Facebook, Farming and the Future

By Karen

I avoided Facebook (FB) for years. I have to admit that I saw it as a narcissistic black hole that could suck you in and remove you from deeper, more natural relationships. Ouch! Yes, that’s how it looked to me. Then I read “What Would Google Do?” by Jeff Jarvis, something else that I chose reluctantly. I didn’t like the boldness in the title play on words. Google is awesomely powerful. Still, I thought the allegory bold and arrogant. But, when I saw the book at the public library, the level of risk in giving it the benefit of the doubt dropped by the cover price, so I checked it out.

Once I began to read, I found the book difficult to put down. In fact, I didn’t put it down until I was finished. I’m still not as fond of the title as the author is, but I am glad that didn’t stop me. The book was so well written that I re-read certain passages simply to appreciate how well they were crafted, not something I expected in a book centered around a technology company. More than that, there were many good points. In fact, many would consider that an understatement. Mr. Jarvis puts tremendous faith in a bright future built by youth and innovation and he talked about FB. He said that people were re-connecting through FB in relationships that would have otherwise been lost. I have spent a lot of time living in different places and that really spoke to me, so I gave it a try.

I found Mr. Jarvis to be completely correct. FB has been a hoot with expected and unexpected experiences and distractions. The happy surprise was that I did, in fact, reconnect with people from the hometown of my youth and from other places along the way. Many of my friends from times past were out there and connected. I saw photos, both old and new, of people I hadn’t seen in years. Just seeing what they look like now took a little of the disconnect out of reunions missed. I was contacted by siblings of friends that I never expected to hear from. Whether they stayed where I knew them or left as I did, there was a community of people with whom I shared an upbringing or a part of a life and they were accessible on non-geographic terms. I was invited to events that I would have otherwise missed. I even got a fuller picture of people in my real world relationships as their posts conveyed opinions, beliefs and humor that never would have come up in the contexts of our real world relationships…So, there are some people I actually know better through our FB relationship. This is, for the most part, something I appreciate.

It wasn’t long before one of my childhood friends got me into Farmville.com by Zynga, the unexpected distraction. I’ve been thinking a lot about farming in the real world lately, whether or not there is a way to make it work for me and my circumstances in both non-profit and for profit contexts. So, while I was fiercely defending my time by blocking every other game and application, I let Farmville into my world and it sucked me in. I’ve been playing for fun, but also studying it curiously as the virtual game that finally got me after having passed up so many others that were in many ways more sophisticated. I’ve been looking at how it accomplished that feat for me and many millions of others. The design is fascinating, if not so unique, from social, marketing, economics and touchy-feely points of view.

One product that both FB and Farmville are selling, of course, is eyes. Our eyes, and they are selling them to advertisers. Whether or not you think that you pay much attention to the ads, advertisers do and they are willing to pay. That makes marketing a primary focus for these businesses because it is the fuel that feeds them. But, it only pays well if they are a top site with a lot of eyes. Marketing moves deeper into psychology with every day that passes. Advertisers must work harder to get the attention of subjects who do not want to give it, and psychology is the tool that works best. From this perspective, Farmville has a little bit of everything going on and they are doing it well enough to make it to Time Magazine’s list of 50 worst inventions. The reason I say that they are doing it well and in the same breath quoting a source that has named it a “worst invention ever” is one and the same, it’s mindless, but addictive nature.

For a detailed description of play check here or any number of other places. The abbreviated version is that you play by clicking and when you click you earn cool stuff. The coolest stuff can be accumulated very slowly by playing and moving through levels of the game, by spending actual real money or it can be acquired through the marketing campaigns of affiliate companies. So, getting cool stuff, a bigger farm, better toys, or keeping up with the Joneses in this virtual world is a trade off between accumulations of real world time and real world money. You can pay to play with your time or with your money. People will part with what is least valuable to them. That’s another ouch for me, I’ve purposefully limited myself to giving the game only my time.

