Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
umair haque  


Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Edge Patterns 7: Messy Beats Clean (Or, Why LinkedIn Will Never Be Myspace)

One of the key ideas of the 20th century - of modernism - was streamlining. Streamlining was about clean lines, clean shapes; about form following function, and function itself being a simplistic result of friction and drag.

Buildings, cars, cities were streamlined; and, ultimately, at long last, businesses were too. The revolution began in the 70s, as conglomerates were discounted by the capital markets, continued through the 80s, as they were unbundled in earnest by vultures and raiders, and ignited with a vengeance in the 90s, reaching an apotheosis with the "re-engineering" of corporations.

Re-engineering was about streamlining: about cutting the fat; about removing "resistance" and "drag" created by superfluous processes, whose near term returns were non-existent.

The result, as we all know too well today, is a commercial landscape both bleak and bland: homogeneous, robotic, synthetic, and hyperrationalized, where the Barista's or burger-flipper's value is timed, measured, studied, and analyzed to death.

That was life in the 20th century.

In the 21st, the essence of the corporation is undergoing radical changes. Today, streamlining is cheap, fast, and easy. Pick up the phone and outsource whatever's dragging down your speed, revenues, or returns.

Which means today's radical innovators are going in a very different direction. Fundamentally, deeply, in their very essence: they're messy, not clean.

Today, Matthew and Seamus both have written great comments on a recent Biz 2.0 piece hyping LinkedIn's somewhat morbid prospects (though, as ever, in today's market, don't rule out a desperation-driven acquisiton at a nice multiple).

Seamus hits the nail on the head when he says something we've discussed often at Next Wednesdays: the problem with LinkedIn is that, well, you can't do anything:

"...Here’s the problem with LinkedIn - it doesn’t do anything. You sign up, you find some colleagues, you link to them and then…nothing."

Exactly - in other words, LinkedIn won't (let you) get messy.

That's why LinkedIn (emphatically) isn't "MySpace for adults".

Just take a look at them both.

Myspace is the digital ghetto. It's ugly, nasty, and brutish. But it's got soul and character. Interesting conversations happen there. In other words, it's messy. And, in large part, that's why it's rocked - messiness explodes value creation at the edge.

LinkedIn is clean, smooth, and streamlined - and utterly devoid of any possibilities for meaningful interaction.

But this in itself begs a deeper question. Why didn't LinkedIn ever learn to get messy?

Here's the reason. When LinkedIn's near-term prospects weren't materializing the way investors hoped they would, LinkedIn changed it's strategy. Instead of learning about what it takes to make the social happen, it shifted to focusing on what it thought would be easy pickings: it forgot about consumers, and focused on recruiters.

Now, that's a laudable goal. If there's a dysfunctional industry left in the economy, it's HR. Recruiters and headhunters make lots of money for adding almost no value.

But LinkedIn, again, didn't focus on disrupting this industry - it focused on simply replicating the same old, broken, lame industry economics: on ever-so-slightly dropping the marginal search costs of recruiters finding new candidates.

Here, again, LinkedIn refused to get messy. Instead of embracing the new possibilities for value creation at the edge, LinkedIn stayed clean, simply choosing to streamline yesterday's value chain just a tiny bit more - instead of getting messy, it's chosen to get even cleaner.

Contrast this with Myspace. Myspace experimented for a long (long) time to come up with it's revolutionary array of services. It's messiness, in turn, reflects this approach.

Myspace isn't a streamlined business trying to streamline yesterday's broken music value chain. It's a deeply messy, almost chaotic place, where an entirely value chain is up for grabs.

Myspace is messy because it has to be. To forge a new value chain, it needed to pioneer - and needs to continue to pioneer - new possiblities for value creation through deeply revolutionary kinds of interaction (like letting bands compete for the attention of listeners without greedy corporobot suits getting in the way).

In other words, in the post-network economy, (re)learning how to create value is going to be, in large part, about getting messy. This is perhaps Google's deepest - and most jealously guarded - secret.

Forget about economies and cost-cutting and trimming the fat - because that stuff's a commodity. It's not a basis for any kind of advantage.

What is a basis for advantage is exploding what was clean and streamlined yesterday: unlocking new possibilities for value creation which are messy because interactions at the edge are richer, deeper, riskier, and, ultimately, human.

They're not - like the skyscrapers modernity built, or the boardrooms that sit atop them - cold, streamlined, and clean.

In other words, tomorrow's businesses won't look - already don't look - like yesterday's. Myspace and LinkedIn are tiny examples of a larger earthquake rolling across the global economy - more and more firms are learning that getting messy at the edge beats trying to keep wiping the core clean.

-- umair // 11:30 PM // 8 comments



My take on LinkedIn is that, really, I don't want to use it for anything but a contact list. I'll get pinged every once in a while via email, notifying me of new positions former colleges have taken up in new companies. Simple is good.

If I want to chat with them, I have their email right there. Right now I'm unemployed, so if I'm looking for a new job, I can simply go "Hey guys, it's me Dave. Do any of you have openings in your IT department? I'm looking for a new job. My resume is right here in my profile. Thanks!" Usually I'll get hit back with some job descriptions, or handed off to another contact that's desperate for an IT guy.

All of the social value I see in LinkedIn is off of the website, not on it like MySpace. Corporate workers don't have the time to spend all day blogging or chatting it up with their friends online. We're busy. High school and college students on MySpace are not, and have much more time.

