Notes Antic Disposition

Incentives Invite Abuse

Rethink the expectation that people will use a service for that which it is intended. Nothing really works like this. It might be counter-intuitive for designers drinking the UX and tech industry kool aid, but it definitely matches what we have seen with trolling on internet forums, as well as most online games.

And this is what happens:

What can I say? It was fun, and foursquare’s incentives (badges and mayorships) spurred me on. Incentives invite abuse, even from mild-mannered folks like me.

I wrote a script that would walk through a list of venue ids, and check into them one by one. Then I created about 10 fake foursquare accounts, and had them take over different territories.

I created five “Java Monkeys” which grabbed about 120 different Starbucks in different regions (east, west, midwest, south, intl). I identified and targeted hotly contested Starbucks by searching Twitter for recent oustings. My script automatically visited those ones, to the consternation of the new mayors.

The “Java Monkeys” got the biggest reactions. Foursquare users get far more irate when they lose mayorship of a Starbucks, as compared to a Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore. People are much more attached to the small places they visit over and over, and have some personal investment in. The smaller the venue, the bigger the value.

I previously discussed this in Understanding Uncertainty (see the notes afterward), which drew a loud and divided response from the Auckland Web Meetup.

Give people a sign up form in order to post a comment, and trolls are more likely to invest time in the forum. Give people a system of rewards, badges and incentives, and they will focus their energy on ways to parody and abuse the system.

Foursquare is particularly susceptible to this:

The problem is that you can’t trust the person who’s sending GPS coordinates to send the correct ones. This is a tough, tough problem, and it will become increasingly obvious as incentives increase.

It’s useful to consider web applications like this as essentially being games. If the expectation of cheating and gaming the system is not built into a design from the outset, it will invevitably result in an arms race throwing up counter-measures against the pranksters and opportunists. The essence of the Ni-chan paradox is that such counter-measures will generally have the effect of encouraging the pranksters more.