There was a saying that went around during the Dotcom bubble years when we all knew we were in a really fun but unsustainable bubble that we’d never be able to time the collapse of: Enjoy the party, but dance close to the exit.
This quote describes my approach to using large, third-party tech platforms at a site like RETURN, where we’re all dedicated to a vision of digital sovereignty. I actually think it’s great to use these platforms while they’re available to you, as long as you’re always actively thinking about an exit strategy for the day you wake up and have been de-platformed or hacked.
Here’s my reasoning for arriving at the conclusion that Big Tech is good, actually. I’ll follow that with some discussion of how to prepare for the day the platforms turn on you, as they inevitably will.
Growth is the hard thing
There are many things that are hard about bootstrapping a startup, community, or media brand, but the hardest thing by far is growth.
The fact that growth is the number one challenge has a few implications:
- Relentless focus on what matters > all other values and abstract considerations.
- You absolutely must meet users wherever they’re at.
- It’s foolish to unilaterally disarm yourself.
The best hack for achieving focus is to shrink the decision space that you have to manage. Zuckerberg famously does this by limiting his own wardrobe choices. I’ll admit the wardrobe thing seems sort of goofy and performative to me, but the principle behind it is vital.
Self-hosting may be aligned with values like sovereignty and privacy, but it’s the opposite of shrinking your decision space. The direct cost of all that flexibility and customization is a greatly expanded decision space that your org will have to navigate. It’s better to actively constrain yourself so that you’re forced to focus on the one thing that you know will definitely move the growth needle, vs. burning time and energy chasing ideas that you think might move the needle but you’d have to build them out first.
The main advantage the Big Tech platforms give you is distribution. These platforms have hundreds of millions (or billions) of users, and users are what you want, so you have to go to the large platforms to get those users. This sounds like an obvious insight, but you’d be surprised at the number of really smart people who think if they just stick to platforms that align with their values users will somehow seek them out. It doesn’t work that way — you have to meet users where they’re at, even if they’re in hostile territory.
This brings me to my third point, which is that you shouldn’t unilaterally disarm yourself in the war for attention and users. Why leave a large, effective platform entirely to your ideological enemies?
I’m mostly thinking of TikTok here, but this applies to plenty of other platforms. I personally hate TikTok and think if Facebook is smoking then TikTok is fentanyl. I think it’s a CCP op to corrupt our youth (not to spread communist propaganda… that’s a red herring) so we should ban it in the US. As a parent, I’ve observed that TikTok is the main vector for the culture war brain worms that are infecting the youth. So TikTok is banned at my house, and I am not on it. But I am going to get on it, at least for my Substack.
If TikTok is so devastatingly effective at propagating woke brain worms, why are we not trying to use it to propagate based brain worms? Why leave the platform entirely to the crazies? This makes very little sense to me. You go where the fight is.
Dance close to the exit
It is possible to exploit Big Tech’s size for your own growth while retaining the ability to do without it if and when the time comes. The way to do that is by using large platforms as the lip of a lead generation funnel where you end up owning your own users. A concrete example of this is the way we use Discord at RETURN.
We have a small Discord community that we’ve not really publicized yet, and in order to join it you have to go through the following onboarding flow:
- Fill out what is essentially a lead-gen form.
- That form feeds your data into an Airtable for collection and screening.
- If you’re approved, you get an invite in email with a link and a code that you can use to join our Discord.
The end result is that we rely on Discord, which is partly owned by Tencent and is absolutely not aligned with our values at RETURN, but if we lost access tomorrow we could still migrate our community to a different chat and/or forum platform.
Speaking of Airtable, it’s easy to keep backups of your Airtable data in CSVs, in case you need to hit eject and move to something self-hosted. Doing regular exports and keeping backups is part of dancing close to the exit.
In addition to using Big Tech for lead-gen and keeping copies of your critical data, it’s also important to keep your exit plan current. Sure, it takes some effort to keep abreast of the latest and greatest alternatives to whatever your critical dependencies are, but this nets out to a lot less effort than you’re going to waste fiddling with the knobs on a more self-sovereign solution. Just stay on top of what’s out there, and have a ready exfil plan that you can execute if you need it.