Seth Godin’s Akimbo: Small Apertures

In his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discusses the function of apertures on the camera lens and uses it as an example of how various gatekeepers have shaped or defined our culture.

Camera lenses are round, but pictures are square because the light goes through a camera lens via a tiny pinhole in the lens. It turns out that, through that little, small hole, plenty of photons can work their way to the other side and land on a square piece of film. The pinhole acts as a gatekeeper for the photons.

Many aspects of our culture also have corresponding gatekeepers. The music industry used to have many gatekeepers that work together in the music ecosystem. The supply chain was made up of listeners, radio program directors, record producers, media executives, and many specialized support personnel and teams.

These supply chains and gatekeepers together act an aperture, a tiny little hole between the people who create things and the market that is open to consuming them.

Over time, the music ecosystem evolves, we got rid of the gatekeepers in many ways. The scarcity of radio time slots and album shelf space is no longer the constraint for music publishing. While there is a portion of the population that wants to listen to what the gatekeepers pick out for them, acquiring an audience in the age of iTunes and YouTube has clearly illustrated the concept of “Long Tail” named by Chris Andersen.

More importantly, these gatekeepers in many industries who used to define or shape our culture are not driving the culture anymore. These gatekeepers existed because we need them to manage the scarcity in time slots or shelf space. Scarcity comes with opportunity costs. If we play this song on the radio during this time slot, we will not be able to play another music simultaneously.

Also, the traditional gatekeepers were conservative primarily because they were trying to appeal to the largest segment of the audience possible. They did not want to risk alienating any group of audience. Today, the dynamic in the media has shifted from the conservative end to going to the edges. It does not matter if something is not valid. If something bleeds, it leads.

Whether being conservative or being edgy is a critical consideration for those trying to do work that will have an impact on the culture. More likely, somewhere in the middle, there might be a sweet spot for us, the change agent.

As creators of culture, each of us has the chance to hone our voice, practice shipping the work, and figure out who is our smallest viable audiences. For those audiences, we need to learn to see them, understand them, cater to them, and give them something they want to share. If we can earn permission to do the work for those audiences, we can become our own gatekeepers.

Each of us needs to be responsible for what we put our name on. Each of us is going to have a following, small or big. What we do with that following is that we can no longer use it as an excuse. We need to stand up for what is right and to bring things we are proud of to the world.

The mega-hits will become rarer as the audience fragments into many long-tail segments. It is more likely we will end up somewhere closer to the middle where some people will be able to find their true fans and make the work they are proud of. Doing the work that makes us proud and not hiding behind a badge or a label is the only way to make things better.