March 2004 purchasing online communities

UPDATE 4/1/04: This was, in fact, all an elaborate April Fool’s hoax perpatrated by the moderators of the board. And I fell for it hook, line and sinker!

The Chainmaille Board is a niche web community for both professional and amateur artisans who make chainmaille jewelry and armor, one of the three big discussion boards for this community (the other two being the Maille Artisans International League and The Ring Lord Chainmail Forum). The board is run by “Lord” Charles DeCordene, who like The Ring Lord also sells his own supplies and jewelry, both to and in competition with other members of the community. The balance between fostering a community and competing with other members in that community is a universal issue from everywhere from niche hobbies to global industries, but that balance was shifted last week when Lord Charles announced that the discussion board was being purchased lock, stock and barrel by Wal-Mart.

Now the site’s new banner sports a “Provided by Wal*Mart, Always Low Prices” logo, and the splash page explains what the purchase will mean to the community:

First, here is what it doesn’t mean:

  • We will under no circumstances sell your email addresses to anyone.
  • We will under no circumstances send you promotional e-mail (also known as SPAM). On rare occasions we may send members a PM or an email should an urgent matter arise (i.e., if your posts contain inappropriate language or images).
  • TCB will continue to have no pop-up ads. We find these annoying, and believe it would drive members away. So quite simply, we’re not going to do it.
  • We will not censor your political statements. We believe in free speech. However posts that contain profanity or statements and images that we believe are offensive to the family-nature of the board will be deleted.

And what it does mean:

  • Increased tech support: We will soon set up a 24-hour chat forum where members can ask any technical questions.
  • Easily accessible archives: Building on previous TCB efforts, we will compile a list of articles and gallery photos to make the board the best resource on Chain Mail available on the Internet.
  • Connections to other board members: Because Wal-Mart is sponsoring multiple boards, we will offer members on all boards the option of registering with our General Community Board. This board will provide you the opportunity to find members in your area with similar interests. We are considering hosting monthly shopping days at certain Wal-Mart locations where members can gather together for a day of fun! It is up to you how involved you choose to be.
  • Opportunity to sell your chain mail: Our General Community Board will have an online store that has not only Wal-Mart products, but also products of interest to our board members. In the B y Our Members area, members can post items they would like to sell. Think of it as a larger version of the Trading Post currently on TCB. Unlike many other online stores and auction sites, it will be absolutely free to post up to 15 items per month.
  • Store Discounts: Beginning in June 2004, Members of Wal-Mart boards will be able to apply online for our new CyberCustomer Discount Card (CCDC). There is no annual membership fee and owners of a CCDC card will save 5% on all Wal-Mart purchases over $20.

We hope that you are as pleased as we are about this exciting venture. We look forward to building a successful relationship with every member here.

On the one hand, Wal-Mart’s sponsorship is adding clear value to this community: Lord Charles was having trouble running the discussion board with his own time and money, and could never offer the kind of technical and developmental support the board will now enjoy. They also will likely expand exposure and thus membership in the community, which in spite of the necessary growing pains will likely help the community in the long run. Wal-Mart, of course, now has the opportunity both to become identified as an insider in a close-knit community and to put their own online auction sites in a premium position. That’s vital for something like auctions, where customers and sellers alike will want to settle on a single marketplace. That marketplace is currently eBay — it’s clear that Wal-Mart hopes to change that default by getting a hold in certain communities and then leveraging that hold through their General Community Board and CyberCustomer Discount Cards.

On the other hand, there have also been concerns expressed in the community, ranging from “Wal-Mart is evil” to “how can a small wholesaler/retailer like myself ever hope to compete against this?” And the latter is a very good question, especially for people who don’t have the volume, Wal-Mart compatible style/branding, or just the desire to sell in the new landscape. These people might be in trouble down the road, forced to change their ways or quietly fade away (to the detriment of the community at large). On the third hand, small sellers who can make the shift to the new model might find the pie getting bigger and whole new marketplaces opened up, just as we’re already seeing with eBay and Amazon Store cottage industries. purchasing online communities Read More »

Study shows P2P not hurting record sales

A HBS and UNC Chapel Hill study comparing file-sharing downloads to music sales data supports what several people outside of the recording industry have been saying for a while: file sharing isn’t what’s hurting music sales (thanks to Cory at BoingBoing for the pointer):

Downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates. Moreover, these estimates are of moderate economic significance and are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the recent decline in music sales.

As Dan Gillmor points out, the more likely reason music sales are slagging is lousy music and the cartelization of record distribution and radio airplay.

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Crashing The Party

I love Joshua Kinberg’s idea for a thesis in multimedia: a chalk-spraying bike that can print protest messages via the Web and SMS during the Republican National Convention in NYC. Perhaps the best part is is proposal for how to evaluate his work:

I will consider this project successful if I can print at least 100 messages in strategic locations during the week of the RNC. The amount of media coverage, unique visits on the project’s website, the website’s Google ranking, and the amount of online participation are other methods by which to gauge the effectiveness of the project.

It reminds me of conversations my officemate and I used to have about teaching an undergrad class in the media and manipulation, with the final exam being to plant a false story in as public a news source as possible.

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E Ink launching book reader w/Sony & Philips

Sony LIBRIé E Ink just announced the first consumer device to use their Electronic Paper technology: the Sony LIBRIé e-Book reader. Six-inch diagonal display, 170ppi, 4 shades gray reflective screen with an almost 180-degree viewing angle, weighing around 300g with four AAA batteries. Even better than the viewing angle is the battery life: unlike LCDs, electronic paper takes power to modify a screen, but not to maintain a static display. Sony’s tests show you can read around 10,000 pages on four AAA Alkaline batteries.


