Who would have thunk that Gymboree could shed light on the dilemmas of tech and media businesses? As I do every week, I was with my daughter at a play class for 2 year olds. She has a thing for picking up balls and tossing them into a bin--something I don't discourage. She's rather obsessive about it; she likes to pick up EVERY ball, even the ones in the far corners of the room. I watched her pick up on behalf of the rest of the kids, and just as she was about to toss in the last ball, a little boy intercepted it and carried it away.
Playing with a Ball by Superhua via Flickr
My daughter looked at the boy as if to say, "Asshole, I was nearly done here." But she didn't cry. Too many times when something like this happened I'd say to her, "Share the balls, Liv." She knew she had to share.
But the incident did give me pause. This was a harmless example of interception, but what if all the balls had not been Gymboree's but actually hers? What if the kid who had intercepted the last one had not been a member of Gymboree, but some kid whose parents snuck him in and was planning to take the balls home with him? Of course, any parent would intercept and ensure that the kid did not take the balls home, let alone sell them on eBay.
As social technologies (blogging) came into the mainstream picture seven, eight years ago, we treated the Blogosphere like one big Gymboree, and everyone was a member! Everyone could start a blog! Everyone could reference each other's content and play with each other's toys (just so long as we gave the toy owners credit). The burgeoning social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn) were free and asked you to invite all of your friends to join in the party. We all were encouraged to share, share, share!
But now I begin to wonder how we maintain that ethos of sharing and still get credit for bringing the toys and cleaning up. I just read an interesting article--one of many lately--explaining how, as social media behemoths are evolving business models, they are also regulating the usage of their technology and limiting the open relationships they once forged. You don't get to play with the toys unless you are paying for that Gymboree membership, and even if you are, there are limits to how long you get to play with the toys--you don't get to take them home. You can't rely on unlimited access anymore, let alone the ability to profit off of them.
Companies like Buddy Media knew this would happen and got bought. It couldn't build a business off of Facebook alone; the door to building proprietary technology off of someone else's platform was closing. Lucky for the company it was able to find an acquirer before Facebook shut the door and said, our platform, our rules.
Perhaps this is what Yammer CEO David Sacks was talking about when he said (post $1B+ acquisition of his company, Yammer, by Microsoft) that there are really not any new ideas brewing in the Valley, just new exploiters of those ideas. Now the real work of tech companies is not to build amazing technology, but to figure out how to own it. (A reason why, Silicon Valley, it doesn't hurt to bring in a few media/business types who are really good at keeping things for themselves).
I see this in digital media, which continues to disaggregate. The technologies that have made it so easy to share content build in value, but even now these technologies have to own something; if not the content then the means of aggregation. We've found that, after years of watching folks walk away with our toys we can't make them free anymore.
It makes me wonder what the lessons will be for my kids in the future, when they start bringing their own toys to the party. Will they be wise to share them and trust that they will get value in return?
Jory Des Jardins writes on business and career topics at BlogHer, and on her personal blog From Here to Autonomy
More from living