Being able to stay focused when we’re faced with such a plethora of online content and engagement options is virtually impossible. You all know what I’m talking about. The amount of stuff we have open on the desktop at any given point in time, all begging for and sucking our attention, is crazy (browser, IM services, documents, presentations, command line, itunes, …). And don’t even get me started on tabitis.
And that’s only your laptop I’m talking about. Your smartphone is “harmlessly” lying just next to it, constantly pushing you with new info about where your friends are, who just emailed you, replied to a message or commented on something you posted. Crazy. I keep saying distractions make me concentrate and it’s the only way I can work. Yeah, right… Who am I kidding? No one, including myself.
Enter Chrome for a Cause.
Like every good story, this one starts with a Chrome extension J. Chrome for a Cause is an extension Google released for the holiday season, that lets users donate their tabs for charity. For each tab you opened, Google contributed money to a charitable cause of your choice. The Chrome for a Cause campaign operated for a mere 5 days, but it took way less than that for it to seriously affect my surfing behavior. Soon after installing the app, I noticed I was becoming so obsessed about my tab count going up, that I actually started closing each tab I finished reading in order to open more tabs and donate more money. Till then what I used to do was simply google the next thing I was looking for from the address bar of the same tab I was on. Now I found myself closing old tabs and opening new ones for my next endeavour.
It soon dawned upon me that it quickly became not about the causes, but about ME – I wanted to reach the 250 tabs a day limit. I wanted to prove to myself I was a heavy user. Myself! Not even others (though I was so infatuated by the extension that I helped promote it J
And while deep inside I knew it was more about me than the actual causes, knowing that something good comes out of this crazed state I drove myself into was satisfying. As Majento so eloquently put it:
The tab closing behavior became so engraved in my brain that I keep on doing it today, a few weeks later. Yes. It’s that easy to change behavior. I mean, seriously! A couple of days of tab counting and I was hooked (Or… it may just be the brilliant product designers at Chrome that made my tab closing so damn sticky).
Being the rational person I am (even though the behavior I described above can hardly attest for that…), when the campaign was over and I noticed my tab-closing stuck around, I started mulling it over. There are a few advantages to opening new tabs – especially memory related (I love Chrome but it can easily get to 2G memory with the amount of open tabs I have). I can think of a few other excuses to close tabs, but that’s all they are – excuses. Being well acquainted with some other unbeneficial behaviors that are promoted by gamification, I realized I was only trying to rationalize something that’s inherently irrational. Much like people playing Farmville. Once you start spending time, let alone money, on virtual sheep you have no choice but to tell yourself it’s rewarding, or the money you had already spent on it was simply wasted. So you go on and spend even more money! Ridiculous? The hundreds of millions of dollars Zynga is making suggest otherwise…
So instead of trying to feel good about the crazy competitive gamer within me, I decided to focus on what good can come out of it. If it’s so easy to change surfing behavior, why not use the same mechanisms to drive a positive change.
And one of the most burning problems to tackle would be online attention. Instead of rewarding users for opening tabs, let’s reward them for keeping their focus. Not checking their facebook / twitter accounts every half hour. Not keeping a million tabs open and never going back to them. And if we integrate that into a tasks app, then we can even track people for their progress and award them for that too.
And online focus is a small problem. What about bigger ones? I’ve recently been reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus which opened my mind to the incredible possibilities the human kind has in the connected age we live in. If we correctly use gaming mechanics to seamlessly integrate value production into everyday surfing in a fun, simple, way, we could well be building the next Wikipedia with a simple click.