The End of Friction

April 10, 2019 • #

One of my favorite topics on Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, and one that underpins much of his Aggregation Theory, is the role friction plays in economies and cultural forces. Most of the pros (and cons) of internet companies can be tied back to the fact that they took existing businesses or customer demands and removed the friction. Whether it was shipping goods to your door, streaming movies, or communicating with friends, the internet stripped the friction from these interactions for good, but with some downsides that are only recently being realized and understood.

In 2013 he published one of my favorite pieces of his on this subject. One of the reasons the internet stacks up next to the industrial revolution in terms of economic enablement was that it removed friction of many stripes:

With the loss of friction, there is necessarily the loss of everything built on friction, including value, privacy, and livelihoods. And that’s only three examples! The Internet is pulling out the foundations of nearly every institution and social more that our society is built upon.

Count me with those who believe the Internet is on par with the industrial revolution, the full impact of which stretched over centuries. And it wasn’t all good. Like today, the industrial revolution included a period of time that saw many lose their jobs and a massive surge in inequality. It also lifted millions of others out of sustenance farming. Then again, it also propagated slavery, particularly in North America. The industrial revolution led to new monetary systems, and it created robber barons. Modern democracies sprouted from the industrial revolution, and so did fascism and communism. The quality of life of millions and millions was unimaginably improved, and millions and millions died in two unimaginably terrible wars.

On the latest episode of Exponent, Ben and James dive in on this topic as it relates to the recent news of YouTube and its issues with toxic content on its platform, and their response (or lack thereof). We’re all well aware of the benefits of infinite information, reduction in cost, and increase in scale made possible by the internet (and YouTube, specifically), but this is a perfect example of the downsides when you remove friction.

Listen to the episode. It’s an excellent conversation that digs into the costs and benefits both of platforms like YouTube, and kicks around some ideas on how the negatives can be controlled.