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On Web, Imagination Knows No Bounds

New sites represent new ways of creating markets for products or services that wouldn't have existed in the 'old economy.'

September 11, 2000|ESTHER DYSON

One of the dangers of writing about something as controversial as Napster is all the e-mail it provokes. It has helped me realize the extraordinary fertility of the minds out there. As I said in a previous column, it's not about morals; it's about business models.

For the last few weeks, I've been surfing the Web and checking out new sites. Many seem to be an attempt to replace or imitate Napster--variations on file-sharing and downloading--but many show a great deal more imagination.

They don't represent new ways of selling the same old things but new ways of creating new markets for products or services that would not have existed in the "old economy." They do everything from making your personal snapshots available to a broader, commercial audience to putting your name in professionally drawn cartoons.

They are exciting because all of them, in some sense, put the power of institutions to the service of individuals.

Here's a sampling of what I've found. (Some of these ventures I may invest in, though I have not yet done so. Most are still in the early stages of development.)

One site that came about as a result of Napster, but that is not a clone, is (, started by a couple of Waterloo University kids in Canada. If you have listened to "free" music on Napster (or elsewhere) and you'd like to make a voluntary contribution to the artist but don't know how, you can simply send it to, which will pass it on minus credit-card and direct-processing fees.

For what it's worth, the founders are contributing their time and other costs--not a sustainable business model, but a good way to start. Some in the music community think this is a great idea, whereas others think it's a cheap and insidious way for people to assuage their guilt.

Personally, I think it's a nice addition to the mix, and it lets people act easily on their generous (or guilty) impulses. The take so far: about $2,500.

Another approach is Idealive (, which helps artists collect money for projects they want to undertake. The concept is to provide an informal exchange where artists and investor fans can find each other.

Idealive enables people to support the kinds of projects they want to see created--art films or music targeted toward particular demographics such as Latinos or lesbians (or Latino lesbians). It can be used by artists with fervent but limited markets. Friends can share their enthusiasm with friends.

It sidesteps the current system in which most projects go through the funnel of established distribution channels, which often weed out non-mainstream projects. With Idealive, the artists have some chance of finding their audiences and getting funding.

The Idealive approach begs the question, of course, of how the project will make money. But at least some fans are more interested in seeing the project happen and the art created than in collecting money after the fact.

Two issues for this enterprise: The project descriptions should make clear whether the goal is just to make art or to make money as well as art. And second, like it or not, Idealive eventually will have to take on some "regulatory" functions to verify the legitimacy of the projects being posted.

In a slightly different vein, there's

(, which lets individuals and small businesses post and sell their digital photographs and videos. It's a giant photo bureau that describes the inventory in a richly indexed online catalog and collects small fees for the content providers.

When I was a kid, we used to cross the United States by car in the summer. My mother once snapped a delightful photo of my brother and me sitting on a gas station island, rapturously enjoying a couple of bottles of Pepsi. We had no idea how to get this picture to the Pepsi people; with we might have had a chance.

The customers range from someone trying to make a collage of images for an artwork to a brand-name company looking for images of its product in flattering situations to news sources looking for videos of events by amateurs.

Of course, there are issues of verifying authenticity and ownership, but the service turns "passive," or amateur, producers into people who can find a broad outlet for their work.

In this scenario, marketers buy photos to gain the attention of consumers, but what consumers really want is attention back. Just a week ago I got an e-mail from an online newsletter to which I subscribe, offering me a personalized cartoon. An easy sell; I was hooked. I went to the site, and pretty quickly there it was--a hen scolding her offspring: "I don't care what Esther Dyson lets her chickens do. You're not crossing the street!"

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