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C. Thi Nguyen on Twitter, Gamification and Thin Metrics

I came across this paper via Ezra Klein’s NYT piece about Elon Musk and Twitter.

It reads like a blend of Finite and Infinite Games and Seeing Like a State, and like both of those books it’s hard to select from or summarise. Here’s a decent extract to get you going. It’s about much more than Twitter:

Twitter is now one of our primary venues for public discourse. But it is not a neutral or transparent medium. Twitter shapes how we interact, who we interact with, and — perhaps most importantly — it suggests specific goals for those interactions.

Twitter doesn’t just provide a speaking platform, nor are its effects confined to algorithmic filtering. Twitter shapes our goals for discourse by making conversation something like a game.

Twitter scores our conversation. And it does so, not in terms of our own particular and rich purposes for communication, but in terms of its own pre-loaded, painfully thin metrics: Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. And if we take up Twitter’s invitation and internalize those evaluations, we will be thinning out and simplifying our own goals for communication.

Other discussions of Twitter have focused on the enforced shortness of tweets, the influence of hidden algorithmic filtering, the promotion of group polarization, the lack of account ability mechanisms, and the collapse of conversational contexts…

I would like to focus on another basic feature of Twitter —one whose importance and impacts, I think, has not been adequately appreciated. Twitter gamifies communication by offering immediate, vivid, and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success.

Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these game-like features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.

The clear scoring system brings with it another very game-like aspect: a clear and unambiguous ranking. We usually don’t emerge from the party with a ranked list of who the best conversationalists were.

Twitter, on the other hand, offers both short-term rankings (Likes and Retweet numbers for each tweet) and long-term rankings (Follower counts). Most im portantly, the rankings are entirely unambiguous.

Unlike conversation in the wild, I can know exactly how well each tweet did, and I can instantly compare my overall popularity with that of any other user…

Supporters of gamification say that it is a technology for increasing motivation. Gamification can supposedly imbue everyday activities with all the fun and excitement of a game. Here, then, is an optimistic view of Twitter: by gamifying public discourse, Twitter increases overall participation, and so helps us to reap the rewards of public discourse —such as a more fully politically engaged populace.

I do not accept the optimistic view.

Crucially, I don’t think that gamification merely increases our motivation to perform an activity while preserving all the original goods of that activity.

Gamification increases our motivation by changing the nature of the activity.

Often, the goals of ordinary activity are rich and subtle. When we gamify these activities, we change those goals to make them artificially clear.

Games are more satisfying than ordinary life precisely because game-goals are simpler, clearer, and easier to apply. In games proper, this simplification isn’t particularly problematic, because the goals are peculiarly artificial. Game activities, and their associated goals, are usually kept secluded from ordinary life.

But there is no such protective separation when we gamify ordinary activities. To reap the motivational benefits of gamification, we must re-shape the ends which govern our real-life activities.

Pre-gamification, the aims of discourse are complex and many. Some of us want to transmit information or to persuade; some of us want friendship. Some of us want to join together in the pursuit of truth and understanding. Twitter gamifies discourse and, in so doing, offers us re-engineered goals for our communicative acts. Twitter invites us to shift our values along its pre-fabricated lines…

C. Thi Nguyen – How Twitter Gamifies Communication

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