by Lisa Peyton

Digital technology is allowing humans to connect in new ways. While the technology may be new, the underlying human need to connect is not. Human psychology influences and shapes today’s technology and can help provide clues as to how to create better online experiences.

Due to the rapid proliferation of internet devices and increased bandwidth, the digital landscape has been evolving at an unbelievable pace. During the course of the last few decades, we have moved from an analog or ‘pen and paper’ world to one that is entirely online. Today’s students are using electronic tablets instead of wooden building blocks.  An entire generation of digital natives are coming of age and digital immigrants will soon be in retirement. There are many challenges presented by such rapid change and nimble, creative solutions are required to solve them.

This post identifies four trends in digital media that can perhaps begin to address some of these challenges. The researchers cited have chosen to study the opportunities that new digital technologies present and paint an optimistic outlook. By considering these featured findings; developers, planners, problem-solvers, visionaries, entrepreneurs and activists can begin to find practical applications to help build a better future for the digital world.

Intrinsic Motivation > Extrinsic Motivation

We have an education problem. The US has taken a back-seat to other countries when it comes to the quality of our students. According to a recent study released by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, US students from similar social classes do worse than their peers in other nations. Moreover, this gap has widened from 2000 to 2009 when considering results from the Program on International Student Assessment (PISA) (Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013).

Motivating today’s students to learn has become a key challenge not only for educators but also for employers, corporate training programs, politicians and marketers. There has been movement to utilize game design to help motivate learning behaviors, social action and participant engagement. The use of online games and ‘gamificication’ has stirred up an internal debate over the effectiveness of this methodology and a war of words.

Researchers disagree on the definition of game-based learning, serious games and ‘gamification’. In his book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, Kapp outlines a divide among those who see ‘gamification’ as a trivial use of game mechanics to artificially engage learners by using extrinsic motivators and those who choose a broader view of the term by including game design elements utilizing intrinsic motivators (Kapp, 2012). The terms ‘game-based learning’ or ‘serious games’ often denote a deeper level of engagement, primarily motivating learning and other behaviors via intrinsic motivators.

Although researchers may disagree on terminology, most DO agree that intrinsic motivators are more successful at sustaining behavior changes. Citing several studies throughout her book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Weinschenk outlines her belief that intrinsic rewards are more powerful than extrinsic (Weinschenk, 2011). For further proof that well-designed video games can incite learning, Gee outlines several successful principles in his book, ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’. One in particular he dubs the ‘Achievement Principle’ outlines how well-designed video games incorporate intrinsic rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery help to signal the learner’s ongoing achievements (Gee, 2007).

Game-based learning might look good on paper but have there been successful applications of this methodology? The short answer is ‘YES’.  In a recent article published in February 2013, Kapp cites three studies that provide overwhelming compelling evidence that games can and do teach a variety of subjects effectively. Furthermore the findings from these studies support the argument that games teach and positively impact motivation (Kapp, 2013 p. 2).

Practical applications. If trying to incite or motivate user behavior through digital media, consider using intrinsic motivators instead of extrinsic or external motivators. Building game principles into the design of the application, instead of just overlaying badges and rewarding points will promote sustained usage. For more in-depth information on practical applications of good game design, be sure to watch Jane McGonigal’s TED talk entitled ‘Gaming can make a better world’ (McGonigal, 2010).

 Communities > Networks

No one can dispute the RAPID growth of online social platforms. A recent infographic developed by G. Kofi Annan compares the thirty-eight YEARS it took for radio to reach fifty million users to the three and half years it took Facebook. This helps to illustrate how quickly online media is changing and presents one of the most challenging aspects of this field of study.

Whereas online social platforms change at the speed of light, more traditional definitions of offline communities have remained relatively consistent. Baym outlines five qualities that are found in online groups and offline communities in her book, ‘Personal connections in the digital age’. She uses these qualities to help differentiate between online ‘communities’ and online ‘networks’. The qualities that help define ‘community’ include a sense of space, shared practice, shared resources and support, shared identities, and interpersonal relationships (Baym, 2010 p.75).

Social networks, on the other hand, are described by Baym as being somewhat of the anti-thesis of an online community. In online communities messages can be seen by the entire group, in social networks messages are only seen by people tied to a user’s individualized network, which is a small subset of the total members of the site. These users may constitute groups but social networks are egocentric and no two will be identical (Baym, 2010. p. 90). As groups continue to distribute themselves, a phenomenon Baym refers to as ‘networked collectivism’, the qualities of online communities become challenged. Perhaps being lost along with these qualities are the positive impacts of online communities on individual members.

Because the characteristics of an online social platform can change so rapidly, the group can migrate from being more of a social community to a social network. One could argue that Facebook was once this type of online community, targeted to a small group of college students with technology that supported the qualities outlined above. However, over the years Facebook has changed drastically. It is now a global network that has been adopted by every age group. While the overall reach of the platform has expanded, the technology has been updated to restrict and limit or ‘individualize’ user-experience. Fears regarding privacy have pushed Facebook developers to construct a complex array of tools to only push selected content to selected individuals. It could be argued that Facebook moved from being an online community to a social network and some of the benefits of community were lost. Whether these changes will negatively impact enough users to eventually bring an end to Facebook, remains to be seen. However, several reports cite evidence that Facebook usage is down, including a Pew report where more than a third of users say the amount of time they spend on the site has decreased over the past year (Rainie, Smith & Duggan, 2013).

