If I could do that, I would have reversed the initial mistake we made, that set spaces in decline.
And I have ideas about how to do that! I’ll share them in chapter 4!
But first, I need to talk about some other
This is I think the most important thing to change but it's also one of the hardest things to change. So, before ending this chapter I want to list some other things that have happened since we made this deal that have made things worse first pacemakers some of these other things we can fix more easily I will discuss for you for these other things. Each of them I think is a consequence of the ubiquity of the piling on strangers piles of strangers pattern but I think we can fix some of the consequences without actually fixing the root cause first. Here we go.
But, that’s just the simple story. As I warned, I left out some details.
So, for a long time I wondered: why, in industry, do people talking about customers sounds so sad about them. They use terms like “eyeballs” and “users”. They write pitiful user stories:
They ask sad questions when they’re designing:
It’s clear how they think of users:
- They're unmotivated. So they need to be incentivized or entertained.
- They are unclear and overwhelmed. They can handle much. So they need an experience that's smoothed out.
- They're isolated. So they need simple ways to engage without leaving their sofa.
It’s worth noting what they’re NOT asking!
- If they’re unmotivated, how can we bring them back in touch with their natural motives?
- If they're overwhelmed, how can we make space for what’s really important to them?
- If they're isolated, can we unblock them from building relationships?
Why don’t they ask these questions? Why aren’t they more optimistic?
I think it’s because we’re piling up strangers:
- The suppliers have little time with each of us, and only know about our shallowest needs. So they can’t really help us much!
- They also see us at our worst. When we’re anonymously scrolling or purchasing. They see us low commitment, low attention spans, and isolated.
- Finally, markets and recommenders put them a social position where funnel metrics take center stage. There’s this question every night: how many meals did we sell? How many new view and shares on my latest poem? So, naturally, they’re less focused on the meaning they create with their events, restaurants, and poetry — and more focused on the traffic.
I call the resulting attitude “corporate disdain”.
Switching over to the consumer side, here's another effect. Most of us spend most of our time in piles of strangers, getting processed in funnels and tubes.
Spaces become rare. Meaningful moments become rare. We begin to think we’ll only have them when we’re rich, or when the world’s reformed somehow. For now, we got to be hustlemaxxing. Crushing it. Hashtag goals. Up and to the right. To. the. moon.
We also forget what holds society together. Spaces and meaning hold society together. They’re what people call the “social fabric”, the “civil society”, the “third sector”, or “social capital”.
Without spaces, we desperate attempt to force cooperation via harsher means like social conformity, and common ideological enemies. We create giant funnels, to rile people up against the other side, because at least we can create some social cohesion that way.
So that’s mindset, lets turns to how this situation shapes business practices.
Let’s say you’re an anthropologist. You’re walking around in a society of markets and recommenders. You’re interested in the question: “what makes a business or content creator succeed, these days?”
You start interviewing entrepreneurs. You’ll see funnel and tube entrepreneurs succeeding. Space entrepreneurs will be succeeding less.
You’re most likely to document something like “lean startup”, “UX design”, or “incentives design”.
Your user research, your customer surveys, your product metrics—all this stuff is going to be about measuring funnel and tube success. How quickly are you getting a customer towards their goals? How many transactions are you driving?
Funnel and tube entrepreneurs have enjoyed a century of business practice refinement. This gives them a huge advantage.
Comparatively, spacemakers are unlikely to even be able to find the right practices.
There are some: you can find surveys about how people connect in the space, for instance. But that’s not mainstream practice.
Even if you find some good surveys and metrics, what happens when you try to design for them?
The two most popular design methods right now are UX and incentives design. But these are “corporate disdain” made into a practice. They’re all about moving people along through funnels, smoothing out their experience, reducing choice, and incentivizing or entertaining them along the way.
Other kinds of design are better for spaces. Techniques from urban planning, for instance, or from game design, or interaction design. But these aren’t mainstream.
🎤 User profiles
As I’ve mentioned “Professional & Visitor” is kind of built into our social media. If you’re looking at Facebook New Feed and you see an event and click “Going” or “Interested”, you just became a kind of fan or consumer, and the event host is the professional. In general, our social media sees us mostly alone, and mostly interacting with funnels and tubes, not spaces. And it sees us in a consumption role.
