Consuming content about creation won’t make you a successful creator. It is a trap that leads to thinking there is a “right” way to create, thus preventing you from creating. Meta-creators (creators who create about creating) say the answer is in their newsletters, video courses, writing workshops, tweet threads, and productivity guides. These “answers” won’t do the creating for you but do distract you from creating. There are many ways to be successful as a creator, but the similarity between them is creation.
Meta-creation is popular because we like the idea of creating more than actually creating. Meta-creators help people indulge in these ideas without doing the work. The lack of action taken after consuming the content is proof of its lack of impact. The majority of improvement in creation comes from creation and iteration. Meta-creators fool aspiring creators into thinking otherwise.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.
Meta-creators are the embodiment of what Steven Pressfield calls “the Resistance,” a universal force that wants to stop an individual’s creativity by any means necessary. The Resistance wants you to procrastinate, overthink, get distracted, and not create. Meta-creators, without realizing, help the Resistance achieve its goal.
If meta-creators were good, it would show in the long-term success of their followers. They could point to specific cases where followers increased their quantity and quality of work by applying what they learned. Their followers would credit the meta-creators as the source of their success. This rarely happens. Instead, meta-creators “prove” their success through the metrics of money, subscribers, followers, and attention, none of which help you create more.
Some tutorials and inspirations may help, but endless consumption is a trap. At best, it provides a short-term boost. Meta-creators should inspire or improve content creation. Feeling uninspired after consuming a meta-creator’s work is a bad sign. It is a sign to cut them off because they are wasting your time.
There are many alternatives to procrastinating with content about creation. Seek content that inspires you to take action. Look for advice from people you actually want to be like. An interview with a domain-specific expert often gives more insight than any meta-creator could give. Avoid people who aren’t creating what you want to be creating. Looks for ways to create a small version of the content, rather than consuming more. Try and see what works for you.
Next time you see a meta-creator trying to trap you into another course, article, or tweet thread, shut it off and create something. Do you think the creators you admire consume this stuff? Probably not, and neither should you.
A community exists that is ideal for you. How do you discover it?
Many of us are trapped in communities not ideal for us. We don’t get the most out of our time there but don’t know the other options. We are jealous of people who find their ideal spots. They have created connections, grown their knowledge, and improved how their time is spent. You can be like them through discovery.
Discovery is difficult because communities are competing with everyone for your attention. They have neither the marketing budgets of businesses nor the status and monetary incentives of individuals. Communities promote themselves less than either and are worse at doing it. This makes it difficult to break through the noise and reach the people they should be reaching.
Because communities have difficulty promoting themselves, people are often stuck at a local optimum: they spend time in communities they enjoy that they have discovered. We want people to be at a global optimum: spending time in the best of all possible communities.
It is easier to improve someone’s ability to discover communities than it is a community’s ability to be discovered. The signs of communities are in front of you each day, but you might not realize them. Gaining an awareness of where you see communities helps you find better ones.
The simplest way to find communities is to search for them. Find an interesting topic or idea, Google it, look for community sites (Google hack: use site:reddit.com, site:stackoverflow.com, site:discord.com, etc), read what interests you, and repeat. This is the “rabbit hole” approach. Let the internet lead you to interesting places, and often there are communities built around them.
Think about communities as an end goal instead of only a source of knowledge. As the saying goes, “discover a community and you have knowledge for a day, join a community and you have knowledge for a lifetime.”
When searching without communities in mind, you often pass by them without realizing it. You find information, get linked elsewhere, and never return. To counter this, make a habit of bookmarking communities, even if you won’t be an active member. This creates a list to explore when you have the time and energy to do so. It also allows you to tap into domain-specific collective knowledge when necessary. For example, searching a developer forum about a problem often leads to better results than Google does.
Too few people leave communities without engaging with them. Many you’ve passed through could be good for you, but you can’t know without engaging. Try engaging with the next one you find in your search. Ask a thoughtful question or contribute to the discussion with something relevant, you may find the community is better than expected. You can’t understand if a community is a good fit for you until you engage with it.
Communities are interactions between members. By definition, they do not involve non-members. They do not have “distribution.” Yet intentionally or not, these interactions leak into the broader world. These leaks are artifacts of those communities.
Artifacts are parts of a community seen by non-members. They attract people to communities by providing a preview and enticing them to explore more. They also help members share a community in a way that is legible to the outside world.
Artifacts can come in many forms. Events are a popular example. They often allow both members and non-members. They have attendees or speakers who attract attention. Events are self-contained, you don’t need the larger context of the community (you probably need some informational context though). It gives a preview of the culture of the community (“we talk about things like these”) without forcing you into the deep end.
Two internet-specific examples: Compound Writing’s attributions and Interintellect’s meeting screenshots. Both bring attention to the community while giving a preview of why that community exists.
Compound exists to help writers improve their writing, and their artifact shows this. It shows a list of names at the end of a piece of writing (which you presumably read). It gives a preview of the community by showing its function: writers giving feedback on the writing. If you are also a writer, looking to improve your writing, you may want to learn more.
