Connecting Social Networks & Work

My goal in this post is to connect two things that for most of us are viewed as very different: social networks and work.

Today, these things are superficially linked in our minds. For an individual, a social network like Twitter or Instagram is seen mostly as that distracting thing you can't help checking while at work. In this way, work and social networks are competing for your attention, but the competition goes much deeper than this.

I think it's useful to view social networks and work as being on a continuum of human organization. And even more, this continuum is increasingly collapsing. The future of work will look more like social networks, and the future of social networks will look more like work.

First let's start by examining what I mean by human organization. I would characterize it as the coordination of people and resources towards a productive pursuit.

When you look at traditional work, coordination itself is tightly controlled. Businesses are mostly hierarchical and are designed for efficient management oversight. They have strict processes for people joining them (I.e., job applications & interviews). Management also has a great deal of control over how and when work is done. Finally, coordination is motivated through cash compensation, which is the end-game of the business as well.

Now, let's look at social networks. Networks by definition are not hierarchical and don't exercise control through management. Instead it comes down to the system design of incentives. Through the traditional lens of business you might say that Facebook is an organization of 35,000 employees that generated $55B in revenue in 2018. Instead it's more like Facebook is an organization of 2.3 billion people that generated $55B in revenue in 2018. 35K of these people were compensated with cash and stock. The other 2.3B were compensated with an audience (when they post) and entertaining content (when they consume).

So how are these things collapsing?

100% Remote Work Orgs

In the realm of work one of the more interesting trends is around 100% remote organizations.

In these orgs, control is increasingly loosened as people work when and where they want. Employees in these organizations can still get the traditional compensation of corporations (salary + stock) but with more of the relative freedom of networks.

Action-Oriented Networks

In the realm of social networks there are increasing questions from users over whether their time is well spent on networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There's an increasing sense that our participation here can be toxic for our health and not a good use of time. Here there's been more questions than answers. While people are starting to spend less time on these networks, they haven't found better arrangements en masse yet. I like Rebecca Kaden's perspective at USV. The next wave of social networks will be more action-oriented. This doesn't mean the traditional ones are going away. Sharing and consuming media will always be fundamental. But people want more/different compensation and to coordinate on more productive things.

The meeting point of social networks and work

The truth is that the collapse of networks and work is already happening much more dramatically than what I've shared. It's just in areas that the majority of us don't contribute to currently.

There is of course the whole "Gig Economy" trend. A company like Uber has millions of drivers that have even more freedom than the employees of 100% remote organizations.

In software you have open source software where developers have been coordinating in productive pursuits with little to no traditional management. Wikipedia is another good example here -- thousands of writers loosely coordinating to produce a single text.

Still these examples are extremely small when compared to the billions contributing to social networks and traditional businesses.

The opportunity going forward is to marry the freedom and productivity of a network like Wikipedia, with the upside in compensation of traditional businesses (salary & stock). In the not so distant future, I think our contributions at work and social networks will converge in such opportunities and the distinction between the two will be less strict than it is today.

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Musing on Being in the World

I’m wondering how often this happens to you:

You pick up a book and start reading it only to find it uninteresting and so abandon it. Years later you pick up the same book and are blown away by it. Maybe you’ve had the same thing happen with music or movies. Also, there's the opposite experience, where you re-experience something you formerly loved after much time, only to find it to now be shallow or flawed.

While I think these experiences are relatively common they are nonetheless jarring.

We often conceptualize insight as something out there in the external world to be extracted like some sort of gem in the mountainside. In other words, an object’s measure of insightfulness is purely an inherent attribute of the thing itself.

Driven by this conceptualization we invest great amounts of energy in searching out and consuming content. We think that the road to understanding is hunting down the right materials, studying these materials and absorbing their insights. We say that a wise person is one that is well-read.

Undoubtedly there is a lot of truth in this conceptualization. We are of course greatly influenced by what we surround ourselves with, and it’s hard to sincerely believe that all objects are equal in terms of their degree of insightfulness.

However what I find problematic about this conceptualization is that it minimizes our role to simply that of a consumer. Namely that a person’s insight can be represented as some summation of the things they have consumed. Said more dramatically it treats a person as an undifferentiated blob, some sort of insight storage drive.

I think we play a much more active role than this. Insight is not simply something that is out there fully-formed in the world. Insight is an interplay of our inner world with the external world. In other words, your internal orientation is just as much involved in insight as the object you are attending to.

To be clear I’m not simply saying that you have to prepare yourself to extract insight. This conceptualization still places the insight fully in the object and treats the problem more as one of technique in accessing the insight. I don’t think this goes far enough. Here we are still insight storage devices but ones where the ordering of insights matter.

