Longreads + Open Thread

Instant Delivery, Slack, Social Science, Nuclear, Returns, FedEx


  • Turner Novak on the bull case for Jokr and other nearly-instant delivery companies. It's tautologically true that however high the fixed costs of a business are, if it can squeeze out a positive unit profit, there's a level of turnover at which it works. One reason there's so much pervasive bearishness about this model is the situation in New York City, where a disproportionate number of these companies are trying to win dominant market share. The business looks a lot worse when there are heavy discounts, and these companies will presumably burn lots of capital if their business models collectively assume over 100% market share in NYC's grocery market. But if enough of them are competing in the same city, and there are scale effects, the upside for the industry is that they'll tend to all fail at once (each one that exits the market will cede more share to the winner), so overall profitability can quickly flip.

  • Ellen Cushing of The Atlantic on the social effects of Slack. Like a lot of other software products, Slack takes something that always existed—work talk and office gossip—and made it much more powerful and, in some ways, much worse. New media tend to reorganize politics, and this applies to office politics, too.

  • Another great Browser interview: Uri Braum talks to Literal Banana about social science. Particularly fun is the social component of the replication crisis: it feels fun to know something other people don't know, and fun secrets about human psychology have universal appeal. (Or, at least, if you did a study on this I bet you could hit a p-value of 0.49 without much trouble.)

  • Samuel Miller Mcdonald in the Boston Review has a balanced but mostly negative case on nuclear power. Notably, a lot of this hinges on cost concerns, and the cost of constructing nuclear power plants has been rising. But that higher cost is partly a function of lower construction (when you don't make very many of them, they're all bespoke) and partly a function of regulation. It would be interesting to create an environmental impact safe harbor where projects with a net negative emissions impact over some threshold were approved by default.

  • Amanda Mull in The Atlantic on the unknown but high cost of clothing returns. If e-commerce keeps growing and returns grow faster, there's an increasingly big opportunity to reduce the cost of returns, both in terms of how many incremental vehicle-miles it takes to sell someone a shirt they want to wear and how closely only purchases meet expectations once they're delivered.


  • Changing How the World Does Business: Fedex's Incredible Journey to Success: it's usually easy to divide business books into the mostly-hagiographic ones written by either friendly journalists or early employees who did well, and the mostly condemnatory ones written by investigative journalists or early employees who got fired. This book's an interesting middle ground: the author was with FedEx from basically the beginning, but later found himself sidelined, and left. So it's a slightly-less-glowing look at a company that really did achieve a lot in an incredibly tough industry.

Open Thread

  • Drop in any links or books of interest to Diff readers.

  • Being a NIMBY is unpopular on the Internet, unless you're a NIMBY about the Internet: many of the most durable communities thrive by carefully controlling who joins and how people behave once they do. Hacker News is a great example; the site feels a lot like it did in 2007, and that's the result of constant, deliberate effort. Metafilter seems to be the same as it always was, too; $5 is apparently the right amount to make joining for the sake of a single low-value comment a losing proposition. And other networks are thinking about ways to build this into the protocol itself, so it's not just a community but a way of building communities. Urbit has some interesting features in this vein. (Disclosure: I'm an investor.) What are some other good examples, either of community norms or site features, that keep Internet communities the way their users like them, without leading to those communities dying out?

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