Interintellect is a community that hosts live, informal, unrecorded, evening-length conversations anyone can join (Salons). The Interintellect artifact shows people having a wide-ranging conversation focused on an interesting topic (Antigone). If you find group conversations on interesting topics interesting, you may explore more.
Both of these artifacts provide ways for members to share the community with the wider world. You can’t capture an entire experience in a single post. This makes it difficult for members to share a community because the content for that community is not made to be shared. Providing a framework encourages members to share more, which they already want to do (signaling).
Artifacts exist where information is shared. Social media, articles, messages, and communities can all be sources. Curating your sources leads to more relevant artifacts. Although the sources are familiar, the forms may not be. Artifacts can look different on the same platform or medium. For you to notice it, an artifact has to be created, make it out a community, then win the battle for your attention. When this does happen, explore it more because it is a rare situation.
Word of Mouth
The people you spend time with are likely similar to you and probably have similar interests. People are the most important part of a community, so recommendations from them create a strong discovery mechanism.
Word of mouth is challenging because it requires someone to know both you and a community well enough to connect the two. A person probably only belongs to one or two communities. The chances you are a good fit for one of them are low.
Waiting for communities to arise through word of mouth might be too slow. You have to want to discover communities through word of mouth. You can optimize word of mouth by asking for communities people are a part of, or listening for mentions of the communities people talk about. I’ve found “where do you get information about X?” is a great question that often leads to community discovery.
Communities can encourage members to add their friends who they think are relevant. Members can make recommendations by talking about what they are doing in a community. You can also talk about and recommend communities you are a part of more. All this improves discoverability, and help people find their ideal spots.
The key to discovering communities is knowing what to look for. Understanding what communities look like in search, as artifacts, and through word of mouth creates opportunities for discovery.
It doesn’t mean you’ll discover them all. Some communities are tough to find. Private ones rarely get mentioned. They are in a “dark forest” where they don’t create artifacts, aren’t listed anywhere, and are rarely talked about. When you do hear about a private community that interests you, capitalize on that opportunity to explore it further.
There are lots of communities out there. Don’t fear missing out on not being a part of a specific one. Similar ones exist that could be better suited for you. I’ve found many in similar niches that are dramatically different in quality, and often better match my goals. If a smaller community gets you to engage more, it is likely better for you.
Keep searching. Without knowing what is out there, you’ll never discover the community ideal for you.
Ask a company what they value and there is a good chance they say “our people.” Without employees, customers, and other stakeholders, a company wouldn’t exist or succeed. The interests, problems, and passions of these groups shape a company. Increasingly, the place to talk about these topics is internet communities, and that is why executives should care about them.
Internet communities are groups of people with shared interests and identities who interact with each other on the internet. Platforms like Facebook Groups, Reddit, Slack, Discord, as well as purpose-build sites and forums make interaction simple. Many are pseudonymous meaning information shared is rawer (for good and bad).
Members trust these places to talk about best practices, industry knowledge, and their problems. They want to talk about their work with other people who know. Communities also provide an opportunity to network and develop their career. This is especially important when cut off from the in-person communities (or workplaces) people socialized in.
Communities are opportunities for executives to better understand their people and industry, as well as to educate and share messages. Key people pay attention to and are influenced by them. Executives who do the same create a better knowledge of what their employees, customers, and other stakeholders actually care about. In the long run, it helps protect their company’s reputation and build better offerings.
Communities are Spaces for the Passionate and Opinionated
The people who join and engage internet communities care a lot about them. It takes effort and knowledge to join and say something. It shows they are passionate about their work and industry. They are likely more passionate and opinionated than your average industry or workforce member. These passions and opinions can help or harm a company’s reputation as well as be an opportunity to create better offerings.
The shared identity members have in community creates trust. Members with similar knowledge and experience are trusted over “outside” sources like media, industry reports, and company communications. This allows them to have candid discussions, but also isolates them from other sources of information.
In every community, there are many more “lurkers” (non-posters) than posters. The members who do post, post a lot. They can have a massive impact on the opinions and knowledge of the community. A niche opinion held by an active poster can quickly become a popular one. This can impact a company’s reputation within the community and beyond.
For example, see Blind “a trusted community where verified professionals connect to discuss what matters most.” Members share company reviews, work experience, salary details, interviewing processes, and more. Because Blind is verified and anonymous, members often trust it to make crucial career decisions. A better reputation here could lead to attracting top talent. It also provides tons of high-value information to these companies (and their competitors).
Opinions radiate outwards from communities like this. A small number of core opinion leaders can influence a company’s reputation. A negative view of a company can snowball, especially if there is no one mentioning the other side of the story. An active promoter for a competitor can also create more than their fair share of influence. Both can happen to companies that don’t care about internet communities.
Community is not only about mitigating reputational risk. Members voice their opinion about all sorts of things, often in a less filtered way than you find in public social media or within a workplace. Searching a community for problems and complaints about a company or industry leads to insights. These insights lead to building things people want. Not things people pretend they want, but things they go out of their way to complain in search of a solution for. It provides executives a source of knowledge and feedback that few other companies are taking advantage of.
One way anyone can tap into the power of communities now is:
Go to Facebook or Reddit
Search for your industry or customer’s profession (the more niche the better)
Join multiple groups or subreddits.
