Twitter gamification is broken

Published on 2023-04-25 by John Collins. Socials: YouTube - X - Spotify - Amazon Music - Apple Podcast

I love/hate Twitter

I have an love/hate relationship with Twitter. Back in 2013 I wrote in detail about why I was easing back from Twitter, and then in 2014 I dropped off Twitter altogether.

Then in 2019, I returned on a new account, primarily because Google was killing organic search traffic to this blog for no obvious reason, other than bot spite. Desperation drove me back to Twitter to try to regain an audience, not love.

Looking at Twitter now since Elon Musk took over, a lot has changed. I am not sure he has got the balance right in a few key areas, so let me explain each in turn.

User-Generated Content (UGC)

The true wealth of a social network is stored in it's content, and that content is not produced by the Twitter, but by the users of that platform.

Without User-Generated Content (UGC), a social network is simply a publishing platform devoid of compelling content, which is not very interesting.

In my mind, UGC is a store of wealth not dissimilar to a currency, and users should think twice before giving that away. As a platform owner however you must motivate users to do just that, so how do you achieve this?

Gamification drives engagement

Gamification is the process of applying game mechanics to non-game domains. It has been successfully applied to social networks for many years, and is well understood by UX designers in this industry.

The intent of gamification is to entice users to:

  1. Post new content for free (UGC)
  2. Comment on, like, or share existing content (engagement)

All of that effort is a big time commitment from those users. Twitter needs to drive these activities, or grinding to borrow another gaming term, by rewarding users with non-monetary rewards including:

  1. Increased followers (influence)
  2. Increased credibility (verification/validation/kudos)
  3. Increased follower engagement (feedback loop)

In essence, the whole thing is an ego massage, but if users feel their grind is being rewarded, they will keep on coming back for more, and it becomes quite an addictive game feedback loop.

Network effects (flywheels)

Social networks like Twitter also benefit from network effects that grow with the growth of the user base. Put simply, the more users that are using a platform, the more draw there is for new users to join and add their UGC, which in turn spins the flywheel harder.

Once a platform generates enough momentum, it is very hard to stop. New incumbents into the micro-blogging market are finding this out the hard way right now: even though they sense that Twitter is weakened, they are still struggling to pull a meaningful amount of users away from it due to those sticky network effects.

A flywheel can eventually run out of energy however, let's look at how that might play out for Twitter next.

Social media death spirals

Large influential accounts on a platform tend to have oversized influence on the long-term viability of a platform. When they leave to go elsewhere, they can bring their audiences with them: that is another form of network effect, as networks are made up of lots of sub-networks, some of which behave as independent bubbles.

Recently we have seen this play out at Twitter, were many famous people have had their verification badges removed, an ego hit, and some have reacted by either leaving the platform, or reducing the frequency at which they post and engage. This is reverse gamification, the exact opposite of what a good social network should be doing.

"This is reverse gamification, the exact opposite of what a good social network should be doing."

If that trend spreads to mid-level and smaller accounts on Twitter, all of a sudden those network effects turn against the platform, and the energy runs out.

Elon Musk may hoping that subscriptions via Twitter Blue will help, by giving UGC from Blue users higher visibility via the Twitter algorithms, but as any gamer will tell you, that is simply another game mechanic called pay-to-win, which is generally frowned upon in a network and often results in the paying user being shamed (Blue users have already been the target of such memes on Twitter).

In the end, users need to feel justifiably proud of their achievements in a game, and have those achievements validated by the community in the network.

Staying until the end

Personally, I'm going to stick with Twitter this time due to morbid curiosity, even of my own viewership is down heavily as a non-Blue user. Give me a follow, it will help boast my ego.