About 335 million years ago, all the major land masses on earth were combined into a single supercontinent we call Pangaea.1 Then 200 million years ago, they began to break up and drift apart. When humans arrived, they further subdivided the continents into kingdoms, principalities, and tribes. The modern age is one of great ideological rifts within nations. This article is about why the peoples of world are splitting into smaller and smaller groups and what, if anything, should be done about it.
Where to build a gas station
Let’s say you live in a prosperous-but-quiet town with a single road along which the population is evenly distributed. You come up with a bright idea to build the town’s first gas station. Without any competition, you expect long-lasting success.
Where should your gas station be located? Easy. Right in the middle of town. You set up shop, and the happy customers begin cruising in. They bring money, and they are happy with your service.
Then you hear a competitor just decided to move into the area. Where would you expect him to build? Maybe halfway between your gas station and one end of town? Not if he wants as many sales as possible. If your competitor wants to maximize sales, he will build right across the street from you.
This way, both you and he will split the sales 50-50 (holding all other variables constant). If the competitor sets up shop closer to one end of town, you will get all the business from the other side of town and then split the customers between your gas station and his.
You both prosper for a time, but then a profit-maximizing third competitor enters the market. Where will she build? At the extreme end of town maybe? Nope. She will set up her gas station right next to one of the existing two. This way, she will capture the half of town closer to her station. Your flagship station and your first competitor would split the remaining half of the town.
You hear rumors a fourth competitor is entering the market, and you worry you are about to go out of business. Instead of allowing this new entrant to take most of your remaining customers, you try to convince your three competitors to distribute the gas stations evenly along the town’s road. That way, each of you captures a fourth of the sales.2 3
If we continued to introduce new competitors, every home would eventually have its own dedicated gas station. This is not as outlandish an idea as you might think. In a world of electric cars, every garage can become a refueling station. Even if you decided to purchase all gas stations in town and eliminate the competition, you would still have to build stations within easy reach of every customer… or someone else eventually would.
Our fragmenting world
Our world is a mishmash of interconnected towns on crisscrossed streets. We are not just increasing the number of gas stations and placing them closer to every home. We are multiplying the number of all desirable goods and inventing new ones every day. They each clamor for our attention and commitment. There were only a few breakfast cereal brands on American grocery store shelves in the 1940s for example. Today, you can find over 100 brands of breakfast cereal.4
In the bygone era of limited products and services, we shared more universal experiences and context. We ate Corn Flakes or CheeriOats. We bumped into each other at the only gas station. We watched the same shows because there was nothing else on. We ate together at the only restaurant in town, congregated at the local church, and found connections and relationships. This is all changing though and at an increasingly rapid pace. Every day it seems like another company is set up in my living room or knocking on my front door.
I keep hearing that the world is polarizing but wonder if it would be more accurately described as fragmenting. The world only appears polarized because we are breaking into smaller and smaller groups that do not understand or engage with outsiders. As the perceived gulf between our tribe and others widens, so does the fear and animosity toward the unknown others.
Success in a splintering world
Successful organizations today – like the ones in the past – achieve their objectives while meeting their customers’ desires. Modern organizations must deliver elements of the old ways with those of the new. Wildly effective organization in the modern age offer a personalized experience and a sense of community for their customers.
They really have no choice. Their customers now demand to be both deeply understood and connected to others. If organizations fail on either point, they will lose people. If they fail on both, they will lose a lot of people. Let’s explore both in more detail.
The race toward personalization
We have come to expect immersive experiences with every purchase and in every sphere of life. Our modern activities do not just barely meet our needs. They are transportive. Our meals, for example, no longer just keep us alive. They dazzle our senses. We can have exactly the food we want from just about anywhere in the world. And someone will deliver it with a smile in under an hour.
Our entertainments are so captivating that we lose ourselves in them. They can be novel or nostalgic, comforting or invigorating – whatever we want. Our screens take over our eyes and ears while fully occupying our minds. We can learn or experience just about anything with the click of the button.
If people feel a moment of boredom, or if an activity is too demanding or too simple, they are strongly tempted to disengage. Why deal with irrelevant situations and information when there are fully customizable options within reach? I can fill my days with goldilocks tasks that are not too hard or too easy but just enough to consume my attention.
The need for community
Since the beginning, effective organizations turned individuals into communities. People worshipped and worked together. They huddled around the latest technology and discussed its messages. Groups rescued individuals when they couldn’t help themselves.
Highly individualized experiences tend to isolate people. Who do you talk to about the games only you understand and that only you play? Regardless of how entertaining and instructive your activities are, you would soon tire of them in social exile. As social beings, your experiences and lives seem meaningless when there is no one to share them with.
Many modern organizations offer twisted versions of communities. Companies beg for positive reviews and for people to join their online communities. Take the like button on every social media site and product review page. It is a distorted approximation of the feedback and genuine relationship that we all crave. It creates a better sense of community than nothing and still gives us the thrill of connection.
Think about the fastest growing companies, charities, and movements today. You probably imagine people and organizations with massive social media followings or those who manage the media infrastructure in the first place. They provide you with a great product or service and connect you to communities of like-minded individuals in the process. If they didn’t do both, you would become tired of them or forget them entirely.
Let’s discuss a few industries and how the need for personalized communities is disrupting them.
Fragmenting news and media
This screenshot from the site Ground.news shows which new media organizations covered a news story about a border issue in the United States. As you can see, the news sites covering the story have a roughly bell-shaped distribution, with more news organizations in the center and fewer with extreme right- or left-wing biases.
