Rafe Needleman says it’s “like two lopsided crabs battling.” He’s referring to the near simultaneous announcements that America Online is launching a social networking site attached to its instant messaging service (AIM) and that MySpace is launching an instant messaging service attached to its social networking site: “AIM has one giant claw – an installed base of about 65 million IM users – and the tiny claw of its upcoming community site. And MySpace has 70 million personal pages on its community site and no IM audience.”
It’s a great metaphor, and like all great metaphors it deserves to be stretched to the snapping point. You see, Needleman picked the wrong sea creature. If he had chosen octopuses rather than crabs, he would have explained not just a single little skirmish between MySpace and AOL but the entire modern war of the web: Web World War 2.0, as I like to call it. Think about it. The archetypal modern web conglomerate sports eight major tentacles (ie, features), each of which incorporates a varying number of those suction-cup doohickeys (subfeatures). Thus:
3. Personal Productivity
5. Vanity Media
Now, in typical octopus fashion (my knowledge of octopuses, by the way, comes entirely from cartoons), these tentacles tend to get all tangled up with each other. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if you’re looking at the Sharing tentacle or the Vanity Media tentacle or even the damn Search tentacle (which is particularly wiggly and invasive). But, anyway, the point is that if you want to be a true web conglomerate, you need to have a lot of tentacles.
There are three ways you can get those tentacles and their component suction-cup doohickeys. You can grow them on your own (as Google did with Search). You can buy them (as Yahoo did with Photocasting and Tagging). Or you can rent another octopus’s tentacle through a partnership (as Microsoft did with Yahoo’s Advertising tentacle until last week). The renting route is particularly risky, as the many companies that rented Google’s Search tentacle have discovered. You think your partner has just a single tentacle, then all of a sudden it sprouts a whole bunch of other tentacles, which start grappling with your other tentacles. So you say, “Hey, I’m not renting your damn tentacle anymore; I’m growing my own.” It gets messy fast.
Now here’s the thing. Like Needleman’s crabs, all these octopuses are lopsided. Some of their tentacles are well developed, others are immature (beta tentacles) or just plain wimpy, and a few might be absent altogether. So as these octopuses fight, they’re always trying to counter their opponents’ strongest tentacles by bulking up their own corresponding tentacles. They’re seeking tentacle-parity because they fear that a single weak tentacle might place them in mortal danger. They’re all, in other words, copying each other’s features and subfeatures with a ferocious sea-creature-like singlemindedness. They’re all becoming the same octopus.
You’ve probably noticed by now that this kind of competition goes against all the basic rules of strategy. The web conglomerates are competing not by making themselves different but by making themselves the same. Not only that, but they’re all feeding on the same food source: ad plankton. Either the old rules are all wrong, or eventually we’re going to have some sick octopuses.