📰 all the world's a stage

on alt accounts and communicative friction

I often feel like 2010-era Facebook was social media at its purest.

Jasmine Sun is tired of school
Jasmine Sun is on vacation!!!
Jasmine Sun whos at the mall right now? lets meet upp

To 'cancel' was to flake on plans, brands were for companies, and posts, more often than not, were boring as hell.

We hadn't reached the stage of posting-as-performance. We didn't know that the Internet was forever—that our data could come back to bite us in the form of targeted ads or opposition research. In fact, we socialized online like we did in real life. In-the-moment reactions, emotional discharge, mundane small talk. It was all there.

But our friends lists grew longer and further from the notion of friendship, a phenomenon that Internet scholar danah boyd dubbed "context collapse". We began to filter our words: Is this important enough to post? Will I start an argument? What will people think of me? Social media was not a casual hangout, we realized; it was something entirely different.

Facebook was the first to be abandoned. Today, my News Feed is home to nothing more than memes and milestones. Then, I spent a couple years on Snapchat. Disappearing messages were ideal for ambient awareness, but whew, did I tire of looking at my face. The social pressure of streaks didn't help either: Snapchat remains the most high-school of platforms, ideal for the age of hormones, friend drama, and intense self-obsession. Meanwhile, Instagram originated as a network for amateur photographers, who jazzed up snapshots from their iPhone 4s with a dizzying array of filters. That is, Instagram never pretended to want the truth.

My college years saw the return of Twitter, a platform I'd stopped using around 2016. At first, it was a window into the professional world. More than any career fair, Twitter lent insight into the work of journalists, professors, investors, and product managers. I tried my hand at clicktivism and Thought Leadership by mimicking the stunted rhetoric of the tweetstorms ("A thread, 1/n") I'd seen go viral so many times before. As a stranger-based network rife with faux expertise, it was easy for a naïve undergrad to try on infinite ill-fitting hats while getting earnest, real-time feedback. It was like playing Locke and Demosthenes—minus the world-changing consequences.

But in the end, context collapse comes for us all.

My Twitter followers slowly crept from 50 to 500, then doubled again. I noticed a "blue check" here and there. Not a big audience by any means—but enough to start doubting myself. Like others, I walked a thin line between stream-of-consciousness shitposting and using Twitter to seed a professional network. Neglect the former and you'll seem inauthentic; get too bold with the posts and you could alienate future employers and teammates. So I stopped posting as much; thoughts stayed in the drafts. The numbers (or lack thereof) were scaring me.

Then, sometime in April, when we were all going nutty from shelter-in-place, some silly argument was erupting across my feed. It was #discourse as usual, and I wanted to join in. I drafted tweets, bit my tongue, drafted more, and continued to agonize. I can't rationalize my desperation to say something—some will call it ego or weakness of character—but I realized that social media left me feeling trapped again.

So I opened a private alt account.

In The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life, famed sociologist Erving Goffman conceptualized the "front stage" and "back stage" of social life. If a primary Twitter profile is a public, ritualized performance on the "front stage", an alt account is the "back stage," where you're free to slip off script and let out steam. The main difference is impression management: Are you in a setting where your reputation’s on the line?

Initially, I planned to dump my hottest takes in the new account—to scratch the itch of participating in the latest political controversy when I wasn’t informed or confident enough to tweet publicly. But quickly, my alt became a place for, well, everything.

@sunnysidedwn wanna move to taiwan and adopt a kitten.
Send tweet.
@sunnysidedwn imagine stanning the SAT in 2020.
Send tweet.
@sunnysidedwn thank god i can tweet better than i can code.
Send tweet.
@sunnysidedwn i'm sick of female ceo discourse. it's always rich white women defending other rich white women for abusing/exploiting poor woc. girlboss feminism is a curse.

If meditation challenges practitioners to acknowledge their thoughts and let them pass, then alt-tweeting is a cleansing ritual for the 21st-century mind.

