Saturday, August 22, 2015

Twitter, Isis, and the unintended consequences of changing the world

What do you do when the most important work you've ever done is hijacked from you and used for evil?

Imagine toiling for years, Chinese food, dim lights, late nights, and painstaking decisions about whether or not to pivot. Imagine pouring everything you have into a project that you fundamentally believe is going to change the world, only to have its ethos ripped away and twisted by the users into a dark and powerful tool of hate.

An article from the associated press ran in today's Seattle Times detailing the destruction of ancient history in Syria by the Islamic state. They're saying it's the "most brutal, systematic destruction of ancient sites since World War II." Not only are they destroying some of the world's oldest and most historic mosques, churches, and archaeological sites, the Islamic military state is beheading people who dedicated their lives to preserving our shared history. Isis is a hot button topic. I don't think I need to go any further into detail to get your blood boiling. It bothers me deeply that human are stilling killing one another over religious differences, and I have no idea how this is going to play out on a global scale.

Now imagine that you are one of the founders of Twitter. You've created a product that I love. A product that I use daily. A product that's been used to overthrow governments, lead revolutions, and champion justice. You've also created a product that terrorists use to post pictures of Nutella chocolate in attempt to recruit new members. Apparently having a fondness for Nutella is an axiom of humanity, we simply cannot refuse the delicious combination of hazelnuts and chocolate.

And it bothers me. It really bothers me that I'm using the same app as a terrorist. I know that's irrational. I use the app for news while they use it to spread hate...but it still bothers me. I also want to acknowledge It's unfair of me to pick on Twitter, almost any social networking app can and is (most likely) being used by 'terrorists.'

Where do we draw the line when it comes to free speech on the internet? Especially when the 1st Amendment sets the precedent for protecting the rights of the people who created the company and product but not those who are using the product to galvanize a segment of the global population that is willing to kill themselves to see our Constitution burned and our Country in ruins? Dramatic, I know. Our laws of the land aren't simple, and they're even harder to enforce on the internet. For an internal example all we have to do is take a glance at Reddit and ask ourselves: "How much hate are we going to allow ourselves to perpetuate when when know it's having a detrimental effect on our society?" This leads into a much longer conversation about who gets to make that call, why they get to, and how it will be done. And it's conversation I'm confident will continue to play out as long as humans and the internet co-exist.

Twitter has done an amazing job responding to this situation. Cracking down on accounts associated with Isis and continuing to cull thousands more. But the facts stand that The Islamic State "has been astonishingly successful at spreading its message using 21st-century social media," moving to new social platforms like Diaspora according to

Terrorism is an extreme case. And I'll admit that I've used it to grab your attention.

Getting back to business 

Being able to foresee unintended consequences is one of the big differences between bourgeoning and veteran entrepreneurs. Luckily it is a process that can be learned through meticulous practice and repetition. Your brain is a muscle and one that needs to be flexed. Especially in the arena of business.

Forcing yourself to sit down and think about the potential unintended consequences of your product will help you discover holes in your business plan as well as ideas for product improvement and new streams of revenue. The challenging part is that we live in a global economy, but we don't always feel the forces of the global economy until it's too late and disaster has already struck. Entrepreneurs will need to become increasingly educated, up-to-date, and empathetic in order to use their imagination to fill in the gaps about any potential repercussions of their business decisions. And keeping your finger on the pulse of the world, that's really hard. Capitalism doesn't care about empathy, but todays consumers do. And we're seeing it reflected in the market all the time. Consumers are voting with their dollars, choosing to support brands that support their employees, healthy lifestyles, and different humanitarian causes around the world. For the first time in a long time, it feels like empathy has become a part of the equation again. This makes it even more important to operate your business with integrity and stick to your values. Every decision you make will be scrutinized, and remember, it's always the interim.

I'm the first one to admit that keeping up with the world's business can be overwhelming. I feel like I have so much to learn and I wish I learned it all yesterday. Unfortunately that's just not possible, and accepting that reality has brought me peace of mind.

We have to have focus in life in order to be successful. Or as John Lee Dumas of Entrepreneur on fire says, "F.O.C.U.S: Follow one course until success." You shouldn't spend two hours a day reading about the fish markets in Japan if you aren't in the fish business. But you can choose to set aside 10 minutes each day to study something new and give it 100% of your focus. One thing at a time, one day at a time.

Magical things will start to happen for you when you start approaching your life with this mindset: "Have I given the task at hand 100% of my focus? And if I have, has it moved me one step closer to accomplishing my goal?" Even if you only spend 10 minutes a day on a task, it's an extremely empowering feeling to be able to answer "Yes" to both of those questions.

We're always trying to bite off more than we can chew. We live in a society that condones instant gratification and we forget that so many of our most revolutionary discoveries came from painstakingly boring, routine tasks that took deadly intense focus (for example, Pickering’s Harem, a group of women who worked at the Harvard Observatory combing through hundreds of thousands of photos of stars in order to produce data that lead to the empirical foundation of astronomical theory). The good news? None of us are tasked with solving the mysteries of the universe (I just like to think about them in my free time).

My advice for entrepreneurs is to adopt the compound effect. Do little things each day that add up over time to give you a slight advantage. Do 100 pushups a day. Set aside 5 minutes to mediate. And in regards to keeping your find on the pulse of the global economy? Listen to APM's Marketplace podcast everyday. It's a small, easy win that will have a huge impact on the way you think about business and the global economy. Not to mention, it will make you a more interesting person.

I really want to stress that I'm not saying entrepreneurs should spend an in-proportionate amount of time thinking about unintended consequences of every business decision they make. It would be preposterous to suggest that you spend your days fretting over the ways that your product could be used for evil. But taking some calculated time at the beginning of a new project to suss out the potential pitfalls and unintended consequences of a new venture? Now that sounds like a seasoned professional to me.

So how can you learn to foresee the unintended consequences of your product or business decisions? Well, If you want to create a new product or service that disrupts the market, you're going to need to be able to think like a hacker. Here are some questions you might want to consider:

  • Who did I build this product for and why? 
  • Who else will see value in what I've created?
  • Does this product help people see the commonalities in one another? Or the differences?  
  • Who will spot an opportunity for manipulation? And if I do see an opportunity: How can I block it? Can I add a feature that will enhance security? Can I get people to pay for this added feature? 
  • How can my product can be manipulated? 
  • Am I accounting for advances in technology? 
  • Is my security as good as it needs to be? 
  • Is identity verification going to be central to the success of the product? 
  • Does my business model depend on the success and/or failure of other businesses? And if so, who and what does their business model depend on. 
  • What kind of influence could climate change have on my business? War? 
  • Am I building this product for one specific group of people? Or a global community?
  • What are my values, and where will I draw the line with censorship? 
  • Do I have the time and money necessary to fight back against the inevitable misuse of my product? 
The good news? This will become easier over time as you continue to repeat the process and ask yourself the hard questions. It is the process of asking those hard questions that will open your mind to new ways of thinking, new information, and ultimately, make you a better entrepreneur.

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