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How Twitter Gamifies Communication

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Abstract

Twitter makes conversation into something like a game. It scores our communication, giving us vivid and quantified feedback, via Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts. But this gamification doesn’t just increase our motivation to communicate; it changes the very nature of the activity. Games are more satisfying than ordinary life precisely because game-goals are simpler, cleaner, and easier to apply. Twitter is thrilling precisely because its goals have been artificially clarified and narrowed. When we buy into Twitter’s gamification, then our values shift from the complex and pluralistic values of communication, to the narrower quest for popularity and virality. Twitter’s gamification bears some resemblance with the phenomena of echo chambers and moral outrage porn. In all these phenomena, we are instrumentalizing our ends for hedonistic reasons. We have shifted our aims in an activity, not because the new aims are more valuable, but in exchange for extra pleasure.
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How$Twitter$Gamifies$Communication$
C.#Thi#Nguyen#
#
Forthcoming#in#Applied'Epistemology,#ed.#Jennifer#Lackey#(OUP)#
#
#
Twitter#is#now#one#of#our#primary#venues#for#public#discourse.#But#it#is#not#a#neutral#or#
transparent#medium.#Twitter#shapes#how#we#interact,#who#we#interact#with,#and#—#perhaps#
most#importantly#—#it#suggests#specific#goals#for#those#interactions.#Twitter#doesn’t#just#pro-
vide#a#speaking#platform,#nor#are#its#effects#confined#to#algorithmic#filtering.#Twitter#shapes#
our#goals#for#discourse#by#making#conversation#something#like#a#game.#Twitter#scores#our#
conversation.#And#it#does#so,#not#in#terms#of#our#own#particular#and#rich#purposes#for#com-
munication,#but#in#terms#of#its#own#pre-loaded,#painfully#thin#metrics:#Likes,#Retweets,#and#
Follower#counts.#And#if#we#take#up#Twitter’s#invitation#and#internalize#those#evaluations,#we#
will#be#thinning#out#and#simplifying#our#own#goals#for#communication.##
#Let’s#take#a#step#back.#Twitter#is#at#once#pluralistic#in#its#scope#and#monolithic#in#its#tech-
nological#form.#Twitter#is#pluralistic#because#it#offers#relatively#open#access#to#powerful#re-
sources#for#public#discourse.#Anybody#can#form#an#account,#and#anybody#with#the#right#feel#
for#the#medium,#it#seems,#can#gather#enormous#numbers#of#followers.#Twitter#democratizes#
access#to#large-scale#communication,#which#once#had#been#held#by#a#relatively#small#number#
of#media#companies.
1
#At#the#same#time,#Twitter#is#monolithic,#because#everybody#who#uses#
1
!My!understanding!of!Twitter!here!has!been!particularly!informed!by!Zeynep!Tufekci’s!(2017)!thought-
ful!analysis!of!the!advantages!and!disadvantages!of!this!pluralism.!
2
Twitter#must# communicate# through#the# same# interfaces,#and#be# subject#to#the# same#algo-
rithms.
2
#What#is#the#impact# of#so# much#public# discourse#being# shoveled#through#one#plat-
form?##
Other#discussions#of#Twitter#have#focused#on#the#enforced#shortness#of#tweets,#the#influ-
ence#of#hidden#algorithmic#filtering,#the#promotion#of#group#polarization,#the#lack#of#account-
ability#mechanisms,#and#the#collapse#of#conversational#contexts#(Sunstein,#2009,#46-96;#Mar-
wick#and#boyd,#2011;#Miller#and#Record,#2013;#Frost-Arnold,#2014;#Rini,#2017).#I#would#like#
to#focus#on#another#basic#feature#of#Twitter#—#one#whose#importance#and#impacts,#I#think,#
has#not#been#adequately#appreciated.#Twitter#gamifies#communication#by#offering#immedi-
ate,#vivid,#and#quantified#evaluations#of#one’s#conversational#success.#Twitter#offers#us#points'
for#discourse;#it#scores#our#communication.#And#these#game-like#features#are#responsible#for#
much#of#Twitter’s#psychological#wallop.#Twitter#is#addictive,#in#part,#because#it#feels#so#good#
to#watch#those#numbers#go#up#and#up.#In#fact,#the#design#of#Twitter#and#its#scoring#mecha-
nisms#have#been#significantly#informed#by#design#strategies#fostered#in#the#Las#Vegas#gam-
bling#industry#—#strategies#which#overtly#seek#to#increase#the#addictiveness#of#their#prod-
ucts.
3
#
The#clear#scoring#system#brings#with#it#another#very#game-like#aspect:#a#clear#and#unam-
biguous#ranking.#We#usually#don’t#emerge#from#the#party#with#a#ranked#list#of#who#the#best#
2
!This!pattern!of!thought!has!been!particularly!influenced!by!Tufekci’s!(2018)!discussion!of!how!the!In-
ternet!era!has!democratized!communication,!but!at!the!same!time!subjected!all!online!communication!to!a!
few!very!small!portals.!The!Internet!is!democratic!because!anybody!can!put!up!a!web-page,!but!it!is!mono-
lithic!because!we!all!find!web-pages!using!Google!Search!-!so!Google!Search’s!algorithm!becomes!an!all-pow-
erful!control!on!our!collective!attention.!Obviously,!in!the!background,!is!Marshall!McLuhan’s!(McLuhan,!
1964)!discussion!of!the!impact!of!medium!over!content.!
3
!Natasha!Dow!Schull’s!Addiction(by(Design!(2012)!offers!a!thorough!look!at!the!technological!innovations!
of!the!gambling!industry!to!optimize!the!addictiveness!of!their!products.!Since!that!book,!Schull!has!been!vo-
cal!about!how!those!technologies!have!been!adopted!by!gaming!and!social!media!companies!(Madrigal,!2013;!
National!Public!Radio,!2014;!Seymour,!2019).!
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conversationalists#were.#Twitter,#on#the#other#hand,#offers#both#short-term#rankings#(Likes#
and#Retweet#numbers#for#each#tweet)#and#long-term#rankings#(Follower#counts).#Most#im-
portantly,# the# rankings# are# entirely# unambiguous.# Unlike# conversation# in# the# wild,# I# can#
know#exactly#how# well# each#tweet#did,#and# I#can#instantly#compare# my#overall#popularity#
with#that#of#any#other#user.#This#can#provide#all#sorts#of#pleasures:#the#thrill#of#victory,#when#
we#see#those#numbers#tick#up;#and#the#sense#of#long-term#achievement,#presented#in#precise#
and#unquestionable#quantitative#form.##
Supporters#of#gamification#say#that#it#is#a#technology#for#increasing#motivation.#Gamifi-
cation#can#supposedly#imbue#everyday#activities#with#all#the#fun#and#excitement#of#a#game.
4
#
Here,#then,#is#an#optimistic#view#of#Twitter:#by#gamifying#public#discourse,#Twitter#increases#
overall#participation,#and#so#helps# us#to# reap#the# rewards#of# public#discourse#—# such# as#a#
more#fully#politically#engaged#populace.##
I#do#not#accept#the#optimistic#view.#Crucially,#I#don’t#think#that#gamification# merely# in-
creases#our#motivation#to#perform#an#activity#while#preserving#all#the#original#goods#of#that#
activity.#Gamification#increases#our#motivation#by#changing#the#nature#of#the#activity.#Often,#
the#goals#of#ordinary#activity#are#rich#and#subtle.#When#we#gamify#these#activities,#we#change#
those#goals#to#make#them#artificially#clear.#Games#are#more#satisfying#than#ordinary#life#pre-
cisely#because# game-goals#are# simpler,#clearer,# and#easier# to#apply.# In# games#proper,# this#
simplification#isn’t#particularly#problematic,#because#the#goals#are#peculiarly#artificial.#Game#
activities,#and#their#associated#goals,#are#usually#kept#secluded#from#ordinary#life.#But#there#
4
!This!point!was!put!most!influentially!by!Jane!McGonigal!(2011).!For!critical!discussion,!an!excellent!
starting!place!is!(Walz!et.!al.,!2015).!
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is#no# such#protective# separation#when# we#gamify#ordinary# activities.#To# reap#the# motiva-
tional#benefits#of#gamification,#we#must#re-shape#the#ends#which#govern#our#real-life#activi-
ties.#
Pre-gamification,#the#aims#of#discourse#are#complex#and#many.#Some#of#us#want#to#trans-
mit#information#or#to#persuade;#some#of#us#want#friendship.#Some#of#us#want#to#join#together#
in#the#pursuit#of#truth#and#understanding.#Twitter#gamifies#discourse#and,#in#so#doing,#offers#
us# re-engineered# goals# for# our# communicative# acts.# Twitter# invites# us# to# shift# our# values#
along# its# pre-fabricated# lines.# We# start# to# chase# higher# Likes# and# Retweets# and# Follower#
counts#—#and#those#are#very#different#targets.##
Others#of#us#may#come#to#Twitter#already#interested#in#popularity#and#status.#For#those,#
the#gamification#of#Twitter#may#not#represent#such#a#radical#change#in#the#basic#content#of#
their#goals.#But#even#for#those#already#interested#in#popularity,#Twitter#can#change#the#way#
in#which#they#conceive#of#popularity#–#by#making#highly#salient#a#handful#of#specific#metrics#
for#popularity.#Like#and#Follower#counts#are#not#the#only#way#to#conceive#of#popularity,#but#
they#the#measure#that#Twitter#highlights.##
What’s#more,#the# effect#of#Twitter’s# gamification,#across#the#community# Twitter#users,#
will#tend#towards#levelling#and#flattening#the#diversity#of#values.#Insofar#as#Twitter’s#gamifi-
cation#motivates#its#users,#then#it#will#drag#all#of#its#users’#communicative#values#in#the#same#
direction#–# towards#the# same# metric.#Gamification# homogenizes#the# value#landscape.#And#
this#phenomenon#will#help#explain#some#of#the#more#socially# toxic#aspects#of#Twitter.#The#
technology#invites#us#to#focus#our#cares#on#the#narrow#task#of#getting#points#and#going#viral.#
And#that# goal# is#in# tension#with#our# interest#in#having# morally#sensitive#and# openhearted#
communication.#This# gamification#invites#us,# instead,#to# view#communication# through# the#
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lens#of#competition,#victory,#and#success#on#Twitter’s#very#specific#terms.##
Let#me#emphasize#the#fact#that#Twitter#offers#us#an#invitation#to#change#our#values.#Twit-
ter#will#not#change#our#values#for#us.#It#is#a#system#designed#to#offer#us#pleasure#in#return#for#
simplifying#our#values#–#but#we#still#have#to#take#up#that#offer.#But#it#does#ease#the#way#for#us#
considerably,#by#offering#a#pre-prepared#and#seductively#designed#pathway.#
Of#course,#Twitter#isn’t#the#only#place#where#gamification#influences#communication,#dis-
course,# and# collective# understanding.# We# can# see# similar# effects# with# Facebook’s# Likes,#
YouTube’s#clickthrough#and#watchthrough#counts,
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#academic#citation#rates,#and#more.#But#
here#I#wish#to#explore,#in#details,#how#gamification#impacts#discourse#and#knowledge-pro-
duction#in#one#particular#instantiation,#as#an#opening#step#towards#understanding#life#in#the#
time#of#quantification.##
#
#
Games&and&Gamification&
Why#gamify?#If# there#is#a# Bible# to#the#contemporary# gamification#movement,#it#is# Jane#
McGonigal’s#book,#Reality'is'Broken:'How'Games'Make'Us'Better'and'How'They'Can'Change'
the'World.
