Channel surfing in the age of Stories

December 15, 2020

Lately I've been thinking a lot about my experience consuming this new social media format known as "Stories" and "Reels" on Instagram, and more recently added to Twitter as "Fleets", and I can't help but go back to my memories when I was a kid, channel surfing what at the time seemed like more TV channels than I would ever want or need.

Photo by geo uc

Channel surfing was when you'd quickly scan through all the TV channels available on your cable or satellite subscription. It was truly mindless and hypnotizing. You'd develop this amazing ability to quickly scan what was being broadcasted on any channel in what seemed like fractions of a second, until you landed on something that interested you.

It was a glimpse into what content overload would do to our media consumption behavior.

The brain is weak

You see, the brain is quite weak when it comes to attention, and the folks behind these social media platforms know this better than anyone. It all comes down to triggers, ease, and motivation. A careful combination of these can create a very addictive cocktail hard to resist for most.

To initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking.
Nir Eyal on Hooked: How to build habit-forming products

"Doing must be easier than thinking"... that's a very dangerous statement, and one that is being exploited by social media algorithms all the time. There is nothing easier and more frictionless than the action of tapping or swiping your finger on your phone's screen.

Ironically, a few years after writing Hooked: How to build habit-forming products, Silicon Valley's definitive guide on how to hook users, author Nir Eyal went on to write Indistractable: How to control your attention and choose your life.

Maybe friction ain't so bad after all

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier

Rewinding a little more, my first memories of a TV were the ones that had a rotary dial to switch between channels. There was a total of something like 16 channels and every time you wanted to switch to a different one, you had to walk up to the TV and stand there as you flipped through the limited options.

Yes, I was very young, but watching TV meant something different back then. It didn't consume our willpower. It felt a little more intentional.

So maybe a little friction goes a long way on helping our users think before doing. Maybe the friction we naturally find all over around us on our everyday real life needs to find its way into the digital spaces and environments we are creating. Maybe then, thinking will come before doing.