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You may have noticed before that people really like entertainment; but what about it makes us so drawn to it? What about us as humans make us so drawn to it?

There’s a magical moment that happens when you watch a football game, attend a concert, or watch a funny movie. You’re swept into the roaring of the stadium; you feel the heavy bass blaring from the speakers pump through your heart; you join the harmony of jovial laughter from the theater audience. These moments unravel themselves as an electrifying feeling of rapid interconnectedness.

But often, these moments go unnoticed. Not because they are unimportant, but because they are implicit in the very ethos that makes entertainment so appealing.

If we ask our good friend Wikipedia, entertainment means to “hold one’s attention” or to “attain instant gratification.” So is this electrifying feeling just an intense moment of pleasure? Amusement?

Perhaps so. But perhaps we can look deeper.

The concept of entertainment is nothing new, with entertainment existing back when the world had court jesters and public hangings — and even before that when people squatted next to crude fires and shared oral stories of their histories. While crazy to say, both public hangings and football games have something common.

What they have in common is the way they serve as a platform for community. An entrenched and organic community produces those magical moments that make entertainment so sustainable, enduring, and scintillating. Community can act as a social driver across most, if not all industries, beyond traditional entertainment engines (e.g., theater, sports, music). In the 21st century, companies should consider embedding community as a function of entertainment into the backbone of their products. These communities can be seen as social worlds, which are not necessarily defined by physical confines or formalized interactions. Instead, as David Unruh (1980:277) so wisely puts it, social worlds are:

“…an internally recognizable constellation of actors, organizations, events, and practices which have coalesced into a perceived sphere of interest and involvement for participants.”

A busy illustration containing many people doing various activities like biking, dancing, playing basketball, holding a guitar case.
(Image Credit)

From the perspective of the modern world, emerging social worlds with subcultures, unique jargon, and shared beliefs may seem subtle at first. But look closer — I mean it, really squint your eyes and look closer.

To your left, you have a gamer boyfriend whose addiction to Fortnite seems unhealthy for a 27-year-old man. To your right, half the sidewalk is filled with fitness moms with yoga mats slung on their back. And you look at yourself, a 24-year-old adult who is trying to figure out what the hype of “nature’s cereal” is all about.

The products at first seem finite and unassuming. But when we take a step back and look at the companies behind the products, it’s overwhelming to see just how successful they are.

Fortnite is one of the biggest games in the world in terms of attention and revenue, bringing in $1.8 billion in revenue in 2019. Peloton, a hybrid fitness company that elegantly integrates subscription services with at-home work-out equipment, saw roughly a 58% growth in 2020, which was most likely helped by the Pandemic, on top of a 110% increase in growth in 2019. TikTok has more than 1.5 billion downloads, a rapid explosion in growth in a considerably short amount of time.

These companies have created fully-fledged virtual spaces that have allowed clear social worlds to take root. We can see how they have isolated that magical moment in the user experience and embedded it across the whole user journey. It’s spliced into the very DNA of the product. So users are not just entertained; they are absorbed by a larger community sustained by collective energy.

✨This collective energy is the magical moment.✨

So let’s break down what it means to have a community embedded in these modern-world products and how community fuels the entertainment energy.

  1. Users are able to build relationships founded on mutual values and interests
  2. They can take on a social identity that feels authentic and enables them to intimately connect with each other instantaneously
  3. Users can transcend the physical limitations of traditional community-interactions (like a 2-hour concert or nose-bleed seats at the stadium) and create interpersonal connections that are truly larger than life

Creating a shared value system

Peloton, for example, has seen so much success partially because it has created an online community that brings together people who have similar interests: fitness. In general, fitness classes thrive on collective energy to motivate participants; have you ever seen a room full of Zumba-goers kick ass for a full hour nonstop?

When we look at the users themselves through an empathy map, we see that this person is motivated to start working out, or wants to continue working out, but needs some help getting the right motivation to keep them working out. They have the means to pay a pretty penny for the Peloton, and are probably excited to have an at-home fitness machine that won’t become just another glorified coat rack.

A screenshot of Peloton’s dashboard shows the instructor in the middle and the leaderboard on the right of the screen.
The leaderboard shows you how you rank in the group and allows you to high-five & follow others. (Image Credit)

Peloton has been able to tap into this desire for fitness motivation by leveraging a few key digital design elements. In the bike’s interface, constant visual indicators remind participants that they are part of a collective of other users who are striving to be the best version of themselves. People from across the nation can see one another’s rankings on the leaderboard (hello…can anyone say gamification?); and they can also send high fives to each other. They are nested in a larger network of like-minded people and can rely on the community for external motivation.

