A new game

When I was a kid, we would invent our own games. It was hard to predict which ones would be good. Brutal-seeming games could turn out to be harmless and fun. On the other hand, we played a variant of pickup soccer that eventually divided us into two rival factions. In-game grievances turned into a brawl. Kids made enemies.

I’ve always been fascinated by how rules affect people. Choose the wrong ones, and a bit of fun can turn into The Lord of the Flies. This is not limited to kids playing soccer.

Years later, I helped start and build Kik, a messaging app with hundreds of millions of users. One of the challenges in those early days was to help friends find each other in the app. We noticed that if we just told people “Your friend so-and-so is on Kik,” it helped a bit, but if we broke the ice by making it feel like the message had gone to both friends, people were much more likely to start talking. This realization translated into a massive difference in growth rate.

But sometimes those seemingly minor details—how to find new friends; what information to share—had consequences that weren’t obvious in advance. In another instance, we made it easy to sign up to Kik without a phone number, which also helped accelerate our growth. That a was great feature for the people who didn’t have a full phone plan, but it also mean that people who wanted to abuse the system could create shell accounts in which they had little invested. It enabled spammers and abuse, and eroded trust with the good users. We worked constantly to mitigate these issues, and the company has made great progress in addressing them. But fundamental tension like that is hard to solve completely. It’s not just a question of wanting to make it better. It stems from the underlying imperative for growth.

That’s why I’m sympathetic when I see this kind of problem elsewhere. For example, I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. I’ve deleted the app many times and each time I’ve felt calmer and clearer. But I find myself wanting it back, because it connects me to people and ideas that matter. Then, each time I reinstall the app, I feel the addiction, abuse, and outrage rising and I want to delete it again.

Addiction is straightforward. Twitter is like a slot machine. You pull down that feed and each time you get a random hit. It keeps you coming back and intrudes into your thoughts when you are not using it. “Maybe I should just check...” It’s a dilemma for Twitter. The things that help growth can hurt users.

Abuse is another byproduct of the quest for usage growth, because it has to be easy to sign up and interact. I’m not famous enough on Twitter to draw trouble, but even seeing it happen to others sucks. I can only imagine how the targets must feel. Obviously it’s bad that spiteful mobs can harass people into silence—but how do you stop such behavior without killing the golden goose?

How the whole system encourages outrage is even more interesting. Anger is motivating and gets people to engage and share stuff, so making everyone angry is an effective strategy. That means platforms like Twitter optimize for surfacing the exact takes that are most divisive. It rewards dropping bombs on society’s fault lines. If you want to get noticed on Twitter, you’re faced with an impossible choice: harness outrage, or cede the field to those who will. The game’s rules can make even good people behave badly. Even friendly kids will make enemies.

I don’t mean to dump on Twitter. The truth is that these were the same sorts of hard problems we faced at Kik. Twitter makes money from your attention, so they need to compel your attention. Sometimes that leads to good things, like connecting you to people and ideas that matter. But it also means that the addiction, abuse, and outrage that thrive on Twitter and other social platforms may be impossible to eradicate.

So what’s left to do? You can change the rules. That’s why we started Substack: when readers pay writers directly, it’s a whole new game.

Whenever I decide to read something later, I almost never regret it. I’ll sit down with a book or article I saved because it looked interesting, and it’s both enjoyable in the moment and something I look back on as a good use of my time. While getting a quick hit from social media is like grabbing one more candy from the bowl that I’ll regret before I’m done swallowing, deciding what to read in advance is like gathering the ingredients for a good meal. After the meal I feel satisfied.

In this mode, who you read matters. You come to trust certain writers who are so lucid, entertaining, or profound that they are a delight to read. Their work can make you better, wiser, kinder. By deciding upfront on the writers you want to read, you get a choice architecture that puts your better self back in control.

I find this experience is so rewarding that it’s easy to pay a few dollars to the writers I most trust and admire. That’s the experience we’re trying to foster with Substack. It’s the meal instead of the candy; the sport instead of the brawl.

The beauty here is our growth incentives line up too. As more people choose to pay writers directly, more writers join, and yet more readers follow. Together, we are building new, positive communities of publishers and subscribers, and the whole thing keeps getting better for everyone.

This new game is more fun, and everyone is welcome. Come join in.