Rather, I am saying registering an insight is a creative act that arises from the relation between a person and object and is neither solely out in the world or in the mind. You yourself are a part of any insight you have.

I believe this framing helps explain why many insights can’t effectively be articulated or transmitted. There is a level of insight that only comes from direct experience.

So read and obsess over what you consume. Media may be some of the most insight-rich experiences you can have. But be wary because so much of modern life these days is just consumption.

You must make time to work with your hands, wrestle with words, and create things in the world. This can feel ridiculous because we have advanced as a society to the point that we can instantly access the very best makers in the world. The best music, the best books, the best products. So why bother doing anything yourself? Well among other reasons, because if you’re not mixing in some actual doing into your life you can only advance so far in your quest for insight.

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"Being in the World" Documentary

Last night I watched a fantastic philosophy documentary called "Being in the World" by Tao Ruspoli (and inspired by Hubert Dreyfus).

I've been on a learning kick lately. Our environment is highly structured to effortlessly push us entertainment (breaking news, gossip, pop culture) but we have to put in our own work to make learning just as seamlessly accessible. With that in mind, I recently created a playlist on YouTube of documentaries and lectures.

Also, I discovered the Libby app which allows you to freely check out ebooks and audiobooks where ever you are (using your library card).

Finally, I re-discovered Kanopy which lets you use your library card to freely stream top notch cinema and documentaries. This includes much of the Criterion Collection and I was also personally thrilled to see a huge selection of Iranian Cinema (which I highly recommend checking out if you enjoy serious film).

But I wanted to say a little about "Being in the World" because I think it has a relevant discussion for our current times. Here's what it says in my layman view.

The documentary largely centers around the philosophy of Heidegger who had a contrarian view of Being. The traditional western philosophy view initiated by Plato starts with rationality. This view gives primacy to logic, rules, and ideas. We as humans must strive to access these abstract truths. We shouldn't get caught up in the material world as its largely illusion – truth is in pure thought and ideas. Much of our history from the rise of Christianity to the Enlightenment and up to our Modern technological world is driven by this way of viewing existence.

Heidegger, on the other-hand, takes what I'd call a craftsman perspective. For him, the details matter. The particulars of our everyday experience, the way we work with objects in the world and gain mastery over certain skills; these are reality. Abstraction is the illusion and removes the important details that make up your experience. Throughout the documentary you get a grounded sense for this by meeting various craftspeople from cooks to musicians to carpenters and learning about their mode of living.

Leah Chase, called the "Queen of Creole Cuisine", summed up this perspective well. She talked about how she freely gives away her recipes and people question her all the time about this, as if she's giving away all her skills. But to her a recipe never captures the essence of cooking. To be a cook is to deal with the particulars, the specifics of your cooking tools and your ingredients. So someone with her same recipe could never prepare food similar to her. There is experience that comes from doing that can never be transmitted simply by reading and understanding rules.

Finally, I should note that Hubert Dreyfus' acclaim largely comes from using this sort of reasoning back in the 60s and 70s to argue why Artificial Intelligence is impossible. Back then much of the tech community believed we were on the precipice of unlocking general AI. Dreyfus ended up being right in that age as nothing approaching general AI was achieved. Right now we are again in an age of optimism around AI. While I'm still undecided on what's exactly possible, I think watching this documentary is very relevant as it gives you a necessary counter-perspective on the current zeitgeist.

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Our Tech Zeitgeist: The shift from design to insight

Over the last 10 years I've noticed a shift in tech. Well at the very least in myself, but as we are so much a reflection of our environment I can't help but believe this shift is more than just a personal one.

Namely, I feel we have shifted the central locus of our tech culture from one that venerates design to one that celebrates insight. Another way to put this is that we have tempered our obsession with objects and experience (the physical world) to make room for our insatiable hunger for thought and wisdom (the intellectual world).

Specifically, I am comparing today to approximately the years of 2007-2010. This was the heyday of the iPhone and mobile apps. Steve Jobs was unquestionably the cultural leader of our industry. Through him and Apple's success we learned the power that comes from a singular focus on aesthetics and user experience.

What I remember about these days is how "design thinking" was en vogue and became a primary lens for how we evaluated things. We were increasingly directing our attention to the form of things. This is true of physical objects like the phone but also in software -- particularly apps. Back then I would pour over design details of things as mundane as the Calculator app and gestures like the swipe to unlock your phone. There was even a big commotion over the "discovery" of the pull-to-refresh pattern. For someone too young to have been in tech during this time this may sound like the providence of #DesignTwitter, but really we were all thinking about these details.

A particular example that stands out for me is the app Path. In the first year or two after its launch, tech circles were fixated on each of their releases. This was especially interesting as Path never fully quite achieved the adoption that would warrant such attention. But they were clearly leaders in design. I remember people on Twitter gushing over the release of Path 2.0 and the animation they designed for picking your post type. We were all enthralled and many of us to this day have real nostalgia for this era -- I know I do all the time.