Practical applications. While there are pros and cons to online networks and communities, considering which format will best serve users will help to ensure the survival of any digital platform or app. If you are trying to build a strong, online community then incorporating the five qualities outlined above will help to create social bonds within the group. When development changes need to be made, take steps to ensure that you are continuing to meet the social needs of your users.

Mass Interpersonal Mobile Persuasion > Desktop

Mobile internet usage is predicted to overtake desktop usage as early as 2014 according to the  Mobile Marketing & Advertising report published in November of 2012. No longer can companies, designers, marketers or anyone in the digital industry ignore mobile. It’s finally here. The rise of smartphones and tablets has made it extremely difficult to provide a cohesive digital experience across multiple devices as each channel has differing formats and distinct usage patterns. The good news is that the internet has truly become portable and that most US consumers will hold it in their pockets within the next year. Some researchers have seen this shift as a key opportunity to change behavior and change the world.

B.J. Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford, has created several research based models that capitalize on mobile technologies ability to change behavior on a massive scale.  In his paper entitled ‘Mass Interpersonal Persuasion: An Early View of a New Phenomenon’, Fogg argues that digital technology has for the first time aligned several components creating the ability to change attitudes and behaviors on a mass scale (Fogg, 2008). The six components required for Mass Interpersonal Persuasion or MIP include:

  • Persuasive experience
  • Automated structure
  • Social distribution
  • Rapid cycle
  • Huge social graph
  • Measured impact

As the community of mobile internet users broadens, so does the proliferation of several of MIP’s core components. Smartphones and mobile apps are now enabling the sharing of material across a much larger social graph, much more quickly.

Another result of Fogg’s research was the creation of his Behavior Model. The model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger (Fogg, 2009). Without a trigger or prompt, the target behavior will not happen. Triggers can be external and many of the rapidly growing social networks, including Facebook, use triggers successfully to help incite specific behaviors. More mobile internet and smartphone users means that external triggers can be sent to a user anytime and anyplace. This type of 24/7 access can be extremely powerful and developers are creatively using Fogg’s work to make significant change.

Practical applications.  Fogg has created several resources to help designers best utilize his theories on persuasion. provides additional information on motivation, ability and triggers. walks users through a series of questions aimed at helping them design for successful behavior change. The Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab features projects that are incorporating Fogg’s ideas into practical applications, most notably within the fields of mobile health and the ‘Peace Innovation’. More details are available at

Synchronous > Asynchronous

Over the years digital media has gotten really good at creating asynchronous communication devices. Email, social networks, online forums and message boards provide easy, on-demand asynchronous communication, allowing very large groups to sustain online interaction (Baym, 2010). But more recently, technology has moved toward facilitating synchronous communications in the forms of online chat rooms, IM or instant messaging, and text messaging. Increased bandwidth has improved the speed of real-time, digital communication devices and helped to make it a somewhat seamless experience.

With ‘engagement’ becoming a digital media buzz word, developers are looking for ways to build an increased sense of community among users. Research suggests that online and offline synchronous activities can help build deeper relationships and keep users happy (Weinschenk, 2011). A study conducted by Haidt, Seder and Kesebir (2008) established a link between happiness, collective pleasures and synchronous behaviors. Although the study researched offline behavior, these same hive psychological tendencies can be applied to online communities. Helping to facilitate synchronous activities among your online community members can strengthen community ties, improve their mood and increase overall engagement.

Practical applications.  Many app and game developers have seen the value of synchronous communications. Gmail has a chat feature. Facebook allows users that are logged-in to chat with one another. Online games that include a social component, allowing for synchronous in-game activities have become extremely popular. When developing a platform that needs to engender a strong sense of community, consider innovative ways to include varying formats of synchronous activities.


Baym, N. K. (2010). Personal connections in the digital age. Cambridge, UK: Polity press.

Carnoy, M. & Rothstein, R. (2013) What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?.

Fogg, B.J. (2009). A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design. Persuasive Technology Lab, Stanford University.

Fogg, B. J. (2008). Mass Interpersonal Persuasion: An Early View of a New Phenomenon. Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Persuasion, Berlin.

Kapp, K. (2013). Once Again, Games Can and Do Teach!(Feb 13). PDF

Kapp, K. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and
Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco CA: Pfeiffer.

McGonigal, Jane (2010). Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world TED Talk.

Gee, J. P. (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Revised
& Updated) (2nd ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raine, L. Smith, A. & Duggan, M. (2013) Coming and Going on Facebook. Pew Research Center. PDF:

Weinschenk, S. M. 2011. 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. Berkeley:
New Riders.