Friction is the Friend of Serendipity (Across the Sundering Seas, #24)
Hello again, fellow sojourners on the Eastern shore, fellow longers-for-Westernesse. (This is in your inbox because at some point you signed up for a newsletter titled with an allusion to Tolkien; you have to expect nerdy references to the same occasionally, right?) I’m here this week with a bundle of links and some slow-bubbling meditations on friction.
The engagement of For You [in a recent update to the New York Times’s iPad app]—which joins the countless For Yous that now dominate our online media landscape—is the enemy of serendipity, which is the chance encounter that leads to a longer, richer interaction with a topic or idea. It’s the way that a metalhead bumps into opera in a record store, or how a young kid becomes interested in history because of the book reviews that follow the box scores. It’s the way that a course taken on a whim in college leads, unexpectedly, to a new lifelong pursuit. Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.
Cohen’s take here resonates deeply with me: not least because the point is broader even than he makes in this post. Engagement is about avoiding silences, eliminating boredom, filling every moment with some exchange of my attention for someone else’s profit—with the promise that it will be better than one of those moments of silence and boredom. Make it as easy as possible to just keep reading the same kinds of things, and never to be confronted with something painful, something that might change your mind.
I’ve been following the IndieWeb movement for years, and have embraced many of its tenets along the way. This particular interview by Manton Reece—who has put his money where his mouth is in a big way—was a great read in general, but this bit…
I think in order to reach the goal of people can just use this stuff out of the box, we need more people building tools that are intended to work out of the box for people on the same stacks. And four years ago, if you had come around and started this thing, there wasn’t a pattern to follow to make that work across implementations. And there is now, because of the work over the last four years, since 2014, of formalizing these specs, and having that actually hardened.
…this bit was both super interesting and put me in mind of a note from Alan Jacobs a few months ago (which I have referenced in this space before):
Of course the indie web cannot scale. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale — as-big-as-possible, universal-not-local, something-for-everyone scale — is the enemy. It’s the biggest enemy that community and fellowship and friendship can possibly have. If it scales, I want no part of it.
Let’s grant that (because I think it’s basically correct). There’s still a tension here, and one that the Jacobs elides. When people say “scale” they often conflate two things: massive social networks, i.e. the number of people actually using a given social network; and the number of people able to use those networks. If we want a healthier web (and, let’s be honest: at that point a healthier web is contiguous in very important ways with a healthier world), we must distinguish between those. We should be building tools that scale in the sense of their being accessible to every kind of user but which do not scale in the sense of producing massive, undifferentiated, totally commingled public spaces.
We need, in other words, tools which are broadly usable, but which have appropriate degrees of friction.
3. The Man Who Built The Retweet: “We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds”, Alex Kantrowitz, July 2019
Being the kinds of people who subscribe to this newsletter, it’s likely you already saw this article this week, but I’m linking it anyway because it gets at an important theme I’ve been mulling on for the last year—that same theme of friction:
[The retweet] button also changed Twitter in a way Wetherell and his colleagues didn’t anticipate. Copying and pasting made people look at what they shared, and think about it, at least for a moment. When the retweet button debuted, that friction diminished. Impulse superseded the at-least-minimal degree of thoughtfulness once baked into sharing. Before the retweet, Twitter was largely a convivial place. After, all hell broke loose — and spread.
Leave aside for now whether that characterization is wholly accurate (I think it’s only partly right) or other confounding factors (smaller networks with earlier adopters often have better social dynamics by dint of homogeneity, for good and for ill). The point is well-made nonetheless: in user interface design, friction is often treated as a problem to be solved. However, it turns out that friction at certain points is incredibly important for tools to work properly.
And here we come to it: friction is good. It is of course not a wholesale good, but a contextual good—but a good it remains. And this we denizens of the internet age, and especially we makers of the internet age, must learn if we are to stop ruining the world around us.
We recognize this truth about friction intuitively in the context of physical tools. A screwdriver with a smooth, featureless handle is actually rather difficult to use. (One might—indeed, should—say much the same about pens and pencils. Looking at you, Apple.) Friction—in the form of ridges and indentations and materials against which a hand grips rather than slides—makes the tool useful in the first place.
In digital user interface design as it has been practiced for the last many years, not so much. Especially when there is money to be made by making it easier for a user to engage in a particular action. The discontinuities with physical design here matter, too: services like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have few analogs in the analog world. (An amusement park, perhaps?)
To riff on Cohen’s post: friction is the enemy of engagement, and therefore of monetization. That also suggests the corollary: friction is (or at least may be) the friend of serendipity.