What Creates Digital Ghettos?

Open source software is awesome, and I am much richer for it existing. But the concepts that work in widely downloaded free software may not apply as well elsewhere. One of the best books on this topic is Jason Lanier's You are Not a Gadget, which in large part inspired this post.

Openness is one of the most widely espoused important ideals upon which to build an online business. The reasons it is preached so heavily are

  • anything that is free doesn't have to get over the penny gap, so it is easy to gain traction when compared against paid alternatives
  • openness encourages economies of scale built on the labors of others (and re-mashing bits of others works together wrapped in a thick layer of ads)
  • the growth and margins created by the above 2 allow the embedded value in network effects to be flipped to a greater fool for a huge multiple of its intrinsic value

But most such plays are exploitative and short term based. They are leveraged bets with hidden costs.

The free tool you use is using you as a free tool.

Given people free access to post content to your server means you spend hours every week fighting spam, and when they post kiddie porn (or similar) your site goes down without warning. Did you build your website on that same "free" service that went down without warning? Oooops.

Not too long ago the publicity whore who preached the importance of loyalty & openness canned all his freelance writers with a 1 week notice, but revoked their ability to delete their own content before breaking the news to them.

YouTube intentionally violated copyright because they figured someone else would get stuck eating the $100 million legal bill.

The network of free content is a PageRank black hole which creatively flows PageRank to the shadow sites heavily wrapped in ads.

Have 43,807 friends? How many of them know your name? I define a friend as someone who you know something embarrassing about, who also knows something embarrassing about you. If there are no inside jokes there is no friendship. The only way you have thousands of friends is if the word friend is meaningless.

The network that was on top of the world seemingly only yesterday is today's digital ghetto.

Once you build exposure, the openness that was initially vital to overcoming obscurity can become a hindrance. Which is precisely why the highest value web companies are quite closed off. Sure they might have a public relations angle where they promote openness (and perhaps you should too), but beyond that it is often better to go the other way.

Published: July 19, 2010 by Aaron Wall in marketing


July 19, 2010 - 3:15pm

helow... I am Azisah, a newbie in SEO world and trying to explore more and hope in such time I would learn a lot even I`m still a student.

July 19, 2010 - 3:53pm

This one was a little over my head :)

July 20, 2010 - 3:50am

Hehehe...my programmer stated that he only thought this post was maybe average, but that the point was *very* clear.

Evidently not clear enough though!

So the point of the post is that being open and receptive to feedback is a way to get out of obscurity, gain awareness & build leverage. It is a smart launch strategy. BUT once you become well known you have to filter out a lot of the free feedback and noise & raise the opportunity cost to participation, because if you treat it all as valuable then you will waste a lot of your time. Payment is an amazing filter, and one that is worth using.

Also, if you build a site with love and build influence and exposure then eventually you do get burned out. It happens to everyone.

And if that love starts to flicker then your community starts to decline, especially if it is left too open. If you have a community which is in decline then sometimes closing it off to spammers and other nefarious freeloader types allows you to make what is left of it better for those who are personally invested in it. That lower administrative load can help you overcome burn out and rejuvenate. Which in turn brings back the love, and can help you come up with solutions to filtering out the noise when you decide to open back up.

July 19, 2010 - 9:37pm

lol@the free tool you use is using you as a free tool

July 20, 2010 - 3:46pm

Free vs Paid is one of those things I think about a lot.

In the age of the semantic web there is going to be, once again, a strong push towards making data free. In the "linked data" world, everything that exists (people, places, concepts like the color "red") is represented by URLs -- the goal is to create a common vocabulary that's going to be an interchange language for all sorts of systems [like, uh, content generation, uh...]

You're certainly free to make your own "paid" vocabulary which won't be generally available, but that's kind of like deciding you're not going to speak English but instead speak exclusively with the 10 other people who paid $1M for the license to speak in some private language.

I've talked with a lot of people in the information services space, where the main startup business model is "you're going to work for me for free for six months until we've got this crappy product that we're going to sell to (finance|pharma) and then we'll all be rich." I haven't met one who had a business I could faintly believe in; in the meantime, my 'free' products turn out revenue, not as much as I'd like, but I'm not facing the risk of spending $1M to develop something and getting $0 in revenue, which I've seen happen more than once.

July 20, 2010 - 4:21pm

I agree with you.

I am not stating that free or open are bad...I think it can be good off the start, just that as a site gains momentum and authority you have to evolve the filters. What can be made freely available changes as your workload and reputation and reach change.

And if a site ends up past its prime you have to clamp down hard on the filters or else it quickly ends up a spam den.

July 21, 2010 - 3:38pm

Hard to say. I see a lot of orphaned, low-traffic sites that get choked with spam because nobody is watching them or makes the effort to clean out the junk.

I did a little of consulting for somebody to understand what link building tactics were used for a certain very sleazy set of search terms.

The #1 ranker in this space had developed a systematic campaign of discovering vulnerable message boards on sites that had a little PageRank but that were not being actively maintained. He wasn't following the "XRumer" strategy of "let's hit PhpBB sites really hard" but instead had created a pipeline aimed at discovering sites with unusual and unmaintained software and exploiting them viciously. I found many sites where there were thousands of spam comments from this guy and the spam messages were 95% of the comments were his.

Funny enough, I realized that six months before the investigation, I'd fought a battle against him to keep him off a site that I had that had poorly written message board software. He actually spent some time figuring out how to get around my countermeasures before I locked him out for good.

July 26, 2010 - 3:58am

Wordpress is a good example. Its free, at least to install. But when people have trouble with it or want changes, it can cost them dearly. How can anybody release a web product without a editable title tag and description? They are on version 3 and still you have to use plugins for basic SEO.
But people are flocking to it because its free. All the sites are narrow (90% of visitors have greater than 1024) and cookie cutter looking. But its free! What a deal.

July 26, 2010 - 3:28pm

Funny you say that. I just installed a number of Wordpress sites recently...SEO plug-ins for them all.

I think a big piece of it is if people are ignorant to what they are missing then they don't know that they are missing out...so free is good enough.

But I also think it creates a big competitive advantage for those who take the time to understand things. It gives you a big BIG opportunity to take marketshare from someone stuck in the free mindset.

I don't mind the narrow site design though...forces the ads to be blended into the content better - so long as they want free they can eat an advertisement while they are at it :D

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