Twitter As Scoreboard, As Anomie

by Rob Horning

7 April 2011

On Twitter, one can find useful information because users are incentivized to provide it, but playing on those incentives means reinforcing petty ego-scorekeeping and recessive reflexivity among those users.

The Browser, an aggregator that pretty much dictates my online reading at this point, linked to this essay by Keith Lee about Twitter as gamification in action:

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 is generally viewed as a sort of “Happysphere” – 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.  So despite that nothing is actually being accomplished, it generates a feeling of accomplishment.

I agree with that in principle, but my feelings are complicated by the fact that I found the link to this article on Twitter (and then promptly retweeted it). On Twitter, one can find useful information because users are incentivized to provide it, but playing on those incentives means reinforcing petty ego-scorekeeping and recessive reflexivity among those users. So is it a net win or a loss for society?
Gamification reminds me of the “hedonic treadmill,” a trope in critiques of consumerism: the point is that consumers never actually achieve satisfaction through consumerism even though that is often what ideology (or “common sense”) leads us to expect; instead we perpetually chase novelty and status, which turns ordinary goods into positional goods—bearers not of utility but distinction or symbolic meaning, emblems of the scarcity pursued when sustenance is taken for granted. As Baudrillard’s early work argues repeatedly, consumerism as a system turns our market behavior into an inescapable language that more or less speaks us as we speak it. It prompts us to leave use value behind and adopt an attitude of perpetual scarcity—we don’t have enough status, or we don’t have enough attention to give, or we don’t receive enough attention, or we don’t have enough time, etc. The scoreboard mentality (which I wrote about in this 2004 column about competitive thrift-store shopping, and again in this response to an article about “shopping hackers”) sustains this feeling of scarcity, inverts it, allows us to harness it as motivation.

It seems like gamification can quickly become a disguise for anomie, a ruse to make the hedonic treadmill livable. In a recent post, Will Davies cited this passage from Durkheim’s Suicide, which offers a grim definition of anomie:

Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture. It has been claimed, indeed, that human activity naturally aspires beyond assignable limits and sets itself unattainable goals. But how can such an undetermined state be any more reconciled with the conditions of mental life than with the demands of physical life? All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or—which is the same thing—when his goal is infinity. Since the distance between us and it is always the same, whatever road we take, we might as well have made the motions without progress from the spot. Even our glances behind and our feeling of pride at the distance covered can cause only deceptive satisfaction, since the remaining distance is not proportionately reduced. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.

Using Twitter may also condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness, for similar reasons. If we inject ourselves into the infinite pool of information with the hubristic notion that we will help organize it all, we’re doomed, as our contributions only add to the muddle, to the heap of notions to be processed. If we think we are going to keep up with all the feeds worth following, we’re doomed too. And precisely because we know that Twitter is often useful, we’re lured into diving into the whirlpool.

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