(Notes: this ends up being the most difficult thing I’ve written in the last ten years. I definitely struggled. While I am not satisfied with it, I am still posting it because it gives me more motivation and urgency to come back and edit it. Plus, it’s not like too many people would get to read this.)
In this last part of the Mindset series, I am going to introduce and discuss a working model for e-commerce system in the era of social media by directly examining, explaining and imagining MOFFAS, a platform I am building to redesign the concepts and experience of e-commerce (in a social setting, but, again, what is not social today?). The goal of MOFFAS is not to replace any existing platforms, but to provide new perspectives and more (empowering) options to consumers, brands and marketers. While I am hoping these options can improve the unbalanced power dynamics between the public and the Internet giants, it is not going to happen until we all adopt and shift to a human-centric mindset, together.
In Mindset III, I introduced the human-centric technology ideal and a Saturn-inspired model. MOFFAS is built following this ideal and its protocols, as one of the “rings” to the users. Security, privacy and transparency are the three core principles, which are reflected in the decisions and details of the programming design (and will continued to be the focus of future development). If users are giving up security and privacy or subjected to such risks, then it should be incorporated into the bartering model in the transaction. I am not going into specifics in this particular article.
Since MOFFAS is still developing, I will introduce not only the features as of now but also the state that I am building towards. Largely relying on the collective power of people, some of the components will not work properly without a sufficient amount of data and number of active users.
Building a new e-commerce platform
What is MOFFAS? Ironically, the About section of the website is where I spent most time editing and struggling. MOFFAS is an atypical social e-commerce (for marketing reasons, I am now going with “social shopping”) platform to deliver “platform-less” experience. People, including me, love the efficiency, convenience and versatility shopping platforms offer, and MOFFAS intends to deliver such quality e-commerce services without confining people to a controlling and isolated system. The central idea is to break down a platform model and reassemble the “full services” for the users in a relatively independent environment where they get to have more control on their side. I believe only through such decomposition, reorganization and reconstruction of the fundamentals can the real liberation and authentic shift of power (have a chance to) happen.
However, that’s a rather generic sentiment and, honestly, a common element you might often find in the populist propaganda nowadays. If I really want to be critical of myself, it’s also a mediocre idea and borderline empty hype. The better question will be: what does MOFFAS actually do and how does it make sure that people get to benefit from this new “redesign” and gain back more power? The answer depends on the audience. Are you a consumer? Are you a brand? Are you a marketer? Or, are we talking about the society as a whole? We will answer them during our discussion of the system, respectively.
Decomposition is one of the key cornerstones of computational thinking. The main idea is to break down a complex problem or system into smaller parts that are easier to manage and understand. It is the computer science’s own interpretation of divide and conquer, the ancient wisdom that has been used to break down things like mathematical puzzles, armies, kingdoms and even people’s mind, throughout the human history. It is so effective that sometimes I wonder if it is because of the decompositional nature of nature itself — that ultimately everything can be broken down into particles.
Decomposition is also the first step we need to do in our process. If the goal of MOFFAS is to provide an alternative approach to delivering e-commerce services with platform-level convenience, we have to identify and understand what makes e-commerce works.
Luckily, the ever-growing e-commerce world is well organized and structured, and most people are somewhat familiar with its overall architecture. Here, we dissect it into departments based on their service target (who is this service for) and objectives (why does this service exist). In general, the departments that concern the public usually include:
- the merchandise, physical goods or non-physical goods and services.
- product indexing and locating (“browse” or “search”)
customers: customer account and behavior management (including data collecting)
- the seller can be a brand, dealer, broker, drop-ship seller, etc.
- seller account and backend setup
business development: getting more merchants to sign up
marketing and advertising
checkout and payment: both for customers and sellers
Therefore, for MOFFAS to reconstruct an e-commerce environment, logically, it will need to have the capacity to deliver a similar all-around service experience, like the traditional e-commerce platforms.
However, MOFFAS is not one.
