Digital Friction and the Death of the Trump Blog

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1. Digital Friction

Yesterday we talked about disruption and culture and the options available to society in responding to technological disruptions. One of the points I was trying to get across was that fatalism about the irresistibility of technological change is misplaced. Sometimes you can put the toothpaste back in the tube.

One of the early web fallacies was the trope that “information wants to be free.” The idea behind this slogan was that the internet democratized access to information so radically that it was impossible to keep anything under wraps anymore.

But this simply isn’t true. Think for a moment about Erin Andrews. A few years ago some creep took pictures of her in her hotel room. Super gross; just a terrible thing. Yet Andrews fought back, hard. She went to the mattresses to get those pictures erased from the internet.

And she basically won.

If you’re a bad person and you really want to find those pictures today, you can. But it requires some digging and a pretty good deal of sophistication. You have to know what torrents are, or be able to use TOR. If you’re just an average person sitting there with your iPhone, you’ll probably give up before you find them.

So maybe information wants to be free; but it doesn’t have to be free.

Because it turns out that the internet runs on friction.

2. The Trump Blog

During the Trump years, a lot of people (like me) argued that social media ought to be more judgmental. That places like Facebook and Twitter should police their platforms more aggressively and that people who were spreading misinformation or inciting violence ought to be kicked off of these platforms.

This wasn’t a question of First Amendment rights: Anyone who wants to speak can still speak on the internet with minimal effort or expense. Start a blog. Start a website. It’s maybe $10 a year. The entire planet can access your ideas.

One of the arguments against having social media platforms act more responsibly was the fatalistic “It won’t matter; you can’t stop technology” shrug.

But that was a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of friction in the digital space.

Think of the internet in terms of three states of friction:

  1. High friction: A piece of content that is available, but only through abnormal means.

  2. Low friction: Any piece of content that is widely available to the entire population.

  3. Acceleration: A piece of content that is actively pushed or promoted across the internet by algorithmic processes.

A high-friction case would be the Erin Andrews photos. A low-friction case would be someone kicked off of Twitter/Facebook who started their own blog. And the acceleration case would be someone on social media whose posts are amplified by the platform’s algorithms beyond the natural level of interest in a steady state.

If you want to understand the real difference between acceleration and low friction, look at Donald Trump’s abandoned blog project.

When Trump was on Twitter, the platform’s algorithm selected for his content’s brand of misinformation and incitement. Social media accelerated his reach beyond what it would have had on its own.

Which is why the removal of that acceleration and the addition of the tiniest bit of friction—users had to visit his easily findable and often-discussed website rather than passively wait for his content to be pushed into their feeds—caused a collapse of his reach so significant and embarrassing that he retreated.

This is basically a proof-of-concept for how the culture can push back against the downside effects of technological disruption: Remove the artificial acceleration and introduce the tiniest bits of friction, and you reduce the influence of malicious actors.

This isn’t about Trump so much as it’s about QAnon and insurrectionists and anti-vaxxers. It’s important to understand that even though these subcultures have achieved large audiences, they really aren’t mainstream ideas. The audiences they have were built artificially, because of the accelerating nature of social algorithms.

Remove that accelerant and make it so that Q isn’t being pumped into your mom’s Instagram feed and she’d have to actually Google it and then click through—again, this is the smallest imaginable level of friction—and interest in the insanity is going to fall to the normal levels you expect for crazy in the general population.

We are not helpless. The future is not pre-written. We have a choice.

By the way: If you want better media, you should support better media. That’s what we’re doing here. Come along with us for more.

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3. More Magic

An amazing essay from Tim Harford about what magic can teach us about disinformation:

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see,” declares Apollo Robbins, the world’s most famous theatrical pickpocket. “The things you look at every day, that you’re blinded to.”

As he says these words, he’s standing on stage at a TED conference in 2013. He invites the audience to close their eyes, then to try to recall what he’s wearing. It’s not easy. We imagine that we would have filed all those details away, after a couple of minutes of looking at him speaking. And indeed we could have done. But we didn’t. When we open our eyes we see he’s wearing a dark waistcoat and jacket, a striped tie and a dark-purple shirt.

Robbins ambles into the audience, finding a volunteer — Joe — and leading him on stage. For the next three minutes, Robbins proceeds to bewilder Joe. He announces that he’s trying to steal Joe’s watch, but then asks Joe to check his pockets. In that instant of distraction, the watch is gone. It reappears a moment later on Robbins’s wrist. Robbins’s larcenous skills are legendary — he once stole actress Jennifer Garner’s engagement ring, and the badges of Jimmy Carter’s secret service bodyguards. Poor Joe didn’t stand a chance.

But it is the final flourish of this talk that is most intriguing. After sending Joe back to the audience, Robbins asks everyone, this time keeping their eyes open, what he is wearing. He has been in plain view of a thousand people the whole time — quite literally in the spotlight. And yet somehow the shirt is now pale and checked, not plain and dark. The tie and waistcoat have gone. As he says: often the hardest things to see are right in front of us.

It’s difficult for any of us not to be fascinated by Robbins’s skill and particularly by that final act of stagecraft. But for me, after more than a decade dabbling in the field of fact-checking and fighting misinformation, there was an important truth in the disappearance of the waistcoat: we pay less attention than we think.

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

Read the whole thing.