I’ve noticed an interesting pattern among a couple founders I’ve spoken to recently.

  • A B2C food company paying the bills through B2B contracts with large companies

  • A B2C transportation company funding their core business through B2B contracts with large companies

  • A hardware company funding their R&D by licensing their software

Basically, use a reliable and lucrative high-margin business to fund an experimental, lower-margin part of their business.

I’m reminded of Amazon’s approach, which offers unprofitable features like Prime to get customers spending more money elsewhere on Amazon.

Amazon does it to capture market share. But decoupling products from their profitability offers other interesting implications. What if a company used high-margin parts of their business to fund harder-to-ethically-monetize businesses like social networks, media companies, or journalism?

Duolingo, a mobile app for learning foreign languages, funds the public-facing part of its business through a different business (selling their crowd-sourced translations), in order to keep its core offering free. By setting up their business this way, they don’t have to resort to ad sales like many other mobile apps do.

Ello, a social network that has recently gained viral attention, is guided by a manifesto which states they are committed to remaining ad-free, but they’ve also taken over $400K in venture funding. One wonders how they will produce an outsized return to investors without advertising.

Nonetheless, we can all agree that there is a desire to see an ad-free social network, given public interest in App.net, Diaspora, and now Ello. To some extent, acquisitions address this need in the market now: Facebook buying Instagram, for example. But acquisitions can also lead to more conflicts of interest.

I’m curious whether more companies use this business model to fund products that are valuable to society, but are hard to monetize.

I’ve been thinking about peer-to-peer models today, and what early learnings signify for how these businesses might work at scale.

The truly peer-to-peer online learning platforms, like Udemy or Skillshare*, risk cross-pollination of their supply and demand. Someone who teaches a successful Udemy class might go on to post a class on Skillshare. And someone who enjoys taking classes on Udemy might also take classes on Skillshare.

No peer-to-peer online learning platform can own its supply or demand, which has made it difficult for a clear winner to emerge at scale. (Other platforms, like Coursera or Udacity, take a more curated approach to who can teach a class, perhaps for this reason.)

Similarly, as the battle for a winner in the ridesharing space has escalated, Uber and Lyft* have become indistinguishable at scale. Earlier on, Lyft was known for its “friend with a car” vibe, whereas Uber had a luxury private car feel. Now, people take Lyfts and Ubers interchangeably, and drivers make money driving for both companies. No peer-to-peer ride company owns its supply or demand, either.

It’s great for those of us who participate on these platforms, because it means the company’s value is concentrated in the people’s, not the corporation’s, hands. If any one of these peer-to-peer companies were to shut down today, we’d just use the next-available platform.

But the corporate entity itself does provide value. They’ve figured out the logistics of the operation, for one. They successfully herded us all onto one platform. They bear the risk of the business. And there are employees, investors, and friends and family who have taken a chance on them.

It seems that successful pure peer-to-peer models have to be monopolies in their respective markets, or else they will be indistinguishable from their competitors at scale. Rather than corporations, perhaps these peer-to-peer models are conduits, not dissimilar to governments, overseeing a certain class of human behavior.

This differs from traditional wisdom about perfectly competitive markets, which suggests that many players and low barriers to entry are a good thing. To compete with a peer-to-peer monopoly, new companies entering the market would need to dismantle it piece-by-piece rather than compete with it head on. (See also: Craigslist killers.)

It seems that peer-to-peer models are here to stay, but we haven’t yet figured out what they will look like at scale. Will they be public corporations, like eBay? Should they be small and profitable private companies, like Craigslist? Or thriving nonprofits, like the Burning Man Project?

(A relevant postscript: if it is true that peer-to-peer models are different than anything we’ve seen at scale, what does that say about the rewards we should expect as investors, and how we finance them moving forward? As Christie George of New Media Ventures puts it, “While the sharing economy is driving forward innovative business models around shared assets, the way we finance these companies is still relatively traditional.”)

*Skillshare and Lyft are Collaborative Fund portfolio companies.

A successful company, in my mind, is one who changes culture for the better. Therefore, one question I ask myself when evaluating companies is: how will it reach the mainstream?

