We Are Friction


This talk was given at Lovebytes on the 12 Feb 2010.  Thanks to Lisa for the invitation.

Tom Armitage gave a talk a few years ago about manners and etiquette which has stayed with me and which, with the recent meme around playfulness and Russell’s talk at Playful last year, got me thinking about how we ‘design’ engagement.  I want to argue that ‘social’ as it’s conceived by people designing a lot of web applications and services isn’t very helpful and I want to suggest through a series of half baked thoughts, that we think of it differently, in terms of friction.


This is a very broad question and somewhat meaningless, in that people think of the social in lots of different ways I’m sure.  But it’s a word that’s used a lot to describe what we do and what we design.  So it might be useful to have some common ground. From my work social is that which deals with generally accepted norms of behaviour, a coming together of behaviours; patterns.

And behaviours change.  You can go from a football loving student to…


… an ageing  biker dude and in the process see your behaviour and outlook change.  But it’s not just relationships and behavioural norms that ‘social’ encompasses.  Technology is central to our behaviour which is just as well because that’s what we design and play with, right?  I don’t mean technology as anything with a plug, but the codes, signs, materials, that enable effects and enable us to behave as we do.  Bruno Latour is probably the person I’ve found to be most influential on my own view of social, where the social is made up of more or less durable networks of things and these networks ebb and flow (much like the notion of desire in the work of Deleuze) and power and agency are effects of these networks, rather than networks being the effect of will or agency on the part of the individual. It’s a compelling argument, though not always a comfortable one with humanism still a dominant belief in the West.  My notion of friction draws on the notion of the relationships between things emanating out of Latour’s work..


Anyway, I digress (which I do a lot).

Back to social and what it means to be social online.  A lot of this is, I believe, down to accepting the ‘norms’ of behaviour we take for granted.  And those are bound up in manners and etiquette.  Increasingly web apps, services and sites understand that manners and etiquette matter and we’re building good manners into what we make.

The poster child for a lot of development in social manners has to be flickr.  It pioneered a friendly and more nuanced approach to how it dealt with its audience that we now see replicated in lots of web services. The “hello” in different languages is still polite and thoughtful…


Another, more recent example from a smashing man selling lovely newspapers, is this screen where you’re deposited after buying one of his newspapers.  It’s very thoughtful, and playful.  And a lot of retail folk could learn from this thought rather than presenting yet more ‘related products’ back to you.


So increasingly web apps are understanding the control, communications and context required to foster stronger ties with the audience and build trust.  In the talk I reference Google Buzz as one example of a service that had got this right (but I’d failed to see the privacy backlash occurring in the last 12hours before I talked), where the more granular control over ‘publicness’ of content was a welcome development over the blanket public / private profile that twitter offers.  But I like the thought that went into Buzz if not the execution, particularly the greater visibility afforded friends of friends (which should go hand in hand with the ability for you not to be seen as a friend of a friend, doh!).

However, I still think that Buzz represents a means through which to break out of the address book paradigm that most social web apps and phone companies end up perpetuating.


And this is important because research we’ve done shows that teenage peer groups are
relatively impervious; there is little osmosis.  The peer groups are grounded in offline
networks anwith them…

And this is important because research we’ve done shows that teenage peer groups are relatively impervious; there is little osmosis.  Online peer groups closely mirror offline networks and yet whilst our peer networks evolve the design of online social networks is relatively static.  Once a friend or contact, always a friend or contact, barring some cat fight or major faux pas.


We see a rather clumsy acceptance of our changing relationships in this Facebook notification, which is polite and pleasant, gently suggesting that I’ve not been very communicative with Louise and I should “catch up” but it doesn’t give me a ‘hook’ around which to start the conversation (such as her recent status update).  It might be more engaging to say…


You know, just being a bit more direct.  Now, this isn’t particularly polite and I’m not sure guilt is the best place to start in fostering a friendship, and it could well be that I’ve just been away for a while, or perhaps I communicate with Louise regularly in some other context, but the simple thought remains: relationships evolve and we’re not doing much to reflect that with what we build.


I’m thinking that we should perhaps build in a half-life to relationships, like we develop character ‘engines’ in games.  Because some relationships do decay don’t they?  Some ebb and flow.  Perhaps we should create a sort of transparency over their avatar around some basic algorithm for relationships, like frequency of contact, type of contact etc.


Anyway, I digress. So, with the exception of Teenage Boys we don’t mix well.  Many teenage boys over the age of sixteen (and er, some social ‘outliers’) are willing to risk the embarrassment and awkwardness of contacting and introducing themselves to strangers in the context of social networks for the potential reward it offers.  You know.  From research we’ve done we also see that playing platform games with strangers online also increases boys social confidence (and it is primarily boys that play online with strangers).


What was interesting about this research was how the boy’s forward-ness caused friction amongst girls in the peer group. They’d discuss and debate this boy – class, taste, values, looks, communication.  He’d be a “play thing”, virtually tossed around and tested.  The unintended consequence was that the girls talked a lot more; he was their ‘social object’, if only temporarily.


If you’re not a teenage boy then the only time you’re likely to extend your network and mix is on joining School, Uni, getting a new job, travelling or going clubbing.  These are the touchpoints for mixing and engaging with strangers, when we are receptive to new patterns, new behaviours, new ways of doing things. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our social networks are now more stratified and impervious than ever (no, not necessarily the well educated geek community, I’m talking more generally).