6
'McGonigal#provides#a#clear#—#and#very#influential#—#argument#for#gamification.#
Ordinary#life,#she#says,#is#quite#painful.#Everyday#activities,#like#work,#education,#and#chores,#
are#dull#and#repetitive.#But#luckily,#she#says,#we#already#have#an#extremely#effective#technol-
ogy#for#eliminating#drudgery:#computer#games.#By#importing#key#design#features#from#mod-
5
!The!YouTube!examples!were!suggested!by!Mark!Alfano.!
6
!For!a!more!technique-oriented!design!manual!for!gamification,!see!Chou!(2015).(
6
ern#gaming#into#ordinary#activities,#we#can#transform#daily#life#into#something#far#more#en-
joyable#(McGonigal,#2011).##
In#so#many#modern#computer#games,#we#voluntarily#engage#in#what#looks,#from#the#out-
side,# like# pure# drudgery.# Many# games,# particularly# computer# role-playing# games,# involve#
what’s#known#as#“grinding”#—#performing#simple,#repetitive#activities#to#slowly#build#up#var-
ious#in-game#points#and#currency.#Grinding#can#involve#killing#easy#enemies,#over#and#over#
again,#for#experience#points#and#gold#—#or#laboriously#gathering#piles#of#ingredients#in#order#
to#craft# equipment.# Why#are#people#willing#to#engage#in#such#drudgery#in#their#spare#time#
when#they#avoid#such#activities#like#the#plague#in# real# life?#The#answer# seems# to#lie#in# the#
powerful# feedback# and# reward# mechanisms# available# in# games,# especially# contemporary#
computer#games.#In#such#games,#we#are#given#immediate#rewards#for#our#achievements#in#
the#form#of#points,#leveling#up,#achievement#badges,#and#the#like.#Games#quantize#our#suc-
cesses,#making#our#progress#clear#and#vivid.#McGonigal#emphasizes,#in#particular,#how#games#
offer#us#a#steady#sense#of#progress#and#victory,#through#a#constant#stream#of#clear#feedback,#
in#the#terms#of#the#accumulation#of#points#(52-63).
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#So#why#can’t#we#borrow#those#feedback#
and#reward#mechanisms,#and#slather#them#over#real-life#activities?#
We’ve#seen,#in#recent#years,#many#efforts#to#gamify#the#workplace#and#the#school.#Busi-
ness#entrepreneurs#seem#particularly#interested#in#gamification’s#ability#to#increase#worker#
productivity# by# increasing# worker# motivation.# Disney# famously# gamified# its# hospitality#
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!The!mechanisms!for!this!are!complex.!McGonigal!provides!a!survey!of!the!empirical!literature;!for!a!
more!pessimistic!counterpoint,!see!Schull’s!work!on!game!addiction!and!its!relationship!to!points.!Schull’s!
account!stresses!the!way!in!which!the!exact!timing!of!the!quantized!reward!in!certain!game!designs!triggers!
addictive!surges!of!serotonin.!
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workforce,#providing#leaderboards#and#rankings#for#speedy#performance.#Notably,#the#sys-
tem#increased#productivity,#at#the# expense# of#also# increasing#the# injury#rate.# And#workers#
hated#the#system,#calling#it#the#“electronic#whip”#—#and#saying#that#they#couldn’t#help#being#
motivated#by#it,#even#though#they#detested#the#intrusion#(Gabrielle,#2018).#We’ve#seen#the#
introduction# of# gamification# into# fitness,# with# technologies# like# FitBit# and# Strava# offering#
game-like#structures#of#points,#rankings,#and#leaderboards#for#exercise.#We’ve#seen#gamified#
education#in#schools,#and#in#various#apps.#The#popular#language#learning#app#DuoLingo#gam-
ifies#language#learning#by#offering#its#users#points#and#virtual#medals#for#achieving#various#
daily#goals,#like#learning#new#vocabulary#words.##
McGonigal#and#her#fellow#gamification#advocates#are#optimistic#about#the#utopian#poten-
tial#of#gamification.#In#McGonigal’s#picture,#gamification#is#an#unalloyed#good:#it#simply#re-
moves#drudgery#and#adds#pleasure.#But#her#optimism#depends#on#believing#that#gamification#
can#achieve#these#psychological#goods#while#adequately#preserving#the#value#of#the#activity.##
When#we#understand#the# source#of#gamification’s#motivational# power,#we#will# see#the#
problem#with#McGonigal’s#optimism.#Gamification#involves#a#trade:#it#increases#our#motiva-
tion#in#an#activity#by#narrowing#and#simplifying#the#target#of#that#activity#—#which,#in#turn,#
changes#the# nature#of# the#activity.# And# this#may# be#fine# when#the# activity#has# a# naturally#
simple#target,#as#is#possibly#the#case#with#language#learning.#But#the#goals#of#discourse#are#
many#and#subtle,#and#gamification#threatens#to#destroy#much#of#that#diversity#and#subtlety.##
The# usual# view# among# gamification# advocates# is# to# treat# games# and# gamification# as#
providing#the#same#sort#of#value.#Insofar#as#games#are#good,#the#story#goes,#then#gamification#
must#also#be#good,#since#it#makes#life#more#like#a#game.#But#this#view#conceals#the#profound#
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differences#between#games#proper#and#the#gamification#of#real-world#activities.#To#under-
stand#that,#we’ll#need#a#clearer#account#of#the#nature#and#value#of#games.#
Let#me#summarize#my#account#of#games,#which#I#have#developed#in#excruciating#detail#
elsewhere.
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#Games,#I’ve#argued,#are#the#art# form# that#works# in# the#medium# of# agency.#The#
game#designer#doesn’t#just#create#characters,#stories,#and#environments.#The#game#designer#
sculpts#the'temporary' agency' that'the'player'will'occupy'during'the'game.#They#design,#not#
only#a#world,#but#who'the'player'will'be#in#that#world.#I#do#not#just#mean#that#the#game#de-
signer#provides#a#fictional#backstory#for#a#character.#They#design#the#essential#agential#struc-
ture#of#the#in-game#actor.#They#designate#what#the#in-game#agent’s#abilities#and#affordances#
will#be#—# whether#they#will#be# a#jumper,#a#shooter,# a#builder#or#an# information#gatherer.#
And,#most#importantly,#the#game#designer#sets#the#in-game#agent’s#motivations#by#setting#the#
goals#of#the#game.##
And#the#game#player#submerges#themselves#in#this#sculpted#agency,#temporarily.#Game-
playing#involves#the#temporary#adoption#of#an#alternate#set#of#goals.#Why#do#all#this?#For#one#
thing,#our#goals#in#game-life#are#so#much#clearer#than#in#ordinary#life.#In#ordinary#life,# our#
goals#are#often# obscure.#We#often# don’t#know#exactly# what#we’re#doing# —# or#we# find# our#
reasons#hard#to#articulate#and#difficult#to#apply.#And#we#are#beset#with#a#confusing#welter#of#
values#–#both#from#within#our#own#value#system,#and#from#the#bruising#value#complexity#of#
the#social#world.#But#games#offer#a#relief#from#all#that.#While#playing#a#game,#we#know#exactly#
what#we#are#trying#to#do#—#and#afterwards,#we#know#exactly#how#well#we#have#done.#Success#
in#a#game#is#clear#and#unmistakable.#There#are#points.##
And#game#values#usually#fit#neatly#with#one#another.#In#ordinary#life,#our#values#are#hard#
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!The!present!account!relies!on!material!drawn!from!Nguyen!(2017;!2018;!2020).!
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to#balance.#I#care#about#spending#time#with#my#loved#ones,#raising#my#children#right,#writing#
good#philosophy,#enjoying#myself#in#rock#climbing,#staying#healthy,#and#eating#delicious#food.#
Not#only#are# my# values#often#in#tension,# but#there#is#usually# no# way#to#precisely#compare#
them.#How#do#I#compare#achievements#under#one#of#these#goals#against#sacrifices#in#another?#
What,#exactly,#is#the#cost-benefit#analysis#for#choosing#between#working#today#or#taking#my#
children#to#the#aquarium?#But#with#games,#there#is#usually#a#clear#central#currency#of#value.#
A#game#tells#me#to#achieve#victory#points#and#then#tells#me#exactly#how#many#victory#points#
things#are#worth.
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#The#goods#of#a#game#are#readily#commensurable,#by#design.##
In#ordinary#life,#values#are#often#inchoate,#subtle,#and#difficult#to#apply.#But#in#games,#val-
ues#are#easy.#Games#offer#us#a#momentary#experience#of#value'clarity.#They#are#a#balm#for#the#
existential#pains#of#real#life.#In#games,#we#know#exactly#what#we#are#doing#and#why#we#are#
doing#it.#And#when#we#are#done,#we#know#exactly#how#well#we#have#done.#Games#offer#us#a#
momentary#respite#from#the#value#confusion#of#the#world.#
It#is#relatively#easy#for#the#game# designer#to# create# value#clarity,# because# the#values# in#
games#are#entirely#artificial.#The#game#designer#can#just#tell#us#what#to#care#about,#and#play-
ers#simply#care#about#it#for#a#while.#This#is#part#of#what# it# means#to#say#that# agency#is#the#
medium#of#games.#The#in-game#agencies#—#their#abilities,#their#motivations#—#are#the#plastic#
medium#which# the#game# artist#manipulates# to# achieve#their# effects.#But# when#we# seek#to#
gamify#ordinary#life,#we#are#trying#to#impose#value#clarity#on#a#pre-existing#thicket#of#values.#
This#is#the#worry#with#Twitter.#Twitter#can#grant#us#the#emotional#security#and#existential#
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!Some!other!games!offer!a!few!different!currencies!of!success,!but!even!then,!those!various!currencies!
are!usually!compatible.!In!many!computer!role-playing!games,!for!example,!I!am!offered!both!experience!
points!and!gold,!with!no!clear!explanation!of!which!I!am!to!pursue.!Though!there!is!no!direct!exchange!rate!
between!the!two!currencies,!they!go!hand-in-hand.!Usually!the!path!to!more!experience!points!is!through!
more!gold,!and!vice!versa.!So!for!success!I!can!aim!to!maximize!both.!
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relief#of#value#clarity,#but#we#must#adopt#Twitter’s#narrowed#targets#in#exchange.##
#
&
How&Twitter&changes&discourse#
McGonigal#views#gamification#as#providing#nothing#but#a#motivational#boost.#The#analy-
sis#I’ve#offered#shows#the#problem#with#that#view.#We#get#those#extra#motivational#elements#
—#pleasure,#fun,#engagement#—#in#exchange#for#substantively#changing#the#goals#of#the#ac-
tivity,#and#so#changing#the#activity#itself.#The#gamified#design#of#Twitter#influences#discourse#
by#inviting#its#users#to#change'the'goals'of'their'participation'in'discourse#—#to#simplify#those#
goals#in#exchange#for#pleasure.