Some founders will say things like “We would never work with Wal-Mart” or “Obviously we wouldn’t partner with Kmart” - the point being that Wal-Mart or Kmart are the corporate antithesis of what the founder is trying to achieve.

But if the founder wants to change the world, and Wal-Mart dominates our world - 245 million people in the world shop there each week, and 93% of American households shop at Wal-Mart at least once a year - then why shouldn’t they want to partner with Wal-Mart?

The best companies, to me, lead not with social values, but with the values that matter most to a customer: price, convenience, quality.

Seth Goldman, cofounder of Honest Tea, writes in Mission in a Bottle that one of the biggest lessons he learned while building his brand was, It doesn’t matter how good it is for you if it doesn’t taste good….If an eco-friendly toilet paper gives people splinters, they won’t care how green it is. With tea, there can’t be a trade-off between delicious and healthy. It can’t taste like lake water. It has to be delicious.”

Founders shouldn’t put their customers in the awkward position of having to choose between competing values. And more importantly, they shouldn’t put their companies in that position.

Hampton Creek Foods* is a food technology company that creates sustainable alternatives to household food staples. Their first product is an egg-free mayo called Just Mayo. They also recently announced Just Cookies, an egg-free, dairy-free cookie dough.

Just Mayo is the number one bestselling mayo at Whole Foods. But what’s remarkable about Just Mayo is it’s also being sold at Safeway, Costco, and Dollar Tree. It’s also priced competitively against other mayonnaise options - Just Mayo costs $4 for a 16 oz jar at Whole Foods.

As cofounder Josh Tetrick puts it, people aren’t the problem: just about everyone, given the choice between a $3 lip balm manufactured in China and made with paraffin, and a $3 lip balm manufactured in Berkeley and made with coconut oil, would pick the latter. But it’s the company’s job to make that easy for the customer.

This principle extends beyond consumer brands, as well. Any company that puts out a product whose sole differentiator is “we’re better for the world” - whether that’s a nonprofit or a Bitcoin application - is begging the customer to do something they otherwise wouldn’t.

I believe the most successful companies in the long run will be the ones who continue to appeal to traditional consumer values, while changing how they run things internally. It’s the founder, not the customer, who must put aside what’s easy or cheap and stay true to their vision for a better future.

Your customer is not the linchpin to changing the status quo. You are. Compromising on product, even if you’ve got good values, means you expect your customers to do you a favor. And that’s just not good business.

*Hampton Creek Foods is a Collaborative Fund portfolio company.

At Collaborative Fund, we’ve been talking about how investors and founders can align incentives for the long run. Conventional wisdom dictates that successful founders eventually exit (for example, going public or getting acquired) in order for their investors to get their money back. But we believe there’s a third option available to many founders: staying private and profitable.

When I tell people about this third option, the response I often hear is, “Why wouldn’t a founder want to exit?” I thought I’d take a minute to answer that question here.

Why wouldn’t a founder want an exit for their company?

Their company’s vision could be compromised by an exit.

Many founders started their companies because they had a strong vision for how the world should look.

In some cases, an exit can help a company reach its mission more quickly or effectively. For example, YouTube faced a billion-dollar lawsuit from Viacom, filed just a few months after their 2006 acquisition by Google. Such a lawsuit would have buried a young startup, but because of the acquisition, Google and Viacom reached a settlement without any money changing hands, leaving YouTube free to focus on its product.

On the other hand, there are situations where it becomes much harder for a founder to deliver upon his or her vision in the case of an acquisition (because now you’re part of someone else’s roadmap) or an initial public offering (because now you have many more shareholders to answer to, not all of which have a vested interest in your community beyond financial reasons).

Companies that fit particularly well into this category are marketplaces, products built upon communities, and peer-to-peer products, either because they tend to be revenue-generating and/or they have a strong community that they feel responsibility towards.

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler sees staying private as the best way to preserve the interests of their community:

"From the very beginning we decided—my co-founders and I—that we would never sell, never go public. We viewed Kickstarter as a public trust….that’s there to represent the interests of everybody. And we think the best way to do that is to be a privately held, independently controlled organization—and that’s exactly what we are.”

