Is your web browser a credit card for your time?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 15 seconds

The web browser isn’t just a tool that gets you from A to B, it’s also a medium that shapes the kinds of choices you make.

Introducing the Medium. And the Message

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist of the 20th century, famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” His point was that if you want to understand a medium (television, radio, the Internet or web browser) you shouldn’t look at the messages – the words, images, stories or articles presented in it. You should look at how the medium organizes perception and choices.

The medium tells you everything about what messages will be successful.

Television organizes perception and choice primarily around visual images, so…

  • Shows with explosive visual images will be more rewarded than shows with dull images
  • TV news shows with attractive broadcasters and dramatic footage will be more rewarded than news shows with unattractive broadcasters who tell stories in a soothing voice.

On radio, however, the unattractive broadcaster with a soothing voice will win.

Money is a Medium

Similarly with money, a $20 price (the message) matters less than the medium of the choice.

Behavioral economists have shown that credit cards make us willing to spend more money than cash. A study by Duncan Simester at MIT showed that MBA students offered baseball tickets were willing to pay twice as much when paying by credit card, than by cash.

Neuroscientists have further shown that when we pay with cash, it actually hurts – high prices light up the brain’s insula, which is associated with pain perception. But when we pay with credit cards, it doesn’t light up our pain centers.

Credit cards invite us to avoid feeling the pain of paying, and to forget how much money we actually have.

Cash invites us to consciously feel how much we spend.

Of course, none of this is new.

  • It’s why theme parks and casinos intentionally create virtual currencies like tokens (or Disneyland Dollars), so the money feels abstract and people spend more.
  • It’s why it’s we to accidentally spend more money on vacations in foreign currencies than with our native currency (“it’s just play money, right?”)
  • It’s why restaurants are taught not to put the $ sign next to each item, and not line up all the prices to the right, so diners choose based on description and not price.

A $20 price (the message) isn’t separate from medium it comes in. The medium is the message.

The Web Browser as a Credit Card

So what does this have to do with technology? And why does this matter at all?

Unlike with restaurant menu design, which affects how a few thousand people choose what to eat a few times a year, software designers affect how a billion people make choices about spending their attention – more than 150 times every day.

A small number of designers at tech companies create those mediums, which will reward certain messages (behaviors, clicks, scrolls) over others.

And today, web browsers are designed like credit cards. They make it easy to “swipe” the credit card for our time and take out a loan against our future selves.

They make it easy to be swipe our credit card for more time than we intended, by getting lost in an infinitely scrolling feed. They make it easy to click something we wish we hadn’t clicked later.

And they do it for hundreds of millions of people every day:


Deep “time debt”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Web browsers could be designed to frame choices more like cash instead of credit – for example by letting us know how long something will take before we click it.

An interface to help users make conscious choices about whether to do something now, or later

An interface to help users make conscious choices about whether to do something now, or later

Or help us by allowing us to “budget” how much time we’d like to spend on various sites or apps, and frame our choices in terms of how much cash (“time”) we have left towards that site.

But what about Conflict of Interest?

And unlike credit card companies who profit by getting consumers to spend more money than they actually have, none of the four major web browser makers – Google (Chrome), Microsoft (Internet Explorer), Mozilla (Firefox) and Apple (Safari) – make money by getting people to open things they don’t have time for*

Likewise, none of the major Email clients – Gmail, Y! Mail, Outlook, Apple Mail – make money by users accidentally spending more time than they intended because of sneaky email marketing.

Email clients could reframe credit card like choices with cash choices:


You can start to see how these small, nuanced design choices, at the scale of how a billion people spend their attention, quickly become significant moral choices.

I’ll be tackling these moral questions in future posts.



*: 1) It’s true that display advertising is a source of Google revenue, but it’s significant compared to search revenue – equivalent to being penny-wise, pound-foolish. 2) Pages that users open in tabs but never view aren’t treated as true “impressions” by ad networks anyway.

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