The Power of Intention and the Future of Social

I realized something crucial recently - social media does nothing for me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t use it - if anything, I’m obsessed. I belong to countless groups on dozens of platforms, public and private. I’m plugged in 24-7-365 (and sometimes 366). But most forms of social media are designed for the short attention span, for quick inspiration, for unintentional use - that is, use without intent. When I say social media does nothing for me, I mean exactly that - it actively does not do anything for me.

Modern social media places a significant emphasis on discovery. The bored user, not knowing exactly what they want, is presented with a feed, or a timeline, or recommendations that guide their path through the product. And they’re always being prompted. Add your friends! Upload your pictures! Volunteer your data! Only then can the product give you what you really want to see - at least according to the product.

If the user only has a vague understanding of their goals, or only a few minutes to kill, this serves just fine. Sometimes a short video or status update is satisfactory. But most social networks simply serve our neomania - our obsession with the newest or latest information or media. There’s no great depth, only infinite breadth.

But what if I know exactly what I want? Exactly what I’m trying to accomplish? Here social products often fall short.

Social Networks are TV Channels, Not Tools

Let’s use myself as an example. I’m not running a client-based business. I’m not selling a product. I don’t want to primarily use social media as a marketing channel for myself or my interests. I don’t want to primarily use it as a soapbox or a platform. But most of the time, that’s the only utility I can see. And even if I wanted that, the products themselves don’t really tell me how to use them to achieve those goals. They function mainly as channels. Think of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. The products themselves don’t really tell you how to build a following or how to create great content. And they don’t really care if you do - their primary purpose is to capture your attention for the longest possible time, and repackage that attention for advertisers.

So while it’s great at discovery, social media generally sucks at a couple things particularly - personal support and professional support. And as such, it doesn’t do anything for me - at least, it doesn’t fulfill my biggest needs.


What are my biggest needs really? Even if I were actively selling a product I wouldn’t call that desire to sell a “need" (though it could be a goal). Some of my core needs are personal, and some are professional, but they come down to the same underlying deeper needs - emotional support, a feeling of community, and providing for others.

If we want to establish and maintain communities based around providing and receiving emotional or professional support - communities that enable their members to grow and achieve - we see the power of intention is crucial.

You join a strong community based on intention. You communicate with other community members based on intention. You want to accomplish something, either alone or together. You want to develop an idea or change a mind, even your own. Intending to be someone’s “friend” on Facebook or “connection” on LinkedIn is not really enough - you just know you want to be associated with that person. But how many of your Facebook friends are true friends? How many of your followers would really follow you?

Community and communication are both derived from the same Latin origin - “communis”, or "common". Community is sustained and created through purposeful communication around common interests or goals. How much do you have in common with your high school friends that show up in your news feed? In contrast, how much do you have in common with your work friends or social clubs? Work and social life are communities. Facebook is a bunch of loosely-held acquaintances - on a good day.

So why is it that for so long workplace and social communication tools - intention-based social media - have lagged in performance and character? Why don’t we love those tools the way we seem to love discovery-based social media?

Well, the act of discovery itself drives a lot of our positive feelings towards social media. The idea that our next big idea, our newest friend, our favorite piece of content could be a single click or swipe away is extremely appealing. But really we (and psychologists) know that lasting meaning is developed over time - investing in a skill or community or friendship, reading a powerful book, taking a course, having a career.

Chat and Forums: Networks of Intent

The two most common forms of online interaction for intent-driven communities have been chat and forums. These tools have developed so little in the last twenty years in part because they are so successful. Chat is real-time and personal. Forums create a storehouse of community knowledge. Both can provide emotional support, build community, and allow users to help others.

If you want to really get something done, or really understand something, chances are you belong to a private chat group of experts (maybe on WhatsApp, or IRC if you’re a nerd like me) or an expert forum (perhaps reddit or Stack Exchange). You probably don’t sit on your news feed waiting for the right answers to roll around - and if you do, MY GOODNESS PLEASE STOP DOING THAT.

Those basic forum and chat tools haven’t really changed in decades, yet they retain huge communities and function fairly effectively. I’ve written about why before. But with the rise of new tools, could we finally be entering a golden age of social communication, collaboration and efficacy?

