Inherent Truths and Value of Community

One of the distinctive qualities of the Web 2.0 companies has been their reliance on community mostly and early adopters. Flickr is a good example. This two-way interaction between the start-up and the users provided the bedrock for a ground breaking service.

Google Maps, is another example, where community’s efforts have resulted in the original concept being remixed, enough times over, to completely overshadow the rivals. In this two-way collaboration for innovation, the corporations will have to deal with this radical democratization of capitalism.

Robert Young, who has in recent past contributed some thoughtful analysis, emailed his thoughts. This is the distillation of his thoughts…

Guest post by Robert Young.

The thing that I find most compelling about the Internet, as a whole, is its power to turn well-rooted, traditional business norms upside down on its head. As a result, there is very high value in the ability to think about strategic matters in counterintuitive fashion (I attribute the success of Google to such abilities, as I wrote in my last piece). Jeff Jarvis summed it up nicely

Beware the big company that tries to venture into this, the small world owned by its individuals, without proper respect and perspective… The issue is that we, the people, believe we own this space — not just blogs, not just online, but anyplace where we put our effort and trust and money. And isn’t it modern corporate nirvana to be a “we company” instead of a “they company”? But you have to mean it.

For anyone who has had the opportunity to run a large web-based community, Jeff’s eloquent words will resonate deeply. There’s a certain level of what (for the lack of a better phrase) I will refer to as cognitive dissonance when you run a business based on community. And that’s that you quickly realize that the members of the community feel strongly that the service belongs to them, and the control that you, the corporation, think you have is actually, in large part, an illusion.

After all, a community, by definition generates its own content, its own style and culture… it’s all by the people, for the people. As a result, if you’re an executive at such a company, you oftentimes feel more like a politician than a businessperson. To do anything that would suggest that you, as the corporation, owns and controls the service (and in effect, the community) is, well, akin to heresy. This is something Rupert Murdoch will have to contend with, as the new owner of MySpace.

As the worlds of media and technology collide with a force that can split an atom, such cognitive dissonance is a natural by-product of the fact that more and more content (and code) is being produced by the people themselves. At the same time, with the increasing digitization of media, the definition of “distribution” is also changing from channels previously rooted in the physical world to one where people themselves become the new distribution channels via tightly and loosely-coupled social networks connected together by the universal language of IP and bits.

So as time goes by, the foundation of ownership and control for content and distribution is increasingly shifting from corporate entities to people and communities. A phenomenon that will cause countless sleepless nights for old media and old-line technology leaders who don’t fully comprehend the significance of the dynamics at hand.

This shift in the balance of power has immense strategic implications for traditional media conglomerates and technology vendors. It represents a classic disruption of markets and, of its many consequences, probably the single most important ramification is the impact that it has on the concept known as “switching costs”, a business model feature designed to extend competitive advantage. The most recent example of a company that executed almost flawlessly on the classic definition is actually a new media player, and one we’re all familiar with… AOL.

During Internet 1.0, AOL was the master of creating high switching costs. Using the email address as the cornerstone, they were able to lock-in their subscribers into a garden with very high walls. In fact, they locked up the gates so well that there are still 20+ million people who subscribe to AOL’s dial-up service (which, consequently, enables AOL to generate more annual revenues than either Yahoo! or Google, to this day). Even at a time when broadband access is oftentimes less expensive, their subscribers are hesitant to switch away from their AOL email addresses.

But in a world where people themselves are increasingly becoming the sources of content and the owners of distribution, any product development strategy that aims to proactively increase switching costs becomes antithetical to the gravitational pull of the market (as AOL is now painfully experiencing). In fact, in many markets, we are likely to see an inversion of control, where vendors will increasingly rely on their customers to provide them with their strategic and competitive advantages. Put another way, the tail will start wagging the dog.

So in such an open and unpredictable environment of consumer control, what happens to the notion of switching costs? The answer, on its surface, is actually quite simple. The importances of switching costs do not disappear. They will always remain a critical success factor for building market share and defending against competition. What does change, however, is who creates and controls it.

It won’t be the corporation that locks its customers into a walled garden any more; instead, it will be the people themselves who create their own high switching costs. For instance, if you are an eBay seller, your switching cost is not so much the relationship you’ve created with eBay itself and the store you set up, it’s the reputation and trust you spent years building with fellow members of the community. Similarly, if you are a member of MySpace, it’s not the web-page and blog you spent time constructing, it’s your social network of cyber-friends you’ve cultivated and accumulated over time.

At the end, the lesson is one of a paradox. As the power shifts increasingly towards community, the corporation loses its grip on the traditional means of control. Yet, by letting go of control, the corporation creates an environment where the community willingly creates its own switching costs. Such changing market behavior, which is structural and permanent for any industry being usurped by the Internet, must be met with a corresponding shift in corporate mindset. Otherwise, a “generation gap” will exist between the members of management themselves (old vs. new media), as well as the company and its market. In my view, if there is one company that seems to grok such dynamics better than anyone, and is in the process of executing superbly against these new set of challenges, it’s Yahoo!

Robert Young is a serial entrepreneur who is currently focused on, a P2P-enabling “superdistribution” digital media service. Previously, he was an exec at Delphi Internet Services (which he sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), and founder/ceo of Freemark Communications (where he led the invention of free email and pay-per-click advertising).