World Building and Antifragility

Alex Danco's Newsletter, Season 3 Episode 11

Recently we talked about the idea of world building:

World Building | alexdanco.com

The main idea here was: the more complex or valuable is whatever you’re trying to [accomplish], the more important it is for you to build a world around that idea, where other people can walk in, explore, and hang out - without you having to be there with them the whole time. You need to build a world so rich and captivating that others will want to spend time in it, even if you’re not there.

This really seems to have hit a chord with a lot of people, so thank you all for your response. I’m glad this topic resonated, because it gives me a good chance to practice what I’m preaching: let’s go explore this world a little more over the next couple weeks.

There’s another big reason why world-building is important, that we haven’t gotten to yet: antifragility.

The goal of world-building, to recap, is to create and nurture purposeful environments where people find a clear role to play, and understand the narratives around it. World-building goes beyond linear storytelling, because if you do it right, the world you’ve created starts telling the story for you. You don’t have to be there all the time, or micro-manage every part of the storyline. Your job is to create a world that’s interesting for people, let others find their purpose inside it, and then run with it.

Here’s the thing, though: your world doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s subject to the volatility and unpredictability of the outside world. If you’re trying to create or accomplish anything complex and valuable, you know this lesson all too well: once you set off on a mission to get something done, there is no way you can predict what kind of plot twists or stressors you’ll encounter along the way. Your world is going to face shocks and surprises you can’t foresee. This is a guarantee.

Those stressors could have two kinds of consequences. One possible consequence is they can create uncertainty. You have a carefully crafted narrative, that gives people purpose, but then some stressor shows up and adds throws that narrative and purpose into jeopardy.

But not necessarily. It’s also possible that stressors might resolve uncertainty, and sharpen the purpose. In that case, those stressors will be information. They are valuable and necessary for your world’s vitality.

I’ve written about this idea before, last year in the earliest days of Covid. This is what “antifragility”, the oft-quoted but mostly misunderstood idea from Nassim Taleb, is really about:

In a fragile system, stressors create uncertainty. There’s existing purpose in your world, and that purpose makes sense so long as your world remains within a certain state. But when a stressor throws your world into a new state, the established purposes inside your world make less sense. Your world becomes more uncertain. That’s fragility.

In an antifragile system, stressors act in the opposite direction: they resolve uncertainty. The purpose in your world is expressed in terms of stress and response. It's initially undefined; it needs the stressor in order to make sense. When a stressor shows up, they resolve uncertainty in the purpose. Without a stressor, you’re rudderless: you don’t know how to grow or what to do, until you’re given that direction.

In truly antifragile systems - one of the best examples being the immune system - you can literally spell out the mechanism through which this happens. This is a good test for whether something is bona fide antifragile or just handwaving: can you articulate the specific mechanism through which unknown stressors reduce uncertainty? Put in terms of world-building: what are the elements of your world that need surprise stressors in order for their purpose in your world to make sense? Do you really understand the mechanism at work here? And do you understand how that mechanism operates in your world?

This is all quite abstract so let me give you a concrete example: world-building at Shopify, and specifically one instance where we’ve done a good job - flash selling.
Shopify occupies an interesting intersection between two rather different worlds. One of those worlds is entrepreneurship culture. The other world is hacker culture. Our job at Shopify is to build a world that both of those groups of people want to join and spend time in, so they can both win and help each other win.

Entrepreneurship culture, or we can alternately call it “merchant culture”, is obviously thousands of years old but has found a specific format in today’s internet world, for sure. You can affectionately call it the “hustle-and-grind” community that encompasses small sellers, Youtubers, viral marketers, drop shippers, big brands, and people telling stories through their personal projections. This is a culture that enshrines repeated trial-and-error, taking as many shots on goal and putting in as many hours as it takes. This is a culture where problems get solved in synchronous marketplaces. This culture has its own language, storylines, tropes, and inside jokes. As a participant in this culture, your purpose is coherent and clear.

Hacker culture is wholly different. We are talking about almost an entirely different species of internet-dweller here. People who make code for fun and for a living, and who are deeply committed to the craft of software development, have their own rich culture that’s evolved over decades around the peculiar demands of creating and maintaining high-quality code. This is a culture where the native problem-solving format is the bulletin board and where developer productivity is definitely not measured in lines of code. It very much has its own language, tropes, and storylines, and learning them is an important part of becoming a developer. As a participant in this culture, your purpose is also coherent and clear.

