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where myspace and slot machines intersect

During a lunch time discussion last week, my colleagues and I were talking about "frictionless experiences," interactions where there is little barrier to the fulfillment of intentions. We talked about how time can slip away unnoticed when we engage with these experiences. Knowing that I'm a fan of games of chance, Brandon recommended I look at this archived article from the New York Times about slot machines and the psychology behind them.

It's quite good, and worth the price if you're interested in the gambling industry, but there was one hell of a idea-provoking paragraph buried about three-quarters of the way thru the article:

The makers of slot machines may rely on the lure of life-changing jackpots to attract customers, but the machines' ability to hook so deeply into a player's cerebral cortex derives from one of the more powerful human feedback mechanisms, a phenomenon behavioral scientists call infrequent random reinforcement, or ''intermittent reward.'' Children whose parents consistently shower them with love and attention tend to take that devotion for granted. Those who know they'll never be rewarded by their parents stop trying after a while. But those who are rewarded only intermittently — in the fashion of a slot machine — will often pursue positive outcomes with a persistent tenacity.

Now, I'm completely burnt out reading about the psychology of myspace and social networks. But the one question that's been stuck in my brain for quite some time is this: I'm intimately familiar with how easy it is to spend a ton of time inside the interface once I'm there – but what on earth inspires me to engage with something so ugly so frequently?

It's the infrequent random reinforcement. I never know if I'll get cherries across the board ("Two friends added me and I got four messages!") or nothing at all. So I just keep checking; feeding it another quarter, so to speak.

Ok, so that's sorted (at least in my mind). I guess I'm curious if that manipulation of the impetus to engage applies to a greater or lesser degree with sites like flickr, where the currency is user-generated content. Are my friends' posted photographs (for example) a compelling reason to log in more often than I would a "true" social networking site? Or is their "attention" to my MySpace profile more "addictive"?

I have my suspisions, but I'd need comparative metrics. Anyone up for a survey of their actual daily logins?

Categories: socialnetworks
  1. john
    May 30, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    “But those who are rewarded only intermittently — in the fashion of a slot machine — will often pursue positive outcomes with a persistent tenacity.”

    first off, i regret telling you you’re hot shit so often.

    re:survey of logins, i just add my friends’ social net-expressions to my bloglines, so i don’t know how that relates.

  2. May 30, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    John, I appreciate the frequency of those comments. Offsets the random negativity my posts engender.

  3. john
    May 31, 2006 at 1:14 am

    yeah, so answer my question. : )

    how is the “push” model different than the “pull” model different in this equation.

    your blog is in my bloglines. i wait for an update. then i click. but until u update, i don’t visit your blog.

    why? because (1) i am ever-so-slightly more aware of rss than the average bear, and (2) click fatigue. i got ~tired~ of pulling the lever. yet, i’ll bet most people keep pulling it.

    how might this play out in the future?

  4. May 31, 2006 at 5:17 am

    RSS breaks the moment you realize you’ve subscribed to too many feeds, and you can’t possibly look at another 135 items from a single source.

    Going into bloglines is just another variation on visiting your MySpace page, from this perspective – the same principle applies, on an even larger scale. The more nodes in your social network (e.g. the number of feeds you subscribe to) the greater number of opportunities to be rewarded or passed over each time you take a look. It’s like building a roullete table with a wheel and table that can expand to accomodate n-1 possibile outcomes.

    The more I think about it, I’d say aggregators are the next great opportunity for those who want to take advantage of intermittent reward phenomena – they explicitly reject the notion of a closed system, and thus allow anybody to play, so long as they publish a feed. The larger the number of contributory streams of ego-stroking, identity-sniffing, content provision or what have you, the greater the opportunity to experience serendipity or walk away shaking your head, wondering if the whole Internet is on a bank holiday.

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