David Heinemeier Hansson

January 28, 2022

We can't thrive without friction

Social media platforms have been on relentless quest since their inception to remove all friction from all acts of engagement. The distance from emotion to reaction has been whittled away one A/B test at the time, and there's barely any left. You don't even have to portray any original sentiment today, just like or retweet that of someone else, and you'll be microdosing on that sweet rush of belonging.

We know it too! Celebrate it, even! Have you seen that new thing that just went viral? SAVAGE. Yes, this level of virulent spread is savage. Because it's literally been engineered in a lab to be so. All our natural human defenses have been studied by machines learning, and are now effectively and consistently evaded. No wonder this meta virus has taken over key parts of society.

But you know this too. There's been a billion articles decrying this beast and they've all been turned into feed for it. Every SOCIAL MEDIA IS BAD headline digested, regurgitated, and shat out to millions of followers. A savage cycle of success indeed.

This recurring loop has brought me more than a little down on the internet over the past few years. Because it's so easy to equate the two. Social media is the black hole that seemingly swallows up all discourse, people, and good intentions on the internet. And how do you escape the gravity of that, exactly?

You could stay far away from the event horizon, but then you're floating alone in space. Sure, nobody there to endlessly echo and amplify the screams, but nobody there to hear yours either. We need others enough that even if they become these warped beings, pulled apart by the black hole, they're still preferable to the cold emptiness of being alone.

This dilemma is difficult enough that many have simply given up. Yes, it's terrible, but whatcha gonna do? I've stood on the that ledge plenty of times, then knowingly walked into the drop. At least falling is a rush until you hit the ground!

Then I was blessed with a properly hard hit last April. A revelation of the obvious while in the center of a storm. Like an alcoholic hitting the same bottom of the same brand of booze as a million souls before them, but needing that individual crash to translate the universal wisdom of recovery into a personal journey.

And like many recovering addicts, the final act of bottoming out appears in retrospect as a gift from the gods. If only it could have been this bad sooner! But no matter, thank heavens it finally hit.

Thus I was moved to retire from engaging with my social drug of choice, Twitter. After tens of thousands of tweets across more than a decade, I vowed to stop responding to – let alone arguing with – strangers in that particular thunderdome of despair.

And like all recovering addicts who now wax lyrically about the healing power of their perpetuating intervention – be that Jesus, the group session, the gardening, or whatever – I fight to restrain myself from breaking out in song about the gospel all the time. (Because there really is nothing more annoying than a born-again sinner serenading from the soapbox.)

But now that it's been a while, I still thought I'd share what has worked for me. To prevent a relapse, I've replaced the free-for-all of the thunderdome with connections mediated by friction. The kind of friction the internet had since its inception, but that has been outrun by the virulence of the frictionless social media variants.

The most important of these mediated connections have been through email. Both sending it, like this, but also receiving it from the small minority of readers who because of the friction took the time to write thoughtful, polite replies of both encouragement and disagreement. Which in turn has lead to thousands of fruitful exchanges. Going a long way to give me faith in the internet again. Even faith in the connection with strangers again.

The second most important has been open source tickets on GitHub. Collaborating with strangers toward a common goal of improving some software. Seeing how people who've never met can find common cause in their desire to make something better, despite the fact that they may disagree on all manner of core values outside of this shared space. That's been a real reminder that work can unite what politics so often divide. And again, it's restoring my faith in those connections with strangers.

Common between both modes of connection is that they're virtually stripped of virulence. While an open source ticket may occasionally garner outside attention from spectators, the vast majority do not. They simply facilitate the connection between truly engaged individuals, not for the sake of engagement, but for the sake of the facilitation.

But even more crucially is the friction that underpin these forms of exchange. For someone to write me a reply to something I've written on email requires original thought (you don't get to see other replies), and an intrinsic motivation based in genuine curiosity (there's no quick hit of belonging). Thus unlocking the kind of human connections we all in theory say we want: Authentic, good-faith, and considerate.

