I have been looking around for a way to start Kaplak’s looking into the workings of online niche communities. We have some great examples in our own local backyard, but I wanted something, which showed how the internet has come along and changed things.
Looking around I stumbled upon this video by Jake McKee on what we may simply term the “LEGO community”. Everybody knows LEGO, but few know that LEGO is not just a children’s toy. LEGO has a large following of playful adults around the world. See the video and judge for yourself.
One of the interesting points of the video is that all these scattered individuals passionate about LEGO have been connected with the internet. Where many of these people were isolated before, the internet has made them aware of each other’s existance, globally. One gets the impression that this has helped spur a new vitalization and outburst of their creativity. New possibilities to show off creative endeavours (like this video, shared with YouTube, is an example of) and get inputs back, has caused something we may term an “awakening”, with an expression borrowed from Lawrence Lessig.
Personally, I’ve recently refound a lot of joy myself in my old LEGO’s and have been surfing around on sites such as Brickset, which offers an online database on most of the LEGO models ever produced. I’ve also played around with LEGO’s official Digital Designer. This program engages LEGO fans to help design new models, which can also be “uploaded” and sold via an online marketplace. The LEGO Digital Designer and marketplace is one of Chris Anderson’s examples of how a company can utilize the long tail of interests in different LEGO models. If, that is, the program was not artificially limited to a specific range of bricks, which it is, for industrial reasons… In order for LEGO to be able to sell the models you build with the Digital Designer, you have to use bricks currently in production. You can’t use ‘outdated’ bricks. It seems odd to me, that one should re-experience that old problem one always had building things with LEGO, that you always missed a particular piece, in a 100% digital product.
What’s more interesting to Kaplak, though, is the exchanges taking place between LEGO fans themselves, and the eventual capabilities of fans to share and eventually sell their creative endeavours to other LEGO fans. There’s nothing more than trademark issues (i.e. the protectionism of a traditional business model scared of copying, which we’ve touched upon before) to prevent users from creating their own models, trade in bricks on eBay, and share or sell their construction instructions, in spite of anything LEGO has to say. And maybe even issues like these won’t stand in the way. The awakening of this niche community is in many ways also an empowering of individual fans and entrepreneurs, who is so far perfectly capable of building their own databases and wikis.