THR Web Features   /   February 1, 2021

An Appeal for Friction Writing

Our writing lacks sufficient resistance, hesitation, reconsideration.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Detail of statue of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in Göttingen. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | An Appeal for Friction Writing

A graduate student recently posed this question to me: What is the most common mistake that scholars make when they try to write about contemporary issues? Questions like this usually make me nervous, since the offices of cultural commentator and public intellectual remain very mysterious to me. But in this case, I had a ready answer because we all make the same mistake when writing about contemporary issues: Our writing process lacks sufficient resistance, hesitation, reconsideration—in short, friction.

In calling this “friction,” I deliberately invoke—and challenge—one of the metaphors that has captivated (and inevitably spread beyond) the tech industry during the last decade: “frictionless” design. Ten years ago, Mark Zuckerberg made this metaphor an industry standard when he boasted that improvements at Facebook were ushering in a “frictionless experience” for users. Since then, all of the big tech companies (and companies in other industries) have made friction-reduction a high priority, whether friction is an extra click, an additional action, or another decision that slows a user down. When you share a photo with a single command, when you press your thumb to open your phone, when you ask Alexa to do something, you are experiencing frictionlessness.

Frictionless design has without a doubt made numerous transactions simpler, faster, more convenient. Contactless payment, in particular, has been a godsend during the pandemic. Yet some shrewd commentators voiced misgivings about pursuing the frictionless Grail even at the outset, and the ranks of the skeptical have grown in recent years. Justin Kosslyn, a tech executive formerly at Jigsaw (an Alphabet subsidiary), has even gone so far as to argue that the Internet now needs more friction, not less. Kosslyn is particularly concerned about data security, noting that the lack of friction on the Internet enables a “bad actor” to “steal corporate secrets or use ransomware to blackmail thousands of people” in a matter of hours. “It’s time to bring friction back,” Kosslyn writes, because “friction buys time, and time reduces systemic risk.”

My case for friction in writing (particularly writing on the Internet) echoes and amplifies Kosslyn’s concern that frictionless design is partly to blame for the rapid spread of misinformation. When writing meets no impediments, we can easily become links in a chain through which misinformation spreads. Yet my appeal for friction writing goes to something even more basic: When you encounter (and pay heed to) resistance in your writing, you have the chance to change not only your words but also your mind—and even to consider whether you need to be writing something at all, or at least at this moment.

Consider the specific source of friction that Zuckerberg cited when introducing the “frictionless experience” in 2011: pop-ups that asked users questions like “Do you want to share this?” and “Sure you want to post this?” before sharing information about what they were listening to or what they were reading. The intention wasn’t sinister; pop-ups were (and are) annoying. Many users certainly appreciated the change. But at the distance of a decade we can see more clearly that this new “frictionless experience” was about more than trimming clicks. It represented a new way of thinking about sharing.

Now the title of every song and every news item that a user chooses through a Facebook-connected app can be immediately broadcast to the other members of his or her network. No action is required of the user beyond enabling the feature. Thus, the “friction” that Facebook eliminated wasn’t just a bunch of irritating pop-ups. It was also what those pop-ups required: the user’s regular exercise of judgment about what should or shouldn’t be shared. Sharing had become automatic.

What’s sorely lacking in our writing culture is exactly the kind of judgment that “frictionless” design has repeatedly sought to remove from our experience. We share whatever we’ve written, immediately, and without thinking very hard (if at all) about who needs to read it. The old spiritualist practice of automatic writing—in which writing just pours out of you without your conscious reflection on it—has been reborn on the Internet.

In proposing friction as a way to foster that judgment, I am following the lead of the novelist Robin Sloan, one of our best thinkers on writing and technology. In a blog post last year, Sloan made an intriguing connection between orthographic projection—“in which objects appear the same size regardless of their distance from the camera”—and the average person’s lack of depth perception when gathering news from social media:

Before electronic media, news was attenuated by the friction and delay of transmission and reproduction. When it arrived on your doorstep, a report of a far-off event had an “amplitude” that helped you judge whether or not it mattered to you and/or the world. That’s not the case with social media, where even tiny, distant events are reproduced “at full size” on your screen. This has been true of electronic media for a long time—I’m thinking of all the local TV news broadcasts that have opened with the day’s grisliest murder—but/and there was, before social media, at least an argument that it was important to have good “news judgment” if you were responsible for putting events on screens, particularly at the highest levels.

Indeed, working out the relative importance of events was, and is, a big part of what newsrooms do. The front page of a print newspaper was, and is, the tangible result: its allocation of paper and ink to different stories a direct and costly indication of their relative weight.

Not long ago, the friction in newspapers and TV—such as their slower modes of transmission and reproduction, limited airtime, the size of a newspaper page—was seen as a problem that digital media had overcome to our collective good. But Sloan would remind us that these apparent hindrances have salutary effects. Simply by virtue of creating distance between an event and our reckoning with it, for example, these media aid our efforts to evaluate that event’s “weight.”

