Defining Social Fun

In professional talks about Gaia Online, I've been asked the question "what makes your users so passionate?" although never in such a direct way. Usually, the questions are "how does the site sustain itself?", "what is there to do on the site?", and "how do you have that many people?" Everyone always seems amazed at the volume of users that are on Gaia at any one time; there was a record 86,738 users online a few months ago (January 4), and we cleared the 5 million registration mark awhile ago. The site's addictive in a way that has never been explained. There's a magic "secret sauce" at work- a sauce that Newsvine has picked up on, that MySpace didn't know they had, and that Gaia Online happily cultivates. In each site's own way- it's fun. Now, if only it was possible to qualify what exactly "fun" means, then everyone would have an awesome community website. Try and define fun by itself though, and the result is a meaningless description that certainly can't be coded.

Beyond "Fun"

The concept of fun is so confusing, that the more a person tries to define it, the more confusing the concept becomes. Instead, fun is better described as a summation of things; interestingly, these things in and of themselves are not necessarily fun, but instead are foundations of an online emulation of life. In 1943, Maslow created a Hierarchy of Needs, which described the basic needs of human beings. Later, Nevis revised this theory slightly, adapting it based on his studies of East Asian values.

Self-ActualizationSelf-Actualization (non ego)

We can assume that because visitors to community websites have access to the Internet, they also have their physiological and safety needs met. This leaves "belonging" as the common denominator of needs between both Maslow and Nevis' studies. It can be concluded then that "fun", is the combination of a sense of belonging, a venue for satisfying esteem, and ultimately achieving a state of self-actualization. When all three needs are met, as the sites we will be discussing show, users have a higher retention rate, contribute to the larger community as a whole, and become evangelists of the site in question. They become passionate users.

The Sites Being Talked About

Gaia Online: Gaia Online labels itself as the premier social hangout for teenagers, with the largest forums on the Internet, several games, and a customizable avatar system. (Disclaimer As of this writing, I am employed by Gaia Interactive, creators of Gaia Online.)

Newsvine: "Get Smarter Here" is the tagline for the online news site that is rapidly growing in popularity. Its primary features include commenting and voting on news stories, as well as a "Doppleganger" technology which can harvest information off of the popular newswire services. Members can run their own columns or get together and form groups to produce their own online focused mini news sites.

The Most Common Need: Belonging

As mentioned above, the most common need expressed across both hierarchies is the need to belong. Belonging in the most literal sense means to feel a part of a group. A very basic belonging can be achieved in simple groupings of interests, likes, and dislikes. Newsvine Top Seeds Newsvine, for example, makes it easy for readers browsing by a category of interest to immediately locate people who are talking and writing about related topics. Thanks to Newsvine's weighting technology, there's a high chance the articles found will be interesting and the users will return once, then twice, then thrice. Eventually, the users will keep returning since the articles the users finds are of value to them. They have achieved belonging and are ready to contribute to the collective group.

Gaia Online doesn't have the direct categories of Newsvine, and therefore depends on the more conventional social networking means. Through forums, profiles, and journals, users communicate with each other while sharing a common goal- the quest for virtual items to improve their online avatar. While this isn't always a driving force behind users' site activity, it's a commonality all users on the site share, so users start interacting primarily for the gold. They play games, post, vote in arenas, and ultimately find their first friends on the site. When this happens, users find their "home", a thread or two they always return to where most of their friends are chatting. That first connection and those first friends create a strong sense of belonging, as those friends will often pull the new users into their favorite threads and hangouts, immersing them in a smaller subset of the Gaia community.

Some popular social networking sites achieve belonging by creating locations central to a users' network of friends. This sense of belonging users get is no less valid than those previously mentioned. However, the sense of belonging becomes very dependent on the users' primary network to remain on the site/service. A very solid case that illustrates this belonging pattern is Facebook and its "seasonal disorder". Before Facebook started broadening its audience outside of the college community, a wave pattern could be identified in the site's average traffic, with dead times in the summer and surges in the fall. This corresponded with the typical academic calendar. Additionally, as students moved through their final year of college, their "belonging" on Facebook faded. The use of Facebook as a tool for class information, parties, and networking became less valuable as the users' friends also stopped using the service. This resulted in a constant amount of attrition which ate away at any longevity the site hoped to achieve.

