In Defense of Friction

Andrés Monroy-Hernández 2012-03-08

There is no doubt that technology has made my life much easier. I rarely share the romantic view that things were better when human beings used to do the boring tasks that machines now do. For example, I do not think there is much to gain by bringing back the old telephone operators. However, there are reasons to believe social computing systems should not automate social interactions.

In his paper about online trust, Coye Cheshire points out how automated trust systems undermine trust itself by incentivizing cooperation because of the fear of punishment rather than actual trust among people. Cheshire argues that:

strong forms of online security and assurance can supplant, rather than enhance, trust.

Leading to what he calls the trust paradox:

assurance structures designed to make interpersonal trust possible in uncertain environments undermine the need for trust in the first place

My collaborators and I found something similar with attribution and credit: when borrowing someone else’s creative work (remixing), automatic attribution given by a computer system, does not replace the manual credit given by another human being. Attribution is a useful piece of information given by a system, while credit given by a person is a signal of appreciation.

Others have noted how Facebook’s birthday reminders have “ruined birthdays” by “commoditizing” social interactions and people’s social skills. Furthermore, recently some have argued that “Facebook is ruining sharing” by making it frictionless.

Photo by atownjacket (c)

In many scenarios, automation is quite useful, but with social interactions, removing friction can have a harmful effect on the social bonds established through friction itself. I am not sure if sharing has indeed been ruined by Facebook, but perhaps this opens new opportunities for online services that allow people to have “friction-full” interactions.