So where, I ask you, is the “post new content” button?
The new google+ is interesting chiefly because behind and beneath all the little and big design changes – the responsive design, the style unification, the hashtags, the “data-informed design”, the hangout, the forty-odd new features, the “stream with style and smarts” –, there seems to be a central but not overtly communicated design goal at work here, to wit: to slowly but surely let all affordances align in one direction of transfering user behaviour from content creation across genres into a de-facto photo/video-sharing network.
It’s as if facebook woke up one day and said: “Ok, what do we have to do to BE Instagram, one year from now? Such that although people in principle COULD share links and text and stuff, they WILL only share photos, so our stream will be one clean, unified stream of beautiful photos, a stream that people in our app will mainly browse, consume, upvote, comment and re-share, rather than create new content in it?”
Google Plus’s answer to that question:
- Auto-upload mobile phone pictures: People don’t even have to think/want to share their images, we’ll get them automatically. Huge instant-population of the stream with images right out of the bat, without users having to change their behaviour. And just to the browsing eye, the whole stream changes from one of texts, check-ins, links and stuff into one that FEELS like Pinterest, one image after the other. Social proof by technical default: The impression that this thing OUGHT to be used for images, because now 90% of what traverses the stream IS images.
- But wait, a lot of these images are crappy! The typically Google solution to that issue: Strong algorithms + strong datasets. Auto-filter the auto-uploaded images using algorithmic measures of beauty and graph data of what users/images you personally are most likely to be interested in. Blow up in size what is beautiful+relevant, shrink/filter out what is not. Also, auto-enhance the auto-uploaded pictures in their beauty. Again, the idea: You user might not WANT to use g+ instead of fb or Instagram, and you do not WANT to go through the friction of switching platforms, but we’ll get you nevertheless by auto-slurping your stuff, such that at a certain point you feel it’s even easier to let us auto-upload and auto-beautify your pics without you even thinking rather than having to go through the motions of thinking about which smartphone photo app to use, how to link them up with what sharing networks, etc.*
- But wait, people are still posting all this ugly, non-visual STUFF on g+, all these links and texts and so! For us, Google, they’re irrelevant, because they don’t really drive traffic, but they still litter our beautiful new design and de-facto Instagram stream! The solution: Hide away all content sharing/creation features that are not auto-uploading of pictures (and later, we can assume, YouTube videos). True, this may be a mere design oversight – but for a social network, hiding the “create post” button is a pretty big “oversight”, no? You might say it’s there up in the screen, you ‘just’ have to hit the Google+ home button, be scrolled back up in your screen, and there the entry window awaits you. True, but there’s NO visual indication that that’s the way (the ONLY way) to post new stuff once you scrolled down your stream a bit. And it arguably creates quite a bit of friction, because by scrolling up again, you lose your position within the stream: You then have to scroll back down again, and remember where you were, etc.
Have a look at their self-presentation video above. It presents the vision: ALL content in their stream is PREDOMINANTLY visual, an image or a video. What people do on the platform is upvote, comment, or subscribe to hashtags. The one interaction in the middle of the video – post a new question to friends – looks like a lonely and forlorn line of text in this sea of BIG images. Compare this vision of how the clip projects the aspirational ideal of what the new Google+ ought to be with the screenshot of my current stream at the top of this post: As of now, people (at least in my social network) are still sharing predominantly ugly text with ugly bits of white space and controls around it.
I don’t say this ‘hidden agenda’ is ‘nasty’, or ‘evil’, or anything like that. It’s a conscious design choice, a testament that there actually IS (to my mind) an underlying vision behind the forty-odd new features. I guess usage data told Google that photo/video drives engagement for them, not text/links – that they felt they had the choice of EITHER trying to be twitter, OR Instagram/Pinterest, and they opted for the latter. It’s just interesting to see how the new design shifts away from the differentiator of “post EVERYTHING, and post texts NO MATTER HOW LONG” into “Instagram without having to think”. As a designer, I applaud the depth of thinking and the complex intertwining of backend tech + interface + interaction design required to pull it off. As a researcher, I think THIS is the real challenge for talking about “code is law” or the power of algorithms in the year 2013: To describe, capture, measure the effects of such a complex interlocking set of features from which systemic affordances emerge that make use of social impression formation as much as perceived effort. Interesting times.
