Gifted is a participatory installation that was built in 2008 for the Impakt Festival in Utrecht. It is one of our biggest and most eye-catching works.

The installation explores the future of social networks as reputation quantification systems, and the repercussions this could have for interactions in society. The tagline “what is your popularity worth” was taken quite literally: if you were measurably popular during the festival, you would receive real gifts and privileges.

Measuring popularity
To measure everyone’s popularity, we first gave each visitor a button with a unique number and avatar. Every day people could rate eachother between 1 and 5 stars based on the question of the day, using SMS, mobile internet, terminals, and even a special app. The questions, which corresponded to the festival’s day themes, were:

  • Wednesday: How drug-free are they?
  • Thursday: How sprititual are they?
  • Friday: how “system-addict (systematic) are they?
  • Saturday: how perverse are they?
  • Sunday: how much of a “good dog” are they?

Rewarding popularity
Once we had this database of perceptions, we started acting on it. Here are a few examples:

  • If you ordered a cup of tea at the bar, the staff would check your badge against the database. If you had a favourable rating (4 or 5 stars), you would get an extra cookie with your tea. If you had an unfavourable rating (1 or 2  stars), you would get no cookies at all.
  • We sporadically handed out treats and soup to the visitors. For example, people with a high rating would get excellent soup, with fresh croutons. Medium people would get normal tinned soup. Low-rated people would get cheap freeze-dried soup. On the last animal-themed day we had rhye-bread cookies for low-rated people, and sweet cake for high-rated visitors.
  • At the festival there were also a number of chairs that had star-ratings. If you had an unfavourable rating, you were not allow to sit in the more comfortable chairs. We periodically policed this to make sure no one was sitting above their standing.
    betere stoelen voor populaire mensen
  • People with low ratings were asked to performs tasks for high-rated people. For example, people who were not drug-free were asked to create paintings, which were then handed to people with a high rating.
  • We felt free to play with the system too. During the ‘kinkyness’ night for example, after 1am we suddenly removed the anonimity by adding stickers with the appropriate number of stars to everyone’s buttons. On a dancefloor full of slightly intoxicated people, this was quite confrontational.

Visualisation & Tracking
One of the fun parts of the system was that, whenever someone voted, it was beautifully visualized on large screens in the festival areas. A fun side-effect was that we could physically track people who used the Gifted app on their mobile phones, thanks to Roomware technology:

 

Reflection & Design
Gifted was a pre-creation of a future that is described in the sciende-fiction book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, by Cory Doctorow. In the future society he describes, money no longer exists. It has been replaced by “whuffie”, a measurement of social capital. In the book, elevator doors only open for people with a high rating. Others have to take the stairs.

On of the interesting things about that project was that we, as the designers, had to build a notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ into the system. This was often very ambiguous. For example, the rhye-bread dog cookies don’t taste as good, but they are more healthy. So where do we put them on the scale? If the goal of the system is pleasure, then they end up on the low end of the scale. If the goal is health, they end up high. What to do?

We also had to make sure that we didn’t just reward the highly-rated people, or the incentive to hack the system would become too great. Already there were reports of people handing out beers in return for a higher rating.

Colofon

The project was built together with ImpaktThe Roomware ProjectNulazLava designers and Barcinski&Jean-Jean, we own them so many thanks. We want to especially thank Lara Simons, our awesome volunteer. Photographs by Pieter Kers.