A few years ago, Microsoft introduced the ability to “hide” on Appear Offline on MSN Messenger and to keep talking to people. This is quite a useful feature for the anti-social types who really don’t want anybody to talk to them!
I’ve noticed some interesting trends since this feature has been introduced. The people who used to have their status stuck on “away” now use appear offline. This is perhaps frustrating when you then end up calling or texting at extortionate rates your friend instead whilst you’re actually both sitting at your computer!
The reason why people use “appear offline” is so they can be selective about who they talk to. Fair enough. But when other people also use “appear offline”, it doesn’t work. This could be illustrated using a bit of game theory.
Initially, lets say that both persons A and B gain 2 units of utility from being online in MSN Messenger. This utility could be in many forms: pleasure gained from sharing gossip, money saved in not having to text or time saved. The exact form of the utility isn’t important.
Let’s go into hiding…
Now lets say Person A decides to “Appear Offline” but Person B is still “Online”. Person A will only talk to Person B when it is beneficial to him. Person A will still gossip with Person B but only in times convenient to himself and when he’s stuck on his particle physics essay, he can still see when Person B is online and get help from him. For this reason, Person A’s utility increases from 2 to 3.
But Person B won’t derive any utility. When he needs somebody to talk to, or has run into a brick wall upgrading to Service Pack 3, he won’t be able to get through to Person A on MSN Messenger. Instead, he might end up calling or find a more sociable person to talk to! Hence Person B derives no utility from this arrangement.
Notice that the payoffs are symmetrical. If Person B decides to “Appear Offline” but Person A doesn’t, Person B will gain 3 units of utility whilst Person A will gain nil.
The fourth possible situation is when both Persons A and B decide to “Appear Offline”. Neither persons derives any utility from this arrangement as they’ll never talk to each another. They might as well actually be offline.
The best arrangement
photo: J. Random
As we can see, in this analysis the best possible outcome is that both persons A and B are online. They both derive 2 units of utility from this arrangement and 4 units of utility are gained in total.
Person A or person B could seek to increase the utility they gain by appearing offline. This increases their own utility to 3 units. Would they do this in reality? Rationally, probably yes.
If person A decided to stay “online”, person B would gain 2 units of utility from staying online and 3 units from appearing offline. So in this situation, person B should appear offline to maximise their own payoff.
If person A decided to “appear offline”, person B gains no utility either way. So it really doesn’t matter whether person B stays online or appears offline. But they don’t lose any utility by appearing offline.
By considering all the possible outcomes, person B will rationally choose to appear offline to maximise their payoff. As the situation is symmetrical, person A should also rationally choose to appear offline. The outcome? Both persons A and B “appear offline” and nobody gains any utility.
Back to the real world…
In this discussion and game theory model, I’ve abstracted from reality. Of course, it isn’t true that everybody on MSN Messenger appears offline these days. But I will say that amongst my contact list, I know quite a few people do and it has lead to some annoying situations. I’m even guilty of “appearing offline” on many occasions without realising the person I want to talk to is also appearing offline and waiting for me to come online.