Traditional e-commerce platforms run in a controlling closed environment, standardizing both consumers and sellers into template-based files. While it brings unmatched convenience and efficiency, it also creates irreplaceable dependence. Such dependence, affecting consumers as well as sellers, is then further translated into power to maintain the order of the environment. As a result of this mechanism, consumers are constantly subjected to involuntary exposure and manipulation. For example, even if you just want to buy a spoon, when you shop on a platform site, not only are you flooded with countless products and advertisements irrelevant to your goal (all engineered in a way to be “persuasive”), you are indirectly sharing your personal data with all the sellers and partners of the platform as well. In the meanwhile, the power works in a different way on sellers by diminishing their individuality and inducing excessive competition. An independent seller that prioritizes quality cannot compete with mass production from a cheap labor market over pricing on a platform, where branding, which often justifies pricing, is largely limited.
Therefore, a seller usually has their own website with e-commerce setup and uses platforms as a retail channel to gain traffic, market exposure and other added benefits (e.g., logistic and customer support). Thanks to the development of e-commerce frameworks, it is rather easy to set up your own online shop nowadays with Shopify, BigCommerce, Square Space, etc. Coding skill is usually not needed and features can be customized. Such an establishment is sufficient for handling most demands, from merchandising to payment processing.
I see that self-sufficiency as advantageous and empowering, and MOFFAS is built to encourage, support and take advantage of such independence, instead of suppressing it to seek control. Without a unified marketplace, MOFFAS works with sellers independently, providing resources, exposure and platform-level enhancement, unintrusively. In this way, this independence is eventually transferred to consumers as well.
Then the question arises: how do we build an environment if we cannot have the sellers and customers all in one place, processed through one system? How do we manage so many parties and deal with their demands, one by one? How do we get them to find each other?
My answer is: how do you not? In the end, this seemingly scattered and chaotic system is the natural system, and this system has always been the way how things work outside e-commerce (platforms), from shopping malls to Sunday markets, whether in 1870 or 2021. The platform model is created as technology’s solution to solving complexity by “flattening” individuality and centralizing power. Why can’t we try to use technologies the other way around to distribute such power more evenly, and embrace and even enhance individuality and independence?
So far, we’ve explored the e-commerce side of the social shopping, and, in this section, we will discuss the social networking part.
I define social shopping as (online) shopping in a social setting. What is a social setting then? It is when an activity, in our case, shopping, involves or engages another person. Here are some examples to illustrate that definition:
- You and your friend decide to share a Dropbox family plan.
- Your mom and your neighbors put in a wholesale order of watermelons to save 40% each.
- A fashion website is having a great $70 off $300 sale, and you and your friends are putting the order together to save $70 dollars together.
- You have a referral code from a website that if your friend ends up signing up both of you get $10 cash.
These are common daily scenarios. As a matter of fact, I’ll argue nowadays social shopping is very likely the more common type of shopping, although most of the time it is done implicitly. One also does not have to be a buyer or seller in social shopping; they can simply be the social influence, whether as an influencer, marketer or a friend.
I am honestly still surprised that social media and e-commerce are not more integrated at this time, beyond static sharing plugins and reviews/comments. Then I remind myself that just like the big e-commerce platforms, social media platforms want to have control too. Both of them want to do everything within their own framework — and that’s not easy given the current oversaturated market. We’ve started seeing some actions recently, such as Instagram’s in-app marketplace and Amazon’s all kinds of lists. However, they are both limited to the limitation of their own establishment. Then we have Facebook that, for some reason, channels Craigslist in their e-commerce efforts, which still confuses me. The best model I’ve come to like is Google Shopping for the openness, but again because of the demise of Google+, now Google Shopping is basically just a search engine that searches shopping sites.
What does MOFFAS do to fuse social networking and e-commerce together then? Well, the idea, actually, is not to fuse them together in the first place, but to build/render social networking functionalities in a mezzanine layer between the e-commerce services and users. Basically, MOFFAS creates a temporary layer on top of e-commerce sites during user sessions to deliver social networking-based services right within the frame, i.e., without leaving the page of the e-commerce site. The user content will be associated with the page and available to the user’s network. In that way, the social networking experience is both independent and continuous. To give a very simple example, Marcy finds a nice car on nicecar.com/nicecar_1.html. Marcy knows that I am looking for a car and wants to share it with me. Normally, what she will do is to share that link with me, either via text or instant messenger, with some notes. When I receive it, I read her notes and open the link. With MOFFAS, it works differently. Marcy doesn’t have to copy or share the link and move the event to another location (the messenger or texting app); all she needs to do is to leave a message on the nicecar_1.html page and tag me there, and when I am visit the page I can see the message directly on top of the car that she likes, all within the original context. I call such structure “organic” for being natural in the way the two events are organized and processed in relation to each other (and also because of the lack of a better word). If you want to know more about such social features MOFFAS supports at the moment, here is a video on Organic Social Networking.
