It is a silly, idiosyncratic piece of software, but so simple. It says: Here is a picture. Here is a picture of a weird bird my friend saw. Here is a picture of my friend celebrating Eid with her brother. Here is a picture of an acquaintance flying over the city where I used to live.
With every photo, I have two options. I can scroll by, or I can say “I saw this and liked it.” Either way, then I scroll some more. It is a place to look at pictures and, maybe, video. It does not do much else. It doesn’t need to.
It is so simple as to be almost serene. In 1996, two researchers at Xerox’s famous personal computing labs hailed the imminent arrival of “calm technology.”
“A calm technology will move easily from the periphery of our attention, to the center, and back,” they wrote. They believed inner office blinds, which communicate someone’s availability without drawing undue focus to themselves, were prototypically calm. Recently I have heard the MP3 player—not the smartphone music app, not the mobile-enabled streaming service, but the simple, forever-offline MP3 player—described as calm. I think the old-fashioned wristwatch is pretty calm, too.
Most of our social networks are anything but calm.
“The one complaint about the Internet that I wholeheartedly endorse is that most of these tools have been designed to peck at us like ducks,” said Clive Thompson, an optimistic but incisive Wired writer, a few years ago. “Their business models are built on advertising, and advertising wants as many minutes of your day as possible.”
And irresistibly so, often. In her loving, half-hearted appreciation of Twitter, Kathryn Schulz compares that service to a parasite that “hijacks the nervous system of other creatures, causing them to behave in ways that are against those creatures’ best interests but in the interests of the parasite.”
Instagram, too, can be habit-forming. After posting a photo, sometimes I find myself checking the app every couple minutes, force-reloading to see who has liked my latest post.
But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, chilled out, I can just put something up there and never check back, which I can’t say about any other network. (This is especially likely if you turn off its notifications, as I do.) Instagram moves from the center of my attention to the edge in a way no other social network I know of does.
Five years ago, a social network named Path debuted. It aspired to be something like Facebook for your closest friends, and it enforced this, as it could, by limiting every user to having at most 50 friends. It was a beautiful piece of software, with a design that seemed to think in paragraphs where others stammered out sentences. It raised millions in venture capital.
But Path didn’t catch on, at least not in the U.S. In May, a South Korean social network acquired the app. Its failure was more interesting than its success could ever be. The designer Mills Baker put it best. He predicted that a social network only for your most intimate friends could never work. People like social networks because they’re an efficient way of communicating with many others, but, as he said, “efficiency is the enemy of intimacy.”