Friday, 25 July 2014

App Obesity & Narcissism

TL;DR - Programmers have a huge amount of control over the environments users live in these days. In search of stickiness are we making users mentally fat and breeding a world of narcissistic, self consumed addicts much like fast-food plays on our cravings for fats and sugars. Is there a better way? Do we have a responsibility? Do the competitive pressures on products make it OK? Unavoidable? Is it a problem at all?

Here's a story that may or may not be familiar to you:

I've gone out for a meal with Dave and Jane. We're chatting and having a nice time, reasserting our bond as friends. Suddenly, I notice Dave is staring in to his lap. He's looking at his phone. It isn't anything important, he's skimming Twitter, seeing how many people "liked" his last Facebook status or checkin to Foursquare. Unfortunately he has checked out of the social environment all together.

Now, I'm not saying my company is so gripping that 100% attention is required. In fact I'm certainly quite boring at times. Trying to be objective, it wasn't Dave's boredom that caused him to "checkout" of the situation. It was a small, 30 to 60 second window where he wasn't engaged in the conversation. Rather than deal with this by re-involving himself in the conversation or steering the topic to one he has a common interest in ... he just checked out. He negated using social skills and interaction for a quick-fix of stimulation. Dave isn't real, but the situation is one I have been in hundreds of times in one form or another.

... Maybe I need new friends.

Statistically, adding images to blog posts every few paragraphs keeps younger readers engaged.

Now, I'm all for a world in which we are engaged all the time or we can fit something worthwhile in to a 60 second window. Even if that was true, it's something to do while waiting for the bus not slap-bang in the middle of dinner. Dave wasn't enriching his life, at-least not in any meaningful way, he was consuming. He was swapping (what should be) enriching, healthy, first-hand experience for cheap, quick consumption of a service. Instead of gaining, he was giving away.

Now, I have no right to judge how "enriching" people find Twitter or how much better somebody's life is with 10,000 Facebook friends. Trying to objective, it seems clear to me that the mechanisms we found and that work for exponential user growth and user-value are like the sugar and fat of fast food. These apps, websites and services eat away at the things that make life better in exchange for a quick hit of the things our vulnerable brains want. We know this, it isn't a revelation. Fat people know they're getting fat too.

I know I'm a victim of this. I used to think my Facebook "friends" we're friends. They're not. The platform gives me an illusion of friendship that's just enough to help me forget I'm almost friendless. It is effective and keeps me consuming the service but it's clear I'm exchanging meaningful friendships for Facebook "friends" in the long-term.

I also used to think my StackOverflow reputation had some kind of meaning or that how many people re-tweeted something I said enriched my life in some way. It doesn't, and I'm not sure it can. Perhaps even this blog post is part of the same system? Why am I writing this here and not expressing my view in-person to somebody who challenges my opinion and whose opinion I take seriously?

It's really simple, and marketing has been doing it for years. Take advantage of properties of the human condition for commercial gain. Sell a car on the basis of social status, market cleaning products through fear, appeal to our desire for personal freedom. We all know this happens.

When designing an app, website or other consumer-facing system often the thing that's most valuable is the "consumption" of our service itself. When generating revenue through advertising it's important to grow our userbase, increase usage frequency and retain users for as long as possible. It's the simple mathematics of many services.

Fast-food has a similar urgency for volume. These meals are cheap, convenient, immediately available and tasty. Properties engineered in to this food makes us want it, but also makes it bad for us. Again, no surprise here. Diet related obesity and diabetes is an epidemic sweeping the developed world.

The properties we engineer in to many of our services have similarly negative side effects comparable to the obesity and diabetes of crappy food; Narcissism and disconnection. Reputation scores, likes, real-time notification, numbers that grow and generally gaminfication encourage us to keep consuming. They give our brains a quick dose of emotion-linked positive feedback. We love it. We're human.

If you are still reading, you are in the minority. Assuming this post is even interesting, well over 70% of people will have left to do something else by now. Something immediate. Something quickly reassuring. Something that tells them they are "liked" or interesting. Or to take a quick selfie.

Selfies. Narcissism in action.

Many services these days have the standard set of mechanism built in such as reputation or some metric of how much you are respected, liked and/or appreciated by the other users in the system. Do we even need them? If a system is actually unique and useful isn't stickiness just a property of a service being awesome? If you need the tricks of gamification and to design a system that fawns over the user ... do you actually have something of value?

Google didn't work because you had a reputation or it tapped in to our desire to be liked. Google worked because it provided a good service. It was useful. It grew because it was a good service. In fact, many of Google's services are like this. Youtube doesn't work because the world tells me how amazing my choice of videos to watch is (though many people post on Youtube just to talk in to their webcam for some likes).

Is gamification covering up a fundamental flaw in your service? Is using gamification, flattery and reinforcement for exponential growth causing long-term issues for society when magnified over hundreds of apps? Why do so many pictures have the photographers face in it online?

Does it even matter? Does it matter that fast food is unhealthy and making developed economies fatter? People have a choice right? Does it matter that websites and applications (subjectively and IMHO) might be preventing people leading rich lives?

Profit, user-growth and McBurgers-per-second are what matter. It makes the whole thing feasible. If we can find a way (in software) to think beyond "points" and flattery to feedback systems that provide real value and sustainable growth while making our lives more fulfilling ... then we should reach for that.

I think there's valid arguments on both sides. I'm not against fast food nor gamification. Fundamentally I'm not against positive feedback for user behaviour we want to encourage but I think we should be aware of the impact it might be having. Not that you should care about the baseless worries of a random guy on the Internet.

I'm bored ... I'm off to eat crappy food and post images to Imgur so that random people can give me fake points while I interact in a culture and community that seems worthwhile but isn't while making other people money.