Friction and Addiction in New Social Media

A fascinating read, from beginning to end, in GQ about what’s going on behind the […]

David Zahl / 3.1.11

A fascinating read, from beginning to end, in GQ about what’s going on behind the “New Social Media” phenomenon in Silicon Valley, “The Viral Me”. The answer appears to be a peculiar form of narcissism, which is as idealistic about changing the way people relate as it is cynical in its understanding of how to do so. In other words, these guys are attempting to (and succeeding in) exploit our addictive tendencies (via endlessly random incentives) and predict our self-justifying impulses for the sake of efficiency and harmony. At bottom, all this new tech is exciting, terrifying and very, very human (ht KW):

I still have an embarrassingly antiquated idea of what people mean by “privacy” when they complain about, say, Facebook. To me the danger is basically some Russian guy who steals my credit card number. Or Google knowing my porn predilections. Both of those things are certainly happening. But the “private” stuff that’s most likely to get you into trouble is the information you willingly share—semipublic stuff provided by you that can become known by audiences you don’t anticipate. My reflexive response to that privacy fear would be to pull all data whatsoever from the public sphere—erase my Facebook account, stop with the Twitter. People like Rahul have the opposite solution: Flood the social layer with information you want out there about yourself.

(If you’re confused by the term social layer, think of the word layer as meaning “lens.” The social layer is one lens you can look through to see the content of the Internet. Who you’re connected to, what they’re connected to, what they like and don’t like.)

“More and more people are going to have careers where they move from one thing to another fairly publicly,” Rahul says. “And what people are really investing in is your track record. Your brand. What you do and what you say and what you think are just as important as your skills. Specifically for me, for our company, it’s very important for me to be known, to have credibility, and to have opinions.”…

The first thing I want to know is why, apparently, people on [DailyBooth] don’t feel exposed, vulnerable, embarrassingly narcissistic. “There was a study done,” Brian says. “They gave people video cameras. Everyone over the age of 25 would turn it outward, and everyone under the age of 25 would turn it inward. This is the first platform that captured this behavior of turning the camera inward. It created a platform for communication around that one behavior. Look at the iPhone 4. It has two cameras—they added one specifically to face inward. And the fact that Steve Jobs, who’s sort of the person who defines what’s acceptable in technology and behavior, put this here? So this behavior is becoming even more acceptable.”

When you buy something, Blippy asks you to review it—to do more of the filtering the social layer needs to organize the Internet for you. Every time I reviewed something, it went into the live feed, and a few minutes later I would get a bunch of positive responses. People clicked “awesome” or “informative” or “funny.” It felt good. It felt like I’d finally found what most of us are looking for: a place where people would listen to us and congratulate us on our opinions about everything.

The system is gamed for that to happen. How do you make people be nice to one another? First, you install buttons for “awesome” and “funny.” Second, you use real identities. The social layer means that you have a static identity on the Internet. And while that’s more likely to help your future boss find the picture of you with the cock and balls drawn on your forehead (thanks, Rahul!), it also makes the Internet a kinder, more compassionate, more polite place. If people know it’s really you commenting on something on Blippy—you, the guy with the Facebook account and the girlfriend named Polly and the Phish fan page and all that—you’re much less likely to act like a creep. And third, you establish that behavior immediately. If the first hundred people who use the site behave a certain way, the next hundred thousand will behave the same way. It’s creating a feedback loop that makes you want to come back to the Web site. And the feedback loop is what forms the right addictive behavior for the site to work. Addiction is requisite.

“Now that the social layer has been built, some people say the next layer will be the game layer. The game layer will install game mechanics in everything, and game mechanics are a way to manipulate human behavior. The optimists say that we can use game mechanics to manipulate ourselves to be better—nicer, more productive, not as fat—and that the companies who figure out how to install that layer will be the next Facebooks. Here’s how Rahul explains it: ‘The biggest trend in Web applications right now is adding game design. With the theory of game design, you want a curve like this: increasingly large payoffs at random but increasingly spaced intervals. So the first payoff is very small, and the next payoff is a little bigger, and the next one… To begin with, you get a payoff one out of five actions, then it’s one out of twenty, then it’s one out of fifty—but those intervals have to be random. That is the key to human addiction. And any system that has that property, whether it’s Facebook, World of Warcraft, or physical drugs—that’s what makes business work. Facebook is very watered-down. They could ratchet up the gaming significantly.’”

Friction is what you don’t want. Friction is what keeps people from signing up for your site or downloading your app. Because it’s too expensive, because it’s too embarrassing, because it’s too difficult, because it’s difficult at all. The Internet has been working to reduce friction. To make everything easier to use, easier to sign up for, easier to navigate, cheap, free, freer than free. In a perfect world, there’d be friction if someone didn’t sign up for your thingy. Again, FB has it right: It’s frictive to not have an FB account; just ask anyone who has to explain six times a day why he doesn’t have one…

“[Silicon Valley]’s a small world, filled with highly educated people with similar interests and a deep philosophical understanding of what the point of all this stuff is. That it’s the perfect social network doesn’t just mean Silicon Valley is more efficient at making stuff. It affects the products they make. Products that promise to, if we can work together, systematize the world. It’s a place where there’s a deep belief that human society can be perfected. These people, the Ashvins, are optimistic not only because theirs is the last ascendant American industry but because implied in all those products is the idea that the human problem can be solved. They’re working in a world—the Internet—that’s wholly manipulable, that behaves according to rules. A world like a geometry textbook. And that way of thinking bleeds out into how they design stuff for us to use.

But you know why I think they’re really happy? Because they get to build all this stuff. The act of creation is maybe the most frictive thing going. Using the stuff is meant to be frictionless, but making it isn’t. And their happiness comes from friction. Most happiness probably comes from friction.