Platform Thinking: The Future of Work

Building businesses in the age of the internet

Every business is an engine. It needs to do a certain set of things repeatedly to create value. If you haven’t figured out that set of repeated operations, you probably haven’t created a scalable business yet.

Ford needs to repeatedly assemble cars; Google needs to repeatedly run its crawler; Facebook needs to repeatedly get users to interact with other users.

THE BUSINESS ENGINE AND REPEATABLE OPERATIONS

Every business goes through three stages:

  1. Creating the engine: Early stage, figuring out the set of repeatable operations it needs to do to create value.
  2. Oiling the engine: Rapid testing and iterating to refine and optimize the repeatable operations.
  3. Stepping on the gas: Scaling by repeating the repeatable operations.

THREE APPROACHES TO BUILDING A BUSINESS

This is the formula for building a business: You figure out how you are creating value. You identify a set of operations that repeatedly create value. You figure out a way to efficiently conduct these operations repeatedly.

There are three broad ways that businesses conduct these operations repeatedly and get things done:

  1. Get employees to do the work.
  2. Get algorithms to do the work.
  3. Get users to do the work.

Let’s think through the problem of navigating the web for the most relevant information of the day. Three companies try to solve this in three very different ways:

  1. Yahoo: A bunch of editors decide the best content for the day.
  2. Google News: Algorithms decide the top news of the day.
  3. Twitter: Users’ tweets and retweets decide the top news of the day.

For those of us who read the earlier article on the three broad models for problem-solving, here’s the interesting part. These three approaches correspond exactly with the three models for problem solving.

A brief recap of the three approaches to problem solving

  1. The ‘stuff’ approach: How can we create more stuff whenever the problem crops up?
  2. The ‘optimization’ approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimize waste?
  3. The ‘platform’ approach: How can we redefine ‘stuff’ and find new ways of solving the same problem?

Essentially, the three approaches to building a business now are:

  1. The ‘stuff’ approach: Get employees to do the work.
  2. The ‘optimization’ approach: Get algorithms to do the work.
  3. The ‘platform’ approach: Get users to do the work.

Depending on which approach you take, the way you build your company could vary significantly.

A platform thinking approach to building a business involves figuring out ways by which an external ecosystem of developers and users can be leveraged to create value. The iPhone app store does this, YouTube does this, and so does Wikipedia.

UNDERSTANDING REPEATABLE OPERATIONS

It’s important to note that we are talking about repeatable operations. Writing code is not a repeatable operation. It is a one-time infrastructural activity, similar to building out the assembly line or setting up the factory. The operations that the code automates (e.g. login management) are the repeatable operations.

WHY ECOSYSTEMS, NOT ALGORITHMS, ARE YOUR COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Most problems that could be fully automated are already automated today. The next level of scale will come not by automating alone (and letting algorithms alone do the work) but by leveraging an ecosystem ( and letting algorithms synchronize disparate actions).

There are very few companies that compete purely on the strength of algorithms. Google is a rare example of a company whose competitive advantage lies in a set of very complex algorithms that it fiercely protects. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. compete not on the strength of their algorithms but on that of their ecosystems. The algorithms are easily replicable, but the ecosystems aren’t. Hence, building a business where the ecosystem scales the value-creating operations is quite different from building a technology-only company.

PLATFORM THINKING AND SCALE CONSIDERATIONS

Scale is achieved by making repeatable processes more efficient (faster/cheaper) and effective (accurate).

One of the ways to infuse platform thinking into your business is to look at a problem that is being solved manually, and repeatedly, and see if it can be solved by external users instead.

Facebook realized that it would have to translate its interface for every new foreign language. The norm was to do it with an in-house or outsourced translation team. Facebook chose to crowdsource it, building not just a more scalable model but, in many cases, better translations as well.

This is also demonstrated in the evolution of an online community. Quora started off with employees asking questions and answering them. Over time, it transitioned both of these activities from the employees to the users.

