anthropologist overboard

SupermarketThose fellas at PSFK  keep earning our admiration. 

See the post by Piers on mixed tapes and webites like TinyMixTapes that solicit themes for which they then supply play lists.  An example:

A request someone posted at TinyMixTapes:

I need unapologetically cheerful music, perfect for dancing around the kitchen while baking cookies and forgetting that I am very, very alone.

The response:

requested by: M
compiled by: little cola wong

Side One:
01. The Partridge Family – "Come on Get Happy" (Partridge Family: Greatest Hits)
02. Billy Bragg & Wilco – "I Guess I Planted" (Mermaid Avenue)
03. Cookies – "Girls Grow Up Faster Than" (Complete Dimension Sessions)
03. James Brown – "I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)" (Make It Funky – The Payback)
04. PJ Harvey – "Good Fortune" (Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea)
05. Pizzicato 5 – "We Love Pizzicato Five" (The Sound of Music)
06. K-OS – "Fantastique" (Exit)
07. Le Tigre – "Tres Bien" (Feminist Sweepstakes)
08. Jill Scott – "Golden" (Beautifully Human)
09. Bjork – "There’s More to Life Than This" (Debut)
10. Cibo Matto – "Sci-Fi Wasabi" (Stero Type A)

This summons the idea of an exchange in which we program culture for one another.  Blogs already serve this sorting function.  ("Hey read this.  Consider that.")  But what’s especially interesting is that there could exist large banks of playlists or playlist creators which could deliver playlists that are very carefully chosen to fit a very particular moment.  Now the playlists become "sound tracks," as exquisitely appropriate for our lives as they are for a movie.

And this makes me think of the discussion that just took place on the Wharton site: Wikis, Weblogs and RSS: what does the new internet mean for business.  Janice Fraser, Ross Mayfield and Philip Evans are interviewed by Kevin Werbach, and Janice talks about

a shift from what I call host-provided value — such as CitySearch (where publishers provide local events listings in different cities) — to user-provided value in websites such as (a global events calendar managed by users).

As we see it being played out at the moment, it works precisely as an exchange in a quite  literal sense.  You and I engage in several reciprocities, and, as I result, I can reasonably ask you to program music choice  for my drive to the Cape in July.  (I will reciprocate with a list of the 10 best novels about Elizabethan England to read on your vacation.)

But unless we are living on a Kibbutz, filled with fabulously smart and well informed people, chances are we are going to want some cultural programming for which no friends exist.  And this is, I believe, the reason we have a marketplace (and something liquid called "money" to make non reciprocal exchanges possible)!

So how about it?  When is the internet going to create a marketplace inwhich intellectual, social and cultural capitals trade hands in exchange for money.  When are we going to grow up and move on?  The problem, to use Weberian language, is that we have made most of the cultural exchange that takes place on the internet "enchanted."  It is shot through with larger meanings and governed by larger reciprocities.  And yes, he said, wiping away the tears, I think there is something touching about all of us, and especially me, doing all this programming for free. 

But until we monitize this exchange, we systematically exclude from possibility some of the cultural productions we will care about most.  (I would love a mix every fortnight of current music from several genre, complete with intelligent commentary and a little cultural GPS positioning on the cultural map.  And, yes, I would pay for it.) 

Put it this way.  The informal, enchanted, reciprocal exchange of cultural productions has been great.  It has been an honor and a privilege, that is to say, to live on this Kibbutz.  But, ladies and gentlemen, we must someday come to our senses, move to Haifa, and live in the real world.  Ok, Tel Aviv. 

16 thoughts on “anthropologist overboard

  1. amoeda

    Sorry, *what* exactly obligates “us” to live in this real world, or more to the point, to live exclusively there? Last I checked, for any reciprocal exchange system available on the Internet, there is a monetized exchange system that serves a similar function. There’s Flickr and there’s Getty Images. There’s Freecycle and there’s eBay. There’s GNU, there’s Red Hat and there’s Windows. As an economic actor I find this mix a wonderful thing: Where convenience and measurable accountability are most important to me, I conduct monetary exchanges. Where sociability and self-expression are most important, I choose reciprocal exchanges. Looks like a nice plenitude to me. Where’s the problem? (p.s. I keep wanting to invoke the phrase “gift economy” here but I am completely unfamiliar with the anthropology behind that term and thus out of my depth. But surely gift economies and kibbutz economies are different things?)

