Social-media companies present interface changes, such as Twitter’s new Chirp font, as ways to reduce “friction” for the user.Source: Twitter
Last Wednesday, in the early afternoon, Twitter users who opened the Web site or the smartphone app discovered a new font across the platform’s interface. Called Chirp, it was more organic and less geometric than its predecessor, with more elaborate flourishes, including a curvy lowercase “G” reminiscent of handwriting on a chalkboard. Other elements of Twitter’s design had changed, too, including the coloring of the all-important follow button: before, the button darkened if you followed someone; now it darkened if you didn’t. These might seem like minor changes, but for regular Twitter users the effect was not subtle. Disgruntled tweets flooded in: the font’s denser appearance made it harder to make out clearly, especially on the small screen of a mobile device; the follow-button switcheroo made it easy to accidentally unfollow people you meant to follow. When I opened the app, I felt like someone had rearranged the furniture in my living room while I was asleep. My muscle memory no longer applied. I’d lost spatial awareness in my most frequented digital space.
That sense of sudden digital disorientation has become increasingly familiar as of late. Social-media and streaming apps constantly change aspects of their “user experience,” which includes digital-interface design, to push users toward new features. Instagram is perhaps the most dramatic example. The button at the bottom center of the app screen—the easiest for a thumb to reach—used to be the one that enabled users to post a new image. Around a year ago, it changed to a button that opens the window for Instagram Reels, the app’s short-form-video feature, which was meant to compete with TikTok. These changes were confusing enough that the platform added design elements to help guide users through them: when I recently tapped the Reels button by accident and then quickly closed it, an alert popped up to inform me that I can now “Create posts from the top of the home tab.” Like Twitter’s recent changes, these may seem like minor inconvenience—you just have to move your thumb to a different place, and your reflexes will adapt in a matter of weeks. But the revamp reflected a shift in the company’s priorities. Posting images to show your friends was no longer the primary purpose of Instagram, the updated layout implied; consuming the video content of strangers was the new name of the game.
Directly to the right of the Reels button is now the Shop window, featuring algorithmically recommended products for sale and a few posts that include buy buttons for the brands or products featured on accounts that you follow, as if every image were a storefront. This move into e-commerce might be useful for some users—and more profitable for Instagram’s owner, Facebook—but it’s not what made the platform popular over the past decade. Instagram used to feel intimate; it was a space to document and annotate life’s mundane but beautiful experiences, be it a breakfast platter or a sunset. Now it feels increasingly like Facebook, a hub of advertising, binge-watching, buying, and selling. (Of course, Instagram’s addition of Stories, in 2016, meant to compete with Snapchat, also overhauled the app, but in a way that felt more in keeping with its original conception.)
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Corporate priorities are always shifting: over the years, Instagram taught us to become obsessed with like counts on images; the number of new likes popped up each time you opened the app. But, in the past few years, likes have been deëmphasized, the exact numbers even hidden at points, in an effort to make the social network feel less competitive. Users can now choose to hide likes entirely, a change that may indeed decrease the sense of pressure. But it also has advantages for the platform, perhaps encouraging people to post more frequently and removing an influencer’s ability to fake popularity with bot followers.
User interfaces aren’t just about technology or data gathering; they mediate how we relate to the kinds of culture that we consume through apps. A change to Instagram’s design influences how we keep photo albums; a change to Twitter’s influences how we access news. A change to Spotify’s design influences how we interact with the music there—for example, denaturing genres in favor of an automated “Chill Vibes” playlist, as the writer Liz Pelly has observed. In March, Spotify updated the interface of its desktop app, the version that I use most often. The goal was to remove clutter, but I found that I could no longer click once to get directly to the albums that I had saved; instead, I had to click to a Your Library tab, which loads a Playlists window, and only then gives options for Podcasts, Artists, and Albums, in that order. The change encourages users to gravitate toward playlists—not coincidentally, the type of experience that the company can control, by offering its own curated streams. It’s not surprising that podcasts are the next most prominent option, given Spotify’s acquisitions of the podcast producers Gimlet and the Ringer. Meanwhile, the musicians or albums that a user has chosen for herself have been pushed aside. Spotify’s co-founder and C.E.O., Daniel Ek, recently said that the changes were about “enabling you to be a much better curator even for yourself.” In reality, the app is encouraging passive listening over conscious selection.
In 2010, the user-experience designer Harry Brignull coined the term “dark patterns” to describe “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.” Maybe “confirm” and “cancel” buttons suddenly switch places, or you’re automatically subscribed to a newsletter unless you click to opt out: “No, I don’t want the latest news.” The changes to Twitter, Instagram, and Spotify are dark patterns of a sort, too. The companies present the changes as ways to reduce “friction” for the user, but they often route us toward the most convenient or monetizable option for the business. What makes the changes most troubling is that there is no public record of which ones happen when; as soon as an app updates, the old, familiar interface is erased from view. Most often, one can no longer access the outdated version, as one might plug a vintage video-game system into a new television, without elaborate digital tricks. Our memories of what the app used to be like are paved over by the new. Perhaps that’s why our earliest Instagram images—in my case, filtered photos of an unremarkable breakfast or multiple scenes from a single event—look almost alien now, like an old packet of family photos taken on a film camera. Is it possible to be nostalgic for the earlier version of a social-media interface? No matter how often we use these platforms or how much we rely on them, we have no control over when they will change and what will be different.
This conundrum makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library,” from 1931, in which he recounts removing his books from storage boxes and rearranging them on shelves. As he goes through the very physical process, he recalls where the books came from and what they symbolize to him, knowledge either obtained or aspired to. “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,” Benjamin wrote. “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” In other words, we find our identities in the artifacts of the culture that we keep around us. But, when interfaces keep changing according to the profit incentives of vast technology corporations, it’s hard to feel that the things we publish and collect in our digital spaces really belong to us.
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