The problem that comes with this, of course, is that you let out control, and with that you need to build in checks and balances to ensure that no one is gaming the system. Quora and Reddit offer good examples of bringing in these checks and balances and scaling them along with the community.

THE THREE QUESTIONS FRAMEWORK

  1. What are the repeated chunks of work in my business? The first part involves identifying the activities that need to be repeated to scale and expand the business.
  2. Who is doing the work today? Secondly, is the work being done manually or algorithmically? If the latter, can we bring in greater efficiencies (speed) or effectiveness (accuracy) by leveraging an ecosystem?
  3. How can we get someone else to do that work? Finally, users, like employees, need incentives. Fitting in the right organic and inorganic incentives forms an important part of relying on an external ecosystem to build value.

This post captures ideas from my upcoming book “Platform Thinking”. More on my blog. You can sign up for a FREE digital copy of that book here.

Next Story — The rise of full-stack solutions
Currently Reading - The rise of full-stack solutions

The rise of full-stack solutions

In the course of my work advising business leaders on the ongoing platform revolution, I enjoy the privilege of getting a ringside view of key shifts in business as they start showing up across industries. One of those shifts that I’ve begun to observe over the course of my recent discussions is the rise in importance of, what I’ve begun to call, the full-stack solution.

THE FULL-STACK SOLUTION

The term full-stack is often misused and misrepresented but I’m using this term in the specific context of the Platform Stack that I lay out in my book Platform Scale and in the blog post here.

Traditionally, pipe businesses built products and services and sold them to customers. Increasingly, businesses are starting to think like platforms even though they may not claim to be building platforms and may not even look like technology-enabled businesses.

The Full-Stack Solution creates an end-to-end solution for the user across all layers of the platform stack. There are several characteristics that these solutions have.

  1. The full-stack solution consists of multiple products and services.
  2. This is not merely a portfolio of products and services, they are also integrated with each other at the data layer so that the consumer experience is preserved across the different products and services.
  3. The products/services are rarely all owned by a single company. In most cases, an ecosystem of partner companies come together to power the full-stack solution.
  4. The composition of the full-stack solution is determined by user need, not by product/service availability.
  5. Value to the consumer is not delivered through usage of the product or service alone. In addition to product/service value (infrastructure layer), value may also be offered on the basis of data captured (personalisation or analytics) and through a community of use (network layer) that builds up around the products/services.

Traditional pharmacies sell medicines. They are in the business of selling medicines, not in the business of improving patient health. Increasingly, pharmacies are recognising an opportunity for creating a full-stack solution to address the problem of patient health. Medicines are only one part of the solution. Pharmacies are using patient purchase data to create a detailed profile of the patient and attract other wellness providers to co-create a full-stack health solution for the patient based on their unique data profile.

Consumer electronics manufacturers have been moving in this direction by bundling connected services that enhance the usage of their physical products. In a similar vein, FMCG companies have been creating interactive services to complement product usage. For example, a company selling skincare products may launch a suite of skincare management (digital) services and create communities of usage around the product, while also leveraging the usage data to personalise skincare recommendations for the consumer.

THINKING FULL-STACK

The fundamental mindset shift while providing a full-stack solution is to stop thinking in terms of the products and services you own today, or even in terms of the ones that you can create tomorrow, and start thinking in terms of the full stack of products and services required to guarantee user outcomes. Inevitably, this requires an ecosystem of participants to come together. It is unlikely for one company to own all the products and services required to solve a user need comprehensively and guarantee the final outcome.

The creation of full-stack solutions will also be heavily dependant on data-driven feedback from consumers. As consumers choose different products and services and use them in combination, the solution provider will better understand the unique combinations of products and services that work best and the gaps that exist in provisioning a comprehensive solution.

Finally, while co-creating a comprehensive solution has its benefits, it lends itself to additional complexities of governance when multiple partners come together to power an overall solution. Some partners may create more value while others may explicitly capture more value. The balance of incentives by the central coordinating firm will determine how successful such solutions end up being.

