The Crazy-making Design of Social Media

Newsfeeds, recommendations, identities, and more are designed to disorient

The Crazy-making Design of Social Media

Imagine you’ve hit your head. Suddenly, you can’t find things you just saw moments before. You begin arguing with people who don’t exist. Things that happened hours or days ago seem to be happening to you again.

You’d call for an ambulance.

Yet, using social media is consistently like this.

I can’t tally the number of times I’ve come across an item in a newsfeed that is days old, but is presented as if new, forcing me to scour my mind to recall that I’ve already seen it, for a moment feeling as if time has looped. Or, I see a comment from someone who at first seems real, only to discover they have 8 followers and clearly are a bot. Or, I want to show someone a funny thing I just saw, so I go back to the social site I saw it on, and discover I can’t find it again for the life of me.

Social media designs create a disequilibrium that permeates society, but these design aspects aren’t often addressed as design choices, but rather as inevitable and unchangeable norms — despite the fact that Twitter itself scrambled its newsfeed precisely to make more money. The only inevitable thing about this design change was that Twitter needed to make money, and had to find a better way to radicalize its users into clicking more.

These design choices are something I’d like to see the design community grapple with more concertedly. I’m not alone. Two years ago, in Fast Company, Khoi Vinh, a principal designer at Adobe, wrote:

There are huge challenges that exist today and tomorrow in this new digital world that we’re all building, and yet design is not a fully fledged part of the conversation.

Social media, for instance, is reframing the way our very democracy works, and yet most of the headlines on this subject make no mention of design. Facebook for instance continues to struggle with the unintended consequences of its network’s overwhelming reach, problems that are routinely referred to as “bugs” or algorithmic kinks. Even the company’s recently announced changes to its newsfeed, which are clear evidence that the challenge is as much one of user experience as anything, has been discussed more as a matter of policy than of design.

Similarly, the seemingly unending parade of bad news around security breaches, whether it’s Yahoo, Equifax, Uber, or others who have put consumer data at risk, almost never discusses how incredibly poor design impacts these matters of data security and privacy.

Of course, the disquieting user-experience designs of social media are just the beginning. After hitting your head, you also began to believe that inanimate objects were watching you, listening to you, and stealing your thoughts.

Washington Post reporter Geoffrey Fowler has been exposing these very practices in column after column — from the 11,000 trackers Chrome allows to siphon away your browser data, to Alexa’s listening behaviors, to Nest thermostats tracking your movements. In a related interview on “Fresh Air,” Fowler talks about how all of this is facilitated by what he calls “poor product design.”

We often think that linking to the Cloud is a normal technical requirement for digital products and devices. It’s a design feature we’ve been conditioned to accept. But is it truly a requirement? Does Alexa really need to transmit all of its recordings to the Cloud? Or could the device work with an occasional software update and more flash memory? Does that Nest thermostat really need to tell Google when you’re home? Or could it remember things itself, and keep that information inside your home?

What may seem a technical requirement or norm is actually a design choice. And design choices can change. This is one of the benefits of framing things as design choices — we get closer to the idea that things can change and be improved.

Design choices of the past can become monoliths almost by accident. I remember the qualms many of us had shifting from reverse-chronology to relevance-ranked searches years ago. Now, nearly every search engine returns relevance-ranked results — but is this the right design, or have we just imprinted Google? Have you looked recently at the data about how many users switch back to reverse-chronology?

If social media were redesigned to give users control — view their newsfeed in reverse-chronology rather than algorithm-optimized-for-ads, a strong search engine, the ability to “pin” things for later, and less creepy following/tracking technology — a major source of the state of chronic confusion we’re in might actually abate.

If browsers, devices, and smartphones were designed to keep data off the Cloud and under the user’s control, we might arrest the development of the surveillance economy and its natural next step, the surveillance state.

Form follows function. Social media makes more money if we’re off-balance, frustrated, and outraged. The best way to start that process is to make us feel slightly out of control. That’s the starting point of their design tableau.

Software and device companies make more money if they can observe our behaviors. The best way for them to gain our acceptance of these practices is to make surveillance appear to be a technical requirement, not a design choice.

I hope the future delivers smarter technology design that respects privacy and sanity. I think we deserve better.

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