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Big Society: When a Poke becomes a Nudge

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26 August 2010

As you dump your organic waste into the relevant recycling bin, you slip out your iPhone. You check in to recycling.

Woosh, oh cool! You’ve unlocked the Goodie Green badge. As you turn to leave for work you can’t but help yourself; you suppress your smile. Sarah is now only one level higher. And besides – she has no points in ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. And in that group you accumulate badges much faster.

Big society and social media

A screenshot of the causeworld app

In policy wonk theory talk abounds of libetarian paternalism – two concepts long thought to be at loggerheads. But it simply comes down to this. How a caring but non-pushy state can help irrational citizens make better decisions. It’s called nudging.

But how can the state help its citizens become more engaged? And can we use social media to achieve this?

When Foursquare wanted to get people to check into venues they correctly anticipated that their new network would need to incentivise its users. It was not like your friends – one major incentive to use these applications – were on Foursquare. But with rewards and badges, age old techniques from the world of gaming they managed to get people checking-in.

Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc and deputy editor of Prospect magazine, recently spoke at a TED event about the lessons from games. That is to say, the techniques used by games to increase engagement.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be satisfied by the world in particular ways; and to be intensely satisfied as a species by learning and problem-solving. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the virtual arenas that games create is that we are now able to reverse-engineer that, and to produce environments that exist expressly to tick our evolutionary boxes and to engage us.

Tom talks of having features in games like having an experience system, having multiple long and short term aims, rewarding for effort and giving rapid, clear and frequent feedback.

He explains how uncertainty could help.

“This is the real neurological gold mine so far as gaming is concerned. Dopamine elevates when you get a little prize for doing something, but what really lights up the brain is the unexpected reward: the one that couldn’t be predicted. And so the right amount of well-calibrated uncertainty can create intense engagement in all manner of tasks.”

He says these windows of enhanced attention can be a good time to teach a player something, or to impart information.

But what he finds most thrilling is the potential for collective engagement. That people don’t only do things for rewards but that they do it because there are other people around them.

Clay Shirky in his recent book Cognitive Surplus dwells very much on this same theme. He points out that groups of people can produce civic goods in their free time, and this is because of a number of innate human traits. Two of them are personal. The need for feeling autonomous and competent. Two of them are intensely social. The need to belong and to share.

But a simplified belief that people are good won’t do. Shirky points at mistakes made by eBay, before they had their reputation system in place: Some users cheated. And in another example he tells how two female artists, dressed as brides hitch-hiked across Europe and the Middle East. They came to grief. He contrasts this to the positive experience of thousands on Couchsurfing.org, including single female travellers. Here the system was designed to encourage (or ‘nudge’) for good behaviour.

There have been attempts at getting citizens more engaged.

Tim Berners-Lee last year helped get government departments to open up their data, in much the same way as the Obama administration has tried to do. The result is Data.gov, a repository for all kinds of government data, ready to be used by creative programmers for the good of society.

Says Tom Chatfield:

Politically, the idea is far from libertarian. There is still a vital role for the state in collecting, publishing and paying for data, and also in getting the best out of developers. But a world where mashers inherit the earth is also an oddly appropriate example of Cameron’s “big society.” For once, this is an area where those irritating buzzwords—“the wisdom of crowds,” “the long tail,” “nudge,” and the rest­—actually work, and where the ideas they enshrine mean citizens taking decisions for themselves rather than relying on the state.

But mash-ups are all good and well. They rarely encourage collective civic action like tools such as Ushahidi – the crisis information crowd sourcing tool.

Cameron is on record saying ‘the success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people’. True. But perhaps there is a role for government in providing the platforms and systems that allow people to be their best.

Defra is under pressure. The scheme that pays farmers for protecting wildlife is also set to be cut. Can they be incentived through a digital system to continue doing this voluntarily? Arts funding is reported to be one of those areas that will be cut in the coming spending review. Is there a place for government in launching a social funding tool like Kickstarter?

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