The Novelty Machine

Do you actually own your account?

I have at least 250 accounts across the internet. I found this number by tallying up unique saved logins from my password manager and connected applications through those accounts. That number seems high considering my average usage of the internet falls down to 4 or 5 main websites. How do we accumulate so many logins, and where do we go from here?

The internet is a novelty machine. In essence it connects you to anyone else with an internet connection. In practice, the higher value links and content providers float to the service and the entirety of your online experience is directed by 4 or 5 main providers. Disney have stakes in everything from media platforms like ESPN, ABC, and Pixar to recording companies like GoPro. Creators like The Chainsmokers are influential in their own right, but are also investing in the future of social media with companies such as Fireside Chat and Public. Even Charli D'Amelio is getting in on it, being involved in a $50 Million Series B for Step. These creators are not just betting on being influential on their current platforms, but actively investing and shaping the landscape to benefit their continued growth across new social platforms. These creators understand that the internet is ephemeral.

Only a few years ago, the leading platforms were places like Myspace and 4chan. These platforms benefitted from a lack of structure. Consumers could turn them into whatever they wanted, and they had minimal moderation. As consumer knowledge of internet technology increased, so did their appetite for better indexing and moderation. Platforms like Facebook and Reddit came and overtook these platforms. They were slightly more structured but primarily brought deeper moderation and privacy controls. Their audiences expanded and continued to reach out to more and more niche interests due to both the greater volume of participants but also better controls around in-groups and out-groups. Now the internet is evolving past these platforms. Moderation is becoming commercialized, and privacy is now less sacred than reach. Facebook and Reddit are both attempting to pivot to more financial models as a result. It isn't enough to connect people anymore, content creators are realizing that their time is valuable and want to get a piece of the pie. Close collaborators of these creators also want their share.

With content creators getting greedy, more and more platforms are being created specifically in-service of those creators. Reach is a function of audience, but income is a function of mouths to feed. Content creators are realizing that going (as close to) direct to consumer is the best way to make money. This has caused creators like Mr. Beast to create a virtual kitchen company and others to seek out platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans which put a price on premium content.

All of this causes consumers to create more and more accounts to follow the creators they enjoy. These accounts grow stagnant as creators shift to new platforms. As a result, one-off accounts have littered the internet. These accounts do nothing but potentially expose consumers to additional security risk and are broadly non-transferrable to new platforms. This also means that if I am a contributor to a creator and I start new on another platform, my previous contributions and highlights do not carry over. This may further discourage new platforms which are inoperable with prior ones. You're probably thinking what I'm about to say, so here it is: the crypto case.

If I have a living, unbroken record of every contribution I have made, and my account can be brought to a new platform, that is immensely valuable for both consumer and producer. That is why .eth names have exploded in popularity across Twitter. The tradeoff with using something like this is the absolute lack of privacy, as anyone can browse to your specific namespace and see your entire history. On the other hand, operability with new platforms, a clear path to payment, and relatively secure standards make this a valuable alternative to traditional media.

Will your .eth name usher in a change to how we think about accounts? It's hard to say. The Ethereum blockchain aligns with some incentives and has decent adoption already. On the other hand, adoption is and will always be the largest roadblock to any new technology. Additionally, adversity from existing platforms will always go hand-in-hand with adoption. Investors seem to believe it's worth a chance, as billions of dollars are funneled into upstarts which both promise commercial value to creators and more streamlined content. Social is also changing actively into a many-to-many engagement, with platforms like Clubhouse and Discord. These platforms don't embrace crypto-fundamentals yet, but both have a path to payments and benefit from crypto conversations on their respective platforms. In the interim, they both provide alternative logins from other platforms.

If the future of the account is a one-to-many relationship, then the competition for being "the one" account will continue to be intense. Either way, for the type of consumption consumers maintain on the internet, having multiple accounts is not sustainable. It will be an artifact of the early internet in the same way floppy discs have become an artifact as a save button. The internet will also continue creating novelty to engage and amuse its users. The question then becomes who will own your account in the future, and as I've outlined I believe whoever answers that question will own a lot more than your account.

On Superstition and Sand Castles

When I was about 6, I went to a beach in Brooklyn with my grandparents. After taking a dip in the water, I went to work building a sand castle with the millions of building blocks I had. I addressed issues as they came up. For starters, I built it quite close to the water, which kept on washing away bits of my sand castle. I built a dam, followed by a trough for the excess water to fall into. Secondly, the structure itself wasn't too firm. I used some of the water to make the sand into more of a clay. Third, I wanted to make sure that the imaginary people could still get into the castle (remember, I'm 6). I built a bridge connecting the dam to the castle.

With the sun setting, my grandparents told me it was time to go. As we started walking away, a few boys came by and started kicking down my sand castle. I wanted to yell at them to stop but the damage was too severe too quickly. What bothered me more was their guardian, who looked on at them disinterested. I still remembered absorbing that disinterest in something I put so much effort into as my grandma tugged my hand.