* This technical ‘let’s make it easy’ solution of course overlooking that people’s presentation of self online is ALL about careful curation of the symbolic meanings entailed in what pictures you share and not share, what pictures you filter how or not, what pictures you share through what platform, what platform you use or not, etc. pp.
Heineken Ignite: Heineken’s first interactive beer bottle.
Acting rationally is a special condition, a special situation with special social norms. The larger social norm that always applies is that one should abide by the special norms of the situation. As Goffman notes with regard to norms of rational speech: “More specifically, if the participants can assume that their purpose is solely to use talk in the rational, efficient, instrumental pursuance of some joint enterprise-and presumably this happens occasionally-then something like the Gricean conversational maxims (or rather, admonishments) will apply, establishing normative, not merely cognitive, standards for the exchange of relevant information. What we find in these cases is that cognitive requirements for sustaining staccato, machine-readable com- munication are underwritten as part of the considerateness the participants owe one another in the circumstances.” (Felicity’s Condition, 1983, 29-30)
Similarly, then, participants in a ludic encounter owe to each other to be rational self-interest maximisers with regard to the game. To *not* do so would be a moral and cognitive affront, expressed in power gamers’ ill-hidden contempt for the “casual gamer” who is primarily there for the occasion to socialise. And so if you enact these norms in non-ludic encounters: We sometimes get an inkling of this if people at a supermarket manage to combine and calculate coupons to maximise their cashing out. To them it might be a pride-inducing moment of expertly displayed gamesmanship, but to us it is an embarrassing disregard of the proprieties of public interaction that even in a commercial setting go beyond mere economic exchange. At a certain point, your mathematic trickery starts to rub off on the self of the clerk as a competent and regard-worthy person, and that is what makes the situation feel “awkward” to us – the “Fremdschaemen” for the clerk’s diminishment, and the “Fremdschaemen” for the calculating customer not realising the collective disapproval focused on him or her.
This referee’s response can be summarized by an analogy. Suppose I had written a plan for building a high-speed rail link from London to Glasgow. The referee first proposes that I build an institute of transportation studies. He then notes that London already has the Heathrow Express, and that there is a perfectly good high-speed link between Tokyo and Yokohama. Finally, he observes that I would have to overcome the problems inherent to all airships.
Inadvertently or not, the little in-article gamification (by now a small tradition of its own) of Nick Wingfield’s recent New York Times piece on gamification, “All the World’s a Game, and Business Is a Player,” serves as an excellent parodic self-reflection on everything that’s wrong with gamification of its kind, and the gamification of reading in specific. It’s basically the residual of what Scott Jon Siegel did with MelVille (a facebook app consisting of “Moby Dick” where you earn a point for every page you turn, and a level for every chapter), or Shannon Perkins with the Wired article “Curse of the Cow Clicker” on Ian Bogost’s facebook game parody Cow Clicker: Every time you clicked the word “cow” in the article, you earned a point. (As an aside, Shannon’s recent GDCO talk on the matter is now free online and worth a watch.)
It’s a residual because with MelVille and “Curse of the Cow Clicker,” at least you had to click something, even if it was just the “next” button, or the word “cow.” A rote remainder of interactivity, but still. In Wingfield’s NYT piece, there is (initially) no user input at all but scrolling: As you (try to) read on, you unlock badges for amount scrolled or time spent on the article. Now as any literary scholar will tell you, reading is itself a highly interactive process. But far from supporting this interaction that is reading, the NYT badges actively get in its way. They disrupt the reading experience. Not a second after my attention has recovered from the last badge unlock overlay and refocused on the text, the next badge overlay disrupts it again congratulating me how apparently steadfastly-concentrated I am (if only I didn’t allow myself to get distracted by its points and badges):
Ninety seconds. An amazing attention span. (Sorry, no points for two minutes.)
In other words, the badges detract from, rather than add to, the experience. This is nothing new, of course: In an earlier iteration, the gamified online reputation platform Klout threw multiple “idiot box” notifications of recently unlocked badges in the path of a returning user. In web services, this is just a spammy nuisance, like popup banners. But in the case of reading – an (inter)activity defined by focused concentration – it becomes utterly self-defeating. Or as the commenter Bill from Arkansas put it:
Now after the initial read-through, a reader finds that she hasn’t unlocked all the badges yet, and maybe tries to second-guess and explore the article’s interactive functionalities to unlock the rest of them (like enlarging an image, or writing a comment). At first, it seems that we are now entering more promising territory: Hidden secrets pique curiosity (as one commenter wrote: “How do I get badges 9 and 10? I must know!”).
