Ubiquity Illusions and the Chicken-Egg Problem

I enjoy thinking about chicken-and-egg problems. They lead to a lot of perception-refactoring. Some common examples include:

  1. You need relevant experience to get a good job, you need a good job to get relevant experience.
  2. You need good credit to get a loan, you need to get loans to develop good credit.
  3. You need users to help you build a better product, you need a better product to get users.

This post is about one particular way to solve the problem, using what I call a ubiquity illusion. It is one version of what is colloquially known as the fake-it-till-you-make-it method.

Creating a ubiquity illusion is the most readily available method for solving a chicken-egg problem. It is, to be perfectly honest, not the best method. There are other methods that are superior, but they are generally not available to most people.

Ubiquity illusions are like the sculpture above (The Awakening, by J. Seward Johnson, photograph by Ryan Sandridge, Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution). It is actually five separate pieces strategically buried to give the impression of a much larger buried sculpture, of which three are visible above.

Let’s talk magic.

A Note on Redacted Prescriptions

Last week’s post, The Milo Criterion generated some criticism that I was being uncharacteristically coy, bordering on “concept baiting.” A commenter on Hacker News grumbled that instead of offering “refactored perception” I had basically provided a “redacted prescription.”

I really like the “redacted prescription” phrase, so I am going to steal it.  Instead of completely self-censoring the broader thinking behind last week’s post as I’d originally planned, I’ll offer  bits and pieces of a larger redacted prescription, as and when I am able to carve out relatively uncontroversial chunks. Since I’ll be deliberately withholding key pieces, what comes out is going to look somewhat random and uncorrelated, but each post should make sense as a stand-alone post.

Frankly it’s not just the lean startup world that I don’t want to needlessly antagonize. Other thoughts I am working out are likely to be viewed as me spoiling for a fight with other groups I have no interest in antagonizing.

But there is at least a handful of ideas that I think I can write about without inviting flame wars. This is one such idea.

Slowly, Painfully, Unfairly or Untruthfully

Chicken-egg problems combine a positive-feedback loop problem with a logical paradox involving two primitive categories that form a duality (“chicken” and “egg”).

The first feature implies that there will be an iterative element in the solution.

The second feature implies that somewhere along the way, you’re going to have to question implicit assumptions, frames and definitions of the primitive elements. Like Einstein said, you aren’t going to solve the problem at the same level that you encountered it.

For example, in the job/experience loop, you can question the atomicity of the definition of a “job” (work for pay) by pondering such constructs as unpaid internships that loosen the notion of what a “job” is, allowing you to trigger the positive feedback loop.

Stated in a general form, the chicken-egg problem is: how do you get X, when you need Y to get X, and X to get Y?

There are at least four correct answers:

  1. Slowly
  2. Painfully
  3. Unfairly
  4. Untruthfully

Slowly is my favorite answer, and is also the answer to the literal biological question. I am not a biologist, but I assume the chicken-egg reproductive process evolved very slowly and fuzzily from older reproductive processes, until at some point recognizable and differentiated chicken-like and egg-like elements emerged in the positive feedback reproduction loop with some early reptile species. This is my favorite solution.

Painfully is about using money or brute force to hunt for the rare chicken that did not come from an egg, or the rare egg that did not come from a chicken. If you look hard enough, you might find a good job without showing evidence of experience. If you make enough pitches, you might find the one customer willing to make a first-lemming-like leap of faith and adopt a new product without social proof. Many chicken-egg problems that are constructed out of relatively arbitrary primitives (such as the “job” and “experience” pair) are solvable this way if you have enough energy. The more truly atomic the primitive categories are (more like real chickens and eggs), the more painful this process is. This is my least favorite solution. This is also the most widespread solution people attempt.

Unfairly is the cheapest and fastest solution, if it is available. Somebody might just give you a chicken or an egg. Daddy might pull strings and get you a job. You might have incriminating photographs of a banker that allows you to get a loan on suspiciously good terms with no credit or collateral. But not all unfair advantages are sleazy or nepotistic advantages. Included in the general category of unfair advantage is everything that falls under the umbrella term “strategy.” My definition of strategy in Tempo basically boils down to “unfair advantage.” Anything from privileged information to exclusive access to a key distribution channel, to owning the rights to a key invention, counts as an unfair advantage and a basis for strategy. This is my second-choice solution.

