Communities Should Create Paid Content

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:

  1. Formalizing basic collective knowledge.
  2. 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.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How To Keep Big Writers On Substack

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:

  1. Providing an expanded definition of customer service.
  2. Building community and reader lock-in.
  3. 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.

Community

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.

Exit Feeds, Enter Community

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.

Context

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.

Relevancy

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.

Moderation

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.


Let me know what you think on Twitter.

How Discord Won

It has been a big year for realizing the limits of technology for interacting with people. Gamers have known this for a long time. Lag, disconnections, and coordination issues were problems in gaming since the start. There is a platform that has gone a long way in solving those problems: Discord.

Discord allows people to talk and chat online. Servers are created by anybody to talk about anything, usually, it is a friend group or a shared interest. They contain chat channels (kind of like Slack) and voice channels that are always on and allow people to join and leave whenever they want.

The competition between internet communication platforms is fierce. Discord wasn’t early to voice channels or group chats. They weren’t unique for targeting their offering to gamers. Other platforms have the same features as them. Yet they are a multi-billion dollar business. How? To borrow an idea from Sarah Tavel, they built a 10x better product AND capture more value from it.

10x Better

Voice chat sucked for a long time. Skype, which was long the most popular option, was a mess. It forced you to call people. Servers went down often. The application crashed. Chats were all over the place. There is a good reason people do not use Skype and it is because it sucks.

There were other competitors like IRC, TeamSpeak, Mumble, Ventrilo. All had basically the same features, voice calls, and chat. Each suffered from a combination of problems like:

  • Complicated setup process. Any new member must also go through a setup process.
  • Paid hosting. No one wanted to pay when there were free options. Especially true as servers grow.
  • Unclear benefits. Convincing one person was not enough, you needed to convince your whole group of the benefits of switching.
  • Weird ideological reasons. Your platform was your tribal affiliation, switching means abandoning your tribe. Everyone looked down on people who didn’t use the same platform as them (even if it was jokingly).

Discord launched in May 2015, long after the competitors listed above. They are now more successful than those same competitors. They did so by making the experience 10x better:

  • Discord requires nearly no setup. Starting a server on Discord takes two clicks. Creating channels is two clicks. It works instantly and all the time.
  • Discord is free.
  • It is easy to switch to Discord. Inviting people is two clicks and a paste. Joining a server (once you have an account) is two clicks. It is so simple you don’t even think about it.
  • Non-core features like emoji support, reactions, bots, integrations, video calls, and screen-sharing all work as well as you could ask.
  • Big community servers for games, fanbases, organizations, hobbies, and more.

Improvements in each of these areas add up to a 10x better experience than other platforms. I complain about Discord way less than I complain about Skype. There are benefits for everyone on Discord, which makes it a 10x experience both for groups and individuals.

On top of being 10x better, the core features are free. This causes an obvious business problem, how do you make money? There isn’t an obvious place to put ads. Competitors often charge by the member, but that incentivizes against growth. Discord figured out a way to incentivize growth while capturing value from large and small groups.

Sell Status to Capture Value

It took Discord a long time to figure out monetization (and they still are figuring it out). Venture capital allowed them to experiment with ideas such as selling games and membership. Neither worked perfectly, but they pointed in the right direction. Forbes estimated they are “on track to top $120 million in sales this year (2020)… up from around $70 million last year.”

To understand Discord’s monetization, look at their history. The founders previously started game companies and were inspired by free-to-play games like League of Legends. Games like League of Legends sell status. It is free-to-play but you can buy “skins” to make your character look different. If you have a cool or expensive skin, it means you care more about the game. It raises your status. Discord does the same.

Discord allows users to raise their status through a subscription called Nitro. It provides quality improvements (file size and video quality), special profile upgrades (more emojis, animated profile photos, custom tags), and most importantly, the ability to “boost” a server.

Boosts raise a user’s status in both small and large servers. They allow you to either improve your friend’s online hangout and your communities’ experience by unlocking custom emotes, cosmetic features, and quality improvements. For users, it puts an icon next to their name saying they contribute and gives them a special booster role on the server. In short, it is a way for someone to pay to stand out.