10
##
Let#me#stipulate# a#bit#of# terminology.#Let#us# call# the#designed#technology# which#offers#
points#and#scores#“design#for#gamification”.##And#let#us#use#“gamification”#to#refer#to#those#
cases#when#a#player#interacts#with#design#for#gamification#and#actually#adopts#those#points#
and#scores#as#primary#motivators#during#the#activity#—#when#the#activity#actually#does#be-
come#something#like#a#game#for#them.#Notice#that#you#can#need#to#actually#adopt#these#clear#
goals,#at#least#for#the#moment,#to#get#the#pleasures#on#offer.#
Consider#some# of# our#ordinary# goals# for# communication.# We#may# wish# to# collectively#
10
!My!view!here!is!much!opposed!to!Ian!Bogost’s!famous!argument!that!“gamification!is!bullshit”.!Bogost’s!
argument!here!is!that!gamification!is!bullshit!because!the!term!‘gamification’!was!used!so!flexibly!and!varia-
bly!by!corporate!profiteers!that!the!term!was!essentially!useless!—!that!it!was!a!pure!buzzword,!with!no!con-
tent!(Bogost,!2011).!As!my!discussion!shows,!gamification!is!a!specific!phenomenon!with!clear!techniques!
and!identifiable!consequences.!The!fact!that!salespeople!have!used!the!term!poorly!does!not!undermine!the!
usefulness!of!the!term!itself.!Interestingly,!I!do!think!that!gamification!is!bullshit,!but!in!a!different!sense.!
Harry!Frankfurt’s!discussion!of!bullshit!can!be!read!in!the!following!way:!bullshit!is!an!activity!that!has!been!
diverted!from!its!usual!goal!(Frankfurt,!2005).!In!that!specific!sense,!I!do!think!gamification!is!bullshit.!(Bo-
gost!cites!Frankfurt’s!discussion!of!bullshit,!but!Bogost!misses!much!of!the!specificity!of!Frankfurt’s!analysis.)!
11
pursue#truth#and#understanding,#or#to#promote#empathy#for#one#another.#But#Twitter’s#scor-
ing#mechanism#invites#us#to#replace#those#values#with# another,# much#simpler# goal:# that#of#
maximizing#one’s#Likes,#Retweets,#and#Follower#counts.#Twitter’s#measures#are# a# radically#
simplified#—#and#quite#impoverished#—#rendition#of#the#wide#plurality#of#values#for#commu-
nication#we#might#hope# to# find#across#a#community#of# conversers.#For# one#thing,#we#have#
evidence#aplenty#that#what#makes#something#go#viral#is#not#its#truth,#or#the#degree#to#which#
it#promotes#understanding.#Recent#studies#have#shown#that#tweets#loaded#with#strong#moral#
emotions,#like#outrage,#are#far#more#likely#to#go#viral,#via#an#effect#that#researchers#call#“moral#
contagion”#(Brady#et.#al.,#2017).##
But#a#gamification#booster#might#resist#this#portrayal.#They#might#suggest#that#Twitter’s#
scoring#mechanism# does#an# adequately#good# job#of#reflecting#the# true#plurality# of#values.#
Perhaps#individuals#have#their#own#values#for#which#they#come#to#Twitter.#But#those#values#
guide#when#each#individual#user#decides#to#Like,#Retweet,#or#Follow.#Thus#Likes,#Retweets,#
and#Follower#counts#serve#as#useful#measures#of#overall#success#against#a#plurality#of#values,#
since#they#function#to#aggregate#individual#approval.#
But#being#guided#by#an#aggregate#measure# of# the#audience’s# approval# is#a# far# cry#from#
being#guided#by#one’s#own#internal#sense#of#value.#First,#pressing#Like#is#a#quick#reaction.#It#
typically#records#a#user’s#positive#first-impression#response# to# a#tweet.# So#if# we#evaluated#
our#communicative#attempts#by#their#Like#counts,#we#would#be#effectively#biased#in#favor#of#
tweets#that#users#immediately#enjoy.#We#would#be#effectively#biased#against#slow-burn#con-
tent#—#against#those#ideas#that#lingered#in#the#memory#and#revealed#their#depths#slowly.#It#
seems#far#more#likely#that#a#user#will#Like#a#tweet#if#it,#say,#expresses#a#view#that#they#already#
agree#with,# than#one# that#presents#a# challenging#or#subtle# view#that# the#user#will# have#to#
12
wrestle#with#for#a#while.#This#is#not#because#tweets#somehow#can’t#be#profound#by#their#very#
nature.#Rather,#it#is#a#feature#of#how#Twitter’s#interface#captures#the#data#to#feed#its#metrics.#
A#user#might#eventually#come#to#appreciate#a#challenging#tweet,#but#they#are#far#less#likely#
to#go#back#and#find#that#tweet,#weeks#later,#to#press#Like.#Slow#appreciation#is#far#less#likely#
to#be#captured#by#the#system#and#be#counted#towards#that#tweet’s#score.#And#insofar#as#we#
have#become#gamified,#then#we#will#judge#our#own#communicative#success#in#terms#of#that#
recorded#score.##
Second,#Twitter#scoring#emphasizes#the#total#number#of#Likes,#rather#than,#say,#the#depth#
of#engagement#or#lasting#effect#of#a#particular#communication.#This#sort#of#problem#plagues#
all#sorts#of#large-scale#value#aggregations.#Consider#Matt#Strohl’s#criticism#of#the#movie-re-
view# aggregator# site# Rotten# Tomatoes.# Rotten# Tomatoes# surveys# the# online# reviews# of# a#
movie#and#reduces#them#each#to#a#simple#binary:#was#it#a#positive#or#negative#review?#And#
then#Rotten#Tomatoes# produces#an#aggregate#percentage# of#positive#reviews.#Notice,# says#
Strohl,#how#this#influences#the#results.#A#movie#which#strikes#every#critic#as#a#little#bit#above#
average#will#score#100%#on#Rotten#Tomatoes#and#show#up#at#the#top#of#the#heap.#A#movie#
which#divides# the#critics# —# which#some# critics#find# utterly#brilliant# and#other# critics#find#
baffling#—#will#show#up#with#a#50%#score,#and#appear,#numerically#at#least,#as#a#mediocrity.#
But#great#movies,# says#Strohl,#rarely# please#everybody.#Much#of# the#most#important# art#is#
difficult#and#utterly#divisive.#But#the#filtering#and#aggregating#mechanism#of#Rotten#Toma-
toes# ends# up# expressing# a# mathematical# preference# for# more# blandly# agreeable# material#
(Strohl,#2017).##
Twitter’s#aggregation#method#produces#a#similar#effect.#Sometimes,#when#I’m#teaching,#I#
13
say#something#to#a#whole#class#that#I#doubt#will#reach#most#students,#but#that#I#strongly#sus-
pect#will#resonate#with#one#or#two#students.#And#often,#that’s#good#enough#for#me.#But#Twit-
ter#scores#each#tweet#with#a#simple#binary#measurement:#either#we#Like#a#tweet,#or#we#don’t;#
either#we#Retweet,#or#we#don’t.#This#binary#data#collection#screens#off,#at#the#input#stage,#any#
considerations#of#depth#of#impact#or#profundity#of#connection.#Then#Twitter#automatically,#
and#very# visibly,#aggregates#the# results#of#that# binary#input.# Twitter’s# scores#make# highly#
salient#the#number#of#users#with#positive#reactions,#while#de-emphasizing#the#quality#of#any#
particular#interaction.#Insofar#as#we#come#to#be#motivated#by#Twitter’s#scores,#then#the#aim#
of#our#communication#will#be#subject#to#a#similar#biasing#effect#as#with#Rotten#Tomatoes.#We#
will#prefer#those#communications#that#appeal#to#the#greatest#number#—#even#if#that#appeal#
is#marginally#positive#—#rather#than#those#communications#that#might#reach#a#smaller#num-
ber#more#deeply.##
Third,#Twitter#scoring#aggregates#user#interests#into#a#single#monolithic#statistic,#which#
threatens#to#diminish# the#plurality#of# values#for#which# we#collectively#communicate.# Let’s#
assume,#for#the#moment,#that#every#Twitter#user#Likes#those#tweets#which#in#a#way#that#ac-
curately#reflects#their#particular#interests#in#communication.#(In#other#words,#assume#that#
the#last#two#problems#don’t#apply.)#Even#so,#gamification#will#result#in#a#homogenization#of#
the#values#for#which#various#actors#communicate.#Pre-gamification,#each#tweeting#user#will#
be#motivated#by#their#own#particular#values#in#communicating,#giving#us#a#diversity#of#com-
municators# with# different# and# distinctive# motives.# Such# a# diversity# of# interests# is# quite#
healthy,#epistemically#speaking.#Cognitively#diverse#communities#do#better#at#figuring#things#
14
out.
11
#Suppose,#now,#that#the#entire#community#succumbs#to#gamification#and#start#chasing#
popularity#by#Twitter’s#metric.#Post-gamification,#we#have#a#body#of#communicators#identi-
cally#motivated#to#satisfy#the#same#mixed#populace.#We’ve#replaced#a#diversity#of#motivations#
with#a#motivational#monolith.#(Here’s#one#way#to#make#the#damage#apparent:#imagine#the#
difference#between#a#world#of#artists#each#motivated#by#their#own#aesthetic#sensibility,#ver-
sus#a#world#of#artists#each#motivated#to#satisfy#the#largest#number#of#their#fellow#artists.
12
)###
These#three#arguments#approach,#from#different#angles,#the#same#central#idea:#that#Twit-
ter’s#scoring#mechanisms#offer#a#simplified#rendition#of#the#rich#plurality#of#our#values.#They#
refract#our#interests#through#the#particular#prism#of#Twitter’s#information#collection#system,#
and#then#average# the#result.#And,#insofar#as# this#simplification#comes# in#an#attempt#to# re-
optimize#the#activity#for#pleasure,#we#should#expect#it#reduce#that#activity’s#capacities#to#per-
form#its#other#functions.#At#most,#we#might#have#hoped#for#a#compromise#between#pleasure#
and#the#original#goals#of#the#activity;#but#such#a#compromise#would#require#a#careful,#inten-
tional#design#effort.#And#we#have#little#evidence#that#Twitter’s#design#for#gamification#arose#
from#any#such#careful#attempt#to#support#the# plurality# of#communicative# values.# We#have,#
instead,#plenty#of#reason#to#think#that#its#design#features#were#heavily#driven#by#an#interest#
in#increasing#user#engagement#for#the#sake#of#profit.##
Here’s#an#analogy.#Products#that#seem#good#and#exciting#in#the#store#often#turn#out#to#be#
quite#poor#in#quality.#This#superficiality#is#no#accident;#it#is#the#result#of#systematic#pressures.#
The#function#of#these#objects#has#drifted#due#to#market#forces.#Where#once#the#function#of#a#
11
Lu Hong and Scott Page (2004, 2007) have famously demonstrated that cognitive diversity trumps cognitive abil-
ity in groups of deliberating individuals. For a rich application of these results to political communities, see Hélène
Landemore’s (2013, 89-117) discussion of inclusive deliberation.
12
For a further discussion of the relationship between loyalty to personal aesthetic sensibility and a resulting land-
scape of creative diversity, see Nguyen (forthcoming).