And while Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson says going public is a possibility for their company, he also notes that:

"We’re focused on building a company. We do want to stay independent. We think it’s really important to continue to serve our community and we think independence really matters. We’re not the traditional Silicon Valley type of company, where we just have this blood thirst to go public, but it’s definitely a possible outcome.”

Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman has also said that he’s focused on keeping Meetup small and maintaining a low profile, rather than “‘flipping it’ for a profit” or going for an IPO.

Their company has been profitable from the start.

If a founder’s company is profitable, they have more flexibility in deciding how much financing to take on. They can choose whether they want to raise money through an initial public offering, and they can function independently without selling to another company.

Companies that fit well into this category are SaaS, enterprise, and other business-related products, because the success of their business often depends on their ability to generate revenue from the start. Enterprise-focused companies also receive less attention in the media and are perhaps less subject to the distractions of consumer-facing companies.

SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg understands the value of additional financing to grow his company, but doesn’t see the need to IPO:

"We could go public, but the cost of going public — of running a public company — outweighs the benefits. We don’t need the cash to run; we’re profitable….For us, [debt and equity financing] affords many of the same benefits — like the liquidity — of an IPO, without the roadshow, the distractions and the demands of meeting quarterly projections.”

Twilio co-founder Jeff Lawson said last year that despite a $500M valuation, they’re not in a rush to exit:

Our focus is on building a great company. IPOs are financing events on the road. If you’re successful in building a great company, you have the privilege of that point of becoming a public company if that’s what you want to do. So our focus is on building a great company. We don’t have any specific focus on an IPO.”

Mailchimp co-founder Ben Chestnut and Basecamp (formerly 37signals) co-founder Jason Fried have also made it clear that they don’t plan to take their companies public. Fried believes in sticking to metrics that are meaningful:

"All you have to do is read TechCrunch. Look at what the top stories are, and they’re all about raising money, how many employees they have, and these are metrics that don’t matter. What matters is: Are you profitable? Are you building something great? Are you taking care of your people? Are you treating your customers well?”

There will always be a ruthless cycle of invest -> exit -> invest for some companies, especially those with high consumer growth and a delayed revenue model. But for many other companies, there are plenty of good reasons to stay private, whether that’s to maintain independence, continue to deliver on your vision, or better serve your customers. Why not try to become the next Kickstarter, Etsy, SurveyMonkey or Twilio?

Since Yo announced its $1M raise last month, there has been no shortage of commentary weighing in on whether Yo - an app that does nothing more than send a “Yo” push notification to one’s friends - deserves a dollar of investor money.

But the real story, in my opinion, is how Yo indicates that, for better or worse, today’s entrepreneurs are this generation’s most influential artists.

Somewhere between Google and Yo, startups, and our speculation around them, became less about technical ability or business acumen and more about creative output.

Collectively, we’re captivated by the potential of technology, a place to let one’s imagination run wild and envision the world as it should be rather than as it is. It’s as easy now to turn those ideas into code as it is to put a paintbrush to paper.

Hackers have known this for years, but now that the bar for software development has been lowered, it’s easier for anyone to tinker with code. And so the creative minds have flocked to tech, to gently test and probe, to throw ideas out there and see what sticks.

The exploding appeal of entrepreneurship in the wake of the 2008 recession lies in the relief: a place to think creatively, live freely, and influence society…not to mention a semblance of a real job to write home about.

Location influences the entrepreneur, just as Paris influenced The Lost Generation of writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the 1920s. I find myself sending relevant startups to founder friends not as competitors, but as “inspiration”.

Most importantly, startups have had an undeniable influence on culture and conversation, as the public relishes in contemplating, consuming and dissecting them. Founders, on their part, delight in pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone. The heated debate over whether Yo is a joke or the next billion-dollar idea is not unlike the public reaction to post-WWI Dadaism, whose avant-garde “anti-art” approach challenged what we considered to be an acceptable art form and paved the way for other experimental movements such as surrealism, modernism and post-modernism.