Neighbors are a feature of the game that is facilitated through FB. Neighbors are FB friends who are also playing the game and agree through invitation to be a neighbor in Farmville. They exchange free gifts, share rewards, perform clicky chores and do other things that help the farmer to get ahead. The best and worst parts of Farmville are enabled by neighbors. They are the glue that holds the game together as well as the means of perpetuating the game through FB. Some privileges are reserved for players who have a certain number of neighbors and the more neighbors you have, the easier it is to get ahead (a built in incentive to rope your friend into your addiction). Why do I call it an addiction? Because it incorporates the features that lead to addiction. Neighbors post rewards. There are a limited number of rewards, so if you click you may get one, you may not. Intermittent rewards are the most addictive form of behavior modification and it would be hard to convince me that the most addictive feature that could be built into a game ended up there by accident. One neighbor complained about poor performance in a post on FB. (This often happens, especially when they roll out new features which always seem to have bugs and people loose rewards.) A relative a responded to the complaint with a post recommending the unhappy player quit the game because it was “the devil”. My friends and family have made similar remarks.

So, it was with eyes wide open (and growing wider all the time) that I set about giving Farmville the clicks and eyes they needed to promote their venture. At first I attempted a little bit of realism for my virtual world. I gave the animals plenty of room to roam and tried as best I could to lay things out as they would be on a real farm with consideration for real world constructs. At one time I had all my cows in a large pasture that was sparsely treed, just as I learned when I studied agro-ecology in Costa Rica. A small sense of connection is what got me me here in the first place and remembering my summer farm study program and the Costa Rican setting where I took the course was fun. For more on that part of my Farmville experience and a more uplifting read, check here.

The other connection that kept me in the game, was the people I was playing with. It is important to stay connected to some people. For far away people who have been in your life long term, there is little new to share on a daily or weekly basis, but you still want a connection. One way that people feel their connections is through carrying out small day to day tasks. Farmville is a format for daily interactions that is not geographically anchored and has no real risk of failure. It is a small unimportant connection, but, small unimportant connections are what we use to weave our lives and build bigger things.

There were other connections too. When you are in this forced push to build your connections and increase your neighbors, there are places you can go to find other Farmville players who also want neighbors. For a first time FB user, connecting to strangers was a little scary, but, I did connect, based on whether I liked a cartoon that had been chosen for a profile picture, a quote that was listed or even a cool sounding name. I don’t say much to these neighbors, but I’ve grown to like them, even though we only have the game and a few posts between us.

Real world stuff, emotions and baggage can work it’s way into Farmville. I was playing in February when Valentine’s Day rolled around and it was a real trip… back to grade school, that is. I saw a neighbor’s comment “Hey, it’s just a game” and my antennae twitched. Sure enough, there were new gifts for neighbors to give and a new feature. The Valentines box. Valentines were accumulated and could be traded in for stuff, and there was a RANKING system. The Valentine mail box had a button to click to see where you ranked in comparison with neighbors, but it was unavoidable even if you wanted to focus elsewhere. When you shared Valentines with neighbors there was an auto generated message announcing your rank, for instance ” ________ has collected 227 Valentines and currently ranks 13 out of 100 amongst their neighbors!” making your apparent popularity (more likely activity level) as public as it was way back when. What a trip! That’s when I noticed that some people had more Farmville neighbors than I had total friends, some with funny made up sounding names. The imposed competition via trip to grade school must have worked very well for our designers at Zynga. It was followed by similar features for St. Patrick’s Day Gold and Spring Eggs, then a June Wedding. The wedding has extra layers of complication (yes there’s a joke in there somewhere). You must get each of four ingredients (and the gift-ability of these four ingredients rotates) to trade in for favors, which are then traded in for cool stuff. What this said to me was that they are experimenting with how many clicks and how much time we are willing to spend seeking intermittent rewards. They do a lot of experimenting. The experimenting is even showing up in behavioral research.

Any way, when players grow tired of how many clicks are required to complete a certain task, there will be adjustments. Sometimes they improve the experience, sometimes they improve the revenues. One of the more frustrating features is that it is cumbersome to choose not to participate as I did in this complicated wedding round because neighbors do participate. At the very least you have to clear the gifts out of your inbox. This is usually when good neighbors reciprocate, but that is more complicated when not reciprocating exactly. People end up managing a lot of clicks that don’t produce a reward, or even a chance of a reward, what a tangled web.

