Discover more from The Long Game by Mehdi Yacoubi
The Long Game 102: The Gym Business, Why Teens Are So Sad, Magical Products, Analyzing vs. Doing, Social Apps
🇵🇭 Filipino Sailors, Zenly, Australia's Plan to Green the Outback, Communism, American Seriousness, Starship, and Much More!
In this episode, we explore:
The gym business
Why American teens are so sad
Building a magical product
The trap of analyzing instead of doing
Building a social app
Why 30% of sailors are Filipino
Let’s dive in!
🏋️♀️ The Gym Business & The Fitness Industry
The gym business reflects a lot of what’s going wrong in the fitness industry: money is to be made very far from where actual improvement is to be made. Bryne Hobart puts it perfectly in this piece.
It’s basically a game of how to give the feeling of improvement, generate the sale at that time, and then hope for as little additional work as possible.
If you look up “lose weight” on google trends, you’ll see a very clear seasonality: a yearly spike around January and another one as the summer approaches.
This trend drives the historical economics of the gym business, where you can break the audience into roughly three categories:
People who sign up in early January and may literally never attend—sources vary, but up to two thirds of gym memberships go unused. For these customers, the closest analogue to gym membership is a lottery ticket: for an upfront cost you can buy a semi-credible fantasy about how different your life might be.
One set of customers drives the main seasonal trend; they're on a roughly annual cycle of losing weight half the year and gaining it back the other half of the year.
The smallest subset in terms of numbers but possibly a majority in terms of time spent, grunts emitted, etc. is the group of people who become absolutely maniacal about fitness.
Then Bryne shows that although we see a fitness revolution, obesity is going up. That’s explained because first, price discrimination is the driver of growth in the fitness industry, and second, fitness is becoming a class marker (even becoming part of the culture wars 😞)
For the first, people who love working out have been free-riding on the spending of everyone else; the machines they use exist to convert vague New Year's intentions into annual contracts, and if everyone behaved the way they did the market-clearing price of a gym membership would be higher. The gap between, say, Blink Fitness at $10/month and Equinox at $200/month is some mix of better service and also paying a premium specifically to price some attendees out of doing curls in the squat rack or reviewing their Instagram feed between sets without getting off the machine.
Cardio is also a way to signal status. A theory of the athleisure class is beyond the scope of this piece, but it is interesting that cardio and endurance sports seem to be getting more common in high-status jobs, and have been for a while.
But there's also a signaling aspect to all of this. A successful person who does endurance sports has chosen a hobby that takes up gobs of free time. There are athletic hobbies that are more time-efficient, like powerlifting (and make you look significantly better 😉 , this is me talking, not Bryne 😂). And if the goal is just to get lean, there's an even easier option: fasting requires a negative investment of time (but plenty of willpower).
Whatever the root cause, there's a subset of the US population that is increasingly willing to undergo punitive exercise routines. Even if they're spending fifteen hours a week training for an event, their time is valuable, and getting a little bit extra out of that time—or, if it's unpleasant, making it a bit more endurable—is something they'll pay for. So the growth of the fitness industry ends up being a trend that exacerbates visible inequality while reducing financial inequality: the customers who are committed to getting fit have the means and willingness to pay a lot for it.
The bottom line is that although signaling is part of human nature, we should do everything we can to enable more people to get healthy and more active. Business models need to improve and be incentivized to push people in the direction of serving their health and wellbeing.
My gut feeling (proven here) is that the only way to make that happen is to enable more people to find what’s “fun” for them. That’s the only way you get people to stick with it for the long term.
If you’re looking for resources to get into strength training, I gave some here.
This graph popped up on my feed last week, and it disturbed me. I knew mental health is a considerable and growing problem amount younger generations. However, I was still not expecting to see such an increase in high-school students feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
Of course, the question we all have is: what is causing that? Why, when most things are getting better, a growing part of the population feels hopeless?
Derek Thompson gives a few possible explanations:
Sociality is down
The world is stressful—and there is more news about the world’s stressors
Modern parenting strategies
All of these are very likely a part of the answer. I think social media is a massive component of the problem. I understand that many things are currently wrongfully blamed on social media. Still, in the case of teens, after observing many teens using Instagram & TikTok, the problem seems obvious to me.
How can one remain sane by being exposed to TikTok/Instagram content in their formative years (and even after that, to be honest)?
Why would social media affect teenage mental health in this way? One explanation is that teenagers (and teenage girls in particular) are uniquely sensitive to the judgment of friends, teachers, and the digital crowd. As I’ve written, social media seems to hijack this keen peer sensitivity and drive obsessive thinking about body image and popularity. The problem isn’t just that social media fuels anxiety but also that—as we’ll see—it makes it harder for today’s young people to cope with the pressures of growing up.
When talking about social media, it’s also important to speak not only about the social media apps in question but also about all the other activities that they are replacing:
“I tell parents all the time that if Instagram is merely displacing TV, I’m not concerned about it,” Steinberg told me. But today’s teens spend more than five hours daily on social media, and that habit seems to be displacing quite a lot of beneficial activity. The share of high-school students who got eight or more hours of sleep declined 30 percent from 2007 to 2019. Compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.