See what gets talked about a lot (look at the comments). Search for your company (or competitors).
You might pick up an insight or two you didn’t think about. Not someone complaining for attention on social media, a biased survey, or an opinion from a “thought leader,” but a real interaction between people. There are millions of interactions like this across platforms. Executives should be paying attention to at least some of them.
The question remains: how does a company interact with communities? An answer for many executives is seeing them as “always-on events.“
A company without a presence at an event is forgotten. Same is true in communities. Conversations are always happening, but there is no way to gain from them if you aren’t there. Companies that embrace communities are talked about more, have better control over their reputation, and gain insights from the members.
It is also important to understand how a company is perceived within a community. Executives should realize it is about the people first. Communities aren’t social media, you cannot broadcast your message and expect to succeed. Imagine if you went to an event, got up on stage, and yelled “buy our product” over and over. It wouldn’t work, and your reputation would take a greater hit than if you said nothing at all.
Like events, communities provide many opportunities to engage with members directly, provide insights from key people, and share relevant content. This requires executives to empower their employees to engage and provide resources where necessary. Executives can’t hover over every conversation an employee is having at an event, the same is true here. Answering questions and being helpful can go a long way to improve a company’s reputation within a community.
A good example of a company interacting directly with a community is Stripe having an unfavorable story is shared on Hacker News. Instead of releasing a press release or responding through the media, Stripe’s co-founder goes straight to the comment section to reply:
Stripe also empowers employees to engage with real users in these communities. See another Hacker News comment section after the announcement of a new product line:
Opportunities like these happen more often than you think. Companies that don’t have a presence and don’t empower their employees are unable to have these interactions. The “always-on events” mindset allows companies to engage where relevant without over-stepping into overt promotion.
Community on the internet is early. No one has figured it all out yet. Executives that pay attention and engage now have a chance to build relationships and ways of working that others don’t.
Community Creates A Competitive Advantage
The size and importance of internet communities continue to grow. Reddit grew 44% year over year to 52M daily users in 2020. Discord has 140M monthly active users. 1.8B people use Facebook Groups monthly. Startups like Geneva, Circle, Upstream, Clubhouse, and many others continue to innovate and create better spaces for all types of people. It is increasingly likely your customers, employees and stakeholders spend time and are influenced by these communities. They aren’t going away.
The executives who understand and engage with communities create better control over their reputation and deeper insights into their customers, employees, and stakeholders. Both are new areas to create competitive advantage others are missing out on.
The answers to how a company should interact with a community are unique for each situation. The “always-on events” mindset may not work for every business. What isn’t unique is that executives should care more about internet communities. The ones who do will find an advantage in the long run.
These trends aren’t stopping any time soon. Communities with ownership coordinate and grow faster than ever before. They do so by capitalizing on two concepts: skin in the game and FOMO.
Improving coordination through skin in the game.
Ownership in a community creates skin in the game. It aligns individuals to make decisions that benefit both them and the community as a whole (although that doesn’t always work out). Individuals benefit when the community benefits, they lose when the community loses.
Without ownership, community growth benefits members indirectly (more sources of information, people to meet, and opportunities). It requires members to act on opportunities to benefit. With ownership, any action that benefits the community benefits the owner both directly and indirectly. They get similar opportunities as they would get without ownership, with the added benefit of owning a piece of the community that is (hopefully) growing in value.
Owners want the value of their ownership to grow. Because of this, they are likely to:
promote the community
encourage other members to become owners
show how well their ownership is doing
Owners of NFTs or students of Lambda School are quick to promote their success and try to convince you to join. New people buying-in improves the value of the community. It helps makes the early adopter’s decision look better, increases the value of their share, and improves the likelihood the community continues to grow. The actions that benefit the individual simultaneously benefits the community with ownership.
On the flip side, there is potential for members to act in ways that hurt the value of the community. Owners with skin in the game are more sensitive to downside. They realize their actions could hurt both their relationship with the community as well as the value of the community. They will likely behave better and encourage others to do the same. Owners factor the downside of their behavior on the community more than non-owners do.
Owners are also more likely to stick around and try to fix the community if broken. Members without ownership can easily leave if there is little tying them to the community. They are especially quick to flee when problems are hurting their value as individuals. This could create a “death spiral.” Ownership has a chance to break this spiral. Owners balance the value of redeeming the value of a community with further losses. Nothing helps someone want to fix something more than ownership.
Skin in the game strengthens tribal identities allowing communities to build trust and move faster. It clarifies who “us” is and who “them” is. Like in the Wall Street Bets and Gamestop example, communities often take the role of David versus the goliath of big, historical institutions. It is often impossible for the goliath to become an owner of the community, creating clear sides. The community then gets the added benefit of fighting against a collective enemy, only leading to increased growth and trust. This is critical for success in stressful times.
Communities with skin in the game are better incentivized to make good decisions than ones without. This doesn’t mean it always happens. They are just more thoughtful with their decisions. They think more about their decision’s impact on the value of the community, not just themselves. At scale, this can create massive benefits.