While design is still clearly important, in my opinion, it isn't in the cultural driver's seat as it was before. Today's tech culture has shifted its focus to knowledge. Today, when you open up Twitter or turn on a podcast you'll see references to philosophers and scientists, white papers and out-of-print books on sociology and economics. Perhaps this is largely just a phenomenon of "software eating the world" but our tech ambitions knows no bounds anymore -- every problem is a tech problem, and every discipline is being probed by tech. The focus is no longer on consumer apps and pixels but rather on protocols and incentives.

I don't think we have an obvious leader anymore like a Steve Jobs, but some of the more influential are people like Naval Ravikant and Peter Thiel. Last time I heard Naval give his bio he scarcely talked about his tech background -- he's essentially a philosopher now. And just look at the syllabus for the course Peter Thiel is currently teaching at Stanford.

I'm not trying to make a judgment on this shift, merely to point it out. I think spotting these shifts are a good reminder that there are different ways to make sense of the world. There is power in plugging yourself into the zeitgeist of the day, just so long as you keep perspective that there are many ways of seeing.

Also published on Medium

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What we've lost in having access to everything

Last night I watched broadcast TV for the first time in years. That's not totally accurate as I watch sporting events all the time but last night I just opened up the DirecTV Now app on my Apple TV and just clicked through the channels until I found something to watch. I ended up watching the second half of a Seinfeld episode.

Of course for those old enough, this is how most of our TV experience has worked. You had a limited set of content options that are out of your control, and you don't get to start/stop it -- the stream goes on with or without you.

In many ways, watching the last 10 minutes of a random Seinfeld episode interspersed with 5 minutes of commercials was a poor experience, but I didn't feel annoyed at all. I actually enjoyed it and felt something I'd almost call "warmth" from the experience.

The same thing happens when I turn on the radio. I listen to KEXP which is a local independent radio station in Seattle. About half of the time I don't know or particularly like the music they play but I like to hear local voices. Something as small as a comment like "its pouring out here" lights something up in me and gives me a sense of connection. Again there's this weird sensation of "warmth" in knowing I'm joining a stream along with thousands of others nearby.

Today we have much more control over our experiences. Be it TV or music, we can choose whatever we like from massive catalogues at any moment we please. Yet, we've all had that experience of endlessly browsing Netflix and giving up because we can't commit to watching anything. Control is a tricky concept.

This sense of control plays out in other facets of our lives like the things we read and even the restaurants we go to. I remember as a kid, going out to eat, while always exciting, was not overly thought through. My parents would just take us to places within a few blocks of our neighborhood and that was that. Today, finding a lunch spot involves pouring over hundreds of reviews and honing in on the perfect place.

Ultimately, it's hard to argue against the claim that we have improved the content of what we are consuming, but I wonder if we've truly improved the experience?

Today the onus of control is on us. Whatever we do, we have a clear sense of what other things we could be doing. We are the shapers of our reality. This is a truly new power which ends up weighing on us more than we may realize. The amount of time and energy we spend researching, browsing, trying, switching, optimizing each and every thing we consume is a massive amount of work and responsibility.

And there's no turning back from this freedom. Even when I was "stuck" watching half of a Seinfeld in the back of my mind I knew I'm technically free to watch practically anything else at that moment. You can put away your phone and try to live more spontaneously but even that is a choice. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to our freedom in consumption.

Still, I think we will increasingly crave experiences where our sense of control is (artificially) restricted. In other words we will opt into not having choice and remaining ignorant about our options. Increasingly, I'm realizing this very restriction is the core of what makes a community.

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Cody Acquired: Our First Years

I finally get to share some exciting news: we’ve been acquired by Alo Yoga!

You can read more about it here.

This is a big moment for our team and everyone who has supported us over the last 5.5 years. Thank you to the tribe of people who believed in us and made this milestone possible.

I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the first couple years of the company in particular, because it’s what my co-founder, Paul, and I go to in high and low times. In high times we always marvel at how close we came to shutting down on multiple occasions and in low times we remind ourselves that we’ve made it through worse before.

I recognize that these stories romanticize the startup struggle, and its always easier to share things like this when you’ve made it to the other side, but I ultimately think its best to share because even worse is people not believing that most success only comes when you’re lucky and persistent enough to survive many bad breaks.

I was looking through the first deck Paul and I ever made. Back then the company was called Nudge. You can barely recognize our current company in this deck, but I’m still drawn to our opening line:

“When you really want something, Nudge gets the world to help you achieve it.”

I don’t know if we’ve truly pulled this off as a product, but I can say that this sums up our journey well.