Take Slack’s insane growth rate over the past two years - the team building Slack as a professional productivity tool understands the importance of intention in social communication. The positive psychology of feeling useful to yourself and others comes from intentional, collaborative communication, and Slack’s integrations, automations, and design makes it powerfully productive. Slack took the extra step of adding personal touches like Slackbot for onboarding and GIPHY integration, mirroring the camaraderie and personality of friendships. As a result, Slack provides emotional support, builds community, and allows users to provide directly for others - and that’s the primary function of the product, not a side effect.

This productivity stands in stark contrast to the passive engagement of Facebook or Instagram. Overuse of social media - our leisure time - has been linked to depression, just like overwatching television. Meanwhile, people regularly report feeling most engaged and happy when fully active in the workplace. The real truth is that we need to work, and we need to feel good about our work, and we want to feel good while we work.

I’m done with the old social media. New social communication tools like Slack mix the positive features of social media (direct communication, beautiful design) with the most positive features of workplaces (productivity, integrations, and access to resources). As our social and working lives continue to interweave, there will be an increasing demand for social networks and tools that understand our need to be both personally and professionally fulfilled. That’s why non-professional Slack communities have begun to proliferate even though Slack is currently focused on enterprise.

We want tools that we control, not tools designed to control us. And we want - we need - to be as productive in our social communities as we are in our workplaces.


The future of communication is already here. Our new communities of intention are already being formed. Join us :) 


Exponential Growth Isn’t Cool. Combinatorial Explosion Is.

So much of the tech industry is obsessed with exponential growth. Anything linear is dying, or has been dead for years.

Moore’s Law had transistor density doubling every two years. Available bandwidth is increasing exponentially - perhaps 50% annually. Every digital product needs viral exponential growth - invite two friends who invite two friends and so on until you have seven billion active users. Everything is a hockey stick that you’re praying doesn’t turn into a parabola.

But looking for exponential growth just isn’t good enough anymore. It turns out that the things that grow exponentially can un-grow just as exponentially. Optimizing for exponential growth might mean sacrificing stickiness, user engagement, and satisfaction. You’re fighting churn and struggling to support your networks. And worst of all, exponential growth isn’t even the fastest growth there is.

Let’s take a quick look at our old friend linear growth. You know, y = mx. Slowly, over time, you have more of something than you did the day before. Your growth rate is a constant, never accelerating or decelerating. Comforting, familiar - but slow. Here it is:


But then you hear about exponential growth - y = m^x. Suddenly old dependable y = mx doesn’t seem so great in comparison. Exponential growth is seductive. It’s faster, bolder, and it looks way better on charts.

Just look at that green line. I don’t know what we ever saw in linear growth, to be honest.

But let us consider combinatorial explosion. This is a mathematical effect that occurs when combinations of variables or nodes within a system are each connected to another, or when branching factors are considered in search problems (like when analyzing potential chess positions x moves ahead of the current position). A common numerical example would be y = x! (the factorial of x).

This is not a very compelling or impressive effect for small numbers (or small time frames, if that’s our x-axis). Let’s compare exponential growth to combinatorial growth.

When x = 5:

  •      exponential growth: y = 2^x = 2^5 = 32
  •      combinatorial growth: y = x! = 1*2*3*4*5 = 120

However, for just slightly larger x, such as x = 10:

  •      exponential growth: y = 2^x = 2^10 = 1024
  •      combinatorial growth: y = x! = 1*2*3*4*5*6*7*8*9*10 = 3,628,800

And for x = 20:

  •      exponential growth: y = 2^x = 2^20 = 1,048,576
  •      combinatorial growth: y = x! = 1*2*3*4*5 = 2,432,902,008,176,640,000 (or 2 quintillion)

Wow, you may be thinking. A million of something isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? 2 quintillion. Forget exponential growth - combinatorial growth is sexy.

I have graphed the effect of combinatorial explosion slightly unscientifically below:

Um. Okay. Maybe it’s more dangerous than sexy. Like, too hot to handle.

Combinatorial explosion is not the kind of growth anything is equipped to handle. If this is searching branches in a chess position, or if it’s any number of issues in artificial intelligence, we’re looking at evaluation times that increase from seconds to millennia as complexity increases.

The reason for the huge disparity between growth rates is clear - instead of the base unit increasing exponentially, the number of possible paths or connections between base units is increasing exponentially. Big difference. That’s why we have developed methodologies like heuristic search to cut search times and better handle combinatorial explosion.

