Innovation Blog


Future Boy: The Culture of Participation

The Culture of Participation
Startups like JotSpot and Zazzle are cashing in on the creativity of their
By Erick Schonfeld, July 18, 2005

Blogs, wikis, Flickr, Zazzle. These are not the names of strange aliens
from other planets. They are the expressions of an emerging culture right
here on Earth. It’s a culture in which every citizen is a publisher,
photographer, programmer, or product designer. It’s a culture that's
blurring the lines between amateur and professional, consumer and creator.
It’s the culture of participation.
Blogs have given rise to millions of citizen journalists, all
self-publishing maniacally in search of an audience. Wikis, of course, are
group blogs that turn the participation dial up a notch by allowing
multiple authors to contribute to the same webpage. The photo-sharing
website Flickr is a natural consequence of the spread of digital cameras:
Snap pictures, download them to a computer, and upload them to the Web
(where friends, or anyone else, can see them). Video will be next.
But the culture of participation goes beyond blogs, wikis, and showing off
your digital photos. Joe Kraus, one of the original founders of Excite, is
now CEO of JotSpot, a corporate wiki subscription service. He says, "I
think wikis are the tip of a larger trend: do-it-yourself."
While wikis make it easy for people to publish a communal website, Kraus
thinks "the next leap is to make it easy for people to publish an
application." He's talking about taking a lot of the stuff that people
currently manage in Excel spreadsheets and making it simple to publish
those things on the Web as applications that can, say, track deals,
contracts, projects, or wedding invitations. In other words, he wants to
make it easy for people to create their own custom software and share it
with friends and colleagues without having to know how to write a single
line of code.
The basic premise of the culture of participation is that any content that
can be created digitally can be shared with the world. And, consequently,
any digital content can be turned into a product and sold on the Web.
That's the fundamental insight of a startup called Zazzle, which has been
quietly building a business over the past two years by allowing anyone to
upload digital images to its website and print them on T-shirts, posters,
and greeting cards. Starting today, Zazzle will also sell stamps that can
be customized with pictures of your dog or Mickey Mouse. (Branded images
from Disney, Fox, and other companies are available for mixing and
matching as well.)
Here's the catch: Zazzle is more than just a do-it-yourself site. Many
people choose to make their photos or artwork available to anyone who
visits. Zazzle has thousands of branded images on the site, but hundreds
of thousands more are contributed by individuals. Members generally
receive a 10 percent royalty every time one of their images is used for a
T-shirt or poster Zazzle sells. (Disney and Fox get many times more than
that.) "The marketplace succeeds only if we can offer something for
everyone," explains Zazzle CEO Robert Beaver. That's why he offers the
full spectrum, from Winnie the Pooh posters to sci-fi artwork created by
freelance graphic designers. It's worth noting, however, that the majority
of Beaver's sales (he won't reveal an exact figure but claims it's in the
millions) come from the customer-generated images.
Zazzle takes the idea of consumer participation (and mass customization)
to a new level. Not only is there an almost infinite variety of product
combinations that consumers can create on the site, but if they don't find
what they like, they can add their own digital creations to the mix. "It
allows people to express their creativity in digital form and then allows
them to turn those into products either for themselves or for other
people," explains Ram Shriram, who recently participated in a $16 million
venture investment in the company with John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins
Caufield & Byers. (Both Shriram and Doerr were also early investors in
Google.) Shriram adds, "I clearly was not just looking at it from the
perspective of T-shirts and posters. I think this idea ultimately can be
Someday the culture of participation will enable not only personalized
stamps but personalized fabrication of things like electronics,
automobiles, and furniture. Somebody just has to figure out how to bring
computer-aided design software to the masses. Maybe that can be Joe
Kraus's next startup. It's not such a crazy idea. If the Web teaches us
anything, it's that a lot of people out there would rather make things
themselves than rely on some company (or corporate IT person, for that
matter) to do it for them.