In all the hand-waving about tech bubbles and overhyped valuations, I can’t help but smile. We’re so focused on making history for technology that we forget we’re making history for culture, too.

Is Yo worth a $1M investment? I don’t know. Was Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” worth $1.7M?

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(Source: Wikipedia)

There have been a couple of Product Hunt data projects floating around the internet lately. Leo’s analysis looked at trends in product names and taglines. Mattermark’s analysis looked at the correlation between Product Hunt and fundraising. And Artiom’s project visualized metrics around products and contributors.

I wanted to look at who was posting and what they were posting. There was just one problem: there are no tags for products posted to Product Hunt.

According to Mattermark, over a third of products on Product Hunt aren’t listed on places like Crunchbase or AngelList (and that’s after cleaning the data to only look at startups), so tapping into other APIs was out.

I could have outsourced the task to a VA, but after tagging a few to test out my methodology, I realized picking just one category per product was more art than science, and I didn’t feel comfortable outsourcing.

So, I did it myself. I tagged 1,023 products on Product Hunt, posted between 5/14 and 6/18 this year. (I only looked at products in this date range because of a 5/13 algorithm change that compensated for time-of-day affecting upvotes). With that data in hand, here’s a look at the categories and contributors of Product Hunt.

(Don’t want to read the whole post? See the tl;dr of observations at the bottom.)

Who’s Posting, and Does It Matter?

Firstly, I wanted to get a better sense of Product Hunt’s contributors. Only 1-2% of Product Hunt’s 25K+ members can post. I looked at: A) who was posting and how often, and B) whether a contributor’s reputation correlated to a product’s popularity on the site.

In my sample of 1,023 products, there were 345 contributors. I don’t know the exact number of total contributors out there, but assuming it’s between 250-500, this probably represents most of them.

Just over half (55%) only posted a product once during this period. The top 10% most frequent contributors (34 people total) had posted 6 or more hunts, but they had a decent spread. Jack Smith, the #1 contributor, posted 62 products in this period. Geoffrey Weg, at #2, posted 36.

The top 10% most frequent contributors posted just under half (48%) of all products, which actually makes for a pretty good spread among all contributors, if you consider the 1% community rule.

I also pulled everyone’s gender (via Twitter) out of curiosity. 91% of contributors are male; just 9% are female. I was a little surprised at the disparity. I’m curious to know how the gender of contributors compares to the gender of the Product Hunt community at large.

Wednesday is the most popular day to post, followed by Tuesday and Thursday.

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I didn’t find any correlation between a contributor’s internal reputation (measured by frequency of posts) and a product’s upvotes or comments. The products with the most votes and comments came from contributors who had only posted once or twice. I also didn’t find any correlation between a contributor’s external reputation (measured by number of Twitter followers) and the popularity of the products they posted.

In other words, it’s possible to post something just once that turns out to be popular. How well the product is received probably has more to do with the product itself.

Leo has already covered commonalities among popular products’ names and taglines, so let’s take a look at product types.

What Types of Products Do People Post?

I broke up the products into 76 categories, using AngelList’s market tags as a gut check. Here are the most frequently-hunted product categories:

  1. Developer Tools

  2. Design

  3. Product Updates

  4. Hardware

  5. Food and Beverage

  6. Music

  7. Sales and Marketing

  8. Photography

  9. Utilities

  10. Entertainment (note: this means “primarily for entertainment purposes”, not “entertainment industry”)

  11. Sports (skewed by the times - over half of these had to do with the World Cup. Fun fact: golf is popular among product hunters!)

  12. Personal Productivity 

The top 12 categories made up just over one-third (35%) of all products posted during this period.

I’ll refrain from posting the entire list of categories here, but these categories also deserve a shout-out:

  • Kids (#14). There are quite a few posted products geared toward kids and/or parents.

  • Collaboration (#17). Products that help teams collaborate better (mostly project management software). Originally tagged as SaaS, but there were so many that they became their own category.

  • Analytics (#13) and Data (#16). Includes data visualization. The popularity of these categories might speak to the hacker nature of the Product Hunt community (more on that in a bit).

  • Social Media (#15) and Messaging (#20).