Our individual brains already work combinatorially. We have perhaps 100 billion neurons, and “each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, equivalent by some estimates to a computer with a 1 trillion bit per second processor.” Adding another 1 billion neurons wouldn’t be considered 1% growth - it’s a huge expansion in the number of possible connections and signals. 

Can Networks Explode?

Okay, so combinatorial growth is awesome, but overwhelming. So let’s say you’re focused on achieving normal hockey-stick, exponential adoption for your product. You definitely won’t see combinatorial explosion in your monthly active users or file uploads. Those kinds of metrics are going to stick to exponential growth - at best.

But what if instead of looking at the number of users, we looked at the efficacy of users on a social network? We can then see how the productive power of a social network can indeed increase combinatorially, and to our great benefit.

Before we do that, let’s look at Facebook, a network that has exhibited strong exponential growth even as it approaches the carrying capacity of the internet. That’s great, really. But if users only connect and converse with their existing real-life friends, no new connections or paths are formed. You may discover a friend of a friend on occasion, and you may add them as a friend but never directly converse. The productive power of the social network, or even your power within it, cannot be said to have increased since no new paths were added and no new communication was made. This is pretty realistic - Facebook as a product doesn’t encourage you to add strangers as friends or converse with them; it mostly funnels you into a news feed populated with lucrative advertising space.

LinkedIn does a little better - it encourages you to make connections with people you don’t know in real life or to refer your friends to new professional contacts. The focus on professional goals like networking and job-seeking is helpful here. Direct communication is limited though - either you use InMail (a slow, email-like messaging feature) or speak in LinkedIn groups (essentially old-school bulletin boards). In this case your productive power has increased somewhat, and the productive power of the overall network has increased as well with new paths established and additional communications sent. But the means of communication are so bad, your individual network’s power is still limited.



Now look at a chat-based productivity tool like Slack. Within a workplace environment, user growth and carrying capacity are determined by the number of employees in the workplace. We certainly can’t expect exponential growth in active users, and likely not in the total number of interactions. However, because network participants are organized and motivated by intent and the platform is built on real-time messaging, the number of possible connections and the frequency of connections can lead to a strongly productive network that continually generates new concepts, especially when properly managed and nurtured.

There’s a few additional advantages here. The creative power of the group is increased due to flexible group sizes - two users can add any other single user to a chat and have a materially different productive conversation. Also, the users themselves can seek out or break off conversations, thus helping to prune the explosion of new communications. Users determine whether ideas and strategies generated by these connections are likely to be useful to other users and can share as needed across the network.

Imagine if we combined the exponential growth of Slack users and groups with the combinatorial explosion of productive power enabled by individual Slack networks. Suddenly we start to see an entirely new paradigm for social communication that’s focused around productive generation of ideas, content, art and action across networks of engaged users. Different disciplines and expertise interbreed and birth revolutionary concepts. A beneficial combinatorial explosion of productivity and culture ensues! Rejoice, humanity!

Maybe that's overstated. But look, all Facebook’s exponential growth ever got me was a bunch of cats in my news feed. I never see those billions of users. As far as I know, their existence only helps Facebook optimize their advertising product. 

In my mind, it’s time to stop focusing on the hockey sticks, and keep our eyes on the puck. Social communication needs to move away from the echo chambers of Facebook and back into real-time, diverse networks enabled by modern, powerful, purposeful social tools.

So let’s start collaborating combinatorially. Let’s see what we build. Let's move fast and make things.

Three Ways to Escape the Echo Chamber - And Why We Must

Social media is, for many, an escape. To glance down at our phones is to enter a safe world composed of our friends and family sharing our preferred content. This allows us to maintain the strength of our relationships even from a distance.

These strong ties also fashion a tough, protective cocoon out of our newsfeeds and notifications. Recommendation algorithms feed us the most relevant content to our interests, or the content deemed most likely to engage us. These algorithms are developed based on our observed actions and histories - not on our thirst for new experience and strange knowledge.

This is an inevitable result of the way these social systems are designed. On Facebook, the quickest path to content is the easiest, and the most likely to delight us: through our immediate friends. But the easy path also lulls us into a passive relationship with social media - we see the same websites shared over and over or small variations on a headline theme. With research showing that people choose to associate very strongly with those of similar political persuasion, it’s likely we only hear or see those views we agree with. Thus the echo chamber is created.

