Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On the scalability of small opportunities

I have been thinking recently about the mindblowingly complex issue of how to usefully map possibility space (the hyperdimensional expanse representing all the theoretical states things could take -- the way things could be -- through which we weave an infinitesimally narrow thread of lived reality by a combination of chance events and decisions). Yes, it's a tricky one.

But an interesting insight has arisen around the way unexpected "windows of opportunity" are made and used through the confluence of emerging technological affordances and good old fashioned ingenuity.

There are two nice examples which might help firm up this rather woolly notion. Both revolve around the time-honoured obsession with getting rich.

There are, presumably, many ways to make a million bucks. I spend considerably less time than I probably should exploring what those ways are, and like most people, considerably more of my time blundering across far less lucrative terrain. (Being a malnourished student, in fact, it's arguably more a matter of progressively discovering just how broad, wide and apparently inescapable the intersecting possibility spaces of poverty, chastity, and despair can be.) But there are others who have been emboldened and empowered by the increasing, vastly interconnected pools of supply and demand online; to great effect.

So the first example is of a young man in England who seized upon the clever notion of selling one million pixels of advertising space at one dollar each, with a view to funding his undergraduate studies in business management. (As far as I can tell, this is his own original idea, and although one might imagine it would be difficult to pull off more than once, that has not apparently deterred others from borrowing the business model: google million pixels for other examples.) Aesthetically, the product of this effort comes off like a Las Vegas nightmare. Conceptually, from a business point of view, however, it's sheer brilliance. The minimum purchase is a 10x10 block, costing $100, which is certainly rather small but is enough visually to serve as a practical, iconic hyperlink to the advertiser's website. The novelty is sufficiently great that people -- such as myself at this very moment -- catch themselves propagating the story for its sheer audacity, directing a widening audience back to the site, and thereby vindicating the whole scheme on the basis of increased returns via the Internet attention economy.

The second example is of a guy from Canada who has, through a series of bartering encounters, traded up from a paperclip to -- so far -- a house in Saskatchewan, during a period of one year. This progressive scavenger-hunt up the value chain has a touch of inspired lunacy about it which appeals to me a great deal.

Both of these Internet microbusinesses depend on the playfulness and novelty of the ideas, and on the disproportionate levels of attention that they have consequently been able to garner. There's a kitsch, Warholesque "fifteen minutes of fame" aura around the tales of both these entrepreneurial individuals -- but they're getting where they want to go, and everyone seems to be enjoying it, so more power to them.

What's interesting here is the fact that from humble beginnings, these ambitious one-man business propositions, buttressed and fuelled by media attention, have been able to connect their founders to sufficiently large audiences that the former has sold a million in pixels to several hundred advertisers (perhaps several thousand, I didn't count), and the latter has substantially increased the return on his investment through a series of "right trades" upward along the value chain. (Lots of little payoffs: get rich slow.)

So yes, perhaps their time could have been better spent in some respects, but that's not the point: these stories are groaning with the freight of the zeitgeist of early 21st century Internet culture. Spotting the right opportunity has long been a key to wealth, fame and fortune. The echo chamber of new media opens up large-scale successes to small-scale ideas. Of course, the postmodern kicker in all this is that what they're really selling is their own unlikely success stories, and by attending to them we make them happen, like clockwork. Attention is where the money is: tell a compelling story -- the story of the story you're telling -- and your fifteen minutes of fame could reward you handsomely. Which, to me, underlines that perhaps the most powerful elements in navigating our possibility space are the (distinctly analog) stories we tell ourselves about where we've come from, where we are, and where we want to go next.

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