January 13, 2006

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Million Dollar Meme

How many of us have jokingly come up with the idea of asking a million people for $1 in return for effectively nothing? Maybe an email that says "I gave Jason Gorman $1 and all I got was this lousy email".

Recently someone did exactly that. They took an image made up of exactly 1,000,000 pixels and sold it off 100px at a time for $1 a pixel. Actually, the final few 100px slices of the milliondollarhomepage.com pie were reportedly auctioned for about $38,000 on eBay.

The creator of the site must be laughing all the way to the bank. We need to be objective about this, though. In reality, taking the dollar-pound exchange rate into account, and the 40%+ he'll have to pay in income tax and other sundry duties (I suspect Value Added Tax should have applied, for example - so he might expect a visit from Customs & Excise any day soon), he's probably made barely a couple of hundred grand from the scheme. In today's money, this doesn't make him wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. It's not to be sneezed at, but he's not a millionaire, or even anywhere near.

What interested me most was the way in which he engineered the whole thing. It's an astonishingly simple idea. Take 1,000,000-worth of something that costs you next to nothing (like pixels on a web page), carve it up into lots, and sell them off. Cripes, I wish I'd thought of that.

But there was a little more to it than that. First of all, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the site got more and more media attention, that drove more and more visitors to the site, raising the value of each 100px lot. The more visitors the site got, and the more lots sold, the more media attention the site got. It's a classic positive feedback loop.

There was also some skill - or great luck - in the design of the meme that made it much more readily transmittable. The idea was so simple that anybody would immediately get it. It was so audacious that people couldn't help spreading the news about it. And the sob story behind it, that the creator was a poor student who needed money for his studies, removed some of the usual resistence we have to handing over money for no good reason.

So successful is the meme he created that it has mutated and can now be seen in a million copy-cat schemes, like the Mile Wall and 1000tags.com.

Here we can see a microcosm of the cycle of innovation and exploitation. Some kid fresh in college comes up with a neat idea and makes $1,000,000. Then a million other kids (and grown-ups, no doubt) copy the idea, which effectively devalues it. We can see this pattern everywhere. How many Palm clones are there? How many rip-offs of The X Files? How many bands that sound a bit like The Beatles?

Sadly, most people are largely imitators and not innovators, and many businesses make their money ripping off other people's original ideas and evolving them slightly to find their own market niche. The trick to making money out of memes is to ensure you get a slice out of the copies, as well as the original invention.
Posted 2 weeks, 6 days ago on January 13, 2006