It’s important to note that we do this by choice - but the choice is passive. Because we long ago picked our preferred friends, we long ago committed to the content prioritized on our news feed. Because we long ago performed certain actions online, certain advertisers are shown to us that reflect our entrenched interests and perspectives.

But in my view, a truly healthy relationship with social media means actively using it to find content that can expand us, not simply sustain us.

I have found a few reliable ways to escape the echo chamber - to have a sort of social media “out of body experience.” I use these tools daily to step into the minds and perspectives of those unlike me. There’s two reasons I absolutely must do this:

  • I want to make things better. I believe that to change the world, we must first seek to understand it and love it. To hear others’ thoughts in their own words and to visualize their perspectives humanizes them and expands my knowledge of them and their worlds. Social media can be used to build understanding and empathy - and without them, nothing can change for the better.
  • I want to stay happy. Reading things that could upset me or that I could disagree with is sometimes unpleasant, but always necessary to sustain long-term happiness on social media. To maintain a healthy (read: not depressing) relationship with social media, it has been shown that you need to remain active in using it. That means engaging directly with other users by commenting or creating your own content to share on social media, rather than simply using it for news aggregation. To me, it also means being active in finding the content I consume on a daily basis and stepping outside the “feed.”

Here are some simple methods I use every day to escape the echo chamber. I hope they work as well for you.

1) Curate lists of alternative opinions.

I have often used the lists feature on Twitter liberally to organize the voices my life - friends, coworkers, influencers, trusted news sources, comedians. But one list I make sure to check daily is my “Disagree” list. It is entirely composed of people I generally do not see eye-to-eye with: mostly certain columnists, politicians, and businesspeople.

I’ll take some time to go through and see what content they’ve created to share, what issues they are engaging with, how people are responding to their message, and so on. Reading through gets me out of my comfort zone and helps stimulate my creative mind. It also helps me understand the language these influencers use and the effect it has on those who follow them. Being active in looking through this list is important - even when the content is unpleasant, I’m able to channel negative feelings into strong, productive energy afterward.

2) Visit pages for things that I don’t use or follow.

On Facebook in particular I like to visit brand pages for products I don’t currently or would never use. I ask myself: How is the company trying to reach its customer base, and who do they believe their customers are? How is it different from the way brands normally try to engage me, or people like me?

I’ll also visit fan pages for artists or shows that I don’t have interest in. Then I ask: how do the fans interact with their interests? How is it different from the way I choose to interact with my interests? How do the artists or producers respond? Understanding other peoples’ communities helps shed light on the way I form and build friendships and how I participate in my interests.

3) Use the “Discover” feature as the main feature.

I believe the Discover feature is not meant to be a novelty on social media - it’s supposed to be the primary feature. On Twitter, I frequently go through the top trending hashtags and choose one that seems irrelevant to my interests. I read manually through recent tweets and figure out for myself what’s getting talked about and why.

Meanwhile, on Snapchat, I use Discover to briefly scroll through content from brands I don’t particularly care about. I follow promoted Stories from events that I wouldn’t particularly want to attend. I watch the faces of the people involved and I recognize the joy and excitement that I feel toward my own strong interests and close friends.

I strongly recommend doing these three things every day, or as regularly as you use social media. If you use these methods, I promise you will end up with a stronger and more active relationship with social media. You will also be happier and more understanding of others - and maybe you will discover something crucial that you will carry the rest of your life.

Remember: Social media is a very powerful tool when we wield it, but it is just as powerful when it is wielding us.

You are not your feed. Go explore.

The Uncanny Valley of Social Media


How does reading that make you feel? Good? Bad? Pleased? Uneasy? Physically ill? Some young users see the word “Facebook” and feel revulsion. Their trust as users has eroded.

I'll take us through Facebook’s past to the evolving fields of animation, robotics, and virtual reality as I attempt to address a common question: why does using Facebook feel so unnatural?

But I’ll start by answering this question: did it always?

Famously created in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook has grown to be the dominant medium for online social interaction among young American adults. At its inception, Facebook focused on serving the isolated Harvard community. If you joined the site and added a friend, chances were strong you already knew the other person by name or face and that you had multiple mutual “strong-tie” connections.

A dramatic rendition of a Harvard dorm room.

A dramatic rendition of a Harvard dorm room.

