Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Friendship Churn

In subscription-based games, the deadliest market factor is "churn," the inevitable loss of players over time. The reasons are myriad (boredom, the novelty of some alternative product, financial considerations), but the end result is the same: people leave. And interestingly, the number is remarkably consistent: 10 months (great article, BTW). If someone begins playing a massively multiplayer online game (such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, or even Puzzle Pirates), they will, on average, stop paying after 10 months. Games that fail to attract new players quickly atrophy, leaving only a small remnant of dedicated fans.

Is this how friendship progresses as well? Think about someone you've recently (say, in the last few months) increased your social activity with. Let's assume you enjoy this person's company. How long is it likely to be before you no longer interact with the person on a regular basis, even losing touch entirely? Upon reflection, I was disturbed to find that a similar sort of pattern (albeit on a somewhat longer-ranged scale, say 14 or 15 months) applies to me. The trick, you see, is that once a person drifts away from interaction, they can potentially be "rediscovered," refreshing the friendship. My own interactions show this pattern all the time, where I stop interacting with someone for extended periods, then we begin socializing again and wonder why we'd drifted so far apart.

Instead of subscription, think "time spent per week" with a given person. I'd wager that, given a stable lifestyle, that number naturally oscillates in and out of the near-zero range on a regular (if infrequent) basis. The hypothesis: people generally allocate social time according to a decaying curve, leading to the inevitable erosion of friendships. Thus, allocation of social time may resemble cost allocation in cases of diminishing returns. If this is true, does that mean that many people, in a natural and selfish but unconscious way, treat friends like video games?

Naturally, exceptions exist. A committed relationship, family, and "friends for life" are all part of my day-to-day experience (well, with the family, maybe more like week-to-week...). But among my "casual friends" the effect is pretty clear. Even among people I'd like to see more of, I often feel a growing gulf after a time, a sense of having "lost the spark" of the friendship.

Data collection to test this question would be terrible. It would involve constantly quantifying how much time you spend with various people and whether it's generic social time (e.g. a bunch of people hanging out) or more direct and personal (e.g. one-on-one conversation), which would make anyone paranoid. Perhaps using chat transcripts would be a way to test this, see if the effect manifests in that domain. In any case, there is a reversal that I find amusing: what if people treat games like friends? This is to say that instead of friendship being consumer entertainment to be micromanaged, what if games simply represent part of a broad set of mental activities we require a minimal level of but get tired of doing in redundant ways?

For my part, roleplaying has acted as a powerful social glue. Whether I'm close to people or drifting away, we gather once a week to continue the game. It provides a common activity everyone has a part to play in and everyone enjoys, and gives friendships a chance to cool off without actually losing contact with people. It's an intensely social form of play, but doesn't strictly require "getting personal."

Still, I'm starting to get a little paranoid about whether people are trying to cancel their subscription to me...


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