Boxes, Tubes, and Shovels

All metaphors are imperfect, as a map that is a 100% accurate representation of the region it portrays would be the region itself, defeating the point of having a re-scaled, simplified version of it.

The statistics-world aphorism for this reality is that all models are wrong, but some are useful, which I think nicely captures how I think about metaphors and why I so frequently use them, despite their many flaws and foibles.

For instance:

The internet is not a series of tubes, but it’s also not not that.

The platforms where I publish my work, online, and where I sell my non-digital work, and where I share and promote things, and through which I distribute goods that end up on other platforms, are not boxes, but it can sometimes be useful to think of them as such.

And while the process of making things is not at all similar to the process of shoveling undifferentiated “stuff” into boxes, it can sometimes feel that way.

Taking this at times useful metaphor to an extreme: I produce stuff, shovel it into boxes, and those boxes are all connected to each other with tubes that funnel the stuff they contain from box to box to box, each unit of shoveled mass ultimately landing in a different spot.

If you set your boxes up correctly, the folks who want a given type of stuff will get it in an optimal format for their preferences, and there will be nothing standing between them and the stuff they want to consume/engage with/share/etc.

If you don’t set everything up right, all that stuff you’ve worked so hard to shovel will pile up in unnoticed boxes, gathering volume and dust; existing and laden with potential value, but because its box isn’t in the right place, is the sort of box the ideal customer avoids or doesn’t know about, or because the box is closed or ugly or otherwise not welcoming to the folks you hope will enjoy the stuff it contains, it remains unknown, unexplored, underutilized.

The tubes also play a role in this people-and-stuff dynamic, as some tubes are frictionful, preventing the stuff from getting to the right boxes and people, possibly not cleanly interfacing with the boxes you use and thus requiring regular intervention if you want optimal flow. And sometimes you’ll shovel too much or too little, under- or overwhelming the tubes (or the boxes, or the people opening the boxes), mucking-up some aspect of the system and interfering with its functionality.

Some shovels work great for our intended use-cases, but others have designs that result in blisters or back pain, some are too heavy, requiring additional effort for the same amount of work, and still others are flimsy, regularly breaking when we need them most.

All of these components also have different costs attached to them, both monetary and non-monetary.

Some costs are up-front price tags, others are percentages of what you earn while using them, still others are aesthetic or reputation or inconvenience costs, potentially related to using boxes that are the wrong size or shape for your stuff (but which you attempt to make fit, regardless), though they may be related to a misalignment or discordance between the shovels, tubes, and boxes you’re using.

The process of identifying, learning about, arranging, and over time tweaking (or wholesale reworking) these components can be effortful.

And though these are not the sorts of things most of us want to spend our time, energy, and resources on, they’re fairly vital to sustaining the process of making stuff, which is why they’re a common and cumbersome responsibility for all but the fortunate few who have other people to handle these sorts of things, or whose stuff happens to fit cleanly within a standard, templated, one-click setup.

This metaphor, like all metaphors, is imperfect. But I find it useful when I’m attempting to map and re-map the jumble of infrastructure required to produce, distribute, and sell the things I make.

It also helps me mentally juggle alike-but-meaningfully-different tools, empowering me to at times come up with workable remedies to problems that otherwise don’t have an existing, me-shaped solution.

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