The toy-like nature of social media

A Barbie doll

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

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