The distribution of media company biases is looking more and more like the distribution of political beliefs across the United States. There are a large number of Americans in the center and a few with extreme right- or extreme left-leaning views. The more extreme the views the fewer there are that hold them. Like new gas stations, each media outlet aligns with the beliefs and demands of a customer niche.
As the number of media outlets, blogs and podcasts proliferates, consumers can choose content that lines up with their personal desires. They can also connect with people who have views and preferences similar to theirs. And if they can find a community and message that meets their desires for a specific brand of news and politics, they will be less likely to venture out and explore media sites built for other people.
This does not look like political polarization to me. If it were, we would expect to see fewer media outlets in the center over time and increasingly more on the extremes. New research suggests that news is not as polarizing as we previously thought.5 It is just aligning more and more with smaller and smaller groups of customers.
The time of individualized media, politics and news is here. Google, Facebook, and Twitter use algorithms and personal preference to deliver highly personalized news items from a host of sources. People then gather from all around the world in virtual communities to comment on and interact with others with similar beliefs. Successful media is personal, absorbing, and communal.
The modern drift from religion
During a lengthy sermon, my three-year old son once stood on the second-row pew, pointed at the speaker, and shouted, “Stop talking about it! Stop talking…” My wife covered his mouth and carried him out of the room. The sermon was probably not written with my toddler in mind.
Churches bind their communities together and to their God through rituals and group devotion, but many people are not having a personalized experience at church. They sit and listen to a pastor deliver lengthy sermons to bored and sleeping congregants.
This is not the pastor’s fault. He knows that his congregation includes people from all walks of life: those dedicated to the church and those just barely hanging on. He is constrained by the momentum of history and his education. So the pastor has little choice but to give the basic-level sermon. He speaks of broadly applicable principles that may or may not be helpful for most the individuals before him.
To many of those in the audience, this feels troubling and wrong. If TikTok and video games can give people a personalized experience, why can’t church? This angst is compounded when people feel unwelcome because they disagree with one of the official doctrines, or when a fellow member criticizes them for a minor shortcoming. If a church cannot deliver personalized experience or a loving community, some of the once-strong disciples will stray.
An increasing number of people are turning away from organized religion in favor of a more individualized spirituality. They are trading in their community in favor of what they hope is a spiritual experience tailored to their needs.6 The number of apps, podcasts, and media content is also growing rapidly to meet the evolving needs of religious communities.7
I am not advocating for the dismissal of group religion in favor of personalized spirituality. Quite the opposite. Everyone should have access to a religion that personally connects them with God and other people. I am saying that the services in some churches seem designed for a medieval audience, and leaders should closely consider how to share eternal truths in modern ways.
Modern medical malpractice
Getting an appointment with your physician can take months. When you walk into the clinic, you will likely suffer through a lengthy patient registration process and then sit in the waiting room wondering what went wrong – even if you arrive on time. The doctor might spend 10 minutes of time with you before sending you home with a piece of paper summarizing your lackluster encounter.
The current medical system is offensive to those of us who desire a personalized experience and the benefits of community. Patients expect care the moment they want it. They don’t want to drive 30 minutes each way so that they can wait around for a rushed encounter. They want it to come to their doorstep like an Amazon package.
Many patients with chronic diseases are also learning that communities of patients in similar circumstances are more helpful than a single physician – or even more effective than a team of highly trained physicians. Patients report a wide range of benefits from actively participating in communities with patients with health challenges similar to theirs.8
Traditional health systems should beware. There are few industries that deliver a less personalized experience and a weaker sense of community. If they cannot do better, they will be slowly dismantled and consumed by organizations that can.
Pubic schools’ poor performance
Teachers in public schools do important work, but they operate within a flawed system with perverse incentives. Students sit in a large class listening to a lecture designed for the worst performing kids in the room. By contrast, a homeschooled child in elementary school can expect to learn at least as much as what a kid in public school could in only two hours.9
Leaders of public school needs to figure out a way to meet the children where they are. With computer adaptive software, the entire Internet, virtual reality, and the collective learning of the human race, they should be able to deliver an individualized educational experience beginning in first grade. And the experience should be increasingly personalized through college and beyond.
Covid compromised the community aspect of school. In the past, parents thought, “School isn’t doing enough to help my kid, but at least he is making friends and learning how to navigate the social jungle.” Now, many kids sit masked and six feet apart in cafeterias with staggered lunch times. They are safe but increasingly isolated.
A friend recently told me that teachers need to let ago of performing so much of the instruction and focus on the best tools for each child to learn the material. If we cannot modernize education, some children will drop out who would have finished the course. More will not reach their full potential. Worse, millions of children will graduate without a lifelong love of learning who could have.
Hope for the fragmented
I recently watched a group of teenagers playing a video game over the Internet – each young man playing from his own home. They cheered each other on, playfully ribbed each another, and talked about their lives – all while fighting space aliens. It was clear that these young people were making genuine connections. Virtual reality and the metaverse promise new ways to connect in personalized worlds… or maybe they will just further isolate us. Likely it will do some of both.
Extreme personalization and shrinking groups are the natural outgrowth of a desire to meet the matchless needs of every individual. The old community-oriented world was boring and held individuals back. The new one is thrilling but risks our sense of community. The future could give us the best of both if we can reach out through our highly personalized universes to deeply connect with others.
We should not fear the modern age or fight it. We should adapt. Luckily, we humans are the most adaptable of species.