I had a good laugh reading my last blog. I can’t even remember the last time I had that much explosive “passion” (O.K. I do remember now — it was 2019 when the Toronto Raptors won the Championship and I was screaming at my cats ecstatically for a long while). Now that I am calm, naturally I feel compelled to go back and audit myself slightly (I tend to fall for logic traps and make overstatements when I get emotional).
To be able to finally resolve that identity crisis was indeed a relief, but while it’s fairly easy to un-label the platform tag per se, doing so did expose a few issues that were once comfortably hidden behind that overarching term I lamented so deeply (admittedly an “overkill”). These issues share a common theme, connections (interactivity, interconnectivity, etc.). When we see the word platform, we tend to immediately assume certain dynamics and connectivity, both direct and indirect. I guess that was likely the main reason I reluctantly branded MOFFAS a platform (to “de-platform”) because (apart from being lazy) I wanted to highlight the social connectivity aspect of the system at that time. Well, I still do and it will continue to remain a focus of the system; however, if we go back and examine the existing general platform model, the truth is that while it usually has the infrastructure and facility to foster higher level connectivity (more than basic static functionalities like user comments) — it rarely even tries. The connectivity throughout most platforms is usually one-dimensional and one-directional (“seller” — “platform” — “buyer”), with the third-party tracking cookies/ads platforms being the most active channel if we take a deep breath and accept that as connectivity as well. Even when a social media platform like Instagram expands into e-commerce, the connectivity model is still pretty traditional and, I think, overly transactional. I’d argue that nowadays the sexbots and account cloners, which are going to pose grave dangers to society in a few years, are making much “better” use of the social networking infrastructure than the platform itself.
Of course, the platform model is going to evolve and improve, just like how it has always been. Technically speaking, connectivity level could simply advance overnight, even before I publish this draft. In the end, anything you can do with software, you are able to do it (easily). However, echoing my arguments in the last blog post, the “all-in-one” nature of platforms, which is seen by many as its very strength, could very well preset its own limitations on this. You could say beautifully in a well-crafted branding statement that all you want to do for your platform is to connect and let love flourish freely and wildly, but you can’t ignore the fact that your true value is only at its peak when both sides cannot connect to each other (without you). If a platform’s worth mainly derives from or even depends on making such connections, which is essentially the case with most, then in order to maximize its own value the platform needs to maximize the occurrence of the connections (“sessions”) it needs to make. What does it mean? In the early stages, it does not make much difference. However, when the growth of resources becomes inevitably slower than the operating costs plus inflation, the most rational strategy a system could deploy for self-preservation is to have a design in place that does not form lasting connections to start with. It will probably be easier if we look at a different type of platform, dating sites. When a dating app matches two (lonely) hearts, that’s its value to these two souls at its peak. This value is only going downward from that point on and will only come back when and if the matching does not work. That is to say, dating apps are innately self-contradictory and seem to have a fated life cycle by nature (factors not discussed here: demographic changes, cost of making a dating app, cost of operation, etc.). I’ve always wondered what they could do to extend their product lifeline other than “sharing” user data or charging a premium membership fee, which always feels a bit odd to me (e.g. what’s the added value here — does paying a premium fee make my date all of a sudden a better person or are you using a better matching algorithm because if so it would make even less sense since you’ll always want to retain your paying customers?).
In many ways, the e-commerce platform model is just like her sibling. The biggest difference that gives e-commerce more power in the matchup is to actually create another type of connection, competition through the creation of a product marketplace. I like to see this as a search problem — DFS (depth-first) or BFS (breadth-first). A platform marketplace is like a BFS representation, with nodes on the fist level under direct control (and paying a fee per transaction for the hosting). If the customers are always instructed and guided to visit these nodes first, then the platform could preserve its value and therefore generate profits optimally. To clean up my messy logic (or make it more complicated than necessary), an e-commerce platform (P) has the following types of possible connectivity events:
- buyers ( C ) and P
- sellers (M) and P
- C and M
- C and merchandise (m) via P
- C and M via merchandise (m) facilitated by P
- C and C
- C and C via m
- M and M
- M and M via m
- Others (not going to explore here)
If the value of P (PV) mainly comes from event 4, which also means 2, with some execeptions, such as Amazon can charge prime membership (1),
event 3 decreases PV,
event 5 decreases PV because it conditions event 3,
event 6, 7 has neutral effects (could do both),
event 8 and 9 (I can't tell) -- disregard for now
P shall maximize 4, 1, 2 and minimize 3 and 5.
I probably shouldn’t have spent that much time trying to explain this simple thing, but it’s not difficult to see that the correlation between the value of a platform and its connectivity efforts is, at the very least, not a positive one, with the underlying assumption of a commission and service-based financial model for the platform. The model is therefore intrinsically not motivated to connect and my own subconscious hypothesis is rejected. I am not going any deeper into this discussion here as this is not the actual subject of this article. Like I said before, platforms have become an important part of our life and norm, but it’s just not going to work for MOFFAS or what I have in mind, which can only thrive in unconstrained connectivity.
