Considering ‘value networks’

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Essays

Recently read “The Medici Effect” which I thoroughly enjoyed. Got me thinking.

I worry that value networks aren’t as resilient in the long term. A value network is one that puts the primacy on certain types of values, e.g. “matriarchy” and “religion as the center of family” and “education and job security as the key to a happy life” and so on. They manifest in between the lines of our relationships, transferred psychically from generation to generation, through invisible cues from role models. They are often not intentionally considered, or even if they are, it is done silently, where the impact is more powerful, and participation is more instinctive and automatic. And they tie people together powerfully. Franz Johansson says in the book, your network is what will support you, provide you access to the most resources, provide you with backing in the case of failure, and generally be the tailwind of your career. He also points out, paradoxically, that “networks will promote, support, and highlight ideas that are valued with in it. And it squashes or removes ideas that are not.” This makes sense. After all, a network must strive for self-preservation, in and of itself.

In building a social product for web or mobile, a product designer must consider the set of values that associate with that particular experience, because if the community will start to become sticky and really work, it will be, in large part, because of the value network. In the early days of Twitter, it was very lightweight, and the interactions and behavior that became the most prominent on the site – from the retweet to the hashtag – emerged naturally from the community. Indeed, many platforms will see unexpected behaviors emerge from the community, but Twitter did something really smart in that moment – through the clients that they allowed to flourish – they encouraged that behavior, which suggested that new communication practices on the platform could and would be bottom-up. Now that there are fewer Twitter clients, the platform feels less ‘open’, when Marc Andreessen (and others) Started doing the numbering thing, people claimed that they were “breaking” Twitter. Says who? When the first person did a RT nobody claimed they were breaking twitter, did they? The platform had taken what was an open, experimental, a bit whimsical community, and let it settle into a set of practices which restricted and discouraged behavior that didn’t adhere to those practices. Alas.

As I think about investing, I think about value networks there, too. Looking back on the last dozen or so companies that we have invested in, the majority, with just a few exceptions, were tied to some sort of formal guild or incubator – AngelPad, YC, Techstars, Haxlr8r, et cetera. On the one hand, this is a very good thing for entrepreneurs and the startup community, because those entrepreneurs that have support systems and are organized will have an accelerative effect on each other. They will protect each other from forces outside their network, and they will balance nicely against the capital. But on the other hand, the whole point of transformative innovation is to rewrite rules and innovate in ways that break the mold. While the companies that come out of these value networks are in very different industries, and solve problems in very different ways, perhaps they all think about corporate structure and equity similarly, or about funding similarly, or about hiring similarly – and for true innovative products, shouldn’t those questions be fair game for scrutiny and imagination as well?

I noticed, while trying to sell my piano on Craigslist, that it is an incredibly resilient product, after all these years. My original assumption is that, duh, it’s a liquid marketplace – there are sellers, who attract buyers, who bring more sellers, and so on. Those are very defensible. But my friend Ted suggested that part of the magic on Craigstlist goes further, too: he called it an “open lifestyle marketplace” suggesting that the values that associate all participants on craigslist are dynamic, loose and allow for a lot of flexibility within the form. You can find *whatever* on Craigslist, and you can sell, suggest, and propose *whatever*. A lot of people feel ever-so-slightly uneasy on Craigslist because there is an element of chaos to a platform that is *so* open. But perhaps that’s kind of the magic of it.

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