Former Couchsurfing exec Joe Edelman, who coined the phrase ‘Time Well Spent,’ talks to Moneyish about why Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat need to do a better job of reflecting human values
Most of our time on the internet just isn’t well spent.
That’s according to Joe Edelman, Couchsurfing’s former chief technology officer and a leading thinker on how we use the internet. And the man who claims to have coined the now buzzy phrase “Time Well Spent” in 2013, is far from alone. Activist investors Jana Partners recently called on Apple Inc. to be more responsive to youth phone addiction, while Facebook also just redesigned its newsfeed amid a torrent of criticism about its enabling of so-called Fake News.
Edelman, who was educated at Dartmouth and once trained Buddhist monks in the Dalai Lama’s monastery, doesn’t have an app to make those woes go away. But in two well-received essays recently published on Medium, he makes the case for how a better internet can be constructed. The gist of his argument is that social media platforms have been designed so that people engage with them as much as possible, but this has spawned a culture where values we prize in real-life, like vulnerability and honesty, aren’t rewarded. In their absence, toxic values rise.
Just think about how unedited image posted on Instagram often gets less likes than one that’s had a filter run over it, or how someone making an earnest comment that doesn’t jive with the Internet hive mind is often abused. Off screen, there’s more leeway: a comment you make sparks off a conversation in which there’s give and take. “If you listen to two people talking, they change topics constantly. There’s no sign” prohibiting you from changing the topic, Edelman tells Moneyish.
By contrast, social media has constrained us to a one size fits all model. Consider how a Facebook comment thread— the primary interaction form on that platform — is built. “You have a top post that’s often a question or link and you’re stuck with it,” he says, noting that such thread replies are often insincere, sometimes witty one-liners that eventually kill off a conversation. “If you have a depressed friend, how do you ask if she’s ok? Do you tag her or comment on something she said? You don’t do any of that” on social media, he adds.
User choice is further constrained since these platforms are so huge—Facebook has over 2 billion active monthly users; Twitter about 330 million—that it’s hard to avoid them. “People have to socialize where their friends are, even if it means hanging in terrible places,” says Edelman, who now lives in Berlin and spends his time researching internet user design.
There’s some indication that we are turning to private group chats over social media due to frustration with these platforms. Facebook’s WhatsApp messenger has over 1.3 billion monthly active years, up from just 600 million in 2014. Gen Zers, the first generation to grow up with social media, are particularly fond of 21st century AOL Messenger replicas like GroupMe.
“They are a better place to experiment with who you are, but worse places to discover new people,” Edelman says. “If you’re a suburban trans kid, it’s hard to connect with your [LGBTQ] peers if they’re in a private chat. That’s the benefit of public media, though it’s too bad that once you connect, you’re in a forum that has all these problems.”
For his part, Edelman wants social media giants—his first Medium essay was an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—to focus on designing their apps with the metric of making it easier for us to share important values. He thinks a good example is Wikipedia, which was built with the express goal of nurturing curiosity. “Wikipedia is in accord with our values since people want to learn,” he says. “The other basic activities of life basically don’t happen through it.”
Technological development may help. For instance, gestural interfaces which take into account our body language, key to human communication but completely neglected online, could shape how social media platforms are designed in the future. Audio platforms are also more explicitly friendly to a conversation than the status quo—though Edelman doesn’t think Amazon Alexa or Google Home are particularly successful right now.
“There are metaphors that underlie our use of technology. With visual interfaces, we use the phrase ‘navigate the web’ which suggests you’re walking around lost in some infinite landscape,” he says. “The metaphor for audio interfaces is conversation. You can get lost in conversations, but you’re never far from home.”
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