Today a colleague and I were chatting about some random topic (so random I can’t honestly remember what it was) that spun into a discussion of that “SeatGuru Guy”. My colleague mentioned the Fortune article that talked about how the guy behind SeatGuru makes $120k/year (back in 2004) from advertising on his website that he originally started as a hobby.
This then lead to a discussion of my friend’s HotSpotr community driven wifi database site. Andre built this web application as an exercise in Ruby on Rails development, made it accessible to anyone to add hotspot info into it, and then began telling his network of contacts about it. About 4 months later, it has grown into a DB of 1100-ish wifi spots from around the country. Andre has invested a bit more time to add new features to it and the site’s community continues to grow. Now, in itself, this application isn’t anything unique in nature…wifi database sites have been around for a while and there are a number of them that have many more hotspots listed than Andre’s. But I still use Andre’s.
Why? Because it’s the best functioning wifi application I have found! It’s mashed-up with Google Maps, provides useful ancillary information about places with free wifi, allows me to find what I’m looking for with only two page views, and recently even provides a mobile interface (which I have used a number of times while on the road). It works, it works very well, and it’s getting better. So I tell everyone about it and give back to the community by adding new spots when I find them. (Keep up the great work Andre!)
At this point, it’s still advertising free. Andre did this as a project to learn a new technology in his spare time but also to develop something that he hoped others could use. Back in the early days of the web (the Mosaic era), I created something similar–a free service listing Freenets/Community Networks around the country. I did it because I was involved with my local Freenet, and thought others would find the service valuable (they did, I even won a few of the early “web awards” for the site). This is the altruistic root of community…and what makes most great community web sites great.
My concern here is that we are loosing our understanding of what is meant by community. How many of the other hotspot sites out there make money off of their service though the advertising fees? There is nothing wrong with that in itself. I’m sure most of these sites started off just like Andre’s. But when these sites start focusing more on the form of how to drive more advertising revenue (i.e., make users visit more pages before they find what they want, plaster as many ads on the page as possible to drive up the revenue per view) versus the function of how to provide great value, they lose sight of why they started. Form wins over Function. The trust of the community is broken.
[I’m using Andre’s site as an simple, personal example. You can see this same thing in the histories of a number of the Web 2.0 companies. The most successful (the measurement of which ranges from number of users to acquisition cost) understand this battle and have walked the fine line of pleasing their community by still providing value while having the community fund them in a fashion that doesn’t alienate the community.]
In the debate of Form versus Function, I’ll side with function every time. However, I’m also a pragmatist…I have a mortgage to pay just like others and I understand the reason behind placing ads on a site. If Andre’s site becomes popular enough, I wouldn’t blame him if joins Google’s AdSense network. It’s when the Form starts taking precedence over the function of the service originally offered that I’ll have to have a little conversation with Andre (most likely over drinks…Delusion Andre?).
This leads me a new little twist in the eternal battle of Form versus Function…Gimme Some Candy. Gimme Some Candy is the way zefrank, my current favorite vloggers, funds his video blog the show with zefrank. I stumbled across his vlog when a fellow business travel showed it to me in the concierge lounge of our hotel during a recent trip. zefrank created this idea to fund his vlog without advertising by simple letting people donate money to him if they like what they saw. Each episode, you can give him some candy by donating to sponsoring his show. The more you donate, the bigger and flashier the icon you get. These icons (and any text message you want to share with the world) are then displayed on the following episode. So not only is zefrank funding his show, he is providing a way for the community to rate his shows and also allow the sponsors to do some advertising (the text appears as a tooltip for your icon) .
(pssttt…ze: bring back your “favorites” list of the shows that brought in the most candy…)
What I love about his concept is the simplicity and elegance of it. Function wins with a creative nod to Form. The community supports the service and service provider (capitalism at it’s best).
In a word….Brilliant!