There are some interesting similarities between these two cultures. One similarity is that they’re both deeply reputation-based, although for totally different reasons. In commerce, reputation matters for acquiring, convincing, converting and retaining customers, allowing the marketplace of problem-solving to operate smoothly. In software development, reputation matters because complex technical projects require a lot of judgment calls and decision-making in high context situations. As you gain seniority in the community, you earn the power of influence: “this approach will work out well; this approach will go badly; this approach you haven’t considered might be best.” Reputation allows the bulletin-board of problem solving to operate smoothly.

Similarly, the way that you earn reputations in both cultures is by facing challenges and overcoming them successfully. In commerce, the way you earn trust and status is by finding opportunities to do a hard kind of commerce, that people really want, and then successfully following through. Same with software development: the way you earn trust and status is by finding opportunities to take on hard, complex problems, that people really want solved, and then successfully following through. Without those challenges, these worlds stop working. The participants’ purpose requires challenge, and requires unforeseen stressors. Without them, commerce becomes frictionless, low-trust Amazon purchases. Without them, software development becomes just a 9-to-5 chore with no joy or craft.

Each in their own way, both the merchant community and the software development community have antifragile potential: they need unpredictable challenges in order to function healthily, because those stressors are information. For the merchants, stressors are information both financially (the harder a transaction, the higher the price!) and reputationally (the harder a transaction, the more you trust those who’ve done it before). In software development, stressors are information: they show you who the architects really are, and who the senior managers really are.

Shopify’s job is to build a world that can host both of these groups of people, and their challenges, simultaneously. A decade and a half in, and we’re making progress, but as with any serious world-building campaign, we’re only 10% done or so. We host a lot of different people in our world already - not just merchants and app developers but also agencies, marketers, designers, all kinds of freelancers, and everyone else who wants to contribute.

For the most part, I would not say that Shopify’s ecosystem is fully antifragile yet, in a true sense - we cannot say, “stress always makes our ecosystem stronger” yet. What work is still in front of us? Across most of Shopify’s world, we are still learning and figuring out all of those mechanisms through which you could say stress IS information. There is still so much work we have to do on that front in order to become as good as we know we could be, and a lot of our platform work that’s happening over last year and this year will help put us in a strong position going forward.

But, there are a few parts of our world that feel really strong. One of them is flash selling, and specifically, bot protection. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about: any time some coveted item goes on sale all at once, like a limited edition product drop, or hot playoff tickets, that kind of thing, people have built scalping bots that immediately buy up everything so they can resell at a markup. Ever since this tactic became popular, there’s been an ‘arms race’ of sorts between the e-commerce platforms, like Shopify, who build more and more sophisticated defences against the bots, and the programmers who keep making them smarter. It’s an ongoing game of cat and mouse.)

Why are we so strong here? It’s not just that we built good anti-bot software once. It’s that we host a world, inhabited by flash sellers and software programmers, with a rich narrative and purpose around defeating the bots and pulling off ambitious flash sales. And stressors (newer, meaner, unpredictable bots) make this world even stronger. Because everybody in deeply understands the mechanism through which these stressors are information, and resolve uncertainty.

For seasoned merchants, this perpetual game of challenge-conquer, challenge-conquer, builds more trust with their fans and buyers, because it increases the stakes of the moment - and the rewards to winning. (Bots, as reviled as they are, are part of the mystique of flash selling!) Meanwhile, for the teams of developers fighting the bot war, the same perpetual game of challenge-conquer builds more trust and hunger among the community, because it defines new challenges, and continually sharpens and refreshes their collective purpose. We understand these mechanisms well, because we’ve spent a lot of time in those two cultures - entrepreneurship culture and hacker culture - and we have an idea of how they mechanically function, down to the details of personal challenge and response. That’s the bar we have to clear, everywhere.

You can look at this little corner of our Shopify world, where there are merchants and developers assembled on both sides of this unpredictable source of stressors and loving it, and feel pretty confidently that this is a really nicely well-developed piece of our world that’s going to keep developing and perpetuating successfully. It is one of the first really antifragile pieces of our little world. (Notably, there’s a cost to antifragility: if all of a sudden the stressors went away, this corner of the world would actively suffer! Both the merchants and the developers would probably be worse off if the bots disappeared overnight: they’d have lost an important component of their purpose, and an important part of their sense of being and success would be taken from them. The only way you can defeat our anti bot team at this point is if there were no more bots!)

The fun part of looking at world building this way is once you realize what real antifragility looks like, you start seeing it in other really excellently developed worlds. And it gives you an idea of what excellent really looks like - you have to deeply understand the mechanisms through which stressors are information. If you understand those mechanics inside the world you’ve built, then you’ll be in good shape to invite others in and take on some unpredictable challenges.

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Have a great week,

Alex