As a fan of video games with a keen interest in human behaviors, I was fascinated by the Twitch Plays Pokemon social experiments set up on the video streaming site, Twitch. The programmer that designed this experiment streamed a game of pokemon and parsed actionable comments from the channel’s chatroom. The actionable comments (or commands) were then executed in the game allowing the crowd to essentially play the game. Although participation varied at times, the number of participants reached a whopping 1,165,140 giving Twitch plays pokemon red recognition by the Guinness World Records for having “the most participants on a single-player online videogame”.

In spite of speculation that the players would never reach sufficient consensus for each decision point and that trolls would never allow any progress to be made in the game, it took the participants about 16.5 days to finish the game. Red may have spent a lot of time walking into corners, or jumping off ledges, but eventually he made it to the finish line. Twitch plays pokemon series offers a fascinating look at how users organize themselves, contribute to, and alter the landscape surrounding the game. Memes (like Consult Helix) were born and several pokemon became religious icons.

twitch plays pokemon

Of course, in the case of Twitch plays pokemon, the players were actively engaging in that social experiment, and twitch users were not automatically included unless they engaged in the series. In most cases, anyone using the internet is unwittingly taking part in social experiments.

As pointed out in a recent techreview article:

    “When doing things online, there’s a very large probability you’re going to be involved in multiple experiments every day,” Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said during a break at a conference for practitioners of large-scale user experiments last weekend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Look at Google, Amazon, eBay, Airbnb, Facebook—all of these businesses run hundreds of experiments, and they also account for a large proportion of Web traffic.”

To no one’s surprise, there was outrage when facebook users discovered they were unwittingly taking part of a social experiment, exhibiting:

    how few people realize they are being prodded and probed at all.

    “I found the backlash quite paradoxical,” said Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies attitudes towards privacy and security. Although he thinks user experiments need to be conducted with care and oversight, he felt the Facebook study was actually remarkably transparent. “If you’re really worried about experimentation, you should look at how it’s being used opaquely every day you go online,” Acquisti said.

The internet has made it much easier to conduct and take part in social experiments–so easy that we’re participating just by going online whether or not we like it! To be fair, the experimenters aren’t limited to nameless faces behind big companies…anyone can get in on the action! In one case, a photographer sent her picture to 40 different amateur photoshop retouchers from 25 different countries using an online task crowdsourcing site called Fiverr. The result revealed interesting variations on how individual retouchers from across the globe defined beauty; however, it would be hard to draw any conclusions given that few studies have been done on the population that participates on Fiverr.

Microtask sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk are also getting into the game. Fortunately there is an effort to learn more about the turkers in this case. In fact, there’s an entire blog dedicated to social science experiments conducted on Amazon Mechanical Turk, leading to a very interesting post about the Amazon Mechanical Turk as the new face of behavioral science.

I wonder how that photoshop experiment would have gone if done using Amazon Mechanical Turkers, especially since AMT allows for prequalification testing of the potential worker pool.

Should people browsing on the internet harbor any hope for privacy or exclusion from being unwittingly used or is that already an illusion of the past?


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