People avoid friction because it’s work they’d prefer not to do. Luckily for us, the internet eliminates friction. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit succeed because they are the best at doing it. They make it easy to join, consume, and engage. Through eliminating friction, they reach their goals of user growth, content consumption, and engagement. Realize that these are their goals, not yours. Your goals likely require more friction, because the “popular” internet is not optimized for your goals.
Better spaces exist if your goals are learning something new, connecting with people, growing your career, or talking about interests. The spaces are higher friction communities on smaller platforms like Discord, Circle.so, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Upstream, Substack, Forem, and many other special-built community sites. They exist behind paywalls, invitations, subscriptions, events, and paid content. This is friction we don’t normally go through.
People expect low friction and constantly move towards it. An example of this is TikTok. It shows that even YouTube has too much friction. TikTok removed the friction of choice by showing you an endless feed of videos tailored to you. It proves endless frictionless entertainment is there if you want it. If you have different goals, higher friction communities are the way to go.
Higher friction creates smaller communities. These communities are better aligned with positive outcomes for their members. They trade smaller membership for a higher quality of interactions. By overcoming friction, members have skin in the game. They paid the required “price” to join the community and are better aligned with the incentives of the group. They want a higher return on investment for energy spent joining and staying a part of the community. Those who get through are more serious, engaged, and knowledgeable.
When compared to internet communities, many popular in-person communities have high friction. They require consistent attendance, thinking, engagement with people, and sacrifice of resources to the community. Examples include universities, volunteer organizations, meetups, social clubs, local politics, and team sports. In-person communities were key parts of people’s lives, but are fading in importance (especially with restricted in-person interaction). If internet communities are to be as important, they must mimic the increased amount of friction.
To increase the amount of friction, people and communities must move away from the lowest friction platforms. Big social media platforms will never want higher friction because it means fewer users, less attention, and fewer ads that can be shown. Higher friction communities must develop on different platforms, and people must go through the effort of finding and contributing to them.
Content on the internet offers an example to follow. The move from print to digital has long caused a decrease in friction. Many areas in content are now seeing a rebound in friction. Both companies (e.g. The New York Times) and platforms (e.g. Substack) are moving away from maximizing reach and monetizing with ads towards content behind paywalls. The creators of content are finding increased friction better aligns with their goals and the goals of their audience. Communities will find the same.
Internet creators will be key early adopters of higher friction communities. Many of the communities they appeal to exist on these low friction platforms. Creators face a growing choice between spending time creating content for maximum reach or using it to build communities. Although building for communities limits the number of people seeing content, it increases engagement and affinity with their audience. If creators build on higher friction communities, their audiences won’t be far behind. This has knock-on effects on related communities.
The communities you belong to on low friction platforms exist on higher friction ones, but they require more work. Your move towards higher friction communities will benefit them, as well as yourself. Higher friction communities are more focused and likely better align with your goals. The large, low friction platforms we spend our time on have the goal of keeping us there. If we (ourselves and our communities) want to prioritize other goals, we must explore and move away. When we do, we’ll find many new, unrealized benefits.
Thank you to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Noah Maier, Yishi Zuo, and Stew Fortier.
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