The Pyramid Scheme — User Gamification

I recently came across a tweet by Dean Obeidallah in which he measures a base by member follower counts.

Putting aside the demographics of Donald Trump supporters (or the dubious effort of measuring the followers of the members of a group), the notion that “less than 100 twitter followers” == “alienated and angry” gave me a laugh, and this seemed like a particularly cheap attack.

To someone on the outside looking in (and where my business is often implementing and designing platforms to abuse users in the way Twitter does, with accomplices like Dean spurring people on), it seems suspect.

I’m not a user of Twitter1, so perhaps I just don’t get it on that platform, however I’ve seen the same thing on a number of other platforms: Where the system rings the Pavlovian bell to get their users engaged, enforcement meted out by users critiquing and measuring the engagement of others. Not engaged because they necessarily like or value the service or the reward of using it, but because some public indicators are held as measures of their worth.

Retweets. Followers. Likes. Connections. Friends. Shares. Stars. Hearts. Views. Favorites.

Twitter is hardly alone. LinkedIn as an organization seems to spend most of their time on gamification and the engagement it demands, recently starting to highlight the movers and shakers among your contacts, at least if you measure movement by “number of LinkedIn views”. This is the latest effort to get you to want to boost engagement, even if that is nothing more than zero value views from “LION”s, or by participating in banal discussions by people preening in front of hopeful future bosses.

The entire platform is built around this. Desperately claw around to get people to look at your profile to try to keep the sliding window counts high enough. Quantity over quality. The whole “LION” thing is built around making a connection list that is close to worthless, but achieves the various metrics of LinkedIn. Rinse and repeat.

One of my few complaints about Flickr was that it embraced this early on, social status counts highlighted and mandatory. If you decided to post pictures for family or friends or the casual browser, or even just for your own edification, your various social metrics sat highlighted on every page.

There is nothing wrong with using these sort of metrics for ranking in search results and recommendations, but making it first class data about the pictures is purely to drive users to essentially become ambassadors of the site.

I fell for it for a while. Having pictures sitting in the single digit of views, which would have been perfectly fine by me if it wasn’t almost shamefully highlighted, led me to use various Flickr photos on blog posts and to try to feed traffic there, purely to increase the counts. Isn’t that ridiculous? It was of absolutely no real value to me — nor, quite honestly, are LinkedIn connections, or various other social counts — but because it sat there like a scarlet letter I was motivated to make it something less embarrassing.

Even this blog is more a cathartic output, and I don’t really place much value on its popularity or reach: When I first started doing this thing, I remember anxiously monitoring read counts, tailoring content to a crowd. Later I became more nihilist about the whole thing, and now I just create content on whatever inspires me, when I get around to it, and from emails know that people sometimes read this stuff. That’s good enough for me.

Looping back to Twitter, in practice it’s a tiny number of producers being read by a very long tail of consumers, but this demand for big follower counts to legitimize your status is predicated on the notion that everyone wants to hear everyone else. But….they don’t. The same phenomena occurs on Facebook where an endless stream of posts appear teaching the user how to hide “friend” content they don’t want to see: we all like the big friend count under the imagination that it gives us a captive audience for our works of brilliance, but in reality everyone is just unfollowing each other and hiding their content (a slightly more polite form of the “follow you on twitter to get you to follow back, and then unfollow you. So tricky!” tactic).

This reminds me of a post from a family member on Facebook a few weeks back. It was a Secret Santa strategy where everyone only had to send one gift, and they’d get 36+ in return. The math….the math it does not work out. This same pyramid scheme is the very foundation of many social strategies: We’ll all be famous!

Every other social site follows the same basic formula — get users promoting your site for you to gain meaningless metrics. You are now a level 21 social connector with the Vigorous Self Promoter badge.

It’s cheap. It’s annoying. It’s a lot of effort for remarkably little gain (for the vast majority of users). To a lot of people it’s just unnecessary manipulation that goes against basic utility.


1 – I don’t get Twitter. Twitter began in the SMS era, and at its very start I was already living in an always connected, many-messaging-options world (I was rolling with a Moto Q at the time of Twitter’s inception, though many of my peers were long on Blackberry), so the whole notion of moving to the past — of limiting what I already had — seemed unproductive. People would pitch me on its varied benefits such as “message multiple people at once!”, “keep up with your friends”, but these were already solved problems.

Since then the SMS imposed brevity of Twitter has been held as some sort of benefit, lemonade out of lemons style. Now a string of “cont’d” Tweets are just good design, and re-tweet nomenclature that makes absolutely no rational design sense is tolerated. I mean, from an outsider perspective the whole platform is a design disaster.

On Twitter, snarky one liners are gold, and real discourse is anathema.

There was a “protest” recently by a satirical group whose cause was to inform the world that “Renoir sucks at painting“. Quite a few took it as a sincere, literal protest, but really the ringleader was making a pretty effective statement that American society (and this certainly holds for Canada, and probably a number of other countries) is now in a place where everyone needs to have positions about everything, and they need to hold those positions strongly.

Where we define ourselves by our strongly held positions. To do otherwise is cowardice fence sitting.

I thought the protest was fantastic, and the fact that it so firmly demonstrated Poe’s Law was brilliant.

Anyways, Twitter perfectly serves that simplification of the world, and I think the two go hand in hand. When all you need are snarky one liners to mock or dismiss the opposition, 140 characters is more than enough. Whether that’s pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-life, pro-choice2, pro-Apple, anti-Apple, right wing left wing democrat republican, pro-Renoir, anti-Renoir…  …just pick a side and wave a flag and follow accordingly on Twitter to chant along.

The other major use of Twitter is as an incredibly low-efficiency version of RSS for subscribers to roundabout know that you posted something or as a news source, which seems logical if your readership are generally non-technically adept. Send them a letter in the mail while you’re at it.

I once created a Twitter account for the sole purpose of getting a business’s attention. We’re in a somewhat absurd state of the world right now where many companies completely disregard their customers unless you make as loud of a complaint about it as possible. It encourages and essentially sponsors people to be as dissatisfied and dramatic as possible.

2 I remember being in grade 10 History in high school and the teacher — who I believe had a dozen or so children — inexplicably started asking students their opinions about abortion. My answer was “I don’t really have an opinion”, and this earned lots of laughs and gentle jeers. It was held as fence-sitting diplomacy, when it was a sincere statement that I really hadn’t thought enough about the issue, or knew enough about the sides, to be willing to choose much less publicly state a position. This situation stuck with me, and I think it has had a huge influence in how I view polarizing situations.