Control

June 6, 2006

Peter Merhoz writes persuasively on a basic tenet of informal learning: the learner is in charge.

 "When Google launched, one reason it shocked the Web community was its focus on getting you to where you actually wanted to go. How could there be a successful business model in actively sending people away from your site?

Seven years and a $75 billion market capitalization later, that question has obviously been answered. The other search engines attempted to control your behavior. Google recognized that users maintain control, and to win they had to become users’ preferred choice.

Let Go, Luke

Again and again, the history of the Web shows us the value of relinquishing control. Amazon’s customer comments were originally thought foolish by those who believed negative reviews would hurt sales. Instead, they increased trust, which drove more transactions. eBay’s open marketplace eschews centralized control of buyers and sellers, instead favoring a distributed management system where individuals rate one another. Not coincidentally, Google, Amazon, and eBay have all made available their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) so that others can leverage their information in unforeseen and innovative ways.

 The Web’s lesson is that we have to let go, to exert as little control as necessary. What are the fewest necessary rules that we can provide to shape the experience? Where do people, tools, and content come together? How do we let go in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to our business?

Anderson on the long tail:As Anderson notes, “The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles.”

Survival of the Fittest

Relinquishing control is becoming a requirement in all aspects of Internet businesses. Customers demand RSS feeds so that they can have information brought to them, on their time, and in their tool of choice. Tags and folksonomies shift organizational control to users. Customers are generating content on message boards and blogs. Craig Newmark of the shockingly popular Craigslist regularly polls his membership on core issues of his business.

Relinquishing control is a scary prospect because it diminishes certainty. With control comes predictable outcomes that you can bank on. But in this increasingly complex, messy, and option-filled world, we must acknowledge that our customers hold the reins. Attempts to control their experience will lead to abandonment for the less onerous alternative. What we can do is provide the best tools and content that they can fit into their lives, and their ways.

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