Finite feeds and friendly friction

How a little road bump in your iPhone nudges you to make more deliberate decisions on where you spend your time.

Finite feeds and friendly friction
Photo by Armin Babakhani / Unsplash

Some twenty years ago, I had a colleague who every now and then passed my desk with a triumphant smile on his face: "Anders, I have finally finished the Internet, I've read it all!" He was very pleased when he found (And researching this blog post, I was surprised that the end of the internet is still there!)

Of course, it wasn't plausible to "finish the Internet" even back then. But much less so today. I can't even finish my backlog of articles I want to read in Readwise or keep up with the podcast queue in Pocketcasts.

So even more important to make deliberate decisions on where you spend your time. And there are little things one can make to help oneself in that direction. Like what apps get the front row on your phone's home screen.

But then there are design decisions made by others that you have to live with. Like the pull-to-refresh, introduced in the Twitter app Tweetie, version 2.0: Once you reached the top of your Twitter feed, you could now pull down to load more content. The gesture was a success and is today a staple feature in most (but not all, as we'll discuss shortly) social media apps.

Finite feeds

I've been on Twitter since December 2007, and on Instagram since October 2010. From Twitter, I've got a lot of value in my professional life, while Instagram has served both as a way to connect with friends and interact with other hobby photographers.

But neither Twitter nor Instagram is what they once were. With Instagram, my interest started to fade as Facebook pushed for video over photos. So when Glass launched in 2021, I got curious. Here was a new social network built for photographers first. Not free, but also no video. I signed up and decided to give it a year. And I like it over there. Today, I post much more frequently on Glass compared to Instagram. (At least on my public Instagram account. I also have a private, for a smaller circle of friends, where I'm more active.)

And last autumn, when the turbulence on Twitter started, I finally had a look a Mastodon just out of curiosity. Had heard about it for a while, but never tried it out. Turns out I like it over there as well.

And both Glass and Mastodon have one thing in common: The feed is finite.

Being free of ads, neither Glass nor Mastodon needs to keep the user hooked in the same way as a service monetized by ads does. From an end-user perspective that means you can actually reach the end of your feed and no matter how hard you try, you can load any more content.

This ties into my reasoning about social media and algorithms. Both Glass and Mastodon are, out of the box, strictly chronological. Twitter and Instagram started the same way but have since pivoted to other principles for deciding what to include when in the users' feeds.

And this matters. As I move my spot of interest from Twitter and Instagram to Mastodon and Glass, I also notice that I spend less time on social media in total. And this is, to me, a good thing.

More than once I've found myself spending way much more time refreshing my Twitter feed or scrolling Instagram's reels than I had planned for – and felt bad for it. With Mastodon and Glass, I close the app when I've reached the most recent post in my feed and continue my life.

This is of course just an observational study of n=1. But since that single case in the study is me, it's still of value to me.

Friendly friction

But both Twitter and Instagram are still on my phone. I rarely post on Twitter, but there are some areas of interest I want to keep up with that are not yet present on Mastodon. And I still want Instagram since, as I wrote above, I connect to a lot of friends there.

What I began to notice was that I often started my social media exploring on Mastodon and Glass, and when I had reached the end of my feeds there switched over to Twitter and Instagram – and got stuck.

Trying to make deliberate decisions aren't always enough, obviously. Especially when tired and/or stressed, that infinite feed is extra alluring, at least to me.

So what to do? Turn to one of these solutions which shuts down access to selected services and apps? No, that wouldn't work for me, since I still want some access.

That's when I remembered an app I had briefly used a couple of years ago: One Sec. It's like a road bump in your iPhone, adding a little bit of friction that forces you to stop and think.

With One Sec, you select apps for which you want One Sec to intervene by adding a short pause before the app launches. This gives you time to briefly reflect on why you are turning your attention to, in my case, Twitter or Instagram. At the end of that pause, you also have to answer a question: "Do you still want to go to X?" If I answer yes, the app launches. But after a couple of minutes, One Sec nags me once again with a notification, making sure I'm aware of what I'm doing.

I've started to think about this as "friendly friction". It's not always a bad thing to slow down. I don't want to get rid of either Instagram or Twitter just yet, but to make more deliberate decisions on how I use them. One Sec helps a lot with that.

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