Part 1 of 3 The Tragedy of the Commons Series
In the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to talk about vampire bats. The only sanguivorous mammals.
There are only three species of mammal that feed solely on blood.
We consider vampire bats the only parasitic mammals, although you may have some friends or relatives that perhaps have parasitic traits.
We need to talk about vampire bats to protect you from becoming a vampire yourself.
Most bats eat a variety of food; insects, birds, fruit, nectar.
At my old house, we had this huge oak tree where several bats were living. At dusk, they would begin flying around in circles, scooping up insects.
We loved our bats because when they were around, there wasn’t a mosquito to be found.
The common vampire bat has adapted to feed on livestock.
It is believed that this is just another adaptation in a long line of adaptations.
The vampire bat’s ancestors only fed on bird blood. After settlers brought herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs to America, they opened an endless buffet for the common vampire bat.
Domesticated animals have other consequences.
In 1833, William Forster Lloyd wrote a pamphlet on his lectures, “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population.”
He shared, for the first time, the idea of overuse of the common by the commoners. Garrett Hardin later distilled this idea into the Tragedy of the Commons.
The concept is when there is a shared resource – a pasture. Those using it will act in their self-interest, and that self-interest will compound until the shared resource is irreparably damaged, resulting in misfortune for all.
A negative feedback loop.
You and I are ranchers grazing our cattle in the same pasture and doing well in cattle sales. Each year we keep adding more cattle because business is profitable.
Until it isn’t.
Overgrazing destroys the entire ecosystem, not just our cows starving.
The tragedy of the commons is everywhere. It causes overfishing, boom and bust cycles in the hydrocarbon industry, and the attention market.
There is a finite amount of attention.
Attention has a half-life.
Those whose attention we seek are building a resistance to interruption.
We are collectively putting more stress on the commons, overfishing the waters, and putting the short-term goal before the long-term aim.
In many markets where the commons’ tragedy is happening, the feedback loop amplifies malicious behavior.
Look at commercial fishing. As it gets harder to catch fish, the price of fish goes up.
Those that can catch fish can continue to invest in novel ways to catch fish; bigger nets, longer-range ships, sonar.
The problem gets gradually worse, but those that can increase capital spending continue to succeed until suddenly they have no more fish to catch.
We are experiencing the same thing in the market for attention.
As you compete for attention:
- to sell more books in a market where 80,000 titles a month release.
- to advertise on platforms focused on increasing quarterly earnings through ad sales.
You try to figure out what to do next to stay in the game.
You slowly become a vampire.
We can only speculate what happened twenty-seven million years ago that caused some bats to drink blood as its only food.
The adaptation since has been massive. Not only has the bat physically and metabolically changed, its microbiome has also altered.
Because blood is the sole food source, even the behavior in a colony of bats has changed. Bats will regurgitate in others’ mouths to feed bats that didn’t find a source of food that night. Scientists have documented the behavior and the ability to keep track of reciprocity.
Are you grossed out yet?
My biggest fear for authors is they don’t find another way. As they focus on the fastest ways to gain attention and sell more books, they will lose themselves to the lust for attention.
They won’t sense the slide down the slippery slope of the tragedy of the commons.
One day you’re no longer able to do anything but race from gambit to gambit for attention.
It’s not like a vampire bat can just start eating bananas or insects. The incremental adaptations permanently change it; it can’t go back to being an omnivore.
You won’t be able to go back either.
What’s worse is while authors and digital marketers become more perverted by the negative feedback loops focused on conversion. It destroys the attention commons. Eventually, we become what kills off the herd we depend on.
This is the future publishing faces.
We’re experiencing it right now, the incremental destruction of the commons. Increased ad costs, low return on ad spend, people being disgusted with social media, and the more and more competitive product advertised on your sales page.
In the next email, we’re going to talk about elephants and bison ranching. I’ll show how by changing our focus from attention and conversion, you can focus on a sustainable holistic business.
We will explore building a process that puts customer delight and investor needs as a higher purpose – even above selling more books.
We zig when others zag.
In the meantime, let me leave you with this.
With every decision, ask, “What will happen next?”
If you plan to run a promotion, ask what will happen next?
Will you get the right readers?
Will they pay full price?
Think a few moves down the chessboard to make sure the decision today doesn’t lead to further tragedy for you on the commons of attention.
P.S. You’ll only be seeing two more emails over the next sixty days. Then the new season starts January 2nd, 2021. I titled it “Wynn-ing Ways” and it will be a story-based learning experience. If two emails aren’t enough, then get your copy of Advantage. If you already have a copy, go through it again as the concepts apply to Wynn-ing Ways.
This email is part 2 of 3: The Tragedy of the Commons Series
Recap: 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 that 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 email, 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 email and the one that follows into context by highlighting the following four premises:
- There’s a finite and fleeting common resource of customer attention.
- Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are monetizing attention.
- 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.
- 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 being abused and overused in the short term with no plan for if it’s gone in the long term.
Those that have become vampire bats won’t last a week without the herd.
Those that depend solely on the common resource will have no recourse.
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 to expand west and protect 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.
These bison herds were THE ECONOMY for the plains natives.
On 10 May 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 work 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.
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 the question in the subject line — 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 barbed wire fence to open up the range and allow 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. Now 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.
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
Let me explain…
If you experienced the age of three networks and commercials, you’ll relate.
In my life, today, 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 the loss of 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.”
On December 19th, you’ll be sent the last email in the Tragedy of the Commons Series.
There we will discuss systems thinking as a solution to the tragedy of the commons.
Not that we can stop the elephants but build a business that 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.
This email is part 2 of 3: The Tragedy of the Commons Series