The importance of cloning on the Internet

Tracing the history of a technology helps a lot when you’re working out what features matter and how to apply them. The building blocks of the Internet such as the web server, web browser, and network transport protocols hold the keys to a lot of insights if you look closely at how they work.

Take the primary function of Apache’s http web server, for example. When you ask a web site for a page the web server doesn’t give you the original. It makes a copy to give to you.

The effect of seeing that page on your computer makes you feel like you have opened a window directly to that site. In fact, you’re really just holding a copy of what you asked for, just like everyone else.

The experience is like magic, and I’m often still in awe of it all 20 years after installing my first web browser.

That’s not all. The page you asked for gets split up into little bits which each get a destination address and assembly instructions stamped onto them so they know where to go and how to reassemble at the other end.

Perhaps the inventor of the Internet is actually Roald Dahl as the founding fathers were clearly inspired by Wonkavision.

This copy-and-send idea has been translated and reapplied in a lot of different ways since the web server was first created.

The whole world of reposts and retweets is fundamentally an extension of the way the web server responds to a request. However these fresh interpretations include the brilliant addition of stamping the source of the re-whatever as a new point of distribution where further copies are offered to others.

Whereas this kind of activity happened only at the deepest levels of the Internet’s architecture they have now been exposed at the surface so that normal people can do the same thing. The effects have been incredible to watch as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook took off largely as a result of applying these concepts in their own ways.

We’re basically taking about cloning the original data and offering it back out with some amendments.

The first consumer-y ‘cloning’ feature that really struck me was Yahoo! Pipes in early 2007. You could create a data feed using Pipes, and then others could clone your feed and adjust it for their needs. It had this incredible jumpstarting effect where more advanced users would identify useful things to do first and others could learn from them by copying their work and adjusting it for themselves – self-serve vocational training at its best.

Of course, ‘cloning’ things and making them your own is an idea as old as language. Anyone with children knows this is natural human behavior. But it is a core principle of the way the Internet works that often fails to find its way into digital services that would benefit from it.

The API boom of the last decade was a wholesale deployment of cloning at scale. Many API providers fail to offer services that benefit either the clonee or the cloner, but those that do find their core business expanding at pace with the Internet’s growth as opposed to expanding at pace with their customer acquisition strategy.

Uber is the latest startup to grasp the importance of a loosely connected and distributed business model. According to TechCrunch they plan to allow others to add Uber functionality into their products. Those products will be better and Uber will get more business. Everybody wins.

It’s not unlike McDonald’s franchise model, though there’s a big difference between 1) franchising the way something works vs 2) franchising the whole business and brand.

The first is simply encouraging the replicate features of Internet software to do what they already do. The second is a lot more complicated and controlling and requires a very committed partner network. The first requires only seeding to get started. The second requires financial incentives which may take a long time to become meaningful.

It’s very easy to get caught up in controlling your brand as it gets copied and distributed around the world from web server to web server. That paranoia will lead to features that curb activity rather than encourage more usage.

The trick is to build cloning as an integral piece of the business, not just technically but core to the way the business operates and succeeds.

Your software wants to clone stuff, so let it.

Preconstructionism and the crowdfunding revolution

“Crowdfunding is just capitalism by another name,” according to one of the attendees I spoke with at Activate Summit in July.

I get why he felt that way after such a long day of talks – a steady stream of crowdfunding experts with relentless enthusiasm talking about how it’s going to change everything. It did feel like going to crowdfunding church with all that hype. But he was complaining to the wrong person. I’m in the camp that believes the market-making fueled by crowdfunding is much more important than just another flavor of capitalism.

Crowdfunding is an enabler of the total overhaul of every aspect of production of everything.

Perhaps this is revisionist history before it’s time, but I’m hopeful we’ll look back at the many institutions created by and because of the industrial revolution designed intentionally to prefabricate the world for consumption purposes in the name of profit and see them eroding over time, replaced with people-powered processes and products that help us to create and grow things, to strengthen our relationships to each other, the institutions that support us and the environment.

At a basic level we’re seeing people take back control of production.

People are using these new crowdfunding markets to get backing for ideas before they are made, a step in the production process that bakes in the customer appetite when it gets released. The manufacturing process for just about everything increasingly relies on a distributed networked supply chain rather than a string of dependencies and expensive capital investments. And distribution increasingly happens through a lifecycle of development, evolution and re-distribution rather than a one-time manufacture-and-deliver model.

At a macro level we are witnesses to a deconstruction and redistribution of every aspect of making things – a revolution with deeper implications than we initially imagined when the Internet first became a thing. The American dream is being realized at super scale.

Academics will surely call this era “Preconstructionism” or some sort of similar term that symbolizes the change in emphasis from the output of things to the process of creation itself.

While many aspects of the manufacturing process have already opened up and become collaborative experiences, it wasn’t until crowdfunding came along that the new production model found a consistent supply of commercial fuel. And now that the marketplace has its method of payment established I think we’re about to see enormous growth in this space.

It’s quickly becoming a viable reality for all types of production from consumer electronics, to real estate projects to journalism as we’re doing with Contributoria.

Yes, crowdfunding can be considered capitalism by another name, but that’s like saying the Internet is just another media channel. Super investor John Doerr once famously said during the first dotcom boom that the Internet is underhyped. Similarly today I think we’re miles away from crowdfunding’s peak hype and even further from realizing it’s full potential.