Recently, Rob Beschizza—a coder and the managing editor of Boing Boing—released a stripped-down blogging tool called txt.fyi. Write something, hit Publish, and voilà: your deathless prose, online.
But here’s the thing: txt.fyi has no social mechanics. None. No Like button, no Share button, no comments. No feed showing which posts are most popular. Each post has a tag telling search engines not to index it, so it won’t even show up on Google. The only way anyone will see it is if you send them the URL or post it somewhere. txt.fyi is a tool for putting stuff online—but without the usual features to help something become a pass-around hit.
I call it antiviral design. Most platforms work in precisely the opposite fashion. They’re casinos of quantification, designed to constantly tell us what’s blowing up and what isn’t. We peer at our feeble posts on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn and pray for likes, for hearts, for a big-smile emoji. Our attention is magnetically drawn to anything with a huge “share” number beneath it—what psychologists call the social proof: If lots of people are paying attention to something, we figure it’s worth our notice too.
This lust for virality deforms how we think in public. What do you get if you mentally focus-group every utterance before you post it? Stuff that’s panderingly dull (best not to offend anyone) or that leans into the kabuki hysteria of a sick burn (offend everyone!). Posts designed specifically to hack the attentional marketplace.
With txt.fyi, Beschizza was trying to playfully push back. “I wanted something where people could publish their thoughts without any false game of social manipulation, one-upmanship, and favor-trading,” he says. This is what I found so interesting about his creation. Its antivirality doesn’t necessarily prevent a post from becoming wildly popular. (A txt.fyi URL shared on, say, Facebook could perhaps go viral.) But its design favors messages to someone, not everyone.
So, does antivirality actually affect what people do and say? Beschizza isn’t sure. Out of pro-privacy principle, he doesn’t regularly look at the logs of his service. But once, during some debugging, Beschizza discovered someone using txt.fyi to write letters to a deceased relative. It was touching and weirdly human, precisely the sort of unconventional expression we used to see a lot more of online. But today we sand down those rough edges, those barbaric yawps, in the quest for social spread. Even if you don’t want to share something, Medium or Tumblr or Snapchat tries to make you. They have the will to virality baked in.
When you think about it, the very metaphor of “going viral” suggests bleak side effects. In the physical world, it means an infectious payload spreading uncontrollably. Smallpox, Ebola, avian flu: super viral content, dude! Reframe “virality” like that and you start to understand the emergence of white supremacy online or the hot-zone dog-piling of Gamergate. If social networks are to eliminate hate on their platforms, they’ll have to fight the exquisitely gameable mechanics of virality they themselves built.
Now for the caveats. As Beschizza admits, txt.fyi is just a tiny experiment. (There are a few others like it, including SaidSo.me.) It’s hard to make a service like this go big, because you can’t easily make ad money on an un-metricked platform. And hey, there are healthy, nontoxic reasons we’re interested in what’s popular online: Some great social good (like Black Lives Matter) has relied on the viral spread of online posts.
Nonetheless, I’d love to see some of Beschizza’s principles injected into our social media ecosystem. A bit of antivirality could be precisely the inoculation against extremism that our culture needs.
This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.
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