— — —

If you enjoyed reading this, you should also check out my books Platform Revolution and Platform Scale.

Next Story — Ten questions to answer while managing a platform, network or marketplace
Currently Reading - Ten questions to answer while managing a platform, network or marketplace

Ten questions to answer while managing a platform, network or marketplace

Managing platforms involves much more than just getting the orchestration of supply and demand right. It involves much more than just getting to critical mass. There’s a whole range of issues that managers of successful platforms must constantly think about.

Last year, I wrote a book ‘Platform Scale’ which focused on the first part: How to build a business model that can orchestrate supply and demand and get to network effects. Much of my blog has also focused on answering some of those questions.

However, over the past two years, I’ve focused my research and advisory on a much broader and more comprehensive range of platform management issues, which I will increasingly start writing more about in the coming days. This article is a first step towards laying out a set of these issues that platform builders should constantly seek to address.

My next book, ‘Platform Revolution’, lays out a comprehensive analysis of all these issues involved in running and managing platforms. Co-authored with my research partners Marshall Van Alstyne and Geoff Parker at MIT, it lays out a detailed framework for understanding all factors involved in platform strategy.

I’ve written this article to share a summary of much of our work in this field, packaged as a checklist for startups as well as incumbents building platforms. These are issues explored in detail in ‘Platform Revolution’, and the checklist below is composed of 10 questions that you should constantly seek to answer while building platforms and marketplaces.

1. Building network effects:

What factors create network effects on the platform?

This is, by far, the most important question that platform builders should look to answer. The answers are much more nuanced than they appear to be. Platform growth is much more about careful design of value proposition and structuring feedback loops than it is about growth hacking.
Another key issue is management of negative network effects, where users coming on board may reduce value for certain other users on the platform. Identifying and mitigating causes of negative network effects should be an equally important part of any platform’s growth strategy.

2. Openness, access and immigration

Who should get access and who should not?

Platforms work like countries; they need an immigration policy. More users isn’t necessarily always good. As mentioned above, some users can kickstart negative network effects. The platform needs to ensure that it has clear policies on who can come in and what they can do. This should also be baked into the architecture (and the algorithms) of the platform.

3. Governance issues

How do you govern user behavior and ensure fair distribution of incentives across all parties?

Stretching the platform-as-country metaphor further, platforms need to be governed. They need to be governed much like countries and this is where extremely tech-focused entrepreneurs may underestimate the importance of community management and education. Airbnb and Uber, for example, have vastly different approaches to community management. One nurtures the producers, the other treats them as substitutable commodities.
Governance extends beyond community management and even moves into the realms of behavior design where certain platforms may actively manipulate user behavior to maximize network effects. Such design decisions need to be taken carefully to balance individual outcomes with network ouctome.
Much of platform governance will benefit from the many improvements in machine learning that have been achieved over the last 3 years. The best governed platforms are the ones that learn fastest from their data. The more a platform learns about its ecosystem, the more resilient it becomes.

4. Policy and regulation

What regulatory aspects must you factor in while governing distributed producer bases and their data?

Policy and regulation can be tricky with platform business models. Labor and production paradigms are different. The lines between employee and ecosystem producer are often blurred. On-demand platforms are facing the heat of such regulatory issues currently. Creation of new producers can impact adjacent markets the way Airbnb has impacted the regular rental market in many US cities. Platforms also introduce new taxation issues when they start centralizing commerce and taking commerce away from local players. Finally, governing data businesses involves its own set of complications. Data residency is a contentious issue. Companies in the US arguably know more about people in India than the Indian government because of the data that several US-based platforms have about users.

5. Managing enemies

How can you compete and emerge the winner?

