How social media overhauls are manipulating us
Last Wednesday afternoon, Twitter users who opened the website or smartphone app discovered a new font in the platform’s interface. Called Chirp, it was more organic and less geometric than its predecessor, with more elaborate flourishes, including a tiny, curved “G” reminiscent of handwriting on a chalkboard. Other elements of Twitter’s design had changed as well, including the coloring of the all-important follow button: previously the button would darken if you were following someone; now it’s darkened if you haven’t. These changes may seem minor, but for regular Twitter users, the effect was not subtle. Unhappy tweets flocked: the denser appearance of the font made it more difficult to distinguish, especially on the small screen of a mobile device; the switcheroo follow button made it easy to accidentally unsubscribe from people you wanted to follow. When I opened the app I felt like someone had rearranged the furniture in my living room while I was sleeping. My muscle memory no longer applied. I had lost spatial awareness in my busiest digital space.
This sense of sudden digital disorientation has become more and more familiar lately. Social media and streaming applications are constantly changing aspects of their “user experience”, which includes the design of digital interfaces, to push users towards new functionality. Instagram is perhaps the most dramatic example. The button at the bottom center of the app’s screen, the easiest to reach for a thumb, was once the one that allowed users to post a new image. About a year ago, it morphed into a button that opens the window for Instagram Reels, the app’s shortened video feature, which was supposed to rival TikTok. These changes were confusing enough that the platform added design cues to help guide users through them: when I recently accidentally hit the Reels button and then quickly closed it, a alert popped up informing me that I can now “Create messages from the top of the home tab.” Like the recent changes in Twitter, these might seem like a minor inconvenience – you just need to move your thumb to another location and your reflexes will adjust in a matter of weeks. But the redesign reflected a shift in the company’s priorities. Posting images to show your friends was no longer Instagram’s primary focus, the updated layout involved; consuming video content from strangers was the new name of the game.
Directly to the right of the Reels button is now the storefront, which features algorithmically recommended products for sale and a few items that include buy buttons for brands or products featured on accounts you follow, as if each image was a showcase. This transition to e-commerce might be useful for some users – and more profitable for Instagram 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, whether it be a breakfast platter or a sunset. Now it looks more and more like Facebook, a hub of advertising, binge, buy and sell. (Of course, Instagram’s addition of Stories in 2016 to compete with Snapchat also overhauled the app, but in a way more in keeping with its original design.)
Business priorities are constantly changing: over the years, Instagram has taught us to become obsessed with the same accounts on pictures; the number of new likes appeared every time you open the app. But, in recent years, likes have been devalued, the exact numbers even hidden at times, in an attempt to make the social network less competitive. Users can now choose to hide likes entirely, a change that can indeed lessen the feeling of pressure. But it also has benefits for the platform, perhaps encouraging people to post more frequently and removing an influencer ability to fake popularity with bot followers.
User interfaces aren’t just about technology or data collection; they determine our relationship to the types of crops we consume through apps. A change in the design of Instagram influences the way we store photo albums; a change in the influences of Twitter on the way we access news. A change in the design of Spotify influences the way we interact with the music there, for example, by distorting genres in favor of an automated “Chill Vibes” playlist, as the writer Liz observed. Pelly. In March, Spotify updated the interface for its desktop app, the version I use most often. The goal was to remove the clutter, but I found that I could no longer click once to go directly to the albums I had saved; instead, I had to click on a Your Library tab, which loads a playlists window, and then only offers options for podcasts, artists, and albums, in that order. The change is encouraging users to turn to playlists, which is no coincidence, the type of experience a business can control by offering its own curated feeds. It’s no surprise that podcasts are the second most important option, given Spotify’s acquisitions of podcast producers Gimlet and the Ringer. During this time, musicians or albums that a user has chosen for herself have been put aside. Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek recently said the changes were aimed at “making you a much better curator, even for yourself.” In reality, the app encourages passive listening rather than conscious selection.
In 2010, user experience designer Harry Brignull coined the term ‘dark patterns’ to describe’ the tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things you didn’t intend to do, like buying or subscribing to something ”. Maybe the “confirm” and “cancel” buttons suddenly change places, or you’re automatically subscribed to a newsletter unless you click to unsubscribe: “No, I don’t want the latest news. Changes to Twitter, Instagram and Spotify are also dark models. Companies present changes as ways to reduce “friction” for the user, but they often steer us towards the most convenient or monetizable option for the business. What makes the changes most disturbing is that there is no public record of what happens when; as soon as an app is updated, the old familiar interface is erased from view. More often than not, the obsolete version can no longer be accessed because a vintage video game system can be plugged into a new TV, without elaborate digital tricks. Our memories of what the app was are paved with the new. Maybe that’s why our first Instagram images – in my case filtered photos of a mundane breakfast or multiple scenes from a single event – now seem almost foreign, like an old bundle of photos. family taken with a film camera. Is it possible to be nostalgic for the older 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 riddle reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library”, in which he recounts removing his books from storage boxes and rearranging them on shelves. As he goes through the very physical process, he remembers where the books come from and what they symbolize for him, knowledge either obtained or aspirated. “Property is the most intimate relationship one can have with objects,” wrote Benjamin. “Not that they come to life in him; it is he who inhabits them. In other words, we find our identities in the cultural artifacts that we keep around us. But, when interfaces keep changing based on incentives to benefit big tech companies, it’s hard to feel that the things we publish and collect in our digital spaces really belong to us.