Micro-Fads, Micro-Markets

A couple weeks ago, Stephen Colbert pointed to a URL that I assumed was fake. Of course, I immediately hit it, and was shocked to find that not only did it exist, it was hawking Cafepress wares directly related to the episode. Weirdness! Even weirder: the domain had only been registered that day.

Coincidence? Although one could be led to believe that this was a set-up by some clever (read: underpaid) Daily Show staffer, I’m actually willing to believe it’s an example of the increase in speed at which individual small-time entrepreneurs are acting to capture transient markets that exist on only very compressed time scales. When you think about it, these entrepreneurs have an extremely narrow window of opportunity – in this particular case, the entrepreneur only had maybe three hours between the broadcast in New York and the re-broadcast on the west coast. That’s three hours to register a domain, configure a web server to host the domain, create a few web pages and a Cafepress store, and generate artwork to host in the store.

Granted, an intrepid hacker in the Daily Show audience may have had most of the requisite resources at their disposal already, and simply registered the domain via their smartphone, thereby buying themselves another half-dozen hours. Still, even considering the relatively simple and amateurish nature of both the web site and its wares, it’s still a pretty neat trick. It takes an action-oriented individual with the means to pull disparate pieces together and get anything done so quickly. When’s the last time you built a web-based business in three to six hours?

Probably never, I’m guessing.

I saw this same stunt repeated in the wake of Bill Gate’s “creative communists” remark recently. Instantly, artists pillaged Cold-War era Soviet propaganda, reworked it into a Creative Commons motif, and released it to the world. Most popular: the Creative Commies T-Shirt – for $5!

While I’m impressed by this phenomenon, I’m not willing to believe that all businesses are necessarily suited to this model of action-reaction. In many ways, this is just the evolution of the same phenomenon that drove people to sell “I survived the Generic Natural Disaster of This Month” t-shirts with some success. However, the omnipresent nature of the web gives us a view into the things people want, and underlines the fact that opportunity is everywhere. The more tools we have, the easier it gets to throw together something that’s relatively successful in a short period of time, bootstrapped, in part, by the temporary focus of public attention on a short-lived phenomenon.

This trend has its advantages and its disadvantages. Although it has the power to help anyone create a product quickly, most of these products are inevitably something that can be created easily. Doesn’t this just focus on the impulse? Can anything truly worthwhile in the long term be created with such haste? I’m still chewing on that question – I’d like to say “no”, but I can think of instance where markets have coalesced quickly, mostly due to intersection of shifts in social attitudes, costs of production, and other reactants for change.

I’m inclined to say that just because it’s fast, doesn’t mean it’s worthless.