Superstition is a common trait in people. In my family, it was the rule, not the exception. There are the typical ones, like don't clink drinks if you have water in you cup or sit before a long flight. These are somewhat learned behaviors, as you pick them up from seeing your family do them. They are repeatable and in specific situations. The other group of superstitions are emergent. Sometimes I imbue physical objects with superstition with no rhyme or reason. "This aloe plant at the Walmart indoor plants section has good energy," I say, "it is asking to come home with me." Other times inanimate objects can direct outcomes. "If I don't spill any tea as I bring it to my office, I'm going to have a good day".

Is there some logic in this? Probably for the tea, considering if I spill some hot liquid on myself it likely won't help my disposition. But maybe this is what superstition is. We deal with incomplete information all of the time. Things that we don't regularly measure, like how our days go, we still unconsciously pick up signal about. Perhaps our brains makes connections where there is correlation but not causation. Drownings and ice cream sales are correlated, but less because they cause one another and more because they both tend to happen in summer. Cigarettes being bad for our health is one where we didn't properly quantify the outcome, but perhaps some people could feel an impact.

We are in constant conflict with our brains. On some level we are primitives, put on a planet, spending time to create meaning. That meaning, and the communication of it, has allowed us to do incredible things. Occasionally our brains create meaning where there is none. Occasionally that turns into superstition, and over time if it is repeatable it turns into science. Other times, it is just a sand castle, being kicked away to the sound of ocean waves.

Let's Think About the Future Again

Stanley Kubrick said the future has no cure for the past. That's true. The past has already happened and the future will just distribute benefit at the time of delivery. But how is the future made? On one hand, the future is made by default. The passing of time from today to tomorrow means that the future will arrive whether we like it or not. In another way, the future is being made today. We have to be intentional about how we construct the future. There are very few people, relatively, concerned with how that will actually happen. Here is why you should be more concerned.

The past few years have been tumultuous. That is probably true for any subset of years in the past. By contrast to our past, our recent years have been some of the most peaceful in history. This is due to the advancements in communication, logistics, transportation, and medicine. Because of these things, we can be more egalitarian in how we distribute opportunity. Scarcity is something that causes conflict and we have done a good job as a society solving that problem. These are intentional improvements, made to solve problems that came up as a result of conflicts from the past. Conflicts often force a clear and obvious target, with varied problems along the way.

As a result of COVID-19, society was presented a clear and obvious target. Pharmaceutical companies, governments, and researchers all banded together with the objective of creating vaccines for COVID-19. Many estimates of the speed at which a vaccine would be deployed were years off, because they only considered the existing solutions. Many successful vaccines solved the problem using mRNA, a less known solution. We now have a new problem of encouraging vaccinations, and distributing these vaccines to countries which are less fortunate. This is a visible problem that has attracted a lot of attention.

Distribution of the vaccines is a visible problem, one with a clear path to an acceptable solution. Developing the vaccine itself was an invisible problem. Invisible problems are those where the solution is unclear or there is no acceptable path available. Another example of an invisible problem is space travel. This type of problem often appears to have few redeeming qualities, and no easy path to success. Someone may be able to identify that space travel would allow us to launch satellites more easily, or travel to other planets as we lose resources on our current one. But there are other problems which space travel on a commercial basis will solve as well which we may not even be aware of currently. There are also many problems with commercial space travel that we haven't solved for yet. Many will target space travel as a waste of resources or time. Those who are against space travel are detractors of our collective future.

So how does one reorient themselves to think about the future? First of all, it is to identify the current implications of the problems they are solving. If you are in tech, (as I'm going to assume a large swath of my audience is) consider the problem you are solving. The best analogy I can think of is to consider what Steve Jobs said to John Sculley. Steve Jobs, who succeeded in convincing John Sculley to leave Pepsi, said "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" In tech, as in other industries, there are plenty of problems that are sugar water. They are easy problems that will deliver a stable paycheck. Changing the world, on the other hand, is hard. Often to change the world you encounter invisible problems. Only those attempting to tackle these problems will succeed.

To succeed at something you must first try, and to try you must get started. That is the first step. Beyond that, it is dependent on the problem. If you are solving for a problem that exists today with no clear answer, the path to success is to try things that haven't worked in the past. If the problem is one which doesn't exist today, the path is to understand both what tools you can have to solve that problem and what success of that problem looks like. If you manage to solve the problem, the following step would be to consider what your solution might mean. For instance, with COVID-19, vaccines mean that volume and distribution is important, so building a partnership with the parties that can facilitate that becomes important.

Thinking about the future is something that isn't easy to prioritize. We must be able to consider future problems only when our current ones aren't too strenuous. If visible problems are more important, then they must be solved first. If you have the capacity to think about the future, it becomes an important exercise. If we don't stop and think about our future, we might lose it.

Things Don't Change

When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it. - Jeff Bezos

Think about your morning routine a few weeks ago. It was likely very similar to your morning routine today. Think about your morning routine a year or two ago. Still possibly some similarities. Back beyond that, you start to notice it was completely different. What changed?