  2. Ennis

    I dunno if commercial exchanges necessarily produce more interesting things than non-commercial exchanges. They work well in different settings is all.

    Commercial exchanges are poor for “cheap” transactions. I don’t think that anybody could make much money in the mix tape business (despite your request) except for when they program radio stations / muzac. But lots of people are willing to spend a few minutes popping out a mix tape every now and then. As a matter of fact, the world is full of High Fidelity types who are just itching for a fun challenge of that sort to chew on.

    Other clear examples are things like Seti@home or similar projects. It works if everybody donates a few cycles of processing power every now and then, but these projects will never make enough money for their originators to buy commercial supercomputer time. I’m glad we have the World Community Grid ( It allows us to tackle projects that the big pharma companies would not.

    [I don’t have to convince you about the other side, what the commerical marketplace is good for, so I’ll skip that]

    What both need, though, is some sort of feedback mechanism that helps sift for quality, otherwise noise overwhelms signal. With blogs, that’s rankings. People compete for attention, and those who are uninteresting drop out.

    We don’t want to confuse these two things though – you can have a market without commerce, and you can have monetary exchange without much in the way of competition or selection. The quality comes from the competition. The money is just one way of keeping score.

  3. Grant

    Amoeda, It’s not an obligation (to live in the real world) but an opportunity. Now I can hope to find someone who help me program that driving music for the trip to the Cape. As it stands, I dont know anyone who can do this in exchange for something I happen to have. If my network doesn’t stretch that far, I am just out of luck. On the other side, is what I like to think of the aluminium siding problem. No one is ever going to make or sell or install aluminium siding unless there is a cash economy that allows them to make a living doing so. There is no intrinsic pleasure here that brings the producer into the world, and moves them to move their “product” onto the net, where I might find them. Without a cash nexus, there will be intrinsic pleasure suppliers I can’t find and extrinsic service/product suppliers that will not exist. Sorry, that’s clumsy. I have a cat leaning heavily on one of my hands and it’s hard to type (and unless I can type good I can’t think good.) Thanks! Grant


    I agree with you entirely and I dont think commercial exchanges produce more interesting things…I think they just are more comprehensive in their coverage (as players pursue advantage by reading taste and filling niches). Indeed the non monetary players are almost always more interesting because they are interesting because they can and they will satisfy their own curiosity (in the creation of a long tail) and ignore the “dictates” of the marketplace. I would hate to think what this blog would look like if I was trying to keep it accessible for the readers of Time magazine. And I agree with you that we need a sorting mechanism.

    Where these things come together is in a better market for the products of the long tail where all of us can pay tiny increments for access to the things we like so sustaining intrinsic players with extrinsic support and establishing a voting system that gives more resources for those we like that they may do more of what we like. As it is, we are all doing the instrinsic stuff in our spare time and we could more and better if there were resources there to support us.



  4. Ed

    Grant, I think we’re making steady progress toward a world in which commercial marketplaces co-exist with “enchanted” ones online. (Great term, that.) I recently wrote about Audioscrobbler (at, which currently provides an “enchanted” semi-service (i.e. it’s free and fun to play with, but not yet commercially viable) that could someday soon be turned into a commercial service (hopefully while maintaining some of its “enchanted” characteristics.

  5. Grant

    Ed, thanks for the link, had a look and it should be quite useful, interestingly this is the kind of thing that allows me to find our about new music without have to surrender regard to one of my friends who found out about it before me. It’s diffusion without agents, or at least human agents who get “paid” in admiration for their trouble. This might mean that early adopters dont get paid as they used to and that there is less early adopting activity as a result. This would be bad, obviously, for the innovators. Thanks! Grant

  6. Ennis

    Placeholder of a comment till I get time to fill it in – it’s hard to enter a marketplace when there is no clear way to signal the quality of your good, and therefore to price it properly. How do you, as a consumer, know whether you’re getting a good or a bad mixlist from somebody? This means more haggling over price, and therefore more transaction costs. Unusual long tail stuff is hard to monetize b/c its hard to price.

  7. MEL

    At the risk of turning this into a nearly all-Ishbadiddle-poster thread (hi, amoeda! hi, Ennis!) I’ll throw out an example to fold into the mix: Meetup. Meetup used to be an enchanted exchange enabling the gathering of like-minded people — then they tried to monetize it, by charging organizers, and everyone fled.

    I also feel like saying the word “whuffie” here. It’s amazing to me what people will do for egoboos, or even a meaningless score.

