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The person behind the Like button says software is wasting our time

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Social media is too addictive, says Asana’s Justin Rosenstein — but it can be fixed

Web Summit Dublin - Day 2 Photo by Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE via Getty Images

Last year, when a series of former Facebook executives came forward to reveal misgivings about the world that social media had created, few names resonated more loudly than Justin Rosenstein’s. Rosenstein, who helped to develop the Like button at Facebook and previously worked on Gmail chat at Google, told The Guardian that he had taken several steps to eliminate social media distractions in his life, including limiting his time on Facebook and “banning himself from Snapchat.” “It is very common,” Rosenstein told the newspaper in October, “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences.”

Half a year later, Rosenstein says he’s bringing his ideas about digital distractions into his current product. Rosenstein is the co-founder and head of product at Asana, which makes software for tracking work via to-do lists, Trello-like boards, and other tools. Today the company, which raised an additional $75 million in January and is now valued at $900 million, is announcing a new tool: Timeline, which lets workers quickly create and modify Gantt charts based on the data they’ve already put into Asana.

On the eve of the product’s launch, I sat down with Rosenstein to discuss his feelings about social media and his effort to build a less distracting kind of software. (He’s come up with a handy definition for distraction, too: “Distraction is where your attention and your intention is not the same thing.”) Below are the lightly edited highlights of our discussion.

So what led you to design software in this way?

The problem is that we’re wasting all our time in life, wasting all our time focusing on the wrong things. You’ve heard me talk about some of my concerns about technology generally. I think this is a problem at a civilization scale. It’s especially painful in the workplace context, where we’re just constantly bombarded by everything from social media to push notifications to co-workers to low-priority work that doesn’t really warrant our attention right now.

There’s research that says it takes 23 minutes to get into a state of flow where you’re actually doing deep thinking on something. It’s very rare to get 23 minutes of uninterrupted time, which means no one is in flow. Everyone is just skittering along the surface, and I think that’s freaking tragic. One, these are our lives. These are our precious, finite, mortal little lives. The idea that we are spending them distracted, not accomplishing the thing that we’re trying to do, is just painful. It’s crazy.

Do you think you feel these issues more intensely because you built a social media product?

I think I feel it most intensely because I’m a user of the technologies. I find myself getting addicted — yes, in some cases, by the very things I’ve built. It’s very hard to foresee those unintended consequences. But we have a responsibility to try and think ahead. We also have a responsibility to stay mindful, so when we notice that things don’t go the way we wanted to, to fix them.

I see a lot of that conversation has been happening about life tools — social media or YouTube. The problem is at least as intense in the workplace. The workplace is where you spend most of your time with technology. It’s very hard to focus and get things done. It’s just infuriating.

Is social media good or bad?

I think it’s good for the world on balance. The question is so complicated, it’s hard to compute. But the good parts of social media have become so taken for granted that we’ve stopped praising them. And the bad parts, people are starting to see for the first time. So people are like, “Oh, it’s all terrible.” That’s a very unbalanced perspective.

You look at the #MeToo movement. That’s named after a hashtag. It’s this really important social movement that spread on the wings of social media. A hugely important, civilization-level conversation — millions of people in a week. That’s incredible! People weren’t like, “Wow, Facebook, you’re amazing.” They’re just like, “Of course you can do that these days.” [But] that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. All these stories I hear — people reconnecting with lost loved ones, grandparents staying in touch with their children. Jared Cohen at the State Department said that Facebook’s mere existence in its first five years did more to help with relations between Arabs and Israelis than 30 years of coordinated attempts by the CIA. This really basic stuff you get from connectivity is so powerful ... but people just take that for granted at this point.

Then you do have distraction, filter bubbles, polarization, information privacy, and a lot of problems social media needs to fix. And I’m hopeful. I think these are all fixable problems. You look at industries like tobacco. The difference between this and tobacco: no matter how you package that product, it’s harmful. Whereas social media, if done the right way, if we have a commitment to making sure the content we’re showing people is relevant to them, if we’re only sending notifications when something is actually timely and important, the potential is for the pie chart to move very much in the positive direction.

So I see us as prototyping a lot of those ideas and bringing those philosophies here to Asana. The problem at work is just as important, but work is less sexy, so it gets talked about less. It’s maddening.

I have a second monitor now just for Slack, which is a distraction engine. It also brings me relevant information, and I do work in a real-time business. But I have a monitor for distractions now, and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago.

There are solutions to these things. One suggestion I have is for Facebook Messenger; Facebook Messenger collapsed SMS and email. There used to be social norms where if you need my attention right now, you send me a text. If it can wait, send me an email. Now Facebook Messenger is just a mishmash. So, 90 percent of the stuff I get on Facebook Messenger is not timely and important. It’s just distracting me. But I feel uncomfortable turning the notifications off altogether because 10 percent of the time, it is timely and important.

But that’s super solvable. You can just add a checkbox to the interface where the sender says, “Is this timely and important?” Slack, [does so] in a similar way. Of course, you need some mechanism for those real-time pings. But what we’re committed to doing at Asana is to distinguish signal from noise and focus on the right thing right now.