If Ryan Orbuch’s high school had senior superlatives, he would have likely received “Most Likely to Start a Billion Dollar Company.” But Orbuch wasn’t around much his senior year of high school. At 16, he won Apple’s Design Award for his first startup, a productivity app called Finish. At 18, he founded his second company Volley, an AI-powered education tool. Now, at the ripe old age of 21, he's launching his third project—a new app, called Feedless.

Each of Orbuch’s projects have followed his stage in life. Finish was “the to-do list for procrastinators,” conceived during finals week of his sophomore year of high school. Volley, a learning tool for autodidacts, launched shortly after he decided to opt out of college. The App Store was created a month before Orbuch’s 12th birthday, and in many ways, he’s spent his entire life thinking about apps as the way to solve life's problems.

So it’s noteworthy that Feedless is something completely different. It’s an app, but one designed to save us from apps. It blocks the feed from social media websites like Facebook and Twitter on Safari for iOS, leaving just the bare bones of those apps. The goal, Orbuch says, “was to remove the most time-sucking feature of social media and leave all the useful stuff like messaging and events.”

Ryan Orbuch
Ryan Orbuch

Feedless launches on the App Store today, just as the national conversation around social media’s dark side seems to be coming to a head. Researchers are exploring links between social media use and depression in young adults. A coalition of technologists called the Center for Humane Technology is leading an awareness campaign about how social media “hijacks our attention.” Not to mention Facebook’s fake news, Twitter’s fake followers, or Youtube’s fake actors. Social media has never had more dependents, or more detractors.

Feedless couldn’t have come at a better time. The app pushes back against phone addiction, without asking anyone to give up their phone (or even their Facebook account). It's Orbush’s attempt to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. How can you extract the good parts of social media without getting lost in a mindless scroll? After all, the problem with phones is often not what you come to them to do. It’s how much time you spend on them after that’s done.

Killing the Infinite Scroll

In 2005, researchers from Cornell conducted a now-famous study known as "bottomless bowls." Participants were given a bowl of soup and told to stop eating when they were full. Some participants ate from normal bowls; others ate from self-refilling bowls, which had tubes from the bottom that refilled automatically as participants slurped. Those who ate from the bottomless bowl consumed 73 percent more than those who ate from a normal bowl, even though the normal bowl was being consistently refilled by servers. Even more striking: Despite consuming 73 percent more, people with the bottomless bowls didn't believe they had consumed more, nor did they feel more sated.

Social media feeds are like those bottomless bowls. Some people argue that our consumption has become so mindless that we don’t even realize what we’ve taken in.

"The goal was to remove the most time-sucking feature of social media and leave all the useful stuff like messaging and events." — Ryan Orbuch, creator of Feedless

If you take that stance, then fixing the problems with social media isn't just a matter of fixing the content on our feeds. Even without the FOMO-inducing highlight reels from your friends and the divisive propaganda from Russian bots—even as Facebook retools its newsfeed algorithm to optimize for meaningful content from family and friends—the infinite scroll persists. If too much content is the problem, then you have to eliminate the newsfeed altogether.

Solving App Addiction

Feedless follows a burgeoning market for technology designed to save us from our technology. From website blockers like Self Control and Freedom to accountability trackers like Moment and RescueTime to entirely new “mindful operating systems” like Siempo, the promise of tech that can help you put down your phone and get back to your life sure seems to be having a moment.

Apps like these “are small Band-Aids covering wounds left by the biggest companies in the world,” says Tristan Harris, who runs the Center for Humane Technology and has become the de facto leader of the movement to align tech with human values. “These [social media] companies have AIs that are essentially playing chess against your brain, trying to figure out the best way to get you hooked.”

Not everyone wants to quit social media cold turkey—Facebook is still the place you can stay connected to high school friends, or message family members. But people don't want to fall down the rabbit hole of an ex-girlfriend's wedding album either. Feedless offers a middle ground. It's not very useful unless you've actually made an effort to remove social media apps from your phone (Feedless only blocks feeds in Safari, not in the apps themselves). And there are plenty of ways to get around it. For apps like Feedless, a cheat day is often just an app download or incognito mode away.

But for a topic like phone addiction—which has been conversation rich, but solution poor—Feedless is a step in the right direction. Truly rethinking our relationship to our devices will require a social movement, one that pressures top-down advocacy and policy reform. For now, though, change can come from the tools we have on our phones right now. Killing the infinite scroll seems like a good place to start.

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