to focus vs. split attention, what expectations to people have of others. Howard Rheingold wisely expresses the believe that “attention is the new literacy” – that people will need to evolve new practices and disciples for handling and communicating attention.

New words and concepts

New norms, conventions, and practices are emerging in this changed reality. New words and concepts will be needed to describe it, or existing words will need to morph their meaning.

Stowe Boyd proposes the term “publicy” to mean the set of expectations around being public – being online, time-oriented vs. space oriented, and existing within overlapping, contextually-determined publics.

Adrian Chan doesn’t like the neologism, arguing that “publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments.” Instead, Adrian prefers “sociality”, which he uses to describe a bottom-up view of a “social field”, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction.”

Thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured)….

Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?

Adrian is interested in established anthropological questions: “What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.”

I agree with Adrian that these considerations are important, and that analysis of social media tools and practices are often wanting because they neglect these considerations.

I don’t yet have a strong opinion about the term “publicy”, and disagree with some of what Stowe is saying about what the new public sphere may mean. What I like about “publicy” is the focus on something that I think has actually changed. (Tim Leberecht actually uses the term “sociality” to refer to this type of change). With respect to this change, I like the focus on the ability to be expressive in a discoverable way. To use the word in a sentence with this meaning, “Facebook violates my norms of privacy by disclosing my friends list to advertisers regardless of my wishes, but it violates my norms of (publicy? sociality?) by making it rather confusing to share public discourse with the world, something my blog makes trivial.”

From an individual perspective and an organizational perspective, it is interesting and useful to consider what may be actually different in capabilities and practices; what may be different because of exposure, discoverability, synchrony and time-shiftedness, and other changed properties. If there is something different in the world, then individuals and organizations have new opportunities, new requirements, new obligations.

Sociality? Publicy? A linguist would have fun monitoring the uses of these terms, and the meanings the terms are accreting. What I want to see is more public discussion of the social aspects of online experience and design, both from the perspective of what is already understood about social behavior, and what is changing.

How boundaries are formed in a more transparent world

Last night at the Social Business Tweetup in San Francisco, I had a conversation with Stowe Boyd about new ways boundaries will be constructed in a world of increased transparency. In the personal world and the business world, more is transparent, boundaries are more porous; boundaries continue to exist, and are created in some different ways.

Signal to noise. When constant streams of talk and data are available, the biggest need is for tools and affordances to manage attention and improve signal to noise. This is a difficult design problem – Facebook, for example, has moved away from hard-to-use individual controls, in favor of not-very-useful algorithmic filters.

Social context I talked at the party to someone working on a startup that is providing tools, analogous to Twibes but with different use cases, to make visible ad hoc groups on Twitter. Even in a public stream, people need ways of paying focused attention to sets of other people.

Shared identity creation. Stowe talked about a changing understanding about disclosure – a privacy-focused model imagines the individual as a source of identity information that is shared. An alternative model imagines aspects of identity as being created within the contexts of subcultures. This view of identity formation isn’t new. But thinking about identity in this way in a digital context leads, for example, to different ways of thinking about decentralized profile information. Maybe you don’t make a central profile and share aspects of it, but create aspects of a profile in a subculture context and choose what to aggregate.

Social thickness Even when conversations are publicly visible, not all conversations are socially accessible. There are purely social norms and processes of group formation, with different levels of social ties operating in social context where everyone can nominally see what’s happening. These are enacted at the level of talk and patterns of reply. Social network analysis can see some of this, the sensitive question is to what end, since the social processes are subtle, and algorithmic approaches are unsubtle (think Facebooks’ reminders to get in touch with people who are famous or people you don’t talk to for good reasons.)

Power at the interface Organizations continue to have boundaries. Naive uses of social media put powerless “watchers” at the boundaries – the representative of Citibank who tells me soothing words when Citi blocks my card yet again, because I shop in batches, but has no power to affect their algorithm or their design for transaction verification. Better would be internal collaboration at the boundary, allowing the organization to react with power to signals it watches for.

Stowe has been talking about his take on these trends using the term publicy. The consequences of these trends for business will be discussed at the upcoming Social Business Edge conference on April 19 in New York.

Talk to each other – moderation in public forums

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates maintains a consistently lively, interesting, respectful discussion section on his blog. The combination of substance and civility is maintained with a firm hand on moderation – people who don’t follow the rules are out. He posted his moderation policy, in response to an influx of new readers. In the policy, Coates called out an item that seems striking in our culture of conversation. Coates insists that his commenters actually talk to each other.

When a commenter responds to another participant, he or she must respond to what that person actually said, not a straw man version of it. A commenter who makes straw man arguments in bad faith is quickly banned. A commenter who misreads someone else’s point, out of passion, speed, or misunderstanding, is coached to respond directly, and to quote the person to ensure they are responding directly.

