I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite a while: I think a lot of social media are like toys. I think what we see with people (adults!) using them is a lot like the open-ended play we know from playground games in school. A lot of these games are about exploring (the possibilities of) social relationships in a ‘safe’ context. Social media offer this same potential. In playground games there is a natural understanding that what happens within the magic circle of the game is not really real (but the notion is blurred.) A lot of discussion about the virtuality of relationships in social media does not acknowledge the existence of such a thing: Either the relationship you have with someone is real (he’s a real friend, or even real family) or not, in which case the relationship is often seen as value-less. I’d argue that a lot of people use social media to explore the potential of a relationship in a more or less safe way, to later either transition it into realness or not (note that I do not mean it needs to be taken offline into meat-space to make it real!)
I think social media are so compelling to so many people for this reason. They allow them to play with the very stuff social relations are made of. I think this fascination is universal and virtually timeless. At the same time I think the notion of using social play as the stuff of entertainment has seen a tremendous rise over the past decade. (I tend to illustrate this point with the rise of reality TV.)
If you think of the design of social software as the design of a toy (in contrast to thinking of it as a game) you can design for open-ended play. Meaning there is no need for a quantifiable end-state where one person (or a number of people) are said to be the winner. You can however create multiple feedback mechanisms that communicate potential goals to be pursued to the player. Amy Jo Kim has a worthwhile presentation on the kind of game mechanics to use in such a case (and also in the more game-like case.)
Finally, two things to think about and design for:
- Play in social media happens according to rules encoded in the software, but also very much following external rules that players agree upon amongst themselves.
- You will have people gaming te game. Meaning, there will be players who are interested in creating new external rules for social interactions. Think of the alternative rules players enforce in games of street soccer, for instance.
Update: Just thought this small quote of Michal Migurski defending the recent Twitter Blocks nicely complements my argument:
“There are plenty of but-useless things in the world that serve as emotional bonding points, amusements, attractions, and macguffins. Practically all of social media falls under this category for me, a form of mediated play that requires a suspension of disbelief in rational purpose to succeed.”