I’m currently reading Gary Shteyngart’s hit novel A Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian tale about some future time in New York. America is a place where people gather in crowds only to stream live on their personal devices, compulsively producing a blather of titillating talk that can differentiate them. Most conversation is just fodder for personal broadcasting, designed to pull an audience. (Also, as an aside, the sexual mores are even more outrageous, with women typically wearing Onionskin jeans, totally transparent pants under which they are naked, and Total Surrender panties, which fly off at the press of a button. The book is very funny, I recommend it.) What comes through all the frenetic networking is a profound sense of disconnection and loneliness. The characters are always in touch, constantly informed, but thoroughly isolated emotionally.
Is Social Media actually making us lonely?
Last week I attended a lecture by Eric Clemons, a Wharton professor of Information Strategy who researches monetization of the web. In his talk Monetizing the Net: Creating Profits Through Anything But Advertising he focused on the macro trends, describing what he called “one and a half blockbuster revenue generation models” currently dominating online revenue streams. The first is the third party payer business model, where one party provides something that a second party (customer) needs to reach a third (seller). Google is the obvious example, but there are others, including hotels.com, opentable.com, groupon.com, etc.
What I found really interesting was his description of the other “half model,” one that is rapidly growing. That is the social networks/gaming axis and Clemons is particularly interested in the rapid profit growth in the area of virtual and social game experiences. Virtual goods are expected to hit $1.6 billion this year in the U.S. ($4 billion worldwide). Social gaming startups, all new in the last three years, will account for $835 million of that. (Source)
First we have the behemoths of online gaming, several years old now:
19.2 million users
1st Quarter 2010 User Transaction revenue: $160 million
59% male, 41% female
World of Warcraft
11.5 million subscribers
$800 million in revenue/year from North America and Europe
80% male, 20% female
Both of these games are highly competitive. WOW is blatantly so – a game in the pure sense. People pay a subscription fee to play, and there’s also a black market in virtual goods like gold. In Second Life, revenues are generated by users who craft an alternate identity and invest in their avatar’s success. Large sums are spent not only on virtual material goods, but also on special synchronizers that give an avatar smooth dance moves, or even extraordinary sexual technique, for example. The Second Life economy is sophisticated enough to have had bankruptcies, lawsuits, etc., all over virtual goods.
Within the last couple of years, new applications have generated enormous buzz. FarmVille, like Mafia Wars before it, is a game accessed via Facebook.
78 million monthly members
Typical user age: 18-35
40% male, 60% female
If you’ve managed to miss playing FarmVille, you’ve probably seen friends’ updates come across your Facebook feed. I’ve been repeatedly asked to help women in their 50s get the last nail they need for their chicken coop, or some similarly goofy request. You may have seen the recent news story about a 22 year-old woman who shook her 3 month-old son to death after his crying interrupted her while she was playing FarmVille.
Zynga, the company that makes FarmVille, generates revenue by getting addicted players to pony up for the virtual goods needed to build a farm. Many have incurred debt to acquire virtual goods in FarmVille. Professor Clemons admitted that he couldn’t quite grasp the benefit – he likened buying virtual goods in order to win a game to paying a friend to throw a chess match your way. Where is the sport?
A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, an instructor in the Media Study Department at SUNY Buffalo, suggested that it’s not about play, it’s about social pressure.
“The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people.”
Jerry Langton of MSN Tech and Gadgets believes that people get caught up in the stress of fearing failure on FarmVille. He says, “Part of the reason FarmVille is so addictive is because if crops are not tended to at the right time, they can die, making all of the farmer’s previous work in vain. The desire to prevent such a huge loss keeps players coming back regularly. “At times it’s almost psychotic because you think, I have to get home and milk the cows or they’ll explode,” said Robert Prowse, a television producer in Toronto who plays FarmVille every day.
And FarmVille players keep coming back — even when they might not feel like gaming. “I generally look in once a day to make sure nothing’s ‘died,’ needs harvesting or to see if friends have gifted me anything,” said one woman. “It’s momentum that’s propelling me at this point; I feel like I’ve started something I have to maintain.”
Another phenomenon is Foursquare, a mobile social game that has generated incredible buzz.
4 million users in first year
Not yet monetized
Urbanites aged 24-35
Of course, the developers haven’t figured out how to monetize it yet, having rejected the obvious strategy of embedding ads in the game. Like Twitter and other new social media apps, the philosophy is “If we build it, the money will come.”
Foursquare has been called “an evolutionary leap for loyalty programs.” The idea behind Foursquare is to build loyalty to businesses by providing incentives for people to visit those businesses. For example, when you go to your local Starbucks you “check in” via GPS on your smartphone, and your Foursquare “friends” are notified of your location. I’m not sure how this promotes friendship – am I supposed to drop everything and join you for a caramel latte?
