Posted by: structureofnews | January 19, 2011

The Social Engineer

If you build it, will they come?

I recently had a fascinating discussion with Cynthia Typaldos, founder of Kachingle, the social payments system.  It was interesting mostly because we didn’t talk much tech; what we discussed was human behavior and how it might be nudged in different directions online.  In other words, not engineering but social engineering.

Perhaps it seems obvious that it’s online behavior that matters, not code; but I confess it took that chat to really bring it home to me.   It’s not enough to build something good or smart; it’s just as important to figure out how people might want to use it, and even more important to find ways to nudge them in that direction.   And it highlights to me not only how much more we need to understand how users consume information, but also how plastic that behavior can be.

There’s a scene in The Social Network, about Facebook‘s founding, where Mark Zuckerberg – or is it the Winklevoss brothers?  A case that will last forever, it seems – hits upon the idea that restricting membership of the site to Harvard students will give it the cachet that will drive people to want to join up.  So it’s not that it was a great piece of software – although that doesn’t hurt – but more the understanding of human behavior that made Facebook work.   Or at least that’s the way the movie goes.

Some might argue that all Facebook really does is tap into a normal human instinct to connect.  And that may be true, although the way we connect on Facebook is different from how we connect in the physical world.  But there are other behaviors that are less obviously natural.  Take tipping.  If you’re in New York, you understand very quickly that tipping is deeply embedded in lots of activities.  But if you come from Singapore, where taxi drivers dig through their pockets for the 10 cents that they owe you, there’s nothing natural about tipping.

Which brings us to Kachingle and Cynthia.

But first, a quick primer on Kachingle: Put simply, it’s a way to simplify giving money to sites you visit.  You sign up to pay $5 a month.  When you visit a site that’s a Kachingle partner, you can click on a button that puts it into your list of favored places.  Kachingle pays attention how often you visit those sites and once a month, they divide out your $5 among them, based on your traffic patterns.  (The sites get the 85% of the money, and Kachingle and Paypal, through which the money flows, split the rest).

Sounds simple – and that was one of the goals in the design of this.

Cynthia’s aim was to lower “mental transaction costs” in payment systems – in other words, you don’t want to think about whether reading that story is really worth 5 cents, you don’t want to think about whether you’re about to hit your monthly limit in some metered model, you don’t want to think about how much you want to donate to NPR this month.  And generally, because you don’t want to invest that effort in thinking, you don’t do any of those things.

With Kachingle, it’s easier:  You commit once to giving $5 a month, so you know how much you’ll be shelling out each year.  You only have to decide once if you want to add a site to your list of places you want to donate to.  Kachingle figures out the rest, based on what you do.

Cynthia’s goal is to get people to get people to look at such voluntary social payments as a natural behavior – the first step was to lower the mental transaction costs, but there’s more to it than that. “We’re trying to create a new social norm,” she says.

How do you do that?  She gives the example of tipping in New York.  Everyone “knows” that the right level of a tip is somewhere between 15-25% (and if it isn’t, that would explain some of the dirty looks I’ve gotten from waiters).  If we were to try to change it – to 10% or 35% – it would take a massive marketing effort and lots of time.  And we may never succeed.

But online, behavior is still very unformed in many ways.  New technologies and new interfaces – and new generations of users – keep upending the last set of norms.  So Cynthia’s ambitions may not be so ambitious.

She starts with fixing the level of giving at $5 a month.  That’s designed to send a “you can afford it” signal – and it’s fixed so that new users can settle on what the “norm” is without feeling like they’re over-generous or cheapskates.   If she had given a range of choices it might have been a good design decision, but it may have lowered sign-ups.

As she notes in an interview she gave online:

Early adopters and bloggers love lots of choices, but our target audience is ordinary people and they don’t like a lot of choices. I don’t know if you’ve read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, but it’s one of my favorite books. He talks about how you go into a store and there are 25 types of peanut butter, and it doesn’t make your life any easier. We want to send a signal to users — they don’t know how much to spend when they first sign up, they don’t know what their friends are doing.

Next comes building a tight circle of partner sites and likely contributors.  Although Kachingle has a variety of partner sites now, she’s looking to develop clusters – both geographically and by interest – because that much more naturally create a community of users and sites who, in effect, define the new “normal” behavior in that circle.    In other words, if every other site you visit is a Kachingle partner, it looks much more like part of the regular fabric of the online world you inhabit; similarly, if most of your friends are Kachinglers, than you feel out of place if you’re not one.

Which brings up the social element of this as well.   Right now you can see who is and isn’t a Kachingler by going to the Kachingle site.  But let’s face it – no one really does that.  The goal is to build a Facebook app that lets others see what you’re doing and who you’re giving to – allowing you to “build a persona” around your reading and giving choices.  It’s similar in some ways to walking around town with a salmon (or pink)-colored copy of the Financial Times.  It tells people a bit about who you are.   Carrying an NPR tote bag does as well.

“People look for social signals,” she notes, and she’s right.  A great example of this was the experiment to see if hotel guests would reuse their towels – those who were told that most other guests did it signed up at a far greater rate that those who were only told this would help the environment. (The paper courtesy of Cynthia, who’s clearly done a lot of reading about this. )

We talked about much more than just changing behavior – she’s not a fan of paywalls or metered models, which she explains here.  (Clay Shirky takes apart paywalls in his usual devastating way here, and micropayments here.)  Cynthia’s view is that a user-centric model – Kachingle – works best in a world of greater choice.  “It’s just not about the producer anymore.”

I don’t know when or if this model will scale to a point where reasonably significant dollars are flowing to news sites.  Cynthia is obviously very optimistic, and she may be right.   Whether she is or not, it’s an interesting experiment – and a very useful lesson and reminder about how important it is to understand user behavior and ways to affect and change it.  So if you’re building a site/product, you need to spend at least as much time thinking about how you want people to behave on it, and what you’re going to do to encourage that behavior – whether through design or interface, or other strategic offline actions.

Perhaps Cynthia’s goals sound too ambitious.  But then, who would have thought that we’d all be posting updates on where we are, sharing photos of our vacations for all to see, and friending people we barely know.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kachingle, reg chua. reg chua said: We need to focus as much on social engineering as on engineering when we build new news apps, sites or products. […]

  2. […] If you build it, will they come? (Structure of News – (Re)Structuring Journalism) […]

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