Like all firms, platforms also face competition. But here’s the interesting thing: Just like growth, competition also works exponentially on platforms. When a competitor takes users away from a platform, the platform’s ability to compete decreases because those users were creating value on the platform. Hence, the platform becomes even more susceptible to future competition. As a result, market leading platforms may fall rapidly if a competitor starts siphoning users away.
Competitive strategy should always focus on the preservation of your own network effects and on attacking the factors that lead to network effects for competitors.

6. Managing friends

When can your ecosystem be a threat and how do you monitor for such occurrences?

The uniqueness of the platform business model brings with itself the added challenge of managing friends: partners in your ecosystem who may be helping your cause today but may turn against you tomorrow. Samsung helps Google but remains an ongoing threat and did try to fork Android and create its own little ecosystem.
Managing friends — partners in your ecosystem — can often be more challenging than managing enemies. Managing friends follows from good governance and should ensure that the platform constantly monitors activity in its ecosystem. The more the platform learns about how its ecosystem behaves (from activity data), the more resilient it becomes.

7. Monetization

Most importantly, how do you monetize in a manner that strengthens network effects?

Platform monetization is probably the most mind-bending of the changes that come in the shift from pipes to platforms. Monetizing pipes was simple and straightforward. “How much should we charge?” — was the key question on pipes. Platforms need to struggle with the “how much?”, “who?” and “for what?” questions. Knowing who to charge and for what value must be determined based on whether these choices strengthen or weaken network effects. Very few platforms, with extremely strong network effects, — Facebook, for example — can afford to employ monetization strategies that have a negative impact on network effects.

Platform Revolution’ takes a long hard look at the various nuances involved in answering all these questions, and lays out a comprehensive management framework for all platforms — new or mature, run by startups or incumbents.

Additionally, there are three higher-level questions that are equally important for every platform builder to consider, that are explored in detail in ‘Platform Revolution’:

8. Platforms: Good idea or bad idea?

When is a platform business model a good idea? More importantly, is there a way to predict when it might be a bad idea?

Not all platform ideas are good. Many platforms may fail at execution but some platforms are a bad idea to start with. Much of it goes down to insufficient incentives for users to participate. Platforms that seek to internalize an interaction which is already more efficient externally are bound to fail unless they can identify new ways to make the interaction more efficient.

9. Startups vs. incumbents

Are there industries where startups have a natural advantage with the platform business model? Are there other industries where the incumbents will have a natural advantage?

Are there industries where startups are better positioned to win and others where incumbents may have an advantage? Mining, for example, is an industry where incumbents are rapidly transforming themselves before startups can wrest advantage away. Likewise, an equally important consideration is to evaluate opportunities for startup platforms to collaborate with incumbent pipes in an industry where new platforms are changing dynamics rapidly.

10. What’s next?

Which industries are ripe for platforms to come in and change the rules of the game?

Question 9 leads us to the final question. When platforms transform an industry, timing plays an important role. Zipcar was launched many years before Uber but failed to have a significant impact on transportation. Understanding the factors that govern timing helps platform builders determine when they should launch.

Platform Revolution’ covers a lot of ground on the issues laid out above. It’s all set to launch on March 28th. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a lot of material on the blog that addresses many of the issues laid out above.

Getting copies of the book before launch

My publisher, Norton, is giving out 20 early copies of the book for anyone interested in covering or reviewing the book. If you’re interested in covering or reviewing the book in a media outlet or would like to host one of the three authors on your podcast, please visit the link below and leave your email and my publisher will get back to you with an early pre-launch copy of the book. (Note: There are only 20 copies for now so a first-come-first-serve may apply for now. Other requests will be fulfilled at a later date or may receive a PDF copy.)

Leave your details here to get a pre-launch copy

Getting the book

It has always been my express desire to freely distribute my work on platforms so that it reaches and impacts a wider audience. While my work on the blog is freely available, I had also distributed my previous book Platform Scale through a limited period free distribution. However, since Platform Revolution is coming out through the traditional publishing model, I will not have the rights to distribute the book freely. However, to provide maximum value to readers, we will be offering bonus material to readers who pre-order the book before the actual launch date of the book. We will also be running a giveaway on Goodreads soon. I will be sharing details on these shortly. Stay tuned!

