Posts Tagged ‘social theory’

Facebook credits: Brilliant, Evil or Brilliantly Evil?

by Hang

Venturebeat is reporting that Facebook is planning to introduce a system of giving people credits for status updates:

My first reaction to this was “That’s evil“.

My second reaction was “That’s brilliant“.

After further consideration, I amended it to “That’s brilliantly evil“.

Currently, my position is that it could be any one of the three depending on how they choose to go about it.

What Facebook has done in essence is linked social status to economic status and I think a lot of how this will play out depends on how facebook crafts the narrative around this.

Let’s look at the three alternatives in turn:


By turning social interaction into a economic exchange, facebook turns the default social relationship from one of Balanced Reciprocity into one of Negative Reciprocity.

When we deal with close friends, we engage in a gift culture. I do good things for you because I like you and I expect you’ll return the favor at some later date. With strangers, we are forced to default to an economic exchange because there does not exist a sufficient level of trust to permit a gift culture. What role someone plays in our social sphere is determined by what sort of reciprocity interaction we engage in.

If facebook links their virtual currency up directly to social status with no other viable alternatives, then it forces people to negotiate an economic exchange in relationships which were previous based on gifting. This becomes a hugely uncomfortable experience as one person now occupies two different reciprocity relationships and it becomes unclear what the social obligations are.

If credits become the default social currency of facebook, then I predict disaster. If someone on the site ever thinks “Hey, how come he gave John 300 credits but he only gave me 200 credits? He must like John 50% more”, then facebook is in for some tough times ahead.


At the same time, if facebook designs this feature right, it could be the holy grail of monetization that they’ve been searching for. I’ve never been too convinced that advertising was going to be the business model for facebook given that they have such a rich social tapestry to explore. If they manage to design this feature so that economic exchange is an augmentation of social interaction, then they can leverage credits as a more authentic form of social engagement.

Many of our real world authentic social interactions are marked by economic exchange. Buying a beer for a friend or bringing back souvenirs from a trip abroad for example. In these cases, money spent makes these activities seem more authentic, not less. How can facebook exploit this? I’m not quite sure. But if they manage to strike the right balance, they could end up with a system that both promotes even deeper social engagement while at the same time, make them money hand over fist.

Brilliantly Evil

The most chilling of these three alternatives is that facebook manages to co-opt social status by turning it into an economic exchange. DeBeers convinced America that you buy a diamond to demonstrate your love for a girl and that you love her because the diamond is expensive. The DeBeers mentality is that the only authentic way to demonstrate social status is through economic exchange.

If facebook manages to accomplish this, then the result will be that every facebook employee will become an instant millionaire but facebook profile pages end up looking like something from MTV Cribz.

The road ahead:

Facebook credits has the potential to greatly enhance the range of social expression on the site but it also has the potential to become a complete disaster. Which one of these paths facebook ends up taking depends crucially on the narratives that it’s users adopt and these narratives depend crucially on how facebook credits ends up being designed.

At this point, I’ve only had a few hours to digest this so I don’t think I’m ready to give design suggestions but here are some things I suggest would be worthwhile to explore:

  • What do credits incentivize? Can they become subject to the overjustification effect? Any incentive scheme is going to distort behaviour, and always in ways you never anticipate. Deciding what credits do will have a major function in how they are used.
  • What does credits make comparable that previously wasn’t? How many home cooked meals is getting picked up in the rain after getting a flat tire? It’s precisely because such questions are hard to answer that make gift exchanges so convenient. If Facebook puts a value on something that was previously hard to price, it removes some of the social ambiguity that makes friendships run smoothly.
  • How close to money should it be? Behavioural Economics has shown consistently that Humans regard money-items as very different from non-money items. Under the right conditions, people will prefer $10 gift cards over $15 in cash and are willing to steal $1 chocolate bars but not $1 bills. By calling them credits, facebook pushes it towards the money end of the spectrum which may or may not be what they desire.
  • How close is the link between cash and credits? How many different ways are there of gaining credits and which of these methods is credible? In the original article, the only two ways that credits can be earned are through buying them or building up reputation. Is someone who gives out lots of credits a person who’s rich or a person who has high social status? Is there any way to tell? If there is, does buying credits increase or decrease your social status?

I have to admit, I’m intrigued by the credit system and the social implications that it has. With the right design principles, it could potentially be a game changer much in the same way that the Facebook Application Platform is. And yet, in my discussion with friends so far, I’ve heard nothing but pessimism and I think this is a reflection of all the various ways a scheme like this could go wrong. I guess there’s nothing to do but wait and see what happens.

