Create Your Own Digital Public Goods
Digital Urban Planning 101
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Today's Cyber Patterns is brought to you by You.com.
You.com is an ad-free, private search engine that you control. You.com summarizes web results using website categories, contrary to a traditional search engine which shows a list of links. Instead of searching and seeing SEO-driven bs, you see categorized results from sites like Twitter, Reddit, and StackOverflow.
People hate on social media, but it’s one of the best digital public goods in existence.
Public goods is just an econ101 way of saying free stuff like parks, libraries, and schools that the government provides. Digital public goods are thus free sites and services online: things like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Google.
Digital public goods aren't provided by the government — unless you consider the IRS website to be a public good. Instead, we rely on Silicon Valley for our digital public goods. But rather than taxes, we pay for digital public goods with our attention.
If we're investing attention, you should optimize for a good return on investment (ROI). For those who use digital public goods effectively, the ROI is infinite. For those who use them ineffectively, the ROI is zero or negative. It's the difference between scrolling TikTok for hours and using TikTok to grow a business.
But, it's not just about using digital public goods. It's about creating your own. To win online, you need to you need to add value to the network. You need to make people stay on Twitter despite the spammers. You need to create your own digital public goods.
"If we want to solve the big important problems in front of us, we need digital urban planners, new Jane Jacobs’ who are going to build the parks and park benches of the online world, and we need digital public-friendly architects who are going to build 'palaces for the people' — libraries and museums and town halls," Eli Pariser, founder of New_Public, said in a TED talk.
Build Your Own Digital Public Goods
I moved to NYC in July and I walk around Central Park 2-3x/week. Every time, I marvel at the size and depth of the park. How the hell was this created?
It turns out at the peak of construction in 1859, Central Park had a workforce of thirty-six hundred men. For reference, my favorite digital public good Twitter has 5,500 employees. YouTube has only 2,800 employees.
But, you don't need to a big workforce to create digital public goods.
Stripe founder Patrick Collison's personal website is a digital public good. Anyone can access his reading list, his list of questions he has for the world, and his page titled Fast full of businesses and movements that were created unusually quickly.
Balaji Srinivasan's The Network State is a digital public good. While the book sells on Amazon, Balaji also made the book accessible for free online. His 3-hour long podcasts with Tim Ferris are also completely free.
Similarly, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) posts their big-brain articles for free. If they had a paid newsletter, my guess is many people would happily pay for it. But, they understand the benefits of providing free value on the internet.
It's a lot easier and more profitable to create digital public goods than you think.
When you provide free value on the internet, you get paid back in terms of reputation and relationships. Balaji's free books and a16z's free blogs help build up their brand equities and improve their chance of scoring investments.
It doesn't take a big-brained tech genius to create a digital public good though. In fact, you're reading a digital public good right now. 80% of Cyber Patterns essays are available for free for anyone in the world to read.
I have ads on Cyber Patterns, but that's not how I pay the bills. When a ghostwriting client asks for samples of my work, I often send them essays from Cyber Patterns. Similarly, I've done 30 episodes of my podcast and generated $0 for ads, but 10% of those guests have ended up paying me for work afterwards.
Think of your digital public goods like a free Dropbox or Notion subscription. The free work is the gateway for the paid work. If you're trying to get paid in the creator economy, go out and make your own digital public goods.