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You’re Being Played By Twitter

There doesn’t seem to be much available out there about Social Media from a gamification perspective that is accessible to regular users as opposed to designers or math-types.

Gamification is the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications.

As such, I thought I would give it a brief treatment that will (hopefully) be accessible to most people. It should demonstrate why lawyers, or anyone really, are easily seduced by Social Media and readily engage in the activity without really understating:

  1. why they are doing it
  2. what they feel they are getting out of it.

It’s been designed that way.

Why People Fall Prey to the Allure of Social Media

Older Readers might remember the heydays of video game arcades, in which people would compete for rankings on a High Score Leaderboard in Pac-Man, Galaga, Street Fighter, and the like.

Whether players realized it at the time or not, a high score leader board was designed, not to display who was best at playing the game, but to encourage players to keep putting quarters in the machine.

By having a visible history of the best players, it encouraged people to continue to play the game (put more quarters in) in order to try and earn a spot on the leaderboard. It is a classic display of manipulating the ego of the user in order to drive them into further interaction with the system.

In recent years, this process has become known as “gamification.”

Gamification works by making technology more engaging, and by encouraging desired behaviors, taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming.

Early examples of gamification are based on rewarding points to people who share experiences on location-based platforms such as Facebook’s “Place” feature, Foursquare (social network), and Gowalla. Some of the techniques include:

  • achievement “badges”
  • achievement levels
  • “leader boards”
  • a progress bar or other visual meter to indicate how close people are to completing a task a company is trying to encourage, such as completing a social networking profile or earning a frequent shopper loyalty award.
  • virtual currency

Many people will immediately think of online gaming; Farmville, WoW, and the like. But it goes beyond that.

Q: Why do people care so much about something that has little to no effect on their real life? 

A: Because their stats are constantly shared with themselves and their peers and it becomes a status symbol or competition of sorts.

However, this isn’t just limited to gamers…too much of people’s time is consumed with checking email because…they have unread email messages. They check their to-dos and task lists. They spend time on RSS feed or making sure that they get upvotes on Reddit.

Much of people’s online life is trying to suck them in even further with engagement stats and feedback loops: Twitter followers, RTs, DMs, @ replies and lists; Facebook friends; Netflix Queue lists and rated movie counts…

Engagement Statistics and Positive Feedback Loops

The true shining example of a social media service exploiting gamification to its fullest is Twitter. While there is no formal leader board or badges or achievement system; it doesn’t take new users long to become keenly aware of their number of “Followers,” @replies, “Re-Tweets,” and Lists (“engagement statistics”).

By having its users engagement statistics publicly available, Twitter subtlety enables users to enter into a feedback loop with the service. Twitter does not separate out its gamification through leader boards or badges, rather, gamification is baked into the system itself.

Merely using Twitter may result in a user engaging in a self-perpetuating “game” / positive feedback loop. To help explain the concept for people unfamiliar with feedback loops, an illustration might be in order:

Image Courtesy of Lost Garden

Player Action (User Action)

1)Player Action: A user sends out a Tweet (or Re-Tweets another users Tweet).

Simulation (System)

2a) BlackBox: This is the Twitter backend system.

2b) The Tweet is now in the System (a Token), wherein other users may either ignore, Re-Tweet, or reply directly to the user (State Change).

Synthesis and Filtering

3a) Feedback: The Twitter system communicates any state change back to the user.

3b) Useful/Useless info:

1) The Tweet is ignored by all of the users followers and generates no Re-Tweets of replies. This is Twitter’s only type of negative feedback. While quite mild, it probably does modify the users behavior. Users should learn what does and does not elicit a response from their followers. Which in turn  may direct the user to alter their future Tweets in order to generate the most responses from their followers.

2) The Tweet is Re-Tweeted by followers. This is the base level of positive feedback. The user gains the satisfaction that they have provided information that is found to be worthwhile.

3) The user receives a direct @reply to their Tweet. This is the middle level level of positive feedback. The user’s Tweet elicited direct feedback and communication from a follower.