After You Belong

Continuing with the pyramid of needs outlined above, when users of a site have achieved a sense of belonging, the next tiers of esteem and self-actualization become available. In Western cultures, esteem is a highly valuable component of a community's success. People who feel they have accomplished something socially return to the places that make them feel better. Still, esteem isn't just about popularity, although being popular in the context of the community is certainly a draw. A site that promotes a sense of self-rewarding can also further a users' esteem. Much like how people who play MMORPGs feel proud of their characters, people who participate in communities feel good about their contributions. Following this logic, sites that make users feel good about their contributions will have users who contribute more. One popular method to measure a users' contributions is with a karma system. Newsvine has taken it a step further with its Vinacity system, which takes the traditional +/- karma system, and rewards users based on their participation on the site. As users post, comment, and participate, pieces of their vine fill up, providing an outward status icon to the community of their accomplishments.

Gaia, like many other community/game hybrid sites, reflects esteem through the collection of the game's items or status symbols. Much how the vine plaque of Newsvine indicates someone's contributions to the community, a large amount of virtual wealth and item-based accomplishments can also provide a point for esteem. One of the most common activities on Gaia is the process of "questing," which has little to do with the MMORPG concept, but instead is a way for users to share their progress toward an expensive item on the site. During the quest, the users provide updates, take donations, and ask the community for help and support. Other members help out, and eventually the users' goal is reached. That item they acquired then becomes a symbol of status they wear proudly. As users participate in the site and accrue items and virtual wealth, they also achieve a sense of accomplishment. In both Gaia and Newsvine's cases, users feels like they belong, and feel good about their activity. At this point, it's safe to say they are regular users. All they need is something that makes them want to evangelize the site.

From Regular to Evangelist

Adding more ways to build esteem and provide opportunities for users to belong is not enough to promote a regular user to an evangelical one. Instead, users who are passionate about a site had an event which has pushed them from the point of being regular users to the point of telling others actively. There are several contributing factors which can collectively drive users to this point (in no specific order):

  • Enjoyment of the site's experience
  • Enjoyment of the people on the site
  • Kicking-Ass at something
  • Explaining the to others and what makes it fun

Beyond this, coming together in real life can accelerate this process greatly. Taking the online community "offline" puts faces and real names to friends who were once only pixels, and the site becomes a common ground. The Newsvine Relay For Life was the first community-wide event, that brought individuals together in real life while supporting the American Cancer Society. Those who participated still remain some of the site's most active users. The events that bring forth a "Random Act of Vineyness" (the highest honor at Newsvine) come with dozens of users who have taken an online experience and turned it into something personal and important to them. In short, it made a difference in their lives.

At Gaia, we see how we change people's lives all the time through the letters that we get and at the conventions that we attend. We've seen people who used our community to break drug addiction, find friends, and become better people. We've also seen the people who help community members selflessly in our Life Issues forum, and donate to the previously-mentioned quests. At the convention, these people get to meet for the first time. In the years I've been with the company, it's happened hundreds of times; people meet at the Gaia booth, shriek, hug, and then spend the next thirty minutes to an hour talking about the website. At conventions the users' real lives are brought back to their virtual ones with the ability to play real life games to gain virtual items for their avatars. The Gaia Panel experience is also amazing. A small section of the community comes together for two hours to talk about features, voice complaints, and ask questions. In this offline space, users feels responsible for the development of the website, and as stakeholders, take a deep interest in it.

So is it Kool-Aid?

Like Maslow's pyramid, a community site's success should be built from the foundation up. Deep moments of connection cannot occur until the prerequisite experiences of belonging and esteem are fulfilled. The end goal is to make something important to people and to make their experience "fun." When the social networking cloud settles, it's on these sites that the users will continue to invest their time.

Additional Reading