15
shoe#was#to#help#us#walk,#now,#so#often,#the#function#of#the#shoe#is#to#get#bought.
13
#And#what#
gets#a#shoe#bought#is#not#its#actual#long-term#quality,#but#the#short-term#appearance#of#qual-
ity.# I# am# suggesting# that# something# similar# happens# with# gamified# discourse# on# Twitter.#
Gamification#changes#discourse#from#serving#the#long-term#values#of#communication#to#serv-
ing#the#function#of#gathering#the#most#Likes#and#Retweets.##
Of#course,#gamification#might#not#be#dangerous#if#it#is#managed#properly.#Here,#then,#is#a#
more#sophisticated#defense#for#the#gamification# optimist.# Perhaps#the# simplified,#gamified#
value#isn’t#actually#replacing#our#original#value,#but#simply#functioning#as#a#short-term#heu-
ristic#for#that#value.#Cognitively# limited# beings#like#us#often# need#to#focus#on#a# short-term#
proxy#for#a#complex#value#–#like,#say,#using#one’s#increased#running#mileage#as#a#proxy#for#
health,#or#using#one’s#grades#as#a#proxy#for#educational#success.#Managed#properly,#such#heu-
ristics#can# serve#as#an# efficient#and#motivating# proxy#for# some#deeper#and# more#complex#
value.#It’s#much#easier,#on#a#day-to-day#basis,#to#aim#at#increasing#mileage#than#it#is#to#think#
about#my#health#as#a#whole.##
But#proper#management#is#key.#Heuristics,#after#all,#are#simplifications#of#the#real#thing.#
They#are#good#heuristics# insofar#they# remain#properly#tethered#to#our# deeper#values.#The#
successful#use# of#a#heuristic#involves# a# complex#process#of# management.#We#need# to#step#
back#and#reflect#on#whether#using#the#heuristic#is#actually#helping#to#achieve#the#underlying#
values.#Increasing#your#running#mileage# might#sometimes# be#a# good#proxy# for#fitness,# but#
not#when#it# brings#irreversible#knee#damage.# We#need#to#adjust# our#heuristics#when#they#
drift.##
But#Twitter’s#design#for#gamification#discourage#appropriate#management.#First,#Twitter#
13
!This!excellent!formulation!suggested!by!Alison!Rieheld.!
16
makes#the#scoring#system#pervasive#and#highly#salient#through#its#user#interface.#The#ready#
availability#of#this#pre-fabricated,#neatly#packaged#evaluation#system#may,#by#itself,#discour-
age#further#reflection#on#one’s#values.#More#importantly,#Twitter’s#metric#is#hard-wired'into#
the#system.#Even#if#we#managed#to#discover#that#we#did,#in#fact,#want#to#adjust#the#heuristic,#
that#adjustment#is#hard#to#do#on#our#own#–#because#the#scoring#system#is#embedded#in#an#
externally-controlled# technology.# Gamification# works# on# us,# in# part,# because# of# the# ready#
availability#of#those# quantified#evaluations.
14
#In#order#to# get#the#full#pleasure# on# offer,#we#
must#assent#to#the#particular#measures#that#have#been#baked#into#the#system.#So,#unless#Twit-
ter’s#gamified#metrics#just#happen#to#the#right#heuristics#to#achieve#our#particular#values#in#
communication#–#and#to#do#so#in#perpetuity#–#then#taking#on#those#metrics#will#impede#our#
capacity#to#manage# our# proxy#targets#in#light# of#our#real#values.# And# everybody#who#uses#
Twitter#is#pressured# to#take# on#precisely#the# same# heuristic,#with#little#room# for#personal#
tailoring.#Twitter’s#interface#comes#with#a#pre-fabricated,#hard-wired#measure,#which#points#
its#users#firmly#in#the#direction#of#popularity#–#rather#than#allowing#the#user#to#search#out#
the#heuristic#that#best#matches#their#own#interests.#Of#course,#a#user#could,#conceivably,#re-
sist#the#pull#of#Twitter’s#design#for#gamification#and#impose#their#own#self-created#and#self-
managed#heuristics#on#their#tweeting.#Twitter#isn’t#actually#forcing#a#value#change#on#us.#The#
system#design#is#seductive,#but#not#compulsory.#But#Twitter#offers#us#an#intoxicating#hedonic#
reward#for#changing#our#values#along#its#pre-arranged#lines.###
These#thoughts#about#pre-fabrication#points#the#way#to# another#worry.#To#provide# the#
kind#of#carefully#engineered,#automated,#steady#feedback#that#McGonigal#praises,#we#usually#
14
See McGonigal’s (2011, especially 52-63) discussion of World of Warcraft, and the importance of the visible and
steady trickle of points and rewards.
17
need#help#from#large#institutions#–#like#corporations#and#governments.#Our#choice#of#activi-
ties#–#and#the#way#we#engage#in#those#activities#–#will#then#depend#deeply#on#the#fabrication#
efforts#of#large-scale#institutions.#Suppose#that#you#find#yourself#with#a#strong#preference#for#
gamified#activities#over#ungamified#ones.#When#you#engage#in#a#particular#gamified#activity,#
you#will,#indeed,#find#yourself#more#motivated#and# more#engaged.#But# you# will#also#be#re-
stricted#to#choosing#from#the#list#of#activities#that#institutions#have#chosen#to#gamify#for#you.#
Right#now,#for#example,#there#are#popular#gamifications#available#for#language#learning,#in-
creasing#your#step#counts,#and#tracking#your#weight#loss.#But#there#aren’t#good#gamifications#
for#learning# to#appreciate# complex#poetry# or#becoming# a# better#and# more#empathetic# lis-
tener.#And#even#if#we#think#that#the#choice#of#gamifications#isn’t#insidious#or#manipulative#–#
even#if#the#institutions#are#well-intentioned#and#just#trying#to#help#us#lead#our#best#lives#–#we#
will#still#find#that#the#range#of#activities#available#to#us#will#be#sharply#curtailed.#Institutions#
will#tend#to#produce#gamifications#of#activities#that#more#easily#admit#of#technologized#meas-
urement.#It#is#easier#to#gamify#weight-loss#than#it#is#to#gamify#deep#aesthetic#appreciation,#
because#the#former#is#easier#to#measure#in#an#automated#way.#And#when#institutions#gamify#
activities#with#more#subtle#and#complex#aims#–#like#communication#–#then#they#will#tend#to#
tend#to#change#those#activities#to#make#the#aims#more#amenable#to#automated#measurement.#
So# a# life# of# gamification# will# tend# to# draw# us# towards# those# activities# which# have# clearly#
measurable# goals,# or# can# be# transformed# into# something# with# clearly# measurable# goals.#
When#we#demand#the#pleasures#of#gamification#in#our#activities,#then#the#range#of#activities#
available#to#us#diminishes#–#and#the#degrees#of#freedom#we#have#within#the#activity#also#di-
minishes.#Ironically,#if#we#took#the#spirit#of#play#to#involve#something#like#some#kind#of#free-
dom#or#spontaneity#with#respect#to#one’s#values#and#activities,#then#gamification#turns#out#
18
to#be#the#opposite#of#play.
15
##
#
How&gamification&changes&us#
So# far,# we’ve# discussed# how# gamification# can# change# the# goals# of# the# activity# and# so#
change#how#we#conduct#the#activity.#There#is#now#a#further#question:#how#might#gamification#
change#the#users#themselves?#How#might#they#transform#the#users’#lasting#values?##
Much#depends#here#on#how#the#users#motivationally#interact#with#the#scores.#There#are#
several# different# ways# that# interaction# could# go.# First,# users# can# treat# Twitter# as# a# game#
proper,#taking#on#its#goals#temporarily#for#the#sake#of#the#pleasure#during#the#activity.#Sec-
ond,#they#can#internalize#those#scores#and#transform#their#long-term#goals#for#communica-
tion.#Third,#they#could#keep#the#scores#at#motivational#arm’s#length,#treating#them#only#as#a#
measure#of#some#useful#resource,#but#not#permitting#the#scores#to#function#directly#in#their#
motivation#in#any#way.#Let’s#look#at#these#various#possibilities#one#by#one.##
First,#suppose#one#treats#Twitter#as#a#game#proper.#Let’s#call#such#a#person#a#game-play-
ing'user.##Such#a#user#temporarily#adopts#Twitter’s#scores#as#their#goal#while#they#play#Twit-
ter,#and#then# puts#those#goals# away#afterwards.#In# that#case,#their# local# adoption#of#those#
game-goals#wouldn’t#count#as#a#long-term#change#in#their#value.#And#this#practice#would#be#
perfectly#harmless,#if#Twitter#were#really#a#game#through#and#through#—#but#Twitter#is#not.##
Real#games#have#special#properties.#As#Johann#Huizinga#famously#put#it,#a#game#occurs#in#
a#separated#place#—#a#place#he#called#“the#magic#circle”#—#where#we#take#on#alternate#roles,#
and#our#actions#took#on#alternate#meanings#(Huizinga,#1971).#Or,#as#Annika#Waern#puts#it,#
games#take#place#inside#an#interpretive#frame,#where#we#agree#to#reinterpret#the#meanings#
15
This view of play is fairly common in the literature, but this precise articulation is from Maria Lugones (1987).
19
of#the#acts#inside#the#game#(Waern,#2012).#These#are#philosophically#rich#descriptions#of#a#
familiar#phenomenon.#Actions#in#games#are#screened#off,#in#important#ways,#from#ordinary#
life.#When#we#are#playing#basketball,#and#you#block#my#pass,#I#do#not#take#this#to#be#a#sign#of#
your#long-term#hostility#towards#me.#When#we#are# playing#at#having#an#insult#contest,#we#
don’t#take# each# others#speech#to# be#indicative#of# our#actual#attitudes# or#beliefs#about# the#
world.
16
##
And# there# are,# in# fact,# conversational# practices# that# are# games,# through# and# through.#
These#are#explicit,#temporary#practices#where#we#conduct#conversation#while#taking#on#spe-
cific#goals,#obeying#specific#obstructions,#and#taking#on#specific#roles.#There#are#structured#
games#of#deceit,#intended#to#be#played#at#parties#or#as#tabletop#games,#like#Mafia,#Werewolf,#
The'Resistance:'Avalon,'and#Spyfall.#There#are#also#informal#conversational#games,#like#when#
we#sit# around# and#try# to# come#up# with# the# best# insult#about# each# other’s#mothers.# What#
makes#the#deceit#in#true#games#morally#permissible#is#that#we#all#know,#going#in,#not#to#take#
the#in-game#speech#seriously.
17
#I#don’t#actually#take#your#“Yo#mama”#insults#to#be#presented#
as#reliable# testimony#about# the#state# of# the# world.# Such#games# involve#the# voluntary#and#
consensual#entrance,#by#all#the# players,#into# an#alternative#game-space,#where#the# players#
know#to#interpret#the#actions#and#communications#inside#the#game#under#a#special#light#–#to#
not#treat#them#as#ordinary,#real-world#actions.#
16
!The!“magic!circle”!notion!has!come!under!significant!fire,!which!I!believe!can!be!located!in!a!famously!
overstated!version!presented!in!Rules(of(Play,!an!influential!early!game-design!textbook.!According!to!that!
textbook!—!at!least,!according!to!some!readers!—!magic!circles!were!impermeable!membranes!for!meaning,!
across!which!no!moral!judgment!or!consequence!could!cross!(Salen!and!Zimmerman,!95-97).!I!am!relying!
here!on!what!I!take!to!be!a!more!minimal!and!defensible!version!of!the!magic!circle.!For!various!defenses!of!
more!reasonable!accountings!of!the!magic!circle,!see!(Stenros,!2012;!Waern,!2012;!Nguyen!2020,!177-180).!