Untruthfully, or the fake it till you make it solution, is my third-choice solution, but the one I want to talk about today.

“My clients often ask me…”

If you want your metaphoric t‘s cross and i‘s dotted, the solution we are talking about is: fake the chicken while the egg incubates.

There are many ways to do this, most of them both stupid and illegal. For instance, you could doctor your resume and make up fake letters of recommendation.

A ubiquity illusion is a much more subtle mechanism, and in most cases, is not illegal.

The simplest example is using we to refer to a business that is really just yourself or a partnership of two people. By concealing some information, and enough self-confident copy-writing, you can convey the impression that your business is much bigger than it is.

A slightly smarter example is any sentence that begins: “My clients often ask me….”

Without actually revealing how many clients you have, you’ve conveyed an impression to the gullible that you have a thriving business with many clients, and that the clients are adoringly hanging on your every word and pestering you with questions.

Such statements are often used by struggling new consultants. If you’re like me, you immediately look for some sort of proof behind the bluster, like a page with actual testimonials from a large roster of live clients, or a private email to someone able to verify credentials.

For the record, I’ve closed exactly three paying clients since I went free agent 6 months ago. Not enough that I can legitimately begin any sentence with “my clients often ask me.” At best, I am at the “one of my clients once asked me” point (there is also no “we” to my consulting practice; it’s just me. But on the plus side, if one of you refers just one more client to me, I’ll register a staggering 33% growth in my clientele this quarter).

On the other hand, since this blog is past the chicken-egg phase (I solved the problem “slowly,” as I am now attempting to solve the problem of growing my consulting business), I can quite honestly make many statements that begin “my readers often tell me.”

Not ask me; you guys tell me things a lot more often than you ask me things, and usually, unless I ask a specific question, you tend to email me to tell me I am wrong about something or to educate me on some advanced subtlety that I’ve missed (damn know-it-alls).

Ironically, it is one of the things many readers have told me (genuinely “many” since I’ve lost count) that led me to more subtle ubiquity illusions beyond “my clients often ask me” bravado.

The Three Contacts, Three Media Rule

My favorite question to ask readers is “how did you find ribbonfarm?” It is what passes for market research in this one-horse operation.

About half the time, the answer is “that post about The Office” which makes me groan silently, but the other half of the time, the answer I get is something along these lines:

“I think a friend forwarded some post to me once a while back, but I didn’t really start reading regularly until I was searching for something and one of your posts came up.”

The media often differ — tweets, Facebook, email forwards, party conversations, workplace conversations, Google searches — but the pattern is usually the same: new readers encounter ribbonfarm at least twice in two different ways before turning into regular readers.

In the cases where the two media initially appeared to be the same (for example, two email forwards), it usually turned out that the context differed: one forward from a coworker and one from a family member, for instance. I buy the theory that in social media, the actual media are individual people (the billion-channel marketing theory), so with some overloading, you can call this the two-contacts-two-media rule.

On my 7-week road-trip across the country over the summer meeting readers (you guys clearly aren’t hanging on my every word to the point that you hunt me down and interrupt my life; I have to run around hunting you down, interrupting your lives), I collected many examples of the 2-contacts-2-media rule.

This curious phenomenon reminded me of a classic rule-of-thumb in sales: to “prime” a prospect for a close, you need to first prepare them by engineering three contacts via three media. For example, a face-to-face encounter at a conference, a passing mention in an innocent-seeming email exchange, and perhaps a referral from a friend at a party.

The two vs. three distinction is mostly irrelevant (it has to do with online versus offline dynamics), but the key point is that you’ve got deliberately engineered process that looks like the natural process, resulting in acceleration of a selling process.

Ubiquity Illusions

What you need to fake is ubiquity. Faking ubiquity is about faking social proof.