Fueling rapid growth through FOMO
Ownership makes the benefits of community clear. You can see numbers going up. Exponentially increasing graphs and triple-digit percentage gains are a good example of this. Owners like bragging about how well their ownership is doing. They do it to show how smart they are, to signal they are part of the in-group, and to try to attract more people to join them. This bragging creates FOMO.
Wall Street Bets is built around making risky bets and bragging about you gains. Ownership makes this possible. Without ownership, bets aren’t risky and gains are small. Gamestop was a risky bet that worked out, and hit the mainstream. When non-members saw how many people were benefiting from the trade, they wanted to join too. The subreddit grew from 3M to over 6M in a week. The bet was perceived as less risky because “millions” of others were also making the it. At the very least, it could also be written off as entertainment. People feared missing out on the clear benefits (and entertainment) it offered and Gamestop shot up to the moon.
When it becomes clear there is significant growth in the value of a community, many new people are interested in taking advantage of it. They fear losing out on the benefits. Luckily for them, ownership is a quick way to join a community. It creates skin in the game quickly and creates a self-reinforcing growth loop.
FOMO is also useful for people on the margins of a community. Every communities, especially large ones, loses members. People have limited time and focus. If it isn’t clear what benefit you get from a community, you’ll probably leave. If you fear missing out on a benefit, you are likely to stay longer than someone who doesn’t have ownership. When you are an owner, you stick with what you own. You are likely to revisit the community. You’ll fear missing out on the redemption, especially when a community has redeemed itself once before (like Bitcoin).
For example, more members in OnDeck means more high status people and more recognition of the “OnDeck” signal. OnDeck grows by attracting high status people to lead a growing number of untapped, specific communities. Every community within OnDeck benefits from new communities succeeding. Members are less likely to leave because they fear losing out on the benefits of OnDeck’s momentum. The more quality people join OnDeck, the more their ownership (signal) is worth. As momentum continues, more people are likely to join and existing members are more likely to stay.
From Bitcoin to OnDeck, owners have two reasons to stay: the entertainment and knowledge they get from the community and the upside from ownership. If they choose to leave, they lose both. Owners have more to lose when leaving a community than non-owners do. An owner will likely be a member of the community until they cash-out or better opportunities come along. The fear of missing out on future upsides could be the key piece to getting them to stay.
Nothing creates more fear of missing out than ownership. Communities can use this to their advantage to fuel growth and maintain membership. Ownership gets members to return to a community and makes it more difficult to leave a community. People fear losing out on continued gains from being a part of the community.
Ownership is a powerful motivator for users to contribute to products in deeper ways, be it with ideas, computing resources, code, or community building. This more cooperative economic model helps ensure better alignment with users over time, resulting in platforms that can be larger, more resilient, and more innovative. This is the Ownership Economy, and beyond being a positive social endeavor, the platforms building it are able to leverage the strongest form of market incentives to grow network effects.
Communities that create ownership for their members are more likely to grow rapidly and succeed than the ones that don’t. Ownership does not automatically mean something will succeed. It is a way to supercharge something that is working. It is a way to increase growth and improve retention within a community.
Ownership in community grows with the trends of large community platforms and distributed ownership options. More communities will have ownership options and more members will be owners. As it gets easier to create ownership within communities, we will see more communities with ownership options succeed. In the long run, this creates better communities.
People avoid friction because it’s work they’d prefer not to do. Luckily for us, the internet eliminates friction. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit succeed because they are the best at doing it. They make it easy to join, consume, and engage. Through eliminating friction, they reach their goals of user growth, content consumption, and engagement. Realize that these are their goals, not yours. Your goals likely require more friction, because the “popular” internet is not optimized for your goals.
Better spaces exist if your goals are learning something new, connecting with people, growing your career, or talking about interests. The spaces are higher friction communities on smaller platforms like Discord, Circle.so, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Upstream, Substack, Forem, and many other special-built community sites. They exist behind paywalls, invitations, subscriptions, events, and paid content. This is friction we don’t normally go through.
People expect low friction and constantly move towards it. An example of this is TikTok. It shows that even YouTube has too much friction. TikTok removed the friction of choice by showing you an endless feed of videos tailored to you. It proves endless frictionless entertainment is there if you want it. If you have different goals, higher friction communities are the way to go.
Higher friction creates smaller communities. These communities are better aligned with positive outcomes for their members. They trade smaller membership for a higher quality of interactions. By overcoming friction, members have skin in the game. They paid the required “price” to join the community and are better aligned with the incentives of the group. They want a higher return on investment for energy spent joining and staying a part of the community. Those who get through are more serious, engaged, and knowledgeable.
When compared to internet communities, many popular in-person communities have high friction. They require consistent attendance, thinking, engagement with people, and sacrifice of resources to the community. Examples include universities, volunteer organizations, meetups, social clubs, local politics, and team sports. In-person communities were key parts of people’s lives, but are fading in importance (especially with restricted in-person interaction). If internet communities are to be as important, they must mimic the increased amount of friction.
To increase the amount of friction, people and communities must move away from the lowest friction platforms. Big social media platforms will never want higher friction because it means fewer users, less attention, and fewer ads that can be shown. Higher friction communities must develop on different platforms, and people must go through the effort of finding and contributing to them.