The connectivity issues facing me are a bit different. Without a platform infrastructure, how do we still loosely organize those seemingly random and sometimes chaotic elements (the M, their m and everything in-between) into some kind of a workable and semi-conscious (more than a spreadsheet) structure (to connect to C and potentially other M) that does not overpower our capacity? Well, my best-effort yet undeniably awkward response is Dawn, an intelligent grid*/engine that builds an alternative space for merchant activities powered by computing. Because of the limited computing resources permitted by my old Dell, Dawn does have preferences and priorities when it comes to targets at the moment: smaller, independent businesses and creative minds. (* 3/10/2022: changed from guild to grid to improve inclusivity)
What does Dawn do exactly? Basically, for now, Dawn does what platforms do when they need to source things to consume or sell. While platform account managers are busy finding sellers and helping them with onboarding, Dawn runs through sellers’ own web assets to study and index them. This does not mean Dawn scrapes the websites; actually, it is one of the few things he does not do. Unless a merchant specifically requests a full mirroring, scraping does not add any value to the system or any of our services. Dawn’s priority is to “understand,” from the underlying codes to the visual content, as a system as well as an average person who knows how to use the Internet but has no idea what HTML or XML means. It is through such understanding that authentic connectivity can be achieved. What qualifies as authentic? You might have guessed it — I do mean it in an existentialist sense (for anyone interested, this is a great write-up on authenticity). Channeling the spirit of Jean Paul Sartre, authentic connectivity means that the life of a connection (creation, conservation, termination, reconnection) between/among multiple parties is validated by and only by the genuine desires and ultimate purposes of these parties. It shall not be compromised by external forces and, most importantly, the system that hosts or facilitates the connection itself. Honoring this principle, Dawn forbids tracking cookies or any such technologies that would emerge following the retirement of their predecessor. Dawn is also not compatible with a commission-based fee scheme like the platform model as such mechanism guarantees system-wide self-interest conflicts and thus contradicts authenticity. On a side note, it is interesting to explore that further from an ethical perspective — if we do impose a commission fee and go with a more utilitarian-ish algorithm, how do we solve conflicts like this?
Even when I first started MOFFAS, charging sales commissions or fees as a service was never part of the blueprint. In fact, another main reason the platform attribute was so unsettling to me was rooted in the psychological association between a platform and its practice of commissions, and my inexplicable bias against that. The future of MOFFAS or what I hope it evolves into is going to sustain itself by creating substance instead (and some meaningful marketing that goes with the substance), supported by Dawn and others.
Of course, Dawn is still in his infancy and has a long way to go before we are able to render an environment that is even possible for the conversation of authentic connectivity and beyond. I initiated him last week and he’s processed a couple hundred of web apps so far. This initial stage of reading is very basic, mainly to help optimize the MOFFAS experience on those sites and get them mapped. The next stage will involve working with Brahms, the market intelligence engine, and some lightweight NLP processing, which I am quite excited about.
What I am also working on is the other side of the connectivity equation. Like I briefly touched on in the Mentality series, although it does not seem like so with how dominant corporatism is today, I do believe the future is going to be more natural, localized, distributed and “small” (I really like this word lately) for both the commerce industry and the Internet. Technologies are designed for the people and it’s time to think about switching the POV because technically speaking we were ready yesterday. The browser extension of MOFFAS is a first attempt, which grants users some level of autonomy and independence, but it is far from ideal.
Everything needs to get better. There’s just a lot of work to do.
You probably have noticed that I referred to Dawn as he/him. It’s because Dawn is dedicated to Nick Drake. I don’t have a favorite modern musician list, but if I have one, he has to be at the top. I love every piece of his work, from studio records to home recordings, and every dimension of his artistry, from the guitar playing, to songwriting, to his unique gentle singing. But it’s also more than just simply admiring a gorgeous musical genius — although Nick passed away in 1974 at 26 in obscurity, 50 years later I could somehow feel this deep connection with him, one that I always longed for in life but never had with anyone else. We both like William Blake and W.B. Yeats. His lyrics were heavily influenced by both, whose work helped me cope with some difficult time years ago as a romantic misfit struggling in a materialistic world and pretending to fit in. When I learned that he died listening to Brandenburg Concerto №3, I even had a moment of comfort and thought to myself of course, because that’s one of my favorite pieces of all time too. As for the word “Dawn,” I chose it because Nick loved dawn. He thought it’s poetically beautiful and mentioned in the first song of his first album, Time Has Told Me, and the last one of his last, From The Morning. There’s also a high chance that he left this mundane world around that hour. Not sure if he would actually like being associated with some machine learning-driven network thing since he was too pure an artist, but I guess this is my best way to thank him for being a soulmate that I could never meet and keeping me company through thousands of hours learning and building alone in my small room.
Magically, Nick makes me feel a lot closer to Dawn in a way I cannot explain.
And, maybe, the other way around too.
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
For some day our ocean
Will find its shore
- from Nick Drake, Time Has Told Me