3c) Tools: New followers. The most powerful feedback Twitter can offer it’s users. When a user receives a new follower after a Tweet, it means that they have broadcasted information that a total stranger found compelling enough to follow the user’s future tweets. Thus giving the user a larger audience in which to broadcast information.

As such, the feeling of appreciation and sense of contribution generated from positive feedback, or the feeling of neglect from no feedback both feed directly into the user’s next action in the system.

Manipulating the User

The Twitter system encourages following, re-tweeting and the like because it functions as a scoring system for the ego of the user. So it’s really no surprise that Twitter generally devolves into cliques and camps – it’s innate to the functioning of the system.

Users encourage other users as part of the positive feedback loop in order to increase their own engagement statistics and push up their number of Re-Tweets, followers, etc. – despite that nothing is actually being accomplished, it generates a feeling of accomplishment.

There is a sense that the user is achieving goals merely by gaining followers on Twitter or generating Retweets. There is no actual, tangible benefit for most users, however, it’s merely a system that has been developed to:

  1. Gain market share and attention through a feedback loop generated through gamification &
  2. Push advertising.

It’s great for corporations, advertisers, and savvy entrepreneurs – but poses ethical and sociological issues for its average users:

There’s no wonder corporations are so excited about turning the world into a game. One of the movement’s central insights is that a sense of accomplishment sometimes feels more meaningful than a paycheck…

At a Google Tech Talk last year, Zichermann gushed about the low-cost opportunities this creates for business. He was particularly excited by Zynga’s collaboration with 7-Eleven, a deal in which people could buy FarmVille credits along with a Slurpee. FarmVille credits didn’t get you the Slurpee, Zichermann explained excitedly. Rather, customers paid real dollars for the virtual currency. “It’s all money in and no money out!” he cried.

Being Played

That’s a very broad, generalized overview that I hope will shed some light to others about the underlying structure of the Twitter system.

If it generates some real discussion about the use of Twitter – even better. This isn’t to say Twitter is all bad, but considering the length of this article, I think I’ll put those up on the shelf and return to them at a later date.

The real question is whether you are getting legitimate use out of Twitter or are you just being played? You might want to look at Dan Harris’ answer over at the China Law Blog.

Update: Chris from WestLegal EduCenter just sent me a link to a TED talk on “Game Layers” which dovetails nicely with my post.

The post originally appeared in April 2011. It has been updated and amended.


  1. When I launched Con Daily, I had no idea of just how important Twitter would be. Whenever I Tweet a link to a new article, I can watch a little spike in traffic afterward, which leads me to believe some people are using Twitter as a sort of RSS feed.

    Of course, I think Con Daily falls outside of what applies to most Twitter users. We do have a tangible benefit. The business model requires a great deal of traffic to generate a large number of ad impressions (pre-order Dr. Rob’s book y’all!).

    For lawyers or law firms with a professional (non-personal) Twitter account though… I don’t really see the use. You’re not going to generate business based on Tweeting about your new client alert. It’s little more than a dick measuring contest.

    I would however suggest that firms go ahead and cybersquat on their names though, in case a better use for Twitter comes along. But, don’t waste money on marketing consultants when a first year associate can tell you that you don’t need to use Twitter.

    Only real use I could see for law firms is to make a private account, only allow employees to follow, and then use it for sending import notices (firm closed today due to snow, etc); sort of an e-mail redundancy.

    • Definitely, one of the three legitimate uses of Twitter (in my mind) is it’s function as a means of funneling traffic to a website. It can definitely help attract page views. I’d agree with you that many people who don’t use RSS, instead use Twitter in its stead.

      I also agree with you that I don’t get the point of larger firms spending much time Tweeting as a means of business development. I just don’t see it at all. Definitely cybersquat though.

  2. Really well done. Glad I made time to read it. And I’ve discovered that Twitter, sparingly & smartly used by Non-Wankers, is a good weapon in the arsenal. So in not-so-distant past, I was wrong. Happens a lot. Still emphasis here is on Non-Wankism, a digital religion with few current adherents in this profession.