This is what it learns about us. It learns through ad networks, and through the recommenders built into operating systems and platforms.
These systems have giant databases, where each of us is profiled.
- Your profile will be about what you click on alone, not what you’d click on if you were together with friends.
- Your profile will be about shallow desires—these systems aren’t sensitive to things you'd need dialogue or introspection to draw out of yourself.
These systems increasingly decide what we pay attention to, what we download, what we buy, even who we meet.
And they are unlikely to recommend spaces.
🎤 Advocacy Failure
All of this ends up affecting our vocabulary. How we speak.
We get less articulate about meaning.
Eventually, we come to think of meaning as a thin, vague layer of purely-personal paint, atop the hard, shared facts of reality.
One consequences is that we can no longer advocate based on what’s meaningful.
Say you're a scientist, or a school teacher, or an elected representative.
Over the past decades, aspects of your job keep changing. Your workplace is less and less meaningful. Your school, research lab, or democratic processes used to be a space, but it’s become a funnel.
But—you can’t name the sources of meaning you lost, you don’t even know the difference between spaces and funnels. So, how can you fight those policy changes?
I believe that, when our societies were more overly religious, it was easier to discuss sources of meaning in a common language. You see this in cultures which are still religious, like Orthodox, Jewish communities, Catholic communities, monasteries, Buddhist communities, Sufis, and so on. People try to find words for the meaning they're experiencing, and the types of spaces they need for it, and sometimes they succeed.
In these cultures, meaning is shared and definite.
Designers today tend to ask three questions about the user:
- How can we give them a smoother experience?
- How can we reduce the cognitive load?
- How can we incentivize someone to complete the experience, or lure them along through it?
The underlying model here—I think—is that people are lazy, stupid, and overcommitted. They are lazy so they need to be incentivized or teased along. They are stupid or overcommitted, so they need an experience that’s smoothed out, with low cognitive load.
And by default, in all of this, they are alone.
Stupid, lazy, overcommitted, alone.
It’s worth asking if this is true.
- Are humans stupid or lazy? I mean—among species, we have a lot to show for our efforts. We build cities, integrated circuits, and cathedrals. We write symphonies and decode whale songs. We start companies, clubs, and families. The average human reads and writes, works hard, and manages many complex tasks and relationships.
- Are we overcommitted? Perhaps when most of us were farmers, we were. And some parents with newborns certainly are. But the average amount of screen-time is Xh / day. Most people are wasting their life away with TV shows and social media. Seems we’re more bored than overcommitted.
- Are we alone? Well, there are seven billion of us.
So, then, we are not stupid, lazy, overcommitted, or alone.
Why, then, would designers, of all people—usually an empathic, pro-social, optimistic lot—tend to have this view?
Here’s what I think: they’re designing for a person who’s already in a bad situation.
And by doing so, they’ve given up before they started. They gave up putting the user in a good situation, and instead they leave the user hurting, and they make something that works even though that user is—temporarily—stupid, lazy, overcommitted, and alone within the design.
Instead of this (x) the opposite is this (y)
Y- people in a supportive environment can come alive, build relationships, and contribute.
Consequences for Spacemakers
So, this is my full story, with all the details, about why there’s too few spaces.
What does it mean, if you’re a spacemaker? The cards are stacked against you.
Say you’re making a space for your friend Alfred, and people like him. You have a hunch he needs a space for exploratory thinking
- But, the processes you learned to detect demand—customer surveys, user research, and metrics—are for goal-related demand. You end up making a productivity app, because his productivity-related-goals are easier to capture than his source of meaning about exploratory thinking.
- Even if you capture his source of meaning, standard design methods will lead you to make a funnel, so you’ll fail to serve it.
- Even if you capture the source of meaning, and somehow design for it—you’ll struggle to get it out there. Because the profiles in operating systems, platforms, and ad networks will direct Alfred towards funnels and tubes. They’ll sell him a productivity app instead. Or worse, they’ll sell him some conspiracy theory content to “really understand what’s going on”.
Meanwhile, most people will be too busy hustling or trapped in ideological funnels to even think your space is possible for them. If you talk to corporate types, they won’t imagine people are ready for your space. And those few who would see its potential won’t have the words to advocate for it.