Social verbs in online gaming are gestures that do not change the meaning of a object. When someone’s WoW Mage waves to your Paladin, you choose how object’s meaning will change because of the gesture. Language is power, just as an emoticon can get your out of trouble for telling a borderline joke.
I’m paying particular attention to verbs these days as they seem to have greater meaning than nouns, especially places (which are non-persistent; persistence is vested in objects that take actions). The reason I keep coming back to my WoW research (cough) isn’t because of the virtual world, but what I do with a group.
Beyond this gesture, the extended entry riffs on attention management, pull vs. push, marketing strategy and ownership of identity.
The pattern of gestures that don’t change the meaning of an object is actually an important design principle that is inherently social. Interruption is an increasingly anti-social action in an overloaded environment, it borders on manipulation. A social verb, by contrast, can pull participants into interaction. Conversation starts with a reply. A gesture that invites conversation, that pulls without a high cost on your attention, is incredibly valuable. In the real world, non-verbal gestures are a foundation for interpersonal communication. IM presence is a poor proxy for eye contact or posture and is expensive for a user to actively maintain. In online games and social software, social verbs as a richer form of presence and expression, especially as social norms develop, are an enhanced proxy.
What helps us scale our interactivity (keeping limits in mind) is a shift to modalities that enable a pull model of attention management. Email and IM messages are pushed at you with little personal choice for how to negotiate interaction and from whom. Your address is an object that can be manipulated. By contrast, more asynchronous forms of collaboration like wikis, or specifically RSS — give the user control over what is pulled to them, the right to unsubscribe. Instead of being broadcasted to, you are left to find your own sources, remix and roll your own. This gives rise to more active consumption, but is also inherently more efficient so long as search and coordination costs remain low.
Transparency and reuse of content as a discoverable by-product of conversation enable the pull model. The word social itself is a verb, and being social, or open, is a gesture. You may blog with your friends in mind, and doing so openly invites others to converse. Linking to someone is a more active form of social verb, you can do so without necessarily referencing them in the context of your post, it can serve as a ping.
The temptation for many tool designers is to create anti-social applications that incent users to push upon other users in hopes of viral adoption. We also tend to create tools that structure use into a single reference model and then push it as a product. But over time, tools that enable subtle social verbs in use and supple interaction in form, so long as they are simple, attracts.
Beyond the pull model for people, similar patterns are being observed for the Firm as a body. John Seely Brown and John Hagel suggest in McKinsey Quarterly that corporate pursuit of efficiency through centralized push of resources to predictable demand is headed in the wrong direction. They offer a pull model which lets go of control with decentralized group forming to foster innovation.
In the media business, pull approaches have transformed more than just distribution channels. On the production side, a vibrant “remix” culture has emerged thanks to the availability of widely affordable digital audio-editing tools, which make it possible for DJs in nightclubs and other music fans to pull in tracks from a variety of music sources and to recombine them. “Blogging” tools help users “publish” their own writings, music, or photographs, most often by pulling in content from a broad range of sources and creatively mixing and commenting on it.
Augmenting the capabilities of people to turn flows into stocks, and take action, goes against the Industrial era model of automating the deployment of assets. Most firms will not be able to make this transition because it requires sharing assets and intellectual property to reduce transaction costs and enable innovation. Sharing control or property is a gesture that enables the firm to tap into commons-based peer production and more adaptive organizational structures.
Traditional marketing attempts to directly influence it’s audience to purchase a product pushed out into a market. By contrast, marketing strategies that seek to include active consumers in the process of production, distribution and influence generate pull. And when active consumers have tools of choice for engagement, it’s really the only strategy left available.
Because of the incentives of Industrial era firms, the one tool of choice that active consumers will not likely be able to leverage is ownership of their own identity. If it were not for regulation, we would in many cases not even have shared control of identity between individual and firm, even though my identity is inherently my property. But this identity as property is traded freely between firms. And when a firm leverages such crudely mercantile identity within push marketing methods such as direct marketing — there is no gesture or social verb — just a direct assault on you sensibilities. No wonder we stopped consuming passively and want our identity back.