And skepticism over anti-social media social media
QUICK ONE: DIDN’T HAVE TIME FOR READ TIME, BUT IT’S PROBABLY 3 MINUTES. TYPOS MAY ABOUND.
Hello Sternal Journalists,
In the January 16th issue of the SternJourn, I opined on the then-new puzzle bonanza Wordle as a refreshing counterpoint to the Instagrams, Twitters, Metaverse of it all. A thing that valued scarcity above endless scroll. I said:
Wordle, in short, goes out of its way to not monopolize your attention, so that you are forced to go out and have real memories in the real world. And that’s what anyone trying to build something should aspire to.
But now I’m returning to the subject with a healthy dose of skepticism and a light dusting of “Iiii dunno if I knew what I was talking about.”
First, this is because I’ve spent four months now in the world of Wordle. I’ve felt the anxiety of not having done the Wordle of the day, or worse—having to share with my various Wordle groupchats the occasional whiff, a couple grays still on that bottom floor. I’ve also felt the nagging urgency of needing to finish it so that the groups could share their starter words, their near aces, and so on and so on.
And of course I also saw the myriad Wordle-inspired or Wordle-knocked-off games (Wordle, Quordle, Tetraduordle or whatever it’s called—the one where you’re playing 36 Wordles at once) making it so that someone could be playing Wordle-style games all day every single day, and do it all over again at midnight.
Basically, I realized that this idea that Wordle would not monopolize my attention was fatally flawed. This is of course not to say that it was intended to monopolize my attention the same way Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are. On the contrary, I do believe that Josh Wardle actually did his best to avoid that. That’s where the one-a-day came in. But what watching and experiencing the evolution of Wordle as a cultural moment has taught me—or has momentarily convinced me—is that it’s not possible to develop an app that brings your attention to your phone and keeps your attention off your phone. That might seem obvious when put that way, but I was certainly burned with Wordle.
And that’s why I’m not totally biting on BeReal. BeReal, if you haven’t heard of it, is a photo app that only allows one post a day, but it’s at a random time determined by the app, and you have two minutes to post, and it takes pictures with your front- and rear-facing cameras. You can’t upload, so you really have to post a picture of whatever it is you’re doing in that very moment as well as however it is you look.
I love the idea and I get the sentiment. You are still connecting to the people you want to connect with, but you’re getting to do it in a much less curated and theoretically less anxious way.
But I say theoretically because, even though BeReal eliminates the ability to give one’s life the Instagram sheen, and in the same way Wordle does adds a level of once-per-day scarcity, it not only doesn’t remove but actually amplifies the urgency we feel at times when engaging with our phones.
And that behavioral tick, the need to respond to a push notification, has awful, awful consequences across all other things we do with our phones. Who among us isn’t currently trying to unlearn the need to immediately respond to texts or e-mails. Or more complicatedly, the need to post something profound or emotional in the wake of a public tragedy?
And again, I don’t think the people at BeReal had ulterior motives. I’m just starting to think that the anti-Instagram, the mental health-friendly social media alternative, or however else these attempts at happiness are being billed—can not fulfill their promises and have anything to do with our phones.
Anyway, those are my thoughts for today! I’m out of pocket at a wedding that is starting in 3 minutes so I gotta go, but I have a show this Tuesday at The Improv and recommend (despite everything I said) this Questlove profile of Josh Wardle for Time’s 100 interesting people or whatever it’s called.
Sending as much love as I can right now!