I have not had the slightest piece of time, opportunity or reason this last year to revive the Kaplak Blog – or the Kaplak Log, as I think I’ll soon rename it – until now.
For one thing, Kaplak doesn’t exist as a proper company any longer, and for another I have a new job and position as a teacher of history and media. I’ve had my hands full, and I’ve still got a lot of new things to learn.
And there’s the thing, that in a company blog like this, every post always seemed like it was building up expectations for the next, even longer and more insightful piece, and it became impossible to live up to. Eventually the blog simply lost it’s pace, along with the energy and ideas which went down with the company and it’s troubled work relationships.
Yet, I have never quite stopped thinking about the problems that we worked to solve in Kaplak. If I have, it has been only briefly and because I’ve been preoccupied with other thoughts and work. But I’ve watched and used the web and tools of the web just as intensively in my new position, yet with the major difference that I no longer has to study them, just because I have to find a way to make a living out of them. I use and study them because I find them interesting, and actually find myself in the position of someone looking for obscure niche products (such as documentary films, for instance). And I’ve realized over the past year, that we’re nowhere near solutions to the problems we set out to solve – connecting products on the slim end of the long tail with their distant markets.
And this in spite of the widespread use of Twitter and Facebook, the improvements and new products of Google (Google Wave being the most interesting), lots of affiliate networks and business models (Amazon’s model still in a prominent position), experiments with paying web contributors (Knol, Mahalo, Squidoo and others). In many ways, the web seems a lot more like in a standstill today than when we started out with Kaplak in 2007. Or when I first started out working with the web in 2003 and 2004. Back then Wikipedia was still a young experiment, and YouTube was a daring startup, not yet consolidated by Google. Peer-to-peer services were alive and well – and bittorrent was looking very promising. It still is promising, but has failed to expand into popular use, despite the efforts of startups such as Bittorrent.com and Joost (which was never a true p2p service, after all) and lots of free publicity for services such as The Pirate Bay. And despite the widespread sharing practices on services such as Facebook. Facebook never became a great place for sharing torrents, as the company was very quick to ban and remove users’ links to torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay. Lots of startups have died trying, and Google and Facebook looks even more dominating in the webspace today than 5 years ago.
Noone talks much (or just as energetically) about Chris Anderson’s ideas about ‘the long tail’ as many did just a few years ago, yet I still see the same opportunities in it for transcending core aspects of western, industrial society. While the economics (one can earn more in the tail than in the head) may or may not be true for particular types of businesses and product categories, the long tail helps demonstrate (and helped demonstrate at the time), that there is much more out there today than previously, and that there is a demand for it (however slight). Whether a business model is feasible in the long tail (with or without the head to support it), however, remains, in my humble opinion, a matter of finding the right business model and cutting costs appropriately. The vital component of both these priorities is an architecture which supports them, i.e. makes products accessible to their precise markets at the right time, and at very low cost. Now, what makes this difficult is that one has to build such an architecture in a totally convergent and converging field, where concepts such as producer, product and ownership to information changes rapidly.
Connecting niche producers and niche markets much more precisely and efficiently might and would transcend our dependencies on time – just as the industrial revolution transcended our dependencies on land to our present dependencies on time. The last turned out to be a much more flexible arrangement for western societies. The workforce was no longer tied to the land, but could earn their livelihoods manning the machines. No longer could one harvest and produce only in one season of the year, production could be kept up, as long as there were hours in the day, energy provided by steam engines and electricity and a sufficiently large workforce to man the machines. Welcome to the world of economic growth as we know it.
Now, what we can do, and what we have the technology to do, is loosen our dependencies on time. We already do it, we already have it. We can work everywhere, thanks to wireless networks, we can meet and arrange to meet each other up until the last minute, thanks to mobile phones. We can keep ourselves informed and filter our incoming information streams, thanks to RSS and services such as Twitter or Google Reader, and countless other web services. We can construct our own information architectures, in our own webspaces, using free software such as WordPress and MediaWiki. We can sell our own homegrown products with everything from eBay to osCommerce. We can buy home-delivered groceries over the net, which meets our needs precisely. We can produce and sell our own soap and beer thanks to recipes found online and our own experiments. We can write, print and sell books-on-demand, more cheaply than ever, without the wasteful mass printing of big publishing houses. We don’t have to rely on schedules, workhours, heftily regulated industrial workplaces – and we don’t have to rely on the editorial filters of others.
