Weekly I/O #41

Keep Watching Section, Incentive not Advice, Indefinite Optimism, Happiness is not Positive or Negative, Character

Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.

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The below is extracted from the email sent on May 15, 2022

Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.

1. Why are “Keep Watching” sections always hidden at the very bottom of the streaming apps? Misalignment of incentives between company and user.

Podcast: Computers Can Do Things

When launching the streaming app, the first thing many people would like to do is to continue watching the TV show they haven’t finished. However, many streaming apps do not display the “Keep watching” section at the top, which frustrates many users [1].

In the article An Unsolicited Streaming App Spec, the author John Siracusa suggests that “On launch, it must be immediately obvious how to resume watching whatever the user was watching previously.” Nevertheless, the companies tend to hide the “continue watching” section at the bottom now because this can increase “engagement”, which might be measured by how long the user stays, interacts, and browse the homepage. Before you scroll to find the “continue watching” section, you will have to scroll through those shows that companies want you to click.

After publishing the article, John Siracusa noted in the following article Streaming App Sentiments, that a reader sent a story of how customer satisfaction gets sacrificed on the altar of “engagement.”

“There was an experiment at Hulu last year to move “Continue Watching” below the fold (down 2 rows from where it was). This was done with a very small group of users. It was so successful that the increased engagement was projected to generate more than $20 million a year. The experiment was immediately ended and the new position was deployed to all users.”

Twenty million more revenue probably is why they rolled out this annoying feature to every user. However, it might be worth pondering whether the estimated revenue growth was only based on increased engagement metrics but ignored the fact that there’s an effective way to measure how frustrated the user experience is.

Quoting the Reddit user sudifirjfhfjvicodke: “You have to scroll through a few rows of crap you don’t watch to get to the crap that you do watch. It’s an awful, annoying trend, but it’s probably here to stay.”

Is user-friendly technology always better technology? It might not be the case for the company if there’s a misalignment of incentives between company revenue growth and user experience.

[1] According to this article and Reddit.

2. People follow incentives, not advice.

Newsletter: 3–2–1: How to change someone’s mind, the balance between justice and compassion, and looking foolish

Advice itself cannot inspire action. Like in Weekly I/O12.3, to teach and make people learn, you have to “First delight, then instruct.” People change only when the incentives are aligned.

3. Indefinite optimists’ “lean startup” methodology can diminish the potential to build the future.

Book: Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel divides views on the future into 4 quadrants: Optimistic vs. Pessimistic, and Definite vs. Indefinite.

The four quadrants mean:

  • Definite Optimism: The future will be better, and we have plans to improve it.
  • Indefinite Optimism: The future will be better, but we can never know how exactly. Therefore, we don’t make specific plans.
  • Definite Pessimism: The future will be bleak, so we must prepare for it.
  • Indefinite Pessimism: The future will be bleak, but we have no idea what to do about it.
From Zero to One p.77

Thiel argued that definite optimists made the world more prosperous and healthier than previously imaginable, with some examples of the Golden Gate Bridge (1933–1937), The Manhattan Project (1941–1945), and the Interstate Highway System (1956–1965).

He then contended that the US now has been defined by indefinite optimism. Instead of working for years on revolutionary products, indefinite optimists rearrange already-exist ones. Even in Silicon Valley, the idea of “lean startup”, that startup should adapt and evolve to an ever-changing environment since entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance without listening to users, is not something that can work to build future.

The other three quadrants can work. Definite optimism works when you build the envisioned future. Definite pessimism works by copying things without anything new. Indefinite pessimism works because it’s self-fulfilling. If you don’t want to do anything, you probably will get nothing better. But indefinite optimism seems inherently unsustainable: how can the future get better if no one plans for it?

Hence, Thiel said that the common belief in modern software practice in incrementalism, that the best way forward is small, iterative, adjacent steps, can diminish potential. Making small changes to existing things might lead you to a local maximum, but it won’t help you find the global maximum.

You could build the best version of an app that lets people order toilet paper from their iPhone. But iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from 0 to 1. In other words, to make a great company, it needs to have a concrete plan for a future that other people haven’t yet imagined.

4. Happiness is not positive or negative thoughts but an absence of desire, and maybe it is a skill that can be learned.

Book: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant: A Guide to Wealth and Happiness

People mistakenly believe happiness is just about positive thoughts. However, Naval said the more he read, learned, and experienced, the more he believed that: every positive thought essentially holds within it a negative thought. If I say I’m happy, that means I’m sad at some point. If I say someone’s attractive, it means someone isn’t.

Therefore, for Naval, happiness is not about positive thoughts or negative thoughts. It’s about the absence of desire for external things. Happiness is a default state where we remove the sense of something missing in our life. Without being trapped in the web of desires, our minds stop regretting things in the past or planning things in the future.

In the book, he said:

“Ten years ago, if you would have asked me how happy I was, I would have dismissed the question. I didn’t want to talk about it.

On a scale of 1–10, I would have said 2/10 or 3/10. Maybe 4/10 on my best days. But I did not value being happy.

Today, I am a 9/10. And yes, having money helps, but it’s actually a very small piece of it. Most of it comes from learning over the years my own happiness is the most important thing to me, and I’ve cultivated it with a lot of techniques.

Maybe happiness is not something you inherit or even choose, but a highly personal skill that can be learned, like fitness or nutrition.”

I’m also curious how Naval is influenced by some philosophers since Naval’s view on happiness as the default state reminds me of Hegel’s Dialectics. Hegelian dialectic is a form of philosophical argument in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis). For Naval’s view on happiness, the positives and the embedded negatives are resolved at a higher level: the absence of desire.

The absence of desire also appears in Eastern philosophy like Taoism (Naval quotes Tao Te Ching sometimes), Buddhism, and Western philosophy like Stoicism and Schopenhauer. In this case, maybe the appreciation of art is also the solution for Naval, as it claimed to be the solution for Schopenhauer?

5. “Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.” — Yousuf Karsh


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