Art vs. The Google Economy

In an anomaly that we would eventually recognize as commonplace on the internet, Touching the Void, a book that had gone out of print, remaindered before it hit paperback, was all but forgotten, started selling again in 1998. Chris Anderson wondered why, and found that user reviews in Amazon’s listing of publishing sensation Into Thin Air had people recommending Touching the Void as a better read. Today, Touching the Void outsells Into Thin Air 2 to 1.

Clearly, Amazon and the internet had hit critical mass.

Based on statistics reported in 2005 or earlier:

  • Over 200 million Americans have internet access
  • 94 million Americans use the internet on an average day
  • Over 62 million households (55%) have internet-connected computers at home
  • 87% of youth 12-17 are active online
  • 89% of college students and 87% of the general public start their research in a search engine, not a library
  • 80% of internet users believe the internet is a reliable source of information

But it’s certainly not just youth driving this:

  • Over half of 2005 US tax returns were filed electronically; the IRS is mandated to raise that number to 85% over the next few years
  • Online banking is a reality for most Americans who have bank accounts
  • The leading demographic of those purchasing movie tickets online is adults over 35
  • The early adopters for the iTunes music store were adults over 35

And, as a measure of growth in the past year, John Battelle’s The Search in 2005 reported under 5 billion monthly searches on major US search engines. By July 2006 that number had grown to 6 billion.

The internet is truly changing us. The ability to instantly find anything we want and get recommendations from people of similar interest, irrespective of geography or time, is changing us.


How does this work? How do these thin threads come together to be woven into those stories?

If written a few years later, Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point might include a story like that of the re-emergence of Touching The Void long after it had been remaindered among the tales of the boom of Hush Puppies and Paul Revere’s social networking skills. But, as it is, the emergence of the internet does more to support Gladwell’s thesis than question it.

The internet has created new opportunities for people to make the personal — but often momentary — connections that Gladwell identifies as being so important, to the spread of an idea, a product, a phenomenon.

The internet adds links.

The internet adds comments.

The internet changes the basic economics of doing business, of making a sale, or finding an audience.

Chris Anderson, who was so fascinated by the story of the re-emergence of Touching the Void, followed up his initial article with a book-length examination of the changes that made it possible. What he found was that because was able to make findable an inventory of over two million books, dramatically more than a typical bookstore’s 130,000 books, and because Amazon had almost no inventory carrying costs, it was in a position to turn people who’d heard about Touching The Void, through Amazon’s own comments or elsewhere, into customers. By shortening the distance between interest and purchase, Amazon changed the shape of the marketplace.

But it’s not the technology that delivers success. It’s the personal connections made possible by the technology that are build success.

An example how that can go wrong comes from Reprise‘s efforts to market Bonnie McKee. After premier a song on Yahoo!’s LAUNCHcast with good results Reprise decided to make a big CD release in September 2004. Despite being a huge hit with girls aged 12-17, and becoming a top searched name, the album ended up selling only 17,000 copies. An explanation cited in Anderson’s book notes “fans weren’t invested in the artist, only the song.” The explanation is that the internet has changed the rules, and music buyers, or consumers of any item, are becoming partners in a marketplace that expects more than the old marketing drivel, and has access to a broader selection than todays top 40 or whatever fits on a retail shelf.

Vincent Flanders author of Web Pages That Suck explains:

Nobody cares about you or your site. Really. What visitors care about is getting their problems solved. Most people visit a web site to solve one or more of the following three problems.

  • They want/need information
  • They want/need to make a purchase / donation
  • They want/need to be entertained

Too many organizations believe that a web site is about opening a new marketing channel or getting donations or to promote a brand. No. It’s about solving your customers’ problems. Have I said that phrase enough?

And, for emphasis, from the Cluetrain Manifesto:

A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter–and getting smarter faster than most companies.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

There is, perhaps, no better time to be a niche producer, a craftsperson, an artist. The world wants to hear human voices rather than marketingspeak. This is David’s moment against Goliath.