When I was a kid, envelopes would periodically arrive in the mail from my grandmother, stuffed with articles she had clipped out of newspapers and magazines for everyone in the family. These clippings, all annotated with her handwritten commentary, meant the world to us because we knew she had taken the time and energy to pull her scissors out of the drawer, find a stamp and an envelope, and pick only the articles she knew we’d be interested in — a book review for my mom, an art essay for my brother, a comic strip for me.
Had she been a generation or two younger, she likely would have shared those articles on Facebook. But they would have had none of the emotional resonance, and little of the personalized appeal, because of the corrosive impact of what might be the most destructive technological innovation of the past two decades: the share button.
The first share icons appeared online in 2006, and one-button sharing didn’t arrive on Facebook until 2012, but then spread quickly to nearly every other major social app. At first, this function seemed like a harmless digital version of Grandma Roose’s clippings: Here, check out this recipe. Whoa, cute dog video — better share this with everyone I know! But we soon learned that their real purpose was to turn us all into high-volume broadcasters.
The concept of “virality” was born, and publishers started taking advantage of this new, metastatic power, churning out lists and quizzes we would have no choice but to pass on.
The problem, of course, is that share buttons also made it trivially easy for bad things to spread. Scammers, extremists and conspiracy theorists took advantage of social media’s mechanics, and soon our feeds were overflowing with irrelevant and dangerous posts placed there by our friends and acquaintances with minimal effort. Those hoping to sow chaos and division, like Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election, needed only to seed propaganda with a handful of share-happy Americans; we’d take it from there.
It would be facile to blame share buttons for all of society’s evils. But getting rid of them could do us a world of good. Just ask Instagram, which has doggedly refused to add a one-tap “regram” button to its app for years and as a result has had many fewer viral misinformation scandals than its parent company, Facebook. Other platforms that have experimented with making sharing harder, like Twitter and WhatsApp, have generally found that it improves the overall quality of their services.
Twitter recently reported that its preelection experiment this year, in which it added an extra bit of friction to discourage thoughtless sharing, led to a 23% decrease in retweets — a change it was actually proud of, since it slowed the spread of misleading information.
Social networks are learning, albeit belatedly, that sharing with everyone you know shouldn’t be seamless and instantaneous. It should require something: some effort, a brief moment of consideration between consumption and replication. Share buttons don’t just enable the bad guys. They deprive us of the opportunity to make meaning out of what we share — adding the poignant caption, the funny aside, the personalized touch. They make us conduits for other people’s tastes, rather than curators of our own.
By sharing less, we might actually find ourselves sharing more.