Connection is the Crown Jewel of Social Audio, not Gems

Exploring the Role of Gamification in Our Online Lives

Sketchnote by @alejosporrasart. Scroll to the bottom for the full image.

June 16, 2021, began like any other Wednesday. I woke up, checked my email, checked my myriad social media accounts, and jumped onto Clubhouse to listen to NewNewsNews. Several hours later, rooms started popping up on there with titles like “Greenroom vs Clubhouse.” I quickly surmised that Spotify, on the heels of Twitter launching Twitter Spaces, had just launched a social media competitor called Greenroom. A few days later, Facebook went on to launch Live Audio Rooms. LinkedIn, Discord, Reddit, and others are following suit in diving into the live social audio space.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but both Greenroom and Facebook’s version differ from Clubhouse’s no-frills interface in one key way: they have gems and stars, respectively. These digital items can be doled out ostensibly to reward speakers for bringing value, aka “dropping gems” as it has become known throughout Clubhouse. On Clubhouse, to show appreciation, users on stage flash their microphones but no stars float up on the screen and no gem count is displayed prominently on a profile. There had long been chatter about how great it would be if Clubhouse implemented this type of gamification but now that it exists on platforms like Greenroom, should social audio devotees have been careful what they wished for?

Within a day or so of Greenroom introducing gems into the social audio world, their platform was overrun with rooms like “💎💎GEM PARTY F4F and Chill💎💎” and “💎GEM💎 Me Up, Scotty💎.” Users were starting to “Gem Farm” by sitting on stages for days on end “gemming each other up” every 5 minutes on the dot. This was the allowed time interval until they modified it a week or so later to only allow gem mining on a much more restrained 30-minute interval. No one really knew what the original intention of the gems was an endless debates ensued on both Clubhouse and Greenroom about their utility. Spotify provided only a very vague description of what they were. 

On our show on Clubhouse, the Frontier Psychiatrists, we decided to explore gamification techniques like awarding and earning gems from a psychological and behavioral perspective. We curated a diverse panel of speakers from behavioral scientist, Matt Wallaert, to the addiction psychiatrist featured in the Social Dilemma, Dr. Anna Lembke as well as prominent Clubhouse users like “the Pricing Nerd,” Bethania Bacigalupe, and leader of the Clubhouse Town Hall recaps, Christian Bourdeau. Here are some highlights from that rich conversation:

Courtesy of the Hottest Lemon on Clubhouse.

Creation Should Be Intrinsic

Matt Wallaert opined that he has gone full cycle on gamification and has come to the conclusion that  “For intrinsically rewarding activities, we have so much evidence that extrinsic rewards actively degrade that intrinsic motivation across study after study.” He mentioned a study in the 1970s where patients at a mental institution were able to earn tickets for prizes and this led to people not wanting to discharge from the institution despite being clinically ready to do so.

He also noted that in a more recent 2014 study by Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz, West Point cadets who were primarily intrinsically motivated to be in the military due to things like wanting to be a leader performed better than not only cadets who were extrinsically motivated by things like money but better than those who had both strong extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Dr.Owen Muir also drew our attention to a study suggesting that the more someone spends on their engagement ring and wedding, the shorter the duration of the marriage. Marriage should ideally be about intrinsic, mutually satisfying human connection, not the size of the rock. Alas, I am assuming Kim Kardashian did not read this study. 

If we apply this principle to the social audio world, it is possible that the addition of gems, stars, or other outward reward systems could make people less likely to want to participate on a platform despite rich conversations happening on them. There can, of course, be extrinsic consequences of doing well, like creators earning money. However, if extrinsic rewards become the driving force behind the behavior rather than being motivated by the larger meaning and impact of the behavior, we are in trouble. It’s one thing to earn a gem for making a great comment and quite another to go on the platform for the sole purpose of collecting gems that are devoid of any monetary value, which is what started to happen on Greenroom almost immediately. 

Sketchnotes by @alejoporrasart

“Did I go to this app to play Candy Crush?”

Chris Vazquez, our emcee, disclosed that for him, he got more of a dopamine rush for giving gems than receiving them, as a large image of a gem flashes up on the screen along with haptic feedback when users give them out. He likened it to the experience of trading on Robinhood, which has been both criticized and praised for bringing gamification to the investing world. Robinhood ultimately had to ditch its confetti animations after facing heavy criticism from lawmakers. Nonetheless, Robinhood still looks and feels a lot more like a video game than a Bloomberg Terminal, and users continue to flock to it. Will Greenroom follow a similar trajectory?

