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The Psychology of Collecting

An edited transcript of the presentation I gave at NFT.NYC held at locations throughout New York’s Times Square in November 2021.

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Erich Wood, and I am the CEO and product leader at Tibles. Tibles as in collec[tibles].

Our team has been building digital collecting experiences for ten years. It started with free-to-play mobile apps running on centralized servers. But for the past three years, we’ve been quietly incorporating blockchain, the missing piece. NFTs solve our long-standing ownership problem.

Our first app is Seussibles, the Dr. Seuss collecting experience that we created in collaboration with Dapper Labs, is currently in open beta and available on the iOS App Store. In 2022, we plan to launch several new collecting apps for a variety of IPs.

Today I’ll be sharing some of what we’ve learned over the last decade about the psychology of collecting, and what we continue to learn.

At Tibles, our ongoing research includes:

  • Psychology.

  • Game design.

  • Behavioral economics.

  • As well as many interviews with collectors — physical and digital collectors.

We believe it’s important to understand the psychological triggers behind collecting and how they map to digital experiences in order to make digital collecting as authentic and fulfilling as physical collecting, which is our company’s mission.

Our focus is on the kind of collectibles that many people can own, like trading cards or Funkos. Though much of what we’ve learned can be applied to art, PFPs, and other kinds of NFT projects, those warrant separate research into the motivations of their collectors.

Given that, I’ll touch on three questions at the center of how the Tibles team thinks about collecting:

  • What is collecting?

  • Why might people collect?

  • How can we make digital collecting authentic and fulfilling?

Collectors discover, acquire, curate, and display their collectibles. There are other important parts of the collecting ecosystem, but this is the core behavioral loop of our target audience.

What people do with their collectibles outside of this loop, we refer to as “secondary experiences.”

For example, Financial speculation is part of the ecosystem and plays a valuable role, but we treat it as an emergent behavior. The primary reason why collectibles become valuable over time is because of the desire of collectors to buy and hold them. This demand, or the promise of it, attracts investors and market makers.

Game play and utility can also add value to collectibles. We treat these as secondary experiences because when the value of the collectible is primarily tied to how it can be used, we flip the research to focus on the use aspects, not the collecting aspects.

These are subtle but important points of view that help us maintain focus. So why would anyone collect anything if not for the money or how it’s used?

The answer isn’t so straightforward. When we ask collectors, most of them can’t pinpoint a reason why they collect. They just like it. It’s fun. It makes them happy.

One big theme we have observed over the years is expression of identity. Our collections express part of who we are to others and perhaps more importantly, to ourselves. Ownership on its own is a strong form of identity expression.

Another theme that we have observed is that a collectible’s story matters.

  • When, and where I got it.

  • What I had to do to get it.

  • Who was with me at the time.

Its story helps connect me to:

  • The specific object.

  • The brand, character, artist, or athlete.

  • The fandom, who are other people like me.

At home, I have a shelf of Funkos. They don’t have any significant financial value (that I know of or care to find out). And I can’t really use them for anything. They just sit there. A dozen or so Rick and Morty figures greet me when I get home and show up behind me on Zoom calls.

They bring me joy because a collectible is more than just an object, it’s a connection to a larger context.

In a recent interview with a Seussibles collector, they told us they think about the act of collecting separately from the act of ownership. Collecting, to them, involves discovery and acquisition while ownership involves curation and display.

We still refer to the whole experience as collecting, but this insight is helpful when thinking about how we can satisfy the needs of collectors with our products.

There’s a research paper by Rebecca Mardon and Russell Belk called “Materializing Digital Collecting.” In it, the authors identify elusiveness and authenticity as key characteristics of the collecting experience.

  • Elusiveness: Getting the object takes knowledge, skill, luck, time — the “work of collecting” as we say.

  • Authenticity: It’s the “real thing,” however the collector defines that.

Addressing these can be a challenge for digital assets.

We are used to free and easy access to digital music, images, and videos. And we can make unlimited copies without degradation. It’s part of what makes consuming digital content so great. But this goes against everything we love about collectibles.

As product designers, there are techniques we can use to add elusiveness and authenticity to the digital collecting experience and even improve on the physical collecting experience.

Let’s look at authenticity.

Part of what makes physical objects seem authentic is tangibility. Touch screen devices offer us a sense of tangibility, particularly if interactions with the digital objects feel real.

Another aspect of authenticity is singular ownership. NFTs allow us to add this constraint.

We think of an NFT and the media assets related to it as two separate parts of a digital collectible. The NFT is the ownership certificate and certificate of authenticity in one. The media assets can still be duplicated as with any digital files, but the NFT is what proves ownership and adds collectible value to them. The NFT and it’s media assets together are the collectible (or the ‘tible’ as we like to say).

Another aspect of authenticity is the story of the object. I mentioned earlier how this is a key part of what makes a collectible important or valuable to its owner. With blockchain, we can actually improve on the physical world with:

  • Verifiable provenance.

  • Metadata.

  • Permanent alterations that add to each item’s story.

Personal stories also bond people with their collectibles. Creating environments in which people can build and tell those stories is something we can do, as product designers, to make the experience more authentic and fulfilling for collectors.

Finally, authenticity demands being true to the fandom. This is not unique to the digital world, but it might be the most important part of the overall experience.

  • Understanding the fans.

  • Connecting with the community.

  • Creating content that super fans enjoy.

  • Taking the time to build collectibles that people want to own, and will be proud of owning, for the long run.

This is the goal of the creative process behind designing collectibles.

Elusiveness is a whole other animal.

Whereas solutions to authenticity have mostly to do with up-front design and development, creating an elusive experience has more to do with the way the environment is operated and the features available for collectors to create their own journeys.

Scarcity is our primary tool to drive elusiveness. A sense of scarcity can come in different forms, all of which add to the work of collecting, requiring knowledge, skill, luck or time to achieve collecting goals.

Quantity-based scarcity is the obvious one. Limited edition collectibles have limited supply and are harder to get.

We can use time as a driver of scarcity. Perhaps collectibles are only on sale for a limited time, or at certain times of the day/week/month/year.

We can use location. With geofencing, we can make collectibles available only when you are at certain physical locations, like a sporting event or hobby shop. Scarcity can even be driven by the community. If something is so popular that no one wants to part with it, it’s more scarce in secondary markets.

We can also create environments in which collectors can define scarce collecting goals. For example, someone might want all of the #99s they can get, or the set with the lowest serial numbers, or every complete set available.

In fact, making order out of a chaotic world can be a big motivator for collecting. If we can provide a bit of chaos, and the tools to make order out of it, with the right amount of scarcity to keep the collector in the flow zone, then we may achieve our goal of a fulfilling experience.


At Tibles, we are focused on building features based on what we’ve learned about the psychology of collecting.

Barter style trading creates social bonds and adds to the stories behind the object. Having dedicated apps for each target audience — brand-specific or genre-specific — allows us to stay authentic to the fandom and brand.

Tools for displaying, organizing, and sharing collectibles allow people to create order out of chaos and express their fandom to others and themselves. Small drops spread out over different times adds to the feeling of elusiveness.

A mobile experience adds a sense of tangibility to the objects.

Our mission is to grow the market for digital collectibles by making digital collecting as authentic and fulfilling as physical collecting. We want to reach existing fandoms and offer new ways for them to engage with each other and with the brands they love in the digital realm.

Thank you for being here.


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