May 12, 2011
The Tumblr (and every other site like it) game

Have you ever wondered why you care when someone “likes” or “reblogs” your posts on Tumblr (or likes your comments on Facebook, or responds via Twitter, or what have you)? Have you wondered why you care when someone follows you … and why it hurts when you lose followers? (Questions, alas, I find myself asking … myself.)

The answer to this question comes down to pretty straightforward human ego manipulation. Tumblr, and Facebook, and Twitter and every other site like it has adapted the tools of gaming to the creation of  platforms on which one essentially earns “points” (likes, reblogs and followers in Tumblr’s case) that are structurally akin to winning points in Mafia Wars, Farmville, or Age of Empires. It’s a game in which you collect readers and followers and that consequently satisfies our collective desires for self-expression.

And make no mistakes about it: this game’s rules shape our behavior. First, it’s at least part of why we check our pages time and again. Sure, we see what others have brought up, but we like being part of the conversation, and the likes and reblogs and follows are the outward sign of that participation.

Second, just speaking from my own personal experience with Tumblr, I tend to get the most responses when I make quick, snarky comments that manifest a fairly unabashedly socially liberal, anti-tea party point of view, or when I post graphics that make related points. By contrast, long posts that address complex matters tend not to get as much attention, and those that suggest flaws and holes in progressive points of view tend to be utterly ignored—or to be associated with losses in followers.

The incentive structure here is clear: play to what might be termed my base, and I am likely to be rewarded with likes, reblogs and followers. Transgress that base, and lose points—and the ego satisfaction that comes with them.

Two things stand out about this. First, this process is very similar to the process by which strong partisans and elected officials find their political positions hardening over time. Properly designed reward structures reinforce favored actions; differing structures promote different outcomes. The end result can be the kind of disconnected two-way shouting matches that seem to characterize so much of American politics today,

Second, it isn’t all that much of a stretch to imagine that this game might be coopted to particular intents. Right now, the primary purpose of games like Farmville and Mafia Wars and even blog posts seems to be profit: pushing users to download apps, buy programs, or visit the websites of various sponsors. While such commercial activity is fraught with its own political meaning, it is not directly political in the sense of being a “side” in the discourse of daily politics. (Tea party concerns to the contrary, there is no real anti-capitalist movement in America.)

But imagine a game structured to “teach” certain political values. There’s already some evidence to suggest that the 20+ years of video gaming in our recent pasts have prepared a generation of cyber warriors to fly drones over Pakistan (or wherever) from bases in Virginia, so why not games with more explicit political intents?

We are only a few years into the social experiment that is the modern digital era. It’s only been six years since Facebook went out to the public. We’re learning and adapting at a staggering rate of speed.

It’s going to be both fascinating and frightening.