Is It Possible For Web Companies To Be Built To Last?

 I used to be obsessed with Bejeweled.

Like, obsessed. I played when I woke up. I played at work. I played at night, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, unable to resist the tantalizing, just-one-more-minute lure of Bejeweled Blitz, going to sleep only to dream up more boards, ones that never ran out of combinations.

I played until I made myself sick. Not horribly sick, not hospitalized or institutionalized, but nauseous, unable to look at the sparkly screen without feeling an overwhelming sense of revulsion. At that point, as you can imagine, I stopped playing.

The same thing happened to me with Scramble, and with Bloons Tower Defense. I’m grateful I never got into epic games like World of Warcraft; my friend John lost a year to that one.

I played these to the exclusion of real-world social encounters; I thought of little else; I felt depressed if I couldn’t play. I’m not the first to suggest that these behaviors could rightly qualify as addictions. . Last November, Mashable published an excellent summary and infographic of Internet Addiction, referencing the fact that China, Taiwan and South Korea already accept the disorder as a psychological diagnosis.



But there was at least one big difference between my Bejeweled experience and a physical addiction, a difference easily spotted by using myself as a highly scientific, non-controlled, anecdotal sample size of one. Consider, please, Exhibit A: Back in the day, I used to smoke. I smoked in high school and all through college, and for the first couple of years thereafter. I was lucky enough to quit in my early twenties. But despite the fact that I now routinely stare at smokers with amazement at the idea the activity could ever have seemed desirable, quitting took effort.

I didn’t quit because I was disgusted by smoking; I quit because I knew forcing myself to would be good for me.

But when I quit Scramble, I was disgusted by it. It was as if I had a finite amount of desire for the game and once I had used it all up, I was done.

And so I wonder. I wonder if there is a fundamental difference between physical addiction and digital addiction. I wonder whether relying on continuous activation of the brain’s reward center is an optimal long-term strategy. Zynga’s held onto some success with Farmville 2 (despite its other sequels tanking), but tending crops sure ain’t as hip as it used to be.

The poster child for Internet addiction, Facebook, doesn’t seem to be slowing down any, at least not according to the stats the company released earlier this month: 1.11 billion users, 665 million daily actives. But there are murmurs of dissatisfaction: a Facebook Detox page, a post suggesting the experiment has failed, a stock with continually lackluster performance.

This year marks 20 years since the advent of the World Wide Web, too soon to see any companies that fit the criteria of Collins and Porras in their wonderful book ”Built to Last.” But I wonder if the very nature of our Internet use renders it highly unlikely for a website to ever get the kind of longevity the authors chronicle.

And if the only way to achieve that goal is through a longer-lasting addiction, is that really something we want?

6 comments about "Is It Possible For Web Companies To Be Built To Last?".
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  1. Jim Fox from Mad River, May 31, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.

    One of the principles that I took away from Built to Last was having a mission statement with vision. Mad River's mission statement is "To Inspire Imagination" I want my company to keep building products, platforms and tools that do that.

    Certainly Google, Amazon, ect are going to last. I think Facebook will be fine they do need to come out with some new inovative products however. Zynga needs to keep putting out hit games ( kind like record business)

  2. CJ Lengua from [x+1], May 31, 2013 at 12:30 p.m.

    Haven't read the book, but my inkling is that aside from eCommerce sites like Amazon and eBay, it will be nearly impossible to build a web company to last. Stars rise faster these days--but so do backlash, boredom, disenchantment, and ultimately switching. I participated in the mass migration from MySpace to Facebook in the mid-2000s. It's very possible that Metcalfe's Law is all that's keeping Facebook afloat these days, but most accounts point to trouble in winning younger markets. Every generation of youth wants something new, often for the conscious-unconscious desire to be different from the generation before, and online social platforms (networking, gaming, etc.) are just as beholden to this as TV shows, weekend rituals, music preferences, and so on. In response to Jim: I like your comparison of Zynga to record companies. So true, and reminiscent of the too-common capitalist practice of bankrolling roadblocks to challengers with prior, should-be-obsolete success.

  3. Rick Monihan from None, May 31, 2013 at 1:17 p.m.

    First of all, yes - there is a difference between physical addiction and digital (which is really just psychological) addiction. However, they both share one thing. That is, both start as a choice. Even physical addicition begins with someone choosing to take that first taste, and then choosing to have the second, third and fourth, until the body simply takes over and demands future amounts. Psychological (and digital) addiction lacks a physiological component which drives the action, though the mind convinces us we NEED something. So the differentiation is there, but it can seem very similar in substance. As someone who has been psychologically addicted to several things in my lifetime (and probably I still am), the difference comes when you try to quit. I've quit many things I've been 'addicted' to. It's usually pretty easy once you've made the decision. But then, I wasn't physically addicted, either. I didn't go through withdrawal of any kind. Sure, I felt as if I really wanted to go do it again, but I got myself occupied and over time the desire left me.
    Secondly, with regard to being 'built to last', of course any company can be built to last, even internet companies. The difficulty, of course, isn't the nature of internet use, but rather the nature of efficiency and technology. Internet companies pride themselves on many things. Among them are being: first movers, innovative, creative, somewhat disrespectful of older companies because they 'do it better', and relying really hot and new technologies. Most of these things, unfortunately don't make a company long-lasting. Disrespect for how things were done shows a lack of understanding history. As a result, old mistakes are revisited but in a new context as people say "this time is different." No, it's not. You just think it is because you're moving too fast to stop and think about how similar it is. These are also traits that do not rely heavily on brand building. There are very, very few internet companies with solid brand names. Google is one. Amazon another. Beyond that, you start to slip a bit. Facebook may be getting there, but isn't there yet is faces tons of competition. It's not enough to have a great vision or mission, you have to have an easy way for consumers to associate you with that vision and mission. Finally, technology is developing at such a fast rate that young up-and-comers are able to frequently undermine a newly developed business model because technology allows them to lower barriers to entry. It is Joseph Schumpeter's 'perennial rain of creative destruction' writ large.
    But I do believe internet companies can be built to last if they slow down a bit, let a few first moving, innovative, and creative types burn themselves out.Take time, take a deep breath, and move forward with an eye on the past. It's good advice if you've got a digital addiction or you're building a company.

  4. Rob Schmults from Intent Media, May 31, 2013 at 1:49 p.m.

    Amazon is pretty addictive (just ask Prime Members). Google might not feel addictive, mainly because using it for search is akin to using air for breathing. Some of the gifting sites (e.g., Provide Commerce and others) have achieved habitual status when it comes to Valentines Day. Focusing on games -- which are always a hit driven business, web or otherwise -- doesn't feel the right place to look for built to last. Even successful games are almost inevitably flashes in the pan. It's like looking at pre-net games like Doom or SimCity and asking if software companies can be built to last.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 31, 2013 at 3:39 p.m.
  6. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 1, 2013 at 3:32 a.m.

    Yes. Because the article confuses media products with publishers. Customers for movies/books/games do not remain engaged for long so, it's impossible for a business to be "built to last" based on a single entertainment product. The answer is to keep up a continual stream of products, as other publishers do.

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