Next Story — 10 startup business puzzles explained, with the platform stack
Currently Reading - 10 startup business puzzles explained, with the platform stack

10 startup business puzzles explained, with the platform stack

Everything old is new again. Or is it?

How did Airbnb beat Craigslist? Can we use that to understand why Mint.com gained rapid traction despite Quicken’s market dominance?

How did a mere feature on Facebook spoil Flickr’s party? And how did Facebook build out an entirely different business while Myspace was still focused on social networking?

What was Apple’s single most important innovation that led to Nokia’s downfall? Why were earlier developer ecosystems not as vibrant?

Why did LinkedIn eat Monster’s business with a seemingly different offering while Youtube and Vimeo continue to co-exist with seemingly similar offerings?

And finally, what’s so special about Medium? What does Medium do that blogging platforms failed to so far?

I’ve worked on putting together a framework to answer all these questions, in the slideshare linked below.

It turns out the answer to all these questions are fairly similar.

All of the businesses listed above are platform businesses, and they repeatedly make similar strategic moves to achieve market dominance.

We explore this in greater detail in the slideshare linked to below, where all the puzzles listed above are visualized and explained using a common framework.

Next Story — Terrorizing Ourselves?
Currently Reading - Terrorizing Ourselves?

Terrorizing Ourselves?

I was in Terminal 1 at JFK, and scared at how easily we terrorized ourselves

Imagine receiving a text like this:


The Experience

I was traveling to Malmö, Sweden to give a talk at a conference on “Building an Empathetic Company” by way of Norwegian Air via Copenhagen. It was a red-eye flight scheduled to leave at 9:55 PM.

Since it was the first time I had flown Norwegian and I couldn’t check-in online, I left for the airport with plenty of time. At 7:30 PM on a Sunday night, Terminal 1 was busy but not hectic. Norwegian had a long line and a shorter one for passengers with no bags to check. I had a duffel, so I went to the short line, got my ticket, and made it through Security quickly.

I stopped at a restaurant in-between Gate 4 and Gate 6, had dinner, and read. When 9:15 came around, I paid my bill and walked to Gate 7 to board my flight. The crowd loitered, waiting for instructions, until the gate agents announced the flight would be delayed an hour. So I walked around looking for a seat that didn’t feel claustrophobic.

I’m telling you this, because where I ended up sitting made a difference.

I chose a seat to the far left of the terminal in the last aisle of Gate 8 where there was nothing but open space and a food stand. I figured I should do something productive, and started to write out goals for the upcoming week to share with my team. I was immersed thinking about the week ahead when a piercing alarm filled the terminal.


Lights above the terminal gates started blinking a long pronounced floodlight warning, and lights on the ceiling darted in a hurried blue and white whir. I realized the alarms had been going off as I typed and that they had gotten louder, or it wasn’t until others around me began to notice and react, that their message reached me.

People started to scream.

“What is happening?” I asked myself.

I watched as people darted through the terminal towards me. I put my carry-on on my back and grabbed my duffel with my free hand. Phone in the other, I tried to open the camera app as I backed up against the window a few seats away.

The screaming became deeper, and echoed through the terminal.

I remembered thinking, “Men are screaming too” as I managed to swipe to video, bent down behind a row of seats and began to film.

I did this for exactly 16 seconds, before I realized something was wrong. Very wrong.

Still from the video I shot. You can see the full one on Twitter @MsSapone

The video shows dozens running for the emergency exits. What it does not capture is the scale of what happened next.

I think so few videos were shared from that night, because people were too afraid to even think about filming


As I dropped my phone, a stream of people came at breakneck speed through the terminal.

There was another wave of piercing screams and the echo of people running.

It was a stampede of people. It was like the terminal had been lifted vertically and people were falling like checkers on a Connect Four board, slamming into a pile at the exits.

