News & Views

Opinion / The Value of Scarcity

by Contagious Contributor

Thom Dinsdale looks at the value in scarcity for designing products and services

Right now thousands of people are chiseling away at millions of cubes on their iPhones. This is the latest mobile game from ex-Microsoft Games creative director Peter Molyneux and his new company 22 Cans. The game is a single giant cube, made up of countless smaller cubes, that with each tap of the screen are chiselled away one by one. Everyone playing the game is chiseling away at the same cube, collaboratively working their way to the centre layer by layer. When all the cubes have been erased a prize will be released that only one of them will be able to enjoy - the lucky person who chisels away that very last cube. 

Curiosity is unique among mobile games, and digital experiences in general, because it is finite: One cube, one prize and when it's over it's over. Yet it is only the latest in a growing stable of apps and services that are building in ideas of scarcity and finitude to digital experiences. In doing so they run counter to many of the assumptions we've made about the world gone digital: namely, that because you can copy a piece of content ad infinitum at negligible cost then it follows that you should.

After a decade of broadband bolstered bliss, we've woken open to find we have become a culture of chronic oversharers. Every year, every day we're producing and duplicating exponentially more data and content than we could ever hope to contemplate. 

The first response to the imposing tide of internet-stuff threatening to drown us has been better, more ingenious, curation - and everyone has their point of view on the best way to deal with that. From Google searches to Facebook Likes, to tags, to diggs, to pins, to retweets, to reblogs, to good old fashioned human editors. They all filter and make making sense of this galaxy of digital stuff easier. They create new classes of 'relevant' stuff and bring that to front while pushing all the other stuff out of site and out of mind. They filter our experience and blinker us, we hope, to the things that would only waste our time. 

They don't, however, do anything about the quantity of stuff out there in the first place. Neither do they do anything to our behaviour as the originators of that stuff in the first instance. That is, until recently.

Take photo app One Momento for example. A photo app but with a significant difference: it allows users to share one photo, and one photo only. Users have to pick wisely because once shared, there is no going back. In addition, these photos are stored in the One Momento Photo Library - which is itself limited to only 250,000 photos. Ever.

In the same way you can't put the bullet back into the barrel, giving users one shot to share demands the kind of care and responsibility that they just can't seem to impose on themselves in the rest of their day to day activities online.

In a similar vein, music sharing service This Is My Jam also makes care and quality its core concern by letting users only share one track a week. With this kind of limited opportunity, users are less inclined to fire off a tweet about whatever they happen to be listening to at that given moment and more inclined to recommend tracks they actually want their friends to hear.

That the internet allows the effectively free duplication and dissemination of content is one of its most beautiful and liberating qualities. It doesn't, however, speak to the world we know from experience or the one we evolved to inhabit i.e. one of bitterly scarce resources. Its not surprising then that given that freedom we wouldn't quite know how to contain ourselves. That when we found that we could share anything, we would invariably share everything. So, when designing digital products and services, we should think about how introducing elements of finitude can actually improve, not inhibit, the experience. It feels odd, but the trend towards this is teaching us anew that there is value in scarcity.

Thom Dinsdale is a strategist at M&C Saatchi, London.


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