One concept that people often miss when structuring groups, organizations, or social spaces is the importance of those who aren't here. People who aren't actively present can be just as important for the medium- and long-term future of your project as those who happen to be around right now (sometimes more so!) -- and if you overfit your planning to the people who happen to be around right now, you may end up damaging your long-term prospects.

Here are some examples of what this can look like:

1) A king falls into decadence and surrounds himself with flattering courtiers. Whenever he wonders whether things are going in the right direction, the courtiers assure him everything is grand and maneuver to prevent him from learning about any negative developments.

2) An online community is meant to represent a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives, but biases in moderation begin to creep in that drive some away. Since the people who don't agree with the current approach have mostly left, polling active users no longer accurately samples the broader community that the space was meant to draw on, but rather the people who happen to agree with the current approach.

3) An employer begins to remove people who don't agree with his strategy and hire those who do. Now, everyone in the organization is on the same page with respect to the strategy -- but when that strategy has flaws there are few internal voices that are able to point that out.

4) A person who recently moved is having some social difficulties fitting in to a new community she's joined and asks her old friends for advice; because they are already her friends and enjoy her current manner, their advice is not very useful for helping her adapt to a new context!

5) A company developing new technology overfixates on their current market and falls prey to Galápagos syndrome; their products become overspecialized with features for their existing group and are no longer competitive in the broader market.

Focusing too much on those who are currently present can be insidious because it can be self-reinforcing; once one is focused on an inappropriately small group of users, confidants, or advisers, it can grow increasingly difficult to bring in information from outside this perspective. Further, one who relies too heavily on a certain perspective can ultimately alter their plans in a direction that further reinforces that small group's desires, driving more of those who don't agree out, and so on.

In order to avoid this cycle, it's important to "look to the river but think of the sea"; in other words, consider not just those that are currently in front of you but also the broader group you hope to reach in the longer term. Solicit outside perspectives or alternate takes and seriously engage with them when making your own plans. In some cases, doing this can be hard -- but that doesn't mean it isn't important.

After all, if you want to make a difference for more than just those you're currently interacting with, it's important to make sure you don't forget yourself in the current milieu!

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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:08 AM

Good advice tends to have it's opposite to be good advice too. I am often struggling with the failure mode where I try to solve a version of the problem that is general. it ends up being hard and I end up not doing, doing it only in small part or doing it inefficiencty. In these kinds of situations it could benefit me from exploiting the peculiar properties of people that I am in fact in direct contact with rather coming up with a "dealing with people in general". Sometimes "we will worry about that once it gets relevant" means it gets relevant and there is no longer notice or possiblity to deal wiht it but on the other hand if you knew it will become a problem it can be easier to notice and set out to solve the problem.

Just being aware what you can handle can be valuable. "What you do if you don't have oxygen surrounding your body?", "You are silly humans have oxygen around their bodies no need to worry about it", "Hey with this scuba tank you can visit places that do not have breathable athmospheres without dying"

I would also think that case 4 is not htat helpless. If you tell what has happened to you to a friendly culture they probably will tell "Well among us we would do X instead of Y in this situation?", "But yeah but what if other people are doing Y how you carry on from that" ("People do not do Y" would be valid if actual filter bubble exists but if there is concrete telling of another persons life tha tis indeniable proof that some person has done Y making this not an option) "That's is so weird to do Y that is so bad, wrong and what would even be the point of that?" (If we would make this in a shared culture "Y is bad" can be seen as demand not to Y but when talking about a foreign culture there seems ot be a better formed problem of "how to effectively demand fo Y abolitinition without being outright rejected"). This can easily lead to recognition that things function differently in the other context it can easily spark curiosity for the function differences and it is likely to give recognition and tools to deal with experiences of alienation or akwardness. Sure lines with structure like "Oh in responce to Y you do Z" are likely to be missing but a lot of other positive stuff is likely to come up. Trying to do the troubleshooting wihtin the foregin context would lead to diffulcties of the kind of "you expected and want X to happen, what kind of weirdo are you?"

Re: reversals -- there are definitely situations where it is better to in fact just focus on a local group - Paul Graham, having seen many startups fail because they built something that nobody actually wanted, advises building something that you yourself want if you're planning to make a startup company.

Re: case 4 -- agreed that it is not totally helpless, but at times friends can make worse advisors than disinterested observers do.

Strong upvote. This is a consideration that's occurred to me several times in the past weeks, but I hadn't voiced it yet at any point. I'm glad now to have this excellent clear reference for when I want to mention this.

+1. More encouragement without much to add.


Fully agree. I would add this is something politician and political parties would do well (from the perspective of becoming actually Representatives of the people -- though might not be good from a partisan goals view...) to pay attention to.

Or, perhaps in light of the parenthetical thought, perhaps that is something the electorate and, more so, the media should take note of.

Politicians in our time do take the public opinion on issues into account by looking at poll data. I don't think we need more poll-driven politics and I find principle-driven politicians to be valuable even if they represent the principles they believe in instead of of trying to act according to how the majority of the people think.