Fixing My Internet [draft 4]

I often consume more content than I intend to. A 5 minute planned Youtube break turns into 10. When I go to medium.com to write a post, I end up reading a couple of articles before I actually start writing.

Sure, I can improve my concentration and willpower to not be pulled by the lures of the internet. Or maybe I can set up my schedule to be so busy that I don’t have time to internet. But, I think there’s a better way that doesn’t rely on willpower or totally blocking sites.

Most content platforms are incentivized to hold your attention for as long as possible. Their revenue is directly or indirectly correlated to the time you spend on them. So I explored what sites do to hold my attention, and reverse engineered some of them to make them less distracting.

Attention Grabbing Tactics

I see 3 main types techniques that content platforms use to hold attention.

1. User Interface Features 

Well designed content sites employ UX patterns that lure you into spending more time on them.

  • Infinite scrolling of variable content: Content is auto-loaded as you read, and you don’t know what’s about to be shown to you next. This mechanism triggers a dopamine response in your brain similar to pulling on a slot machine. It’s addicting. This infinite feed is found on most content platforms.
  • Mobile: Mobile’s viewing restrictions nudge you into spending more time within an app. Active context switching takes more effort (passively, notifications can intrude your immersion to take you to another app). To context switch without a notification trigger, requires, in the shortest case a double button press to go to your previously viewed app, and in the longest case, a button press, locating your next app on screen or begin typing it, and then click on it to open it. With all of the animations, loading content, it’s still longer to switch apps on a phone vs. a desktop browser, making you less likely to do so. 

2. Game-ification

Points [2]. We love to earn points. Points often can act as reputation on that platform.

StackOverflow users can often leverage their reputation in the real world since the skill to answer questions on StackOverflow somewhat translates to programming competence in the real world.

In other cases like Snapchat, there’s a point system for how many days in a row you’ve snapped a friend. This is purely to drive engagement.

3. Relevant Suggestions

The more you use a platform, the better it knows you and what to show you to keep you on the site. 

Mis-Aligned Incentives

These tactics aren’t always used to hold your attention. For example, the Uber app takes you to placing a ride (and hence leaving the app) quickly. It works for them because their revenue isn’t tied to how much time you spend in their app, but rather to how often and far you ride through their app. [3]

When what you want to do on a site doesn’t match what the site wants you to do, you’ll get situations like:

Youtube will suggest something totally irrelevant to the video you’re watching based on your viewing history, regardless of whether you’re in the right context or mode to consume it. These suggestions are powerful distractions because you actually want to click on them (they are similar to other types of content you consume, just that you don’t want to consume it in this context).

As soon as you land on medium.com, you’re shown articles to read, even if you just want to write.

Sites conveniently ignore your intent in order to nudge you to use the site in a way that benefits them.

“Anti-growth Hacking”

Being able to choose whether to consume more information before seeing what it is, turns content consumption into an active choice rather than a passive habit. This shift drains the power of distraction… because you choose to opt out of consuming BEFORE you see what the content is. 

I tweaked Youtube and Medium to ask before they show content:

Additional content and suggestions are shown only when you ask for it
The modified landing page for medium.com. This way, if you go to medium.com to write an article, you no longer have to see a feed of interesting articles to read before you get to the writing editor.

You can try out this Chrome extension here. Will be adding more sites soon. If you have any suggestions / requests, feel free to contact me.

Further Work and Exploration

  • Study more sites and gather patterns to make this approach more robust. Website usage follows a power law such that tackling the top 10–20 content platforms should cover most content consumption. 
  • Work on more features (e.g. make infinite feeds finite).
  • Anti-Growth hack mobile: Tackling mobile is important since most content is consumed on smartphones. But the nature of mobile makes it difficult to change how you interact with an application. [4]
  • Re-think mobile design to maximize utility and minimize distraction.

The internet is powerful. I’ve learned most of my skills by learning from the best, through the internet. At the same time, there are issues: 

  • False information.
  • Opinion bubbles: It’s easy for me to fall into circles where my opinions of the world aren’t challenged, making my mental model of the world further from reality. 
  • Noise: Takes effort to feed my mind high value content. 

With food, we’ve seen a massive increase in demand towards healthier options. This came after decades of consuming highly addictive junk food products that led to an obesity epidemic around the world. 

I believe that we consume too much bullshit content in a way that is unhealthy for our minds. We’ll see increased demand for better content and tools to help us navigate content in a healthier way. 

Let’s talk about what that healthy could look like.

Discussion on HN: 

Feel free to reach out directly.

Here’s the Chrome extension again.

References

[2] By points I mean any sort of reputation: Karma, likes, etc.

[3] In fact, in Uber’s case, I would think there’s a negative correlation between the time I spend in their app and how likely I am to hail a ride. Even better. An interesting Uber experience would be to show recommendations of places I could go to that have events… and then conveniently show me how much it would cost to go and come back. This would align with their incentive to 

[4] There are some ways around the main obstacles in mobile that I’ll cover in another post.

Notes