r/creepshots, PeopleOfWalMart, and the bullshit of “gamification”

Without getting too much into the weeds of the r/creepshots story, I don’t think there’s much difference between that subreddit and  the website PeopleOfWalmart. Both exploit the freedom to take pictures of strangers to satisfy, from a safe and antiseptic distance, the baser desires of their audience. Both are distasteful but will probably always exist in some form or another. But I don’t think that’s the most disturbing thing going on here, or the most interesting.

I’ve written before about how reddit’s design necessarily creates an echo chamber and pushes its users to be as average as possible. Based on a recent interview r/creepshots disgraced and now-unemployed former moderator, I think there’s a case to be made that consequences of reddit’s design could be even more pernicious. In his interview with Anderson Cooper, “ViolentAcrez” explained that for him, “the biggest thrill I got was those meaningless internet points,” also known as karma.

Reddit’s karma works like this: Every user can give away an infinite amount of karma to anything and anyone they like–one point at a time. If a user posts something that others like they will receive karma from their peers. My earlier argument was that since there’s no cost to giving away karma people will give it away readily. If a user wants to maximize the amount of karma they receive  they should post things that the largest subset of users will enjoy. Said another way: they should target their content to the fat part of the distribution curve.

In very popular subreddits like r/funny and r/atheism, this makes for bland, recycled, and predictable content. It’s the lowest common denominator as chosen by groupthink. Here, the law of large numbers keeps everything mostly kosher. But since anyone can create a subreddit on any topic, you’re going to start getting smaller and stranger echo chambers that also push their users to the middle. On subreddits like r/creepshots, the middle happens to be completely inappropriate and borderline illegal. This meant that for a user to thrive in the subforum, they had to go out into the real world camera in-hand and be a real life creep.

All of this is really weird already, but there’s still a missing piece of the puzzle: why do people want karma? Why was it worth taking things way too far in the in the wrong direction in the real world for pixels on a screen?

Redditors want karma because on reddit, karma is what people want. Part of human nature is that we want what we perceive to be valuable. If someone else thinks something is valuable there’s a good chance we will too. This drives people to collect otherwise meaningless points. Further still, having lots of karma is seen as a mark of being an worthwhile contributor to the community. Each karmic point becomes further confirmation to each user that they should keep doing what they’re doing. For users like ViolentAcrez, that meant continuing to take pictures of underage girls without their knowledge or consent, then posting those pictures online.

Snake oil salesmen touting the power of “gamification” to boost engagement ought to be delighted to read ViolentAcrez’s interview, because it confirms that there is a subset of people who, given too many points and too little context, will compulsively try to collect points because that’s what’s expected of them in a community. This is “gamification” at its worst. Points don’t make sense without context, they should provide feedback on the journey the user is taking, relative to an end point instead of to their peers.

Sites like reddit are, knowingly or not, exploiting the greediest and oldest parts of our brain. It’s not that points made these users do what they did. Instead points in the absence of external context legitimized, encouraged, and re-inforced pre-existing perversions.

When it Comes to Disruption, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

My guest post for the Government of Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation is now live. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. A snippet:

Craigslist, by putting classified ads online, turned billions of dollars in print revenue into millions of dollars in digital revenue. Newspapers are only now starting to bounce back, but will forever be shadows of their former selves. Kodak, The Yellow Pages, Blockbuster, and of course, the entire recording industry followed like lemmings off the same cliff. These companies all sold access to information—and the internet suddenly and permanently changed the rules about how and where information could be purchased and consumed. Consumers were better off and enjoyed a lot more value, value that incumbents weren’t able to capture.

Read the full article.

Exciting times ahead

Before the internet, most information was what economists call a “medium-sized dry good”—that is, it was not liquid, was easily shipped, had a long shelf life, and above all else, was a physical object. No one ever stood up in a room and shouted “information is a medium-sized dry good!” but entire industries were built on this assumption. And suddenly it was no longer true. The resulting bloodbath left newspapers, publishers, and record labels drained of profits and relegated to the sidelines of industries they once defined.

The internet came online deleted an age-old, fundamental assumption about the world. Information was no longer a thing in the traditional sense, it was now something new that could be accessed from almost anywhere.

And this is just the start. We’re about to be disabused, in a very short order, of a great many fundamental assumptions about how the world works. Not to overstate the case, but it’s only going to change everything, forever.

Compared to the changes we’re about to see in the next few years, the invention of the internet is looking quaint by comparison. Specifically we’re about to be hit by 3D printing, automation, biotech, cleantech, DNA sequencing, nanotech, and a ton of other stuff hasn’t yet even been invented.

If you’re not familiar with 3d printing, all you need to know is this: in a few years almost everyone will own a magic box that can create any object out of thin air. It’s a fair to say that most companies today don’t assume that their customers own a magical box in their home that can spit out made-to-order goods overnight. These companies are going to get very lean, very fast, and probably lash out just the same way the record industry did, we’re going to see all sorts of really weird laws about file formats and what you can do with your 3d printer. Of course it’ll be easy to jailbreak your 3d printer, and then people can print whatever they want, including guns. We’ll have removed the need for physical continuity between design and production, and will be able to essentially teleport objects onto people’s home. That changes a great many assumptions about how the world works.

Next, though it sounds funny to say, robots are coming for our jobs. If you work with your hands, soon there will be robotic hands that can do it better faster and cheaper than you. If you work with your brain doing anything even remotely dry, IBM’s Watson will probably put you out of work. This leads to all sorts of questions about what we want the future to be like, given that we’ll have increased economic output, but decreased employment. It’s pretty interesting to put this in the context of the 99%vs1% debate, but I’ll leave it there lest I accidentally look like a Marxist.

Genomics is going to give everyone insight into and eventually control over their DNA. And of course we’ve now got prosthetics that interface directly with the brain, it won’t be too long until we stop designing them in the image of human limbs and start doing some really wild stuff. If you can plug an arm into your brain, there’s no reason you can’t plug the internet in too.

Energy is very exciting. Whether or not we’ve hit peak oil, there’s a bunch of cool stuff being commercialized that’s very promising, like biogas, solar, and thorium. Given that energy is the ability to do work it stands to reason that if we succeed, it will unlock the ability to do an incredible amount of work very cheaply (especially if you factor in robotic labour).

These changes are coming, and either individually or in concert, they’re going to disrupt each and every industry. Kodak, EMI, BlockBuster and The Yellow Pages might look stupid in retrospect, but they were just the first flies to drop. The really exciting stuff is only just about to begin.