As Facebook slowly expanded, it allowed other college students in the Boston area to participate in its network. Then Ivy League and Stanford students were invited. From these beginnings Facebook grew to the behemoth it is today, now having over 1 billion monthly active users and a strengthening mobile presence.

Demand for Facebook’s growth also meant demand for Facebook to change. In one of the original versions of the site, users simply maintained a personal page that friends could discover and interact with. As features were added, users at first delighted in their new capabilities. Suddenly you could post on walls, invite friends to events, and create groups. Now we can browse company pages and news feeds, play games hosted on the Facebook platform, and yes, still “poke.”

Somewhere along the line, though, we began to feel betrayed.

Multiple placed ads interfere with our engagement or disquiet us with their specificity. Fake profiles and spammers demand our attention. And recently, users were outraged by Facebook’s willingness – perhaps eagerness – to manipulate their emotions by altering the content of their news feeds.

We used to love the freedom Facebook afforded us in the online social experience. We used the service gladly, and so did all our friends. We had nothing but good will. Facebook simply wanted to approximate and augment our real-life social interactions so that we could take our existing relationships into the evolving online world.

So why did it all go wrong?

The answer is simple – it had to.

What do I mean? To answer this, let’s turn away from social media and toward the fields of robotics and animation.

As our technological capabilities have increased over time, our ability to approximate the human form using computers has grown dramatically. Robots have evolved from simplistic humanoids to near-lifelike representations of actual humans. Animations, once grounded in the two-dimensional plane of cartoons, have grown so complex and commonplace as to appear in every summer blockbuster. Visual and digital effects artists earn – or should earn – top billing alongside the stars.

So if technology has come so far, why are we still so repulsed by videos like this?

In 1970, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the phrase “uncanny valley” to explain our complex empathic response to human-like robots. His hypothesis was that a human observer’s emotional response to a robot was closely related to the robot’s appearance: as it grew more human-like, observers became more positive and empathic towards it.

However, Mori also explained the existence of a critical point beyond which observers were actually strongly repelled by the appearance of the robot. As robots come to resemble a human almost perfectly, a feeling of not-quite-rightness overcomes the observer and causes a powerful negative reaction. The feeling is so strong that any productive interaction between the human and robot is eliminated.

This is the uncanny valley – the chasm separating useful tools of human representation and actual humans. And in this valley, we feel lost.

The Uncanny Valley - credit in image

The Uncanny Valley - credit in image

Let’s climb out of this valley and return to Facebook.

Recall how the service has evolved. At first your Facebook profile was an imperfect approximation of your social identity. A static photograph of your face and a few lines of text summarizing your beliefs served to encapsulate your existence. No one could confuse your Facebook profile with your actual social persona – the complexity required to represent it did not exist.

As features were added over time, our profiles became part of our identities. We posted photo albums, added “life events,” checked in at landmarks, and shared deeply personal status updates. Instead of simply mirroring our rich social lives on Facebook, we lived fully online. Our online interactions were no longer merely reflections of our real-world friendships. We used them to create our perceptions of ourselves and others. Our digital selves became extensions of our physical selves.

So as our personas and our technologies have evolved – as Facebook’s services evolve to allow for more complex online interactions – we have gained the ability to nearly approximate our real-world relationships on the Internet, such that we can almost seamlessly flow between our online and physical worlds.

But it’s not quite perfect. And there is the problem.

My perception is that we are in the uncanny valley of social interaction online. We’re close to something good – close enough to know that we are close. But also close enough to know that something is terribly wrong.

There is still something about the way we conduct ourselves online – whether our platform is Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, forums, comment sections, and so on – that is perverting our social interactions and our perceptions of each other and ourselves. These services allow us to be human-like, sharing our ideas and faces and actions, but we are still forced to be distinctly non-human in a way that repulses us. All this is happening while we struggle to learn how to absorb our online personas into our identities.

Let’s be clear. The problem isn’t the users. It’s not the fault of a particular generation or group of narcissistsThe problem is the systems themselves – not just in the way they’ve been commercialized, but also in the way they’ve attempted to accurately replicate, augment, and replace our social interactions while integrating new aspects of our digital personalities.

As investors demand growth and users demand new services, our social platforms try to do too much. In pursuing the essence of our social interactions, the platforms are coming closer, but they’re still not quite right.

And in the meantime, we won’t feel quite right either.