Gaming the Addiction of Social Media

During World War II the British routinely intercepted German Morse Code transmissions. Eventually Bletchley Park was able to decode many in real time, but even the encrypted transmissions provided valuable information. The radio operators developed intimate familiarity with signature characteristics of the transmitters. They were assigned names and given personalities. The locations of their transmissions provided valuable intelligence about the deployment of Germany troops.

Even the limited bandwidth of encrypted Morse Code transmissions provides the radio operators a rewarding sense of intimacy. Those of us who are incapable of “getting” their experience should note that many non-users of social media also don’t get it. An increasing number of people worldwide understand the feeling of connectedness and intimacy they can feel with complete “strangers”. Nobody need remain a stranger for long.

TEDTalks never ceases to amaze me for the breadth, depth, and originality of the presentations. On November 2, 2010 TEDTalks released a presentation by Tom Chatfield called 7 Ways Games Reward the Brain. It is worth watching the video, but in a nutshell the 7 ways are:

1. Experience bars measuring progress: LinkedIn uses this when filling out your profile completeness. Facebook users measure their importance by their number of friends. Similarly Twitter users measure their numbers of followers and tweets.

2. Multiple long and short-term aims: Users seek to engage each other in a variety of ways that evolve over time. However, the lack of clear objectives is at least one reason for abandonment by novice users.

3. Reward effort: in video games this means every activity is associated with experience points or gold. In social networking it means getting retweets or Likes or replies to updates.

4. Rapid, frequent, clear feedback: In video games and social networks the availability of feedback is a reward of use. However, the lack of clear aims with clear feedback can cause abandonment.

5. An element of uncertainty. (“This is the neurological goldmine.”): Gamblers know this factor well, as do gamers and social networkers. Your most clever post can go without response, while the most mundane of comments can elicit pages of replies. The uncertainty encourages participants to keep trying.

6. Windows of enhanced attention, when learning is taking place at an enhanced memory. Improves memory and confidence. Video game designers spend a lot of time tuning the game to enhance attention. To some extent social networkers can tune their own experiences by how often they check their data feeds, subscriptions, and discussions. However, social network participants and designers are behind video games in studying ways of enhancing attention to improve retention and learning.

7. Other people: This is a factor in video games, and even more so in social networks. The ability to form networks of interest or reconnect with old friends are some of the most rewarding aspects of social networks. Somehow, following the travels and travails of complete strangers is entirely rewarding.

Why does this matter? The video game industry is $50 billion, and gamers spend $8 billion in real-world cash on video game experiences that have no real-world equivalent. We haven’t even begun to unlock the (monetary and otherwise) potential of social networks. As a participant, a corporate marketer, or social network designer, this matters. Constructing the right experiences can result in significant cash rewards. But for many, I reckon that isn’t the point.