  • Health and Wellness (#18). I was surprised this wasn’t higher, actually, considering Food and Beverage is at #5.

And here are a couple on the bottom of the list that might surprise you: 

  • Advertising (#68). There are a lot of advertising companies out there, but they’re not commonly found on Product Hunt.

  • Reviews & Recommendations (#76). This one bottomed out the list.

Which Categories Are Most Likely to Get Upvoted?

The categories above represent the types of products that are most likely to get posted to Product Hunt. But which types of products are getting votes?

I wanted to correlate the two, but the number of products per category varies so widely that I couldn’t do it without invoking the wrath of the Statistics Gods. For example, Q&A has the most votes, but there are only 4 products in that category, whereas Developer Tools has 55 products in its category. It doesn’t make sense to compare them. 

So instead, let’s just look at the variance between votes and comments in the top 12 categories above.

Among these categories, the highest median of upvotes went to Product Updates (19), Personal Productivity (17), and Photography (15). By comparison, the median of the overall sample was 11 votes. Not much can be said about the remaining categories with statistical confidence, but these three are markedly higher than the rest. (Notice that Personal Productivity ranks #12 on the list of most-frequently posted categories, but is the second-most upvoted category.) 

Sales and Marketing ranks the lowest of the top 12, with a median of 9 votes. While I can’t say with strong confidence that this is definitely the least-popular category, it is certainly markedly lower than the top ones. I have two theories around why this might be the case: 1) This is the wrong crowd for sales products, if it’s more of a hacker-focused community, and 2) Not all, but some of the sales-related products come off as aggressively sales-y or off-brand, which might turn people off from checking them out.

As for which categories had the highest number of comments, there wasn’t enough variance to draw conclusions with statistical confidence, with the exception of Personal Productivity, which had a median of 6 comments. By comparison, the median of the overall sample was 2 comments. 

As you can see, there’s not much that can be said about correlating votes or comments to product types, because there just isn’t enough data on Product Hunt yet. In that sense, I echo Leo’s comment that, “This was fun to do with a dataset of 3000 products, but what really excites me is the dataset that Product Hunt will have in a year or two.” 

So let’s dig in to the stuff we can talk about, because I think the top 12 categories are very telling of the kind of place Product Hunt is. 

How Does Product Hunt Compare to the Startup Community At Large?

As one might expect, many of the top categories on Product Hunt are very consumer-focused (Hardware - which often translates into retail; Food and Beverage; Music; Photography). Outside of these areas, I see a couple of other buckets here.

Stuff that’s useful for work. The Developer Tools, Design, and Sales and Marketing categories certainly fit into this area. Examples include Card and The Noun Project.

 I was initially surprised to see how many design- and developer-related products were posted because I figured most products would have a consumer bent. But it makes sense if many contributors to Product Hunt are hackers or designers (which I suspect they are)…so they post things that they found useful themselves. 

Updates to existing products. The #3 most-popular category was product updates - for example, Apple’s iOS8 or Amazon’s new Prime Music. I didn’t expect to see so many product updates posted to Product Hunt, which suggests the community has a secondary function: not just a place to discover new products, but also to discover the latest updates to existing products.

(Side note: It was tough to distinguish what counted as a product update. For example, Amazon’s new music service is technically a standalone product, but it comes from a huge company that’s primarily known for something else.)

Stuff that’s personally useful or entertaining. The #9 and #10 most popular categories were Utilities and Entertainment, and Personal Productivity took the #12 spot (which really should have been #11 - see note about Sports above). Examples include Stache, SHRTURL, and Assistant.To

Like the “useful for work” bucket, it makes sense that many of the products posted to Product Hunt are immediately useful and actionable. A new community product might be interesting, but signing up and testing it out is less gratifying than installing a Chrome plugin that instantly replaces your new tabs with a beautiful photo. The excitement of discovering quick-fix products (whether for personal or work use) that make life better is, I imagine, what keeps many Product Hunters coming back.

