“Ice Cream So Good” and the Behavioural Conditioning of Creators

If you’ve been on TikTok or Instagram over the past few months, chances are you’ve come across creators exclaiming “yes, yes, yes, mmm, ice cream so good” while moving in repetitive patterns akin to video game characters. There’s also a good chance you’ve thought to yourself “This is ridiculous! I would never do something like that” even though you and I and everyone else perform the same type of alchemic incantations to please the algorithmic gods of the attention economy on a daily basis.

Every time we use a hashtag or think about the SEO of a piece of content or create a post to match a trend or ask our viewers to “hit that bell and remember to like and subscribe,” we are acting on the behavioural conditioning social media and other platforms expose us to, changing our behaviour to get our meagre slice of the attention pie (and maybe some money to boot.) Look no further than YouTube where for every type of content there is an established style and creators mimic each other so closely it’s becoming hard to tell them apart.

The only substantive difference between optimizing your article title for SEO and exclaiming “ice cream so good” when someone sends you a sticker on TikTok live is the latter act comes with a guarantee of financial return.

“Yes, yes, yes, gang gang, ice cream so good”

Dubbed “NPC streaming, the latest trend on TikTok is being met with equal parts astonishment, concern, and mimicry. The core idea is simple: TikTok has a feature where creators can host live events. During those live events, viewers can buy tokens in the form of stickers, animations, and filters they can send to the creator in real time. The creator in turn gets a tiny percentage of the profits from the sticker or animation or filter being used.

In other words, the more viewers a creator gets, and the more incentive they give those viewers to send them stickers and animations and filters, the more money the creator (and the platform) gets. Crafty creators have figured out the easiest way to get people to send them these digital tokens is by responding directly to them. Thus if you send an ice cream sticker, PinkyDoll will smile and say “mmmm, ice cream so good.”

Creating live content encouraging users to send stickers is nothing new. I remember seeing a live of a man who pretended to try to have a serious conversation about something while getting more and more outraged as people applied ridiculous filters to his face a few years ago. The recent invention of the NPC streaming characters are the refined distillate of this insight:

Forget about content – the easiest way for creators to earn money is by letting people control them directly through payment.

Based on recent reporting, the most successful NPC Streamers can earn thousands of dollars per day doing this work. TikTok takes a reported 50% of their profits, so this trend is enormously lucrative for the platform even when the creators themselves don’t earn all that much.

Please Please Me Like I Please You

In a recent article titled “Operant Conditioning in Generative AI Image Creation,” UX pioneer Jacob Nielsen makes the following observation:

“Generative AI for images torments users with alternating emotions of euphoria and anguish as it metes out sublime or disastrous pictures with wanton unpredictability. This makes users feel like the rat in an operant conditioning experiment, entrapping them in a ceaseless pursuit of rewards amidst sporadic punishments.”

Replace “Generative AI for images” with “monetization schemes on social media platforms” and the observation rings just as true:

From SEO to NPC Streaming, the opaque and ever-changing algorithms trickling out a tiny share of the enormous profits social media platforms make off their creators are giant (hopefully) accidental operant conditioning experiments demonstrating just how far we humans are willing to go in our pursuit of a promised reward.

Social media monetization is exploitationware (aka “gamification”) in its purest form: Creators are placed in an environment where if they stroke the algorithm the exact right way at the exact right time, there may or may not be a payout at the end. Like a rigged slot machine, most creators get close enough to see the big win, but never quite close enough to grab it. Like a casino the platforms promote a select few creators who actually hit the jackpot, making everyone else feel like if they just try one more time, they might win as well. And like every subject in an effective operant conditioning system, we alter and conform our behaviour to the conditions of the system in a never ending chase to get that dopamine fix of cracking the code and getting our reward.

In the book “The Willpower Instinct“, author Kelly McGonigal describes how this exploit of our reward system works:

“When dopamine hijacks your attention, the mind becomes fixated on obtaining or repeating whatever triggered it. (…) Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself, but will use the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. And so the promise of happiness–not the direct experience of happiness–is the brain’s strategy to keep you hunting, gathering, working, and wooing. (…) When we add the instant gratification of modern technology to this primitive motivation system, we end up with dopamine-delivery devices that are damn near impossible to put down.”

That’s creator platform monetization: A dopamine-delivery system encouraging creators to seek happiness in cracking the code, gaming the system, and chasing the promise of happiness in the form of a paycheck.

TV-shaped eyes

Growing up in the 1980s there was much talk among the adults about their kids developing “TV-shaped eyes” from watching too many cartoons. Never mind that in Norway in the 1980s there was only one channel, and it aired one hour of children’s programming per day, at 6pm, right before the evening news.

The underlying concern was prescient though: Our media consumption not only consumes our time and attention; it alters our behaviour in significant ways. Social media platforms have taken this to the ultimate extreme through their incentive-based monetization systems, and we are all paying the price for it.

SEO is about gaming the ever-changing search engine algorithms to get higher ranking. NPC streaming is about gaming the TikTok monetization system to get as much money out of it as possible. If it was easy, if the platforms shared their profits automatically with every creator, the dopamine incentive of the game would go away and we would stop posting and shareholder profits would tank. So instead we get the attention economy and its latest most pure incarnation: The NPC Streamer.

Breaking the cage

The engine driving the NPC Streaming trend (and every other trend on creator platforms) is monetization, and the monetization models they use are fundamentally inequitable to both creators and passive users. Rather than paying creators their fair share of platform profits, platforms use the gamification of payments as behavioural conditioning to get creators to make content that encourages other users to consume more content and pay money into the system. What we need is something else, something more in the shape of a monetization system that pays creators for the quality of their content and the value and utility people derive from it.

What got us here won’t get us anything but fake ice cream. I welcome your ideas about how we break this cage and build a better online future for us all.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.