Christian Bourdeau (aka “DJ Green Beam” on Greenroom for running nonstop rooms for days at a time playing music and dropping gems) stopped by to share his insights as someone with considerable experience on both Clubhouse and Greenroom and with a keen analytical mind. From his perspective, gems are “just a thing to get people on the app… it is gamifying coming on stage” and participating rather than staying in the audience. However, he notes that the social audio culture is rapidly evolving. The CTO of the sports-focused Locker Room, which is what Greenroom was called before being acquired by Spotify, has discussed with the Greenroom community that they are actively looking to refine how the gems operate. 

Bethania Bacigalupe elaborated further that the original Locker Room users largely shrugged their shoulders watching the Clubhouse refugees mining gems and indicated they had lost their meaning. Like bots who swarm into a social audio room or follow someone in droves, the gems essentially have introduced a lot of noise in the system from product development and end-user perspective. Instead of bringing clarity,  they have made it harder to find a clear signal that a room is worth joining or a person is worth following. Bethania, attempting to improve the signal-to-noise ratio, made a graph suggesting that if someone has a moderate number of gems, it signals they are active participants in conversations but if they have a massive amount, it suggests they may be gem farming and therefore there would be an inverse relationship in gem number and value of content that individual was contributing:

Graph by The Pricing Nerd, Bethania Bacigalupe.

Similarly, on Clubhouse where we rely on follower count to signal social relevance, someone who has say 10,000 followers (or, ahem, 11.5K such as myself…) likely contributes meaningfully and frequently to the community. However, someone who has 2 million followers may just be a celebrity like Elon Musk who went on the platform once. Someone that has 50,000 followers may have gotten theirs organically (like Bethania who runs the awesome Burnt Chicken club, home of nerdy, playful, and creative conversations)  or they may have engaged in days-long “follow for follow” rooms that have since been largely banned. It is very hard to tell as it stands right now.

The challenge of determining the quality and quantity of engagement by a given user is an area of active development for social audio platforms. Unfortunately, this seems to be a bit of an arms race against people looking to push systems to their limits. For example, someone could have amassed a ton of gems or followers and still be a troll if they have participated in follow for follow/gem farming rooms. Even as a metric of engagement it has been distorted by the universal human propensity to essentially “game” the system by finding a cheat code. 

Wherever there is some semblance of a game, there will always be people finding ways to cheat at it. Therefore, we need to look beyond just the simple mechanics of gamification and explore why we are so drawn to them in the first place. 

Man’s Search for Meaning…. And Content

Dr.Anne Lembke, a Stanford addiction psychiatrist known for being one of the first physicians to draw attention to the opioid epidemic, joined us via a patched-in Zoom connection because she does not use social media. This seemed particularly fitting given our conversations center on how easily humans can get drawn into gamified social platforms. While I expected her to be largely opposed to the gamification of social audio, she had a more anthropological perspective. She stated that “this accumulation of [digital] objects speaks to our growing need for tangible experiences we don’t have in real modern-day life”.  She reminded us that our brains cannot distinguish between acquiring a real object or a virtual one (which is perhaps in part why there is a massive interest in Avatar oriented NFT projects like Bored Ape Yacht Club and will be the subject of a future Frontier Psychiatrists Clubhouse show on Aug 13th).  There is also an illusion of getting something done and making progress when people engage in behaviors like gem farming or doing similar tasks on Minecraft or Animal Crossing. People experience frustration and friction in their complex and often disappointing day-to-day lives. Going online provides a refuge full of immediate tangible rewards to discover and possess. 

When thinking about the types of rewards available for those who go searching for them on social audio platforms, Matt referenced a famous study by Claude Steele that examined expectations and performance.  Having high standards and high confidence you can meet them is the best setup for high performance. Greenroom Gems as they exist today, on the other hand, are the lowest possible standard (e.g. no real value) with the highest possible confidence they can be obtained (e.g. just need to press a button at a fixed interval). This is the absolute worst combination for performance enhancement and would be expected to result in high initial engagement but then significant churn of users growing bored as the novelty wears off. Indeed, I have found as of this writing that while I was on Greenroom for the first several days it came out handing out and receiving gems with carefree abandon, the lack of content that interested me has resulted in a massive drop off in my engagement with it. Meanwhile, the content on Clubhouse (and the ability to discover it) continues to improve so it keeps me engaged, gem free. 