Content on the internet offers an example to follow. The move from print to digital has long caused a decrease in friction. Many areas in content are now seeing a rebound in friction. Both companies (e.g. The New York Times) and platforms (e.g. Substack) are moving away from maximizing reach and monetizing with ads towards content behind paywalls. The creators of content are finding increased friction better aligns with their goals and the goals of their audience. Communities will find the same.
Internet creators will be key early adopters of higher friction communities. Many of the communities they appeal to exist on these low friction platforms. Creators face a growing choice between spending time creating content for maximum reach or using it to build communities. Although building for communities limits the number of people seeing content, it increases engagement and affinity with their audience. If creators build on higher friction communities, their audiences won’t be far behind. This has knock-on effects on related communities.
The communities you belong to on low friction platforms exist on higher friction ones, but they require more work. Your move towards higher friction communities will benefit them, as well as yourself. Higher friction communities are more focused and likely better align with your goals. The large, low friction platforms we spend our time on have the goal of keeping us there. If we (ourselves and our communities) want to prioritize other goals, we must explore and move away. When we do, we’ll find many new, unrealized benefits.
The format of interactions in a community creates a community’s speed. Interactions are driven by the platforms communities exist on. Voice and messages are fast, events and peer-reviewed articles are slow. Speed is both a constraint and an incentive. It guides a community’s behavior, actions, and content.
Communities can exist at any speed but often have a natural one. Members of a Twitch channel send many short messages to each other while a stream is on. They aren’t writing thousand-word, well-researched messages. On the other hand, a community of scientists (like SSRN) may communicate through papers published monthly to yearly. Every scientist isn’t in a big group chat constantly updating every other scientist on their progress. These communities aren’t limited from using a different speed but settle on an accepted one.
Many communities exist at many speeds. Members of the same community can use blogs, newsletters, comments, social media, events, forums, video calls, and voice chat to communicate with each other. Each platform’s format incentivizes different behaviors. The community’s collective knowledge is created and understood differently at different speeds. Members move towards speeds that work for them, given enough other members are there.
Fast communities focus on a large number of small interactions, slow communities focus on a small number of large interactions. Communities can slow down or speed up by adding different formats into the mix. A Discord server can slow itself down by adding an announcements channel where moderators post only important information. An events-based community can speed itself up by using a platform like Hopin to host online events.
Communities aren’t always working at the right speeds. Members follow the format they are given, they don’t understand how the platform constrains their interactions. A community may be less informative or useful than it could be at a “better” speed.
Platforms for communities are continually improving and innovating, yet many communities are stuck on older platforms with worse speeds. Three barriers make switching speeds difficult: content, status, and quality.
Content is tied to one platform. If a community switches platforms, content must be migrated or it is lost. Migration can be difficult (impossible) for many reasons including the amount of content, noncompatible format changes, and inability to move private content. Many of the longest-running internet communities host their own content to avoid ever having to migrate platforms, but this also means they are unlikely to ever change speeds
It can also be difficult to transfer status between platforms; and therefore, between speeds. Status is usually tied to one platform in the form of attention or reputation. These are difficult to quantify but usually take the shape of followers, likes, subscribers, or a platform-specific metric. These metrics don’t usually line up between platforms. Even if they did, platforms are unlikely to allow transfer because status is a key part of what keeps users locked-in.
Finally, when changing speeds by moving platforms, there must be a balance between the platform’s quality and the members’ quality. Communities want high-quality members on whatever platform they are on. If these members exist on one platform and refuse to move to another (even if the other is “better” for the community), the move won’t be successful. The quality from the change in platform must make up for the attrition in member quality caused by the migration.
Even though these barriers exist, there are reasons for optimism that communities will move towards better speeds in the long run. Many new platforms are created for communities to exist on and barriers to migration are lowering.
Tools and platforms like Forem and Circle.so are being developed and improved to appeal to specific communities. Community platforms are extremely competitive, meaning innovation must happen rapidly to stand out. The increase in development and innovation creates options for communities and helps them find an ideal platform and speed.
Barriers to migration are also lowering. Members are realizing how important the ownership and transferability of their content is. Disconnecting content and platforms is a growing trend. Platform-agnostic content means platform-agnostic status. The username transcends the platform. Members are realizing platform lock-in is bad. Cross-promotion and platform diversification is becoming standard.
Users ultimately decide what speed works for them. The platforms you spend your time and energy on are the platforms you are promoting. If you believe a different speed is better for the community, move towards that speed. Be thoughtful about speeds you choose to engage with because it shapes the community’s behavior in the long run.
How you think about the future makes you unique. It is your knowledge and experiences projected forward. Your ideas about the future shape how you spend your time and energy. There are many futures for you to explore and pursue. You should try to pick the best ones.
Start by exploring many futures. You can’t live towards a future you do not know. The internet is the greatest catalogue of futures ever created. You should try to create an explanation of your future you can move towards. Let past futures guide you. What many people do today is the result of what a few people did in the past. Your present exist because of past people’s actions.
