The power of fun

Today there was a “suspect package” in Digbeth, Birmingham, which meant the roads were shut and buses diverted for the afternoon. Since I tend to get a bus into Digbeth most afternoons I went to Twitter to find out what was going on. News was sketchy with nothing on the mainstream channels and our local travel agencies weren’t giving any breaking information. Thankfully enough info came through from the ground to build up a picture and, after an aborted attempt, I resigned myself to working from home.

This use of Twitter as a news source is nothing new but what happened next was kinda interesting. 2.47pm I posted a speculation:

Wondering if Digbeth will become a trending topic on Twitter Search today…

Twitter Search picks up words that appear regularly and links to the top ten on the front page. As you might expect these are usually related to the US election and tech stuff with the occasional meme popping in there. Could a handful of users get a relatively obscure district in Birmingham up there?

The answer is yes. Within 45 minutes we’d done it, nicely positioned between “Joe” and “Plumber”

Digbeth%20a%20trending%20topic%20on%20Twiiter.%20Result!-2

As I write (4.30pm) it’s fallen to the number 10 and will no doubt be off the list very soon. And, of course, the impact of this is very slight. I don’t think many people check the trending topics religiously (though Current.fm has built a service out of it – screengrab – and Twitter do use it for blog fodder occasionally) and a 2 hour blip doesn’t mean much. But the fact is we did it and that is was easy.

The interesting question is why we did it and I think the answer is that is was fun. So what makes doing this sort of thing fun?

Firstly it’s a bit naughty. While there was a chance Digbeth might have made it into the top ten without any help we gave it a push and essentially hacked the system by posting lots of unnecessary messages with the word Digbeth in them. But we didn’t simply spam the system – the unwritten rule was it had to at the very least appear authentic or at least be funny. Funny to our little group anyway. So not that funny really.

Looking through the seach results for today it’s notable how much of it was useful information as well as being daft. We started disseminating news and then turned it into a game but the game actually fueled the news giving us an incentive to report what we knew to the community. You could say that by trying to hack the system we actually made the system better, which is interesting on a number of levels.

This notion that play fuels the internet is nothing new. Flickr succeeded because it grew out of a game. It wasn’t just somewhere to dump your photos – it was a service you could play around with and explore. Editing Wikipedia is also fun, at least for those who find editing Wikipedia fun. I found it fun for a while but got frustrated with the rules of the game that the community evolved so I stopped. And that’s fine – all games have rules and playing isn’t mandatory (unless you’re still at school and the game is football…)

So a game that started off as a prank (let’s hack Twitter!) turned into a useful service, and not just about the issue at hand. Having exhausted news about the suspect package people started posting links to interesting resources about Digbeth. Jon “Mr Birmingham” Bounds even found a whole new resource for B:INS in the process.

Meanwhile, nearly five hours after Alex informed us something was up in Digbeth there’s only one mainstream news article to be found via Google News – five sentences on the Birmingham Mail.

It’s wrong to hate on the journalists on this one. Yes, we scooped them big time with our ad-hoc online community but we in no way constituted a sustainable news gathering source. During the game Andy Mabbett blogged some news about Winterval which hit a nerve with those of fighting the idiots on this issue. It was mooted that we try and get “Winterval” into the Twitter Trending Topics but it didn’t happen. The game had been played, the novelty faded It was time to move on to the new game – how the hell people were going to get home tonight. Not so much fun that one.

Later: Nicky Getgood collects the facts found about Digbeth today which I guess counts as evidence to back up my argument, possibly.

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