We all want community, belonging, love. But we find ourselves constantly directed into funnels.
Often a business or website or app starts out as a space. Couchsurfing is an example. A space arises, there’s huge demand. People are passionate about it. They're like: “we need this kind of space in our lives!”
Dating apps are a particularly clear example.
And then it either pivots to being a funnel or tube, or it loses market share, and get replaced by something that is a tube or funnel. Something like Airbnb.
Either way, people lost the space they loved!
And, of course, countless apps and business that focus on community, sharing, connection, etc.
there's too few spaces, given how much demand there is.
The market and the internet — we’re told these things are there to “give us what we want”.
Why, then, if we want spaces — why do we keep getting funnels and tubes?
is this: spaces are under-provisioned because of something about how markets and recommender systems usually unfold. Because of something they both have in common.
- And the suppliers have a different reward structure. Instead of serving people they love and are committed to, and seeing those friendships evolve and grow because of what they do. Instead of all that—
Markets and recommenders aren’t actually what I want to point at, not exactly. I want to point at the pattern they make. They way of working they push us into.
It looks like the right-side structure.
The scaling problem is why recommenders are mostly used to recommend content from some users to others who don’t know them, and who don’t know each other.
Recommender systems don’t have to be used that way. A recommender can just recommend things among people who know each other. My phone recommends photos for me to send my girlfriend. There’s no pile and no transact, there. No creator and fans. But there’s also none of these scaling advantages.
So, first, people like to consume things together. Especially spaces: dinners together, games together, and so on. They want to do this with people they know and love, or at least the kind of people they would like and appreciate.
Now, if you're embedded in a social graph over here, that’s no problem—people are already together!
But over here, in this pile, you have a problem.
Part of how pile & transact works is it breaks people apart and sells individual tickets, individual meals, or—with William’s poems—a recommender puts them on individual feeds.
This is what makes things so scalable! But it leaves spacemakers a problem.
It’s mostly strangers in the pile!
Spacemakers have an additional cost, of rebuilding community.
They either have to get people to sign up together—which requires extra coordination—or, they have to convince people they’d like each other. In the latter case, they also have to do something at the start of their event, something to build relationships. Some kind of warm up, where people meet each other.
I call these extra costs the “relationship reconnection costs”.
Another problem is that people's needs—most of them—all the good ones—are deep. It’s quite hard to figure out what they are.
On the left, William wrote poetry for two friends. He knows what they find meaningful. He can sense: will this poem light their hearts on fire?
It takes time to learn that, about a person. I’ve known my dad my whole life, but I’m still learning what lights up his heart.
You need to know someone quite well to customize something for them.
In piles & transactions, you don't have that kind of time with a person.
So, William, Sandra, and Margaret will have to serve their customers differently than they would their good friends.
Deep demand goes unmet, because only shallow demand can be articulated.
This, also, is worse for space-makers than other entrepreneurs.
Piles & transactions is also “anti-collaborative”. What I mean, is it gets in the way of people discovering each other and doing things together, because everyone’s separate in the pile.
In practice, this means markets and recommenders and even grant application forms put us in a kind of passive state, because we are robbed of the collaboration potential that would make it easier to be active.
This has another consequence. Piles & transactions creates pointless rivalry.
- When I apply for the grant, I’m fighting with all the other applicants for money.
- When I’m posting on TikTok, I’m competing for audience with all the other creators.
- When I’m trying to get tickets to Sandra’s game, and it’s sold out, I’m fighting with other people, when if we could contact each other we could all just make a second games night.
Part of what’s happening, is we are stuck in our role—whether that’s our role as consumer, TikTok creator, or grant applicant.
If we were in touch with one another, we would shift roles.
Again, worse for spacemakers than other entrepreneurs.
Piles & Transactions
One way you can tell it’s happening, is that there’s two names for people—one for the people on the left, another for those on the right.
marketsthose are producer and consumers.
recommendersit’s creator and fans.
One’s usually a professional, the other’s a kind of a visitor. They don't know each other, and they likely never will.
The group on the right is what I call a “pile”. An important part of the pattern is that the pile are strangers to one another. They aren’t hanging out together, aside from their transaction with the thing on the left.
The other important part is that they have a short time with the person on the left. They can’t get to know each other well.
That’s the “transactions” part.
Piles & transactions also happens when you apply for a grant, or government assistance. In this case, there’s a pile of
applicants and a transaction with a
I hope you’re starting to see what all these have in common.
It's a scaling strategy. Whether you’re a grant funder or a social network like TikTok, you want to reach lots of people and have the best stuff come to the top. Time and time again, people arrive at the same solution: put people in piles and serve them quickly.
As I'll show in chapter four, piles & transactions isn’t the only ways to solve this scaling problem. That’s important, because piles & transactions has some drawbacks.
Spaces require more connection, deeper demand, and more collaboration than funnels and tubes. So that means these three problems with piles & transactions is partly responsible to the decline in spaces.
- When I'm on TikTok, and it's showing me things, it often means someone’s ahead of me in the stream: There’s someone who shares many of my interests. We like the same videos, but she finds them sooner!
- It’s exactly the same when I apply for a grant—I’ll never see the other applicants, even though the fact that we are applying for the same grant means we might have a lot to do together.
Now, maybe if we knew each other, we’d do something together besides each of us swiping along. But the recommender never shows me her face or name. She’s just an anonymous person ahead of me in the stream.
Piles & transactions replaces what would be a complex discussion about possibilities: “Shall we make dinner tonight?” “Who will cook what?” “What can we do afterwards?”
It replaces this complex discussion with a simple transactional menu, provided by the supplier.
That reduces us to our consumer selves. We lose out on involving our own creativity, generosity, etc. We also miss out on collaboration possibilities.
- You can make customers less of a pile, by putting them in a group chat. Even better: put them in a chat before they’re customers. So they can organize other ways to solve the problem, collaboratively.
- Reduce reconnection costs by making it easy to sign up with friends. Ideally, this would be surfaced to suppliers, so they can work differently when people come together.
- Soften transactions by spending more time with customers, or by using tools to customize things for them, in ways you couldn't normally surface.
But I think we can do better than all of that.