All smiles in our first week working on Cody

The first two years of Cody in particular were tough; nothing came easy and a lot went wrong.

Our plan was to get our first funding from Techstars Seattle 2012, just a few months after quitting Microsoft. We didn’t get in. Or into Techstars 2013 or into any of the YC classes or any second meeting with VCs either.

Paul and I sent dozens of emails asking former colleagues to campaign on our behalf after learning we were waitlisted with Techstars

We spent nearly 12 months living off the meager savings Paul and I had cobbled together. We worked out of Paul’s apartment and did everything including the coding and design ourselves (not bad for a couple of MBAs).

At some point we gave up on pitching investors. We only had a few months of savings left and no real prospects of raising, but somehow we remained calm enough to keep coding.

Coding late into the night with a hookah

Our luck turned when I caught up with a former Microsoft colleague, Sohier Hall, at a coffee shop. When I gave him a demo of Cody, he suggested we meet his business partner, Ken Irving, who was looking to make investments in this space.

I’ll never forget flying down to San Francisco and meeting Ken and Sohier for breakfast, and Paul and I feeling like this was our last shot. Without this we probably would’ve re-entered the corporate world just a year after leaving it with our tails between our legs.

Site of the fabled breakfast

As you can guess the breakfast ended with Ken saying he was going to fund us. And the funding from Ken allowed us to make a lot of progress.

We spent the next couple months re-building Cody as a native iPhone app. Launching it was one of the prouder moments for me and Paul. We had really high hopes and started pitching ourselves as the “Instagram for Fitness”

Our app at launch. Cody was a robot fitness coach!

But the euphoria didn’t last long. No one was downloading it. We’d get like 20–30 per day. We tried, failed and eventually succeeded in getting featured in the App Store. Same with getting written up by TechCrunch. We iterated on the app like crazy averaging a new major release every 2 weeks. But ultimately after a year and a half, we finally accepted that our concept was flawed.

We were forced to admit it because our cash balance was down to just $30K. Even with our lean operations, we had only 4 months left before having to shut down. We literally sat around thinking about the quickest ways to make some money with what we had— and got it into our heads that selling workout videos was the way to go.

So we bought a handycam off of Amazon and started filming.

All we could afford at the time

Our first video plan was with a popular local yogi, Patrick Beach. He taught at a studio in the Greenlake area and Paul started attending his classes religiously and hounded him until Patrick agreed to film.

We filmed in Patrick’s apartment, the lighting sucked, and there’s even a cat running in and out of the frame as Patrick was teaching. We priced it at $20 and Patrick posted on his Instagram and we waited. And lo and behold it started selling, and in the first month we did $8K in sales.

Patrick Beach and cat

The next month we launched a plan with an Olympic weightlifter, Diane Fu, and did over $20K in sales. Then the next month we did $40K. Then $80K and over $1M in the first 12 months.

That was 3 years ago and it’s not like things have just been happily up-and-to-the-right since, but it sure has been less harrowing. Those first couple years were our “wilderness” years. Looking back now, we did a lot of dumb things. But mostly what I appreciate now is that we had enough grit to keep going — and sometimes that’s enough.

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Sunshine Sento Sake & the Senses

A couple of months back I discovered the Japanese TV series, Sunshine Sento Sake. I had read a small blurb about it recently in some philosophy book I was leafing through, and decided to give it a try. It’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime now.

At first I wasn’t sure what I was watching. The show is deliberately slow and formulaic. In each episode, the main character, Takayuki, a salary man, struggles in his sales job. He spends his time cold-calling businesses across different Tokyo neighborhoods, and each time stumbles upon a Sento – a traditional Japanese bath house. The bulk of the episode is comprised of him skipping work for a mid-day indulgence to the Sento and then enjoying a meal and a cold beer afterwards, before he inevitably gets pulled back into the orbit of corporate life.

In a way the show acts like a travel guide as you get to see different parts of Tokyo and develop an appreciation for Sento. But the hook of the show runs much deeper, hence why it was mentioned in a serious book. To me its a meditation on the sensual world. When we see Takayuki in the corporate world of quotas and competition he is constantly stressed and unsure – he is stuck in his head. But as he enters the Sento he becomes fully absorbed into his environment, appreciating and finding pleasure in all its detail. The tension in the show is the guilt he feels in allowing himself this pleasure – the shift from mind to body.

I think if you end up appreciating this show like I do, it means that to some extent you’re grappling with the same things. We may struggle to become fully absorbed in our senses, both out of being busy and also a sense of guilt that were being unproductive.

I’d definitely recommend giving the show a watch, and another similar one I recently discovered on Netflix called Samurai Gourmet. And then maybe afterwards treat yourself to a cold, mid-day beer.

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