All of the relationships I've formed on LinkedIn have been through people I've met in real life. I simply don't add people to my contacts list because I spoke with them once. I worked with them, side-by-side, on projects, emergencies, and lots of other things. I'm not really looking to grow my contacts list. I'm more interested in maintaining the good ones I already have. Networking for the sake of networking typically doesn't yield much.

MySpace, to me, has more of a "I've got more friends than you!" mentality to it. That probably has more to do with its user-base than anything else, but it's there. It's also quite possible that then entire LinkedIn user-base is clean by nature, and hence is attracted to that. I will note that I've used LinkedIn much more than MySpace, so my perspective may be a bit off here.

In reality, there is a place for messy and there is a place for clean. MySpace is the cash-cow at the moment, and LinkedIn is in a niched market that won't ever hit the size of MySpace. I'd bet money though that LinkedIn will have a more stable revenue model than MySpace over time, as MySpace is a popularity contest. Not just among it's citizens, but among its competitors. A lot of people are willing to move from MySpace to something like Vox or Facebook, but everyone I know on LinkedIn isn't moving anywhere else. Why should they?


-Dave Gallagher
// Anonymous Dave Gallagher // 1:12 AM

Hey Dave,

That's a good comment.

I don't have time to do it justice, unfortunately, but think about it this way.

Though you rightly point out that no one's leaving LinkedIn, perhaps that's because the universe of options is tiny right now.

If you had the choice between a clean LinkedIn, and a messy one...which would you choose? Which would most people choose? Put another way, can a clean LinkedIn ever create as much value as a messy one?

We might disagree - but you can bet there are a hundred guys in garages who are about to test exactly this proposition.

Thx for the comment.
// Blogger umair // 1:29 AM

Hey Umair,

Probably helps if I spell your name right. ;) I've been a reader here for, god, 4 years? Longer? And I love your stuff. That "i" if your name still gets me every time, however. Watching you predict 2.0, and watching it unfold, was quite amazing to see.

"If you had the choice between a clean LinkedIn, and a messy one...which would you choose? Which would most people choose? Put another way, can a clean LinkedIn ever create as much value as a messy one?"

It's probably preference based. I think you are right, there is room for a messy LinkedIn too, but LinkedIn isn't going to go away. It'll attract a different crowd (my hunch is that crowd is probably sitting on FaceBook right now, and may or may not know that they're going to be migrated away from it to MessyIn in 1-2 years). Who gets more business, LinkedIn or MessyIn? Good question, and you're spot on with the garage prediction.

It's worth noting that most businesses that go from the startup to large corporation route, typically go from a very messy birth to a very clean existence. The messy stage is necessary to experiment with business models, and the clean stage is simply the "milking of the cow" to semi-quote Seth Godin (Purple Cow). Sometimes clean triumphs messy, and sometimes messy and clean merge to form organized chaos. Rock/Paper/Sissors if you will.

-Dave Gallagher
// Anonymous Dave Gallagher // 5:46 PM

I think its important to look past the surface. So messy isn't just a mess, its diversity. And mess more naturally affords a diversity of elements within a system and interactions between those elements, than streamlined appears to.

But while the affordance seems natural, it isn't necessary. So messiness isn't the only path to diversity. Futhermore, messiness comes at a cost: complixity and noise.

The use a customer makes of a product will determine if that cost is acceptable or not. In the case of MySpace, the cost is not only acceptable, the complexity and noise are in a way functional. However for other products, this cost might be too high, and so the messiness deters customers rather than attracts them.

So which is better, the bazzaar or the cathedral? Well that begs the question, better for what? Of course both questions rely on a false dichotomy anyway. Bazzaars and cathedrals are each appropriate for different things, and the world needs both.
// Anonymous john trenouth // 8:51 PM

I don't think Umair is saying that LinkedIn has to BE MySpace, or that it needs to look like myspace.

Rather, it needs to behave like MySpace. What that might mean is opening up the architecture to the users. Allow them to add widgets. Allow them to, I don't know, design their logo out of their names. Stuff like that... a LinkedIn profile page does not tell you much about the person, but a MySpace page does. This makes the MySpace page much more valuable, both to the creator and the viewer.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 11:02 PM


I'd like to reiterate my comment to Seamus' thoughts on doing NOTHING on LinkedIn. I beg to differ. As I've responded to in an earlier post of yours, I have been able to get a ton of stuff done, including helping me win new business, potential job offers (& I don't mean just the recruiters), keeping track of colleagues, lead generation/qualification, etc... So there is a lot of value one can derive from just the free LinkedIn service.

I also don't think we can equate messiness with value creation, particularly since LinkedIn caters to a totally different target audience - not that of MySpace.
// Anonymous Mario Sundar // 7:10 AM

i love the dysfunctional part... i agree...
// Anonymous paik // 9:09 AM

Manual Trackback!
// Blogger Chris // 5:55 AM
Post a Comment

Recent Tweets


    due diligence
    a vc
    tj's weblog
    venture chronicles
    the big picture
    bill burnham
    babak nivi
    n-c thoughts
    london gsb

    chicago fed
    dallas fed
    ny fed
    world bank
    nouriel roubini


    uhaque (dot) mba2003 (at) london (dot) edu


    atom feed

    technorati profile

    blog archives