Server Boost Perks

You can buy boosts separately from Nitro at $5 per month or $50 per year. Perks come in uneven tiers: Level 1 is 2 boosts, Level 2 is 15 boosts, Level 3 is 30 boosts. It is unlikely “friend group sized” servers get past two boosts, but large servers often pass thirty. Some examples:

NameBoostsMRR (@ $5 per boost)
Minecraft165$825
Kanye75$375
Fortnite165$825
r/LeagueOfLegends201$1005
Animal Crossing: New Horizons412$2060
r/Overwatch85$425
Rocket League116$580
Fall Guys215$1075
Anime Soul Discord323$1615
Kenny Beats50$250
Musicians (Turkish)730$3650
English94$470
Python44$220
CallMeCarson Discord Cult1153$5765

Here are 14 popular servers accounting for nearly $250,000 in revenue per year. There are tons more, all with varying amounts of boosts. People are willing to pay to stand out, even when there is no obvious benefit. This is universal.

Every community needs a place to communicate online. Discord has the best offering, and it is free. Other platforms either force you to pay by the member or have a flat rate paid by the community host. Discord doesn’t require either. Servers can grow as large as they want for free, moderators and admins don’t have to pay, and Discord still makes money.

As communities continue to grow on Discord, the money Discord makes from those communities goes up as well. Flat rates and tiers limit this. Communities want to grow, Discord provides them with an easy and effective way to do that. Users want status, Discord gives them a shortcut. This aligns incentives better than advertising or paid memberships do.


Discord won by building 10x better spaces for communities. By selling status, they have also managed to capture more value from those communities than other platforms.

Discord won the competition for the gaming chat platform of choice, and now it wants to be the platform for all internet communities. This means they will be competing with the “big dogs” like Slack, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Epic. Their free-to-play, pay-for-status monetization model is a competitive advantage.

Discord is a successful company. The question becomes how successful can they become? The key is the number of internet communities who choose Discord as their home. By creating a better product than competitors and being free for growth, Discord puts itself in an excellent position to continue to succeed moving forward.

Follow me on Twitter.

Build Above Ground

Everyone judges construction sites. We say “this is coming along quickly” or “this will never finish.” When judging construction, all we care about is what’s above ground. Only when we peer between the fence and look closely do we care about what’s below ground. Construction can seem endless because of all the time spent working below ground on the foundation. This is true of work in general.

People don’t care about your foundation, your accreditation, or how you are improving yourself unless it shows. These things are important, they are just below ground. They are the foundation of your work.

People care about what you build above ground: your accomplishments, your career, your results. It is not that these things matter more objectively, they are just what people see.

I often fall into the trap of caring too much about the foundation. I work too much below ground and don’t build enough above ground. I say to myself “if only I had the skills to do X, then I would be successful.” It’s a lie.

You can build a building with a weaker foundation. It is more likely to fail, but you can only get the knowledge of where it fails by building above ground. Your next building will benefit more from this than an improved foundation.

Building more foundation doesn’t mean that your building will never fail. Once you try, you could still fail. The only way to prevent failure is to never build above ground.

Instead of building a shaky building above ground that might fail, I continue to work on my foundation. Foundation is important, but if you never build, you never create something other people need and value. You build below ground for yourself, and above ground for other people.

Endless foundation building will get you nowhere. Build above ground.

The Readership Will Take Care of Itself

Nearly every day, I find myself thinking about ways to get people to read my writing. I tell myself to update the design, start a newsletter, tweet more, or optimize SEO. I say to myself, “If only I spent more time on those, then I would be successful.” Maybe I have to wait and get lucky.

It is easy to think about these things. I can read endlessly about workflows, tools, optimizations, and success stories. They distract me from thinking about the effort needed to write.

There is one solution to getting more people to read my writing: writing more.

The problems with my writing are solved by writing more. I pretend like I have published a large amount, but I am lying to myself. There are plenty of people who publish an article every day that is better than anything I have written.

I have a long list of excuses I have told myself:

  • My writing isn’t good. It will get better as long as a keep publishing.
  • People aren’t reading my writing. The more I write, the more likely someone will read it.
  • I don’t have a good niche to focus on. The focus will come over time.
  • I don’t want to waste my audience’s time. People who think it was a waste of time will forget instantly, and there is someone out there who doesn’t think it is a waste of time.

