Aug 23, 2019 • 18M

Towards Subtractive Social Media

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Thinking out loud about the future of the world, as shaped by technological serendipity
Episode details

This week’s podcast episode is on an idea I call subtractive social media. I didn’t do a transcript, just a few bullet point notes. The workflow for creating usable transcripts is still just too cumbersome. I’m going to be lazy and slouch along posting these low-production effort single-take things with just a few summary notes for the text part, until a better native playflow for transcripts is available here on Substack.

This episode, I hit 17.5 minutes. Looks like I’m building up stamina towards finding my eventual natural length.

1/ I tried a week-long experiment on Twitter on my main @vgr account: Protected Tweets. It didn’t go well.

2/ I had various vague ideas behind the experiment, but the overall idea was to try and curate my followers list a little, maybe try to create more of a fun underground atmosphere and keep out the toxic public atmosphere.

3/ It didn’t work because the medium fights such subtractive sculpting efforts. I think of it as social media having a very strong additive bias and a strong bias against subtractive operations.

4/ The set of positive, additive operations you can do on your feed — posting, liking, following is large, rich, powerful, and thoughtfully designed, but the set of negative operations is a wasteland.

5/ The available operations are either nuclear options, like block or mute, or painfully manual. On twitter for example, the only way to force someone to unfollow you without letting them know is to block and immediately unblock. Instagram is slightly better.

6/ In some ways, what I tried to do was craft a healthier response to wanting to curate your digital life than what I’ve criticized as waldenponding: fetishizing offline experiences and having a precious-snowflake anxiety around protecting your psyche.

7/ I still think waldenponding is dumb, and that a full-on, lean-in engagement of social media is the future for most of us. But without subtractive tools, you cannot sculpt the experience very well, and this ultimately hurts the platforms too.

8/ So where do we go from here? In a way the big social media platforms are just exiting an extended land-grab stage that relied on an additive bias, since they were literally creating a new kind of territory: the social graph. But that game is now hitting diminishing returns.

9/ Further land-grabbing is futile because what lies ahead is the desert of alienation, atomization and anomie, where human attention is of little to no value because the terrain is what I like to call scorched minds. The land-grab has hit the attentional Sahara. Vast but inhospitable and infertile.

10/ The focus has to shift from land-grabbing to building on land already created and colonized. This requires subtractive tools for shaping the land. We have to go from building plazas to building warrens.

11/ I’m already seeing small experiments with products designed to facilitate this kind of subtractive design. Tools that balance additive and subtractive affordances.

12/ An early example is Superhuman, which flips the traditional bias towards frictionless onboarding — an additive bias feature designed for land-grabbing — and favors high-friction onboarding with a costly learning curve and a paid product.

13/ Another early example is Mastodon, the federated version of Twitter, with several subtle but clever features designed for a more subtractively shaped experience. If you’re interested in trying out Mastodon, join the instance I run at

14/ But nothing that updates the experiences on big global platforms like Twitter or Facebook has achieved commercial-scale launch readiness yet, let alone product-market fit, but something is brewing.

15/ If you’re game for taking social product design to the next level, I recommend you focus on building out subtractive affordances in balance with additive ones, and framing your vision in terms of building high and deep rather than broad or wide.