Realize your future is your advantage, but it requires focus to capitalize on. Your future is where you focus that others aren’t. Everyone can’t focus everywhere, we have different futures. You don’t need to care about every future. There are some areas in life you should be content with the present. You don’t need a future for everything. You can borrow other people’s futures. There are people everywhere who share their future with everyone, this helps that future become more likely. You can follow along, and focus on the futures most important to you.
Your future can be wrong. We don’t know what future is right until it happens. We deem futures “right” after the fact. It happens once a group accepts a future became the present. No one knows if a future is right until they act on it. Creating a future requires action. Work towards the wrong future is not lost. Knowledge gained can be useful in another future. We are constantly inventing new futures for ourselves and others. We take action with the expectation we are working towards a better future, and we never stop.
If your future is right and others follow, you can gain status, power, and money while the rest are joining you. The greatest people pull their future into the present. They start with a future and a way to pursue it. They then drag themselves and their group into their better future and are rewarded for it. To create progress towards a future, you must focus on it and act.
The present was created by people like you. They had a future in mind, worked towards it, and now you live in it. Everyone can do the same. This is not only true of the physical world, but of our knowledge, behaviors, norms, and values.
Explore many futures, find one you believe in. Do your best to pull that future into the present. Work on what future people will work on, behave like future people will behave, think as future people will think. The future is yours.
Communities normally monetize in two ways: access and status.
Many communities exist “after” knowledge. They are an incentive for getting through the course, project, guide, or certification. They allow access to people who did the same. Once you gained the knowledge (and often paid for it), then you get access to the community. This is the way communities have made money for thousands of years, paying to access or stay in a community.
Communities also monetize by selling status. Status exists naturally in communities. In a community, it shows who is active, cares, and is knowledgeable. It tells us where to look. Status comes from signaling you have knowledge or are important.
Communities monetize status by allowing members to show they care about a community and to stand out from the crowd. Often, the platform the community lives on monetizes through status. Special benefits, roles, badges, and display features are all ways of charging to signal status. Selling status is appealing because it allows people to stand out without hurting other members’ experiences.
But there is a third way to monetize few communities take advantage of, knowledge.
Communities are built on knowledge. They build collective knowledge of top posts, guides, tools, norms, and best practices. This collective knowledge is loose. Often community members don’t add to it or formalizing it. It grows slowly. The content is temporary, hard to maintain, and often lost. Paid content incentivizes improvements to collective knowledge and allows communities to monetize in a better way.
Others Do It, Why Can’t Communities?
Lots of places sell knowledge, there is no reason communities can’t be one of them. Communities have a supply of, and demand for, knowledge. Many community members pay for similar knowledge elsewhere.
There is a stigma around paid content in communities. Because nearly all content is free, paid content is looked down upon or banned. Although no one is certain, this often prevents important work. Developing high-quality content may require paying people. Since there are few mechanisms for paid content in communities, it doesn’t get created.
There is a growing amount of tools and products to monetize knowledge. Paid newsletters, courses, and guides are growing in number and relevance. The internet allows people to sell specific pieces of knowledge to specific audiences.
People already sell within communities. Lots of people use communities to promote in a roundabout way. I’m sure you’ve seen a community post with a call-to-action like “if you liked this post, check out my blog.” On their blog, they have an email funnel that leads to a paid course, guide, or product. They created content that appeals to a community but monetize away from it.
Advertisements are another example of selling on the community without the benefits going back to the community. Often ads have nothing to do with the community itself. Replacing ads with content crafted for a community is an improvement.
Communities should take control of their monetization.
How They Do It
Paid content starts with buy-in from the platforms and moderation team. None of this happens if paid content is banned or the community doesn’t want it. Paid content also requires tools to promote it and ways to communicate it. It is more work to get someone to buy content than it is to get them to read it.
Creating paid content is more work than the average post. The content must be valuable to the community; to do that, it must be developed by some subset of the community. If it is truly community content, it may involve many community members. Paid content requires more effort and coordination, but money provides a good incentive to coordinate.
Areas members should focus on to provide the most value:
Formalizing basic collective knowledge.
Expanding collective knowledge.
Formalizing Collective Knowledge
When I enter a community, I look for the most important information first.
Top posts of all time.
Content from most active and highest status members.
Member wiki, introductory guide, recommended readings.
Paid content can improve on these formats. Paid introduction guides, paid content written by high-status members, a curated collection of top posts (with permission and revenue-sharing) are all options. If I am interested in a community, I want to dive down a rabbit hole. Often communities set up a wiki and forget it for years, links are dead, quality is poor. I may churn out before I understand and interact with the community.
Imagine a year in review or year ahead guide created by key members of a community. For it, you pay $5-20. Although basic, it can be valuable to new and existing members. They get high-quality knowledge and support the creation of content they like.
A brilliant example I saw (and bought) while writing this piece is the collected essays of LessWrong. They are charging $29 for a set of books containing the best writing from the community. It monetizes a free community by benefiting members of the community.
High-quality introductory content makes all members better members. It gives them the context they need to understand and participate in the community. It also encourages new members to stay longer. It is a valuable shortcut to knowledge communities don’t do well enough.
Expanding Collective Knowledge
Everyone wants to learn something new. New knowledge is knowledge at the boundaries of what the community covers. This is research into specific topics, experiments, or in-depth analysis.