This brings us to the importance of the discovery process in presenting us with socially relevant content. On platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube there are “likes” but above all in order to go viral, the content needs to be presented to users. Week after week in the Clubhouse Townhalls, Paul Davison, the founder of Clubhouse, hammers home that his team is working on discoverability. More than just a buzzword, the discovery of socially relevant content for an individual user is what keeps our very social brains intrinsically engaged so taking it very seriously makes all the sense in the world.  We are all looking to discover and be accepted by our tribe, be it a Clubhouse Club like our Sphere Club for mental health or a particular Discord Server about pickle avatars

As Dr.Lembke noted, belonging to a tribe is part of our innate social nature and a potent source of dopamine release in the brain. Exclusive tribes are even more potent which is why many have speculated that Clubhouse started as an invite-only platform. It taps into that desire to belong to something special. While the primary reason seems more related to it being in beta and issues around scaling, every article written about it seems to use the word “exclusive.” Greenroom, on the other hand, is freely available to anyone who gets on the app store and finds it. Dopamine is released when things are novel, which Greenroom is, but novelty plus exclusivity is more potent. 

Sketchnotes by @alejoporrasart

The Democratization of Social Audio

Speaking of our tendency to form insular tribes, Our in-(club)house IT Professional, RJ Smith, shared his perspective as someone with deep knowledge across internet communities over the years, from Ello to the 2004 Neopet market crash to Stack Overflow. He emphasized that if the digital reward communicates something specific, it can contribute meaningfully to the social fabric of the platform and steer the conversation to new places. Reddit, for example, is based on upvotes and downvotes and also introduced a system of awards to be more specific. People can now say this is good because of x or this fits our community because of y. How this translates into live social audio, however, remains to be seen. Our panel and audience members speculated on ways one could approach gamification on social audio in a more nuanced way. A number of ideas were thrown out, though each could be misused by opportunistic trolls and bots or have unintended negative consequences:

  • Being able to take gems away for objectionable content 
  • A daily quota of gems per user that could be rationed out
  • Purchasing the gems to give out (Facebook appears to be doing this with Stars)
  • Creating an economy/marketplace using the gems to earn on and off platform rewards

The most intriguing possibility came from an observation by Rowshanak Hashemlyoon, a behavioral neuroscientist. She suggested that based on what we know about operant conditioning the use of variable unpredictable intervals regarding how often gems can be awarded would result in the most sticky use of them. Sometimes a given user could give a gem every five minutes and other times, every 20. The algorithm as to how the interval was chosen could be random or programmed based on user behavior. Either way, the end-user would not know the process, only the outcome. The invite system on Clubhouse back when it was in its early days was a bit like this. Users who “contribute meaningfully to the community” would open the app to find a little envelope cheerfully greeting them that they had more invites to give. Had they published the exact criteria, it would not have been nearly as captivating. Instagram and TikTok all have algorithms but they are cloyingly opaque when it comes to sharing the details.

 The gambling and video game industries are also keenly aware of this principle of variable reinforcement and it stands to reason that anyone looking to gamify their platform take this into consideration. 

Of course, variable reinforcement patterns can ultimately contribute to very destructive addictive behavior.  As one of our panelists, social worker, and board game designer Julia Koerwer emphasized, it really comes down to what behavior the people behind the platforms want to reinforce. Do they want to focus on maximizing time spent on the platform regardless of content (like someone sitting at a slot machine) or on quality engagement in generative conversations that reward participants with the knowledge and new social connections? 

Let’s remember what journalist Johann Hari said in his famous TED Talk: “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”There is no reason to gamify breathing air- we need it and it sustains life. The same could be true of content that is nourishing in and of itself and leads to meaningful connections with others. For anyone building in this space right now, remember that it’s not the gems that are dropped, it is the people and communities dropping them that are the crown jewels of the new social audio kingdoms. 

Sketchnotes by @alejoporrasart