“Time well spent” is shaping up to be tech’s next big debate

In 2016, Tristan Harris, whose job title at Google was “design ethicist,” left the company to focus on a new nonprofit he called Time Well Spent. The goal of Time Well Spent is to reverse what it cals “the digital attention crisis” — the brilliants minds at Google, Apple, Facebook, and elsewhere who “hijack our minds” through ever-more sophisticated manipulation techniques delivered through our smartphones. Harris has emerged as a vocal critic of Facebook, appearing on NBC this week to call the company “a living, breathing crime scene.”

You might expect that Facebook, which derives its profits from the amount of time people spend interacting with the advertisements in its apps, would reject the Time Well Spent thesis. Instead, the company co-opted it. In a January 11th post, Mark Zuckerberg invoked the initiative by name. “By focusing on bringing people closer together — whether it’s with family and friends, or around important moments in the world — we can help make sure that Facebook is time well spent,” he wrote.

Today, one of Harris’ collaborators returned the volley. In a pair of closely argued essays on Medium, Joe Edelman — who says he coined the term “time well spent” with Harris five years ago — lays out a suggested path forward for Facebook.

”It’s possible (but very tricky) to design software so as to address the users’ sense of meaning,” Edelman wrote in the first essay. “But it requires profound changes to how software gets made! These changes make others your company has gone through (such as the adoption of machine learning, the transition from web to mobile) look easy.”

Less than a month into the new year, “time well spent” promises to become the “fake news” of 2018: a term overused into oblivion by partisans of every stripe. To Zuckerberg, “time well spent” means independent research showing that people value the time they spend on Facebook, and feel better about themselves afterward. To Harris, it represents a shift away from measuring comments and shares to emphasizing companies’ positive contributions to users’ lives. There’s overlap there, but are also some fundamental differences. In 2018, the battle will play out.

For Edelman, design is destiny. He attributes the malaise that seems to surround so much activity on Facebook with architectural features of the software itself.

Social software simplifies and expedites certain social relationships, and certain actions, at the expense of others. And if the simplified actions and relationships weren’t designed with a users’ particular values in mind, then using the software can make living by their values more difficult, which leaves them feeling like their time was not well spent.

For example, it may be harder to live by the value of honesty on Instagram, if honest posts get fewer likes. Similarly, a courageous statement on Twitter could lead to harassing replies. On every platform, a person who wants to be attentive to their friends can find themselves in a state of frazzled distraction.

As users, we end up acting and socializing in ways we don’t believe in, and later regret. We act against our values: by procrastinating from work, by avoiding our feelings, by pandering to other people’s opinions, by participating in a hateful mob reacting to the news, and so on.

Edelman notes that social software controls the nature of our actions to a far greater degree than anything we experience offline. Even at schools with dress codes, teens find ways to push against norms with their choices of shoes, socks, or backpacks. On Facebook and other social platforms, a one-size-fits-all approach means we’re locked into their peculiar modes of interaction. We chafe against them, and feel bad about ourselves afterward.

In his second essay, Edelman attempts to chart a path forward. It’s more esoteric than his first essays, and largely aimed at software designers. But it’s well worth reading for anyone wondering what the next generation of social software might look like — how it might avoid triggering the ennui that today’s platforms to. (Or at the very least, trigger new and different forms of ennui!)

Edelman suggests that designers of social software begin by asking themselves what their users’ actual values are, and then reflect on how they can let users live out their values through software:

For example, if an Instagram user valued being creative or being honest or connecting adventurously, then designers would need to ask: what kinds of social environments make it easier to be creative, to be honest, or to connect adventurously? They could make a list of places where people find these things easier: camping trips, open-mics, writing groups, and so on.

Next, the designers would ask which features of these environments make them good or bad practice spaces. For instance, do mechanisms for showing relative status (like follower counts) help or hurt when someone is trying to be creative? How about when they want to connect adventurously? Is it easier to be creative with a small group of close connections or a large group of distant ones? And so on.

This isn’t the only approach available to Time Well Spent for companies like Facebook: It was published on a day when Facebook’s own announcement on the matter was that it would allow users to watch videos at the same time, and comment together.

But it is a more deeply considered one than what the company has announced so far. And while the tug-of-war over “time well spent” is likely to continue, the moral advantage still belongs to the folks that coined the term.