It is more fun to think about a new project than it is to grind one towards completion. Starting something new is the path of least resistance, it is cheating. I know that writing is a battle with my mind. If I don’t take the action to write and publish, I never will.

Trust the process. The readership will take care of itself.

The Opportunity for Internet Communities

Internet communities, spaces where people with similar identities and interests interact, are a massive opportunity. General internet spaces are becoming hostile. Societal shifts are forcing more people to rethink the communities they are apart of. Big companies in the space have stagnated. Trends are moving in the right direction. Here are some important ones:

Lack of Innovation

To start, communities exist on platforms. The platforms shape how communities interact with each other and develop. Many of the platforms were not build for the internet we have today.

Forums and Reddit are the most obvious ones, and both could be victims to disruption. They have been around forever, and have not changed. Neither is mobile-first. They work, I guess, but they aren’t super attractive. Discord, Slack, and others are creating alternative places for communities to exist online.

Voice and video have a massive role to play in internet communities but have taken a back seat to text until recently. Many people now spend all day on video conferencing for work and have a camera on them at all times. Voice apps are yet to take off but the popularity of podcasts and Airpods show promise.

TikTok showed a different way to create a community. When you focus on video and mobile-first, community looks different. Instead of you choosing your community, TikTok puts you into a community based on what you interact with. I expect to see more of this moving forward.

Political Tribalism

People looking for a way out of political tribalism. The fewer communities someone is a part of, the more likely they see a core community as a political group. Politics on the internet is a mind killer but is incentivized by public platforms. There are always other people who feel strongly with you. You don’t have to know much about the subject to gain status. You can “fight” people online. You can pretend you are doing something valuable. Politics is an easy community to be apart of, but people will grow tired of political tribalism. They will look for other options.

Dark Forest

Yancey Strickler has says the internet has become a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Debate and disagreement cannot be public. It is not acceptable to change your mind. It is not acceptable to have an opposing opinion. Controversial opinions and topics moved out of view.

Ideas don’t cease to exist when they are uncomfortable, they move to places where they are spoken about. They move into the dark forest, hidden communities. Many of these communities already exist on the internet and will only continue to grow. As the size of these dark forest communities grows, so will their impact.

Internet Education

Community leads to education. To become a better member (or even a member at all) people must learn things. Ideas, jargon, people, and companies are all examples of information someone might need to learn. Communities often recommend ways of developing the knowledge needed to join. I expect these to expand.

Internet education is cool, but only when high-status members of a community create and deliver it. Many creators added private communities to their offerings. Students learn and interact with the content better within communities than on their own.

Internet communities will be part of the future of education. In-person communities are the only thing Universities do well. If University is over Zoom, are those communities still valuable? The increasing amount of people deferring think not. A large number of people will be looking at other options, and internet communities may provide a path forward.

Work from Anywhere

Office small talk that might have fulfilled the social and community aspects of people’s days disappeared. People are social animals, they need interaction and will look for it elsewhere. Internet communities are an obvious place to start. Many companies are realizing they need to create their own internet community to work virtually. It is not clear what good company internet communities look like.

Less commuting also means more time to spend pursuing things other than work. Does this mean more time playing video games and watching Netflix or more time as a member of a community?

Passion Economy

Internet communities enable sharing of content and products. If you create something good within a community it will be seen by many of its members. Li Jin of a16z says:

New digital platforms enable people to earn a livelihood in a way that highlights their individuality. These platforms give providers greater ability to build customer relationships, increased support in growing their businesses, and better tools for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the process, they’re fueling a new model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.

Lots of people are making a living creating for internet communities. Many more will continue to do this. Being able to understand and appeal to your community is critical to success in this area. As internet communities become more coordinated and understandable, their economic power grows. Lots of people will be competing for a piece in lots of communities.


The future of internet communities is bright, and there is still plenty of opportunities to pursue. It is something I will be looking into more. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, message me on Twitter or send me an email.

Don’t Forget The Goal

We forget that we forget. People and organizations forget all the time. We trick ourselves into believing we remember more than we do.

Do you remember what you had for dinner three days ago? Or who you had a meeting with last Thursday afternoon? What is an important fact of an article you read early this week? Can’t remember? Neither can I. Neither can anyone.

People forget even the most important aspects of our life. We get distracted often. We get lost and move in the wrong direction.