If something is ubiquitous in a given environment, you will naturally encounter it in somewhat random and uncorrelated situations. The randomness and uncorrelatedness is critical. The Amazon Kindle is a perfect example of a product that spread via genuine ubiquity. After first hearing about it on technology news sites, I didn’t actually buy it until I’d spotted it in the “wild” at a couple of different  coffee shops. I doubt Bezos planted them.

You need the randomness. Seeing a bear at the zoo does not lead you to suspect that bears are common in the area, but seeing one randomly in a public park would lead you to that suspicion.

The multiple encounters must also be uncorrelated. Seeing two bears in the same zoo means nothing. But seeing two bears loose in different city parks will confirm your suspicions that bears are running wild in the area.

The reason ubiquity illusions work is obvious: you are basically gaming human pattern recognition instincts.

In fact in some cases, you don’t even need to run around planting fake random-and-uncorrelated signs in the environment. Since ubiquity usually goes along with oversubscription of the producer of the ubiquity, you can get away with just planting signs of oversubscription. Ubiquity illusions and oversubscription illusions are two sides of the same coin.

  • Get people to call you while you are meeting a new client.
  • Plant a few friends at a party and walk around graciously shaking hands, faking Big Man on Campus.
  • Pay people to stand in a line outside your new coffee shop.
  • “Accidentally” flash a view of your packed calendar while setting up your laptop for a presentation.
  • Run an artificial-scarcity beta-invite process for your new software product.

Of the two approaches, I prefer ubiquity illusions. They are harder to manufacture than oversubscription illusions, but are more robust, adaptable to many marketing situations, and the actions you need to take are closer in spirit to slow, natural diffusion.

Suggesting Deep Structure

The basic three-contacts-three-media approach is enough to create a basic illusion of abundance, but there is a reason this particular technique is usually restricted to sales operations. It just inflates your apparent size in limited ways.

This is a case of sales doing a very limited amount of local marketing.

To go beyond the basics, you need to think about what ubiquity illusions look like from the point of view of the subject of such an illusion. I’ll stick to the special case of growing markets for products and leave other chicken-egg problems like job hunting and getting loans for you to figure out on your own.

The key is to use the random-and-uncorrelated evidence from the basic ubiquity illusion to suggest deeper structure. Make them slightly less random and more correlated to suggest something other than a diffuse sense of larger size.

In the case of the sculpture, The Awakening, if you are looking from sufficiently far away, you’ll immediately manufacture the theory that there is a buried statue, with only the head, hands and feet showing. In other words, given apparently random and uncorrelated perceptions relating to the same thing, we try to manufacture the simplest theory that can connect them.

This tendency to theorize is susceptible to suggestion. In particular, it is particularly susceptible to suggestions of archetypal superhuman agency. In other words, our tendency to see mysterious gods in randomness.

A classic example (which I think I first read about in Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior) is a strategy used by highway police to enforce speed limits.

In the contest between speeding drivers and a small police force, the latter are at a serious numerical disadvantage. They cannot be everywhere at once or catch and ticket every speeding driver.

Random enforcement is also insufficient, since encounters with pulled-over vehicles might be too rare to reinforce a fear of speeding.

One strategy that works is a concentrated, unpredictable and very visible enforcement drive in a few locations. By issuing a burst of speeding tickets over a few days in a very visible way, you can reinforce a reluctance to speed in a large population. A reluctance that will likely persist until your next (unpredictable) burst of reinforcement. You have manufactured a very specific kind of ubiquity illusion: that you could be waiting to pounce anywhere, anytime. Or more precisely, that you can be anywhere, anytime, with a much higher probability than you actually are (geek aside: I vaguely recall a bunch of machine-learning papers about techniques to speed up learning algorithms using such deliberate bias in the training inputs)

Drivers overestimate the likelihood of getting caught, and behave as though the police were anywhere/anytime superheroes.

I don’t know if cops add this twist: for the illusion to be really effective, they shouldn’t restrict such isolated enforcement efforts to predictable locations like busy highways. They should also target medium and low traffic locations, suggesting that they have enough numbers to even cover unimportant, low-traffic locations.

