Digital products are built for powerful people

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The longer I am online, the more I realise the implications of networked communications. I get overwhelmed when I think of communicating with a lot of people, and I've started to notice in myself a shift: I now see networks as not a group of individuals, but a system that has factions and patterns at a higher level. This is reductionist thinking. When someone thinks this way, it makes them seem less authentic — but also more 'successful', and less stressed when they engage online.

People also build products this way, but the effects are very different: when someone makes something for a faceless herd — rather than for a complex group with varying needs, perspectives, and situations — really horrible things happen. This has me thinking about three ideas together:

  1. the Pareto Principle
  2. kvetching circles
  3. and the long tail.

Real quick on those three ideas and then we can play with them:

The Pareto Principle means that "roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes".

Kvetching circles are social hierarchies during times of pain that can help communities determine who gets to whine and who has to support. Those closest to the centre of the kvetching circle have the most licence to grieve, whine, complain, etc. Those further out towards the edges of the circle have to listen, be strong, and attend the needs of those closer to the centre.

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The long tail is a way of looking at the network effects of the internet. Before the internet, markets used to have only a few 'smash-hit' products which would make a huge amount of profit. Meanwhile, a long tail of very 'meh' products would trail behind. Post-internet, we have markets full of many niche products, none of which are smash-hits, but there are enough customers for each that can actually find and buy the product, that producers can make money without getting famous. Pre-internet, you needed a hit, post-internet... you do not.

Ok so how do these all fit together? Think about the way that digital products create value for some consumers and harm for others: the people who benefit from that value creation — and are loudest — are most likely to be heard when they complain about a failure of a product. Because they have the power to yell loudly and be heard in unison. This puts them at the top of the hockey stick of the long tail.

But if we think about the kvetching circle, this is backwards. For a product to be developed over time in ways that don't further entrench existing inequity, then we have to forcibly move those loud, privileged people out of the centre of the circle to make space for the most marginalised (those who should be at the centre of the kvetching circle). The needs of those in the long tail should be at the front of the product road map.

This is coming from me, someone who doesn't make products which have to hold collective imagination in order to capture network effects, market share, and the investment required to build and grow a thing.

I think we should be able to do it all. I think people deserve nice things. Like extremely useful digital maps, and other apps. But I also think that without care, systems that add a tremendous value at scale, end up only adding that value for SOME at the expense of others. If product owners were more intentional earlier on about the kvetching circle, we wouldn't end up with some of the most vocalised and hemmed and hawed complaints about Twitter being focussed on who does and doesn't get a blue checkmark.

Which gets me to the Pareto Principle — unfortunately, right now you only need to keep 20% of people with the most power on your platform happy, while you can ignore the 80% you are harming, and you will still stay afloat. What would it look like if we inverted this?

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