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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Cybercities: frontiers, audience monopoly and TweetDeck sale

In November I wrote in reflection to the net neutrality debate that Audience Monopoly - i.e. non-neutral platforms - should be seen as a bigger threat to online entrepreneurs than non-neutral networks.

I wrote Audience Monopoly having been approached several months earlier by someone claiming to be a venture capitalist wanting my opinion on a project he was working on.

Having signed no confidentiality agreement it won't be unprofessional of me to say it was a TweetDeck-like platform that was service agnostic. That is, it will present a Twitter-like stream to the user, but not necessarily be tied to using the Twitter infrastructure to service the messaging.

My advice was pretty much as I wrote in Audience Monopoly; that, since the service will in the early days rely on Twitter and/or Facebook - AKA The Big Boys - there was only likely to be four possible outcomes to the venture.

Outcome four was everyone going bust. This aside, the other three I listed were:
  1. The app becomes moderately successful, begins to appear as a threat to The Big Boys, and you accept a buyout. Total return is limited to the low millions.
  2. The app becomes successful and you refuse an approach from The Big Boys.  But - a very successful front end app will inevitably become a threat to the host, since it "owns" the audience.  The app is in a position to take the audience wholesale to a new platform.  Especially in the case I consulted on, as the app set out to be service agnostic.  Likely outcome: strangled by violations of Ts & Cs from The Big Boys or, in the case of a paid-for app, The Big Boys create a free rival to steal-back the audience
  3. The app fails to become successful and you lose your investment
It's clear from a VC perspective that apps reliant on a third-party proprietary service like Twitter or Facebook are not attractive for mega-bucks investment.  That's because tech VCs operate in the knowledge that a high proportion of investments will fail, therefore the ones that succeed need to make a very high return on investment, and the rules of Audience Monopoly prevent this.

Me live tweeting the DEAPPG
net neutrality event (centre of pic)
The theory doesn't just apply to social web services.  I was recently approached after the DEAPPG event on network neutrality at the House of Commons by representatives from major accountancy firms, both asking me questions about search engine neutrality.

I've since found out through contacts that accountants and risk strategists are paying far more attention to the potential business impact of search engine ranking, and in particular to any moves by search engines to change the ranking algorithms, than they are to classic network neutrality issues.

New frontiers!

It's tempting to focus on the somewhat contained and better defined risks of non-neutral networks.  Skype for example claims to be having a hard time with mobile operators - direct competitors for mobile voice services - who block VOIP over high-speed mobile internet.

But for me the bigger social and ethical questions are raised not by the networks but by the emerging platforms that currently control the audience.

The terminology of the frontier is very apt, since the virtual world has opened up new equivalents of settlers (audience) and real estate (websites).

Matthew Rhodes of Fresh Networks made reference to the original pioneers when he talked about first mover advantage on the social web in his Pecha Kucha slot at the Digital Surrey 1st birthday bash I organised.  The first family-run cheese business to get on Facebook and Twitter likely made a name for themselves by doing so; but now, the market is crowded.

Yet there are differences. The pace of development is huge. The digital equivalent of an oil or gold rush is well under way, yet few if any mining the new online territory know what oil or gold looks like; so even if we strike, lucky we may end up discarding a precious resource because we don't know today the value of what we've discovered.


In a domain where there's near-infinite real estate (website addresses) available; already, just 20 years after the public launch of the www, the audience has already gravitated to the mega cities of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter.

Network neutrality ensures that the as-yet unstaked real estate remains available to build new towns and cities, and that these new towns and cities can be serviced by traffic when built.  But even with fully-neutral networks; the trunk roads are open, but all the streets and feeder roads need to be built.

And even with a full transport infrastructure, there needs to be a lure for the settlers. Whilst the audience is happy with the cities, there's no reason for them to move to a frontier town.

Democracy and development funding

The Big Boys owning the audience at the moment are in full control of the cities. They run the council, the courts, the schools and the hospitals. They build what they want, where they want, within the confines of the city (ie their brand).

The Big Boys don't need to raise funds for new developments (apps and plug-ins) within city limits.  Other people choose to come and build their shops and offices in the city because of the lure of a steady supply shoppers and office workers.

In return for this audience, they must provide all their own funding and abide by the rules of the city owners.  Mess with the city council or become too big to handle (a threat) and you're out.  Maybe the further out from the city centre a business operates, the more it can get away with; yet it may have to work far harder to find the audience.

The glimmer of democracy is that the highways remain open, the settlers are free to live where they want, and the rent is cheap.

Privacy and personal space

In fact the lure of cheap rent (free services) is perhaps one of the main attractions for the cybercity dwellers.  Perhaps people would choose to live further out in the open where they have more space to themselves.

In the cybercity, the city council keeps tabs on all dwellers. They do this to help shops and offices that choose to set themselves up in the city find the best locations for their particular brand or industry.  No-one yet knows what the long term impact of this data gathering will be, especially when the federal government gains access to the city council's records!

TweetDeck started to own the audience more than Twitter ever could. In selling out to the city council it's ceded control of the audience back to The Big Boys.


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