But, and there’s a big but, many of our laws, courts and workplaces still not recognize what’s going on. Our lives and businesses are regulated nationally, even though we operate nascently internationally via the internet. We predominantly receive our salaries dependent on how much time we spend doing something, or based on how high up in the command-chain we are – not so much dependent on how useful it is what we do. We pay taxes to local institutions and obey local laws, despite the fact that the problems we have to deal with are increasingly of a global nature, from terrorism (which is, in this context, a very small problem) to the threat of environmental disasters. We may add information to radically open and globally reaching information systems such as wikis, yet our educational systems (broadly speaking) are hopelessly medieval in their narrow focus on classes, professors and courses.
The final blow will come the day, if/when the ‘old’ economic system breaks. I’m not sure the present crisis is just it – I expect a transition to a ‘new’ economic system to take longer and be more painful. There may not even be a ‘visible break’. If you can’t see or feel it now, I wonder if you will at a later stage. Many of these changes are not clearly documented or reported by our mass media-based news system, and our networks-based information filtering still needs a lot of work – it is still polluted by much noise.
The question is how deep these changes will go politically? Can our political institutions handle radically big transitions of our economies and property-based systems? One area is patents and copyright, for example. Can our political parties and institutions reform this? Is it possible? A lot of things leaves the impression it isn’t possible, yet some of us has to insist that it is. If it isn’t possible, p2p will be driven underground, reserved as an outlet for the few privileged, who knows how to circumvent the official pathways. If it is, what new institutions may emerge from the battlefield, what new types of infrastructure will we need, and what should they be like?
It seems to me that this is much more the world of the Jeltsins. Of a web that consolidates itself into major players, which are not as intent to empower their users, as they are intent to profit themselves and keep the industrial system in place.
The reason I write this post is I still see opportunities to revive Kaplak, not as a company, but as an idea and set of ideas which can still be worked with and developed upon to build better tools, which can help take a crack at our original problem : connecting products and markets on the slim end of the long tail. But it is even clearer to me today that this battle is also political. It cannot be fought without taking a political stand. It can’t be reduced to just business or just a company. It has to have a wider scope. I will keep this blog a space to explore this further – the construction of concrete tools and information architectures as well as the politics.
Sometimes I prefer to visualize an idea using nothing else but notepad – or preferably just pen and paper, whatever I have in front of me. The ‘back of the napkin‘ philosophy fits well with me. In fact when I tidy up old stacks of paper once in a while, I always find sketched down ideas on the back of envelopes and in impossible places such as the backside of letters from the tax office. Do I archive it under that particular idea and project – or does it go into the tax papers stack?
The Kaplak Stream napkin model
Here’s an updated napkin model for Kaplak Stream which I recently created in Notepad :
This model shows the very basic idea of Kaplak Stream. The Arts and History websites are different sites, but have some tags or categories in common, such as ‘knights’ and ‘romantic’. But each site has no way of knowing about this; they may not even be aware of the other site’s existance. They’re separate systems, islands of information. A visitor clicking on a tag on the Arts site won’t see the items tagged the same on the History site. Now, when the feeds of both sites are fed into the Kaplak Stream, it allows new types of long tail sites to be created.
By pooling our feeds, we allow new contexts to be created. This can happen when feeds are extracted from the stream for particular tags or categories. When feeds are pooled, even tags and categories that are not used a lot on an individual website, may spawn new rich web contexts, which are capable of sending traffic back to the original publishers, but, what is more important, enable the distribution of products (via affiliate models) which are otherwise hard to sell in a mainstream context.
In this case a Knights site and a Romantic site can be easily created. Neither of these new sites could exist within the History or the Arts sites, but because we pool and channel the information from a wider range of sources, they can now.
As this model shows, linking back to feed publishers for increased visibility of their sites and contexts is a key feature of the network. Submit your feed and gain greater visibility, because more sites “on the way” will link back to your site. This is key for publishers to actually want in and be part of what we’re doing. However, this is just the short-term benefits.
