Privacy policies. “Do you want us to send you notifications?” Paywalls. Free trials. “Subscribe to our newsletter!” GDPR notices.

On an increasing number of websites, simply clearing pop-ups and other notifications takes longer than reading the article we came to see. The annoyances began to appear in the early 2010s, when marketers were emphasizing email capture over everything else (include site UX). Then, the EU’s GDPR rules added a whole new layer of clunkiness to site navigation.

This is a bigger problem than just bad UX, however. Reaching in-depth commentary on social, political or business issues becomes more difficult with this kind of friction. Social media, by contrast, offers a nearly frictionless experience. Just open Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat and start scrolling or clicking through stories.

It’s not hard to see how so many people wind up getting their information via social media. Social platforms allow them to see vastly more topics and ideas in a much shorter time when there are no pop-ups, opt-ins or consent forms to click away.

And so in populating websites with an ever-increasing number of distractions, we may have undermined the web’s greatest power: To share knowledge.

How Did We Get Here?

In the early years of this decade, reducing user friction was touted as not only good, but necessary. “If you’re making the consumer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption,” Aaron Levie, CEO and co-founder of Box, wrote in 2012.

The push for frictionless experiences touched off a race to revolutionize a wide range of industries. Businesses that could make existing processes easier found themselves feted by investors and praised by commentators.

The frictionless experience, however, soon led to the realization that the apps and sites users can access easily are also the apps and sites that hackers can access easily.

The result has been an onslaught of security and privacy regulations, including Europe’s GDPR, which in turn led to a vast increase in the number of pop-ups informing visitors about cookie use, asking for their consent to use information for targeted advertising, and similar things, Jack Schofield writes in The Guardian.

The GDPR’s approach to informed consent has made many of these pop-ups essential, Gabe Maldoff writes in an article for the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Pre-ticked boxes, or opt-out models, don’t create the level of engagement that the GDPR requires as an indication of consent.


News and Fake News: The Rise of Social Media as Informative Tool

The increase in pop-ups, due both to the GDPR and to marketing or advertising efforts, has frustrated a number of internet users. As mobile web access has become the norm, pop-ups and similar onscreen demands have made some sites even more difficult to use, says Ben Davis, editor of Econsultancy.

“I’ve even found mobile websites where, presumably due to a bug in this new tech, it is impossible to tap the ‘agree’ or ‘continue’ button and I have been unable to view any content at all,” Davis writes.

Social media sites, however, have largely stayed away from the proliferation of pop-ups, including ads and privacy or security notices. The fact that a social media feed consists of a single, infinitely scrollable page allows visitors to avoid having to click any privacy notice more than once. Instead of dealing with pop-ups, visitors can browse and read to their heart’s content.

It is unsurprising, then, that in 2018 social media outpaced print newspapers as a preferred source of news information for Americans, Elisa Shearer at the Pew Research Center reports.

When Faster Isn’t Better

Social media may make it easier to access news and information, but it doesn’t appear to enhance the quality of that information. In a March 2018 study published in Science, MIT researchers Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral tracked 126,000 rumors spread on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 in order to better understand how falsehoods gain traction online.

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,” the researchers writes.

The ease by which falsehoods spread on social media can radicalize people. New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci describes one experience in which YouTube’s autoplay feature led quickly from mainstream coverage of 2016 Republican candidates to videos covering right-wing conspiracy theories. Tufekci repeated the experiment with mainstream coverage of other topics, including the 2016 Democratic candidates, vegetarianism and jogging. When YouTube was left to choose the next video, it inevitably brought users to more and more extreme versions of the same topic.

“It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm,” Tufekci writes. “It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes.”

Easier access to social media content encourages us to spend more time on these sites, as well, but that time may be taking a toll on our mental health. A study by Melissa G. Hunt and fellow researchers, published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, found that undergraduates who limited social media use to just 10 minutes per day reported less loneliness and depression than peers who did not limit their time.

A 2017 article by Facebook researchers David Ginsberg and Moira Burke, reviewing literature on social media use and mood, noted that passive use of social media was linked to lower moods and decreased mental health. In other words, simply scrolling through our feeds not only exposes us to more potentially questionable information, but also appears to make us unhappy.


Finding Mu: The Balance Between Friction and Ease of Use

In physics, a coefficient of friction is signified by the Greek letter μ (mu). This value shows the relationship between the force of friction two objects experience and the reaction of those objects in response to the friction.

When it comes to the online experience, setting (metaphorical) μ too low has made social media simple to use, but at the cost of an increasing amount of disinformation and security risks. Setting it too high, however, makes accessing information so “sticky” that many people abandon the attempt — to their own detriment and that of the site or article they tried to access.

Friction May Make Us Happier

Ginsberg and Burke at Facebook also found that when people actively engaged with social media, by commenting and clicking links, they did not tend to report worse moods. While a frictionless experience was intended to make our online sojourns easier, it appears that the friction created by our interaction with systems may actually make us happier.

Friction within a content channel, as well as between users and content, can also lead to better decision-making and ultimately more satisfying content, says Ezra Klein, editor at large and founder of Vox.

“I believe that one reason podcasts have exploded is that they carry so much friction: They’re long and messy, they often take weeks or months to produce, they’re hard to clip and share and skim — and as a result, they’re calmer, more human, more judicious, less crazy-making,” Klein writes. The work required both to make and to access podcasts generates friction, and that friction appears to enhance the experience.

How (Some) Friction Makes Us More Secure

“The Internet’s lack of friction made it great, but now our devotion to minimizing friction is perhaps the Internet’s weakest link for security,” says Justin Kosslyn, longtime head of product management at Jigsaw and now head of care delivery product at Cityblock Health. While frictionless experiences can save time and effort, they have also made it easier for phishing, ransomware and disinformation to spread.

Kosslyn recommends several guidelines for determining when content needs to be frictionless. For instance, urgent, local content may benefit from a frictionless environment, but automated systems should not be allowed to scale themselves without human intervention, says Kosslyn.

“In each case, friction will be rejected by users if it impedes their goals,” says Kosslyn. “However, it is possible for friction to be a win for everybody.”

Even social media appear to be embracing friction in the name of security. In August 2018, Instagram announced that it would soon require two-factor authentication for all logins, says Stephanie Chan, editorial and video producer for Cisco’s The Network.

The goal is to find the right kind of friction. Innumerable pop-ups aren’t the answer, but an environment that encourages slower creation and consumption of the content itself may lead to better information, clearer understanding and improved human communication.

Images by: Antonio Guillem/©, Mark Bowden/©, imtmphoto/©