Execution in Context Over Time

What is the difference between something that is world changing and something that is a change in the world? Execution in context over time.

Execution is how directly you can leverage the right tools toward some material, meaningful, and fundamental aim. The measure of the execution’s impact is related to how effective those tools can be in the present context. Over time, as the context shifts from other changes in the world, the execution is likely to require some adjustments in order to relate most directly to that new context.

Here’s an example: In early 2010 I, like many folks, thought there was an opportunity for a privacy-focused social network. But if you were to look at the obviously privacy-focused apps that were launched around that time—Path and Google+ being the most hyped—nothing really took hold. That is, of course, until Snapchat’s launch in late 2011. Both Path and Google+ took a reasonable, straightforward view of privacy. The content that people wanted to share was static text, photos, and video, and folks just wanted to share that same content with a different, smaller set of people. The broad expanse of Facebook was too cluttered with “friends” so why not create a new space with real friends like Path? Or, categorize and label existing contacts (note: not people) properly like Google+’s circles? Problem solved, right? Neither Path nor Google+ leveraged the right tools and both failed to address the current context most directly. Namely, that for better or worse Facebook was good enough at people-centric privacy.

What Snapchat revealed, however, was that there was room to innovate in terms of privacy but it wasn’t to be found in any straightforward view of privacy that only saw so far as the clumps of people standard content was distributed to. Rather, privacy could be viewed in terms of the content itself. The right tool in this case was a temporal primitive assigned to every bit of content and the notification when that primitive was violated. This created a completely new view of privacy applied directly to the content. Privacy wasn’t only about the network of any specific group of humans, it was about the network that got created when there’s trust that the content itself has strict limits[1].

Another social network that grew explosively just before Snapchat launched was Instagram in 2010. Instagram had almost no privacy controls whatsoever due to borrowing Twitter’s username, public default, and follow model. The early photos posted to the network were of landscapes and buildings, not people. But the speed and ease with which you could access the phone's camera and the filters compensating for the early iPhone camera’s poor image quality—those tools flourished in the context of the abysmal speed and layout of the Facebook mobile app at the time. As Facebook pushed the world toward openness, Instagram shifted too, and more people were willing to post photos of themselves and of other people more publicly. Filters that once made sunsets look their best were changed to those that would make people look their best.

This was a simple example, but ultimately, very complex when you think about it[2] because what Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat seem to prove is that there are opportunities for pseudo public, public, and private social networks to succeed at the same time… for now. As each network grows its internal context will shift and change as well as the context set by external networks as time progresses. There is no clear winner, only an ever-changing list of survivors. Losing is just a failure to adjust and relate to the present context most directly.

Looking forward, thinking through a product's execution in context over time is the least amount of work one can do to judge its potential impact. What’s its aim? Is it something that is fundamental? What tools does it use? Are those the right tools to work toward that particular aim? How can those tools be best leveraged in context? How directly are those tools applied? How flexible are those tools to shift with changing context over time? Which tools should never shift?


[1] The sexting that early Snapchat was known for was an asset because 1/ what’s more fundamental than fucking?, and 2/ if you trusted a product with matters that private, surely you would trust it with the more mundane aspects of your life.

[2] Here is an actual simple example: Food delivery companies are easy to pick on. Overfunded, overhyped, and, ultimately, underwhelming. Ostensibly they should be good businesses but none has yet to succeed. Why is that? They meet Ev Williams’ basic outline for a billion dollar business: human desire that’s been around for a long time (eating food) and make it more convenient (stay at home, select options from phone). You could also argue that eating food is fundamental truth as much as it is a human desire. So, what went wrong?

The execution in context over time. And not the execution in terms of the app design or branding or whatever else, the end to end experience is lacking because of the fact that not all food travels well and deep cultural expectations surrounding eating as a ritual. There’s a reason pizza and Chinese food restaurants have had their own delivery services for years and years and fine dining hasn’t: the first pizza delivered on any given run survives about as well as the last. Carbonara, as it's currently prepared, never travels well. French fries—unless they are the ultra processed fries from a fast food establishment (and even those are hit and miss)—don't travel well, either. So why does quality beat convenience in this case? Because of cost. Because of personal preferences. Because of the weather that particular day. Because of context. Humans require food to survive but its abundance made it a commodity and its requirement in our daily lives gave it cultural meaning. Do you really want to serve your guests lukewarm so-so enchilada or would you rather meet at the restaurant over a pitcher of margaritas? Even when food is warmed, perfectly packaged, and delivered by robots—instead of sad underemployed delivery people who have insane quotas to keep—the experience will still be worse than a restaurant.

December 30th, 2016