17
!For!further!discussion!of!the!moral!transition!into!game-life,!see!(Weimer,!2012;!Kretchmar,!2012;!
Nguyen,!2017).!
20
But#those#aren’t#the#normative#conventions#around#most#of#Twitter.#The#majority#of#Twit-
ter#presents#itself#as,#and#is#taken#to#be,#ordinary#discourse.#For#the#most#part,#we#think#that#
people#on# Twitter#are#representing#their# real#beliefs#and# trying#to#make# claims#about# the#
actual#world.
18
#A#user#who#approaches#Twitter#as#a#literal#game,#then,#runs#the#risk#of#under-
mining#the#epistemic#goods#available#to#the#other#users.#Suppose#I’m#on#Twitter#to#actually#
communicate# about# ideas,# and# you’re# playing# a# game# with# Twitter# —# saying# whatever# it#
takes#to#get#the#most#Likes#and#Retweets#for#the#sheer#fun#of#it.#If#I#don’t#realize#you’re#playing#
a#game,#then#I#will#be#profoundly#misinformed#by#your#tweets.#Those#who#approach#Twitter#
explicitly#as#a#game,#but#don’t#clearly#mark#themselves#as#game-players,# are# conversing# in#
bad#faith.# They# are#presenting# themselves# as# engaging# in#a# discursive,# epistemic#practice#
while#actually#being#guided#by#non-epistemic#motives.#And,# insofar# as#other# Twitter# users#
take#game-playing#users#as#serious#participants#in#sincere#discourse,#then#these#others#will#
be#mistaking#gaming#talk#for#serious#testimony.
19
##
Second,# users# could# internalize# the# scores# of# Twitter,# permitting# their# enduring# goals#
with#to#be#influenced#by#Twitter’s#scoring#mechanism.#Twitter#makes#this#easy,#by#making#
those#scores#so#prominent#and#so#pervasive.#
18
!An!exception!is!so-called!Weird!Twitter,!which!is!a!sub-network!devoted!to!irony!and!verbal!game-
playing,!largely!its!own,!largely!segregated!network.!But!that!is,!of!course,!a!specific!exception!—!and!not!a!
particularly!risky!one,!since!Weird!Twitter!tweets!are!so!bizarre!and!incomprehensible,!that!they!are!not!
likely!to!be!mistaken!for!ordinary!discourse.!Weird!Twitter!is!a!game!proper,!with!clear!indicators!that!the!
users!as!just!playing!around.!But!things!are!different!elsewhere!Twitter.!I!suspect!that!many!other!people!are!
playing!a!game!with!Twitter!with!political!speech,!on!the!main!stage!of!Twitter,!which!is!a!far!more!dangerous!
affair.!
19
!To!put!this!into!the!technical!language!of!the!epistemology!of!testimony:!I!take!Twitter!to!be!a!context!
in!which!most!tweets!are!treated!as!“assertions”.!To!use!Elizabeth!Fricker’s!account:!when!S!asserts!that!P!to!
an!audience!H,!they!thereby!vouch!for!the!truth!of!P!to!H,!presenting!P!as!being!so,!such!that!H!can!form!belief!
that!P!on!S’s!say-so.!An!assertion!that!P!represents!the!asserter!as!knowing!P!(Fricker,!2006).!Game-playing!
users,!then,!are!presenting!non-assertions!into!an!assertoric!context,!where!others!can!be!reasonably!ex-
pected!to!treat!them!as!assertions.!
21
Twitter#is#a#part#of#a#larger#phenomenon#here,#which#we#can#call#value'capture.
20
#Value#
capture#occurs#when:#
#
1.#Our#natural#values#are#rich,#subtle,#and#hard-to-express.#
2.#We#are#placed#in# a#social# or#institutional# setting#which# presents#simplified,# typically#
quantified,#versions#of#our#values#back#to#ourselves.#
3.#The#simplified#versions#take#over#in#our#motivation#and#deliberation.#
#
Some#examples:#starting#to#exercise#for#the#sake#of#your#health,#then#getting#captured#by#
FitBit#and#coming#to#just#care#about#your#daily#step-counts.#Going#to#school#for#the#sake#of#a#
good#education#and#coming#out#obsessed#your#GPA.#Becoming#a#pre-law#for#the#sake#of#public#
interest#and#legal#activism,#and#then#coming#to#care#more#about#getting#admitted#to#the#best#
law#school#according# the# US'News'&' World'Report’s'law#school# rankings.
21
#And,#of# course,#
going#onto#Twitter#for#the#sake#of#communication,#connection,#and#shared#understanding#—#
and#coming#out#obsessed#with#maximizing#Likes,#Retweets,#and#Follower#counts.#And,#obvi-
ously,#a# high#step-count#isn’t#the#same#as#good#health;#a#high#GPA#isn’t#the#same#as#a# good#
education;#and#high#Twitter#Likes#aren’t#the#same#as#connection#or#collective#understanding.##
Value#capture#occurs#when#our#values#undergo#a#long-term#and#enduring#simplification,#
as#guided#by#the#external#metrics#provided#by#institutions#and#technologies.#The#worry#here#
isn’t#that#our#values#couldn’t#ever#be#expressed#in#quantified#form,#in#principle.#Rather,#it’s#
20
!I!introduced!the!notion!of!value!capture!in!(Nguyen,!2020,!189-215),!though!my!views!have,!I!think,!
matured!since!that!earlier!sketch.(
21
!Wendy!Espeland!and!Michael!Sauder’s!Engines(of(Anxiety(is!a!thorough!-!and!deeply!alarming!-!account!
of!how!the!USN&WR’s!law!school!rankings!have!profoundly!changed!student!motivations!(Espeland!and!
Sauder,!2016).!
22
that#the#kind#of#metrics,#measures,#and#gamified#scoring#that#we#typically#encounter#in#our#
life#with#bureaucracies,#institutions,#and#corporations#are#almost#always#radical#simplifica-
tions#of#the#values#they#claim#to#be#measuring.#Those#simplifications#may#have#certain#uses#
in# administration,# management,# or# large-scale# scientific# data-collection.# But# what# makes#
them#useful#for#those#functions#is,#in#fact,#their#very#simplification.##
It’s#useful#here#to#borrow#from#a#nearby#discussion:#that#of#the#simplifications#involved#
in# bureaucratic# quantifications.# As# Theodore# Porter# puts# it,# institutional# quantification# is#
driven#by#an#interest#in#making#information#highly#portable.#Rich,#nuanced#qualitative#infor-
mation#is#difficult#to#manage#from#any#sort#of#informational#center.#We#need#to#strip#out#the#
context-sensitive#details#and#nuance#in#order#to#transmit#it#easily#between#contexts#(Porter,#
1996).#This#is#why#such#quantification#is#beloved#of#centralized#bureaucracies,#which#need#
to#pass#information#to#distant#managers,#and#up#many#levels#in#the#hierarchy#of#administra-
tion#(Scott,#1998).
22
#
This#context-stripping#standardization#also#allows#us#to#aggregate#the#information#arith-
metically.#Think,# for#example,# of#how# teachers#assess# students.#Teachers# could#offer# each#
student#rich# and# individualized#commentary# about#the#strengths# and#weaknesses#of# their#
academic#work.#Such#individualized#commentary#would#be#vastly#useful#to#the#students.#But#
such#individualized#commentary#is#incredibly#hard#to#aggregate#and#manage#by#upper#level#
administrators.#How#is#an#administrator#supposed#to#compare#the#portfolio#evaluations#of#
the#art#department#with#the#mathematical#performance#of#the#statistics#students?#So#teach-
ers#are#asked#to#provide#quantified#grades#for#their#students,#which#can#then#easily#be#aver-
aged#across#classes#for#one#students,#and#across#all#the#students#in#a#department,#university,#
22
!I!am!also!influenced!here!by!(Perrow,!2014;!Merry,!2016).!
23
or#school#district.#Quantified#grades#strip#out#much#of#the#most#important#information.#But#
that#context-stripping# renders# information#into# a# standardized#form# that# can#be# operated#
upon#arithmetically.#This#allows#managers#of#massive,#sprawling#institutions#to#bring#their#
entire#domain#into#view#—#by#putting#information#in#standardized#form#and#then#aggregat-
ing#it.#Institutional#life#exerts#a#pressure#on#information,#pushing#it#towards#quantified,#ag-
gregable#form.#Notice#that#these#forces#do#not#typically#arise#to#support#our#individual#inter-
ests,#but#instead#the#interests#of#management#and#large-scale#administration.#But,#problem-
atically,#those#quantifications#appeal#to#our#motivations#precisely#because#of#their#apparent#
clarity.#And#once#we#offer#simple,#quantified#metrics#for#success,#those#metrics#take#over#in#
the#motivations#of#so#many#people.
23
#
A#similar#pressure#occurs#with#overt#gamifications,#especially#ones#in#an#automated,#tech-
nological#context#—#though#the#motivations#for#simplifying#may#be#slightly#different.#In#order#
to#create#the#motivational#rewards#of#gamification,#we#need#to#provide#a#score.#In#order#to#
provide#that#score,#we#need#to#offer#reliable#scoring#mechanism.#And#in#a#large-scale,#tech-
nologized# context# like# Twitter,# that# scoring# mechanism# needs# to# function# automatically.#
Twitter#can’t#offer#a#score#based#on#quality#of#engagement,#empathy,#or#depth#of#thought.#It#
can#only#score#us#on#what#is#easily#legible#to#its#systems:#like#whether#or#not#somebody#clicks#
on#Like.#
#Such#scores# present#a#game-like# motivational#lure.# But#because# they#can#also# be#inte-
23
!For!excellent!case!studies!into!the!motivational!pull!of!quantifications,!see!Sally!Engle!Merry’s!(2016)!
study!of!the!use!of!simplified!metrics!and!indicators!in!motivating!political!action;!and!Espeland!and!Sauder’s!
(2016)!study!of!the!effects!of!law!school!rankings!on!the!motivations!of!students!and!donors.!This!brief!sketch!
of!value!capture,!quantified!bureaucracy,!and!seductive!clarity!here!will!be!developed!in!future!work.!
24
grated#arithmetically,#they#can#be#used#to#generate#more#gamifications#down#the#line.#Con-
sider,#for# example,# how#FitBit’s# scores# nest.# FitBit# provides#me# with# a#daily# score#for# my#
walking.#But#that#score#can#be#averaged,#so#I#can#also#get#a#score#for#my#walking#success#each#
week,#and#each#month.#Since#other#people’s#scores#can#also#be#averaged,#the#system#can#au-
tomatically#generate#rankings#and#leaderboards,#each#of#which#provides#another#game-like#
motivational#boost.#Similarly,#Twitter’s#scores,# once#rendered# into#quantified# form,#can# be#
extracted#and# used# to#generate# other#scores.