So, what’s the value of mixing, of having more varied peer groups and communities? Well, there’s the possibility of better recommendations, greater serendipity, and of being more tolerant and understanding (and there must be other less worthy and more fun stuff too).


I’ve mentioned mixing between peer groups and communities being very limited but there’s far far more fluidity within peer groups.   Relationship status changes very frequently, especially amongst younger people (we grow more tolerant and more risk averse as we age). Amongst a study of instant messenger we found that girls especially have quite sophisticated category systems (taxonomies) for representing their relationships with others.  They change daily, as “cute boys” become “bleurgh” and “BF” (best friend) changes to “bitch”.  Whilst this seems extreme, it’s just a more explicit and amplified representation of the way our own relationships evolve and change.


But this fluidity isn’t represented in the way we manage relationships online.  There’s little negotiation.  These are “auto-friends” or “auto-contacts”.  Plugged in.  Always there.  The address book paradigm again.

Designing in friction and negotiation may not be something you’d want in spaces with high rules and norms. For example banks.  It’s not going to work well for traditional banks, or even market lending sites like Zopa. It’s just a bit wrong. Ecommerce sites may also be unsuitable… the product to checkout process flow is sacrosanct. But in creating new services for our internet enabled world of things, we’ve got an opportunity create better relationships and interactions and some of this thinking has about friction in the urban context has already been documented by Nico Nova, amongst others.

Where do we look for examples of friction, negotiation and playfulness that could act as stimulus for designing better services?


Folksy is an offshoot from Rattle (the company I work for). It’s a craft marketplace.  One of the unintended consequences of allowing lots of people to come together is that they choose what they want to do and in the last week they’ve been doing a swap, a like a secret santa, only around Valentines and mainly female to female.  I’m not sure there was any underlying reason other than surprise, serendipity, group reciprocity and being pleasant.   This type of thing builds trust in behaviours and communities. Surrendering control. Good Friction.


Taking this idea of surrendering control into more intimate zones, and rather than try and make recommendations, just use ‘fuzzy’ recommendations of others to state the obvious.  Wouldn’t this be so much more interesting than just seeing who was watching what?  You’d have some room for negotiation, for engaging.


I’m sure you’ve seen tweenbots. Alien-ness, getting lost and asking for help:  “Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal. […] As each encounter with a helpful pedestrian takes the robot one step closer to attaining its destination, the significance of our random discoveries and individual actions accumulates into a story about a vast space made small by an even smaller robot.”  Fab.


Clifford Nass from Stanford Uni has found that when things appear to behave in even slightly human ways, we assume they are human-like.  So, when we know something is a dog, we know it’s a dog.  When we see something that isn’t from a species we know about but it exhibits some human trait, moving for example, or has a rudimentary face, we’re polite.  We have manners!

Disorientating people and networks has all sorts of benefits, as any fan of JG Ballard will be aware, and it could take many forms, but exposing relationships to being reliant on others to complete a task is really interesting.  What would we be willing to do that for?


I want to suggest that humans actually just like dumb stuff more than clever stuff (the paperclip!) for lots of reasons but mainly because it gives us a point of negotiation, we can project, we can imagine.  The implication here is that the mechanism that drives engagement and friction can be dumb, like the cardboard ‘robot’.


Some relationships are really brief and seemingly inconsequential. But they’re actually really quite significant in providing a sense of the social, of the community and of norms of behaviour.  We come up against people and things every day. They offer points of friction. I know that the waitress in my local cafe knows my name.  I also know she’s unlikely to ever be my friend. That’s OK. Ephemeral relationships offer the chance to engage with people without any expectation of it having to progress.  What can we do with this?  Perhaps place specific contacts then become significant, bounded by near field technologies or other boundary defining tech?

The queue offers a similar offline example of friction.  Queueing is interesting because of the manners, the explicit sense of politeness that it signifies.  It’s also bloody annoying.  But it offers the chance to have conversations with other people and we can glean as much intimate information from a stranger in 15 mins as from a friend in 15 years.


Of the back of that, we build up a knowledge of others’ by seeing their patterns.  Of the people I know quite well (i.e. I communicate with fairly frequently) I know where they will be, at least city they’ll be in.  So my consumption of Dopplr is laregly about confirming what I already know. How could we introduce friction here?  How could we create negotiation and engagement from this?  For example, try and ascertain where your friends will be going next, see how existing patterns of behaviour are replicated going forward.


This is an experiment in engineering engagement. A team of artists created LED gender signs on the bathrooms of a bar and changed the signs over frequently.  It created socially awkward situations, a reason to talk, a reason to engage with someone.

It’s quite radical and only suitable for a context that is already quite playful (the bar), but nonetheless disorientating people could create some interesting forms of engagement.


And this is the “obligatory diagram” to create a scene of pseudo scientific endeavour… I feel like Charlie Brooker.

A lot of the examples I’ve just pointed to are not necessarily appropriate, they’re just cues, but you get the idea of how you can start to think about friction as the basis for ‘social’, about how you can start to question existing patterns of behaviour, and play with our manners and our etiquette.




  1. Hi Alex,
    The fabric ref seems to be about the social graph and representing that well, which is cool. But the notion of friction as I’ve tried to articulate it here is about creating forms of negotiation, to design engagement between rather than just represent their relationships. Make sense?

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