Gestalt: Getting to the Essence

Everything has a core essence, or so Marcus Aurelius once suggested. Understand this essence and you can understand the people and world around you. This counsel has served me well in product development. For me, the entire rule book for what will work online  really, for any new product  is found in two possibly obvious questions: Will the new product or service make peoples' lives better, faster, cheaper, more convenient, more interesting, more exciting, or more beautiful than whatever they've got today? And if so, can it be delivered more cost-effectively?

From time to time, entrepreneurs discover new needs that people will pay more for. But most often, success can be predicted in an affirmative answer to both questions. These questions get to the essence of the matter at hand.

As the media have been trumpeting of late, we're in another Internet bubble. Astronomical valuations for any Web property that even loosely defines itself as "social networking" certainly show all the signs of a failure to learn the lessons of the late 1990s.

Still, I think the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon at its essence has captured one of the most important human desires: the desire to matter. For the first time, new tools and capabilities allow each of us a platform not merely to find things and sound off, but define ourselves  our expertise, passions, sense of humor, tastes in music, attitudes, and views  and then share that with each other in the context of communities large and small.

The importance of "mattering" first hit me some years ago during lunch with a senior executive at eBay. I told him I thought that the company's greatest innovation was not the auction per se (a good example, by the way, of something that answers my two fundamental product questions), but in the voting/ranking of both buyers and sellers. The essence of this is that trust was established. That system lets me know I can buy a product from someone who has sold 1,000 products and achieved a 99.8 percent approval rating.

True enough, he noted. But eBay's biggest surprise in launching the ratings, he said, was something else. "People take their rating very, very personally," he said. "It has become a part of their identity, and they take pride in their number. When a person forgets to pay for something and the seller knocks them down from 100 percent to 93 percent the buyer has one lousy week. This accounts for the vast majority of our e-mails."

Self-actualization  to matter. This is the essence.

For decades, if not centuries, traditional media companies have been authoritarian: Here is what you, the consumer, should think, buy, wear. But what people respect more is authoritativeness. With today's media, millions of civilian "experts" can share their views and experiences. They can share their own expertise on products and services, lifestyle advice, and political views. And they can do so in their own voice, telling people to whom they hadn't previously had access, "I am here."

The best capabilities  Amazon reviews, CNET communities, blogs, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Ning  adhere to my two points about product development. Friends have relied on friends, or friends of friends, for advice and opinions for millennia. I had a hard-copy yearbook in college in the late 1980s, and we all decorated our dorm rooms with pieces of expressive memorabilia and small dry-erase boards for students to post comments. The Internet, and the best entrepreneurs, have made this kind of sharing exponentially better, enabling us to reach countless people we would have never met before, and giving us platforms to extend our voices.

I can't predict which individual effort will last, and the hype is bound to lead to foolish valuations more often than not. Maybe for all its phenomenal growth, when MySpace becomes seen by a new generation as "my big sister's space," folks will switch to new platforms  the cost to switch online, after all, is nil.

But one needs no gift in prophecy to see the essence here: The individual is not only in charge of what she sees, but when and where she is heard. And she wants to be heard.


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