Connecting the disconnected
When feeds are extracted from Kaplak Stream and into other niche contexts, publishers will connect more easily with these contexts and communities, empowering both publishers and communities, who would otherwise not know each other. Anything may arise from these new connections : meetups, exchange of ideas, products, etc. It is in this new context, that the sales of niche products are more easily arranged, probably most likely and easily via the use of affiliate programs.
As we have previously learned, attributing value to the context of finding information, rather than to any particular piece of information, is the more effective route to Kaplak’s goal, in an environment such as the web which literally explodes with new information every day. Creating very finely segmented sites will enable passionate users to more easily reference interesting niche material, i.e. create recommendations socially for interesting information items as well as products sold in these niche domains. Simply because there are now rich niche domains and contexts, which will be worthwhile the link, contrary to the situation before the aggregation and filtering, where the niche items were spread out all over the web – and very difficult and timeconsuming to find using search, bookmarking services, Wikipedia, StumbleUpon or Digg-type sites.
With time, some of these new niche sites and contexts may connect otherwise disconnected communities with each other and possibly even grow their own small communities, which will enrich those contexts even further with valuable context. The value of these new contexts do not depend on the short-term Google juice of linking back to sources I mentioned earlier. Instead, it thrives and builds on the social connections and recommendations, which now can rest on increasingly more bonified points of reference – and (probably with time) even greater tools for sharing than what we have right now.
What’s important for this project to succeed is to tag/categorize incoming items conveniently and precisely. We’ll continue to work and experiment with autotagging, but the best bet is (with time) to make tagging a social proces which can take place for each item all the way of it’s ‘journey’. For the time being however, we rely heavily on feed items being richly tagged by their source publishers. This is one challenge, we face right now.
Because it’s so critical to what we do to thoroughly understand what’s at stake, it’s also vital that we invite input every step of the way. If nothing else we want to give you the opportunity to read, think and absorb our ideas, and go out and implement your own tools and architectures – for every step of our way. And when you’ve done that – come back and tell us about it. We’d love to learn more.
We have yet to setup proper forms for receiving feed submissions, but we’ve begun to receive them anyway. For the time being, please submit your feeds to The Kaplak Team or directly to me via Twitter or Identi.ca. Remember to give us a few keywords on the contents of your feed (just the most important ones).
This early sketch illustrates how a product/widget from a niche producer is made visible in a niche context somewhere else on the web :
A web user and niche producer (A) encounters a Kaplak widget on a website, he knows and trusts (B). The producer finds Kaplak can be used to distribute a product of his own. He decides to sign up, and subsequently uploads a product and submits basic product information.
The Kaplak interface (C) spits out a widget a.k.a. a “kaplaklink” for the product. The widget is also published to the Kaplak market network, from where it may be fed via RSS or other means, to subscribers within particular channels or categories.
A website-owner (D) run what we may term a “filtersite” (E). D feeds or filters widgets from the Kaplak network from a range of categories or tags, in order to capitalize on sales, i.e. earn a share of kaplak from each sale made on E. His motive is primarily of commercial character. Among the widgets filtered is the widget for A’s new product.
In order to avoid what we term the mainstream problem, i.e. that just a handful of “hits” are prominently displayed and amplified, Kaplak depends on filtering sites of all kinds, i.e. index websites which seek to filter Kaplak’s feeds according to particular specialized interests or criteria. We have a lot of this kind of websites in the online landscape today, many of which are financed by advertising. Kaplak will offer one more type of income for index type sites, and one which may allow a sharper edge in filtering, because the size of income streams may not always be proportional with the amount of traffic generated by a site. A large site may suffer from greater problems in making the “slim end of the long tail” presentable, than a smaller and more well-defined niche-friendly site will. Both may be filtering sites, though, basically performing the same task of feeding and filtering.
The widget from A on D’s site is now discovered by (F), who puts the link into her blog, because she finds that the product is interesting and relevant to the article she’s about to publish. F’s blog is visited by a much more select crowd than D’s site, who rely mainly on search as a source of traffic. F gains a lot of attention through a social networking site popular within her field of expertise (G). Motives here weighs more heavily towards the professional, contextual, idealist side than the money side. F earns a fair share from her Kaplak widgets though, as her choice in widgets is much more finetuned to her readers, than the bulk filtering of D, which earns from a few sales of a lot of products (the “pure” Chris Anderson model).
Finally, a friend from G alerts another friend, who happens to be the owner of a nichesite (H), which deals particularly with A’s subject and finds the new product intensely interesting. The regulars of H knows the deal and can instantly see the value of A’s product. A’s product finds a potential market here, he otherwise wouldn’t have found.
None of H’s users would have discovered A’s product without Kaplak, even if it was accessible via Google or filesharing networks. First, none of them would know about the project. Had one of them actively searched for the product, she would have had to pick very delicate keywords, endure the timeconsuming process of browsing search results to page 7 or 8, only to discover a dead link to a torrent, which may have been alive and kicking, but of which there are no seeders.
The owner of website H publishes A’s widget from both professional and financial motives. The professional, interested motives weighs in the heaviest, but since the site engages A’s target group, the collective sales pays off decently in kaplak, which contribute to financing the site. H’s traffic may be slight – if the group of “regulars” is sufficiently interested and the price right, then H need not care greatly about the amount of traffic.
The producer A expands his market with H’s users and anyone who made a transaction along the widget’s “route”, who wouldn’t otherwise know about the product. The process repeats itself, this time with one of H’s users in the role as producer A, who discovers she may use Kaplak to distribute one of her own products. This process happens across Kaplak’s entire global network, with the intensity dependant on the demand for the products offered by users, and on the ease or difficulty by which a product/widget can gain an entrance into the niche environments and markets “in the other end”.
The sketch illustrates what Kaplak’s primary product is. As we’re on the web, all sites and actors in the above diagram are accessible to everyone all the time, from anywhere they may be situated in the world. The problem is knowing the product exists and next, to find where it is. Search engines such as Google and others offer one model, filesharing index sites such as The Pirate Bay and others offer another. Both however, are primarily based on active search for information, from the buyer’s end.
Kaplak offers a third model, which brings the product to the target group, through the web services and communities the target group uses every day. When Kaplak works, web users will find interesting links/widgets on sites and services they regularly visit and trust, before they even know they want the particular product – and long before anyone even thought of using Google or something else to go look for it. Finally, the Kaplak model can be fully financed by the market, which is opened up, rather than rely on upfront payments from our niche producer, before he or she knows if there is a market.
Over the next handful of articles I’m going to dive into what Kaplak is and how it works, as far as I can at the present time. This first article is a slightly modified re-run of the background article from our old main site :
Originally, kaplak is an old maritime judicial term of Dutch origin. For bringing a shipment of stores safely to port, a skipper could be paid a bonus, i.e. káplak, calculated as a percentage of the shipment’s value. This served as financial compensation for the risks taken and hazards overcome at sea. Káplak literally means ‘fabric for a cap’, with a reference to the incentive it provided to stay on deck even in bad weather.
The internet is like an ocean, travelled by data packages. It is happening all the time, everywhere, at the same time. It is a global network of instant communication, of conversations, information and knowledge. Of human experience, artworks and products in all kinds and forms. As long as it can be digitized, i.e. made understandable and transportable by computers and cables, it can be made accessible on the internet.
In a global world of ‘unlimited shelf space’, as Chris Anderson coined it, there’s a market even for products on the very slim end of the long tail. If you can approach your market precisely enough, using the internet, you’ll be able to reach the unknown destinations, which will make your product meet it’s niche customers. This is one of the great promises of the internet, but it doesn’t come without problems.
How do you get noticed? – and more importantly, noticed by your target audience, on an internet which grows by millions of new websites alone every month?
How do you get paid? How do you get safe and fast transfers of your digital goods and digital money, which will allow you to keep doing what you do best, without the hazzle of setting up and running your own ebusiness and marketing networks?
The World Wide Web alone grew by a staggering 4.4 million websites from april to may 2007, and this number is increasing. Paradoxically, while all this information is made available and accessible all the time, to everyone, at the same time, it also makes it difficult to find a particular piece of information, if you don’t know where to look. We come to depend on recommendations, from people and companies we trust, to find what we’re looking for. Search engines deliver such recommendations. Your friends, colleagues and social networks provide others.