    • Thanks.

      Twitter can serve a useful, if narrowly defined, function. The problem is that many people embrace it with abandon without realizing the underlying system is designed to manipulate them. They get caught up in the feedback loop and end up spending large amounts of time and energy just wanking (your term) around on the service.

      Lawyers (ideally) trained in analytical thought should know better.

  3. I think there’s value in Twitter from an SEO standpoint (sort of related to your funneling point, not exactly identical), for the backlinks, and the SEO work has gotten me quite a few leads from clients (even a couple paying clients). Twitter itself was directly responsible for a contract job, also. So it’s not all bad.

    And it’s not “cybersquatting” if it’s your own name. Duh.

  4. The problem isn’t limited to Twitter. All online marketing and networking suffers from the same problem: there’s always some sort of trivial and quick thing you can do that creates the illusion of work and gets the dopamine going in your brain even if it is worthless and meaningless.

    Back in the old days, it took a fair amount of time and effort to do something like go to a bar mixer or conference or whatever, and so there was ample incentive to focus your efforts on the ones that produced results, but these days you can send off a tweet or write a post or something else silly and meaningless from the comfort of your chair, like I’m doing right now, and like you, lawyer-reading-comments-to-post-about-Twitter, are also doing. Get back to work!

    Compounding the problem is the fact that some of this stuff works! I had a case referred to me by a lawyer who “follows me on Twitter.” As an empirical matter, it’s incredibly hard to determine which one of these online efforts — blogs, Twitter, comments, etc — are actually accomplishing something, given the many ways in which clients find lawyers, most of which remain invisible to lawyers. I routinely hear from clients and referral lawyers that they “found me on the Internet,” and, without cross-examining them, I often can’t figure out what that means. Did they read something on Twitter? Did they read a blog post? Did they Google for something generic and Google just happened to like me that day?

    No clue, but it all combines together to create the appearance that, if you devote enough energy towards these types of ephemeral online marketing ventures, then eventually one of them will pay off. All you need is some trickle of clients and the absence of empirical data, and you can fool yourself indefinitely.

    • But if a client says “I found you on the Internet” don’t you have some, you know, empirical data that they did, in fact, find you there? How are you “fooling yourself” that it’s useful or helpful if you do, in fact, get a trickle of clients who says yes, that’s how they got to you? Just don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

      Ultimately, I think the quest is to find the sweet spot. You don’t want to be wasting your time doing something that doesn’t yield paying clients. But you also don’t want to not put in enough low-impact time to get a few of those paying clients. I think that’s the only “game” aspect here, insofar as “lawyers, you’re being played” goes…

    • What you say is very true. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. all very much given the impression of networking or marketing without having too put any real effort into it.

      The premise of my main post seems rather self-evident to me, however, considering the deluge of attention it seems to be receiving, many people are engaging in these social media systems blithely unaware of their underlying structure. It’s a shame people are so easily taken in and waste time and energy on something with dubious returns at best.

      As an aside, I wanted to say I have enjoyed your blog for some time and find it to be one of the more well done legal blogs out there. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Just like how doctors are more prone to drug abuse, I’d say lawyers are more prone to being scammed. Funny how it works out that way. I don’t doubt they’re highly inclined to endlessly tweet under the impression — an impression deepened by the many “social media experts” out there — that it’s slowly turning them into great, highly-respected attorneys.

        Thanks for the kind words. You’ve got a great blog going here, it’s in my Google Reader.

  5. great post, i enjoyed reading it

    i think you have the structure of the system correct – social media is definitely gamed – this phenomenon is going to further develop as the rise of mobile devices will allow increasing numbers of users to access their high score and play the game whenever and wherever

    i feel like your analysis is missing a couple points. or, a couple concessions.

    I just want to put pressure on this: “So despite that nothing is actually being accomplished, it generates a feeling of accomplishment.”

