As someone who grew up on the internet, I occasionally think back to early memories online. Chatting with friends via AIM, learning new things on StumbleUpon, and leveling up playing Runescape. When I look back on these memories, I realize both how much and how little things have changed.

Today we continuously navigating this virtual world we've created for ourselves. So a little introspection about how we interact with the space is a worthwhile exercise.

Tribes of the Internet

Along these lines, Toby Shorin put together a thoughtful response to Aaron Lewis' post The Garden of Forking Memes a while back that caught my eye. More specifically, one quote in particular really resonated:

Then there are nomadic anthropologists like you and I. So far, we haven’t declared a side. Up until now I’ve preferred to play the merchant, traveling from tribe to tribe, here selling a rare gem, there performing a clever trick learned far away, collecting oddities and fragments of wisdom as I make my living on the spice route.

This quote underscores the beautiful thing about the internet. Tribes are no longer bound by geographical restraints. Tribes are ideological. This means that you don't have to be in the same place as your tribe, and can instead easily squad up with people that think about the world like you do.

But something about internet tribes doesn't sit right with me. I don't want to be surrounded by people who think like me all the time. That doesn't sound like a great formula for happiness or growth.

The thing is, your tribe doesn't have to be static. You can play the role of the merchant. You can travel from tribe to tribe learning new things, exploring different perspectives. Start your day with VCs in Silicon Valley and end it with artists in east Asia. No problem.

Spice Route Platforms

It's important to understand that some platforms lend themselves to this behavior better than others. These are generally the ones that don't put a strong emphasis on follower graphs, but that alone isn't a guarantee.

Aggregators use recommendation engines that are programmed to serve you content that people similar to you engaged with. This creates a filter bubble that is incentivized to keep you in your tribe, even if a follower graph doesn't exist. If you want to explore, you want algorithms with a short memory and platforms with light dependence on follower graphs.

I took a crack at evaluating each of the major players on both of these criteria. This is subjective, of course, but I think it's an interesting way to think about the best platforms for finding "spice routes" to wander:

  • Follower graph dependence: How much does your connections with other people influence the content that you consume? For example, your Facebook feed is predominately friends while YouTube will frequently serve you videos outside of who you're subscribed too.
  • Recommender memory: How long is the lookback window on the recommender system used to serve you content? In other words, how heavily will my engagement from a month ago be weighted vs. interactions yesterday. Long memory platforms take a while for you to get out of a particular niche while short memory ones feel different almost immediately.

Unlike most of these 4x4 charts, spice route platforms want to be in the bottom left. That's where the magic happens. Most recently, TikTok comes to mind. Not only is the For You feed almost entirely removed from the follower graph, but it also has an incredibly short memory. It's one of the few platforms where you can meaningfully shape your recommendations with one interaction, in seconds.

Playing the merchant is incredibly fulfilling in today's internet. It's also not the default anymore. In order to get there, you need to be extremely mindful of how you use the platforms that you frequent. This isn't easy, but if wandering the spice path and uncovering new wisdom from different perspectives is your thing, then it's well worth it.

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