Interesting things happening on the interactive social media front. IPO darlings Facebook and Zynga have seen their stock prices falling quite a bit lately. There's more analysis than information, but one thread stuck out at me: The idea that the attention garnered by Zynga and Facebook is not sustainable. For example, Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra carefully unpacks the dyanamics of attention when the portfolio consists of shiny empty games. It works for awhile, but eventually the users become bored at what is after all a very shallow experience. Over at CNN Money, Ben Rooney reports one analyst's conjecture that Facebook is sinking now because parents are using it. If there's any law of modern families, it is, Into the Tents of the Elders go no Teens. Advertisers are not at all desperate to get the rheumy, bloodshot eyeballs of the aged, which are still fixed on TV ("Figure skating is SO beautiful!") but they've lost the young people and can't find them. They thought the kids were on Facebok, but now, eh, where'd they go? In both cases the markets seem to be worried that there isn't nearly as much to this phenomenon as they thought.
OK, so what is the phenomenon all about really?
I like the McDonald's example. The food stinks, but the company provides a useful service nonetheless. Our world of mobile people needs reliable fast food that won't kill us (on the spot anyway). When you look honestly and coldly at the human person as situated in our culture today, you can see that a McDonald's-like service would be very useful indeed. It trades off quality for sodium, speed, and suffusion. There are genuine human fundamentals to the demand for Micky D's.
Are there genuine human fundamentals behind the demand for Zynga products? Yes and no. Yes: There are some people with psychologies such that they want or need mindless, endless, repetitive tasks rewarded on a Skinner Box model. But there are far more who will enter something that looks Skinner-Boxish on the assumption that there will be a major payoff at the end. Zynga does not provide that payoff. The journey is the destination, and the journey, well, it stinks after awhile. WHen those people discover that this is all there is, and when they have tapped out on that experience, they will no longer be drawn into Zynga games or anything like them.
See the role of experience here? After a person eats at McDonald's many times, they begin to understand: No, there is no good food here. But a) I know what I'm getting. b) It's right here. c) It's fast. d) It won't kill me (right now) e) The fries are tasty. And those things never change. Given a lengthy experience of McDonald's, people still like it.
What about Zynga games? After a lengthy experience, people get the feeling of been there, done that. The demand for a Zynga experience no longer recurs. After the novelty wears off, there's nothing there. We know that this is true about specific games, but it also appears to be true about entire classes of games. The new user plays for 5 minutes and says "Ah - this is a collection/management game like Farmville. I know exactly where this is going. And that sort of experience is fun a few times but not more than 10 or 12." So the user turns away.
Note that interest in other classes of games does not diminish after a few experiences. Everyone know where and FPS is going after the first 30 seconds. Actually they know it before the download. Still fun, though.
I believe it goes back to the absence of payoff. It's an evolutionary psych thing. We are built to respond to a period of grinding and small rewards with the conjecture that perhaps, with a little more grinding, there may be something huge here. The hairless monkey foraging for berries finds 1, 2, 3, 2, 3 - hmm, maybe there's bushes here with 40 or 50 berries! Let's keep looking! If eventually the hairless monkey concludes that, no, there's only paltry rewards here, he moves on.
Players have done their grinding in Zynga type games and can now forecast the entire user experience from beginning to end. With that knowledge, they reject the genre because, as we all knew, there's nothing very satisfying in it.
I think something similar has happened in MMORPGs. When WoW came out, millions began the grind with the unconscious hunch that eventually there would be some great feeling at the end. Yet we know that that game and all others like it are not really going to give us anything but grind. We must enjoy the moments along the road. And, it turns out, the moments along the road in a WoW-style MMORPG are not all that jazzy. Or, more accurately, the experience of the first 10 levels is the experience of the whole game. We know that now, and did not in 2004. Recently I launched a character in Tera. I quit at the second quest hub. I knew exactly what the game was going to be. There would be an endless grind, with no huge payoff at the end (with no end payoff at all actually), never more berries, rather, fewer and fewer, harder and harder to find. And the world itself was not an interesting one to explore.
The early MMOGs had not yet figured out how to string people along with quite so much accuracy as WoW did. Yet they had interesting worlds. WoW itself had a very interesting world, at least in the first 20 levels or so. This made the grinding immediately interesting.
I guess the rule might be "immediate fundamental service." That's what McDonald's provides. Yes, you can trick people into a delayed-payoff scheme, but that model is not sustainable. The only product that can survive gives people a payoff worth the money, that satisfies a fundamental psychological need right now.
I'm playing Secret World at the moment, and while the mechanics are beginning to wear on me, the world itself draws me into new quests.
What does this mean for Facebook? Does it provide a fundamental, immediate service? For young people, it once did. Young people always need a place to get away from the elders. But now Facebook is a public square for everybody. As such, what is its fundamental, immediate service? It helps people quickly and easily share a version of themselves and their lives. It is broad sharing, however, very broad. I know you can filter, but, honestly, intimate conversation is just not facilitated by the service. This is not sitting down at the kitchen table; it's not hanging out with a few friends at the tavern. When you speak on FB, you are standing in a stadium filled with every person you ahve ever known, or who has ever known of you. Outside the stadium stand all the people who know the people who know you, and on and on.
Who needs this service? Celebrities (by definition, yuk). Also megalomaniacs, certainly. The Yellow Pages aspects of the service are great. (Hope wikipedia has an entry about Yellow Pages for the young'uns.) What about average people? It could be useful for the average person, depending on how the self-versions are crafted. If you are careful from birth about what you put on FB, it could be a good place to get a job. But no one is approaching it that way, and hence, FB is rapidly becoming more commonly a source of embarassment than anything else. For intense FBers, the more common experience is that weird people from the past suddenly reappear and follow them, or, people whose respect they crave discover odd things about their past.
Going out on a limb here: Facebook will crash. In its place will be two new services. One will be a business-only apps service that you can join. Yellow pages. Another will be a personal website service with communication features. They will both run exactly like FB but won't have FB's taint. People will approach social media differently now that they know where this rabbit hole leads.
Our social technologies change with experience.