Clicks and time are, of course, measurable indicators of the popularity and traffic a website enjoys and the amount of visibility advertisers are achieving when they advertise on that site, therefore clicks translate fairly quickly into money. Knowing this as I do makes me less tolerant of design features that seem to be click machines. It moves me to feel like a hamster in a cage or a rat in a maze. It is one of three big downs for this game. The second is that the features are often broken. Even the rewards that are supposed to be certain are intermittent and have what I hope is an unintended level of intermittent delivery. Far too often you loose a reward earned or get to see a screen with an adorable cow and a quote “Oops, all the bits got lost” or you get knocked off a group activity and your crops do not count for anyone who is participating in the activity. The third down is that the game attracts all of the same scammers that other popular Internet applications do, all trying to work their way in with a promise of something for nothing. I have to check many posts to see that they are actually from Zynga (Farmville) while at the same time being fully aware of the irony in checking to make sure you are clicking on a link you trust, when that “trusted” someone was quoted saying he did “Every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues” when giving advice to start up entrepreneurs. In this clip he goes on to talk about this horrible tool bar that even he couldn’t get rid of once downloaded…that same toolbar that I kept receiving reward offers to download. Click, click, no thank you. And, there is another irony. The scams are built on short cuts. I find it highly amusing that some people want to take big short cuts in a game that one would presume is being played for fun. Human nature is ingrained though, and it makes us predictable targets.

I end with the negatives, because they have all but ended my play. There are new and more complicated activities that increase interaction between players. The result is that I opened my FB page one day and had to page back three times before I came to a non-farmville post. I don’t even have many active neighbors! I was already blocking my own posts from those who don’t play out of consideration. Now I am blocking Farmville posts to me. It’s the one game I play and I’m blocking it. It’s hard to get those clicky rewards when you block the posts that they arrive in. Many of the people who were playing when I started have since quit… and some of the newer features are more aggressive pop up windows that try to get me to bring people into the game or back to it. These features cause more lost rewards or repeated work. They have recently stepped up efforts to bring people back. “Help out your neighbor, do this”. Most often these messages are only generated for low activity players, but it takes effort to tell. I had increased my play recently to get features in my fields to represent my vision so I could illustrate the other Farmville article I’m writing; but in the end, if you feel like a sap or get irritated while you are in the process of checking out and relaxing, it kind of defeats the purpose.

Some of these issues bring me full circle to my concerns about Jeff Jarvis’ book, the inspiration that brought me here in the first place. Mr. Jarvis has a tremendous faith in the future, in youth and in innovation. Some of it is well placed, but with youth, often comes arrogance and myopia. For some, money and power come easily and early in life. When it does it can distort perception and values. I really respect choices like those of Craig Newmark of Craigslist.com. He’s been heavily criticized though, for sticking to his winning business model because it did not maximize profits to squeeze out every last drop of blood from customers. Rather, it merely made him and his employees wealthy. On the other hand I look at some of the knee jerk responses of young technology billionaires that look to me like the professional equivalent of “so there!” (insert your favorite example). These kinds of decisions do not fill me with confidence in the future as ruled by youth. People, as a general rule, may not know everything there is to know about the tools and processes that they use, but they do usually figure it out when they are being disrespected.

There is a solution though. As our business models and applications are increasingly utilizing the power of social networks, we as a society also have increasing power if we choose to use it. I have heard the solution I suggest expressed very eloquently by two sources outside the technology sector. One source was a celebrity and the other personal. The celebrity was Will Smith. When asked something about “finding” the perfect mate, he started talking about not expecting to find perfection fully formed for the taking. I don’t remember his exact words, but his point was that perfection was something to strive for and build together rather than something to find and possess. My admiration for the Fresh Prince grew three sizes that day.

The personal source was responding to my comments about finding the right church. He was Jewish, so his response was actually about his Synagogue. He basically said that his roots were planted, that he was there when the last three Rabbi’s came and he and would be there to help the next Rabbi in building his synagogue with his community of worshipers to suit their needs. Point taken. This is a group project, this world we live in. Longevity and perseverance are virtues that have a lot to offer. The numeric value of “old” is getting higher and there are more people taking part throughout the range of ages. The world will be what we make of it, all of us together.