We get lost in the flood of information that overwhelms us every day. It is a full-time job to keep up with even niche subjects nowadays. Endless articles, newsletters, tweets, videos, and photos are posted daily. Society expects you to be an expert in all areas of the world. It isn’t possible.

You don’t have to remember everything. Focus on remembering what matters.

Remember What Matter

I read a book recently called “The Goal.” It is a fictional story about a manufacturing manager who turns a failing plant into a successful one.

Companies are in business to make money, as much as they tell you otherwise. If a business did not make money, they would not exist. Companies often hide this fact from everyone, even their employees. They hide their goals in projects, initiatives, efficiency, measures, and more.

Over a long enough time, this can lead people to forget that the goal of the company is to make money. In the case of “The Goal,” employees believed that increasing efficiency was the way to be successful. If all the employees and equipment were working as efficiently as possible, they would have a good plant. The problem was that even though the plant was efficient, it was losing money and at risk of being shut down. It turns out working for the sake of working doesn’t pursue the goal.

Productivity is the act of bringing a company closer to its goal. Every action that brings a company closer to its goal is productive. Every action that does not bring a company closer to its goal is not productive.

Eli Goldratt (Author of “The Goal”)

The company got back on track by refocusing on effectiveness rather than efficiency. They refocused on the goal. The goal of a company is to make money.

Many things we think of as goals such as cost-efficiency, employing good people, technology, production, and quality are means of achieving goals, not goals themselves.

Eli Goldratt

This is counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t increased efficiency lead to profits? Not always. People often do things to be busy. They do things to be efficient. Processes naturally have slack (“wasted time”). By filling up wasted time with other tasks, it distracts people from the goal. They proceed to forget the goal and focus on non-goals.

If companies struggle to focus on the goal of making money, how do you think people do? Our goals are often more abstract. There is no bottom-line figure to tell us we’re doing well. On top of that is a constant flood of information trying to distract you at every moment. If we don’t make an effort to keep goals in mind, we often forget them and move in the wrong direction.

Like companies, we often focus on the means of achieving a goal, rather than the goal itself. As a personal example, I am working on being a better writer. Writing is the input, but publishing is the output. I am writing a lot, but only publishing a small amount of what I have written. I am forcing myself to publish more. It is not about being efficient with inputs, it is about producing outputs.

The two largest traps I’ve found that cause me to forget the goal is having an unclear goal and getting distracted. Luckily, “The Goal” helps us find solutions to both problems.

How To Not Forget The Goal

First, understand what the goal is. Create a goal that you cannot forget. It should be clear to both yourself and the people around you. You cannot get somewhere if you don’t know where it is.

In “The Goal,” the company did not understand why they were losing money. Once they were forced to challenge their assumption of what their goal was (efficiency vs making money), they started to get back on track.

The challenging of basic assumptions is essential to breakthrough.

Eli Goldratt

Second, remind yourself about what the goal is. Set reminders and reflect on progress. A good way to understand the path forward is to look backwards. Reflection helps make sure you are aiming in the right direction.

Keep your goal top of mind. We often get distracted by other information. Think about your goal, not the goals of the people around you. The goal of social media is to get you to spend more time on it, does that help you with your goal? Probably not. Cut information and effort towards things that don’t matter.

Third, create outputs that pursue the goal. In “The Goal,” they first moved away from productivity as the goal and refocused making money. They then found selling more products wasn’t the only way to make more money. Wasting fewer inputs and increasing the value of the outputs were also effective ways of pursuing the goal.

Everyone has the same amount of time in the day. Time is an input, spend it in a way that pursues the goal. Be aware of your awareness. The goal does not have to be work, it just has to be something that you want.

Finally, repeat. Great achievements come from repeating things for long periods. Most successful people have taken a long time to get to where they are. Nothing happens overnight. Processes grow and improve over time. Habits are processes that move you towards the goal. Habits will prevent you from forgetting.

Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.

Teller

Writing this post is a reminder to myself. As I’m writing, I think about what is important to me, what my inputs and outputs are, and ask myself “am I pursuing the goal?” I hope as you read it, you did the same.

TikTok Succeeds by Making Copying Easy

What you notice on social media is that people copy each other a lot. We do this in all aspects of life, but within the constraints of social media, it is especially noticeable. Most social media gives you a format to do what you want with. We naturally copy each other.

