The streets we walk; the sites we click through; the orgs we work in—these environments are mostly built by others. I ask myself, walking through my city, or clicking through a site, am I in a funnel, a tube, or a space?
Some systems push you along towards something: for instance towards purchasing a vitamin supplement, subscribing to a YouTube channel, or downloading an app.
I'll call something a "funnel" if it sends you toward a goal you didn't come up with yourself. Even if you like the goal! When a grocery store sends you towards the cash registers, that's a funnel. When the organization you work for tries to get malaria bed nets to as many people as possible, that's a funnel too. Are you part of a cult that tries to turn you into Elon Musk? Funnel!
What if you picked the goal you're being pushed towards? In that case, I'll call it a tube. Examples include Google search, transportation systems, shipping, Google Maps. For app developers, the iOS and Android SDKs are tubes. They help you get your own goal done faster.
What funnels and tubes have in common is that they are goal-directed. Spaces, on the other hand, put emphasis on exploration rather than convergence or acceleration. Examples of spaces are research labs, festivals, universities, jam sessions, art collaborations, roblox, minecraft, and so on. In funnels and tubes, the main value is efficacy. How quickly can something be accomplished? The point of funnels and tubes is to be over. The point of spaces is to stay. For this reason, all of life really happens in spaces. Spaces are where we end up—where tubes are supposed to take us.
Of course, there are hybrids. Festivals are spaces with a ticket-sales funnel attached. An art tool like Photoshop can be a space one day (when you use it to explore color palettes or play with generative art), and a tube the next (when you use it to accomplish a quick task).
Does this make the distinction useless? I don't think so. Just ask: How do the people who make Photoshop (or the festival) measure their success? Is it by the number of people through the funnel? Or by what happens in the space?
Similarly, ask how it's discovered by users or funded: if it's discovered (or funded) because of the numbers of clicks, downloads, or purchases, it's a funnel. If it's discovered (or funded) because people talk about what it's like to live in the space, that's a space.
This is the century of funnels and tubes. We got better and faster at building them. There were huge improvements in funding them, and with funnel/tube-analytics. And the skills, funding, and analytics of space-building were left behind.
I think we're seeing the consequences.
Think, what'd the world be, if there were tubes and funnels, but no spaces?: People's lives would be an endless checklist. Trying to get a million things done. Sometimes their own goals, sometimes other people's. Completing one checkbox just brings them to the next, never to what they really want to do. And this process would accelerate, as the the funnels and tubes improve.
That's one consequence of funnel and tube proliferation. There are more:
- Loneliness. Users are alone inside funnels, and they tend to drive towards transactions—a minimal relationship where both parties stay atomized.
- Uniformity. At the start of a funnel there's some diversity (different demographics, landing pages, etc), but the funnel merges users into one mass. Funnels and tubes reduce possibility and direct us towards the transaction and away from our own uniqueness.
- Transactionality. Funnel-makers "hustle"—that is, they treat themselves as a tool for their goals. Funnel and tube-makers treat others as goal-fodder, too. This is not a kind way to think about yourself, or others.
What to do?
I want a world with more spaces, fewer funnels and tubes. Where people don't move from checkbox to checkbox, isolated, transactional, often without even formulating their own goals—but where, instead, they become more uniquely themselves, surprise one other, and develop new routines, practices, and friends. More open-ended explorations, not transactions—the kind of relationship we yearn for.
So here's a five step plan, for replacing funnels and tubes with spaces.
Step 1. Understand the simple cases
We can practice space-making in our most intimate relationships. I often create funnels and tubes accidentally in my life:
- Did you set things up so your spouse or best friend will do something for you? Or agree to your idea? You've made the relationship into a funnel.
- Do you see your relationship as a mutually-beneficial exchange? You've created a tube.
- Do you sit together and ask: "what shall we explore this week?" In that case, you made a space. You can make it better over time, by making sure you're becoming more yourselves together, you're deepening your relationships and embeddings, and you're living expressively, treating yourselves as sources of surprise, rather than as goal-fodder.
Step 2. Focus on meaning, not efficacy
There's a difference between what people want to get done, and what we find meaningful. If you ask people what they want to get done in email, they'll say they want to reply to emails, archive things that don't require a response quickly, etc. If you ask what they find meaningful, you'll find that they are doing also beautiful things in email: keeping up relationships, mentoring young people who write to them, and so on.
An email client designed just for the former will miss many possibilities to support people's sources of meaning. It will be a tube, not a space. Spaces are about meaningful experiences, not just pleasurable or efficient ones.
Find out what's meaningful. What people want to explore with each other. What's meaningful to a parent might be protecting and supporting their child, or watching them discover life. What's meaningful to an employee might be real connections with customers, or creative expression in their work. What's meaningful to a scientist might be testing intuitions about patterns in data. What's meaningful to users of a financial tool may involve a grounded understanding of which purchases will be possible, and when. Etc.
Step 3. Embrace diversity of meaning
Often funnels are justified by saying everyone just needs to X to find meaning, where X could be: getting "rational", more Christian, more feminist, getting an eth-wallet, cleaning their room, yoga, eye-gazing... Whatever you fill in for X, you create a funnel.
Most of us have believed this lie on some level. We get obsessed with whatever's supposed to be meaningful, and blind to what's actually meaningful in our lives. Space-makers need to turn this around—for themselves first. So many opportunities are missed when people focus on what's supposed to be meaningful, not what is.
Step 4. Build community among space-makers
There are many communities for funnel and tube-builders—who have stolen the name "entrepreneur". I want a community for space-builders, specifically.
I hope an identity around playground-making will form.
Step 5. Improve design techniques, analytics, and funding for spaces
We've all learned funnel and tube design practices. UX design moves people along with minimal confusion and few decisions of their own, and gives them a delightfully isolated experience. Mechanism design leads us into transactions, baits us with "incentives" to keep us engaged. Experience designers usually craft an experience arc for participants, rather than helping them build their own experiences from their own sources of meaning.
We've also developed a science of measurement around funnels and tubes. We'll need to get similarly scientific about making and measuring spaces.
Many see a great social change coming. And they say we need to grow somehow as individuals, to prepare for that change. But how do we need to change?
Do we need to meditate? feel through all of our traumas? get real nerdy about systems thinking? become "sense-makers" or sovereign individuals? Do we just need to pile into crypto, the creator economy, or some other business trend?
Here's my proposal: we need to become space-makers, and gather a community of space-makers around us. Soon, we'll be surrounded by each others' playgrounds, involved in each others' explorations (not transactions), and embedded in new practices and scenes.