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Revisiting the Past – Lessons for Social Media – Boy Scouts and Social Games

27 August, 2009 (16:41) | social media | By: Shannon Clark

For SXSWi 2010 I have proposed a talk I have long wanted to give on Revisiting the Past – Lessons for Social Media. This is the first in a series of posts where I will cover portions of what I would cover in that talk, please add your questions and experiences in the comments here. Also, if you think this would be a good talk for SXSWi please go to the Panel Picker and vote for my panel.

So what can the Boy Scouts teach us about Social Games?

A bit of history first – the Boy Scouts were founded in 1907-08 in England by General Robert Baden-Powell (most of my notes here are extracted from the great history of scouting published by Troop 97 on their website) after he noticed boys using his book written for military scouts, he then rewrote his book and started what has become one of the largest global organizations on the planet, with scouting groups in 185 different countries (and in many countries multiple different related groups).  Baden-Powell started Girl Guides around the same time, in the US what grew to become Girl Scouts. Scouting differs slightly from country to country (considerably in many countries), the rest of my discussion will focus mostly on the Boy Scouts of America (and since in many ways the Girl Scouts follow similar patterns lessons from them as well).

I followed my father as a boy scout for many years as a child, starting a cub scout when I was younger, then as a Webelo and finally as a Boy Scout, acheiving all but the final rank of Eagle Scout (which I’m sure was/is a disapointment to my father who was an Eagle Scout and considers it a major achievement of his youth).

As an Atheist I have serious issues with the Boy Scouts historically and currently, the current Boy Scouts of America is heaibly dominated by the Mormon Church whose troops make up some one fifth of BSA membership and their highly conservative influence runs deeply in the structures of the current Boy Scouts.

All that aside, this is a look back at the past of Boy Scouts and at the structures which were in place from nearly the very beginning and what lessons they have for social games of today.

Imagine the following – a group gathers, at first everyone is the same, low rank, following a series of detailed instructions many involving large scale group activities they start to rise in rank. With each rise in rank they recieve tangible rewards and group acclaim. But they are not isolated, from time to time they encounter other groups who have been following the same sets of instructions and in those cases their ranks are respected across groups. Individual activies and events evolve to have special rewards unique to those groups, as well special organizations form within the framework of the larger group which require invitation to join. Over time the achievements evolve adding new achievements as the times change…

That is not a description of the current Social Game, rather it is a description of the earliest days of scouting (and in most respects still is true to this day). What the global scouting movement captured, which is being replicated many times over by social games and social applications across the web, is the power of many small achievements and rewards which can be displayed to others who are participating all in the context of a larger, highly social set of activities, activities which bridge a tight, close social network with a far larger shared social context.

While it may seem that the evoluation of badges, achievements and even the applicaiton of levels is somewhat new in the past few years of online social applications and games it has its origins nearly a century ago with the early days of Scouting. In turn Scouting was adapting lessons about the power of medals and badges to motivate which had been learned within military organizations for many decades dating back at least to Napoleon.

It is important to look at what is working today within social applcations, to learn what makes Mafia Wars and other similar games so successful and engaging but it is useful and important to look beyond just the short term, immediate examples from other online activities and to look further back at pre-Internet examples of similar social activities and movements.

What Scouting shows is that there is a great deal of power and engagement from a large scale standard for achievement coupled with a mostly local and tight knit social group. The Global framework provides standards and contexts as well as rewards in the form of shared respect, respect which can in the case of achieving Eagle Scout status extend long into the future. The large gatherings and the badges and patches which arose from them while not the same as Merit Badges offered another form of incentives and engagement. They also formed the opportunities for cross troop groups to form.

Online games such as FourSquare are starting to learn some of these lessons, they emphasize your circle of friends over the larger game context of a given city, while having achievements (literally badges in this case) which are tied to in most cases a given city). Over time I would guess they will evolve further shared social achievements and rewards.

In future posts I will look at other very early examples of social activities which offer lessons for the social media of today. I will also trace some of the early history of the Internet and the evolution of those early online activities and applications in to the modern, post-Web 2.0 world of today.

Please leave your comments and feedback here!


Comment from M Jansen
Time: August 28, 2009, 9:57 pm

You may remember that beside being an Eagle Scout I was also a Scout Master and JASM with Lyle for nine years. This is certainly an interesting topic comparison to me. Please advise me of any additional thoughts you add to this blog post. My grandfather, who would have been 100 tomorrow, was well acquainted with General Robert Baden-Powell. I’m going to have to find and re-read some of his previous journals. I want to refresh my memory and see how they were connected.

Comment from Shannon Clark
Time: August 28, 2009, 11:33 pm


Thanks – I do remember that you and Lyle were involved in scouting – but very cool to hear about your Grandfather – a reminder of just how small the world truly is – and that 100+ years, while a long time, isn’t all that long ago either. I’m going to be fleshing out these thoughts as I (hopefully) prepare for giving a talk at SXSWi (and/or other conferences), I’ll post other thoughts here on this blog.


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