Social networks want you to create content and stay on the platform. You want social networks to entertain you and raise your status. These incentives are connected. The more content you create, the more likely you create entertaining content. The more entertaining content you create (or watch), the more likely you will stick around. TikTok has succeeded here. They designed a platform that creates massive amounts of entertaining content. How have they done it?

Unlike other platforms, the entire content creation process happens within TikTok. More importantly, they have built copying into the platform itself. By combining these two features, TikTok created a dominant position in mobile video.

Making it Easy to Create Content

If you want to build a new user-generated content platform or social network then the content has to be extremely light. The content creation AND consumption need to happen within seconds, not minutes.

Alex Zhu (Former Head of TikTok)

It must be easy to create content for it to be easy to copy content.

All the tools needed to create content are within the camera.

Video has long been a medium with two sides of production. On one side, you have unedited video for social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. On the other, you have edited and produced as you see on YouTube and Twitch.

TikTok found a middle ground. It allows users to create lightly edited videos within the app. Much of the “editing” happens in reshooting. Videos are short enough that they can be reshot until it is right. Other features like timers, trimming, and effects (like green screen) are all built-in as well.

You don’t need anything except your phone to make content. No computer, no editing software, no fancy camera gear. Most content is shot with the front-facing camera.

Anyone can create content on TikTok without much effort. What you do or say is much more valuable than what your video looks like. The level of entertainment in your video isn’t driven by the quality of your editing or gear, it is driven by the quality of your content.

The built-in features make content creation easy, leading to large amounts of content being created, but content also has to be entertaining. Here is where TikTok innovates: they build copying into the platform itself.

Building Copying into the Creation Process

Creating entertaining content is hard. When you can film anything, what is entertaining? TikTok solves this by giving users templates to create entertaining content through the memes, trends, and sound on their platform.

Six million videos have been made with this one sound.

Video is a powerful medium because it is information-dense. You can copy a dance or meme just by watching it. It is obvious that shorter videos are easier to copy, there are fewer variables. When on TikTok, you see memes repeated and understand the format. Future memes in that format will gain from your familiarity.

The creation process is tied to the viewing process. When you watch something entertaining and think “I have an idea,” it is two clicks to start filming your idea. No platform makes it easier.

One of the largest drivers of building familiarity is music and audio tracks. The audio provides a repeatable format for content. Similar to how memes on Reddit or Instagram use visual formats, TikTok uses audio. The difference is that Instagram and Reddit do not make making memes easy. You have to know the format, find a site to create the meme (or Photoshop it) then come back to the site and upload. When you click a sound on TikTok it shows all the videos created with that sound and provides a big button promoting creation.

Musical.ly (the predecessor to TikTok) uses music as a raw material. Music is not the end product. It’s a raw material. In contrast, the end product on Spotify, Pandora, etc. is music.

Alex Zhu

The most popular sounds have tens of thousands of videos. TikTok has made music the template. It turns out it is a very good one. We get music stuck in our head all the time, how often does a meme or image get stuck in your head? Not very often. TikTok songs have dominated the top music charts for the last 2 years (and you may have not even realized that).

TikTok adjusts its algorithm for you based on what you enjoy. Videos in familiar formats will show up over and over. This is possible because popular formats have lots of content in each. The combination of easy creation and copied formats leads to large amounts of personally entertaining content for you.

Culture of Copying

Copying people on other platforms is often looked down upon. You lose status if you copy too much. On TikTok, it is promoted, everyone does it. It is a natural assumption that you copy everyone and everyone copies you.

A chain of duets featuring the most popular TikTok creators

Other platforms focus on following people or accounts. TikTok focuses much more on trends and memes. If you like a video with a certain trend, you will likely see more videos from that trend in the future. Everyone’s TikTok experience consists of different videos grouped into trends and memes. That is only possible because copying creates lots of content in each trend.

Other platforms have accepted the idea of sharing. When you want to share someone else’s tweet, you retweet it. When you want to share someone else’s Facebook post, you share it. TikTok doesn’t allow this, which is intentional. Content on TikTok can be shared, but new content must be added on top to do it.

For example, TikTok has a feature called a duet which allows users to show their video next to a video already posted. Another feature allows creators to reply to comments as a standalone TikTok. You even see TikToks on top of other TikToks using the green screen feature.