I let my duffel fall and surveyed the room. I could cross 100 feet to a door where people were crowding, or another 200 feet to either corner of the terminal where dozens more were pushing their way out.

It registered that the last two exits at the end of the terminal were better. They had bigger doors.


Another wave of screams filled the terminal. I dropped to my stomach and slid underneath the aisle of seats. To my right, many people were doing the same. To my left, I watched as a woman hid behind a waste bin. She was bigger than the square recycle/trash canister, and as she banged herself into it, it skid and reverberated.

It was the same reaction a caged animal has when a trap slams down. It wants to get out. Every cell in its body moves at an incredible speed to fulfill this desire. It cannot feel pain as it hits against metal.

I looked down at my own hands. My right hand gripped my phone and my left was shaking. “Was I afraid?” I asked myself.


Interrupting this thought a sound filled the terminal.

“POWH. POWH. POWH. POWH. POWH.”

Gunshots.

Or was it clapping for Usain Bolt’s gold-medal victory?

Or was it the sound of line separators that direct traffic at Security, falling in cacophonous succession (all the way back before the gates began)?

Or maybe the sound of joints exploding off a door?

None of these media-suggested alternatives occurred to me.

It was gunfire. To me. To many others.


My brain searched furiously for an explanation. “Where is Security? Where the F#&*! is everyone?” Lying flat on the ground under the seats, I locked eyes with a Filipino man and his young daughter. His eyes were bulging and he uttered one statement on repeat.

“Oh God. Oh God. Oh God,” as he pulled his screaming daughter beneath him.

I looked at his daughter and whispered, “Shhhh… It’s Ok…Shhhh.”

A cacophonous scream erupted in the terminal moments after the shots fired. I looked with others out onto the empty aisle of the Terminal.

We were waiting for the person that had fired to emerge, a group of people even. To make demands, or maybe no demands at all. Maybe just make a point.


People have asked me what it felt like. I think this is the first time I understood what the word “terror” means to so many people who have really experienced it.

Yes it was scary, but that’s not good enough. Imagine being in the desert and a wild animal is chasing you, hell-bent on ripping every limb off. It’s that, and the realization that this animal is not acting on basic predatory instincts. This animal is a human, and it wants to hurt you.

It’s a deeper level of fear because your mind can not comprehend it. It is in complete disbelief. A state of terror.

Your mind goes to 9/11, Orlando, Columbine, what your Military buddy must have felt in Afghanistan. In the moment, you reference these other events.


No security came. No announcement. Just chaos. I had no doubt at the time that in that moment, my life was in my own hands.


Quiet overcame the terminal for a moment. I became aware of the feeling of my stomach against the ground. I surveyed the three exits again and not consciously, but with my feet, made the decision to run for the far right doors. I ran across dropped food; a giant soda cup; ice avalanched; Coke all over the floor. There were hundreds of things everywhere, computers, bags, shoes, jackets. Things were still spinning from the wave of people that had just kicked their way out.


Why did I run? There was an overwhelming feeling of being trapped. There was a window of opportunity, and since I could not see the perpetrator, there was still ambiguity on the outcome, and maybe the opportunity to escape. We were in danger. I felt like a deer bounding across an open field, hoping the hunter was looking the other way.


I ran 150 feet, did a running jump over a row of chairs and ran other 20 feet through open doors.

I ran with others into a wide, cement stairwell. A pilot and two flight attendants crowded in the corner, staring at the running crowd in nonplussed, confusion. They grabbed their wheelie bags close, seemingly unsure what to do as people whizzed by them.

“Go down the stairs!” my brain told me.

I watched a man help another man hop down the stairs, limping and jumping down the steps as if he had sprained a ankle.

Their faces communicated fear, “We are not moving fast enough.” The exit stairwell was wide and people rushed down, toppling, getting up again and running.

Now one floor down, I had a choice. “Get out on this level? Get out here? No. Keep going. Get outside.”