    In your structural analysis I feel like you are missing the forest for the tweets. Twitter and other social media has, at its core, the user. The platform connects its users and also games their interaction within [and often, across] the platform. You liken a tweet to a game token and then go no further. At this stage i think it needs to be stated that this is social media not an arcade game. The tweet also carries information, whether it be hypertext or a hashtag or whatever. You say above that “There is no actual, tangible benefit for most users” but there is always a very real benefit – information exchange. For instance, the other comments have mentioned that people use twitter like a RSS feed, or, pure information exchange. I have friends who have twitter but have never tweeted – they have never gamed a token. Twitter allows the sharing of information and while this engages with the game [better information = more followers, presumably] it is not perverted, obviated, mediated, decapitated, obliterated, or hated by the game. actually…it is definitely perverted and mediated.

    Going back to “nothing being accomplished”. Information is being shared. I think that this is what generates the feeling of accomplishment. I do agree however that twitter users can become played by the game because I think everyone wants to be read, listened to, and spoken @.

    Also, as an aside, keep in mind that there is no time limit on a user’s tweets and in fact i believe they are all catalogued in the congressional library. Twitter is also a microblog – the information shared is up and out there and logged under your nick. Even if there is no information sharing now, it may one day be read. So even if is showing no hits from your followers and the information shared is purely token, i argue that information sharing is still a pillar of using twitter. [the other pillar being the game] [the other other pillar being @justinbieber]

    I would also definitely read your analysis on a firm twitter account – I’ve been thinking about this myself. It would require someone to keep it up which would cost money so that’s a negative. This cost however, wouldn’t be very much and larger firms have marketing departments anyway. I feel like if it were used to publish/retweet/hyperlink information in relevant areas of law, community involvement etc. it would be performing a public benefit, generate the reputation of the firm and might potentially one day on the off chance generate a client. The key would be to generate a geographically contained following.

    anyway, good post – i’ll visit the blog again sometime

  6. Great article! I just tweeted this blog post. 🙂

  7. I had never thought of Twitter as a gamified system before this article very interesting concept. I think Twitter can be useful for information sharing but I’d also suggest that getting useful information (e.g. links) out of Twitter can require more energy than it should due to the fire host effect (i.e. too much too filter.

    I’ve often wondered how the people who follow more than 150 people manage to process such a huge flow of information in any useful fashion…

  8. This is not new anyone heard of the Queens List? Every since we had chieftains people have sought shiny medals and strips of colored cloth denoting some dubious achievement. Not to say some acts of Heroism do not have meaning but its all a part of a larger positive reinforcement system. Badges,Awards,knighthoods etc have no intrinsic value.

    Be they Awarded by Queen’s,Presidents or Foursquare its all part of the Gaming of Life to produce desirable social behavior!

  9. It’s kind of like when people get addicted to those penis enhancement emails—I have no first-hand experience with those, but apparently they present a problem for people with short attention spans. When you lock a man into the illusion that he is going to be more manly because he is clicking on your link, you can exploit his vulnerabilities even if he gets nothing out of it. I am not saying it’s stupid to fall for spam, but I am saying it’s getting old fast, and the people I respect know better, and I, for one, am glad to make full use of my spam filter because I get far more done without the cheap distractions, and I can save my time for real life hobbies like decorating and fly fishing.

  10. Elicit. Not illicit. Excellent article.

    • Grr. And I had actually gone out of my way to make sure that was correct when I was drafting this post. I must have missed it on my last go through. Thanks Nicole.

  11. I really enjoyed this article. Unsurprisingly, I found it through Twitter: Margaret Atwood posted it.

    I am one of the people who bl1y describes above; I use Twitter as an RSS feed.

    This post outlines, rather well I might add, the central reasons why I left facebook. But I can certainly understand why people, myself included, do engage with social media. It falls in line with philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s thoughts on narrative and the speaking voice. This is from memory, so i’m sure to distort her words, but, she says that without a speaking voice, without a narrative, people don’t really exist. So, by interacting with social media, people can effectively bolster their existence by narrativizing their lives as they live them to an increasing audience.

  12. Interesting take on social media. That, however, is not going to stop me from using them.


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