Two seemingly unrelated things happened to me yesterday, which further reflection revealed to have surprising connections.

First, I spoke on a panel at the Online News Association conference about games and news. Julia Schmalz (now of Bloomberg, formerly of USA Today) and Rajat Paharia (of gamification vendor Bunchball) were the other panelists. I presented my approach to newsgames and offered some commentary on the current state of online news as remediation of print and television. Julia demonstrated a quiz game about generational trends her team at USA Today had made. And Rajat discussed an installation of Bunchball at the Redding Record Searchlight, a local news website in Northern California.

During the discussion Rajat fielded a question about how to measure the quality of conversations created by a points system on a news site. Rajat admitted that it’s hard, and pointed to possible future techniques for automating such a process, like computational sentiment analysis. For now, he explained, they’re mostly counting metrics that correspond with methods of monetization, like registrations, page views, and repeat visits.

Second, when I got home, I discovered a check for $80 had arrived in the mail from Delta Airlines. I was confused at first, until I realized what it was for. When I arrived at the airport in Dalian, China last week to begin the long journey home, the connecting airline I was flying couldn’t find my ticket. And they didn’t speak great English. And, this being China, they didn’t offer any creative solutions.

I called the Delta Diamond Medallion desk (at an international roaming cost of $2.29/minute) and the agent found the problem: the connecting flight had been booked but not properly attached to my ticket. She fixed it and stayed on the line with me until I had my boarding pass. When I got to Incheon I submitted an online gripe that characterized how stressful the experience had been (no other flight from Dalian would have allowed me to make my connection) and that explained my annoyance at having to make an $80 phone call to fix the error. Delta offered their usual, earnest email apology and deposited some sympathy SkyMiles into my account.

I fly Delta a lot. Their token apology miles don’t really matter to me, and they often feel like an empty, automated response—after all, SkyMiles are corporate scrip that only benefit Delta in the end. The $80 phone call didn’t matter either. I just mentioned it to underscore the desperation of the situation. But the fact that they sent me a check surprised and delighted me. It revealed that they were willing to do annoying paperwork to have it issued. It suggested that they recognized that I shouldn’t have had to deal with the situation. It signaled that they actually read my complaint carefully and attempted to understand it. And it offered an unexpected acknowledgement of the hard work of aligning the interests of corporations and individuals.

Many have seen my blustery takedown of gamification, but fewer have read my more detailed critique, in which I reframe gamification as exploitationware. That article ends with a reflection on loyalty, a notion gamification proponents often bandy about even as they get it wrong. For them, loyalty is just a euphemism for extraction.

Take Gabe Zicherman’s definition of the term: “what gets users to make incremental choices in your favor when all things are mostly equal.” It doesn’t take much squinting to see that such a definition of loyalty runs in only one direction: the organization gets benefit, and the individual gets duped. Kathy Sierra observes that doing things for incentives isn’t loyalty. For Sierra, commercial relationships don’t ever deserve the name “loyalty,” companies can achieve something close by treating their customers with respect. And doing that has nothing to do with points and badges and levels and rewards. Elite flyer tiers and redeemable miles, for example, are just data points that help me and Delta orient toward one another. They are shorthands that facilitate a conversation. Or dare I say it, a relationship.

A real relationship operates beyond the interests of a single party and creates moments of deliberation and compromise between them. Recently Levi Bryant discussed the idea of operational closure from systems theory as a lever to understand the challenges that face the contemporary social and political systems (his recent example is Wall Street, but many others apply). Here’s Bryant explaining the idea further:

Communication isn’t possible because there is a shared code, but rather communication is an accomplishment that emerges over the course of many failed communications between two structurally coupled operational systems. The meaning is not there at the outset in the form of a shared code, but is rather a result that unfolds as a result of a great deal of mutual “tuning” between the two coupled systems.

Gamification maximizes operational closure to insure that organizations’ external relations never become real relationships, never “tune” the incompatible worlds of company and customer in order to arrive at a recognition of their mutual incommensurability. Instead, exploitationware seeks to distract or manipulate people into doing whatever is best for organizations, while feigning the hard work of tuning the couplings between the two. It’s a confidence trick.

Returning to the question about measuring the quality of conversations on a news website, both the question itself and Rajat’s answer reveal the insidiousness of exploitationware, and how its deployment seeks to reinforce operational closure within corporations. How might a news site measure the quality of the conversations it generates? How about this: by producing quality information that helps people deliberate and make decisions, by listening to and conversing with readers, by tempering the profitability of spectacle against the demands of the public interest, and by following a moral and editorial compass. In other words, by doing good journalism. It’s particularly distressing to see newsmakers become such willing consorts to automation and leverage.

For Bryant, operational closure “presents us with a world in which we’re entangled with all sorts of entities that we can hardly communicate with yet which nonetheless influence our lives in all sorts of ways.” This is the reality of the relationships people have with organizations, and that organizations have with people.

Neither incentive programs nor gamification produce loyalty. Loyalty, we might conclude, is a practice of respecting the entanglements between foreign entities. It arises comes from the careful, deliberate, and time-consuming process of culturing a back-and-forth negotiation between multiple parties that are utterly foreign to one another. A deliberately-cultured, mono-directional loyalty isn’t loyalty at all, but ignorance at best, exploitation at worst. As Kathy Sierra suggests, a customer’s repeat purchases signal self-interest, not loyalty. And likewise, an organization that ekes another unit of value out of its customers doesn’t exhibit loyalty either. Loyalty is not mere repetition. Loyalty isn’t automatic. It takes time, work, and dedication to recognize and respect the incommensurability of two different entities, and to teach them to dance together.

published September 24, 2011


  1. Mr. Seacrudge


    Hey, would you be willing to give me some feedback on some projects I’m working on?

  2. dmf

    this sounds more like a kind of functional closure/withdrawal than an object-ive/ontological one, as I could in a Rushkoff program or be programmed kind of way come to see/understand and even hack my relationship with the people, and or machines/programs, working within an ethos/system, no?

  3. Levi


    I’m not sure I understand your distinction between functional closure/withdral and objective/ontological withdrawal. The autopoietic framework that I adopt doesn’t forbid second-order observation of other systems. That is, it is possible for one system to observe how another system observes or constructs its referents. However, the important point to keep in mind is that for any observation to take place whatsoever a system must draw a distinction. In other words, to observe another observer I must first draw a distinction that allows me to indicate features of that other observer. As a consequence, withdrawal replicates itself at the level of second-order observation or one system observing another system. I deal with all of this in the introduction and fourth chapter of The Democracy of Objects.

  4. dmf

    thanks Levi, I’m obviously out of my depth in trying to get a handle on all of this and appreciate the help, I guess I’m still not clear about how the move to 2nd order observations doesn’t take us back into the kind of post-structuralist/neo-pragmatist observations about the all too human limits of observation/distinction-making that OOO wants to transcend, or at least move past. To my mind the distinctions that we make are at least as much about us as they are about the objects/systems that we are trying to describe/grasp, Derrida’s narcissm without end as Rorty’s manipulation without end. Such that our (always reduced/simplified) models of systems/objects etc are just prototypes that,as you say, we cannot match up against the things-themselves, so must test them against what if not our accounts/experiences/uses of them?

    This just may be the limit of my capacity for metaphysics speaking so I’ll let it be.