There’s also something else to be learned about the popularity of this category grouping. Much has been made of the fact that many products on Product Hunt were not already listed on AngelList, CrunchBase, Mattermark, or other popular startup databases. However, unlike those other places, not everything posted to Product Hunt is meant to be a startup.

I doubt the creators of @pmarca tweet-essays or Emoji Zone are trying to raise a $1M seed round for their ideas. They’re just fun, quirky, wonderful places on the internet. There is joy to be found in opening up Product Hunt and finding yourself unexpectedly wandering through the solar system or experiencing a light year. While these products don’t make up the majority of what’s posted to Product Hunt, you’ll never find them on AngelList or Mattermark.

Product Hunt overlaps with the world of startup databases and sourcing tools in a big way, but we shouldn’t forget that at its core, it’s a place for product lovers: for people to share the things they discovered that helped them out at work today, made their lives a little more efficient, or just made them smile.

tl;dr

  • A contributor’s internal (measured by frequency of posting) and external (measured by # Twitter followers) reputation doesn’t correlate to how well the product does on Product Hunt.

  • 91% of people who post products are male, 9% are female.

  • Wednesday is the most popular day to post, followed by Tuesday and Thursday.

  • Top Product Hunt categories fall into these buckets:

  • Consumer-focused (Hardware - #4, Food and Beverage - #5, Music - #6, Photography - #8)
  • Useful for work (Developer Tools - #1, Design - #2, Sales and Marketing - #7)
  • Personally useful or entertaining (Utilities - #9, Entertainment - #10, Personal Productivity #12)
  • Updates to existing products (#3)

Not everything posted to Product Hunt is meant to be a standalone company. PH overlaps with startup databases, but it’s also a place to discover fun and useful products.

Questions, concerns, reactions? Comments welcomed here or on Twitter.

We’ve all heard the refrain, "You can’t fight progress", in response to dialogue about the tradeoffs between technology and a healthy, balanced society.

It’s true that progress is inevitable, but advancing technology is not the sole goal for humanity.

The sole goal of humanity is to survive, which means that technological innovation must be weighed against consideration of our moral and physical limitations. Only the former keeps our numbers growing; only the latter keeps us from destroying ourselves too quickly.

There are a number of stories from recent history where we’ve intentionally backed away from innovation in order to protect the greater interests of society.

Chemical warfare was used heavily by both sides during WWI, but the effects were horrific. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. This taboo against using chemical weapons was reinforced by the countries participating in WWII - even Hitler didn’t dare to use chemical weapons on the battlefield.

Over the following decades, the so-called “chemical taboo” grew, culminating in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. 190 nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and over 80% of declared chemical weapons have now been destroyed.

We had the technology to mutilate our enemies, but we decided not to.

On a more granular level, consider food processing, which saw rapid development in a post-WWII consumer society, boosted by the Cold War space race. We learned how to package and preserve food and nutrients in entirely new ways - things already deemed disgusting by today’s standards, like canned hamburgers or canned PB&Js, and things we still enjoy today, like instant mac-n-cheese or frozen pizzas.

Society at the time was infatuated with food processing. The sentiment of the time was the triumph of man over nature through science, and artificial food fit right in. 1960s and 1970s science fiction is littered with references to meal replacement pills and cubes, with even Pillsbury developing and selling Space Food Sticks.

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(Image source)

Yet, by the 1980s, we started to realize that we didn’t really want to eat artificial food all the time. In fact, the trend began moving towards slow food and local produce. We discovered there was intrinsic value, both mental and physical, in eating a meal prepared from fresh ingredients.

We had the technology to do away with food, but we decided not to.

Today, there is a surprising lack of conversation about the societal implications of big data, advertising and privacy. We love the idea of adding a data-driven curation layer onto everything. We want data to recommend to us what we should read, what we should wear, what we’re searching for online. We don’t even mind advertisers using our data to help serve us more relevant ads. “The thing that we have heard from people is that they want more targeted advertising,” insists Facebook.

There have been some ominous rumbles from activists about the "filter bubble" and "becoming a gadget", but even the NSA scandal couldn’t unlock a civilian uprising. And maybe that’s because we’re still in the infatuation phase, basking in the glow of a screen that knows exactly who we are and what we want, food scientists gazing blissfully upon our glorious, jiggling Jell-O molds.