The problem is innovative content is less rewarded than basic content in communities. The overall appeal of innovative content is lower than basic content. If a member is looking to maximize their status with the community as a whole, creating good content that appeals to all of them is better than creating excellent, innovative content that appeals to a minority.
Creating content that expands collective knowledge is a risk. By paying for it, communities can incentivize its creation. Without this content, a community can stagnate. The content within the community becomes a repetition of existing ideas. Old members lose interest.
Spend enough time in a community and you want to move beyond the basics. Members should push into uncharted territory. They should innovate and be rewarded. A boost in status often isn’t enough encouragement. Paid content can fill in.
Will It Happen?
As mentioned, paid content requires buy-in from both the platform or the moderations. As it stands, few platforms provide the tools and culture needed for paid content to thrive. Communities must communicate with their members on why paid content exists. It must be understood that paid content benefits the community. If members can be convinced, it can bring value to a community.
People complain that creating paid content within a community prevents free content. The balance is saying most of it exists already, and free content isn’t going away. Paid content is extra. It helps communities develop better, more specific content that will benefit the community into the future.
A future where communities create paid content is a future with better communities.
Writing is hard, competitive, and readers do not want to pay for it. Sounds like an unappealing market right? Against all odds, Substack is one of the most hyped companies at the moment. Their competitive advantage, growing and monetizing newsletters simply, is also a weakness. Writers can just as easily leave with a list Substack helped them grow and monetize.
Substack’s incentives are aligned for smaller writers (can’t beat free) but become misaligned for larger ones. For writers, Substack is as good as the services they provide them lately. The beneficial features for a new writer with no following are not the same as the features for an experienced writer with a large following. Larger writers might need support with moderation, subscriber management, promotion, and protection.
Why would writers leave? Substack takes a 10% cut of subscriptions. This isn’t much for smaller writers but is significant optionality for larger ones. At large amounts, writers could find ways to claim more of that cut for themselves, while getting optionality. Examples of this are paying someone to develop, host, and manage their own site, finding a service to do it cheaper with customization, or monetizing through traditional routes (books and institutions). Margin is opportunity.
Money isn’t the only reason for writers leaving. Newsletters require new content to constantly be created. You can’t charge someone for nothing. If someone wants to focus on any other medium (book, video, podcast, writing for an institution), it is a loss to Substack.
Keeping big writers writing on Substack is a key business problem to figure out. Here’s how they do it:
Providing an expanded definition of customer service.
Building community and reader lock-in.
Showing writers how bad leaving would be.
Expanded Definition of Customer Service
Incentives become misaligned for high revenue writers. Revenue from a writer increases but the value provided to that writer stays the same. Writers could perceive Substack as not providing value at high revenue levels. To realign incentives, Substack needs to provide an extended definition of customer service.
Substack should aim to remove toil from writers. Toil is any work not central to writing the newsletter. Examples of this include moderation, payments, refunds, and product improvements. These are all tasks writers do for themselves away from Substack or get handled for them in an organization.
Substack needs to find a balance between providing services to writers and allowing independence. An example of this is Substack’s legal “Defender” program. It provides the benefits of a larger organization (legal support if needed) while allowing writers to remain independent.
Research and promotion are two ambitious areas to remove toil that could create massive competitive advantages. Substack could provide access to key research subscriptions to its writers. They could also co-market with writers to boost sign-ups and subscriptions.
Substack must treat its writers as large enterprise contracts. Substack enables writer success. This requires more than customer support reps answering questions. It cuts into their margins but is necessary as competitors encroach.
Writers may own the email list but they don’t own the full reader relationship. Substack will own more of the relationship. Product design is limited if in the end an email is sent. Moving readers from their email inbox to Substack’s site is an important goal.
“Substack Inbox” is in Beta. Its goal is readers reading on Substack’s site. This enables better community engagement and discovery. Inbox creates a closer relationship between readers and Substack. Substack wants readers to lock into the platform. They want to be the place readers check when they are looking for something to read.
Time-on-site creates value for Substack as a community. While on-site, people are more likely to see comments and more likely to comment. Communities require engagement to grow, and email is a low engagement platform. Substack provides access to many “communities” using one login. With engagement, community becomes a reason for readers to use Substack.
For writers, reader lock-in means less potential readership if they move away. Moving away may mean losing out on the community engagement and discovery Substack provides. If moving away from Substack means losing a large potential audience and community, that becomes an incentive to stay.
This could also be true in the other direction. Writers could want to move away from Substack for greater control over their community. Without careful moderation (who provides it?), communities can get out of control, especially because of the popularity of politics on the platform. Trolls go where the attention goes.
If Substack succeeds in getting readers to spend more time-on-site, there are incentives for writers to stay. If a writer moves, they’ll lose some part of their readership who spends time on Substack’s site and in their communities. Substack can say “don’t leave, your readers are all here.”
Showing Writers How Bad Leaving Would Be
Many of the most popular writers left traditional writing gigs to join Substack. This is great marketing for Substack. They must play this up. The message is simple: “traditional media is evil and managing your own site is too difficult, stay with us.”