As Sloan further recognizes, print and TV demand that editors engage in a constant game of comparison among stories because of the limitations on space and time imposed by the size of the page and the length of a broadcast. Which story is front-page material? Back-page? Not fit to print? What story leads the broadcast? The question “Sure you want to share this?” constantly asserts itself in these media environments. Accordingly, an editor has to possess news judgment. Among the journalists I know, that judgment is understood to be a high calling because it is executed on behalf of a community of readers. Frictionless sharing thus isn’t simply a practical impossibility with mature news media; it would represent a failure of the newsroom’s civic function—its role in deciding what the reader or viewer needs to know in order to discharge the responsibilities of citizenship.

Sloan raises the question, in turn, of how social media platforms might “attenuate the strength of signals over distance” and thereby assist users in gaining perspective on the significance (or lack thereof) of whatever news item appears in their feeds. The potentates of social media may have no incentive to make such changes, of course. Thus, Sloan proposes that we must become the friction in the system by resisting the impulse to share everything automatically: “I think a practical and healthy thing that any user of social media can do when confronted with a free-floating cube of news is ask: ‘How big is this, really? Does it matter to me and my community?’” His point is that we may exercise news judgment for ourselves and for the sake of our communities by interrupting the flow of frictionless transmission.

In calling for more friction in our writing spaces and routines, I am simply turning Sloan’s argument around so that it addresses our roles as the ones pumping words into the system. And like Sloan, my ideal solution is for the tech companies to reverse course and start building friction into the platforms where we share our words. Twitter’s widely touted “read before you retweet” warning introduced last fall was a baby step in that direction. What’s needed is a time-lag that forces you to reconsider before you post or repost something, A built-in five-minute delay might be enough to allow the blood to cool. Five days might result in an entirely different position.

But now may be the time to introduce even stronger forms of friction into our writing, online and off-. My proposal for a reboot comes from the notebooks of the eighteenth-century German physicist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who lived at cultural moment equally concerned about information overload (in this case due to an excess of print). Lichtenberg observed among his contemporaries a mania for compulsive and unthinking excerption, describing one frenzied scholar who “continually wrote down excerpts, so everything he read went from one book past his head straight into another.”

As a scholar Lichtenberg knew that he had to excerpt too, but he came up with a novel solution, which he explained in one of his notebooks:

Merchants have a waste-book (Sudelbuch, Klitterbuch, I think it is in German) in which they enter from day to day everything they have bought and sold, all mixed up together in disorder; from this it is transferred to the journal, in which everything is arranged more systematically; and finally it arrives in the ledger, in double entry after the Italian manner of book-keeping.… This deserves to be imitated by the scholar. First a book in which to inscribe everything just as I see it or as my thoughts prompt me, then this can be transferred to another where the materials are more ordered and segregated, and the ledger can then contain a connected construction and the elucidation of the subject that flows from it expressed in an orderly fashion.

The problem, Lichtenberg believed, was that the process of compulsive excerption short-circuited rather than promoted reflection on what was being transferred. Following the model of the merchants and their “waste books,” Lichtenberg counselled fellow scholars to assess and organize their rapid jottings within the wider frame of their intellectual goals. Transferring the raw materials—a half-baked idea, a notable passage, a question—from the “waste book” to the journal will refine those materials and ready them for passage into the “ledger,” in which thoughts become full-fledged “constructions.” Such a process is obviously time-consuming, and that’s the point. Across the stages, Lichtenberg isn’t just copying (like the frantic excerpter or retweeter); he’s selecting, rephrasing, improving, and abandoning. Lichtenberg designed a practice predicated on the value of having second (and third) thoughts.

In contrast to the practices that prevail in digital environments where we typically compose and instantly distribute our thoughts, Lichtenberg’s process treats friction as a feature rather than as a bug. He is just as concerned as we are to capture fleeting thoughts before they depart (thus the “waste book”); but unlike most of us today, he distrusts those first impressions sufficiently to prevent their immediate release. This brilliant scholar knew that much, even most, of what he wrote was waste material.

In my perfect world, social media would have built-in “waste books,” journals, and ledgers—lots of subterranean layers, available only to you and perhaps your closest advisors, where your thoughts might gradually work their way up to the surface for public viewing. Yet, like Sloan, I don’t anticipate that the social media titans will move quickly to diminish the supply lines that have served them so well. Nor do I count on angel investors to make Sudelbuch the next Facebook. Friction is something we groundlings must promote among ourselves. Thankfully, the average laptop already has all the tools to assemble one’s own “waste books.”

Frictionless environments give us the false sense that we can stay on top of things all by ourselves. But against that often destructive delusion we can cultivate a healthy sense of humility about what we know, what we ought to share, when we need to speak up. That humility, in turn, may lead us to seek out a still better source of friction, the counsel of others—trusted friends, a fellow writer or scholar, or maybe even an editor—before we weigh in on the topic du jour. The baleful social effects of the frictionless sharing approach are increasingly plain. Now is the time to waste more words in hopes of sharing better ones.