24
#For# example,# the# explicitly# gamified#social#
network#Empire.kred#creates#a#second-order#game#out#of#social#media#scores.#Empire.kred#
is#a# virtual#stock# market,#where# individuals#are# the#stocks.# Individuals# can# invest# in#each#
other#using#the# game’s#virtual# currency,#$Eaves.#Their# stock# value#is#based#on# their#social#
media#power,#as#modified#through#investments.#Empire.kred#harvests#various#scores#from#
other#social#media#networks#—#like#Twitter#and#Facebook,#and#then#aggregates#those#scores#
to#drive#its#virtual#stock#market.
25
#This#is#possible#because#those#social#media#networks#have#
already#digested#evaluations#of#user#success#into#a#standardized#and#portable#format:#a#nu-
merical#score.###
The#problem#with#value#capture# can#be# put#most# clearly#if# we#help# ourselves#to# an#as-
sumption.#There#is,#it#is#often#thought,#a#natural#aim#to#belief.#Belief#aims#at#the#truth.
26
#We#
can#be#tempted#by#other#motivations#to#abandon#that#aim:#to#believe#what#will#feel#pleasant#
or#make#things#easy#for#us.#But#to#do#so#is#to#abandon#the#natural#aim#of#belief;#it#is#to#subvert#
24
!Lupton!and!Smith’s!(2017)!recent!study!of!quantified!self-tracking!show!that!many!self-trackers!are!
extremely!interested!in!the!exportability!of!self-tracking!data!—!of!the!ability!to!send!FitBit!step-counts!to!a!
spreadsheet!or!more!macroscopic!health-tracking!program.!Their!approach,!however,!is!more!tuned!to!the!
data-gathering!side,!and!pays!less!attention!to!the!motivational!possibilities!of!gamification.!
25
!https://play.empire.kred!
26
!This!idea!has!its!most!influential!statement!with!Williams!(1970).!For!more!recent!discussion,!see!(Vel-
leman,!2000;!Wedgewood,!2002).!
25
the#activity#of#believing.#The#activity#of#earnest#discourse#also#seems#to#have#a#natural#aim,#
which#is#the#collective#pursuit#of#truth.#We#aim#to#express#what#we#think#of#as#true,#and#to#
question# and# challenge# each# other’s# expressions,#as# part# of# our# quest# to#understand# the#
world.#But#gamification#tempts#us#to#change#our#goals#—#to#aim#at#expressions#which#max-
imize#our#score,#rather#than#those#which#aid#our#collective#understanding.#And#it#promises#
to#reward#us#for#that#change#with#pleasure.#Twitter#tempts#us#to#subvert#the#activity#of#ear-
nest#conversation#for#hedonistic#reasons.##
Besides#game-playing# users#and#value-captured# users,#there# is#a#third# possibility:#that#
users#could#treat#the#scores#of#Twitter#as#simple#reports#of#some#instrumental#resource,#use-
ful#for#the#pursuit#of# further#ends.# They#treat# Twitter’s# numbers,#not# as#setting# a#goal,#but#
merely#as#useful#data.#Let’s#call#such#person#a#value-independent'user.#Such#a#user#has#avoided#
internalizing#the#scores#of#Twitter#in#any#way.#They#have#avoided#gamification.##
Here’s#what#that# might#look#like.#Suppose# one#wanted#public#influence.# A#resource#for#
public#influence#is#having#a#Twitter#account#with#a#wide#number#of#followers#—#and#tweets#
which#are#heavily#retweeted#will#reach#a#large#number#of#people.#So#one#could#aim#for#high#
scores#simply#as#an#approximate#measure#of#that#instrumental#resource.#Such#a#value-inde-
pendent#user#wouldn’t#have#any#form#of#change#of#value#or#goals,#either#short-term,#or#long-
term.#They# also#wouldn’t#be# subject#to#the# motivational#boosts# that# arise#from# more#fully#
inhabiting#the#scores#of#Twitter.#They#would#be#holding#those#scores#at#phenomenal#arm’s#
length.#Such#a#user,#then,#would#be#free#of#the#more#pernicious#effects#of#value#capture#and#
game-playing.#They#have#resisted#Twitter’s#invitation#to#gamification.##
Thinking#about#the#value-independent#user#helps#us#get#clearer#on#what’s#wrong#with#the#
26
value-captured#user.#The#value-independent#user#manages#the#scores,#where#the#value-cap-
tured#user#is#driven#by#the#scores.#Consider,#by#way#of#analogy,#two#relationships#you#could#
have#with#money.#First,#you#could#view#it#as#an#instrumental#resource,#to#be#collected#in#pur-
suit#of#some#other#value.#Second,#you#could#treat#it#as#an#enduring#end,#to#be#pursued#for#its#
own#sake.#Somebody#who#sought#money#as#an#instrumental# resource# would#manage#their#
pursuit#of#money#in#view#of#their#larger#ends.#Somebody#who#pursued#money#as#an#instru-
mental#resource#to#happiness,#wouldn’t#take#that#high-paying#job#that#would#destroy#their#
happiness.#They#would#manage#their#pursuit#of#money,#making#sure#to#pursue#money#only#
to#the#extent#that#it#actually#helped#their#happiness.#The#person#who#pursues#money#for#its#
own#sake,#however,#has#no#such#guiding#purpose#with#which#to#manage#their#pursuit#of#the#
greatest#pile.
27
##
Similarly,#consider#a#user#who#comes#to#Twitter#for#the#sake#of,#say,#social#progress,#and#
sought#Followers#and#Retweets#simply#as#an#instrumental#resource#for#their#mission.#They#
have#an#external#standpoint#from#which#to#manage#their#pursuit#of#Followers#and#Retweets.#
They#wouldn’t#say#anything#in#order#to#go#viral,#for#many#such#things#they#could#say#would#
likely#undermine#their#larger#purpose.#But#the#person#who#has#been#fully#value-captured#by#
Twitter’s#scores#has#no# such# limitation.#They#will#be#driven# to#say# whatever#it# takes#to#go#
viral#and#get#those#points.##
For#the#value-independent#user,#Twitter’s#scores#are#merely#a#means.#But#for#the#value-
captured#user,#Twitter’s# scores#have# become#the#end.#The# act#of#communication#itself# has#
been#instrumentalized#to#the#end#of#Twitter#scores.#Rather#than#using#Twitter#scores#to#ad-
vance#their# independent# values# in# communication,#they# have#changed# the#nature# of# their#
27
!This!paragraph!arises!from!discussions!with!Aaron!James.!!
27
communication#to#advance#their#pursuit#of#Twitter#scores.##
#
#
Changing&values&
The#key# notion#here#is# the#idea# that#gamification# problematically# instrumentalizes#our#
goals.#The#notion# of# instrumentalization#will#be# useful# understanding#some#of#the# socially#
toxic#behavior#which#seems#to#bloom#on#Twitter.#But#first,#we’ll#need#a#clearer#picture#of#the#
notion#of#instrumentalization.#For#that,#we’ll#need#to#look,#in#greater#depth,#at#how#and#why#
we#fashion#new#goals#for#ourselves#in#games#and#gamification.##
My#account#of#games#shows#that#the#player#has#a#rather#extraordinary#form#of#agential#
fluidity.# During# a# game,# a# player# takes# on# an# alternate# agency# with# alternate# goals.# That#
agency#has#been#engineered#to#provide#satisfaction#for#the#player#who#adopts#it.#Gamification#
works#in#a#similar#way#—#it#offers#us#various#satisfactions,#in#exchange#for#shifting#our#goals#
along#its#engineered#lines.#Both#games#and#gamification#involve#instrumentalizing#our#goals.#
This# is# unproblematic# in# games,# but# deeply# problematic# in# gamification.# Why?# Because#
games#are#a#very#peculiar#and#distinctive#sort#of#activity,#and#gamification#doesn’t#share#in#
some#of#the#most#important#features.##
The#best#account# of#the#special#nature# of#games#comes# from# Bernard#Suits’#marvelous#
attempt#to#define#‘game’.#Suits#says#that#to#play#a#game#is#to#voluntarily#take#on#obstacles#to#
make#possible#the# activity#of#struggling#to# overcome#them.#In#other# words,#in#a#game,# the#
obstacles#are#much#of#the#point.#We#try#to#run#a#marathon,#and#what#it#is#to#run#a#marathon#
is#to#try#to#get#to#a#certain#place#while#submitting#to#various#restrictions.#We#must#run#by#our#
own#power#only#–#no#short-cuts,#no#taxis.#Those#restrictions#help#constitute#various#obstacles#
28
for#our#efforts.#But,#says#Suits,#our#devotion#to#these#restrictions#shows#that#we#are#not#mo-
tivated#simply# by# the#independent#value# of#crossing#the# finish#line.#If# we#just#cared# about#
being#at#that#particular#point#in#space,#in#and#of#itself,#we#would#take#the#most#efficient#means#
to#that#end#—#like#a#taxi.#The#fact#that#we#are#willing#to#place#extra,#unnecessary#inefficiencies#
in#our#way#indicates#that#our#interest#is#not#in#actually#achieving#the#goal#in#and#of#itself,#but#
in#achieving#it#inside#certain#specified#restrictions.#Our#interest#is#to#achieve#the#goal#by'way'
of'a'particular,'constructed'form'of'activity.'As#Suits#puts#it,#in#a#game,#the#restrictions#help#
constitute#the#very#activity#we#are#interested#in#performing.#What#it#is#to#run#a#marathon,#is#
to#run#a#certain#distance#under#one’s#own#power.#If#we#took#a#taxi,#we#wouldn’t#be#running#a#
marathon#at#all#(Suits,#2014).
28
#
As#I#have#argued#elsewhere,#Suits’#account#reveals#the#possibility#of#a#very#peculiar#moti-
vational#structure.
29
#There#are#two#different#motivational#structures#for#playing#a#game.#One#
could#be#an#achievement#player,#who#plays#the#game#for#the#value#of#winning.#Or#one#could#
be#a#striving#player,#who#takes#on#a#temporary#interest#in#winning#for#the#sake#of#engagement#
in#a#struggle.#(One#could#also#play#for#both#motivations,#in#varying#proportions.)#Striving#play#
is#a#very#special#motivational#structure;#it#involves#a#motivational#inversion#from#ordinary#
life.#In#ordinary#life,#we#take#the#means#for#the#sake#of#achieving#the#ends.#But#in#game#life,#
we#select#the#ends#for#the#sake#of#the#means.#We#take#on#a#temporary#end,#and#we#submerge#
28
!I!don’t!think!gamified!activities!count!as!games!proper!for!reasons!that!are!tangential!to!the!topics!for!
this!paper.!Briefly,!according!to!Suits’!definition,!which!I!largely!endorse,!games!are!activities!where!the!goal!
of!the!game!is!partially!constituted!by!the!designated(restrictions!on!that!goal.!What!it!is!to!make!a!basket!in!
basketball!is,!in!part,!constituted!by!the!player’s!having!obeyed!the!dribbling!restriction.!For!a!further!discus-
sion!of!this!point,!see!Nguyen!(2020,!27-73).!The!goals!in!gamified!activities!are!not!restriction-constituted!in!
this!way.!
