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3MinSB - Issue #34: Stickiness!



October 15 · Issue #34 · View online

Thoughts on life and the everyday.

Hello world and welcome back!
Longer intro this week📚
In the last few issues I touched on the Social Dilemma and psychological/technical techniques to keep users ‘hooked.’ While already a fairly known tactic, the film gave context to the algorithms and broke down the larger scale impacts to various groups, as well as outlooks from those at the top.
Of course, the importance for engagement can abstract away from social sites to almost any other channel or medium. In any competitive market that produces/serves content, the barriers to entry, ability to stay afloat, and capacity for sustained growth inherently limits most productions or releases.
A few months back, I read the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell - it breaks down the key features that push epidemics over that innocuous threshold of virality. In his chapter on the Stickiness Factor, he explains the idea of changing the presentation or interaction with a message to make it more contagious and sticky (having a more lasting impact). Shows, movies, and books all follow this law to a degree: to some level the presentation of the material must be well defined and then constructed for the intended audience. Stickiness can’t always be objectively measured, but the messages that do stick (and spread) can often be traced back to their root.
Gladwell gives the examples of two of the more prominent children shows: Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.
While both carry a loyal fan base (I was a Sesame Street baby), the actual measurement and analysis of the show goals, engagement and learning, side with Blue.
At its core, Sesame Street was meant to appeal to the whole family. The hybrid of fantasy and reality created for a more mystical setting, and the pop-culture references and visual sparks were of at least some interest to parents watching. Producers were cognizant of their intended audience, and discretely broke out lessons or ideas into individual segments for children to stay engaged. They added bright lights and dances, and assumed that the stimulation would induce attention and learning. They tested the shows with kids, where they played the same episode to children surrounded by toys and to another group free of distractions. In the room with toys, only 50% of the attention was on the screen, while in the ‘distraction-free’ room, 87% of the focus was directed at the screen. Yet the numbers carried no actual weight - both groups showed the same level of comprehension of the content.
Turns out, kids were only paying attention to the content they understood, not the flashing lights and quick actions. Researchers took it a step further and brought in child psychologist Barbara Flagg, who aimed to test not just their focus on the screen, but specifically where they directed their fovea which held most visual sensors. The tests were again run with scenes that centered around learning to find where the attention really went. The study found that when the core educational content was actually tied into the action of the story, children were far more likely to pick up the concept (e.g. having a character interact with letters on the screen). Yet when the lesson (i.e. text) was placed separately from the main character actions, the information was mostly lost. The ‘distractors’ effectively diverted attention from the lesson even within the same scene.
The studies were significant at the time, and multiple tests ensued which picked up on other ‘lost’ assumptions about its perceived success. For example, they found that there was actual little understanding or engagement around the episode that Big Bird presented himself as Roy, which was confusing to children who associated objects and people with one name.
Blue’s Clues charted a separate path altogether - simple animations, limited characters, and a coherent story. The show was a hit and the cognitive abilities of the kids noticeably benefited compared to those of Sesame Street.
The show addressed two major ‘pain’ points for their children watchers. For one, it shied away from the visual stimulations that adults come to expect from shows - there were no pops, bright lights, nor action scenes. It left the script to a simple story, and vastly slowed down the pace to reduce confusions. While Sesame Street relied on one core lesson per show, Blues Clues was built around a story that children could follow. The clues and questions guided the plot and developed an interaction between the two sides, with feedback from Steve.
Yet one of the fundamental reasons for its success was the repetition throughout the week. The same episode was aired four of the five weekdays, which allowed kids to not only better understand the story, but continually learn answers to clues along the way. Their recognition translated into a nostalgia of sorts, and their ability to answer clues created affirmations and confidence.
The show was built around true engagement. It was built out of user empathy and an understanding of how their key users interacted and engaged with some visual interface. The producers continued to develop their strategies for stimulation, yet the base process for keeping kids engaged remained.
A long aside to a short takeaway from the film. Most goods at services, at least at some level, rely on a combination of factors that engage users. They need to stick with new users and continually find growth. For shows, that might be an elongated intro. For restaurants, that might be a new tasting menu each week. And for social apps, that might be an algorithm built around the user. The film makes the ominous claim that ‘if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.’ In my mind, this is true. But in a social network reliant on individuals, each member is naturally a piece of that product.
Why does a feed and algorithm optimized around engagement suddenly become the root of the problem? Is it due to the nature of the social system? The sudden rise in depression and loneliness? Regardless, how can we hold a handful of companies responsible for such complex social issues?
Round 34!

What I'm Looking Forward to
VR/AR technologies are slowly finding their product market fit, but Mario Kart is taking a stab at what could be the ‘tipping point’ of a new wave of mixed reality gaming applications. The ability to make games personable and leverage the engine/core features of a game without predetermining the specific use cases and environments. Exciting!
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit looks like a magical mixed-reality trick
What Is Troubling to Me
Strongly tied to the intro above. In May, Facebook revealed their Oversight Board, which was meant to address the handling of complex and industry agnostic problems Facebook is facing regarding ethics. But of course, there is no simple answer. So the recommendations and methods for dealing with both socially and technically difficult problems require technical teams for implementation, including researchers and scientists suddenly placed in different roles altogether. Recommend the read.
Facebook’s A.I. Whiz Now Faces the Task of Cleaning It Up. Sometimes That Brings Him to Tears.
What I'm Listening To
Enough of the heavy stuff. Great song.
Francis and the Lights - May I Have This Dance feat. Chance the Rapper
Thank you for reading! Until next week.
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