For years, designers have been talking about making things “frictionless”. And for good reason: the web was full of a lot of friction. Signup flows were labyrinthine, uploading and storing files was a hassle, and let’s not even talk about sites that didn’t work on mobile.
But in community design, friction is coming into vogue. Why? Because making it frictionless to say the first thing on your mind can often be a bad thing.
One of the biggest recent examples of this is Nextdoor‘s racial profiling problem. Nextdoor allows members of a neighborhood to create an online community where they can talk about things happening in their neighborhood, trade items, and report crime and safety issues. And that last area is where the problems arose, because people with implicit biases started posting things like concerns about “‘light-skinned black female’ walking her dog and talking on her cellphone” and following up with horrifying comments like “I don’t recognize her. Has anyone described any suspect of crime like her?”
Often, these “suspicious characters” were simply neighbors who wouldn’t have been called out if not for the color of their skin. The posts were offensive, reinforced racial stereotypes, and also made it hard for police to sort out posts talking about actual crime.
Generally, community platforms try to deal with this by having clear guidelines and taking action after an offensive post goes up. But guidelines are often easily ignored, and taking a post down doesn’t lessen the negative impact it had. The most effective way to affect biased behavior like this is to add friction to make people stop and think while they’re taking an action.
Nextdoor has done an amazing job addressing this. As soon as you mention race in a Crime & Safety post, you are required to list additional, non-racial attributes. This, they explain, creates “decision points to get people to stop and think as they’re observing people to cut down on implicit bias.” The result? Racial profiling posts have dropped by 75%.
Nextdoor isn’t new to friction. They require those launching neighborhoods on the platform to recruit a certain number of members in a certain period of time, and all members must prove residence. This means many neighborhoods never get off the ground…but also means they avoid empty, inactive communities that would make their service look bad. Stack Exchange does the same thing with new sites on their networks, requiring them to amass a certain amount of activity before they’re publicly launched.
Airbnb, faced with similar racial profiling issues, is taking a number of actions including requiring hosts take a pledge promising not to be biased. You might think a pledge won’t change people’s actions, but studies have found that students required to pledge to obey their school’s honor code were less likely to cheat – even if the school didn’t have an honor code.
Discourse and Product Hunt boldly put friction at the very start of their experience. You previously couldn’t comment on Product Hunt without an invite from an existing member, and the Discourse community platform allows you to set certain achievements (number of votes, number of comments, etc) that a member must hit before they can take greater actions. Over at Reddit, we don’t allow you to create a subreddit unless your account has a minimum level of karma and is at least 30 days old.
Metafilter literally added a payment to their sign up process not in order to make money, but purely to create friction that prevented casual sign-ups. They only wanted people who were truly invested.
It’s exciting to see community design start to step away from traditional (and generally sales-based) design. Too long community professionals have labored within inflexible platforms and struggled to react to issues rather than prevent them. Once we start putting thought into where we create or remove friction, we can build communities that are more successful, productive, and civil.
Full disclosure: I consulted for Nextdoor from 2015-2016, but did not work on the project(s) listed above.
Thank you to the Social Media Clarity podcast for their great work summarizing this trend!