Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 28, 2011


Devin Friedman writes about social media; I need to quote at length:

[Silicon Valley] isn't just the place where they invent this shit; it's the single place where the life that's advertised is lived. Where the adoption rate, if the product is right, approaches 100 percent. Where the world has been mapped out by the inquisitive people with GPS-equipped smartphones and Foursquare, and difficult technical questions are answered by friendly experts you don't know. (It's hardly a coincidence that the one area of Quora that's already fleshed out is the part about how to build thingies.) It's like that because it'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 . . . 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. It's why having sex with someone you've fallen in love with (not the easiest, safest process, falling in love) is so much better than having sex with a prostitute (no friction there). And that is why the happiest and most fulfilled people who use social media are here. Making it. The only problem is that it's not scalable. That's the flaw, really, with this: The only way to scale it is to remove the friction.

The “friction” metaphor is a little odd, especially when applied to sex . . . but I think I know what he’s talking about. What he calls friction one might call, simply, complexity, or multi-dimensionality — or resistance. And making things to be used on the internet is more multi-dimensional than using those things — at least, most of the time. It poses problems that look intractable, so that solving those problems creates a great sense of accomplishment.

For makers and users alike, not all resistance is the same. Very few people find pleasure in trying to get Microsoft Word to do what they want it to do, or to stop doing things that it insists on doing that no one ever asked it to do, dammit. (There’s your problem.) But many people have had a great deal of fun trying to get Twitter to do things they want it to do, because the problems arise not from over-engineering and cruft but from strict intentional limitations: you get 140 characters of plain text, and that’s it. From this starting point, some people decided that they needed to figure out how to search Twitter; from that point other people figured out that if you used hashtags instead of plain old words you could make topics searchable; and from that point people discovered that mock-hashtags were a great source of Twitter humor. I could go on, of course. All this from 140-character chunks of plain texts and simple string searches. Twitter offered resistance to complex use-cases, wich just made it more interesting and fun to make it embrace complex use-cases. For me, here are the Big Questions arising from all this: Can the dominant social media be hacked so that they embrace complexity, multi-dimensionality, and resistance? Or will we, conversely, just come to accept less rich and dense and textured relationships as the inevitable price to pay for entrusting those relationships to the safety and security of the cloud?


  • I used to get "friction' and "frisson" confused all the time.

  • Surely some French poststructuralist has written about "The Frisson of Friction." Or, better yet, "The Frisson of Friction: a Fiction."

  • "the safety and security of the cloud" #smirksarc

  • If I knew what a French poststructuralist was I'm sure this would be very funny.

  • vanderleun: Glad somebody noticed.

    Tony: consider yourself better off.

  • "In the course of my education I took two graduate seminars. One was on postmodern art history, and the other was on the ecology of the Siskiyou Mountains.

    "I took the art history seminar because at the time I was making grid-based collages of the Cold War presidents composed of thousands of postage-stamp sized news photographs from their administrations, and one of my art professors suggested I might enjoy the class. Sadly, the only thing I really remember is that the name "Foucault" came up a lot and that I didn't like the class very much."

  • from which parts of our lives do we want "friction" and from which parts "smoothness?"

    If by friction we mean resistance or surprise or challenge or complexity, then, yes, human relationships--including the sexual. And, for me, poems--I make them and read them because they are so seldom smooth, or even when they seem that way, they are fooling with me (maybe folks like twitter posts because they are like making little formal poems and trying to pack as much density into one post as possible. surely someone has written of this).

    And, yes, in using most of the tools I use, I do not want friction. I want my software to work and not to become work for me to also do. I want my car not to surprise me or be too complex. I want my stove to warm up and cool down so I can enjoy the textures and processes of preparing food rather than have to worry about making fires (though I can certainly sense the joys of gathering wood and making and tending fires too).

    That the Silicon folks want to make the world smooth for me is lovely. In some ways. But I just really want them to make software smooth for me, not the world.

  • David, maybe if the software is free of friction we can do a better job of describing the productive frictions in the rest of the world.

  • I want smooth friction.

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