The pandemic and the closure of schools likely exacerbated teen loneliness and sadness. A 2020 survey from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that loneliness spiked in the first year of the pandemic for everyone, but it rose most significantly for young people. “It’s well established that what protects teens from stress is close social relationships,” Steinberg said. “When kids can’t go to school to see their friends and peers and mentors, that social isolation could lead to sadness and depression, particularly for those predisposed to feeling sad or depressed.”
I also received interesting responses here, and if you have some other ideas explaining this unfortunate situation, let me know!
🧠 Better Thinking
⚖️ On the Trap of Analyzing Instead of Doing
Over the last few months, I’ve become more and more sensitive to all the types of content analyzing a thing that aren’t actually “the thing.” Analyzing creativity is not creativity; analyzing why science is broken isn’t fixing science; analyzing progress is not the same as building something that’s actually enabling more progress.
Don’t get me wrong, some of these essays are excellent; I love them and linked to them more times than I can recall. I just think they can suffer from being too good and leading too many people to write similar content instead of actually engaging in the hard part of solving these problems (science, progress, etc.)
This idea was perfectly described in those two articles:
The mystery of the miracle year: an excellent article about the concept of miracle years and how to enable more young people to have those.
Fuck Your Miracle Year: a bold and funny criticism of the article above, underlining some of the problems of these kinds of pieces.
This is the sad truth. The double-edged sword of the internet is cutting us much, much deeper than we realize. It makes Dwarkesh and countless others like him (myself included) waste their time writing about geniuses and how we can best foster innovation (a very safe, pre-approved topic—who doesn’t want to be innovative?), which as I said before is essentially just virtue signaling for nerds. It makes it so, so difficult for us to do something for ourselves (for love, for curiosity, for beauty, for pain) and ourselves only, not for college applications or resumes or followers (and this is the real reason why ideas are getting harder to find).
Do you really want to have a miracle year?
Delete the draft of that blog post you were writing. The post sucks and no one was going to read it anyways.
Stop gorging yourself on the internet and its endless buffet of information. Stop masturbating to innovation porn and (effective) altruism porn. Stop reading my blog. Stop masturbating to sex porn while you’re at it. Use your imagination, just like they did back in Einstein’s day.
⚡️ Startup Stuff
🏗 Building a Magical Product
This week, Replit’s CEO Amjad Masad’s tweet resonated with me:
This quote from Amie's founder is the perfect complement. We added it to Vital’s core values.
The secret to magic is that i am willing to spend more time on it than what you think its worth.
📚 What I Read
Declining launch costs enable new classes of weapons.
We don't need aging institutions to pave the way for 21st-century dynamism. What we need is will. And audacity.
There’s a common question in Silicon Valley about what makes an extraordinary entrepreneur. Experienced investors point to various traits. Perseverance. Grit. Overcoming adversity. Hustle. Innate genius. A good childhood. A bad childhood. Luck.
But the trait that is most meaningful is the hardest to describe. It is the fire in the eyes, the ferocity of speech and action that is the physical manifestation of seriousness. It is the belief that God or the universe has bestowed upon you an immense task that no one else can accomplish but you. It is a holy war waged against the laws of physics. It is the burden of having to upend sometimes hundreds of years of entrenched interests to accomplish a noble goal.
Marx’s idea that societies were naturally egalitarian and communal before farming is widely influential and quite wrong.
More important than its simplicity and narrative resonance, however, is primitive communism’s political expediency. For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature. Yet this storytelling is counterproductive. By drawing a contrast between an angelic past and our greedy present, primitive communism blinds us to the true determinants of trust, freedom and equity. If we want to build better societies, the way forward is neither to live as hunter-gatherers nor to bang the drum of a make-believe state of nature. Rather, it is to work with humans as they are, warts and all.
🎙 Podcast Episodes of the Week
🧘♂️🚶 I recently stopped listening to podcasts to favor more silence and more thinking. I’ll retire this section for as long as this period lasts!
If you’re looking for podcast recommendations, I linked to approximately two hundred episodes in the past issues of the newsletter.
🍭 Brain Food
🕸 Building a Social App
As you know, we’re building a vertical social network at Vital. I’ve been researching and exploring the topic of building social products for months, and last week, I went for a second time down the rabbit hole of Eugene Wei’s articles.
He is a phenomenal thinker, and he analyzed the success of TikTok and other social apps.
In Seeing Like an Algorithm, Eugene explains why it’s so essential to design the app in a way that you’ll feed your recommendation algorithm.
Before the video is even sent down to your phone by the FYP algorithm, some human on TikTok’s operations team has already watched the video and added lots of relevant tags or labels.