Big data and quant-based advertising are less than a decade old, after all.

Maybe now is not the right time to be having that conversation about the pitfalls of sending our personal data into the aether. Maybe, as with chemical warfare and food processing, we curious humans have to make mistakes for a couple more decades first.

But maybe we should at least keep in mind some of the great “technological advancements” made in the past half-century, and how eventually we had to step back and recalibrate. Technological innovation for its own sake is meaningless without context.

Recently, I finished George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation - a collection of short stories that satirize the American obsession with materialism and frivolities. I enjoyed his writing immensely, but I also noticed that these critiques, published in 2007, are starting to feel dated.

Americans glued to their TVs, dumbed down by advertising, in relentless pursuit of the white-picket dream: that was the post-WWII, pre-Internet motif my generation grew up with, but it’s not the one we’re facing now. Where are the weak spots in today’s society?

In the past decade, the common cultural critique has been addiction to technology, starting with the ubiquitous iPod earbuds of the early 2000s. Events like Digital Detox and Camp Grounded bring people together to technology-free spaces. A popular video called “I Forgot My Phone” reminds us what life was like before mobile phones. Banksy’s latest work features two lovers looking at their screens instead of each other.

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(Source: Street Art News)

But critiques always come in hindsight, which means that even as we react to our society-wide screen addiction, new weaknesses are developing that we aren’t yet aware of. What will satirists write about about our culture 10 years from now?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if all of reddit were computer-generated. All the AMAs, crazy stories, images that make you laugh and cry and share them with friends…imagine if all those things were being created solely for your personal entertainment.

It’s nearly impossible that this is the case, but it’s also nearly impossible to fully disprove.

Now, the follow-up question: would you care? Would you stop using reddit if you knew everything you were reading wasn’t real?

On a lesser scale, this has already been happening. In 2012, the Internet exploded over the Kony 2012 campaign, which urged the US government to help bring an Ugandan war criminal to justice. With over 100M views in just six days, it became the most viral video of all time. The problem was that by 2012, Kony was not as much of a threat as he was portrayed in the campaign. But that didn’t deter some of Kony 2012’s biggest supporters, including nonprofit celebrity Dan Pallotta, who praised the organizers for having "galvanized hundreds of thousands of young people all over the world."

Last year, a woman named Linda Tirado who wrote an essay about living in extreme poverty received over $61,000 in donations from sympathetic strangers. We soon found out (after the money had poured in) that her situation wasn’t exactly as dire as she had claimed. But not everyone was upset. "I sent her some money," wrote one commenter. "Fiction or non-fiction, it felt good then and it feels good now."

The internet presents an unprecedented opportunity for empathy, by connecting us to strangers unexpectedly, and by bringing us closer to familiar faces when we rally around common causes.

However, as we become more empathetic to what’s on our screens, we risk becoming less empathetic to the physical world around us. It begs the question whether Internet empathy is simply masturbatory: a reflexive search to relieve our desires for joy and anger and emotion through external stimuli that could just as easily be fake as it is real. But maybe we don’t care, because we want to believe that it all matters.

The internet allows us to control our empathy. We can limit our outrage to videos from Upworthy that match our political biases. We can follow @EmergencyPuppy on Twitter to give ourselves a daily dose of joy. We can read and share only those articles that hit our hot buttons about feminism, gun control, or whatever else makes us angry.

And in that sense, the empathy that the internet has created may be purely selfish, after all.

This complaint isn’t new. The question of whether giving to charity is an altruistic or selfish act has been debated for ages. And the topic of empathy has already begun to pierce the mainstream, as we debate the ethics of Secret and discuss the cultural foreshadowing of sci-fi drama Her.

We’ll never really know whether we do things because we want to help others, or because we’re trying to better understand ourselves. But the internet has amplified that, made it harder to know when we’re caring about others or just caring about ourselves. How that shapes and changes our society is something the cultural critics will be sorting out in the coming years.

When scraper sites and content farms began to creep their way up the search rankings, Google released the first of its infamous Panda algorithm updates in 2011 to stop them.