This practice of talking to each other runs counter to the norms of much of our culture’s public discourse. Anyone who has media training knows that in public forums, you plan your points ahead of time, and then repeat the points you planned, matching those pre-planned points as close as possible. Given the characteristics of mass media, where soundbites will be taken out of context, a speaker needs to be extremely polished and prepared to reduce the likelihood of being mis-interpreted. Also, in a political context, extreme positions are used to stake out debate turf, and addressing a point directly can give credibility to a bad frame. By saying “I understand that you doubt human-caused climate change, but the evidence is clear” – you re-iterate the opponent’s point. There are good reasons, in political discussions, to speak over the heads of the immediate people you’re talking to to reach a broader audience. Similar techniques are used in a business context, where someone representing a company is expected to stay on message.

Even in more informal, less risky settings, such as a collegial panel discussion at a conference, people tend to start with talking points. In response to an overall topic, each panelist will recite talking points. A follow-up to another panelist will be in terms of one’s own talking points. Creating an original response runs the risk of sounding unpolished or incoherent, so speakers take the safe route and repeat programmed answers. Facilitators are accustomed to move topics along, so they don’t often ask follow-up questions to clarify and expand on the initial point.

I had this discussion in the last week with folk including Kevin Marks, Jeannie Logozzo, Adrian Chan and Heather Gold in response to some panel discussions at the Supernova conference, where informed, thoughtful facilitators and panelists still held discussions that sometimes contained more fragments of speeches then current engagement with new ideas and with each other. Heather is leading a series of workshops to help people get beyond soundbites to authentic engagement in public forums.

The concept of actually talking to each other – in an in-person public forum, or an online forum such as a high-profile blog discussion, is so out-of-character to the norms of our public discourse that the proposed alternatives seem shocking.

Moderation in general is critical for a good public discussion. See this piece from Sarah Granger about the dangers of ignoring the need for moderation. The comments section in a post expressing political opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle quickly devolved into trolling, and comments were shut down. The Chronicle has had a lax moderation policy, and its comments sections frequently resemble Lord of the Flies.

In software, some basic tools are needed to enable moderation and facilitation. In safer intranet environments fewer explicit features are needed. Large public forums with many strangers need much more explicit tools. Over an above the features, we need to have practices and norms of facilitation and moderation. Starting with the strange concept of actually talking to each other.

On the thoughtful use of points in social systems

Yesterday afternoon on Twitter there was a brilliant conversation among Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and a few others on the thoughtful use of points and competition in social systems.

Motivated by the popularity of games, designers of social systems sometimes adopt scoring and ranking systems simplistically, with counterproductive results.

The easiest design mistake is to throw up a “leaderboard” ranking all participants by a single dimension. Tom Coates explains that this simply discourages most participants. “Competitive charts, particularly at scale, basically are disincentives! Why compete to be #134,555th best at something!” Jane McGonigal agrees: “Cumulative allplayer scoreboards/ranks/achievements are fail, should be stopped like blink tags ^_^”

Tom Coates argues that systems that try to use extrinsic motivation is a sign that the activity isn’t compelling enough on its own. Flickr doesn’t need leaderboards to motivate actions, no need for competition. Nor Facebook. Or most blogs.” “There may be some role for play, but what motivates me to show my brother things or hang out with friends is not points!” Social systems should facilitate people’s intrinsic social motivations: “In social contexts we build on reasons people already interact with friends / peers / public. Company, sharing, showing off.”

Others in the conversation are less skeptical of points systems, and recommend ways to use them more wisely.

Instead of a single, discouraging ranking, Kevin Marks recommends using leaderboards for friends, with many publics applied to scores. “In gamelike situations comparing scores with peers + friends beats global ranks.” Jane McGonigal observes that social competition can be “rival” based (pick one person in your social network as your rival) like Sharkrunners.

Josh Porter takes time and the adoption cycle into consideration. “I see leaderboards as an early-stage igniter in social networks…good for a time of fast growth but not healthy long-term.” Another way time needs to be considered, says Porter, is the lifespan of scores. cumulative scoreboards eventually break (like Amazon having to reset Top Reviewers last year).

Jane McGonigal sees points systems as valuable, particularly for charting toward hard-to-achieve goals (eg nike+), the gamelike system for tracking running progress. But explicit metrics are only one element of designing a game that people want to play: “points” and “levels” without obstacles and an authentic non-game desire to progress/improve are awful.

Another consideration, I think, is participant temperament. Some participants will be more motivated by desire to be the best, or by social rivalry, or by individual achievement, and some will have social, noncompetitive motivations. Unless the designers explicitly want to select for a single personality type – say, a shooter game for the aggressively macho – designers need to consider the different temperaments in the participant community, and think about ways to support the motivations of different types of participants. Kevin Marks cites Bartle’s classic 1996 essay, Hearts Clubs Diamonds Spades on kinds of players in multi-user computer games.

This is an important public conversation to be having. The practices and principles of social design are starting to emerge from many experiences and experiments in networked social systems. It is a great time to reflect and learn from social systems in the world, and derive lessons for the thoughtful use of points systems (as well as other principles of social system design).

I’ve tried to capture the tweets from yesterday’s conversation on delicious using socialincentives tag, please feel free to add ones I missed.