FOLLOW THE FEE

23 Nov

Warholdollar1
“Dollar Sign”, 1981
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

My film journo days had had me covering various multimedia/digital economy events, for a while. The editors didn’t like my take on it. For example, a story I’d did whilst attending a conference and interview with the editor of Wired. This was then Kevin Kelly. He’d just left his job and’d written his digi-guru tome explaining it all – New Rules For The New Economy. The brochure featured it in its two-page Major Events spread. He was #1! The event venue was the usual beige coloured comfort pod with the ginormous screen above the lectern. Air like in a temple. The audience seated quiet and aglow exuding the mild but intense pleasure of those that think they are enlightened and’re about to be even more so. For the Digerati, Kelly was that year’s prophet. And I asked him a question that disturbed him.

He’d never thought about it: the little computerized machines he was so enthusiastic about, consequence of that year’s biz software buzz-concept: Object Orientated Programming. The dumb things he called them. I said: they replace dumb people you know. Well… it was as if  I’d sprayed shit mist everywhere! Some snooty Radcliffe type told me off for scratching the dream. I didn’t mean to spoil the party truly. I was just interested in what he had to say. He said, after a momentary conference with alarm, that they’d be free to follow their dreams.

My contact at the conference was an Indian lass, spunk. Very smart and very tired from running the bloody thing. She asked me if I was a socialist. There was no fear or contempt when she used the word. No readiness to disapprove of me. She was just interested. I said ‘no’ because it was true. I’m not a socialist. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for laws to define ‘society’. I thought asking a question that actually gives the interviewee pause to think might be good, and it occurred to me that a shitload of checkout chicks suddenly thrown on the dump might not be. That said, it didn’t happen.

Kelly’s predecessor at Wired, Nicholas Negroponte, also had a book that ‘everyone’ read a few years before. Like politicians, editors at Wired always wrote books explaining it all after they walked the plank. Being Digital, full of gaff about how it’s all changed, the inevitable shot at prophecy. He predicted, for example, there would be no video shops by the year 2000. But by the time I saw Kelly I was well-seasoned, before my film journo thang I’d been trying to carve out some space in the internet biz, I’d done the conference fests with its peculiar mix of business sharks, arty-farts, robot geeks and pr basic pleasure models. I’d scored free seats at the tables for 300 on the water at Darling Harbour. Invited upstairs for lines of coke (no thanks). If you had media credentials you didn’t have to pay for a drink the whole time.

Kelly’s a hippie now, went on to edit Whole Earth Catalogue, his new rules for the ‘new’ economy was 86% hype. Cool sounding sentences that didn’t mean anything really. The same basic point repeated over and over again, I think the reason some academics write such convoluted tangles is they don’t want anyone to find out they’re just another business guru wannabe. Wannabe paid $30 000 for a 45 minute appearance regurgitating the latest publication so someone in the audience might get three words in and drop “I was talking to so and so” at a St Kilda dinner and drinks shindig for hip yuppies in denial between lauding this year’s DJ and ‘I’m going to Mongolia in April’.

There’s no new economy there’s just new ways of doing old things. We’ve always talked, now we get to do it trans-globally. The reason the IT boom crashed and burned finally is that everyone started some firm up, listed themselves publicly and attracted swarms of investors (swarm: another Kelly ‘concept’) without ever once pausing to ask themselves what it was they did that people would want to pay for? Lots of cards with ‘director’ written on them, many fewer actual ideas or real clients.

The only thing I remember from Kelly’s book was the title and concept of Chapter 4: Follow the free. This is so self-evident to everyone connected to digital communications technology. This form of communication, for example, is offered free of charge to people who use it supplying anyone who reads it likewise free of charge. For those few bloggers who create a market there’s the money to be made from customization and advertising. No one has to pay for email, or social networking. You connect for free. The fee comes later. This is one change to economic culture that digital technology has wrought. It’s ubiquitous even in the analog realm. Every day you’re offered samples in the hope you’ll develop an taste for whatever it is the PR bots push on you from their colour-coded vehicle, in their colour-coded threads. Reality television shows and talent quests feature performers who do so free in the hope that one day they’ll paid for it.

I have marketing problems. And in solving them I realize I will be creating a trail of crumbs that people follow. I developed a bunch of sample products that’re designed to create a taste for the real thing. In exchange I will be getting marketing data and… sales. The first problem is to create products, promotions and retail space out of nothing. I want to spend as little as possible, so far my total expenses have been somewhere between $50-$100. I’ve created some 160 pictures using recycled stuff almost exclusively. I want to see how far I can get without major capital investment.

The next problem is how much the market will bear, how much can I charge? To solve problem #1 I have to sell before I start selling and that means cold-calling. People don’t like that. Besides being intrusive, when someone is selling to you it’s an assault on the control one wields over one’s own life. We resist being sold. How do I sell without trying to sell? Problem #1 also means that I must resist selling at the low price I”d originally decided upon, the market won’t bear price hikes. But, if the offer is limited strictly to people who partake in my marketing dickhead’s survey (three questions only), that’s okay. It’s a special limited offer. They don’t have to buy, so they’re in control, and they get something free, something of quality just not quite as good as the main deal. It’s not so intrusive. I raise capital and find out how much moolah I can get my grubby hands on. If it works.

Funny isn’t it, I thought Kelly’s book was a crock, still do. But who knows to what extent his articulation of what was obvious bubbled along in my self-conscious only to apply itself when the right problem came along. That’s why despite the everybody knows factor there’s still a sizable space for business gurus in every middle-brow bookstore franchise at your local mall. The trick is to filter out the shite.

But how can you do that when even the shite comes in handy?

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