The Tragedy of the Commons: Why Adaptation is Essential to Your Business


In part one of the series, I introduced you to the concept of Tragedy of the Commons. This is the idea that individuals acting in self-interest can destroy the shared resource pool they share with others and depend on. I contend that Reader Interest and Attention is a Commons we share.

I talked about adaptation and how the common vampire bat adapted to only feasting on blood—something no other mammal does. Incremental changes to its physiology and metabolism have made it able to metabolize iron and not have kidney or liver failure. It can’t go back to the way it was.

In this article, we’re going back in time and visiting a few places. Before we jump in the Wayback Machine, I want to put the rest of this article and the one that follows into context by highlighting the following four premises:

  1. There’s a finite and fleeting common resource of customer attention.
  2. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are monetizing attention.
  3. In our efforts to optimize for the immediadaate 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 might be wrong, but I see several negative feedback loops that will cause this house of cards to fall.

The commons of attention are being abused and overused in the short term with no plan for if it’s gone in the long term.

Those who have become vampire bats won’t last a week without the herd.

Those who depend solely on the common resource will have no recourse.

A brief history lesson

That brings us to our first trip in the Wayback Machine.

After the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t retire.

He became the general of the Grand Army of the West.

After the war, there wasn’t much the North and South could agree on, but they had a common goal of expanding west and protecting the intercontinental railways.

In 1870, about 32 million people lived in the United States and related territories, along with about 60 million bison. When Lewis and Clark crossed the west, they documented huge, fast-moving herds that impeded their travel for hours.

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These bison herds were THE ECONOMY for Plains Native Americans.

On May 10th 10th, 1868, Sherman wrote to his friend and comrade-in-arms, General Sheridan, “As long as Buffalo are upon the Republic the Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffalo and consequent[ly] Indians are out [from between] the Roads we will have collisions and trouble.”

Enter the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody. They report he killed 4,280 buffalo on his hunting expeditions. This, like many of the stories about Bill Cody, is suspect, given he was an early adopter of PR and worked with a Chicago Newspaperman to catalog his exploits.

By 1884, there were 325 bison left on the plains.

Sherman was a second-order thinker. He saw that without the bison, the nomadic life of the Native Americans would cease to exist.

Sherman learned this on his march to Atlanta:

 “We must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”

He knew the will to fight would be lost when the opposition was left to worry about where their next meal would come from.

Can there be too many elephants?

What happens if we or others wipe out our attention herd?

Will your business adapt or die?

Will it adapt appropriately?

The paradigm and goals of your business dictate how it will adapt.

And that brings us to our next question—can there be too many elephants?

Years ago, before I was married, I went to Africa.

Suze and I were engaged, and she won a trip to go on safari because she was top in sales at her company.

This safari was in the northernmost part of South Africa. The property ran along the Limpopo River.

This was a private game reserve, meaning a rich guy had bought up a bunch of farms and was returning the land to a state of wilderness. They would make money off of ecotourism and game hunts.

The principal work was pulling down the barbed wire fence, which opened up the range and allowed natural migration patterns to return.

Now, this wasn’t like going to a safari park where you follow a path and enter the lion area, then turn into the zebra zone. This was miles of wilderness where the rangers had to track what they wanted to show us.

Sure, they had ideas where herds were grazing and the lairs of different animals, but we drove out for hours, then got out and hiked for hours.

It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

One day, we went to track elephants. They only had a few on the property, but they’re pretty easy to track.

Elephants are super destructive. Besides eating everything off a tree, they uproot the trees and eat the roots.

After you learn this, you could easily see where the elephants had been. It was like bulldozers came in to clear an area for a new subdivision.

Now, this didn’t use to be a big issue because they just kept moving on. But while these places offered free-range, it was limited.

Across the river, the problems were far worse.

Botswana had been doing a fantastic job with elephant conservation and reducing poachers. The elephant population was booming.

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The problem now was that the elephant conservation was endangering the preservation of other species. It’s hard for birds to nest when all the trees are uprooted.

The conservationists applied systems thinking.

They are trying to conserve the optimal environment with the most diversity. They are also trying to limit adverse adaptation (becoming a vampire bat).

The result was they had to relocate elephants.

You might think I will compare some prominent digital marketers to the elephant and Facebook as the ecosystem (commons).


Facebook and YouTube (Google) are elephants.

They have figured out how to aggregate and monetize our attention. They use data, machine learning, and behavioral psychology to capture more attention and sell as much of it as possible.

These companies are the bull elephants in the attention commons.

The bigger and better they are at capturing attention, the more destruction they do to the ecosystem.

The solution isn’t to kill all the elephants; something else will replace them.

This is a call to take responsibility for your adaptation.

Understand that adaptation isn’t bad; in fact, it is your most important trait for survival thriving.

Let me explain…

If you experienced the age of three networks and commercials, you’ll relate.

In my life, advertisers have been in constant adaptation.

Initially, IF you had the money, you could place ads on TV.

TV shows kept you around for commercials.

I’ll skip the introduction of cable television and go to what scared everyone:


Tivo was the device that allowed you to digitally record shows (not a big deal; you could do that with a VCR) and quickly skip commercials.

They took a multiple-prong approach. One prong was to challenge the use of TIVO and its patents in court. The second was to move product placement into the shows themselves.


No one was thinking about losing eyeballs from the TV to the internet.

Yet, on YouTube, they are applying an old-school advertising model of interrupting videos with commercials.

Why won’t history repeat, and this form of attention-grabbing be evaded as well?

If not incrementally by TIVO-like devices or mental resistance to attack our attention, then by an outright collapse of attention to social media platforms.

Consciously controlling our adaption becomes imperative less we become the vampire bat.

Keep in mind that what life exists today through natural selection and adaptation is a fraction of the experience that had a chance on the earth.

If the elephants don’t change their behavior, they will cause their demise.

When our paradigm is first-order operations like interrupting attention, immediate conversion, and selling more books, we set ourselves up to adapt best to those traits.

If our paradigm is nurturing the relationship between the reader and writer, then you have different outcomes.

There is a big difference between sending emails weekly to stay top of mind and having a reader anticipate your email. To stop everything, to open that email and read it.

The path to that level of engagement is not linear. It will require non-linear systems thinking.

I’ll leave you with this quote from F.A. Hayek.

“We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of a genuine error on our part and the pursuit of our most cherished ideals has produced results utterly different from those which we expected.”

The next and final article of the Tragedy of the Commons series will discuss systems thinking as a solution.

We cannot stop the elephants, but we can build a business that is so robust that it can adapt to changes in the environment, and each adaptation becomes less fragile.

P.S. I had a great interview with Leo Petracci on using Reddit to develop a fan group. I learned a thing or two. You can see it here.

Read: Herding Attention Sustainably