January 19 2009

Why social DRM is not corporate DRM

by Hang

Anil Dash asks a question in his blog post:

how are privacy settings on social networks different than DRM restrictions placed on media content files from companies? Is it because I’m not a corporation? Is it because the DRM technology is provided by Flickr or Facebook instead of by Apple’s iTunes or Microsoft’s WIndows Media? Is it because I only (theoretically) grant permissions to dozens or hundreds of people, instead of millions?

This intersects nicely with the work I’ve been doing on pinpointing why social design needs to be it’s own seperate specialty with it’s own rules and literature. Let me take a quick stab at answering his question:

  • We think differently about different social relationships. We literally use different parts of our brains to do different types of social reasoning. For individuals, we invoke a much deeper Theory of Mind construct that affects our behaviour. With DRM, we engage in the cost/benifit portion of our brain and basically treat the opposing party as if it were an impersonal force. With social relationships, we not only think about how our actions affect us, but also how they affect them. “What would Sally think of me if I did this?”, “What would Sally think I wanted if I did this?” etc.
  • Social mechanisms scale poorly. Different social mechanisms behave radically differently if you make the scale much larger or smaller. Part of why DRM fails at large scales is simply that it only takes one bad apple to “release” a piece of information before it is freed. That social networking data is relatively secure is an artifact of the small scale it operates on. If you take a look at when social networking suddenly goes “large scale”, Ashlee Dupree or Todd Palin for example, you can see that it’s even more ineffective at protecting media than traditional mechanisms.
  • You can punish those who misbehave with social media. Social media works because you can push enforcement into the social layer. If people misbehave, you can actually punish them in real life. As a result, the rules for good behaviour can be negotiated at the social level. With DRM, the social layer is so weak that you can’t do any real form of enforcement which is why media companies have tried using either technological layer (DRM), the formal layer (courts) or the societal layer (appeals to morality). I’m going to write about this in much more detail in an upcoming blog post.
  • Social Media is of limited utility. Let’s face it, the number of people who want to but can’t see your flickr photos is close enough to 0 that noone is going to bother to go to the effort of revealing it.
  • The dark side of DRM is visible, the dark side of social media is invisible. Piracy is something that now happens out in the open so we get a generally accurate picture of how it’s practised and what the extent of it is. Violations of privacy in social media still happens in a shadowy underground so we tend to ignore it out of ignorance. In my fieldwork on just how people use socia media in less than savory ways, it’s actually quite surprising just how prevalent and casual privacy violation can be yet it’s not talked about nearly as much.
In short, I think this really highlights the importance of context in discussions about social design. It’s not merely enough to look at the software and expect that functionality maps onto results in a clean manner. The software is only a small part of a much larger design.
November 19 2008

Thoughts on virtual worlds

by Hang

I went to a talk today on virtual worlds and it got me thinking a bit. I’ve always been somewhat of a virtual worlds skeptic. Virtual worlds is one of those things where the concept is so easy to understand that when you’re first exposed to it as a layman, immediately an infinite field of possibility stretches out before you. You end up envisioning something that could have come out of a William Gibson or Neal Stephenson novel where all our transactions would be conducted in a virtual 3D space. The problem is, as soon as you dig a bit below the surface, some real serious usability issues immediately pop up and I’m not convinced that virtual worlds provided a compelling solution.

The power of computer interfaces is precisely that it breaks away from the strict physical constraints of the real world. It is the types of non-physical abstractions that really leverage the full power of using a machine. Imagine if you tried to build Amazon in Second Life, it would be a disaster. The things which make Amazon so powerful is precisely the things which escape from the limitations of real life bookstores. It’s the ability to store millions of books and find books via search rather than navigation and the ability to slice and dice the book collection in all sorts of interesting ways while conventional bookstores are stuck with only a single sort order which make Amazon succeed. Virtual worlds always struck me as an idealistic but naive attempt to add back in the physical constraints that we worked so hard to get rid of.

However, as I was sitting and listening to the talk, it struck me that the real benefit of virtual worlds is to allow for shared virtual experiences. Our current technology really sucks at delivering a shared experience to people who are not in the same physical world as you.

Think of a group of teenage girls who go shopping together at a mall. They might start independently drifting and forming clusters around certain objects. They can gather around a particular item and point out areas of interest and physically manipulate the item. Conversation will be constant and only semi-directed and the entire social experience has a huge amount of depth and richness.

