As some of you may know going out to run or cycle usually requires some self-motivation. Often it is a somewhat lonely form of exercise unless, of course, you can share it with others. This social aspect of exercising together often contributes to an elevated level of effort or even playful competition. Let’s face it, as childish as it may be, beating my running partner with just a few meters at the end of our run adds to the fun of exercising together.
The California based Strava company is responding to this with their free mobile running and cycling apps. It uses the GPS on your phone to monitor your location, speed and time on a specific route. Afterwards your performance is automatically forwarded to the Strava site and your Facebook account, so you can evaluate yourself and share your performance with friends. But in contrast to other apps that do about the same, Strava compares your performance to other users who ran or cycled (parts of) the same route or ‘segment’. Thus, the app makes a ranking in which the fastest is rewarded the prize of being king or queen of that segment and creates the need amongst users to set a faster time on that segment next time.
In doing so Strava has created a sort of location based multiplayer mobile game by exploiting our (competitive) human nature. This is the very core of the gamification of sport. It makes use of what social psychologists call ‘social facilitation’; people try harder when they’re being watched, even digitally. All of this implies that the sporting activity which originally is recreational, relaxing, playful and fun, gets transformed into a rule and competition based game.
On the one hand this development can be regarded as positive, because it makes running and cycling more challenging. Besides this, it can be an intrinsic motivation for people to keep on exercising in order to achieve a specific goal. Nevertheless motivation can also be extrinsic. This expresses itself in reward systems which are reflected in social competitive elements like leader boards, the ability to enter into competitions and being ‘crowned’ king or queen. The extrinsic motivation often prevails after a while, hence, the users act as the developer intended keeping the online network of competitive enthusiasts alive. Thereby Strava creates the opportunity to brand itself and generate revenue from merchandising, premium versions and ads.
Harmless, right?! Not completely. In hindsight lot of users regret the day they downloaded the app. They indeed cannot help focussing on the competitive element instead of just enjoying running or cycling and using the app for monitoring their progress and sharing this with others. The fact that everyone can see (and judge) your results only adds to the experienced (social) pressure. This may even become catastrophic; a few years ago a Strava using cyclist died while descending a mountain, trying to break someone else’s record. I think I’ll keep running analogue…
Fretz, C. (2012, 19 June). Family sues Strava over descending death [online article].
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Zonneveld, T. (2013, 18 June). Met de Strava op mijn hielen [online article]. Accessed at: