The Internet is a bit of an oddity when you try to compare its real world counterparts. Take for example this blog, in the real world it would be akin to a column in a newspaper or perhaps a small publication done off my own back. The big difference is the barrier to entry as writing a regular column for a newspaper takes either the right connections or some kind of journalistic training/merit. With the Internet you have what would be the equivalent of a newspaper shop offering to publish your content for free to unlimited numbers of people (blog networks) no matter what you actually end up writing. The extremely low barrier to entry extends to other markets as well with online businesses able to replicate their much larger real world competitors at a fraction of the cost.
I’ve always said that one of the fears that nags away at the back of my head (which also makes it one of my biggest motivators) is that some genius kid will stumble across this blog, see Geon and the value it represents and code the whole thing in a weekend marathon hack session. Then before I have a chance to release it upon the world they’ll release theirs and I’ll be left here holding my proverbial, sobbing quietly in a corner somewhere. This comes back to the low barrier of entry which, when coupled with a successful but not-too-technical service, leads to a flurry of me-too type services all hoping to grab a share of the emerging market.
To give you some examples I can name 2 types of services that up until recently no one would’ve thought there would be a use for yet now there are at least half a dozen examples out in the wild. The first, which I blogged about a week ago, is the new social networking technology of checking in to locations in order to alert your friends you’re there, usually coupled with some kind of gaming aspect to hook you in. The list of services making use of this idea seems to be growing daily with a few examples being: Foursquare, Gowalla, BrightKite, Booyah, Yelp and Scvngr. This is not even mentioning some other services that, whilst not focused on check-ins, include them as part of their overall product.
The second is URL shortening services. Whilst long and cumbersome URLs have plagued the Internet for many years they really haven’t been a problem since if you’re sending a URL to someone else they were usually on either email and IM, which usually didn’t restrict your character limit. With the explosion of micro-blogging services with their artificial limits on post size people sought solutions in order to be able to share content on these networks. I can remember way back when in 2002 when TinyURL debuted their service and whilst it was nice to have some short links (especially considering mod_rewrite still appeared to be black magic to most people) I didn’t need it unless the link was really obscenely long, and was only really needed if it had characters that broke on copy and paste. Still today TinyURL is going strong (rated 711 most visited site on Alexa) and its list of imitators is long including services like: 3.ly, bit.ly, ow.ly, cli.gs, is.gd, yourls.com and many specific URL shortners like youtu.be and tcrn.ch.
At its heart this is the real power of the medium of the Internet. With traditional forms of media and business the barrier to entry is quite high, to the point of being out of the reach for the everyman. On the Internet however, where resources are near limitless and the currency of choice is not the almighty dollar, the only limitation really is how much effort you are willing to put in. That also leads to a rampant world of copy-cats where any service that enjoys even a mild success will be duplicated to no end by many people across the Internet. The key then remains how you differentiate yourself from the competition, as you won’t be unique for very long. It appears that for the majority of services there’s room for one giant and a myriad of others that cater to a specific need or location. There’s nothing wrong with being one of many but if you’re thinking of doing something new online it’s best to think about how to deal with the competition before they arrive, rather than pretending like you’re the only one who can do what you do.