  8. amoeda

    Thanks, Grant. I was more acerbic in my first comment than I meant to be. I was admittedly provoked by your contention that to move to monetized commerce is to “grow up.” That has been mostly true in the past, and I agree with you that there are goods and services that advance civilization that we could never have if we couldn’t pay cash for them. But as Ennis points out, there are other services, arguably including mixtape making, where the option of entering a reciprocal marketplace actually improves the overall quality of what’s available–for example, maybe DJ X makes the best mixtapes and likes to make them now and again, but since she has a high-paying gig already, she doesn’t want to sell mixes-to-order because she can’t provide them reliably. Not everyone will get a DJ X mixtape, but at least some will. Absent constraints like these (or, as Ennis notes, pricing confusion), we’ll get monetized commerce anyway because people want liquid assets. But to my mind the profusion of alternate marketplaces that make whole new types of things exchangeable is the sign of a maturing economy, not arrested development.

  9. amoeda

    Source of the term “whuffie”: Cory Doctorow’s novella “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” a quick read that I think Grant might enjoy.

  10. Grant

    Ennis, good bad about pricing. Won’t reputation travelling on line help solve this problem. And in fact then it can be tiered play lists, with one price for the basic compilations and an additional charge for the extent to which they are customized for the person, for the occasion of the person. Actually, what happens to pricing should be one of the sensational changes created by the internet, but I havent really thought it through. But the principle here is that I will pay in proportion to the “fit” between me and the product. This already happens in the non internet marketplace obviously, with some people living in more or less customized homes and the rest of us having to do with “standard issue.” Hmmm. Thanks. Grant

    MEL, thats precisely my point, why do people flee when something like Meetup starts to charge. What planet are we living in. Do we really think that Meetup should have created all this value…for nothing. This isnt so much enchanted as delirious. So my move from Movable Type to Typepad, I was kind of wondering when and how I would be able to reward these innovators.

    I dont know what wuffie means but now, thanks to Amoeda, I now know where to look. Thanks.

    Amoeda, This is naive of me, I’m sure, but don’t all markets start “fat” and then develop “long tails” when there is enough wealth that we can support people part time to create things for which there is not enough demand to sustain them full time and enough concentrations of interest that the mainstream begins to fragment. In this moment, people are all “about” satisfying themselves and they do so without regard to what the consumer wants and where the “fat” part of the market is. Most of them will say stuff like, “I do this for myself and if others like it, fine.” Now the market kind of turns inside out. For a long time it exercises a conservative effect on cultural productions. It pushes producers to care about utility more than expression and when addressing the latter, to move to the fat part of the marketplace not the tail. But once people are producing part time, for themselves and a couple of others, now the constraints come off, and cultural innovation is now feverish. So, yes, this is what maturing markets do. It’s like the next step after division of labor. DofL says that people can devote themselves to one thing and everyone will reap the rewards that come therefore. Post DofL says, now someone can devote themselves to one thing and to whatever they can imagine in that domain. Clearly, I am just babbling and now I’m going to stop. Thanks! Grant

  11. MEL

    Sorry for referencing “whuffie” without reference — an annoying habit of mine, to assume that everyone’s carrying the same culture referents as I do. Here’s the wikipedia article on same:

    (Heck, I just edited the article, just to clean up some language — Wikipedia is an excellent example of this post’s subject.)

    As to the Meetup question — it’s true, we shouldn’t expect something for nothing. Part of the problem is that they built a strong community (or a series of strong communities) without charging. Then they attempted to monetize those communities. I’d argue that this is psychologically different from starting to charge for a service. Example: When Six Apart began to charge for their latest Movable Type version, I may not have *liked* it, but I was free in the marketplace to make my own choice — move to a different system, keep using the old free version, or pay them for an upgrade. I recognize that Six Apart is a company, and that companies have loss leaders.

    But changing over from free to paid feels different when it’s a community. Imagine that I’ve started a salon in my living room. People come, the conversation is great, the reputation of my salon grows. One day I stand before the salon and say, you know, I have to pay rent here, so if you want to keep coming you’ll have to pay me. The normal response, I think, would be — why do we have to meet at your place at all?