Every feature on TikTok drives towards making more content, this turns users from passive consumers to active creators. Everyone copies, so you should too. Users that create content are always more valuable than users that only consume. TikTok does a better job at this than any other platform.

The Future of TikTok and Copying Content

TikTok focuses on creation rather than engagement. Other platforms assume experts and professionals create the best content. TikTok assumes that entertaining content can come from anywhere.

If content can come from anywhere, then everyone must have the ability to create. Expect to see platforms controlling more of the creation process and making it easier for everyone to create content. Stories is an example of this. Posts are polished, stories less so; therefore, people will post more stories.

TikTok makes it okay to hop on the bandwagon. They built a platform that acknowledges that new content is built from old content. Users want to copy each other, so let them. Anyone can be successful on TikTok by copying the people around them.

The structure of other platforms makes it difficult for them to compete. They depend on the idea that content deserves to be reshared rather than copied. Resharing isn’t copying, it isn’t creating something new. It is boosting someone else’s work. TikTok forces users to create new content whenever they want to interact with other content (trends, duets, comment replies).

TikTok has aligned incentives. It creates a massive amount of entertaining content in a way that no existing platform can copy. I expect it to have a dominant position in social media for many years to come.


Let me know what you think on Twitter (@ianvanagas).

Can’t get enough TikTok-related content? Read my post on TikTok’s Viral Growth Machine.

Many of the insights and both the Alex Zhu quotes came from Blake Robbins’ notes on an interview Zhu did.

Another related piece is the seminal “Status as a Service (StaaS)” by Eugene Wei.

Be Irreplaceable

Do you ever think about what would happen if a team replaced their star player with an average one? The team would obviously be worse off, but how much worse? In baseball, they created a stat for this. It is called WAR, wins above replacement. It measures a player’s contribution to their team in wins.

WAR offers an estimate to answer the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a freely available minor leaguer or a AAAA player from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?”

Baseball has obvious good and bad measures. Scoring is good, getting out is bad. It is also individual; one person pitches, and one person bats at a time. This makes it simpler to understand one player’s contribution to their team’s performance. Score more runs and you will help your team win more games.

An MVP caliber player contributes 6+ wins to their team per season. Mike Trout, last year’s AL MVP, had a WAR of 8.2. This means if he was replaced with a bench player, his team would have lost 8.2 more games over the year.

WAR is a measure of replaceability. The higher the WAR, the harder it is to replace a player. The players with the highest WAR are irreplaceable, teams will pay anything to acquire and keep them (sometimes that isn’t enough).

Not every task has as well defined measures as baseball. What about your life and career? WAR can still be a useful concept because it forces us to think about replaceability. We don’t just want to be above replacement, we want to be irreplaceable.

For nearly every job in the world, you could be replaced. Your company could hire someone else. You could spend your time doing something else. You can tell yourself the person they hire cannot be as good as you, but do you believe that? What makes you think it is true?

I’m sure you know people who couldn’t be replaced. They are core to an organization. Without them, nothing would work. The gap between them and the next best person is massive. They have made themselves irreplaceable.

To protect yourself from being replaced, you have to make yourself irreplaceable. Compare yourself to the replacement version of you. Aim to beat them as bad as possible.

Think about what makes someone irreplaceable. It comes from specific knowledge. Work only you could do. Business relationships only you have. Being irreplaceable means being unique.

If you can’t find something that makes you unique, find something you can do much better than other people. Know things other people don’t know. Create a valuable mix of skills. Know more about an organization. Be able to navigate the bureaucracy. Have a better network. There is always something you can do to make yourself more irreplaceable.

Being irreplaceable creates job security. No one gets rid of an MVP. If suddenly you are out of a job, you are competing against replacement-level performers. Show how you are better than the rest, and you’ll quickly find work. If you are irreplaceable in one organization, there is a good chance a competing organization would also want you.

Think about the measures that are important for you and compare them against replacement. Work towards what makes you more irreplaceable. Think about what an irreplaceable version of someone in your role and strive to be that person.

Remember: everyone can be replaced. You want the gap between you and a replacement to be as large as possible. Only you can make it happen.


Let me know what you think on Twitter and LinkedIn.