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All your spin…

Borrowing a page from Dean, the Bush/Cheney campaign’s webpage provided a create your own poster link to produce a PDF poster, complete with your own campaign slogan like “Negative 2.6 Mill. Jobs Created and Counting.” Oops. A few weeks after Ana Marie Cox at suggested the idea, the B/C campaign staff caught on and crippled their poster-maker (which I note doesn’t work in Safari at all now), but some of the best posters have now been turned into a Bush/Cheney Sloganator slide show.

Given the trend towards underground resampling and “media consumer reuse,” I expect this to be the watershed year for underground campaign hacks. Anyone seen a re-edited TV ad yet, complete with inserted subtitles and footnotes? Where’s the Phantom Editor when you need him?

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Hollywood seeking truenames

Hollywood is pushing a bill in California (California Assembly Bill 2735 and California Senate Bill 1506) that would require anyone but a copyright-holder who knowingly transmits commercial audio or video over the Net to attach their true name and address. From the bill:

This bill would provide that it is a crime, punishable by a fine not exceeding $2,500, imprisonment in a county jail for a period not exceeding one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment for a person who is not the copyright owner to knowingly electronically disseminate a commercial recording or audiovisual work without disclosing his or her true name and address, and the title of the recording or audiovisual work.

This bill would also provide that a court may order the forfeiture and destruction of articles upon which sounds or images can be stored, electronic files, and electronic and other devices in connection with a violation of these provisions.

There are a few exceptions for distributing to one’s immediate family and over a household network, but it doesn’t exempt fair use or even allow a copyright holder to grant permission for anonymous distribution. As I read it, it includes iTunes-sharing at work and even over-the-network backup.

EFF is seeing their “evil pirates” card and raising them one “protect the children” card:

“These California anti-anonymity bills would force everyone — including children — to put their real names and addresses on all the files they trade, regardless of whether the files actually infringe copyrights,” said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. “Because the bills require Internet users to post personally identifying information, they fly directly in the face of policy goals and laws that prevent identity theft and spam and protect children and domestic violence victims.”

Mr. Fantastic, are you out there?

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Same-sex marriage as trademark dilution?

I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now why so many people are against gay marriage but for civil union. I understand people who think homosexuality is a sin against God and I understand people who think it’s icky — I disagree with them, but at least they’re comprehensible. I also understand people who have no problem with homosexuality personally but are opposed to it because they want to win the next election (that, I suspect, covers both sides of the aisle). But there are a lot of people who seem to wish that gay couples could have the legal rights of marriage so long as it’s not called marriage.

My best theory is that somewhere in the nation’s subconscious, the phrase gay marriage is one giant trademark dilution. The fear is not that legalized same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, but rather that it legitimizes a different consensus meaning of the word itself. Let that take root and in a few years you’ll say your son just got married, only to be asked “Congratulations! Boy or girl?” (First they take the word queer, then they take the word marriage — next thing you know we’ll only be left with our prepositions!) That’s the only explanation I can think of for bringing charges against clergy for “solemnizing a marriage without a license“. It’s like Hormel trying to stop people from calling unsolicited email “spam,” because it destroys the sanctity of salted pork. (In fact, Hormel is pretty cool about the whole thing.)

If this feeling rings true in your heart, I have a suggestion. Quickly, while the language is still in flux, make a preemptive grab for the qualifier. The whole civil union vs. marriage argument is a dead-end, because the word marriage has been written into too many laws, regulations and court decisions. However, the race for the word civil marriage is just now being run, and could be just the compromise everyone is looking for. Definition-wise, civil marriage means a marriage in the eyes of the law, but it also specifically says nothing more. It’s like saying “my partner and I” when you don’t want to say the person’s gender or marital relationship. Get the phrase to be used for same-sex and otherwise new-fangled marriages and the current meaning of the word marriage won’t get diluted, same sex couples get their legal rights, and best of all it won’t affect anyone in the Bay Area one whit ’cause we’ve been using the word “partner” instead of spouse for years anyway. Everyone goes away happy, except the people I mentioned at the top that I don’t agree with anyway. What could be better?

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NYTimes threatening author of parody

The New York Times is rattling their legal sabers at a blogger who posted a parody corrections page, causing his ISP to force him to remove the post under threat of the DMCA. Looks like the Times is less upset about the parody and more about the fact that its author, Robert Cox of The National Debate blog, copied their HTML verbatim including live links to the website and banner ads. Worse yet, he included (horrors!) instructions on how to create your own parody page. I won’t reprint the instructions here for fear of legal repercussions, but it involves use of the “view source” menu option and a text editor. Even so, as Kevin Drum at Calpundit posted, “you’d think the publisher of the Pentagon Papers would show a little more respect for free speech and a little more tolerance for criticism.”

I’d add that you’d think after the Fox News v. Franken debacle the Times would realize trying to suppress a parody online is like smashing a blob of Mercury. As is becoming the standard for rerouting around censorship on the Net, Cox posted the following on his site:

While I want to “fight the good fight”, discretion is still the better part of valor and so I feel compelled to take down my parody of a New York Times Columnist Correction page. I have not, however, given up.

Today, I am announcing the creation of THE NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST CORRECTION POLICY PROJECT. I am looking for volunteers who are willing to mirror my fake Times web page. The original page will serve as a directory to the mirrored sites. I will list the home page and the mirror page of all project participants. For those who get a “cease and desist” letter from The Times I would ask you to avoid a conflict with The Times and remove the page. I will then list your home page in the “Fallen Heroes” page.

So far he has 14 mirrors spanning four countries, and more importantly the fight is starting to get reported in the mainstream media. To quote Cox, “Whoever said ‘never get into an argument with people who buy ink by the barrel’ never heard of the Blogosphere.”

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