What is stickiness? For our purposes I will define it to be a quality of an advertising-containing medium (e.g. a magazine, a web site, a mobile app) which allows it to hold the attention of a typical viewer. It is a measure of the ability of some advertising delivery system to hold your attention and deliver advertising. Interestingness is closely allied to stickiness in that we tend to find our attention held by things we find interesting. Sticky isn't quite the same, there are elements of novelty and constant stimulation involved, and so on, but the two ideas are quite closely related. To be precise, in order to make a sticky system, you must find interesting content to fill it with.
We are interested in many things, but one of the most interesting things to us is people. Not every person, just some people. We are interested in, first and foremost, ourselves. We are also interested in friends, and other people against whom we measure ourselves, people we judge, people we like. There are people with narratives we find interesting, for whatever reasons. Each of us, in turn, is interesting to zero or more other people. A celebrity is, more or less by definition, a person who is interesting to a large group of other people. Magazines have long known that photographs of people who are widely interesting (i.e. celebrities) help make the magazine sticky and thus make it an effective medium for delivering advertising.
We like pictures of celebrities because those pictures compactly communicate to us about the celebrity. We can see how fat or thin they have become, who they are hanging around with, whether they look good or bad. We can imagine larger narratives based on a photograph (and aided by a good caption or accompanying story). Her hair is shorter, why did she cut it? We can measure ourselves against the celebrity. Look how fat he has gotten, while I have remained less fat! We can take pleasure in their successes and failures.
We like pictures of some members of our social group (the ones we are interested in, to be exact) in precisely the same way. What we like even better than pictures of celebrities and our friends, though, is pictures of ourselves. We are all basically narcissists. We especially like pictures of ourselves in which we look better than the other people in the photograph, but generally we'll take whatever there is.
We also suffer from the impression that everyone is interested in us. This is why we take photographs of our food, our coffee, our new outfit, and why we share them. Although many of us are interesting to some tiny little group, we generally overestimate our interestingness. Mostly our photographs, our "personal nows," are interesting to other people when they intersect with the personal nows of the other people. In simpler terms, people like the pictures we take, of them. So, when we share 100 photographs of coffee, food, shoes, and our friends, our friends mostly like the last category. This gives us a little positive feedback, and reinforces the impression that our friends love our pictures and by extension, us. We get the impression that we are interesting.
So where does all this go?
Social media is, essentially, an advertising medium in which the content is provided for free to the advertisers by the targets of the advertisements. Roughly, social media is a method by which the cow can be persuaded to butcher and pack itself. A magazine is static and limited in size, it must use content that is broadly interesting. This is why they use pictures of celebrities and stories about celebrities. Social media is built on the observation that a digital medium is neither static nor size-restricted. Social media can then use any old content, great masses of it. As long as some small fraction of it is interesting to some people, the potential for stickiness is there. The technological problem of social media is therefore to present to each viewer a sifted collection of the shared crud likely to be found interesting. To first order, this boils down to:
- Permit tagging photographs with the names of the people in it.
- Notify people when their name has popped up in a photograph.
This creates the cycle of positive feedback which keeps all of us uploading more and more photographic (and other) content, which can in turn be fed into the "who is this interesting to?" grist mill, which in turn drives the stickiness of the social medium in question. This drives the advertising dollars, and if all goes well someone makes a great deal of money. Note that the people making money are not the people providing the content.
This all works astoundingly well. A well designed social media platform is mind-bogglingly sticky, precisely because of the personal nature of it all. When the interestingness feedback loop is working well, new content flows in at a furious pace, providing interesting content as well as the necessary elements of novelty and stimulation. People simply cannot leave their God. Damned. iPhones. alone.
There are of course other forms of content: text, video, likes, +1s, and so on. Photographs are simply the content that is most interesting to me and presumably to you, gentle reader. Photographs are also particularly of note because they cost virtually nothing to create and share, but provide such rich content to the people who find them interesting.