29
!This!is!a!very!brief!presentation!of!one!argument!for!the!existence!of!striving!play,!among!several!I!
have!offered!elsewhere.!The!most!detailed!version!of!this!analysis!occurs!in!(Nguyen,!2020,!27-73).!
29
ourselves#in#it.
30
##
When#my# spouse# and#I#play# games,#we#want# to#both#have# a#good#time,# so#we#look# for#
games#that#we’re#both#relatively#good#at.#We#can#see#the#fact#that#we’re#both#striving#players#
by#how#we#manipulate#our#capacity#to#win#in#the#long-term.#Suppose#that#we#have#found#a#
game#at#which#we#are#perfectly#matched#and#are#having#a#lovely#set#of#intense#gaming#ses-
sions#with.#Suppose#one#of#us#finds#a#strategy#guide#to#that#game.#If#that#person#were#to#read#
it#by#themselves,#they#would#pull#ahead#and#start#winning.#If#we#were#achievement#players,#
then#we#each#should#want#to#read#that#guide.#But#we#don’t,#and#it#is#perfectly#reasonable#that#
we#don’t.#We#are#willing#to#suppress#our#capacity#to#win#in#the#long-term#—#even#though#we#
try,#with# all#our# might,#to#win# during#the# game.#Our# extra-game#behavior# reveals# that#we#
aren’t#actually#interested#in#winning#in#any#enduring#sense.#Our#interest#in#winning#is#merely#
something#we#temporarily#adopt,#in#order#to#create#the#experience#of#that#delicious#struggle.##
And#the#goal#we#pursue#in#the#game#is#often#disconnected#from#our#enduring#goals#and#
ends#—#at#least,#disconnected#in#the#usual#linear#sense.#In#many#games,#our#real#purpose#is#
to#have#fun,#but#we#can#only#have#fun#by#trying#to#win.#But#we#don’t#really#care#about#winning;#
we#just#adopt#a#temporary#interest#in#winning#so#that#we#can#engage# in# the#fun#activity# of#
trying.#But#after#the#game#is#through,#we#can#dispense#with#that#interest#in#winning.#For#ex-
ample:#I#can#start#a#game#of#Charades#at#a#party#for#fun.#In#order#to#have#fun,#I#have#to#genu-
inely#try# to# achieve#the# goals# of#the# game#—# to# communicate#concepts# through# gestures,#
without#speech.#But#after#the#game,#I#discard#that#desire.#After#all,#if#I#lost#at#Charades,#but#
we#all#had#a#good#time#together,#then#I#achieved#my#true#purpose.#Only#an#especially#poor#
30
!Some!philosophers!may!protest!that!I!have!posited!the!impossible:!that!we!can!desire!at!will.!Please!see!
Nguyen!(2019,!451-455)!for!my!argument!that!striving!play!reveals!that!we!can,!in!fact,!desire!at!will.!
30
sport#would#think#the#whole#enterprise#a#failure#because#they#had#lost#at#Charades.#
So,#when#we#justify#our#game#goals#in#striving#play,#we#do#not#do#so#in#reference#to#the#
value#of#the#goal#itself,#or#to#what#follows#from#it.#We#justify#the#game’s#goals#by#pointing#to#
the# value# of# the# activity# of# pursuing# those# goals.# Thus,# striving# play# instrumentalizes' our#
adoption#of#goals.#In#striving#play,#we#adopt#a#goal,#not#for#its#own#value.#Our#adoption#of#a#
game-goal#is#justified#in#terms#of#the#activity#of#pursuit#that#goal#structures.##
Here,#then,#is#a#key#difference#between#games#proper#and#the#gamification#of#non-game#
life.#In#striving#games,#the#goals#of#games#are#temporary.#More#importantly,#they#are#discon-
nected#from#the#network#of#our#enduring#ends.#In#striving#play,#my#in-game#goal#is#winning,#
but#I# don’t# actually#care#about# winning#in#the# long-term.#I#achieve# my#real#purpose# –#fun,#
satisfaction,#exercise#–#by#pursuing#the#win,#and#not#by#actually#winning.#And#this#is#why#it#is#
perfectly#permissible#for#game#designers#to#change#the# goals#of#game-activity.# Game-goals#
can#be#made#as#simple#and#narrowed#as#is#convenient#because#they#aren’t#directly#attached#
to#our# enduring#ends.# Game#designers# are#changing# the#play-goals# that#guide# an#artificial#
activity,#which#has#been#screened#off#from#many#real-world#consequences.##
But#gamification#is#an#entirely#different#matter.#In#gamification,#the#designers#are#instru-
mentalizing#the# goals# of# our# real-life#activities.# FitBit,#by# gamifying# exercise,# invites# us#to#
change#our#goals#for#our#health#and#fitness.#And#Twitter,#by#gamifying#discourse,#invites#us#
to# change# our# goals# for# conversation,# communication,# and# declaration.# Instrumentalizing#
one’s#goals#is#fine#in#striving#games,#because#the#goals#in#games#were#never#valuable,#in#and#
of#themselves,#in# the#first#place.#But# in#real#life#activity,# the#goals#are# often# independently#
valuable.#So#when#we#gamify#those#activities#and#instrumentalize#those#ends#for#the#sake#of#
pleasure,#we#risk# losing#sight#of#the# real#importance#of#the# activity.#Twitter’s#gamification#
31
changes#our#communicative#goals#away#from#understanding,#connection,#and#the#collective#
pursuit#of#truth,#and#bends#them#towards#something#much#more#impoverished.##
#
#
Twitter&and&toxicity&
I’ve#discussed#elsewhere#two#problematic#social# phenomena#associated# with#polarized#
discourse:#echo#chambers#and#moral#outrage#porn.#Both#of#these#phenomena#seem#to#flour-
ish#on#social#media.#We#are#now#in#the#position#to#offer#the#beginnings#of#an#explanation#for#
this#relationship.#Gamification,#echo#chambers,#and#moral#outrage#porn#all#share#a#common#
central#thread:#a#willingness#to#instrumentalize#what#ought#not#be#instrumentalized.#
Let’s#first# get#clearer#on# these#other#phenomena.# First:#as# I’ve#argued#elsewhere,# echo#
chambers#are#best#understood#as#structures#of#manipulated#trust.#Echo#chamber#members#
have#been#systematically#taught#to#distrust#everybody#on#the#outside#(Nguyen,#2018).##
To#put#it#more#formally:#an#echo#chamber#is#a#social#structure#in#which:##
#
# 1.#One#must#subscribe#to#a#certain#belief#system#to#be#a#member.#
# 2.#That#belief#system#includes#the#belief#that#all#non-members#are#untrustworthy,#and#
all#members#trustworthy.##
#
Thus,#echo# chambers#inculcate#a# radical#trust# disparity#between#members# and#non-mem-
bers.#The#belief#system#includes#some#explanation#for#why#everybody#on#the#outside#is#un-
trustworthy.#In#the#modern#landscape,#those#explanations#often#take#the#form#of#conspiracy#
theories#—#like,#“The#liberal#media#is#in#the#grip#of#George#Soros#and#totally#corrupt.”#And#
32
the#trust#disparity#is#self-reinforcing.#The#more#you#trust#your#fellow#echo# chamber# mem-
bers,#the#more#their#agreement# will#confirm# your#shared#belief#system.#And#the# more#you#
confirm#that#belief#system,#the#more#you#will#trust#your#fellow#members#and#distrust#outsid-
ers.#
Compare#echo#chambers#to# a#nearby#phenomenon:#that#of# epistemic#bubbles.#An#epis-
temic#bubble#is#a#social#structure#where#insiders#aren’t#exposed#to#views#on#the#outside.#De-
spite#the#superficial#similarity,#epistemic#bubbles#and#echo#chambers#work#through#entirely#
different#mechanisms.#In#an#echo#chamber,#inside#members#may#have#plenty#of#exposure#to#
outside#views,#but#outside#voices#have#been#undermined.#Epistemic#bubbles#are#structures#
of#bad#connectivity;#echo#chambers#are#structures#of#manipulated#credence.#In#an#epistemic#
bubble,#outside#voices#aren’t#heard;#in#an#echo#chamber,#outside#voices#have#been#systemat-
ically#discredited.##
Importantly,#I’ve#argued,#many#problematic#belief#communities#have#been#misdiagnosed#
as#epistemic#bubbles.#But#actually,#they#are#mostly#the#result#of#echo#chambers.#It#isn’t#that#
climate#change#deniers,#for# example,#are#simply#unaware# of# what#climate#change#scientist#
think,#or#the#standard#publicly#available#arguments#for#climate#change.#They#are,#for#the#most#
part,#quite#well#acquainted#with#those#arguments#and#conclusions.#It#is#that#they#think#that#
the#institutions#of# climate#change#science#have# been#systematically# corrupted#and#are# un-
trustworthy.#This#helps#explains#the#intractability#of#climate#change#denialists.#Since#an#ep-
istemic#bubble#works#through#simply#omitting#outside#voices,#we#should#be#able#to#shatter#
one#simply# by#exposing#an#insider#to#more#voices#and#more#viewpoints.#We#should#expect#
epistemic#bubbles#to#go#down#with#the#first#contact#to#the#missing#evidence.#But#echo#cham-
33
ber#members#are#pre-prepared#for#encounters#with#external#viewpoints#and#armed#with#ex-
planatory#mechanisms#to#dismiss#those#other#voices.#Echo#chambers#are#far#more#robust.##
Why#might#one#enter#into#an#echo# chamber?# In#my# earlier# discussion,#I# focused# on#the#
possibility#that#one#might#be#raised#in#an#echo#chamber,#and,#through#no#fault#of#one’s#own,#
been#trapped#in#an#errant#system#of#trust.#But#here#I#would#like#to#focus#on#another#possibil-
ity:#that#some# people# choose#to#enter#echo#chambers#because#being#in#an#echo#chamber#is#
more#comfortable#and#more#pleasurable.#
Life#outside#of#an#echo#chambers#is#full#of#all#kinds#of#cognitive#difficulties.#We#must#con-
stantly# struggle# with# conflicting# evidence# and# unexplained# phenomena.# And# we# are# con-
fronted,#over#and#over#again,#with#evidence#of#our#own#cognitive#fallibility.#These#confronta-
tions#humble#us#—#which#is#good#for#us,#but#also#quite#painful.##
Echo#chambers# banish#all# that#epistemic#friction.
31
#They# remove,# through#distrust,# the#
impact#of# disagreeing#voices.#Instead#of#having#to#cope#with#new#evidence,#echo#chambers#
typically#present#their#members#with#clear,#coherent#stories#about#the#world.#Instead#of#the#
humbling#confrontation#with#the#evidence#of#one’s#errors,#echo#chambers#offer#their#mem-
bers#the#joys#of#unanimity#and#uninterrupted#confidence.#
And#notice:#these# joys# are#very#much#akin# to#the# joys#of#value#clarity# that#we#found#in#
games.#And#both#forms#of#joy#emerge#from#similar#engineered#conditions.#Games#involve#re-
designing#the#agent’s#goals#and#abilities#for#pleasure.#Echo#chambers#involve#re-engineering#
their#members’#belief#system#and#trust#settings#for#pleasure.#And#echo#chambers#are#danger-
ous#because#they#re-engineer,# not# some#temporary#and#segregated#belief#system,#but#real-
31
!I!am!influenced!here!by!Jose!Medina’s!(2012)!account!of!epistemic!resistance,!though!I!emphasize!the!
idea!that!the!experience!of!and!the!processing!of!epistemic!resistance!is!comfortable,!and!synthetic!epistemic!
environments!engineered!to!be!resistance-less!are!quite!pleasurable.!
