- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Social Interaction Design: Leaderboard

On the heels of a bit of to-and-fro with Josh Porter (@bokardo) and Adina Levin (@alevin) on leaderboards as used in social media, I have to confess that Josh may be right. Designers do influence users. That is, insofar as my writing this can be construed as a reflection of a designer’s influence on me. This is in the spirti of collegial discussion. 😉

The leaderboard debate is not a new one. I don’t mean to bring it all back up here. I want, instead, to show that the leaderboard in social media may be different than the leaderboard in non-social media. Or, outside of game contexts, leaderboards in social media may work in ways extrinsic to their implementation for game use.

I’m going to focus on leaderboards used to rank people. Say, Top Users, one through ten. One is the important number here. One is made possible by two through ten. Two through ten make One the Top of the List. One, alone, is just One of something. But in a ranked list One through Ten are an Order. Two through ten want to be One. One is the best, and there is no better than One. One arranges two through ten in descending order, all being less than One and all aspiring to become One.

The representational system used by a leaderboard is “Numbers.” The ranking is the Ordering of Numbers. But is there more than a numerical order at work here? More than the Order of One through Ten?

Numbers have a numerical order from One to Ten., but not a signifying system of One is better than Ten. In other words, the value of the number is not the meaning of the number. So then the Order of the List must be more than numberical, even though it orders numbers.

The Order of numbers, then, is not contained in the numbers themselves. Numbers must be put in order. But what is that order if it’s not just the numerical order of One through Ten? Do the numbers mean something other than their number? Or does the Order supply meaning more that that of ordered numbers?

As we have said, One matters most. So let’s look at Two. What is Two? Is it half as good as One? How about Seven? Is Seven six places from the Best or three places from the Bottom? Is the difference between One and Two the same as that between Nine and Ten? If the answers are ambiguous, then certainly we’re not going to find the Order of the Leaderboard in the numbers, for numbers themselves have an unambiguous numerical relation known by the quantities expressed by the number.

Notice that the numbers at the extremes matter the most. For example, Two and Nine matter more than, say, Four or Six. Two is Nearly the Best, and Nine is Nearly the Bottom. We say Next to First Place or Next to Last; or we say Second Place and Second to Last. These expressions suggest that the numerical value is not as important as its relative position. Again, number is not the meaning. Perhaps, then, it is Position.

Position is not a Quantity, but a relation. It takes two or more Numbers to get a relation. Nor is Position numerical, even if it is represented by a Number. Perhaps the Order of the numbers creates Positions among the numbers.

So let’s shfit from the Number to the Position, from One through Ten to First through Last. Let’s assume that the user wants to get away from nearly falling off the list (Last) and move up to First Place.

Not only is Position relative, as ordered by the List. It is dynamic: any Numbe below One wants to be different, wants to be higher. Better. Last Place seeks First Place.

To peg the meaning of a number even on Relative Position, then, would be missing out on the List’s dynamic. Changing Position counts. There is only one First Position, whereas there are nine Other Positions. The Order contains a shortage: there can only be one Best. And competition: there are nine other Positions aspiring to First.

If Position is relative, and the Order is dynamic, what’s moves the dynamic? Is it a dynamic of ordered numbers only?

Let’s say that I want to improve my position and get into First Place. Do I care about Second? Fifth? What if I am Last? Would I rather not be on the List at all?

I know that even if I would rather not be on the List, than be on it in Last Place, I want to increase my Position.

Is this what moves the dynamic? Something that’s not in the Numbers themselves, the Numerical list, or the Order of Relative Positions?

Why do I want to improve my Position, and best of all, get First Place? Is it because that’s what the List means? Or possibly because it’s what everyone else wants too? Social Ranking, not Numerical Ranking?

So, if my motive is to make the list, my incentives and inclinations are to do things that improve my Position. Motivated by Social Ranking and by making the List, my actions can now be explained by an incentive to keep my position, and if possible, improve it. Is Five an incentive? Seven? No, Relative Position is what motives me.

So, then the numbers don’t explain my actions. The ordering system does. Well, in part. In part, only, because we have said that it’s neither the Numbers nor the Ordering of Relative Positions, but the social Ranking represented.

If what is on screen represents the ranking of a Social group, then perhaps it’s not really the Numbers in the List but my identification with the Social Group. Perhaps the Meaning of the Order, and of its dynamic, isn’t in fact in the List or its Numbers but in What it Means to Me.

If the Ordering system involves reaching First Place, then to some extent it must matter that in First Place I am Ahead of the Others. Ahead of Everyone Else, I’m Number One. This is a Position I have and Nobody Else does.

Surely this is social, then. The Order relates numbers in relative Position to one another, and relates me to the Social Group it ranks. The Relative Position represented by Numbers is also a list of Social Positions that are relevant to me.

The incentive on which I choose to pursue Number One is now likely a reflection of my orientation towards the social group ranked. So, if I don’t care about the social group, I don’t mind not being in the ranking.

So it’s not just the Ranking itself, but the social group referred to in the ranking. It matters what the Social means to me. What it’s about is Who is in it and Who sees it. Presumably, those who see it can be in it. But perhaps not all who can see it can be in it. So there is social distinction involved in Making the List.

My incentive, now, is presumably a reflection of Where I See Myself vis-a-vis others Who can be on the List. It is a reflection of my Self Perception within a Social context — as represented by the ordering of People on a List. So my incentive must involve My Position within the Social group.

Then surely it matters Who else is on the List. If this is the case, the List is about my Relative position among People I have some Feeling about. And this, even if I don’t know them.

And if I don’t care about the People on the List, or about Who sees the List, then I may not want to pursue my own Rank. And if I dislike the People who are on the List, if I think the List or the Site that it’s on is unimportant, then I probably don’t care about being on the List.

Nowhere, then, is there an Incentive that clearly belongs to the List, to its Numbers, to the People on it, or Who can see it. There is just its relevance to me: my incentives are internal.

Incentives are what one may describe as causes of User Action. The Leaderboard itself “has” or possesses no Incentives in an objective and universal sense. What produces the Incentive is the user’s Recognition of what it means, socially; and how much it matters, personally.

Leaderboards work, and they do work, not for reasons intrinsic to the design or functionality of the Leaderboard, but for reasons internal to the people to whom they matter. Incentives belong to people and are represented using functional design methods that depend on individual interests and social relevance for their success.


  • Yes that leaderboards are relevant only to the extent that the community is relevant to those who look to the numbers. Also true that designers shape community, and insert the leaderboard such that it becomes relevant for those who look to it; when technorati added the top 100 it changed the social dynamic of blogging. The emotional dynamic of those who liked blogging less once they realized how far they were from the top 100 was invoked by ranking where it was not present before.

    Also the leaderboard scale is not the only choice: Designing Social Interfaces adds useful nuance about a set of different choices at different points along a competitive/cooperative axis:

    In order of competitiveness, the affordances are:
    * ranking
    * points
    * numbered levels ( up to 10)
    * named levels

    So, motivations & intentions are internal, but the affordances to express them shape the social experience to a great extent.

    Meta – the comment count on Disqus makes me squirm

  • Absolutely — this wasn't a post on different kinds of leaderboards so much as a rebuttal of a sort to assigning incentives to the leaderboard. I wanted to show that social meaning to the user is a different (in my view more better) way of explaining how they work. Not by means of incentives belonging to leaderboards, applying universally.

  • Agreed, use of artifacts is always personal, social, cultural. The designer's intent has a vote not a veto.

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