The Tragedy of the Commons: Herding Attention Sustainably


In part one, I shared the idea that individuals acting in self-interest can destroy the common resource pool resulting in the tragedy of the commons. The common resource of attention is in jeopardy.

In part two, we explored the four premises:

  1. There’s a finite and fleeting common resource of customer attention.
  2. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are focused on monetizing attention.
  3. In our efforts to optimize for the immediate sale, we incrementally adapt our businesses into some perversion of our original intent. We optimize for the outcome, not the paradigm or goal.
  4. Most authors mistake a marketing system for a business system.

I discussed how the bull elephants of attention over-graze, but unlike Botswana, there are no conservationists to relocate the offenders or natural predators.

I also shared ideas on nonlinear systems thinking. I’ll go deeper into this big idea and how most digital marketers and authors mistake a marketing funnel for a business system.

So let’s get started…

Herd dynamics

In the last article, I told the story of how the American West was changing in the 1870s. I shared how General Sherman applied second-order thinking to use his limited resources to drive Plains Native Americans from their nomadic lifestyle to reservations.

Regardless of your opinion of the man, he was able to get to the heart of a situation and leverage the results he desired.

While there was an armed conflict, the war was won by eliminating the Native American economy’s linchpin—bison. Sherman’s army protected hunters and settlers on hunts and incentivized them by paying bounties for buffalo tongues.

There was another critical component of changing the American West—technology.

Specifically, Patent No. 157124.

barbed wire fence

Joe Glidden’s patent of 1874 wasn’t the first barbed wire. There were others before it.

What was significant about this barbed wire was that Glidden also invented the machinery to mass-manufacture the fence.

Mass-produced fencing allowed farmers who homesteaded to protect crops from grazing herds and allowed ranchers to acquire prime grazing property and keep other herd owners off that property.

Barbed wire was the powder that ignited range wars between parties interested in the free range’s commons.

Technology can have unintended consequences.

Take search engines, for example. The purpose of search engines is to get you the best answer you seek—Google or Amazon (it’s a search engine with your credit card connected).

The problem is they are going to concentrate search results.

As the world’s choices get more diverse, search works hard to expedite your decision by reducing options. While it’s better than not having a search engine, it’s not an educated choice.

Remember the scene in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. The crew has traveled back in time and has to go to the hospital to treat a crew member. While at the hospital, Dr. McCoy talks to a 20th-century patient.

Leonard “Bones” McCoy: What’s wrong with you?

Elderly Patient: Kidney dialysis…

Leonard “Bones” McCoy: My god, what is this, the Dark Ages?!

In the future, I expect programmers and marketers to look back and comment like that about the current algorithms used by Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

“My God, why did people put up with such intrusive and ham-fisted treatment?”

The problem with algorithms is that they are recipes designed to deliver the same result over and over.

If you show interest in a topic, they will show you advertising related to that topic. You will get ads cycled to see if a particular ad gets more attention.

I know this because I’ve had the algorithm try to capture my attention. Here is an example.

Let’s say you sell free-range non-GMO heritage breed organic chicken, and a friend of mine mentions she got some extraordinary chickens from you, so I visit your website. Now you’re a sophisticated marketer, and you use Google and Facebook to tag my visit.

In this scenario, I buy it. I go through the purchase process, and you have a new customer.

Now, you’re a respectful marketer. You asked if I wanted to join your mailing list.

I said yes.

Then, behind the scenes, you put me on the customer list and segment me as a chicken buyer. You even go the extra mile and update me into your custom audience on Facebook to populate seed a lookalike audience and send me a thank you video on Facebook.

Now you’re done. You will not market to me until you know I’ve gotten the product and had time to use it.

But you’ve shared data with Facebook about me, and they’re now going to use the information however they want.

Knowing that I’m a buyer of organic meat, they sell that interest-based attention to others. Suddenly, every ad in my feed is some Co-op or ranch trying to sell me meat.

They put up that barbed wire around me, then let the herd overgraze on my attention.

I can go into my Facebook Profile and delete those tagged interests, and then you and every other chicken seller lose access to my attention on that platform.

That’s the elephant ripping up the trees looking for this quarter’s revenues. It destroys the ecosystem of attention.

Remember, a while back, I asked you to think through a decision by asking what happens next. This is where we can build a unique business.

As attention becomes more precious, those with money will continue to use technology to squeeze profits out of attention. It’s a slow spiral down.

Don’t believe me?

Look at where we are now in our meat industry. Long gone are the fabled days of cowboys out on the range bringing the herd into the market.

Now, cattle are packed into feedlots and treated with antibiotics to reduce disease.

pexels pixabay 207044

It’s not a lot of dots to connect barbed wire and dead bison to bland beef.

What’s worse than bland beef is that there is hard evidence that this free-range loss is as essential to the climate as the Amazon rainforest.