I ran through the doors out onto the airport runway into a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people. People around me darted across the tarmac. Hundreds of people huddled along the terminal walls as planes landed. I looked around for Security. “What are we doing? What is going on?”.

More people raced onto the tarmac from behind me. I watched people hide in luggage trolleys, under cars, by the wheels of planes. Most of us kept moving, some with rolling bags, many with nothing. Shoes were missing. People were running in torn tights. We made our way in fast procession to the farthest corner of the tarmac near what would have been Gate 1.

The crowd seemed to be asking the same thing, “Are we safe?”.

There were men in yellow, reflective vests who were unsure what to do — “Stay right, keep moving” — one said quietly.

Near the Arrivals door under Gate 1, Port Authority police screamed into their walkie talkies. They gestured for us to wait. I turned my face to my phone and opened Twitter. I had bad reception, but I tried to share an update.

Then the quiet. People crowded. One man near me opened a pack of cigarettes and lit one. People around him jumped at the sight of flame. I took a picture. We waited. Then the cops announced, “Ok, out these doors”.

A crowd waits on the tarmac outside Arrivals in Terminal 1

The crowd started to move forward slowly. It didn’t feel safe yet.

Security had expressly not said, “Everything is under control”. They didn’t know. And this was being communicated in what they said, and what they hadn’t. Letting children and their parent’s go first, I stood next to the man smoking a cigarette; he dropped it to the ground, darted forward, and ran to the top of the line.

Without warning, screaming erupted, and the crowd that was exiting peacefully into the airport, exploded. There was a quick shoving match between a frantic outgoing crowd and the ingoing procession and then instantly, everyone changed direction.

OUT!” People stampeded out the doors, terror on their faces. A woman fell, her knee gushed open. The crowd dispersed along the sides of the tarmac.

Security ran too.

I hid behind the back of a van in the corner. Others huddled around me. A few minutes passed. Crowds started to descend from planes 500 feet away. They were standing and sitting in orderly squares. Slowly, people started to stand up near me as two security guards emerged and told us — once again — to make a line to leave the asphalt tarmac to the ground floor of the Terminal into Arrivals and Customs.

A woman from Sweden with her son, asked the police — “How do you know it’s safe?”. She had just watched people stream out in terror.

Still behind a large Homeland Security van, I stood on the bumper to watch what was happening. People started to file into the terminal.

“Ok. I can go too.” I thought. I jumped off the bumper to the right of the van and began to make my way to the door when screaming erupted and for a second time, dozens came running out the door stampeding into the exiting crowd. I hit the floor again, and shuffled under the van.

Others would ask me why I choose to go under the van. “Was it smart? What if a cop suspected me?”All I can say is in that moment, I had watched people run for their lives in five separate waves.

There was no feeling of calm, or evacuation.

This wasn’t a fire drill.

I remember looking down and watching a large ant walk past me. I stretched my feet and lay them flat on the ground, pressed my hands against the gravel like a pose in yoga, ready to push out from under the car. It still wasn’t safe — people ran around me. It got quiet again, and I sent texts to several people including a friend who was a Navy Seal inside the terminal, who would later be quoted in the the New York Times as saying:

“I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’ve never been in this situation where you’re in a massive crowd and there’s nothing you can do.” -NYT

and in his own blog he wrote:

I was confident that I was in charge of my own destiny at this point. -SOFREP

Many minutes later, a cop flashed a light under the car and asked me to come out. I obliged, and sat on the curb with others.


I went to Twitter to look for any answers on what was happening. No statement issued seemed to reflect what I was experiencing. Twitter trolls were out and active.

It surprised me that as I was currently still experiencing what was happening at JFK, people continued to tweet at me that “there was was no event”. Another twenty minutes went by before we walked through the doors of Arrivals. Baggage Claim and Customs where mobbed.

Who knows how many people went through Customs without showing their passports? Passengers would later recount watching a stream of people, at least 40 people, running through Customs to the curb of Arrivals. This is significant, but not reported.