And on top of the tacit design elements, hand-picked instructors often resemble motivational speakers on stage: “Come on Peloton, let’s be grateful we woke up today” and “Sweat with swagger.” This embeds a shared language and shared understanding of symbols into the layers of interaction that people can expect every time they log on. Even though people are completely alone at home, the constant reminders that they are part of a larger supportive collective keep their shared values at the forefront of their minds.

Creating an encompassing social identity

If we look at football fans, it’s obvious that diehard fans have supplanted part of their personal identity to take on a larger social identity, i.e. their sports teams. Painted-faces, an ensemble of similar-colored clothing, and #1 foam fingers worn at tailgates signal not only their passion for the team, but also locates them in their social world. They feel closely connected to others who sport the same branded gear: a shared social identity easily facilitates an immediate interpersonal connection rather than some deeply personal tie. Seeing their team win — on TV or in-person — brings an intense wave of enthusiasm because they feel connected to a social collective much larger than themselves. These fans feel so closely associated with their social identity that watching their players play is almost the same thing as playing themselves.

This impersonal, yet strangely intimate dynamic can be seen in Fortnite, where players team up with their friends or strangers to try to win a Victory Royale in an imaginative and hyper-realistic reality. Through a shared sense of motivations and interests — a motivation that ultimately drives the behavior to play until they win — players foster a social identity that transcends the impersonal nature of playing with strangers on the Internet. Friends can relate with one another at a level that feels intimate, without having to dig into a deeper, sometimes contentious, level of personal values. In this social world, they can present themselves, often in ridiculously funny “skins”, that are not only fun and expressive, but also accepted and understood by other players:

An illustration of a Fortnite character called “Fishsticks”. Looks like a fish with human bodily proportions.
Meet Fishsticks, a quirky Fortnite character: just your typical friendly humanoid-Koi (Image Credit)

And when teams win that Victory Royale, they feel connected to a virtual — but still just as powerful — collective energy.

Making the social world accessible

Within a tech-dominated world, products are able to extend beyond the confines of the physical world. This means the barrier of entry is significantly lower for people to tap into these communities and networks.

Tik Tok is an interesting case where the word “community” is used loosely. It’s made up of a bunch of similar-aged folks who are bored at home and want to either watch entertaining bite-sized videos or make them.

But the network itself is vast. User’s connections within the app — which I admit are tenuous and ever-shifting — are constant and frequent moments of interaction, no matter how small and brief. I am met with a never-ending feed of content generated by people around the globe (155 countries in fact). I enter a digital world built on shared trends (and memes) that are immediately understood and recognized by those within the social world. And I can just hear a song and know exactly which type of video or dance is happening on-screen.

With the help of machine learning algorithms, Tik Tok is somehow able to generate an eerily accurate personalized feed of content on your “For Your Page”. I am shown streams of people (and occasional pets) who seem to speak the same social language as me and share the same attitudes and beliefs, making me think, “Yes, I found my people.”

A screenshot of TikTok’s “For Your Page” feed illustrates the interface’s key elements and contains a video of a dog.
The blue box highlights the “For Your Page”. Predictably, many of the videos on my FYP are of dogs. (Image Credit: Allison Yu)

In accessing this content, a user doesn’t need an account to consume content and needs little guidance on how to navigate the app. Analogously, a creator doesn’t need to have fancy equipment to create viral content. Tik Tok has lowered the learning curve often coupled with new technology. And because users can use the app anonymously, Tik Tok’s “community” is not defined by a shared social identity or obvious deep value system. Instead, its community is defined by the fluidity in which people can access content.

Tik Tok has flattened the digital world completely. Anyone can be a user. Anyone can be a creator. Anyone and everyone is invited to access this social world.

When we examine entertainment through a modern and technological lens — especially in the context of the pandemic which has forced us to look for community in the digital realm — we can see how companies have built on top of shared value systems, leveraged shared social identities, and made these collectives easily accessible. By tapping into a fundamental human tendency for connection and a human phenomenon of collective energy, they have created digital social worlds in which community becomes a living, breathing organism with its own collective consciousness. Its own motivations, needs, and behavior demand us to revisit what the “user” in user research really means.

The new goal for companies and user researchers is to harness entertainment and tap into that collective consciousness— without losing the magic.

Addendum: I wrote this article last year, precisely on March 19th. I waited a full year to see how the pandemic might change any of these insights. Instead, the pandemic has accelerated the trends. It just goes to show that community as a social driver is truly timeless and can withstand even the test of a global crisis. The only thing that aged poorly was talking about the Tik-Tok song Renegade, which is already considered a pre-historic artifact, so I swapped it out with the newest trend: “nature’s cereal”.

Written By: Allison YU on Medium


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