The reality of things is that they do not change, except twice violently. You are born, and you will die. Along the way, you have basic needs which need to be met and preferably some exercise for your mind. Depending on access to opportunity and when you are born, your means for these things differ. Born 1000 years ago? You statistically live in Kaifeng, and probably listened to music for fun. You probably enjoyed cod as a treat, but primarily ate a vegetable heavy diet. You didn’t live as long as you do today, but more of that is down to higher violence and poorer hygiene, including medicines. If you were sent, today, back 1000 years, you would probably suffer a similar fate. This is even considering you go back with, say, the possessions you have today, like an iPhone, which would only have the remaining charge to go on.

If our basic needs and preferences do not change, even after many years, what does change? The ability of people to access opportunity, to distribute goods and services, and the speed at which we change our environments. Investing in these areas, or enabling people in these areas, then becomes the goal of humanity. And if you invest in these areas, you can afford to put a lot of energy into them, because they won’t change.

Nuance on the Internet is Dead

Now what?

When land was surveyed as the United States expanded west, it was surveyed in squares. As a result, many early cities were set up in grid formations. This initial decision some 200 years ago is still influencing the way we build cities today. Decisions like these have long term effects and consequences, eventually becoming so ingrained in our society that they no longer feel like decisions. That's the secret of design: every single thing in existence was once a conscience decision. Often, when we think through how to build things, we take our own agency out of the question. We can choose to account for near term or long term problems. Much like the decision to survey in squares, to make the pixel a square, and to make Twitter 140 characters (at first), these decisions have knock-on effects.

I think the easiest target is to say, "well, if you limit how much people can say, that will limit how much nuance you can convey". That's not really true or fair. Ernest Hemingway, sometimes tagged with creating "For sale: baby shoes, never worn.", illustrates the opposite. An even better example is Luis Felipe Lomelí's "El emigrante", which simply goes "Did you forget something? - I wish." (Spanish: ¿Olvida usted algo? -¡Ojalá!) So if you can convey a lot with a little, what is the blocker? Well, first of all, not everyone is an excellent writer. This of course is surmountable. Algorithms could simply dredge up the best takes and serve them to end users. This of course is also *not* how it works. You see, algorithms aren't built to serve up the best content. Algorithms are build to serve up the *best spreading* content. As a result, you see what is easiest to see. If you like what you see, you will see more of it. The more that you see, the more the algorithm learns what to serve you. The second half of that is how apps optimize your usage of them. Say for example you get a notification every time you get a like on your tweet for some content. Say, statistically, this probably means the tweets you deliver with the least bit of nuance but a strong call-to-action are going to give you the most notifications. Let's also say these notifications feel good, because they are designed to feel good. What type of behavior does that encourage?

Now we've gotten a bunch of platforms which reward putting gas in the engine. Millions of calls-to-action, which reward people for sharing or liking them. "Share if you agree", followed by a statement that only a psychopath wouldn't agree with. We've created this world intentionally, because we have designed this to feel good. As a byproduct, we've also eliminated the room for nuance in this space. People can share several inaccurate calls-to-action before they can finish reading one thorough take on a subject. This means that people are incentivized to create content which is in the form of the former. We've designed nuance out of the system, because nuance doesn't sell. You can't send a mob mixed signals, but mixed signals are what make up life.

So where do we go from here? The entrenched nature of this design means that many people likely believe there is nothing we can do to change it. Some new social networks, like Dispo have attempted to change the status quo, to mixed results. It isn't easy. Part of the intentional design in Dispo is that it takes 1 day to 'develop' your content. That intentional pause is both a strong element to return users to the app, and also a way to disincentivize rapid, less nuanced content. Others, like Mirror offer cash incentives in the form of cryptocurrency for long-form content. These also enable voting rights as to who is allocated future supply. Both are attempting to rewrite the book on nuance, but neither is seeing the same adoption (so far) as more established names in the space. Adoption, or the ability of an app to spread, is both the first and the last worry any new entrant into the field. Designing for adoption probably means using some of the tricks of call-to-action content in the packaging of the products themselves. For most, this seems to be a beta sign-up list. I have my doubts about the long term ability of these lists to convert users as the gap between initial sign-up and release confuses users who forgot what they signed up for in the first place.

For now, it is a minimally publicized problem. Sure, there was some initial outrage at Facebook and other information fiduciaries in 2016 but that quickly dissipated. It is no doubt that these platforms will continue to contribute to large scale issues. The problem is that, at their current scale and due to competitors, we've collectively gone past the point of no return. Any attempts at regulation would minimize damage, but eventually return to mean behavior. Broader regulation might help, but it would also hamstring strong institutions built on the values that make the United States a great nation. It could also potentially be disastrous for the broader American public, who could no longer benefit from these platforms. So now we're at an impasse. On the one hand, the lack of nuance is a real issue that has and will continue to cause real damage. On the other, we've designed our systems in such a way that any change will be a long and painful process. You can’t unscramble an egg, but you can make something new with it.

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