Ghosts, Godfathers and Gorillas

The traffic-enforcement case is an example of what I call the ghost archetype.  You’ve signaled a deep structure: a ghostly ability to strike anywhere, anytime. Guerillas also practice this model.

Another archetype you can project is the Godfather archetype.  Here you create an illusion of a vast hidden capacity for influence by projecting varied and indirect signs all over the place. Where a pulled-over car is basically the same scene everywhere, with the agent (the cop) being directly visible, the actions of a Godfather are varied and indirect.

Consider the typical signs of mafia activity in a city (and here I have to rely on movies and The Sopranos). In criminal prosecutions, you have key witnesses in prosecutions suddenly recanting testimony, judges who you thought were inclining in your favor mysteriously changing their tune, key evidence disappearing.  More broadly, in a city, you have suspiciously profitable restaurants and strangely counter-intuitive business dynamics in sectors like construction or garbage collection.

Unlike the ghost illusion, which is basically one-dimensional, a Godfather illusion suggests a complex, highly intelligent, and powerful hidden entity orchestrating affairs in hidden ways, with a capacity to influence anything, anywhere, even in places you thought were out of reach.

The scene in the Godfather movie where the movie producer finds the severed head of his favorite horse on his bed is a great illustration. The poor producer had his false sense of security shattered: the mafia was capable of reaching deep into his privileged upper-class life. It wasn’t just about street thuggery.

Besides mafia dons, others who project Godfather illusions include anyone projecting a Big Man on Campus, It Girl or Cool New Kid on the Block presence is an example of the Godfather illusion.

“Hot” Silicon Valley startups that have everybody crazily scrambling for beta invites are an example. The beta invite infrastructure is just the tip of the iceberg of perception management activity.  You can orchestrate an entire illusion of hidden connections, powerful people trying to get in early, and hidden mystery that not everybody is privy to. For the special case of the Cool New Kid on the Block, you can signal an “enigmatic arrival” by concentrating the hype buildup in time. The sign that you are succeeding is the comment, “hey, lately I’ve been hearing about you everywhere.”

It’s happened to me without orchestration on a couple of occasions, but the effect can be precisely engineered. The game of doing this engineering is known as PR. PR people are the special forces in the world of marketing.

Finally, a third major archetype is the Gorilla.

Here, you don’t convey the “can be anywhere/anytime” illusion (ghosts) or “hidden and intelligent power structure of unknown reach” illusion (Godfather). You simply convey sheer, overwhelming size. You are everywhere, all the time.

In particular, you try to not convey intelligence. In fact, you attempt to convey an impression of slightly blundering stupidity.

The classic symptom is use of the phrase 800 lb Gorilla. The key tactic in achieving this is local and visible homogeneous saturation. The homogeneity is what conveys the impression of slight stupidity: it suggests you have so much power you don’t have to be particularly thoughtful about how you spend it.

A great example is TD Bank. When I set up a business bank account, I did some online research that showed that TD Bank was generally well regarded by small business owners. Driving around on the East Coast, I found TD Bank ATMs and branches all over the place. Their slogan, America’s Most Convenient Bank added to the illusion of ubiquity. So I signed up.

Then I moved out West to Nevada and discovered that TD Bank is merely the most convenient bank in the North East with almost no presence elsewhere. By saturating one market in a very visible and homogeneous way, and with an exaggeration in their slogan, they managed to convince me that it would be a good bank to go with, nationally. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to check their nationwide branch distribution. Fortunately, they are still a pretty convenient bank for me since I mostly need online banking. I am not too annoyed by them, since it was partly my fault for not doing more research.

The study of ubiquity illusion archetypes is fascinating and you can spend hours archetype-spotting. The three major ones, ghosts, godfathers and gorillas, are just three relatively obvious ones.  You can spot these, and other species, everywhere. I’ll just point out one particularly rich source of ubiquity archetype examples, the recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies:

  1. Wayne Enterprises (good 800lb Gorilla)
  2. Commissioner Gordon (good Godfather)
  3. Batman (good Ghost),
  4. Ras al Ghul (evil 800lb Gorilla)
  5. The Mob (bad Godfather)
  6. The Joker (bad Ghost)

A little genealogical note: the modern Gorilla/Godfather/Ghost trinity is descended from medieval political structure (roughly, Robin Hood/Sheriff of Nottingham/King).