I can foresee a day when a writer on Substack writes something bad about traditional media, so bad it is considered slanderous. The media company and the writer get in a legal fight. Substack comes to that writer’s defense. “Big institutions are evil, Substack is good.” Infinite good marketing for Substack.
To keep this up, they must keep the image of enabling independence. There will be big media stories about how Substack is hosting evil people (and it may be true). Big organizations can coordinate their attack and rally their writers to support. Substack needs their writers to decide to support them. If writers turn and Substack’s reaction is bad, this could be a major problem for the business.
Substack also wants to paint full independence as a hassle. Writers are writers, not business owners, not managers. Substack allows writers to focus on writing. Realistically, Ghost, Medium, and others are only slightly more difficult to figure out. They aren’t as trendy though. The “starting a Substack” trend will run out. Being ready to turn on the “we are simple and that makes us better” focus is important. This must remain true. Substack cannot become too complicated while the hype is still driving growth.
Substack has grown quickly, but they must be careful with their growth. Writing is never going to get easier. The amount of people who consistently write content people are willing to pay for is limited. They aren’t close to hitting a ceiling, but their growth could slow if the “trendy” label wears off.
If growth slows and top writers leave, it will ruin the business. Substack is easy to join, but also easy to leave. More competition is coming. Good writers have options. Showing Substack as the best of those options will become increasingly important.
Information floods the internet. You can’t control it, but it must be controlled for you to absorb it. It is primarily controlled through infinite feeds of content on social media. Because sites control the feed, they control a part of your bubble. Your bubble is the natural and selected sources of information that influence what we think and do.
Businesses with the most control over your bubble can show you the content they want to show you. The feed wants to show you content that keeps you on the platform and makes them money. They cloud what bubble you are in or add content from other bubbles “for engagement.”
If you leave the feed unchecked, your bubble becomes filled with content that maximizes engagement rather than the goals you want. If you are looking to learn or be informed, the feed doesn’t prioritize that for you. Letting the feed control your bubble is good if your goals are to be mildly entertained or outraged at all times.
On top of this, social media sites make it hard for you to understand why you are seeing content, especially with algorithmic feeds. People you follow like or share for many reasons. Clickbait, fake news, low-quality content all arise from the success of low context content. Low context content is often low effort content. It appeals to the broadest audience possible. This is a race to the bottom. What we end with are GIF recipes and political fighting.
High context content requires more effort to create and consume, so it appeals to a smaller audience. Appealing to a smaller audience means less engagement and less money for the feed. Because social media sites make money through ads, they will continue to show you low context, high engagement content forever.
You can take back control of your bubbles. The first step is being aware of the power of the feed and its incentives. The second step is changing where you get information to better align with the goals of learning and informing.
Communities To The Rescue
Communities offer a solution to the context-less, low-quality content of the broader internet. They improve information through context, relevancy, and moderation.
Communities call the bubble by name, they don’t try to blur it. They allow you to understand what bubble you are in. Instead of guessing the context of every post, communities tell you. You gain a focused mindset within the context of community. They provide you a place to think about a certain topic, rather than thinking about all topics at once.
Although content shared is specific, less effort is needed to understand it. Content is better aligned with the context of the community. Each new piece of information in a community builds on past pieces. It gains from the history, trends, references, and recommendations of the community. This creates deeper knowledge that is difficult to get on social media.
The problem with many feeds is the sources in your bubble provide irrelevant information. They share everything interesting to them, rather than what is interesting to you. In communities, someone had to look for relevant content and go through the effort of sharing it for you to see it.
People in communities identify with the content they are seeing. The feeds contain other people’s content. Communities contain “our” content. Because you identify with a group, information shared with that group is likely relevant to you. Community members share interests with you. Communities provide a filter for information to pass through which increases the content’s authority.
Communities aren’t immune to low-quality content, but there is a person behind posts. Members are incentivized to share information the community finds interesting rather than maximizing engagement to sell ads. Someone decided the content should be shared because they think it is relevant to the group, which is better than an algorithm trying to get you to click ads.
There is no one moderating your feeds to keep them on the topic except for yourself. This leads to plenty of off-topic discussions. No one realizes the damage these actions do to the feed’s content quality. It prevents people from engaging who normally would. It prevents information from being shared that might be interesting. It lowers the quality of content.
Communities develop social norms that social media sites don’t. People in communities take moderation seriously. Moderators help improve the community’s information quality. They remove off-topic content, spam, trolling, and more.
Getting banned from a community is a good incentive. Miscreants get shunned from the community. Unfollowing is a bad incentive because few people do it. When you have even a small following, losing a follower or two doesn’t show. Bad behavior continues, while in communities it can’t.
People who complain about social media provide the solution of deleting everything. This is unrealistic because people are information hungry, they’ll always be searching for more. Swapping feeds with communities is a more realistic solution.
Communities aren’t a perfect solution to the flood of information or for avoiding bubbles. Communities are a bubble. People can still be apart of “bad” bubbles. Poor quality content can still ruin communities. The total information you get will be lower. Your bubble might be smaller. I think many people will find these trade-offs appealing.
Swapping feeds for communities creates fewer incentives for engagement and more for learning and informing is good. It might better align with your goals when they take in information. Try it.