In any case, if you have the most checkins per month of anyone at that Starbucks, you get to be Mayor, and you get a virtual badge for that honor. You’ve got to stay on top of it, though. If someone else checks in more than you do, they can steal your mayoral badge away. One young man described his experience being mayor of a popular ice cream store for a month. He was “checking in” 20+ times a month, buying himself an ice cream each time, only to be deposed by another Foursquare competitor. He spent about $70 and gained 5 lbs. each month for his efforts. Starbucks is reportedly preparing to offer its local “mayors” $1 off on a frappucino. Wow, who benefits here? Not Foursquare, who isn’t taking a cut.
Laura Vogel, a young woman who was sent to Canada for an employee training program, found that she missed her Foursquare check-ins terribly. What does she love about it? Her enthusiasm is obvious:
“Badges range from the easy to acheive (you get one – Newbie! – for your very first check in) to the elusive (the Swarm badge – earned by being in a location where 50+ other foursquare users have checked in at the same time). No bragging, but I have both. The Gym Rat badge (10 check-ins at your gym in a 30-day span) remains out of reach, however.”
As an event planner, she thinks Foursquare is a great way to connect with customers:
“Relating to them on a personal level can only deepen your professional relationship (“I ordered Thai for our lunchtime pitch because I saw you checked in at that new trendy Thai place and remarked how much you loved it!”).”
Gawker’s Valleywag ran a piece called If You Use Foursquare, You Are an Annoying Jackass:
“It tells everyone in your network that “Joe is at Best Buy on 61st Street and Broadway” or wherever the hell you are. The person who checks in the most at a certain place is deemed the “mayor” and has all the responsibility that comes along with absolutely zero power.The competitions for mayorhood and other badges have already become tedious. According to the Wall Street Journal, patrons of the Buttermilk Bar in Brooklyn are pissed because the bartender is the mayor.
“Joe is at Taco Bell.” “Joe is at Wal-Mart.” “Joe is at Tian’an Men Massage Parlor.” Shut the fuck up, Joe. We don’t care where you are! And if we did, we would text or call or email and say “Where are you?” Is that so hard? Even worse is if you’re with Joe on a night out, and he’s too preoccupied with earning his badges and seeing where everyone else is to actually talk to you. Hey, Joe. We’re right fucking here trying to have fun in real life.”
Professor Clemons points out another potential problem with Foursquare. At what point do players stop being customers and become loiterers? He offered the example of checking in at a men’s clothing store. How many purchases can one make per month? Does Urban Outfitters really want swarms of 250 people who don’t really need anything? At what point does the Mayor of the local bookstore become a total pain?
It’s very difficult to measure the impact of new technologies, even as they dramatically alter social behavior. Yesterday Ben Zimmer’s On Language article in the New York Times described the recent dramatic increase in the use of judgmental, rejecting slang. Connie Eble, a linguist at UNC, has noted an increase in terms meant to describe “unfamiliar, suspicious or anxiety-producing outsiders.” Looking at her research, Zimmer noted, “I kept spotting a familiar pattern: along with rando, there are nouns like creeper, sketcher and sketchball and adjectives like dubious, grimy,sketchy, sketch and skeazy. Zimmer wonders why such terms are increasingly prevalent on college campuses.
“Eble points out that the words are typically used by women…Compared with past generations, Eble said, “female students are putting themselves into more dangerous situations than they did in my day,” especially when it comes to dating and partying. Terms like creeper, rando and sketchball come in handy as women deal with men who may try to give them unwanted attention.
In interviews I conducted with Eble’s students, one recurring theme that emerged was the impact of technology and social media on the need to patrol social boundaries. “With Facebook and texting,” Natasha Duarte said, “it’s easier to contact someone you’re interested in, even if you only met them once and don’t really know them. To the person receiving them, these texts and Facebook friend requests or wall posts can seem premature and unwarranted, or sketchy.”
In a culture where we’re physically disconnected, how do we go about the business of mating and dating? Someone has to make the first move and it’s generally the male. Guys often express that they like using Facebook and texting to communicate, as the risk of rejection is remote rather than face to face. But perhaps these modes of communication actually increase the risk of rejection. Since women value numerous traits in men in addition to good looks, limiting men to communicating with nothing to display but a photo carries an enormous opportunity cost, potentially.
We engage with others tangentially from the blue-white glow of our computer screens, creating social obligations, expressing appreciation, clumsily initiating the mating dance, but the nature of the interaction is impersonal. Instead of learning something real about another person, we learn how their virtual crops are faring. We learn what dry cleaner they use. In our isolation we reach out for even more pseudo interaction, spending endless hours alone that we can never get back.
Unplug to stop the insanity.
Seek face-to-face interaction.
Be a participant rather than a winner.
Smile at a stranger.
Invite people over.
Give more, get less.
Make something real happen.