Social networking is a key component of MOFFAS and does more than allowing users to better communicate and express themselves. It also supports, reinforces and connects other functionalities of MOFFAS, from marketing to shopping; it plays a significant role in (re-)integration, which we will discuss next.
In Decomposition, I mentioned the effectiveness of divide and conquer. While we may attribute it to the compositional nature of “things” in general, it could also be telling us another truth: keeping things together is much harder than breaking them apart. Information technology (or software development) might just be one of the best examples to substantiate it. Think about cybersecurity and hacking — all it takes to destroy it all, sometimes, is just one bug, no matter how sophisticated the rest of your program is.
Integration is therefore the most challenging part of building and operating MOFFAS.
Based on the analysis in the previous sections, MOFFAS can be divided into five main departments (note these are for the model not the company):
- As discussed above, MOFFAS does not use a traditional unified marketplace but, instead, relies on sellers’ own independent e-commerce sites where they can have full control and set their own rules. What MOFFAS does is to provide traffic and information through the marketing, social networking and market intelligence departments. It also adds socially motivated features to these independent sites, such as Cartpool, which is to allow and help users better plan and place group orders, and Promo Party, which is built for sharing referral codes within a group.
Marketing (including advertisement)
- Given the internal code name φ, MOFFAS Phi is a social networking-powered digital marketing program that is built on top of the traditional affiliate marketing model. It services the marketers (or Mofficers), who collectively form the base infrastructure that most marketing-related functionalities of MOFFAS depend on. The marketers are as important as the sellers and consumers in the MOFFAS system, playing an important role in integrating different variables and making a non-centralizing human-centric model feasible.
Social networking: discussed above.
- Market intelligence is an interdepartmental program that has a major dependence on the social networking and marketing departments. Its purpose is to provide information, insights and shopping guidance to users. At the moment, due to the lack of enough marketer and marketing data, the functionalities within this department are mostly idle.
- Finance is going to be the last element to be developed in the MOFFAS system and largely affects the capabilities and capacity of the shopping department. It is still in preparatory stage. There’s not much I can discuss as of now.
Moderation and compliance are built into each department. As mentioned in Mindset III, I believe in system-wide regulation, but such regulation is flawed by nature: it usually has a tendency to expand infinitively and likely defeats the purpose of the system, which is to shift power to users. Therefore, a mechanism to regulate such regulation, not only to limit its power but also to protect it from malicious attacks, is necessary. A mechanism similar to Wuxing (“Five Phases” — honestly a very bizarre translation) will be further adopted in future development. If you are not familiar with this concept, it is a philosophical scheme to explain the nature of and relationships between matters in this world (“cosmos”). The fundamental elements of earth, wood, metal, fire and water generate and overcome one another, forming immutable cycles and maintaining equilibrium. I will explain how Wuxing can be used in MOFFAS in a separate article. For now, if you are interested, here is a short summary from Britannica.
MOFFAS is made to be tested, challenged and adjusted; it is designed to evolve and adapt, to be more decomposed, kinetic and free. It should also be examined as an experiment that studies the best methods to develop human-centric technologies in other industries. At the moment, it is limited by its scale (honestly, it means my budget) and the development of the hardware for the pressure on computing, storing and processing more on the client side.
To end the Mindset series, I want to bring up the meaning of technologies again. Technologies should always be built to make the world better (human beings, animals, environment, etc.). However, it’s not always the case. Just like religions and philosophies, technologies are often used to manipulate and control people (mind and behavior) by powerful parties with agendas. It’s about time to second guess and change our mindset, collectively, and challenge what we were told to believe is the norm. In information technology, there’s nothing more “norm” than developing technologies with users’ interests and empowerment as priority.