The default UI of our largest social networks today is the infinite vertically scrolling feed (I could have easily used a screenshot of Facebook above, for example). Instead of serving you one story at a time, these apps display multiple items on screen at once. As you scroll up and past many stories, the algorithm can’t “see” which story your eyes rest on. Even if it could, if the user doesn’t press any of the feedback buttons like the Like button, is their sentiment towards that story positive or negative? The signal of user sentiment isn’t clean.
Algorithm-friendly design need not be user-hostile. It simply takes a different approach as to how to best serve the user’s interests. Pagination may insert some level of friction to the user, but in doing so, it may provide the algorithm with cleaner signal that safeguards the quality of the feed in the long run.Minimizing friction is merely one means to a great user experience. The goal of any design is not to minimize friction, it’s to help the user achieve some end. Reducing friction is often consistent with that end, but not always. You might say that the quote tweet reduces the friction of manually copying someone else’s tweet, but reducing friction to organizing a mob to pile on someone might not be a core mechanic you want to encourage if your goal is civil public discourse. Some forms of friction are good.
That’s a mistake, in my opinion. Yes, retraining the FYP recommendations algorithm might take so long that some users would churn. I don’t mean to trivialize that task. But the actual magic is how every element of TikTok’s design and processes connect with each other to create a dataset with which the algorithm trains itself into peak performance. No single step in that loop is beyond the capabilities of any of the many U.S. suitors. All that’s needed is an understanding of how the flywheel works and a commitment to keep every element and process in it functioning.
In And You Will Know Us by the Company We Keep, Eugene explores social graph creation and compares interest-based graphs with social graphs.
Besides being one-way mistakes, graph design errors are also pernicious because the tend to manifest only after an app has achieved some level of product-market fit. By that point, not only is it difficult to undo the social graph that has crystallized, to do so would violate the expectations of the users who’ve embraced the app as it is. It’s a double bind, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Apps that achieve some level of product-market fit, even if it’s a local maximum, require real courage to revert.This doesn’t stop social apps from trying to fix the problem. Reduced traffic to the feed is existential for many social apps. Instead of fixing the root problem of the graph design, however, most apps opt instead to patch the problem. The most popular method is to switch to an algorithmic, rather than chronological, feed. The algorithm is tasked with filtering the content from the accounts you’ve chosen to follow. It tries to restore signal over noise. To determine what to keep and what to toss, feed algorithms look at a variety of signals, but at a basic level they are all trying to guess what will engage you.
But what if there was a way to build an interest graph for you without you having to follow anyone? What if you could skip the long and painstaking intermediate step of assembling a social graph and just jump directly to the interest graph? And what if that could be done really quickly and cheaply at scale, across millions of users? And what if the algorithm that pulled this off could also adjust to your evolving tastes in near real-time, without you having to actively tune it?
The problem with approximating an interest graph with a social graph is that social graphs have negative network effects that kick in at scale. Take a social network like Twitter: the one-way follow graph structure is well-suited to interest graph construction, but the problem is that you’re rarely interested in everything from any single person you follow. You may enjoy Gruber’s thoughts on Apple but not his Yankees tweets. Or my tweets on tech but not on film. And so on. You can try to use Twitter Lists, or mute or block certain people or topics, but it’s all a big hassle that few have the energy or will to tackle.
In my Status as a Service, I noted that social networks tend to compete on three axes: social capital, entertainment, and utility. Focusing just on entertainment, the problem with building a content feed off of a person’s social graph is that, to be blunt, we don’t always find the people we know to be that entertaining. I love my friends and family. That doesn’t mean I want to see them dancing the nae nae. Or vice versa. Who we follow has a disproportionate effect on the relevance and quality of what we see on much of Western social media because the apps were designed that way.
It feels that we are at a turning point in the era of social networks. TikTok managed to leverage an algorithmic interest-based feed successfully, but it’s not the only recent success. Snapchat is doing exceptionally well, Zenly as well, and a big wave of vertical social networks is in the works with Public, Saturn, Pump, Matter, and of course, Vital!
🎥 What I’m Watching
🇦🇺 Australia’s Insane Plan to Green the Outback
Major infrastructure projects have been proposed to master Australia's forbidding geography and turn its deserts into arable land.
🇵🇭 Why 30% of Sailors are Filipino
Why exporting your labor force isn’t a good idea.
🔧 The Tool of the Week
I’ve been playing with a lot of social apps lately. I recently tried Zenly, and I must admit, it’s very well done. The design is beautiful, and the product is very original. I might not be the app's target demographic (it seems more for 14—25 years old) but I still enjoy using it.
🪐 Quote I’m Pondering
Anything I’m afraid to do, I do it.
— Mike Tyson
If you enjoyed this newsletter, make sure to subscribe if you haven’t 👇
Thanks for reading!
If you like The Long Game, please share it on social media or forward this email to someone who might enjoy it. Podcast reviews are also gratefully received. You can also “like” this newsletter by clicking the ❤️ just below this, which helps me get visibility on Substack.
Feel free to email me or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions.
Until next week,
PS: Lots of newsletters get stuck in Gmail’s Promotions tab. If you find it in there, please help train the algorithm by dragging it to Primary. It makes a big difference.