This friction serves as a high-grade filter. Cleaning the feedback of the frivolous and the malevolent. Out of the thousands of people who might read something I write about antitrust, vaccines, polarization, hiring, or whatever, most will probably have some type of reaction. Maybe they're appreciative, maybe they're annoyed, maybe they're ecstatic, maybe they're outraged. But in almost all cases, I won't ever know! These are thoughts and feelings that simply stay in the head and heart of the reader, never to manifest in any form of internet engagement that I'll be privy to.

The same too is true of these open source tickets. Out of the hundreds of thousands of people who might use Rails, or any of the associated projects that I work on, most will never contribute code or bug reports. They too may be thrilled or dismayed at having to work with something I created, but at least as mediated through these tickets, I'll rarely if ever know. Those reactions just stay inside the folks who have them.

This dynamic reminds me of Madilyn Bailey's song composed from hate comments she's gotten on her YouTube channel. While she turned that river of thrash into art in the form of a catchy tune, it's dystopian that it should ever wash over her in the first place. Not because it's a new idea that someone doesn't like a song or an artist, but because it's new to have a straight shot at an artist's consciousness with no friction at all!

In the days of yore, the gates of friction defending an artist's mind were formidable. What, you were going to write some fan club mailing address a letter to say "Madilyn, your voice is very, very, very bad!"? No, no you were not. And if you did, you'd come across as positively psychotic to anyone you told about that. But with the social medias, nobody even bats an eye when thousands of such comments flood the feedback streams.

What I'm getting at here is that friction is a feature! Whittling it all away such that every little impulse of every little person is connected to an outlet of expression is perhaps the worst crime committed by the modern internet, as dominated by social media as it is.

I've flirted with this idea of increasing friction on social media several times over the years. Well before I was blessed with the confidence from a crisis to follow through on its conclusions. And the response (on said social medias!) I'd mostly get would be: BUT THIS IS THE POINT! THIS IS WHY I LIKE SOCIAL MEDIA! THE POWER TO INVADE SOMEONE'S CONSCIOUSNESS IS THE KILLER APP. Okay, usually it wouldn't be quite as explicit as that last line, but that would be the summation. Democratizing the power to force your way into someone's head is intoxicating. No wonder some of those lacking in appeal to voluntarily attract the interest of others find that compelling.

But we really are all better off when creating a connection to another human being is gated by a modicum of friction. This is true on both sides of that connection. Giving voice to every fleeting emotion or thought is a pathology. Listening to all these voices sure to eventually develop into one.

Now I don't have high hopes that these existing choices for mediating connections with friction are likely to see a big resurgence. Although to a limited extend they kinda have, in the form of email newsletters and podcasting. But a broad epiphany stand little chance against social media in a trial by combat. I do, though, have the hope that new mediated forms can arise from the wisdom of friction.

Like Tinder did. The magic of Tinder is exactly the friction it introduced between who'd be able to write whom. Unless a two-way connection is made, there'll be no initiation. That was a profound discovery, or at least popularization, within this friction paradigm.

We've copied this insight with HEY's Screener and brought it to email. It's probably the single most important feature of the entire product. The one that brings the most mental tranquility to the most people.

What would a social media design that embraced friction look like? Is it even possible? Could it ever compete against the virality of the existing frictionless alternatives? Those seem like exciting, novel questions for the internet to answer.

I don't think it's going to get better before we get some of those answers either. It seems like we're in a spiral at the moment.

It also seems clear to me that the answer is not content moderation or "fact checking". Those approaches have been tried, tested, and flunked the challenge. In fact, the current prosecutions resulting from these dead-end ideas are only accelerating the breakdown and capture of society. Its most fervent advocates those we should fear the most.

But while we wait for these new answers, it's going to be a hard sell to convince others to exit the circle. I had plenty of doubts, plenty of fears, and they were left lingering for years. It wasn't until that spring storm shook the foundation that I was compelled into action.

That's not a scalable recipe for redemption!

So I don't write to convince you of anything, really. I at most write to comfort you that if you too have unresolved doubts about how we're mediating human connections, you're not alone. We don't even have to agree on a solution to share the diagnosis.

Friction is freedom.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.