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The only winning move is not to play?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

The other day I observed that whenever a new issue of the Noticing newsletter goes out, a bunch of people unsubscribe. When this happens each week I panic a little, so I asked other newsletter writers if this happened to them too. And it does.

In the ensuing thread, a former Twitter employee chimed in to say that “the single biggest correlation with people unfollowing an account [on Twitter] was whenever an account tweeted anything at all”. And someone else chimed in with “historically the biggest problem of newspaper subscriptions: physical delivery of the damn things leads to churn!” I also remarked that this reminded me of Jon Bois’ amazing Chart Party episode on Barry Bonds, where he concludes (spoilers!) that in 2004, Bonds would have finished with essentially the same on-base percentage if he hadn’t used a bat for the entire season.

Newsletters you’re better off not sending, newspapers you shouldn’t publish, and pitches you should never swing at. Was WOPR right in WarGames? Is the only winning move not to play?

Global thermonuclear war notwithstanding, this issue highlights the need to keep in mind why you’re playing a particular game in the first place. I often return to something that Ludicorp (makers of Flickr) had on their about page from a book by Charles Spinosa et al. about the goal of business:

Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skillfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. The same is true of their businesses. One might think that they view their businesses as nothing more than machines to produce profits, since they do closely monitor their accounts to keep tabs on those profits.

But this way of thinking replaces the point of the machine’s activity with a diagnostic test of how well it is performing. Normally, one senses whether one is performing skillfully. A basketball player does not need to count baskets to know whether the team as a whole is in flow. Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.

The game and styles of playing the game are what matter because they produce identities people care about. Likewise, a business develops an identity by providing a product or a service to people. To do that it needs capital, and it needs to make a profit, but no more than it needs to have competent employees or customers or any other thing that enables production to take place. None of this is the goal of the activity.

The people who work for newspapers want to provide their readers with high quality information.1 Barry Bonds wants to play baseball, be competitive, and provide entertainment to the fans instead of standing bat-less in the batter’s box; the Giants & MLB presumably want those things as well. With my efforts here and with the newsletter, I’m not playing a subscriber or profits maximization game — I want to share my ideas & information that I find and connect with people. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep your eye on how much money you make or how many subscribers you’ve got for a relatively new newsletter,2 but keeping your purpose firmly in mind while you do those things is of paramount importance. Otherwise you’re just stalemating yourself.

  1. We’re witnessing many counter-examples to this in American journalism right now, where corporations are buying up newspapers and, in an effort to maximize profits, firing “expensive” journalists and producing a lower-quality product that’s unsatisfying to their employees and readers alike.

  2. The other issue with the newsletter situation in particular is you’re seeing a small but loud negative signal (people unsubscribing) but not seeing a much larger but quiet positive signal (everyone else reading the newsletter with some degree of satisfaction); this is probably an example of availability bias. That results in a perception that’s 180° from reality…which is, you know, not helpful!