Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facilitated a discussion on ‘advocacy in a post-truth era’ at the European Digital Rights Initiative’s annual general assembly. And last night I was part of a discussion on fake news at a behaviour design meetup in Amsterdam. This was a good occasion to pull together some of my notes and figure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phenomenon.

There is plenty of good writing out there exploring the history and current state of post-truth political culture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think people have had enough of experts” are just two examples of the right’s appropriation of what I would call epistemological relativism. Post-modernism was fun while it worked to advance our leftist agenda. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoying it quite as much anymore, are we?

Part of the fact-free politics playbook goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to discredit the anti-smoking lobby. “Doubt is our product” still applies to modern day reactionary movements such as climate change deniers and anti-vaxers.

The double whammy of news industry commercialisation and internet platform consolidation has created fertile ground for coordinated efforts by various groups to turn the sowing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” which sends a high volume of messages across a wide range of channels with total disregard for truth or even consistency in a rapid, continuous and repetitive fashion. They seem to be having fun destabilising western democracies — including the Netherlands — without any apparent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the outrage marketing leveraged by trolls both minor and major. Pissing off mainstream media builds an audience on the fringes and in the underground. Journalists are held hostage by figures such as Milo because they depend on stories that trigger strong emotions for distribution, eyeballs, clicks and ultimately revenue.

So, given all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for liberals, don’t appear to work. This is empirically evident from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psychology.

Facts are often more complicated than the untruths they are supposed to counter. It is also easier to remember a simple lie than a complicated truth. Complicating matters further, facts tend to be boring. Finally, and most interestingly, there is something called the ‘backfire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when confronted with contradicting facts, because they are threatening to our group identities.

More bad news. Given the speed at which falsehoods spread through our networks, fact-checking is useless. Fact-checking is after-the-fact-checking. Worse, when media fact-check falsehoods on their front pages they are simply providing even more airtime to them. From a strategic perspective, when you debunk, you allow yourself to be captured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defensive. In Boydian terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be working to take back the initiative, and you should be offering an alternative narrative.

I am not hopeful mainstream media will save us from these dynamics given the realities of the business models they operate inside of. Journalists inside of these organisations are typically overworked, just holding on for dear life and churning out stories at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to orient and manoeuvre. For bad-faith actors, they are sitting ducks.

What about literacy? If only people knew about churnalism, the attention economy, and filter bubbles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies peddled by reactionaries and return to the liberal fold. Personally I find these claims highly unconvincing not to mention condescending.

My current working theory is that we, all of us, buy into the stories that activate one or more of our group identities, regardless of wether they are fact-based or outright lies. This is called ‘motivated reasoning’. Since this is a fact of psychology, we are all susceptible to it, including liberals who are supposedly defenders of fact-based reasoning.

Seriously though, what about literacy? I’m sorry, no. There is evidence that scientific literacy actually increases polarisation. Motivated reasoning trumps factual knowledge you may have. The same research shows however that curiosity in turn trumps motivated reasoning. The way I understand the distinction between literacy and curiosity is that the former is about knowledge while the latter is about attitude. Motivated reasoning isn’t counteracted by knowing stuff, but by wanting to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offering facts is comparatively easy. Sparking curiosity requires storytelling which in turn requires imagination. If we’re presented with a fact we are not invited to ask questions. However, if we are presented with questions and those questions are wrapped up in stories that create emotional stakes, some of the views we hold might be destabilised.

In other words, if doubt is the product peddled by our opponents, then we should start trafficking in curiosity.

Further reading

Helping users retell experiences

A frame from a Second Life machinima

I talked about the difference between emergent and embedded narrative in games a while ago. I also introduced my Interaction 08 talk in a previous post. I’d like to now follow up with some thoughts on the storytelling that happens outside of a user’s direct interaction with a product or service – the storytelling she engages in when recounting the experience of use to other people.

Obviously, supporting the retelling of experiences is important. After all if you’re offering a cool product or service, you want others to know about it. A passionate user is probably your best advocate. It only makes sense for you to create easy ways for her to share her experiences with others. It can also deepen a user’s own experience – making the product or service part of a story wherein she is kicking ass can create a positive feedback loop.

Games have picked up on this, of course. They’ve employed numerous ways for users to retell their play-sessions. In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman list a number of them:

  1. The replay – found in racing games for instance – literally replays the actions of the player after she completes a track, stage or level. Sometimes this is done in ways that wouldn’t be practical in the game itself1 in all cases it is done in a way that fits the feel of the game, the experience the game aims for.
  2. Other games take this one step further and allow players to control the view of the replay themselves. They’ll also allow users to redistribute the recording of their actions. Doom did this, it was called the recam.
  3. A logical progression is found in the machinima phenomenon, where the play of a game takes a back-seat to the retelling of play, effectively making the game a tool for personal creative expression. A famous example are the many soap opera episodes produced by players of The Sims.
  4. Finally, with the advent of more embodied interactions in gaming there’s an upsurge of online videos of game-play. Having an embodied interface makes it much easier for bystanders to ‘read’ what’s going on, effectively opening the way for play to become like performance2.

How does this translate to the design of user experiences in digital and physical products? I think there are a few things that are important in the retelling of experiences:

  • The protagonist is the user, not your product. Your product or service is the enabler for the user to look cool in a story.
  • The way in which you enable retelling should be well-integrated with the experience you’re aiming for. The recam made sense for Doom because it allowed players to boast about their achievements.
  • You don’t have to create all the storytelling tools yourself. You should try to play nice with the stuff that’s already out there, such as pod-casting services, video-blogging tools, sketch-casting, photo-sharing etc.

Have good examples of products and services that help their users tell stories about their experiences? Let me know in the comments!

  1. For instance using different camera angles, lenses or filters for a more dramatic look. []
  2. My favorite example being this video of a couple of guys playing Guitar Hero. []

More than useful — outline of my Interaction 08 talk

Illustration from children's book

A while back I was happy to hear that my submission for Interaction 08 is accepted. This will be the first conference organised by the IxDA. Obviously I’m proud to be part of that. I’ll probably be building my talk a post at a time on this blog, more or less like I did with the one for the Euro IA Summit of this year. If you’re wondering wether it’ll be worth following along, let me outline the argument I made in my submission:

There’s a generation of ‘users’ expecting their digital and physical products to be customizable, personalize-able and re-combinable. These users explore the potential of these 3C products through play. This is why I think it’s worthwhile for interaction designer to get a better understanding of how to design for open-ended play. Obviously, it makes sense to do some shopping around in the theories of our colleagues in game design. Why should designers bother? Playful products have deeply engaged users that can’t stop telling stories about their experiences with them.

The focus of this talk is firmly on designing stories that emerge through play and enabling the retelling of those play experiences.

Like I said, I’ll dive deeper into these topics in the coming period. If you have any views of your own on this — or useful resources that you think I should check out — do let me know.

Update: Today the full conference program was announced and my name is actually on there. The program looks really cool, and I’m really happy to see some talks related to mine in there as well. See you in Savannah!