We've argued, for a long time, that just railing against "middlemen" misses the point. There are always middlemen. But not all middlemen are created equal. The distinction, that we've discussed multiple times, is the difference between enablers and gatekeepers
. That is, historically, many middlemen came to power because they were gatekeepers. If you wanted to do something -- be a musician, write a book, sell a new product -- you effectively had to get "approval" and support from a gatekeeper who had access to those markets. Being a gatekeeper gave them enormous power, such that the gatekeepers often became central
to the market, rather than the people/companies they were working with and it also allowed them to craft ridiculous deals that were incredibly favorable to themselves, at the expense of those they were working with. That, of course, is why there tends to be so much inherent antipathy towards traditional gatekeepers.
In contrast to that -- and what we found most exciting about many of the new companies that had popped up over the last decade or two -- was the rise of middlemen as "enablers." These were situations where the middlemen weren't gatekeepers, and weren't "required" to do what you wanted to do. Instead, they were companies that helped give people/organizations a lift up on what they were trying to do, while keeping them and their work (rather than the middlemen) central to the market. So, when you see things like eBay or Etsy or Kickstarter, those are more enablers (and, yes, they do have some restrictions on use, but they're more policy based
, rather than "can you make us money"-based).
Of course, the truth is that there's a spectrum
along which these middlemen lie. It's not two separate buckets, where "enablers" are here and "gatekeepers" are there. Rather, intermediary companies often fall somewhere along that spectrum. It seems somewhat clear that, for the most part, newer
firms are becoming successful by being enablers, rather than gatekeepers. But... they don't necessarily remain enablers their whole lives. One thing that is worth paying close attention to, is how companies shift over time, and when they start to shift from being enablers to being gatekeepers.
In fact, it seems like some of the big "clashes" we've been seeing in the tech/web world lately are along those lines. Lots of people have talked about Instagram and Twitter fighting with each other
, which is just the latest in a series of "fights" among hot web companies blocking each other. Considering that many of these companies grew up on a web 2.0 ethos of openness and sharing -- and we're now watching them get more locked down, proprietary and limiting -- it seems obvious that some of these companies are moving along the spectrum from enabler to gatekeeper.
Anil Dash recently wrote a great post in which he frets about the fact that we're effectively losing key parts of the open web
, which made the web great. You should read the whole post, as I couldn't do it justice summarizing it here. Again, it seems like many of his points are really about some of the more successful "internet" companies moving along that spectrum more towards the gatekeeper side of things, and that clashing with the more open spirit that the enablers built their reputations on. Dash, rightly, points out that this is self-correcting over time. We shouldn't necessarily fear the new gatekeepers, mainly because a gatekeeper business model, while lucrative in the short-term, is unsustainable in the long term
. Companies, which move along that chain chasing the easy money, need to learn that they do so at their own peril. Becoming a gatekeeper merely opens up massive opportunity for a new enabler to disrupt you
. That's a lesson that too many companies learn way too late.
That said, Dash fears that because a new generation is growing up in a world with more closed systems, that we may lose some generational knowledge of what came before:
This isn't some standard polemic about "those stupid walled-garden networks are bad!" I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They're amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they're based on a few assumptions that aren't necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.
The first step to disabusing them of this notion is for the people creating the next generation of social applications to learn a little bit of history, to know your shit, whether that's about Twitter's business model or Google's social features or anything else. We have to know what's been tried and failed, what good ideas were simply ahead of their time, and what opportunities have been lost in the current generation of dominant social networks.
I both agree and disagree. I'm among those who get a bit frustrated when I see new entrepreneurs trying something that was done before -- and they seem to have no knowledge of it (ditto for reporters who cover the big "new thing" without mentioning that half a dozen companies did exactly the same thing a decade earlier). But, some of that, I'll admit, may just be the onset of old fogeyism. Yes, there's value in knowing the past, and learning from it, but there is also value in the naivete with which some new entrepreneurs jump into the pool -- often not fully understanding the past. Will they repeat some of the mistakes? Sure. Absolutely. But not being burdened with the past can sometimes be a key ingredient in redoing something that failed in the past, and in somehow making that slight unexpected tweak that just makes it work
So, I agree wholeheartedly that the "new gatekeepers" mean that we've lost some sense of what made the last generation of internet companies great. And I do hope that the next generation that comes along can similarly disrupt the last generation, often by being the enablers that break up their new gatekeeper role. And I think that companies who understand the history of how enablers disrupt gatekeepers should understand why progressing down that spectrum in search of short-term profits can lead to long-term pain. So I think it's wise for those companies
to learn from history. But I'm less worried about the new entrepreneurs jumping into the space. They'll likely find their opportunities in being the new enablers, because that's where the disruption occurs.
Watching the cycles of innovation can be a fascinating (and at times frustrating) past time. Companies make the same mistakes over and over again. The ones, which actually don't fall for the usual traps, are few and far between. But, in the long run, the new startups tend to be pretty good at showing the old guard that they chose the wrong path.