Thing-a-day 23: Just a Nice Place to Be

In 2011, I joined a website called Fitocracy. It was a good time for me, because I’d recently had my allergy and asthma medications reorganized. I’d always been someone who could roll off the couch and do a 30-mi bike ride or a 15-mi day hike, and the better management meant better performance. I had decided to get a rowing machine for home, and I was excited to see what I could do.

Fitocracy uses some nerdy game elements to assign points scores to activities. Users accumulate points, climb levels (more points for the higher levels), and can collect badges for achievements and quests – performance milestones and exercise combinations. It’s a compulsive’s dream/nightmare. Like Twitter or Flickr, it allows people to follow each other, post status messages and photos, and participate in social and competitive groups. And it is incredibly sticky. People routinely joke about spending more time on Fitocracy than working out.

The principles of Fitocracy are gamification of one of the few things that it’s great for – exercise – combined with a social component that invites people to share information and keep each other accountable. One of the best features of the site, though, is that it gives people a place to talk about big changes in eating and exercise habits with people who care. A common observation on the site is that coworkers, friends, and family can often be unsupportive or even downright belittling or undermining, and users are grateful for a welcoming place.

And then there’s the points. Fitocracy has a method to its scoring: in general, it gives better scores to activities the founding team believes are better for overall health. There are problems with this approach, partly because of the premises they used, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. High-volume athletes in deprecated areas can, in fact, make it up in volume, and the people who care the most about the points accumulate so many so fast that they are literally meaningless in fairly short order. And the site offers bonus points for some recipes of just about every activity a person can log – a good opportunity for specialists to explore a little, have some fun, and maybe discover a good cross-training option.

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a perfect encapsulation of Fitocracy’s diabolically effective stickiness: made-up points that don’t mean anything. But while Sisyphus may get the dopamine squirt he needs from watching his meaningless, imaginary level climb, the fitness he develops is his to keep.

As a high-volume athlete in a deprecated area, and a pretty decent nerd who also enjoys what the founding team values most, I did the obvious thing: I figured out how to do what Fitocracy likes in a way that I like, too. People also joke about doing some exercises solely because they give good points, and I laugh along with them, but I’m not quite that motivated. Or at least, not motivated in that way. I can lose my sense of proportion when it comes to things I already enjoy, though; I have to be careful what challenges I take up, because I am easily tempted to court injury if both points and a deadline are involved. Fitocracy touts its social features as helping to enable persistence in people who are new to fitness, but the same features can help people with powerful intrinsic motivation, too: nobody wants to have to slash their output because they hurt themselves even though they know better.

Fitocracy has been operating for a couple of years now, and it is at the age where it is working to establish lasting revenue streams. Founded by, for, and about nerds, the core team probably always suspected that wasn’t going to be a very supportive market financially. It’s very hard to take the game dynamics aspect far enough, in enough detail, to truly satisfy nerds, for one thing. But their vision was always helping people who never quite jelled with exercise get into a rhythm they could stick with, and that’s a vision that deserves – even demands – a much wider audience. And remarkably, even in an environment that is almost all about changing how you eat, move, and look – subjects that make people about as anxious as they get (about something that happens in public) – Fitocracy has attracted one of the most respectful, friendly, and upbeat communities I have seen online in over 20 years.

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