Brian Bailey

November 21, 2022

Just Enough Friction

Recommended pairing: Grab a favorite beverage and hit play on Losing My Edge by LCD Soundsystem (Apple Music | Spotify)

I was there in 2000 when blogging started.
I published my first post in 2001.
I filled my RSS reader with blogs.
I met fascinating people from around the world.
I had conversations of all kinds—challenging, hilarious, sobering, deeply honest.
I was regularly introduced to books, albums, ideas, shows, movies, software, places, and ways of looking at the world.
I developed lifelong friendships.

Blogging worked. It really did. It was what many of us are still looking for when we talk about what we want from the internet—people sharing their lives and work and family and vacations and ideas in whatever way they want. Human connection that every now and then grows into friendship.

But how did you find new people and interesting content without algorithms?

Funny enough, there was this thing called a blogroll. When you landed on someone’s blog, right there on the side of the homepage was a list of the blogs they followed. We’d browse through the people and titles, click a few that sounded interesting, and subscribe if so inclined. The blogroll was your public recommendations, a reflection of you. There might be 20 or 50, but not 1,000.

Then there were trackbacks. Think of them as the backlinks of the time. Trackbacks let you know that someone wrote a post and linked to something you wrote. You’d visit their site and maybe write a post of your own in reply.

Wait, why did they write a post instead of just commenting on yours?

See, it was pretty common for blogs to not have comments. If you wanted to rave, disagree, or add missing context, you had to publish those thoughts yourself. My place on the internet was mine, your place was yours.

This all sounds very inefficient.

Exactly.

It was slow and there was friction at nearly every step. Setting up a blog wasn’t easy, RSS feeds were hard to find, blogging tools could be confusing to use. Next thing you know you’re editing HTML, modifying CSS to perfect your template, and inserting JavaScript for some widget.

And then the writing! So much writing, which let's be honest, is rarely effortless. If you wanted to link to something a person wrote, you had to write a post, and that carried with it certain expectations. It had to be more than just a link—a few sentences of commentary and a quote at least. The hoops you had to jump through!

Nothing about it was easy.
Nothing about it was fast.

I was there in 2006 when Twitter started. I was the 13,420th person to join.

It was fast and easy.
The conversation was in one place.
Reactions were instant.
You weren’t expect to write in paragraphs, in fact, it wasn’t allowed.

I grew to love Twitter. I dropped Facebook and Instagram a decade ago, but not the blue bird. As with blogging, I was introduced to new things and met new friends. It was a worldwide chatroom at one point, just people going about their day sharing observations, jokes, links, and yes, what they were having at the coffee shop.

It has since become something few expected, but then, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

In the Monty Python skit from many years ago, the Spanish Inquisition’s weapons were fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency. 

I think we can all agree those are the precise goals of every social network algorithm. 

It’s a tale as old as, well, the last 20 years…

  • Venture capital exorbitantly funds social network 
  • Network requires hundreds of millions of users in order to sell enough ads 
  • To show enough ads, each user needs to spend as much time on the site as possible
  • Content has to be captivating and addictive to achieve the required amount of time and clicks
  • Captivating and addictive content is powered by fear, surprise, controversy, argument, quick takes, opposing sides, rumors
  • Algorithms are perfected to put that content in front of people as quickly as possible so they can react to it as quickly as possible so others can react to their reactions…

Yada, yada, yada, and misinformation, hatred, and the worst of us are spread at a speed and scale never before possible in human history.

It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s line, “Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed?”

There are great things about Twitter, of course, even if it’s mostly nostalgic for me. Here's my ode to the art bots. And blogging had its share of hate and abuse and spam.

But the scale of harm that social networks have unleashed is unforgivable. The trade-offs aren’t remotely reasonable. Realtime commentary on award shows is not worth division, mistrust, abuse, and addiction to our screens.

Friction can be a good thing. There’s no reason to make sharing a thought that popped in your head 10 seconds ago with millions of people effortless. A little friction between thought and expression means you think it through more, maybe sit on it for a few days or read the article a second time. Maybe you decide it’s not worth the effort. There’s a good chance it’s not.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to sign up for my Substack or follow me on Mastodon. I’m not going to pledge to delete my Twitter account or start blogging more. I’m not even going to tell you to start a blog.

It's not because I think blogging is dead, but I would be foolish to suggest that the only way forward is something from the past. Like Robin Sloan, I crave something new and don't believe we should limit our options to what’s come before. It's what drove me to spend a few years building a different kind of online community.

What I will leave you with are three words: Susan Jean Robertson.
If you're listening along, you should have just reached the Gil! Scott! Heron! part.

I don’t know Susan, but I came across her writing earlier this year. It resonated, so I read a few more posts and then subscribed using the fabulous NetNewsWire

Now, every week or so, more of her writing shows up. No upsells or exclusive content, just thoughts, reflections, links. She shares recent books and articles that resonated and a little bit about them. She’s introduces me to things, ideas, and people I wouldn’t come across otherwise. And I’ve grown to appreciate the way she looks at work and life.

Over the past few months, in the rhythm of her writing, I’ve been reminded of what I love so much about blogging, about people writing just to write, in their own quiet corner of the internet.

Earlier this week, she wrote:

I’m not going to another social network now that the bird seems to be thrashing and possibly in the last throws of life. But I’m here, right on this site, and, for those so inclined, I’m really good at and like email, my contact form is always available to start a conversation.

Maybe I’ll say hello, I’m not sure. Writing an email is a lot more work than favoriting a tweet. Just like writing the last few paragraphs took a lot longer than tapping Retweet to Followers.

But if I do email her, I suspect we’ll strike up a delightful conversation. And you, reading this, well, I bet you’re at least a little curious. Maybe you’ll read a few posts, start following along, and drop her a note someday, too.

It will be worth the effort. When we take our time, it always is.

About Brian Bailey

Head of Product Strategy at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY (and HEY World.) In the past, I created an online community called Uncommon in Common and wrote a book on blogging. Find me elsewhere at bb.place and @bb on Twitter.