“Haha, I have more friends than you.”

The schoolyard taunt in my instant messenger box was pretty easy to dismiss. For one, it was coming from my 12-year-old cousin, who is always trying to find some petty way to get under my skin. For another, the taunt was based not on a deep, insightful discussion of our social lives, but from a quick perusal of our competing MySpace pages.

I was a latecomer to the MySpace craze, signing up primarily to view the profiles of a few close friends and family members. My cousin, on the other hand, had quickly made MySpace the center of her middle school social life. A quick conversation confirmed that her impressive-sounding list of 180-plus friends was comprised mostly of classmates she barely knew, random strangers that spammed her with friend requests and a few “friends” that were actually her friends in real life.

But all these mitigating factors didn’t really help me shake the annoying feeling I got when comparing her massive friend count to the paltry dozen or so friends on my list. It was an unmistakable feeling at the pit of my stomach that would be familiar to any gamer with even a hint of ego – a feeling that combines the shame of failure and the shame of caring so much about something so trivial.

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I felt like I was losing. At MySpace, of all things.

***

In a way, the web has always been a game. Anyone with an internet connection could participate by simply viewing a web page, raising the hit counter (score) of that site’s creator. Advanced players could grab an HTML editor and some free web space and create a home page (avatar) that represented them in the online universe. The goal, as it so often is in life, is to gather more attention (links) and prestige (Google ranking) from your fellow players.

The social/collaborative revolution known as Web 2.0 didn’t change the basics of this game, but it did make it easier to get caught in the virtual attention-seeking madness.

There has never been so many ways to categorize your popularity score on the web. MySpace doesn’t just let you show off how many friends you have, but also practically forces you to rank your favorites in a personal “Top 8” list (leaderboard). Facebook lets people coalesce into groups (clans) of like-minded players, including many competing groups whose only purpose is to be the “largest facebook group ever.” LinkedIn not only publicizes your professional connections (corporate buddy lists), but also keeps track of colleagues that are two or three steps removed from you. At some point, these networks look less like socializing platforms and more like Pokémon games. Gotta catch ’em all!

But Web 2.0 isn’t just about who you know, it’s also about what you know. Or, at least, how much you share what you know. “Wikipedia is such a good resource, it seems a shame to let gaps remain unfilled, or errors go by uncorrected,” said Richard Farmbrough in a SMITH magazine interview about his more than 163,000 edits to the online encyclopedia, the most of any human user. Farmbrough says he’s driven more by an “obsession with continuous improvement” rather than any drive to be No. 1 on the list of top Wikipedia editors, but he does recognize the problem in other users. “‘Editcountitis’ is a well-known affliction in the Wiki community,” Farmbrough told SMITH, “and to try and reduce it, I would freely state that I consider many editors have made more valuable contributions to the ‘pedia than I have.”

Yes, even an academic endeavor like Wikipedia can turn into a game for some editors. Wikipedia’s own page on “editcountitis” describes one of the classic symptoms as “thinking of your position in The List as a competition.” The page helpfully reminds sufferers “there is no prize for making 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 10,000, or even 216 (65,536) edits.” That doesn’t hinder the obsessive editors, some of whom will submit pages without checking for typos just so they can raise their edit count by fixing them later. “Remember what we’re all doing here is building an encyclopedia, not competing to see who makes the most edits,” the page reminds readers.

Quantity isn’t the only measure of success on the web, though. Increasingly, sites are turning their content into a popularity contest by letting users vote for their favorite submissions. Take Digg, a link-sharing community where the criterion for front-page news placement isn’t accuracy or relevance but the number of votes from other users.

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And what’s a popularity contest without a list of winners? Digg creator Kevin Rose explains in a blog post that the site’s “Top Diggers” page was created “when there was a strong focus on encouraging people to submit content.” Mission accomplished. A May 2006 study by Jason Calacanis found that the top 10 Digg users combined to spend roughly 3,400 hours submitting content to the site in about a year. It seems a little crazy, unless you compare it to the thousands of hours top Halo 2 players put into their favorite pastime. For the top performers, submitting to Digg is less of a chore and more of a game.

“Digg’s public top submitter list didn’t drive my submissions as much as it gave me a barometer to gauge my success by,” says Andy Sorcini, better known as MrBabyMan, the top submitter on the current incarnation of the Top Diggers List. Sorcini achieved success with Digg early on – his fifth submission got enough votes to make it to the front page – and while Sorcini says he didn’t change his submission strategy after that, this small recognition did drive him to stay active. “I’ve always submitted stories that have appealed to me personally. By that time, however, I was hooked. I did want to see more of my stories on the homepage.”

Sorcini insists Digg’s real appeal is “exposing other users to sites and news I find interesting,” but he admits there is also a social and competitive aspect to the proceedings. “The top submitters all do know each other and are in constant communication with each other,” Sorcini said. “There is rivalry, too, as many are highly competitive, but it’s usually pretty friendly.”

It’s not always just friendly competition, though – some of these Web 2.0 interactions can have implications for real-world business. Amazon.com has turned product criticism into a contest of its own by letting readers rate the “helpfulness” of the thousands of user reviews on the site.

Much like Digg, recognition on a top reviewers page encourages people to play the reviewing game. “When I started to review on Amazon and watch my ranking, I think I debuted around 25,000 or so,” writes Top 300 Reviewer Tom Duff. “That would have been late 2003. My goal was to get into the top 1,000 by the end of 2004. I ended up in the top 500. This year, I wanted to end up around 250, but I’m already at 269. Breaking 200 is probably more realistic.”

While Duff says his improved writing is the main benefit of his prolific reviewing, there’s also a more tangible reward for his efforts. “Now that I’m in the upper rankings, I often get email requests from authors (both tech and fiction) asking if they can send me a review copy of their book,” Duff writes. Think of it as a redemption game writ large; Skee-Ball for literati.

Of course, like any game, there are those that try to exploit the system. A programming glitch in 2004 revealed many authors using Amazon’s review system to post anonymous praise for their own work. To the authors, it’s just a way of fighting back against a virtual enemy that’s threatening their real-life livelihood. “That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,” author John Rechy told The New York Times after being caught writing an anonymous rave for his own book. “How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them.”

Even if there isn’t a personal stake, the popularity contest can drive reviewers to game the system or pander to the audience’s tastes. “My positive reviews are rated as ‘useful’ far more often than my critical reviews,” writes Amazon reviewer John Gordon. “This may represent human limitations, but it’s trivially easy for persons associated with a vendor or retailer to downrate critical reviews and uprate positive reviews. I’d say this qualifies as cheating on a reasonably impressive scale.”

And that’s the thing about the new interactivity trend on the web. When everyone’s a potential creator, everyone’s also a potential cheater. Or a winner, or a loser, or just a competitor. One thing is clear: In the new web, everyone’s a player.

Kyle Orland is a videogame freelancer and co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. He’s written for a variety of print and online outlets, as chronicled on his workblog.

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