Now think about shopping online. While we do a good job of replicating the commerce aspects but the social experience is hugely impoverished. It basically amounts to sharing links with each other and then verbally describing what you see on the page that should interest them. Sure, you could imagine some fancy, heavyweight collaboration software that does some sort of shared screen and fancy mouse tracking but there is an inherent limitation of how well you can replicate a shared experience on a GUI platform because there’s so little presence information.

The lack of presence in traditional software is part of it’s power. The only way to create something as powerful as Amazon is to abandon the idea of presence. To abandon the concept of shared spaces and canonical representations. But this lack of presence also means that it’s impossible to deliver any meaningful shared experience.

Virtual worlds represent the other compromise. To accept everything that sucks and is limiting about a physical representation and to embrace those constraints rather than fighting against them. The up side of doing this is that you now can allow for the types of powerful shared experiences that we have in the real world.

It’s no coincidence that MMORPGs are the first real success we’ve had with virtual worlds. MMORPGs are founded on having shared experiences and they derive their power from making presence an integral part of the gameplay. However, I think this concept of shared experience allows us to take a much more nuanced view of what the impact of virtual worlds will be. It’ll allow us to gain a more sober insight of what virtual worlds can and cannot deliver which seems much more credible than the utopia that gets hyped in the mainstream press.

Oct 13th (Day 1): Social Mechanism Design

by Hang

About an hour ago, it was annouced that Paul Krugman was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Jumping onto wikipedia to confirm, I soon succumbed to the problem with Wikipedia and ended up reading up again about mechanism design.

I remember first finding out about mechanism design almost exactly one year ago, when the 2007 Nobel Economics Prize was announced. Mechanism design is a simple idea: If you make some radically simplifying assumptions about people’s desires and methods, you can predict how they will go about behaving under certain scenarios. If you then know *enough* about how people will behave, you can structure the *rules* of the system to cause certain outcomes. For example, whether an auction is blind or non-blind can have an impact on how much people bid. What Hurwicz, Maskin & Myerson had done was to build powerful analytical tools to formalise this intuition and present it in a highly rigid, mathematical manner.

Which was great, it was fabulous and it was directly in line with what I was working on. I too was looking for how to understand the intersection between the rules of the system and people’s behaviour. But mechanism design was a formal, analytical and bottom up approach that only captured a tiny part of the hugely complex, social context of the real world. Which made me really wonder: How come I had never even heard of people trying to study this from a more holistic manner?

Let me give a simple example: The implicit rules I was brought up with for group discussion was that if you had a point to make, you raised your hand. The moderator of the group would then pick who had their hand up for longest. This was a *horrible* way to conduct group discussions because by the time they reached you, the group had moved on and the point you were trying to make was half an hour in the past. It didn’t hit home to me just how bad it was until I attended a philosophy discussion group which added just a tiny bit more process into the system.

To make a point directly related to the current point, you raised a single finger. To make a completely new point, you raised an entire hand. All the fingers got to go before any of the hands but as a finger, you were not allowed to speak more than 30 seconds and it was very poor form to meander too far off the original topic. As a result, digressions were quickly but efficiently resolved and the level of the conversation in the room was markedly more efficient.

The rules were slightly different and, as a result, the conversation was *better*. But when I was asked to *explain* why it’s better, the best I could do was to piece together ad hoc bits of common sense that I knew at the time. What I was seeking was some sort of framework that I couldn’t fit my explaination into.What was really surprising to me was how hard it was to find such a thing. Wherever I looked, nobody seemed to be studying this kind of thing. So part of this blog post is an appeal to people to point me to others who are doing the same kind of work because it’s still hard for me to believe that something so big and so obvious could have received so little study. My work has been so interdisciplinary I can only surface skim over a lot of different fields and it may well be I’ve completely missed an entire area of research.

So this is the message that I’ve been trying to craft for the last 2 years: Rules matter when you’re designing social systems and right now, people don’t have anything but intuition and rules of thumb to guide them. Mechanism design is awesome but it’s impossible to use in any practical sense. Without some sort of way of thinking about how rules should be structured, each system is at the whims of the individual talent of the designer. What’s more, without such a framework in place, it’s difficult for people to even recognise the aspects of mechanism design and clever and innovative designs are not propogated. This, to me is a situation which needs to change and it needs to change quickly.

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