Catch the distracting notion and articulate it simply; tap the blue button to set it free. In the void of the internet, your worry is but one data point among trillions. There's something cathartic about spilling your mind without worrying about likes, controversy, or secret-keeping; about the validation of being heard without the fear of being canceled; about being perceived without being scrutinized. Internal consistency and seriousness be damned—2010 Facebook is back, baby!

I also learned to avoid context collapse. Follower requests were accepted based not on actual closeness, but whoever I thought (or hoped) wouldn't judge me: a mix of longtime friends and virtual strangers, a handful of alt accounts like mine, bound only by our willingness to be ambiently aware of each other's late-night rambles. After all, 2 a.m. angst feels a lot less lonely when your friends are awake depression-tweeting too. Grim? Maybe. Real? For sure.

It’s funny to trace back my journey through social media: to think of the incredible ways the internet has evolved since 2010, the extent to which its impacts have shaped my life, the heightening seriousness with every new invention.

The dream of Web 2.0 was to join all of humanity in conversation—empowering everyone to enact change on the world stage. But increasingly, that ambition feels disconnected from social media’s reality. Crowdsourced advocacy and intellectual collaboration is accompanied by bells and whistles, takes and pretenses, and never-ending games of status and rhetoric and wit. In the tireless quest for significance (and those sweet, sweet engagement dollars), we've become distracted from our immediate needs: rest, closeness, self-expression.

So it isn’t surprising that a private text feed with a 280 character limit is what provides me the most solace. All the world's a stage, but to be heard by a few is enough.

p.s. seriously, make an alt!

While meditating on why I loved alt Twitter so much, I wrote a blog post on a concept I call communicative friction in social media. I promise it’s a lot less navel-gazey than what you just read—check it out on Medium here, or excerpted below:

“…As Zoom fatigue shows us, synchronous communication over voice or video doesn’t guarantee a natural and effortless experience. Socializing online is a totally different beast, and subtle differences in a platform’s affordances make a big impact on how often users flock to it and for what reasons. To describe those effects, I propose a theory of communicative friction for social media.

Communicative friction describes the aggregate effect of many tiny barriers to self-expression on a social platform.

For example, communicative friction is the moment of hesitation before sending a message or the number of times a user edits a post before hitting “Submit.” For live video and voice chat, communicative friction appears before a person even opens an app — it’s the activation energy required to schedule or join a call in the first place…

Graphic explaining the communicative friction elements of email, text, news feed, and video call.

It’s worth clarifying that communicative friction isn’t a bad thing.

Creating friction can lead to purposeful engagements rather than dispassionate ones, or thought-out messages instead of impulsive reactions. For instance, adding friction incentivizes higher-effort communication. A political discussion forum might use friction to increase attention to detail and discourage misinformation. In the context of email, a friend who switched from Gmail to the Superhuman client noted that the Superhuman’s super fast, chat-style UI made him far speedier at sending emails from his phone, but also increased the likelihood of double/triple-emails, making typos, and accidentally archiving important emails.

Similarly, a community might require new members to fill out a profile or application before posting. This first creates a selection effect for members, assuming that users who are willing to apply are also more likely to participate. Furthermore, a barrier to entry applies the psychology of cognitive dissonance to promote continued participation. People who expend substantial energy joining a community often increase their enjoyment in order to feel like the initial effort was “worth it.” While this principle usually explains hazing in fraternities, it’s even more important to online groups that can feel distant and decentralized without strong onboarding processes.

Therefore, designing vibrant social experiences requires deciding when and how to add friction to the user journey: which behaviors should feel effortless, and which should be filtered. Do you want the weightiness of LinkedIn, where every comment is visible to a recruiter’s watchful eye? The exclusivity of Superhuman, with its hour-long onboarding? Or the hi-fi experience of a TikTok profile, a living showcase of your face, voice, and personality? These decisions will shape the who, what, when, where, and why of your platform…”