One method of communicating our preferences and recommendations is to create hyperlinks on the World Wide Web, which points others to interesting files, information and communities. As the amount of hyperlinks on the internet increase, however, we also need methods to filter the hyperlinks; to select certain criteria for collecting, ordering and presenting them.
At Kaplak, we don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel. Search engines and web indexes are doing great jobs at filtering information, answering queries and creating visibility on the World Wide Web. But we recognize a few significant problems with search as the only method of filtering and finding information.
In order to search for something, you need to know what you’re looking for, at least generally. You need to be motivated enough to take your time to use a search engine, type in your query and sort your results according to your preferences. For some queries and products, this process can take hours, as the most interesting results (typically niche-oriented results) remain buried deep down the results pages. And of course, you can’t search for information or products you don’t know about.
Even peer-to-peer filesharing technologies such as bittorrent, which otherwise holds great promises, has difficulty tackling files with less-than-mainstream interest. One has to be something of a hero to keep one’s bittorrent client open all night, in order to seed one’s work for the lone leecher which stumbles upon it by chance.
A large amount of information and products remains unseen by their potential customers and markets. You come to depend on marketing agencies and banner advertisements in order to be seen. Most marketing schemes however, are not precise enough to reach very delicate groups and environments. And you need to have established your business model, in order to use them.
Making your ends meet
Cheaper hardware, internet connections and free software make it economically feasible today for almost anyone to create a business model using the internet. This has so far led to a tremendous growth of thriving webbased businesses, whose economical and social ramifications have possibly not yet been fully understood or recognized.
Business models on the web, however, have mostly been thought in terms of luring customers away from whatever they were otherwise doing on the web, into ‘visiting’ a specific website. This website typically offers particular ‘webshop’ software, handling inventory presentation and customer monetary transactions. Alternatively, the website offers all its contents for free, relying instead on income from advertisments, of which some of the least intrusive are the popular text ads from Google and others.
In either case, if you want to sell something using the web, you’ve also been left with the task of maintaining a website and administrating online transactions, taking time from what you do best; creating new products. If you’re successful, you soon face the choice of hiring help to administrate your growing online business, or cut back on the hours spent creating products. This makes you a manager, which is great, if this is what you want, but not so great, if you want to focus on creating and working within your field of expertise.
If you sell very little or receive only slight traffic, none of this is feasible. Your time will be spent optimizing your website, and your traffic will be too insignificant to bring you any income from your advertisements. Perhaps you will be tempted to make your products more ‘mainstream’ to attract more customers, in order to make an income from your ads. If you receive great amounts of traffic, but still sell very little or otherwise fail to monetize your traffic, you will be hit with bandwidth and bottleneck problems too.
So, apart from tools which help your products ‘be seen’ by your target customers, as a niche producer you also need tools, which gives you an income, but without the time consumption needed to necessarily run your own webshop. At the same time, it can’t hurt if your product can help others finance their websites and internet businesses.
We’re cultural niche producers ourselves. We know what it means to make a living on the slim end of the long tail. Kaplak was launched, when we realized, that no other market or non-market actors today on the internet seemed to offer distribution tools, which could help us meet our present challenges. Sure, there are distribution tools if you want to give away your work for free, but none which solves your problem at the core : making money while doing what you do best.
As niche producers, our products have often targeted audiences and markets, which are so slim, that setting up and running a website and ebusiness, along with ads or other methods required to market and sell, is impractical and often deemed inefficient and unprofitable from the very beginning.
Kaplak is a tool which will seek to remedy these problems for our customers. What Kaplak is about, is creating economically sound distribution methods and tools for these kinds of products, which may not sell much, but still do find their markets.
How it works
Using Kaplak can be boiled down to these three steps :
1. Provide your product (or a link to it) and a few details of information.
2. Pick your price.
3. Determine how much of your earnings you’re willing to part with in Kaplak.
Kaplak will then spit out a widget, i.e. a small piece of code, which can easily be inserted on a website. You can use the widget yourself, on your own website, and you can distribute it to others. You can even just leave it on the Kaplak network for others to find it and redistribute it, if and when, your product is in demand.