Back in 2014, I was in the Oil and Gas industry. We had a business that did water treatment for the oil industry. Our focus was the Niobrara shale play in Wyoming.

A hundred million years ago, Wright, Wyoming, was under the Western Interior Seaway. Today, it is home to the Durham Ranch. I was there with our company’s president to discuss with John Flocchini, the owner of this 55,000-acre ranch, whether we could secure the exclusive rights to treat all the water on the property.

When you own a ranch this big, this old, and sitting on an ancient seabed, you have some oil wells on your property. The Durham Ranch had quite a few, and with that comes water that needs to be treated.

What is interesting about this ranch isn’t the oil wells. It’s that they have one of the largest herds of bison. The only herd larger was the one on Ted Turner’s ranch in Montana.

With 3,000 head of buffalo, they currently steward around 1% of all the American bison in the world.

You can learn more about the ranch here.

So, while we were getting to know each other, John shared that they practice the Holistic Management International model of herd management.

It was counter-intuitive and mind-blowing to me.

John explained that the reason the property was so lush compared to the rest of the area was the herd’s scale to the property, and they let the herd roam free on the property.

The herd can’t overgraze because it’s so big that they trample the grass and defecate while on the move in the process of eating. They leave behind fertilizer, till the manure into the soil, and never eat all the grass because much of it gets trampled.

To best understand the concept, watch this TEDx.

After seeing that video about White Oak Pastures and speaking with John, I was amazed at how much I thought I understood was wrong.

Thinking we can simplify things that are complex and interrelated is arrogant.

Building a sustainable system

So, how do we create an ecosystem for attention?

Rather than trying to corral it or force it to what we want, imagine creating a place where attention naturally wants to focus.

Of course, we want sales.

But we can see that tactics like rapid release and conversion marketing may be “unnatural.”

Not sustainable.

White Oak Pastures (the ranch featured in the video) has the tagline: “radically traditional.

I love that!

How can an author be radically traditional?

By getting back to the basics of putting the customer experience first.

What I mean by that is we must elevate customer delight to a goal or even higher as the paradigm for the business.

What if you changed your business paradigm from earning a profit from book sales to delivering investor needs through customer delight?

How would you structure your business?

Will a marketing funnel accomplish this?

Would you rely on the same key performance indicators?

It forces you to clarify what the investor (you) needs from the business.

It requires you to define what customer experience you want to bring to your readers.

Even if we want to use machine learning to find new customers, it’s only as good as the data set we give it.

Would the data set be different if you focused on the characteristics of your best customers rather than the ones who convert the fastest?

What will happen next? This question won’t go away.

Another part of the paradigm shift is applying systems thinking to your business so that positive results multiply—summation through positive feedback loops.

Let’s look at the herd analogy. This year’s size is one input in what the herd size will be next year. Two variables will determine the size next year in a simple model:

  1. Death rate
  2. Birth rate

As long as the birth rate exceeds the death rate, the herd will grow. Flip the two, and the herd shrinks.

The larger the herd, the more births and deaths as the loops compound on the current stock level.

The herd will continue to scale up until it hits some other constraining loop like food supply.

What if instead of thinking about your publishing business as a funnel driving towards conversion, you think of your publishing business as a dynamic system?

The paradigm is creating interconnected loops designed to build the right ecosystem for customer delight.

Growing a place where attention is freely given.

What if your business wasn’t built on the dependence on Facebook advertising but a sanctuary from it?

Could we build a system where people’s distaste for social media drove them into your arms?

A place where customer experience was placed above the transaction.

To build this, we have to think differently, and several moves down the chessboard, using those what if and what next questions.

So, what’s in store for you?

On January 2nd, 2021, I’ll publish the first article in Wynn-ing Ways. We will be talking about casinos, evolution, customer experience, and systems thinking.

By the end, you’ll be applying systems thinking and evaluating your decision-making process like an Ivy League MBA.

I’ll do my best to get you to kick the funnel habit and design your feedback loops to perpetuate higher-order goals and paradigms.

Rather than furrowing your brow over a dwindling conversion rate and increased advertising costs, we will work on building a publishing business that is ready for whatever 2021 and beyond have in store.

One thing 2020 has taught me is that I can’t predict what will happen, but I can design a business that is, in the words of Nassim Taleb, “anti-fragile.”

That’s what we’ll do.

Until then, my best wishes for these holidays and for you to have a prosperous New Year.

A final note

2021 may be the year we see everything change.

The symptoms of rampant bull elephants are evident in the commons. Facebook and Google are facing national and state court battles over their practices.

Apple is one flick of the switch away from limiting Facebook and Google’s conversion data from working. All of this will cause turmoil for advertisers.

You’re in the right place because we’re seeing where this is going and are quietly stepping out of the path of the stampede.

Up next: Wynn-ing Ways