Uber, Medium, black holes, and the power of networks

One guy’s realization from being on the inside

On a recent trip to the West Coast, I stopped in LA to see some friends. Ended up in quite a few Ubers along the way.

I’m one of those hyper-addicted Uber customers. I use it everywhere.

Two distinct experiences in two days:

UberX driver 1, Los Angeles: “Dude, Uber is awesome. I go out right as the clubs are closing. I made $310 in one night. I told all my friends. We make so much money.”

Me: “Awesome, that rocks. Good for you.”

UberX driver 2, San Francisco: “You know it’s tough, they just lowered our fares, so we have to drive more to make the same money.”

Me: “But don’t you get more rides? Doesn’t that make up for it?”

UberX driver 2, SF: “Well… yeah, but when you add up gas and everything, it just doesn’t add up.”

That second ride, I left troubled. Couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then, just today, I figured it out. Here’s what happened.

Travel week. Montreal > LA > San Francisco. Then LA again. Ok, now I’m back.

This trip was all about meetings. A few brainstorms about my startup with friends (it’s going great, btw). Some investor chats. Some hangouts. Lots of running around.

Then, a few days ago, someone sent me something by email. There was a dude out there, that I knew, reposting stuff “inspired by” my work, on Medium, and it was going viral.

Here’s my version, reposted from my blog. The copy, well— it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. We worked it out.

But ok, let me put you in the mindset. Let’s say you’re a painter. You have a painting. It’s in your basement. It was popular back in the day, and now, people remember it, but it’s not as popular.

Some dude finds it, and a little while later, you’re on a trip to Paris and you see a copy by this dude and it’s in the fucking Louvre.

People are taking pictures. They’re putting the pictures on Facebook “omg, what a great painting,” and there’s like, a million likes.

The other thing is, by the time it’s in the Louvre, it’s pretty much too late.

So that’s kind of what this was like. Imagine.

So I’m going to tell you something you probably already know. Networks, right now, are rebuilding society. Turning it upside down.

There are riots in the streets of Paris to prevent networks like Uber from winning.

Those riots are pointless, of course. In the end, the network always wins.

They win because networks like Uber’s are powerful. Through their economic effects, they pull people in. It’s like a black hole. It’s inevitable.

Let’s take cabs. If you’re a taxi driver, you get on Uber, period. You’re stupid not to get on Uber. You’ll get less fares. You’ll make less money. Less money, less food on the table. Next thing you know, your wife leaves you, you turn to drink, and then, depressed, you throw yourself off a fucking bridge.

That’s how powerful networks are. You must participate. You are literally penalized for it. Day by day. That’s just reality.

Take the web. Walmart didn’t have a website? Well, guess what? Amazon did, and now it’s a fast-moving, unstoppable giant. Walmart’s still pretty huge, but it’s not Amazon, even though 20 years ago, Walmart was considered unstoppable.

In other words, those who take advantage of the network, win. This is because networks develop more money, more attention, more connection, more everything. And they use these effects to attract even more money, attention, connection, etc.

And yet, by and large, and despite their occasionally industry-collapsing effects, networks appear to have a net good on society.

So, yeah, Uber may make a taxi driver’s life harder but, it appears, customers actually benefit from it. The world benefits. You benefit.

And therein lies the weirdness of it all. Especially when you’re the supplier on some networks, and the buyer in others.

So here’s this thing Medium. It’s pretty cool. It looks really nice. And, like everything that’s being built these days, Medium is a network.

A lot of people write on Medium, but many, many more just read it.

We can call the writers sellers, and the readers buyers. Or, the supply and demand. In other words, the writers are the taxi drivers, and the readers are the fares.

Medium writer 1, Los Angeles: “Man, Medium is awesome. I used to struggle to get attention for stuff I worked really hard on. Now on Medium, if the post is good, it just flies!”

Medium writer 2, San Francisco: “Dude, I don’t know about Medium. It’s pretty cool, but I used to just post on my own site. Now I can’t do that anymore. People just repost and rewrite my stuff on Medium and it gets way more attention than mine.”

Reader: “But don’t you get more views if you use it?”

Medium writer 2 (SF): “Well, sure, but it’s just not the same.”

Which of these stories is true? Well, both.

So here I am on this website, writing something. I could be writing it on my blog, instead. But I’m not. I’m writing it on Medium.

And I think, in reality, that if I want to get seen, this is the future. It may slowly be becoming the only choice.

Medium draws attention to it. Pushes the best content to the top, then pulls audiences in to view it. It’s a network, and it’s really strong.

The most popular post on my blog has been viewed 3 million times in 2.5 years, I think. That’s pretty good. But if it were on Medium, it probably would have gone faster.

And if I were to publish the same post now, on my blog, today, it would not go as well as if it were published here.

I am the taxi driver. I provide the service, and if it works well, I win.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great. But looking at the bigger picture, it really isn’t about choice.

You can’t be outside the network when it is building momentum.

You will lose.

The end.