Bags and shoes were scattered throughout Baggage Claim. People started to line up again, but there was no real order, or clear direction. One guard asked me what flight I was on and led me to the front of the line at Customs. The white-faced security guard asked my name. He typed on his computer, seemed to look at a manifest, and waved me through, not making eye contact.


Inside the terminal

It seemed like we were free to leave. The Navy Seal texted me that he was already home in the city. My bag was still in the terminal, and passengers whispered to each other that flights were still leaving. Eventually a guard asked us to stand in line to go through Security.

Terminal 1 TSA stared the crowd down. They spoke amongst themselves, and cracked a joke or two to release the tension. They tried to ignore passengers asking them what was happening. An airport security guard or gate agent told us to form a line. I waited in one line or another for four hours, waiting to retrieve my bag from the terminal. I would get home from the airport at 5 AM.

Exhausted. Adrenaline. Waiting in those lines, I watched Twitter and the media form a perception of what had happened.

There was no mention of Terminal 1 — as if everything you just read was a figment of my imagination. Passengers were exhausted. I think most people were too in shock to exchange experiences. The terminal was very, very quiet.

Many of the media reports that night and in the following days used the word hysteria. I would describe the feeling differently.It was a feeling that did not end until 11:48PM for me. More than 90 minutes after this all began. Internalize that.

For 1 hour and 30 minutes, I and others in this major American airport, in 2016, were in a true state of terror.

Did We Terrorize Ourselves?

If you saw the news, the headlines and message communicated “no big deal, move along”. That was not my experience. It was a big deal to me and hundreds of fellow passengers at JFK that night.

I shared my experience because I think it’s important to put it out there. It should make people uncomfortable.

And not because it was scary, but because it’s scary how much of a discrepancy it is to what was officially reported.

At the end of the day, I went home and then got on my flight the next day — exhausted and a little shaken — but just 24 hours later, I was back to living my life.

We live in one of the greatest, safest places that’s ever been and it’s our responsibility to uphold that greatness and safety.

We do that by demanding better journalism — real stories. Reading long form. Opting out of pablum, and listicles, and puffery on blog sites. The cursory reporting that came out on this event simply wasn’t good enough, and people didn’t ask enough questions before playing Monday morning quarterback on the social sphere.

We are our own editors these days and if we only read “How to Launch a Startup in 3 Easy Steps” we start to lack empathy for the world as it really is.

In fact, I believe our reactive behaviors on social media — drowning ourselves in opinions, knee-jerk reactions, insults, and trolling even by would-be-presidents — are eroding our safety more than any single bad actor can.

We can’t let feelings, unsubstantiated by true facts, grow into into a toxic force that pulls the fabric of our society

We must learn together. We have to set a higher bar for ourselves and our institutions.

We can’t let fear stop clear and transparent communication from authorities to the public. Suppressing, downplaying, or avoiding isn’t the safe or smart move. We can be thoughtful and positive. I do not expect our institutions to be perfect, but we need to learn. Let’s make a plan to fix the clear failure in the response.

The media should not let the story fade away.

How is it possible that with so many people in the airport, no account like this has been shared outside of the New York Magazine piece?

Reporting is a noble job — I hope it continues to attract great people to take on the challenge.

Finally we have to be better humans, please.

Get off the junk food diet of cursory reporting, PR masked as news, and non fact-checked opinion threads. The people that control the news, control perception. In many ways we are more in control than we’ve ever been. The papers of yesterday may not be able to afford deep reporting, so we need to do it ourselves and demand better with our attention and wallets.

There is a raw, exposed nerve in the public from the divisiveness of our discourse. America is great, when it acts greatly.

And to take it full circle. We all need to practice a hell of a lot more empathy for others and ourselves.

We have to be active in our society. We have to vote. To stand up for what is right. Next time it could be life and death — as it easily could have been this time.

If we don’t learn from this experience, we have in fact terrorized ourselves.

You can find me on twitter @MsSapone

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