Your product is made visible and sold by local “skippers” (i.e. website owners, admins, forum visitors etc.) on the niche websites and networks your potential customers use. They help bring your product safely to harbour, across the oceans of the internet, and in turn earn their share of Kaplak. Your product helps them finance their work,
while you sell your product in a place, you wouldn’t otherwise have reached.
You don’t need ads for your product sprinkled all over the internet or on mainstream media websites, visited by masses of people, who could care less about your not-so-mainstream product. What you need is well-placed and precise recommendations in those niche environments and web communities, your customers visit.
Company and financing
Kaplak is owned and developed by Morten Blaabjerg. A number of partners have acquired warrants for b-shares in Kaplak, including our hosting partner MC Solutions.
Kaplak’s first goals are :
1. To present a public online platform, which presents the project and invites initial customers and collaborators.
2. To create a company capable of building a first, early version of our service and sell this to our first customers.
3. To document this process and generate income streams to finance further development.
4. To create a publicly accessible workspace in the form of a wiki. The Kaplak Wiki will host our growing information base and invite participation from all interested in developing Kaplak.
5. To present a thorough second edition of the Kaplak business plan aimed at venture capital, and spend at least 10% of our time to actively develop and sustain durable investor relations.
Please sign up, if you may be interested in Kaplak as a future user and customer, or simply would like to know more, follow our demos and our online events. We will be happy for your support. It helps us, that we can tell our investors, that we have interested customers waiting. We’d also like to ask you to take our online surveys, when we get around to that. We believe we can create a product, which is most useful to you as a niche producer or consumer, by inviting your input and participation to the process, at a very early stage.
We also welcome you to follow our blog, which is also available via RSS. Our RSS feed makes it possible for you to post the latest Kaplak headlines on your own website, blog or online profile, to tell others about this project, or simply enjoy our latest articles with your favourite RSS reader.
Kaplak issues warrants for shares in Kaplak to interested parties. Please contact us for further information, if you are interested in joining Kaplak as an investor. We’ll be happy to help you with further details.
Bootstrapping the Long Tail in Peer to Peer
Bernardo Huberman and Fang Wu from HP labs have just released a paper describing a way to help P2P networks deal well with niche content. “It is difficult to satisfy the diversity of demand without having to resort to client server architectures and specialized network protocols… We solve this by creating an incentive mechanism that ensures the existence of a diverse set of offerings regardless of content and size. While the system delivers favorite mainstream content, it can also provide files that constitute small niche markets which only in the aggregate can generate large revenues.”
Going to dive into the research of Huberman and Wu during the following days, as their work seem to complement the thinking about p2p incentives we’re doing in Kaplak. This is what I call important stuff.
Can’t help but post this, because it’s the funniest commercial I’ve seen in the last five years :
Thanks to Jason Calacanis for the tip! It’s an example of what twittering can do to a message. It’s not as hard and effort-demanding as blogging, and the message gets through to everyone following the twitter.
In this case, a video commercial gets spread online with lightning speed. What’s amazing is how few companies deliberately and strategically use these channels for their messages. I’m not even following Jason very fanatically, yet here I am bringing on the message in this space. I also added the video to ‘my favourites’ on YouTube, which makes the video visible to everyone following my videos. I added Jason to my “following” because I knew his name from other online activities and discussions and was curious to explore different twittering styles. Jason is very consciously using Twitter to promote his site and live video streams.
For mainstream media such as this commercial, it’s shooting with a wide arc in a channel like this. But more targeted messages (such as niche products) could use social media wildly efficiently, to help build a following. I just read, that Barack Obama twitters too, and he’s had some luck with it ;-)
At Kaplak we’ve adopted the use of the term ‘niche’ in order to describe an aspect of the industrial economy, even though it is quite insufficient to describe the changes and challenges we mean to describe. We’ve already gotten a clear definition of ‘niche’ from Chris Anderson, which is that ‘niche is something which interests few people passionately’, in contrast to mainstream, which is what many people are moderately interested in.
However, this is looking at things from the viewpoint of an industrial economy, not from the perspective of the people and businesses who live and experience a particular field of expertise, meeting and selling to particular customers.