When Farmville notifications threatened to overtake our news feeds, Facebook turned the frequency down. The same thing happened with Upworthy-style news articles and meme photos, so viral that they threatened to become a pandemic.

To help us wade through marketing emails to get to our “real” email, Google released a number of changes to Gmail, including the promotion tab and a handy unsubscribe button from the inbox.

These actions suggest that these companies understand their unique position to provide quality control to the Internet. They are more than just another tool or product that we use; they’re a gatekeeper to our experience in the online world.

We don’t want to think twice about having to sort through a crappy newsfeed, inbox, or list of search results to find what we’re really looking for. We just want it to be there. For the most part, these gatekeepers have excelled at that.

Which is why it’s frustrating to read about them using their power in seemingly oblivious ways.

Earlier last week, Google released an update to Google Maps. If you have the Uber app installed on your phone, you will now see - in addition to walking, biking, driving, or taking public transportation - an option to take an Uber. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that Uber is a portfolio company of Google Ventures.

A few days later, Amazon was accused of throttling access to books from publisher Hachette in order to negotiate better discounts - reporting them as out of stock, removing them from their recommendations, and saying it will take 3-4 weeks for delivery, despite Hachette’s insistence that they are fulfilling their Amazon orders on time.

Amazon’s behavior with publishers has been going on for years. It’s not unlike the longstanding accusations from local businesses that Yelp manipulates their reviews unless they pay for advertising, or Facebook deprecating content from business pages unless they pay for advertising.

This behavior is unacceptable, and we should call it out when we see it.

With great scale comes great responsibility. Whether conscious or not, the public relies upon these companies to preserve the neutrality of the internet and keep it a safe and fair space.

Turning down the volume on spammy game notifications, news articles, and low-quality content helps build the public’s trust. Putting personal priorities over public interest destroys that trust, in addition to threatening the rules of capitalism and competition law that keeps our society running like a democracy.

A tiny bookstore favoring strategic partnerships should come as no surprise to anyone. But when it’s a store the size of Amazon - controlling more than a third of book trade in the United States - they should know better.

In the offline world, there are a number of public services running in the background to keep our society running smoothly. Things like street lights, policemen, waste management and sewage.

We use many of these services on a daily basis, but we don’t really think about where they come from or how they’re managed. We just pay our taxes and let the government deal with it.

Similarly, in the online world, there are services running in the background that form the backbone of our online ecosystem and allow us to communicate with one another. Services like Google Search, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Most of these “public services of the Internet” are housed by just a couple of corporations.

Both Google and Facebook have been described as search and social utilities, respectively. Facebook, in particular, took great pains to rebrand themselves from a “social networking site” (product) to a “social utility” (service).

If government’s role is, at least in part, to support the functional backbone services of our society, these corporations have become our de-facto governments.

Acquisitions are often spoken of somewhat sneeringly in tech - a soft landing for companies who couldn’t make it on their own. But there’s another narrative there for certain types of acquisitions, especially the higher-value ones.

These companies were doing just fine in terms of audience and reach, but they never really figured out the revenue-generating piece of their business. So they sold to a corporation, who would sponsor their service so that it could continue to serve society while being managed by a centralized power.

The difference is that Google and Facebook are structured as public corporations, and legally speaking, a corporation’s job is to deliver value to their shareholders, not to organize the people. Companies like Google and Facebook might serve the same purpose online as government entities offline, but they are not - cannot be - a neutral entity. Even if they wanted to be.

I’m glad that Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”, and I believe they and Facebook are doing their best to step into their role as governing bodies, bringing similar services together to run more efficiently by combining management. But it shouldn’t ever be a for-profit corporation’s job to serve the role of public government.

The issue may be forced sooner than we expect, because the next wave of Internet communication - ephemeral and anonymous apps - do not collect data on their users. The old advertising models don’t work as easily on these products as their predecessors.

So the next wave of communication may not just be about whether Whisper or Secret wins the anonymity game, but also how we incubate those services on the Internet.

Is it going to be just another corporate acquisition? Or can we envision something different?