A bicycle for the heart

Social could be so much better

Steve Jobs had a famous analogy: computers are a 'bicycle for the mind'. And true to his vision, we've seen tremendous progress in developing hardware and software that augments the mind - we can remember more, can calculate faster, even make inferences with vast arrays of data that human minds are incapable of holding.

In the process, largely by accident while finding ways to serve better ads, we've managed to use software to enhance our empathy, to grow our social sphere, and to make ourselves better people. But our implementation has been poor.

Most of our energy in social media has been devoted to moving the offline online, in order to make it parsable to computers that serve advertising. Online creates scale, which is wonderful. But with scale comes metrics that don’t work with our brains. To the hunter-gatherer brain, engagement ratios are the terrible, terrible knowledge that you are unimportant and being ignored.

There's a reason why Instagram is experimenting with hiding likes. Illegibility is a social lubricant - or rather, social legibility through software is like being knurd.

Being drunk is to be intoxicated by alcohol to such an extent as to be unable to perceive the world clearly through the senses.

Being sober is to be able to perceive the world clearly through the senses, yet humans are quite capable of giving themselves illusions and little stories to make life more bearable.

Being knurd is to be (un)intoxicated with Klatchian Coffee to such an extent that all such comfort stories are stripped away from the mind. This makes you see the world in a way 'nobody ever should', in all its harsh reality.

- Discworld and Terry Pratchett Wiki


Theory says there's a hard cap to the number of social contacts we can have - Dunbar's number. 150 relationships. We can do better with technology. There's a hard cap to how much weight a human being can lift, but that doesn't stop us from building levers and forklifts.

But I have a few observations:

500 is roughly the number of relationships young millennials can sustain with the current social media stack. Above that number of Instagram followers, and behavior approaches a broadcaster/audience dynamic. This is pure anecdata.

The one-to-many opacity of Snapchat’s messaging (especially pre-Stories) was powerful. When someone sent you a Snap, you didn’t know whether it was just meant for you or for many - and that is in essence what allows for many friends at scale. Instagram Stories are powerful not only as a broadcast medium, but also as an effective entry point to Instagram DMs, which are 1:1.

The curation (potentially) necessary for higher-quality interactions restricts growth. See: Coffee Meets Bagel starting from 1 person per day, now at 20+ per day. At the logical end of that path, Tinder’s infinite swiping drives interactions, screen time, revenue.

There are now so many more ways to find your tribe. Now you can download the official Jeremy Renner App (yes I know it got ruined) and connect with fellow fans. There will be more communities like this. And I think that’s generally good thing.

Anonymous vs. pseudonymous vs. real names has tradeoffs. Anonymous and you’re interacting with the void. Real names require bravery for genuine interaction. Pseudonymous provides optionality but at the cost of inconsistent behavior by different actors.

We have an ever-spreading array of ways to gain self-perceived status. For most, the economic game is still fucked; but now you can have a cool build on your minecraft server. You can be perceived as extra rational on rationalwiki. You can get thousands of upvotes for Reddit comments that all involve your dad beating you with jumper cables.


Here’s some elements I think might work for a ‘bicycle-for-the-heart’:

New units of engagement. The social media giants are fundamentally architected around posts, likes, and comments. Not at all how humans naturally interact… but nice and machine parsable.

The birthday reminder -> birthday box -> click to say happy birthday evolution, while telling us exactly how many friends said Happy Birthday or clicked the button, is a quintessential example of why Facebook is broken. The metrics are empty.

Force a higher bitrate. A click on the like button gives very little information. 280 characters is better than 140. Videos are better than photos. It’s harder to hate real people.

Illegibility as a feature. Disguise the scale. Hide whether a message is one-to-many. Prevent screenshots. Hide the number of likes. Hide the number of followers. Track karma internally, but don’t share it. Stats are bad for users.

I’m not an angel investor, so please don’t intro me to founders who are building the next social X unless they’re cool


bonus paragraph left on the cutting room floor:

The paperclip maximizer is already starting to reach out of the factory. So long as social media is about making things more legible, we will get more extreme, more bifurcated, more segmented. Your objective function is effective targeting. It's all good to draw circles group people into nice, neat segments. Isn't it better to get them to sort themselves into segments? Isn't it even better to widen the distinctions between those segments?