Inevitably, to begin with we’ll have to use the vocabulary of the industrial economy to describe what’s happening in the new economy of a digitally connected world. Along the way we’ll find if the meaning of the terms we use change to mean something else, or if we need to invent completely new concepts to describe what’s happening.
If we want to understand how niches work, we need to get in touch with you, who may be our future user and customer. What do your online activities entail? What do you produce? How do you sell it? What are your greatest opportunities and challenges? To paraphrase Steve Blank, “opinion is inside the building, data is outside the building”. This is what we need our mailing list for. We hope to obtain your help to give us a refreshing reality check on “what life is about on the slim end of the long tail”. If you’d like to help out, you can do this, by signing up on our mailing list here. We’ll get in touch.
This blog will keep on investigating the challenges we face, not just theoretically. With your help, we’ll seek to unfold more examples of online niche communities and businesses which shed more light on the day-to-day methods, practices and challenges in what we (so far) refer to as branches of a global “niche” economy.
I found this email in my mailbox today and thought I’d share it, as Amazon‘s latest move is an interesting one to note in relation to the Kaplak project.
Amazon.com has been around since the very beginnings of the web, pioneering online mail order business, with all that this entails. Amazon also owns Alexa, which indexes and provides information on global website traffic, ranking the most visited websites in the world. As early as 1996, the company launched their own affiliate marketing program on the web, where participants earn as much as 10% for providing links to Amazon products on their website. Late last year Amazon launched their own online music store (for now available in the US only), and now comes WebStore. To quote the email in plain text:
WebStore by Amazon gives you a branded e-commerce site backed by the support, selection and expertise of Amazon. You can be confident that your WebStore is going to be up when your customers come clicking. Better yet, WebStore is easy to set up and comes with a number of great marketing features so you can start selling in minutes!
It has been comparatively easy to set up and run one’s own online business for some time, with several strong open source solutions around, osCommerce being a prime contender. What’s new in Amazons Webstore is making it a lot easier, and additionally giving users the opportunity to use Amazons payments and recommendations systems. Great move! I can’t believe they didn’t do it sooner. Amazon’s price tag is not so great however, even though it may include reducing parts of the “hazzle” of running your own webshop. It excludes everyone who has not already established a business model, i.e. effectively most on the slimmer end of the ‘long tail’, which means that Amazon loses out on a lot of long tail business. Still, it’s a great move, which no doubt will be embraced by lots of medium-sized to smaller niche-oriented businesses.
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.
Please enjoy this recent video with Chris Anderson, introducing the ideas of his forthcoming book FREE: The past and future of a radical price, at Nokia World 2007 in Amsterdam :
Thanks for the tip to Guy Kawasaki. You can find the video in a slightly better quality here (where you may be better able to pick out Anderson’s slides).
I venture to say, that the ideas of Anderson’s next book at a first glance seem a lot less radical than those of his first (The Long Tail (2006)). By giving something away for free, which is abundant, you can sell something else, which is scarce. This is not a new business model, but just one, which can help create interesting and astonishing things, when used cleverly in combination with the internet. According to Anderson, technology have opened this model up to a wide range of industries – this is what makes it interesting. Nokia and the rest of the mobile phone industry can give away their phones, because there’s money to be made on talk rates and services connected to the phones.
Anderson’s model on the scarcities of the economy on the internet seems, however, too simplistic. He divides these into four broad categories : time, money, attention and reputation, in which the attention and reputation (hyperlinks + PageRank) converts into traffic and money to be earned on advertisments. True, this is the ‘conversion mechanism’ used by Google and others today. But I’m not sure I buy that attention and reputation are really scarce ressources, independently of the technological architectures, which shape attention and reputation on the internet now or in the future.
The attention span of any individual may be limited, but then we may be attentive towards very different things. This is a central point of Anderson’s first book. And reputation may simply, also according to The Long Tail, be a question of technological architecture, of ‘bringing customers down the tail’, as Anderson puts it, in the way Amazon recommends titles ‘other users also bought’. Attention and reputation on the internet are artificial constructs. Our current architectures make something more visibile to someone, than something else. This is only a problem, in so far, that the someone wants the something else before the something.