But again, this also serves to show how the badges fail author and reader: Images are not zoomed out of interest, comments are not written out of the need for discussion. As one commenter wrote: “trying to get another badge by commenting”, and another replied to another commenter’s question how to earn the last badge: “maybe one for replying to a comment?”, in so doing trying to earn it. Images and comments are instrumentalised as means toward the end of the badges. Almost despite themselves, the comments deliberate on the badge system of the article all the while they try to unlock a badge.
If I were to follow Ian Bogost, I might take this as evidence that the article delivers an actually successful persuasive game: Together with its badges, it manages to create a “simulation gap” – an opening for the clashing of a rule system and a player’s subjectivity – and thereby induces a “simulation fever,” a cognitive dissonance that urges the reader to dissolve it through deliberation.
“The disparity between the simulation and the player’s understanding of the source system it models creates a crisis in the player; I named this crisis simulation fever, a madness through which an interrogation of the rules that drive both systems begins.” Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, Cambridge, MA/London, 2007, pp. 332-3.
Sometimes, Bogost holds, stimulating deliberation is the actual goal of a persuasive medium, more than conveying any specific message. As he notes on his own The Howard Dean for Iowa Game: “Rather than producing assent, … the game produces deliberation, which implies neither immediate assent or dissent.” (ibid., p. 329) Viewed through this lens, the comments offer ample evidence that the article-cum-badges effectively infected its readers with simulation fever. Jeff from New York:
“It’s weird that even though I know I’m being manipulated, it still works.”
And like the reader’s comments, it seems as if the NYT piece achieved this inadvertently, despite itself. For unlike MelVille, “Curse of the Cow Clicker,” and all the other parodies, it shows no ironic self-awareness. Both text and badges come across as dead serious, even though the disrupted reading experience and comment thread perforated with badge-grabbing “first”-like spam performatively self-contradicts the claims of the text and in so doing, provides material for reflection whose substance and depth far outweigh anything the article itself provides, spurring comments like the one you are reading right now.
One might ask whether the seriousness of the article actually intended this: Whereas the irony of “Curse of the Cow Clicker” is a self-congratulatory wink to the reader that she may count herself as part of the cultural club of those “clued in,” the benign trolling of the NYT points and badges makes an outrageous claim with the most calm and composed face in order to get the reader to take her own stand in violent opposition. Manipulation still, yet of a subtler and riskier kind, banking on counter-dependency instead of dependency.
But to me, whether the author and designer of the NYT piece actually intended this is irrelevant. The important point is the inherent fragility and subjectivity of this kind of persuasion. It hinges on the context the reader brings to it (as this comment hinges on the context I brought to the NYT piece, now bringing it as context to your reading of it). Whether it succeeds in spurring cognitive dissonance (or “simulation fever,” if you prefer), is an open question. In which direction that dissonance takes you, and how deep, is another. Most comments on the NYT article do not go beyond “like because X”, “dislike because Y”, or “this is creepy,” an emotional expression that often covers up more than exposes the underlying issues. Yes, the article’s crude-yet-serious badges afford a stimulating performative self-contradiction, but it does so only to the already-converted, highly educated few, and it only affords it – there’s no guarantee. And neither Bogost nor anyone else I know has laid out yet how we might not just design for affording simulation fever, but also how to design for affording a deeper discussion following it, maybe even guiding that discussion in a desired direction. I don’t think this is an essential, insurmountable shortcoming. As in so many other instances, it just highlights the fact that the social interaction around a game (or game-like experience) needs as much design attention as the game/experience itself.
Taken at face value, the NYT piece is a design failure: It aptly illustrates the concept of gamification, but in so doing, diminishes rather than enhances the reading experience and quality of discussion. One or two turnings of the screw further, it is an excellent performative demonstration of the shortcomings of a crudely designed badge system that may or may not spur deliberation on these shortcomings. But at a final turning, it remains wanting because it does not demonstrate means for spurring – thus exposing a general shortcoming of many persuasive games of the Bogostian kind: Designing for simulation fever remains a gamble, not a game. And as a game designer, I don’t like to gamble unless I know my odds, and how to stack them in my favour.
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