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Boing Boing's Journey from Internet Culture to Internet Counterculture

The Boingers

The story of how Boing Boing launched, built a profitable business, and still run it on their own terms. From Rob Walker’s profile in FastCompany:

“Boing Boing’s version of that tale is a little different. Frauenfelder and his partners didn’t rake in investment capital, recruit a big staff and a hotshot CEO, or otherwise attempt to leverage themselves into a ‘real’ media company. They didn’t even rent an office. They continued to treat their site as a side project, even as it became a business with revenue comfortably in the seven figures. Basically, they declined to professionalize. You could say they refused to grow up.”

Paying for Ethereal Pixels of News

Rob Walker’s latest Consumed column, Immaterialism, on the lucrative business of selling virtual gifts and toys — China’s Changyou did $200 million in annual revenue, and estimates put Facebook’s virtual stuff revenues at $35 million — got me thinking about the media business. For generations we’ve paid money for physical newspapers and magazines. The idea of paying for digital publications, including the online versions of the ones we’d pay to get on paper (other than the WSJ or Consumer Reports), though, strikes most readers as ridiculous.

In certain media circles, this is evidence that a new generation of digital consumers put less value on news and information than the one before it did. Tune up the violins — the kids are killing the newspaper business.

I don’t buy it. Instead, I wonder if both generations take for granted the value of news content. It’s something we all expect, for free, as members of Western democracy. At the same time, we know that paper, ink and delivery trucks cost money. News is news, but getting it delivered to our doorsteps (or getting our own copies to read on the train) is “added value” that we’re willing to pay for. Online, we’re paying our ISPs and cellphone carriers for that value, thus we don’t like paying publishers a separate fee.

Newspaper Delivery in the Snow

As a longtime member of the publishing business, I’m not saying I like this point of view among news consumers. I’m just saying we media types need to own up to it. We have to put away the myth that our readers have been paying for our unique reporting and best-of-breed journalism; much of what they’ve been paying for is convenient delivery of something we expect as a birthright, like indoor plumbing. Now that the delivery is handled by other parties we don’t control (Comcast, Verizon, Google and others), we need to stop whining and deliver a new kind of value.

When people are paying a buck to send a virtual animal to friend in Facebook, how hard can this be?

(Or we can just wait for the bail out. See The Business Insider.)

Rob Walker's Buying In: Why We're So Vulnerable to Brands

Marketing has two functions, when you boil it down. One, to remind you to buy stuff you need (voice-over-IP phone service) or could imagine needing (Ginsu knives). This is direct-response marketing, and it often features a limited-time special price to lend urgency to that reminder.

The other purpose is to convince you to buy something you don’t really need but your desire for it somehow gets the better of you. This is brand marketing.

When it works — when a company creates a compelling brand associated with its wares — you begin to want stuff because to buy, wear, drink, drive, eat or smoke the variety that carries a particular logo makes you feel more complete. Taller, smarter, more compassionate, sexier and the rest.

Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for NY Times Magazine and the Murketing blog, calls this the Desire Code. His new book “Buying In” explores how and why it works — and it works, apparently, on just about all of us. “The fundamental tension of modern life,” he says on page 22, is this: “We all want to feel like individuals. [Yet simultaneously] We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than ourselves.” Ramones t-shirts and Viking stoves, it turns out, help us bridge that divide. And it’s often the symbols (brands, logos and ideas) rather than the products themselves that perform the magic:

“Sales of skateboarding ‘hard goods’ — helmets and wheels and actual skate decks — totaled around $809 million. But sales for T-shirts and shoes and other ‘soft goods’ brought in much more, around $4.4 billion…. It has become possible to participate in the idea of skateboarding without actually skateboarding.”

Buying In Cover2

The book publishes in early summer, but chapters are available online at Random House.