Dear Digital Diary, HELP-I'm Drowning! Why we need a middle layer to protect us.
“Any damn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” ―Pete Seeger
If you feel like you are buried under a wave of digital stuff, you’re not alone. The rising creator economy is generating more content than ever before. SaaS platforms managing nearly every aspect of business life demand constant attention. NFTs are multiplying like rabbits. Yikes.
What's the solution? Middle management.
Middle layers raise concerns about gate-keeping, and there is no question that the mega-middle, the FAANG-now-MAMAA leviathans, have absurd levels of power. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in a middle layer that curates, organizes, and synthesizes information on behalf of users. Most companies approach user design as if their product exists in a vacuum; few design with the multi-product raucousness of the day-to-day in mind.
As we enter the third year of what promises to be a decade of immense innovation and change, let’s consider the recipients of all the great new stuff being invented. How will they manage across the silos of new and old products? How will they navigate overabundance?
At Spark No. 9, we test ideas for new products and new ways of marketing old ones using real live ad campaigns. Here are some areas where we would love to work with innovators this year on “middle layers” that synthesize and integrate to protect users from the crush of digital overload:
We’ll get to content, the most obvious digital explosion, in a moment. But there’s another area where the volume of daily digital interaction could use a middle layer: work life, especially for small businesses and independent contractors.
What exactly are we talking about?
Tax software. Accounting software. Project management tools. Slack and Teams. Medical insurance. Business insurance. Website building tools. Email service providers. Social media management. Banking services. NDA management. Digital signature tools. Productivity software. Privacy tools. And so on.
While integration among existing platforms kinda sorta happens, it’s still clunky. Why can’t you see all of your SaaS subscriptions in one place? Why doesn’t tax software easily ingest and catalog a pile of 1099s for avid independent contractors? Why isn’t there an easy way for independent contractors to manage multiple contract and NDA forms?
Hope is on the horizon--there are a few bright spots where things that should be together but aren't are being aggregated and streamlined:
Gusto has aggregated payroll and benefits in a well-designed platform with easy-to-absorb dashboards.
Cue, a startup, is synthesizing across sales & marketing platforms to eliminate repetitive data entry.
1Password makes it easy to manage passwords for an entire company, and they’ve solved problems like two-factor authentication.
But there is wide open space here for more products that integrate and synthesize. Bring on the middle!
Want to know what’s hot for 2022? You could read Activate’s 203-page Technology and Media Outlook 2022. Or how about Falcon’s 60-page 2022 Digital Marketing Trends? Need more? You’re in luck: Spacecadet rounded up 73 (!) trend reports–but that’s not counting all the newsletters, podcasts, and books paving the way into 2022.
Creating tools to manage content is hard, and the road is littered with failures and stalls like Bookish and Playlist.com. Survivors like Goodreads address two big problems: cataloging and discovery. Spotify arguably knocks it out of the park, with layers of cataloging (playlists), metadata, and a range of discovery tools.
What do Goodreads and Spotify have in common? Vast amounts of content to organize. 395 million books have been cataloged on Goodreads. Spotify says it has 70 million songs. Streaming services are puny by comparison, with maybe 20,000 movies across the major services. But still, that’s enough to require a middle layer, and companies like ScreenHits TV and VUniverse are tackling the problem of what to watch and where to find it among your various streaming subscriptions.
Where could a middle layer add value? Email newsletters, podcasts, NFTs, and events, to name a few. And there are existing middle layers that could use a rethinking: books and knitting patterns, for starters. Hey, while we're at it, what about organizing across content types? Maybe we want our music newsletters side-by-side with our music. Or our newsletters with our podcasts. Or...
What will you do differently today to address climate change? How about tomorrow?
It’s not like there’s a shortage of ideas out there. From Al Gore to John Doerr to TED and many more, there is a plethora of excellent research and content that suggests a path forward.
What there isn’t is a tool to guide, track, and measure your personal progress in fixing a gargantuan problem. While you may have changed your plastic straw consumption based on turtle vids, there are undoubtedly countless other small adjustments you can deploy every day to make a difference. But how would you know?
This middle layer is a little different from the two above: it’s not that we need a middle layer to protect us–we need one to identify and interpret the right information, kind of like Fitbit or Noom offering suggestions for adjusting habits. It's organizing information for action. And this problem needs lots of action.
P.S. It’s not just digital. Material clutter is a problem, too.