34
life#belief#systems#which#govern#real-life#action.##
We#can#now#see#the#higher-level#similarity#between#gamification#and#echo#chambers.#In#
gamification,#we#instrumentalize#our#real-life#goals.#In#particular,#the#gamification#of#Twitter#
involves#instrumentalizing#the#goals#associated# with# discourse.#Gamification# involves,#to# a#
significant#degree,#abandoning#the#aim#of#truth#and#understanding,#and#taking#on#a#simpler#
goal#—#where#that#goal#was#engineered#for#the#sake#of#pleasures#of#value#clarity.#Echo#cham-
bers#also#involve#instrumentalizing# our# belief#systems,#abandoning#the#aims# of# having#the#
beliefs#that#are#true,#and#trusting#the#people#that#are#reliable.#And,#in#exchange#for#abandon-
ing#these#epistemic#aims,#echo#chambers#offer#their# members# the#pleasures# of# confidence,#
simple#coherence,#and#unity.#
There#is#an#interesting#complexity#in#the#instrumentalization#here.#There#are#two#levels#
of#explanation#for#these#simplifying#re-designs.#It#seems#plausible,#for#both#Twitter#and#for#
many#real-world#echo#chambers,#that#they#are#intentionally#designed#by#an#external#agent.#
The#re-engineering#involves#instrumentalization#at#two#different#levels:#at#the#level#of#design,#
and#at#the#level#of#adoption.#Plausibly,#Twitter’s#makers#consciously#designed#it#for#pleasure#
and#addictiveness,#for#the#sake#of#profit.#So#there#are#two# instrumentalizations#here.#First,#
Twitter’s#makers#are#designing#for#gamification#for#the#sake#of#profit,#which#they#pursue#by#
making#their# design# seductively#pleasurable# to# its#end-users.#And# second,#those#users# are#
accepting#the#seduction,#and#gamifying#their#discourse#for#the#sake#of#pleasure.#At#both#lev-
els,#we#find#people#willing#to#forsake#the#original#goals#of#discourse#for#some#other#end.##
Similarly,#many#echo#chambers#are#plausibly#designed#for#political#control.
32
#To#that#end,#
32
!This!view!might!strike!some!as!cynical.!This!is,!however,!the!picture!offered!by!Kathleen!Hall!Jamieson!
and!Joseph!Cappella!(2010)!in!their!meticulously!researched!account!of!Rush!Limbuagh!and!Fox!News’!inten-
35
designers#have#a#reason#to#engineer#their#belief#system#to#be#as#pleasurable#as#possible.#Once#
again,#there#are# two# instrumentalizations:#designers#create#a# belief#system#for#the# sake# of#
political#control,#which#involves#designing#them#to#be#pleasurable#to#their#users.#Then#users#
accept#those#belief#systems#for#the#sake#of#that#engineered#pleasure.#And,#once#again,#at#both#
levels,#we#find#people#willing#to#create#or#adopt#belief#systems#for#reasons#that#bear,#not#on#
their#relationship#to#truth,#but#to#some#other#end.#
Let’s#turn# now#to# the#second# toxic#phenomenon:# moral#outrage# porn.#In# earlier#work,#
Bekka#Williams#and#I#offer#an#account#of#“porn”#in#the#generic#sense.#We#mean#to#describe#
the#new,#modern#usage,#which#includes#things#like#“food#porn”,#“real#estate#porn”,#and#“closet#
porn”.#We#propose#that#a#representation#is#used#as#generic#porn#when#it#is#engaged#with#for#
the#sake#of#a#gratifying#reaction,#freed#from#the# usual#costs#and# consequences# of#engaging#
with#the#represented#content.#For#example:#food#porn#is#pictures#of#food#which#people#look#
at#to#get# immediate#gratification,#while#avoiding#the#calories,#cost,#and#hassle#of#eating#the#
depicted#food.#Real#estate#porn#is#pictures#of#expensive,#well-maintained#homes,#which#peo-
ple#look# at#for# immediate#gratification,# while# avoiding#the# costs#and# hassle#of#buying# and#
maintaining#those#actual#homes.##
This#account#helps#us#get#a#grip#on#an#important#phenomenon:#moral#outrage#porn.#Moral#
outrage#porn#is#representations#of#moral#outrage,#which#people#engage#with#for#the#immedi-
ate#gratifications#of#feelings# of#moral#outrage#—#for# the#pleasures#of#feeling# smug,# secure,#
and#confident#in# the#total#wrongness#of# the#other#side.#And# they#do#so# while# avoiding#the#
tional!construction!of!an!echo!chamber.!Their!book,!Echo(Chamber:(Rush(Limbaugh(and(the(Conservative(Me-
dia(Establishment,(is!one!of!the!best!early!analyses!of!echo!chamber!structures,!and!is!the!source!for!my!own!
account!of!echo!chambers.!
36
costs#and#consequences#of#genuine#moral#engagement:#like#the#pains#of#struggling#to#be#mor-
ally#sensitive,#the#efforts#of#seeking#the#right#moral#beliefs,#and#the#exhaustion#of#real#moral#
action.#We# think# it#quite#clear# that#social#media# is#suffused#with# moral#outrage#porn.# And#
moral#outrage#porn#is#quite#dangerous.#If#one#is#interested#in#using#moral#outrage#porn#for#
pleasure,#one#will#have#an#incentive#to#adopt,#not#the#right#moral#system,#but#the#one#that#is#
easiest#to#crank#for#pleasure.#One#will#likely#be#tempted#to,#say,#adopt#a#simple#and#absolute#
moral#system,#that#will#give#one#the#easiest#access#to#the#pleasures#of#smug#condemnation.##
Crucially,#our#claim#isn’t#that#moral'outrage#is#bad.#Real#moral#outrage#is#crucial.#Moral#
outrage,#when#it#emerges#from#a#well-tuned#moral#sensibility,#helps#us#to#register#injustice#
and#motivates#us#to#end#it.#The#very#problem#is#that#moral#outrage#porn#threatens#to#corrupt#
the#real#thing.#The#proper#target#of#moral#outrage#is#the#genuinely#outrageous.#But#when#we#
use#moral#outrage#porn,#we#use#our#own#moral#outrage#for#pleasure.#And#so#we#are#incentiv-
ized#to#change#our#moral#belief#system#—#to#ignore#the#truth,#and#adopt#those#beliefs#that#
will#give#us#the#most#pleasurable#outrage.#Moral#outrage#porn#invites#us#to'instrumentalize'
our'moral'beliefs'(Nguyen#and#Williams,#2020).##
So:#moral#outrage#porn#and#echo#chambers#often#occur#together,#and#they#both#seem#to#
flourish#on#social#media.#Why#might#that#be?#We#now#have#the#beginnings#of#an#explanation.#
All#of#these#phenomena#involve#hedonistic#instrumentalization,#where#we#take#an#attitude#
or#mental#state#and#modify#it#away#from#its#appropriate#target#in#exchange#for#pleasure.##
Why#might#a#similarity#of#motivational#structure#lead#to#frequent#co-occurrence?#I#sug-
gest#that#these#various#hedonistic#instrumentalizations#occur#together#because#they#appeal#
to#the#same#sorts#of#motives.#In#other#words,#the#co-occurrence#of#gamification,#echo#cham-
bers,#and#moral#outrage#porn#are#not#best#explained#by#features#of#the#individual#phenomena#
37
themselves,#but#in#terms#of#the#character#of#their#likely#adopters.#In#all#of#these#cases,#main-
taining#the#attitudes#towards#their#appropriate#aim#takes#work.#Somebody#willing#to#aban-
don#an#attitude’s#appropriate#aim#and#instrumentalize#it#for#pleasure#in#one#place,#is#likely#
to#do#it#another.##
Another#way#to#put#it:#gamification,#echo#chambers,#and#moral#outrage#porn#go#together#
like#junk#food.#Different#kinds#of#junk#food#are#unhealthy#in#different#ways#—#some#are#too#
high#in#salt,#some#too#high#in#fat,#some#too#high#in#sugar.#But#the#reason#they#are#often#con-
sumed#together#is#that#they#are#all#likely#to#be#consumed#by#somebody#who#is#willing#to#trade#
off#health#and# nutrition#in#return#for# a#certain#kind#of# quick#pleasure.#The#same# is#true#of#
gamification,#moral#outrage#porn,#and#echo#chambers.#They#are#all#readily#available#sources#
of#a#certain#quick#and#easy#pleasure,#available#to#anybody#willing#to#relax#with#their#moral#
and#epistemic#standards.#
Next,#think#about#things#from#the#point#of#view#of#the#system#designer.#Imagine#yourself#
into#the#shoes#of#a#hostile#manipulator.#Let’s#say#you#wanted#to#get#people#under#your#polit-
ical#sway.#You’d#want#to#design#a#belief#system#that#was#as#maximally#catchy#and#sticky#as#
possible.#Here’s#one#way#you#could#do#it.#First,#you#could#design#a#belief#system#that#included#
provisions#to#distrust#all#outsiders#who#didn’t#share#the#belief#system.#You#could#make#that#
belief#system#utterly#clear#and#coherent,#all#the#better#to#please#its#adopters.#In#other#words,#
you’d#design#an#echo#chamber.#Second,#you#could#rig#the#belief#system#with#the#appropriate#
amount#of#moral#certainty#and#superiority#over#outsiders,#so#as#to#provide#all#the#pleasures#
of#moral#condemnation.#In#other#words,#you’d#fill#it#with#moral#outrage#porn.#Third,#if#it#were#
available,# you’d# want# to# entrench# that# belief# system# in# a# communication# platform# that#
awarded#its#users#plenty#of#clear,#direct#affirmation#for#agreeing#with#each#other.#For#that,#
38
the#gamified#setting#of#Twitter#will#do#quite#nicely.#Echo#chambers#instrumentalize#our#trust;#
moral#outrage# porn#instrumentalizes# our# morality;#and# gamification#instrumentalizes# our#
goals.
33
##
#
&
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!I’d!like!to!thank!Mark!Alfano,!Matthew!Carlson,!Helen!Daly,!Jon!Ellis,!Max!Hayward,!Aaron!James,!Jen-
nifer!Lackey,!Michael!Lynch,!Elijah!Millgram,!Alison!Rieheld,!Adriel!Trott,!and!Matt!Strohl!for!their!help!with!
this!paper.!Key!ideas!for!this!paper!emerged!from!my!work!with!Bekka!Williams!moral!outrage!porn!—!in-
cluding!the!notion!of!instrumentalization.!
39
Lupton,#Deborah,#and#Gavin#JD#Smith.#2017.#“‘A#Much#Better#Person’:#The#Agential#Capacities#of#Self-
Tracking# Practices.”# SSRN# Scholarly# Paper# ID# 3085751.# Rochester,# NY:# Social# Science#Re-
search#Network.#https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3085751.#
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