The Cultivation Equation Part 2: Motivation


Months ago, I posted the first part of something I’d been presenting on for over a year: a simple way of thinking about social design choices. I called it the “Cultivation Equation for Social Design.” I should’ve known better, but I said at the end of that post that I’d be posting the rest soon … then proceeded to put it off for a very long time. At any rate, here’s the second part, about Motivation. The third part (about Moderation) will be forthcoming, eventually, but I make no promises on timing.

social equation

Motivation is essentially an answer to the question: Why would anybody bother using this platform?

As previously explained, there has to be some social behavior already in existence that the platform supports as a medium. As with the community itself, you can’t create motivation from fiat either. But you can certainly create a medium that has the right nutrients and structures in place for users to be motivated to engage within it.

Self-Interest over Altruism

Like it or not, people are self-interested. It would be nice to think that people will do things “for the good of the community,” but people don’t actually function that way on a continual basis.

I don’t mean this to sound cynical. People definitely act in altruistic ways all the time, but you can’t design social platforms assuming everyone will do so regularly enough to keep things going.

So, there’s a difference between selfishness, which is more like greed, and benign self-interest, which is constructive and fuels many of the best things about civilization. Self-interest is just the impulse to improve one’s own life and fulfillment, and health self-interest recognizes that being a contributing member of the social context is important to one’s own well-being.

Identity and well-being are inextricably twined with social context, and that drives a great deal of how we behave socially — so much so that we are rarely conscious of it. Contributing socially is a way of defining oneself, and bringing attention, support, companionship and other great stuff to oneself. It’s more about Social Capital than cold hard cash.

If your platform is designed with this in mind, it runs a much better chance for success. For example, Netflix uses the fact that rating movies will make its recommendations to you better over time to motivate you to bother with rating them. And not only that, it makes sure that when you visit your queue, you see the most recent movies you watched at the top as a helpful reminder to rate those as well.

Of course, Netflix’s recommendation engine (and therefore its business) is enhanced by your efforts, as are the experiences of all other users at Netflix benefitting from the massive collective intelligence behind the movies recommended to them as well … but Netflix doesn’t push this as the reason for you to rate movies. They stick to the main message: this will help YOU. Of course, nobody would believe them if they didn’t deliver on that promise; so they do.

Remixability & Presence

No community is an island. Each exists as a cluster of relationships, but every member of it has other external relationships. If you pull back just a bit, you see that every community is just a slightly more dense collection of relationships in a giant, interconnected tapestry. It’s nearly impossible to find borders or distinctions between them.

People have multivariate lives, and they’re increasingly expecting to be able to grab bits of one thing and have it mix into other things. If your community infrastructure doesn’t lend itself to syndication, mobile interaction, and the like — it’s risking irrelevance. People want it to come to them.

Because of the Internet, if people want to be part of a conversation, they can engage when they have the time to consume others’ expressions and respond in kind; just as important, they can also engage from where they are rather than having to wait until they’re sitting at a home computer.

Making it possible to catch up and respond through other channels, such as mobile and email, makes it much more likely people will integrate the platform into their daily rituals. Even though asynchronous communication allows a lot of flexibility, there’s still usually a window of opportunity during a given conversation where someone feels his or her input will be relevant. If someone doesn’t have a chance to shoot off an email or put 2 cents into the conversation — or even respond to a “poke” or comment on a photo — when they’re first aware of it, it’s extremely less likely they’ll take the time to do it later.

Another important part of Presence is making sure the platform reflects presence-related attributes of its inhabitants. For example, on LiveJournal, when you search for people with a particular interest, LiveJournal provides results that show, essentially, users’ icons and a text caption with saying the journal name, and the period of time since their last post. But, importantly, it *orders* the results by how long it’s been since their last post activity. It’s such a simple set of choices, but they have powerful consequences: the system implicitly rewards more active users with greater attention. Over time, with millions of searches and users, these design choices result in more links being created between some users rather than others, and help determine the ultimate shape of the community.

But which attributes are important? Like so many other structural choices in social spaces, there’s no universally successful list. For some it might be most recent post; for others it might be most highly rated content. The important point is to understand that these choices have powerful influence on the ultimate shape of the site — these structural, rules-based choices are the DNA of the platform. Which means it’s also important to have the ability to adjust those rules and structures as you go (more on that later).

Of course, there’s plenty more about Presence that I’m not even touching on here, such as “Ambient Intimacy” and the like. I think Presence and Remixability have a lot to do with each other; the channels and levels of granularity we have available to us now boggles the mind. Figuring out how to have a presence in all of them, and how they connect together (or, just as importantly, how they don’t) is one of the big, interesting challenges of the coming years.

Shared Artifacts & Objects

Many social-web gurus have highlighted the importance of Social Objects, as championed by Jyri Engestrom, creator of social platform Jaiku. The idea has also been articulated very well by Hugh McLeod (of gapingvoid fame).

Rather than go into detail on Social Objects here, I encourage you to click the links and bone up at the source. In a nutshell: Social Objects are the things that work as the social attractors and “glue” for social interactions. On Flickr it’s photographs; on LiveJournal it’s journals; on Twitter it’s tweets. We don’t socialize just for socialization’s sake — we connect around hubs of common interest, from the most casual to the most serious.

I have a particular interest in how this insight helps us understand Communities of Practice. It sounds silly to say it out loud, but practitioners are practical. That is, when a person is in “practitioner” mode — they’re putting on that hat, or living that role in a given moment — they tend to focus on practical matters having to do with the concrete work at hand.

Objects become even more important in this context. Teaching and learning are central to community-of-practice communication and social connection, so having shared artifacts as products of this continual conversation is of major importance to any community focused in this way. Evidently, research bears this out. It’s no accident that the wiki concept was born as a practical solution to the needs of a practitioner community. The platform has to provide the right kind of soil for any particular kind of growth. For example, a wiki provides a very different kind of soil than a wiki; one is driven by individual expression from individual identities; the other is driven by collaborative effort that obscures particular identities. The kind of artifact each of these systems offers determines the sort of work that can be done there; for some groups, a blog is a highly motivating system, while for others a wiki might work much better. It depends on the group and the sort of work they’re trying to do.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at