Remember how Tom Sawyer turned his punishment into a moneymaker? Ordered to whitewash Aunt Polly's long front fence, he beguiled friends into thinking fence painting was so much fun that they paid him for the privilege.
It's like that on the Internet too--with not much effort, you can get people to do the work of creating your content. This Tom Sawyer effect is something companies are just beginning to appreciate and incorporate into their Internet business strategies.
Savvy entrepreneurs have been developing tools for years that let Web surfers create content through e-mail, message boards and home pages. The entrepreneurs then attempt to profit from this "work" of others by selling ads on their pages and charging them for other services. Home-page maker GeoCities and e-mail service Hotmail were early successes.
Now the Internet is churning out a batch of second-generation Tom Sawyers who are painting more elaborate, colorful fences. Consider these characters:
A dozen or so companies already offer bare-bones Web pages to small businesses that create sometimes elaborate Web pages with them. Then the hosts sell ads and charge extra for e-commerce capabilities. Go2Net Inc. hosts more than 240,000 business pages at HyperMart.com this way and has attempted, rather clumsily, to create a virtual shopping mall around them.
Last week an outfit called BigStep.com upped the ante in the competition to woo small businesses by offering them more potent e-commerce tools. Merchants can--at zero cost--use BigStep.com's templates to open a store on the Web, list their inventory, advertise special sales, take orders, process credit cards, send customers personalized newsletters and track site traffic.
BigStep.com sells no ads on customer pages but will charge sponsorship fees to other companies that want to flog their services to the small businesses.
What BigStep.com is offering to small businesses, other toolmakers are extending to local civic and community groups. One notable player in community self-publishing is Koz Inc. of Durham, N.C., which raised more than $20 million in venture capital this year for its effort to create a national network of local community Web sites.
After spending three years refining its self-publishing tool kit, Koz has signed up more than 150 local newspaper, TV and radio affiliates and predicts it will have more than 300 by year's end. The local affiliates lure civic groups and merchants online by giving them free tools to create custom sites, newsletters, calendars, chat rooms and, soon, e-commerce transaction tools.
Another example of Tom Sawyerism is Netscape's Open Directory, a guide to the Web that competes with Yahoo and is maintained by volunteer editors--13,359 at last count. The number of Web sites these unpaid helpmates have catalogued and added to Netscape's directory has nearly doubled since April, to 734,681.
Countless firms are handing out other kinds of paintbrushes. Two months ago, Deja.com was one of the first to harness the editorial brainpower of users by creating a platform for them to rate just about everything--products, services, companies. The ratings are designed to attract shoppers seeking product evaluations, thus making the site attractive to advertisers.
"We have created a universal global framework for answering a fundamental question we ask several times a day," said Deja's chief executive, Tom Philips. "What do people think of this movie, this place to travel, this cell phone? We are endeavoring to capture this network of public opinion."
Competitors are closing in, including a well-funded California start-up called Epinions.com that plans to launch a shopping guide in August. Epinions.com will invite consumers to submit opinions about everything and, in a clever twist, to rate one another's opinions.
This year's most sly Tom Sawyer may be the most controversial, because it allows people to spray-paint fences all across the Web. New software from Third Voice lets people highlight any text or image on a Web site and attach a Post-It style note of comment, which can be seen by anyone else who has downloaded the free software. Not surprisingly, many Web site operators are not happy about seeing their painstakingly decorated fences painted that way. Opponents have threatened legal action and erected a protest site called SayNotoThirdVoice.com.
The Singaporean immigrants who founded Third Voice believe their software is protected by the First Amendment and note that it does not modify Web sites but simply adds an overlay. But in a nod to critics who see the notes as graffiti, Third Voice released a new version yesterday that lets users remove any notes that a majority of users deem offensive.
"The Web has essentially been a publishing tool so far, and this shifts the power to readers," said Third Voice co-founder Eng-Siong Tan.
While the media spotlight shines most brightly on consumer companies being transformed by the Internet, the global computer network is having comparable effects on almost all corporations. It's not a stretch to see a similar Tom Sawyer principle at work as companies such as Cisco Systems and Dell Computer use the Web to get customers to do work that their own employees formerly carried out.
These corporate Web sites allow other companies to add value to their business by filling out forms, checking inventories, and searching databases, work that previously required effort from the company's own staff.
All of which makes me feel like I'm missing something. Writing an Internet column is a blast, you know. Want to try it? No, I reckon Aunt Polly is kind of particular about who writes what around here. I'd like to, honest, but . . .
Well, tell you what. Why don't you e-mail me your ideas? With any luck, I might get to take off all of August!
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@ washpost.com.
TechThursday columnist Leslie Walker will host a live Web chat today at 1 p.m. with Mark Walsh, CEO of VerticalNet Inc., a publicly traded start-up that is creating business-to-business Web trading communities. To participate, go to www.washingtonpost.com.
CAPTION: Users of Third Voice software have posted three notes on the White House Web site.