  12. Grant

    MEL, Shouldn’t we regard all experiments as being in the trial phase. An innovator knows that the innovation is so innovative that, chances are, we are not going to pay for it. At this point in the product cycle, we cant even be sure what kind of value the innovation is likely to generate for us, or whether indeed it will generate any at all…so it’s unreasonable to expect that we are prepared to pay. (We are indeed paying something just be trying it out, because without this adoption it will be impossible for Meetup to see what Meetup can do.) But after adoption and the demonstration of value, now it’s time to say, “Ok, hand it over.” Anything else reproduces that Alice in Wonderland quality of the run up. I think. Thanks! Grant

  13. Matt

    To reproduce the AiW quality of the DotCom era, I think you’d need to build in the supposition that _hobbies_ can scale unmodified into _public corporations_. Which, while very occasionally true, is a bad heuristic for judging investment prospects.

    But I think it’s a gross error to define “success” so high that an idea can only be successful if it’s so huge that it’s easy to monetize…or even to universally define success in monetary terms at all.

    Now, unlike some, I have absolutely nothing against making money. I’m running a business that I expect to make a great deal of it, based on an idea my partner and I had for ways to reduce the expenses and general pain involved in other businesses, and I make no apologies for my profit motive.

    But a large part of the beauty of the internet is that it allows people to bring ideas to a global audience for a cost so negligible that the ideas can catch on and become viable in a huge community, _without_ the need to monetize them in order to recoup expenses and produce a profit.

    Some ideas produce real value but are nevertheless hard to successfully monetize. seems a good example. (I can think of a few ways that could have been more successfully monetized, but none of them are either obvious or foolproof.) This does not make them failures unless their creators view success entirely in monetary terms (or, as may be the case with meetup, have sold their souls to investors on the basis of unrealistic RoI projections).

    So, hooray for the folks who can monetize their ideas successfully…it’s harder than it looks and they deserve every dime they can make. But let’s put aside the condescending about “the real world” for those who either choose not to focus on ease of monetization or find themselves confronted with value too diffuse to successfully capture. Whether you believe it or not, they live in the real world too, and some of them are doing a lot to make it a better place.

  14. Grant

    Matt, Hey, I’m not saying we shouldn’t use the net for enchanted purposes, I have done so myself at onsiderable expense, but I am saying its wrong to take umbrage when someone wishes to monetize the thing, esp. when it sounds like we are objecting to the very idea of running the thing on a commercial basis. I am sorry if I sould condescending, but this aspect of the internet puts me in mind of those people who now take umbrage when their internet cafe askes them to at least order a coffee when they sit for 5 hours. Actually, it reminds me, somewhat more distantly, of that American farmer who responded to the public outcry that met the slaughter of pigs during, I think, the depression. (The market price had fallen.) “What do you think we raised them for, pets?” To extract value and then to take umbrage when someone asks us to pay for it doesn’t seem realistic. Thanks! Grant

  15. steve

    This is not just a question of “maturity” of people or the market. Long ago, Esther Dyson pointed out that the internet world was going to be one where very few people were going to be able to make a living providing “content.” This was because there would be so much competition out there with so many very close substitutes, including people who put out content for free as a loss leader or a hobby, that no one would be able to charge high enough prices to make a living. This prediction may be coming true. Poltical blogging, for example, is gradually destroying opinion journalism for all but a few high-profile players who act as touchstones, exactly as Dyson predicted.

    Her corollary prediction was that people would instead be paid for “performances,” such as public speaking or consulting or executive teaching, because these can’t be copied so easily and don’t scale well given the human desire for physical presence. This prediction also seems to be coming true.

    Lots of people got pretty upset with Dyson when she made these arguements. Writers, in particular, thought it unfair and wrong that they should have to learn to be public speakers to make a living. Her protestation that she was predicting, not advocating, these trends fell largely on deaf ears.

  16. Grant

    Steve, I think we are looking at the advent, or better the return, of the Victorian amateur, people astonishingly expert in their chosen fields, and working almost completely without the benefit of institution or even professonal support. It is to some extent because the internet now gives them a venue for their work that they may now engage it without appear to invite appellation of kook or eccentric. They have an audience, even if they communicate it with it by means of muttered posts on a neglected blog (see above). But as long as they are creating value that cannot be found elsewhere then there should be no point of principle that says they must not charge. If they can, fine; if they can’t, fine. Some seem to argue that making money is in and of itself a disagreeable thing…as if we were all landed aristocrats who shouldnt be seen to be exerting themselves. Dyson’s point strikes me as really apt. Do you have the reference? One note, though: how close are these close substitutes. To talk of blogs: If you are using a blog or several of them as the conning tower for a new company, say, I wonder if merely close is close enough, and whether the risk warrants the small slivers of value that blogs might ask for. Thanks, Grant

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