Hell is other people, according to a Jean-Paul Sartre protagonist. And yet: Facebook has more than a billion users, a majority of them being “other people.”
How do we reconcile this paradox?
A new service called Rather offers one answer: Its goal is to minimize the hellishness of your social network, by stealthily suppressing your friends’ worst, most irritating status updates.
For example, let’s say you have a great pal who you love keeping tabs on — but who has the lamentable habit of making every other status update a comment about the Obama administration. Even if you agree with your friend’s views, that gets old. So install Rather, which is a Chrome extension, and select “Obama” as a filtering keyword. The service blocks all mentions of the president in your newsfeed, creating the utterly desirable Obama-free Facebook page.
I’ve been playing with Rather for a few days, and it’s certainly not seamless at this point. But it’s a brilliant idea. Seriously.
Now, I understand the potential objections. First: This service could enable a “filter bubble” that screens out the challenging viewpoints we all need to have a healthy intellectual life. For me, that risk in the context of Facebook (which I use more to track friends’ lives than current events) is more than acceptable. But if your info-flow habits are different: Rather does signal that a given friend’s content has been stomped, and you can "undo" that if the scenario seems like you might be missing something relevant.
Second: The notion of selectively but coldly tuning out your friends’ earnest attempts at self-expression sounds anti-social. To the contrary, I think I’d be likely to check a well filtered Facebook much more frequently than I do now, and I also think I would love all my friends even more if they, in effect, never said anything irritating again.
Rather descends from an earlier, one-off side project by co-founder Chris Baker (an online-branding freelancer): Unbaby Me was a similar Chrome extension designed to weed out pictures of your friends’ darling infants. It was also more or less a joke, except that it sort of worked and a lot of people used it. (Others — parents of supposedly photogenic youngsters, basically — were offended.)
Given the enthusiastic reaction, Baker and his collaborators concluded that they were on to something. “We’d be idiots not to see where this leads us,” he told me in an interview, so they invested in building a more expansive version of the same concept. Unbaby Me couldn’t literally “see” your friends pictures, but relied on a long list of carefully selected keywords that were fairly effective at zeroing in on baby-centric status updates. Rather replicates that idea for other potentially annoying concepts — like “politics,” or “spoilers.” You can also enter your own terms, such as “Williamsburg” or “Banksy,” or choose to filter out services from Nike+ to Buzzfeed to Kickstarter.
As with Unbaby Me, you have the option to replace the updates you don’t want to see with pictures of something you like (puppies, for instance) gathered up via Instagram hashtag. Whether you choose that or simply “mute” the unwanted content, there’s an interesting split second where you barely glimpse whatever was about to bug you before it disappears. That’s a side effect of Rather operating at the browser level, but as Baker notes, there’s something hilariously satisfying about the way it all disappears.
Rather is brand-new, and a bit hiccup-y at this point, at least in my use of it. It can miss things because of the way Facebook displays certain links, and Rather’s keyword lists might accidentally filter some updates you would have appreciated. (Rather is also designed to work with Twitter, but because it’s not really relevant to the way I use that service, I didn’t test that.) For now Baker and his partners are working out kinks as they build up a user base, and hope to roll out a fancier and more wide-ranging paid variation in the months ahead.
Frankly, I’d like to see Facebook buy Rather outright and immediately integrate all of its thinking into its news feed controls. The knee-jerk response to Unbaby Me was something like: “If you don’t want to see my baby then you should just unfriend me!” That’s just wrong. Friendship is never a pure binary decision: We all have interests that we share with some but not with others, and Facebook’s architecture really doesn’t deal with that very well. I should be able to choose to hear everything from X except her thoughts about the Jets, or nothing from Y except his thoughts on local restaurants. Facebook offers some degree of control to users, but gives most to algorithms, and the truth is if I get sick of New York Jets Friend, the easiest move is to unfollow her completely.
Rather sounds like a jokey comment on the way we “socialize” now, but even if it is, it also represents a line of thought that would make Facebook genuinely enjoyable instead of the digital-life obligation it’s become.
“If they’re not gonna do it,” Baker laughs, “I will!”