Is this post a ubiquity illusion?

In the Hacker News thread about the Milo Criterion, another commenter wrote: “I can’t help if there isn’t something meta going on, slow marketing and all.”

With this post, I am sure you are going to start entertaining the suspicion that my “slow marketing” phrase is itself a ubiquity illusion; me pretending there are deeper and more radical ideas here, behind a “redacted prescription,” than I am letting on.

Am I faking it?

Hee hee hee! (that’s my slightly evil laugh)…



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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Michał Wroński says

    About the three-contacts and three-media: it appeared in social aplications of graph theory as clustering mechanism – if two of Your friends know some certain person, it is highly probable, that You’ll know him too, given sufficent amount of time. The time needed seems to get logarithmically shorter, if more of Your friends know that certain individual. Models of social networks are made this way. I also guess, that Facebook’s friends suggestions use this principle, but from the opposite point of view than successful marketing strategy. Being a marketer, You should aim for a few people in every target group, they’ll “cluster” the rest. The key is spending just enough resources to get Your “product” to just enough people to trigger a phase-change in the group – so that they’ll provoke the rest to get the product. Your Kindle example was good one. I work with proffesional photographers and my company didn’t spend too much on marketing – photographers in Poland are highly inter-connected society, so supplying our products to the ones that are in this market from a long period of time triggered the phase-change – we became recognised and valued company quickly and almost without any costs.

  2. One more client would be 33% growth, not 25%

  3. Robin Message says

    Is Robin Hood/Sheriff of Nottingham/King for Gorilla/Godfather/Ghost backwards or did I miss the point?

    In your discussion of policing I was reminded of the Panopticon prison system, where one-way glass means you can always be observed by the wardens but never know when and also Valve’s anti-cheating mechanism, where you could be banned some time after cheating occurred. In both cases, by adding a delay to the random ubiquitous surveillance you make it seem more pervasive. I expect time delay between media exposures to be important, for example, the optimal time to follow up after the trade show is not the next day, but some period of time between immediate recall and total forgetfulness of your earlier encounter.

    • Ah, yes. Backwards mapping. You didn’t miss the point.

      And yes, the random delay idea seems to be deeper than the cop example. It would be nice to make up a model that would estimate the effective “inflation” of presence given a random delay. Perhaps an optimal delay distribution for maximal reinforcement can be determined.

  4. I think this has interesting applicability to warfare, obviously Gideon with his 300 men, trumpets and glass jars being a historical example. A more current one being the use of UAV’s in disrupting the communications of terrorist orgs, not so much in the obvious way via hellfire strikes, but via the threat of strikes inducing mild paranoia and causing them to do things like staying indoors, using runners, etc. Seems the AF could use ubiquity illusions in order to cause AQ and Taliban fighters to mistakenly think that every low flying a/c is a Pred or Reaper waiting to take them out. It would be both economical (similar to using a limited number of cops to enforce speed limits) and would continue to create self-imposed command and control hurdles for the targeted groups.

    • Now that I think of it, this may be where I first got the idea actually. Back at Cornell a few years ago, when I was doing UCAV research (loosely collaborating with some folks at Wright-Patt), I spent some time exploring persistent area denial concepts, shortening the kill-chain for pop-up threats etc.

      Back then, I didn’t think to factor in the idea of magnifying subjective threat perception by manipulating the models’ statistical behavior. We were just trying to minimize mean or worst-case time for every pop-up threat. I don’t think anyone actually looked at the psychology of magnification on the other end (at least not in the non-classified literature I was familiar with), but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense to try and actively design for maximizing threat perception and resultant behavior modification, rather than maximizing PAD effectiveness.

      Not familiar with the Gideon story though.

      Al Qaeda’s own methods, as well as things in computer security like the Conficker worm, also seem to have ubiquity illusion psychology on their side.