On using the net to borrow a nail from a neighbour

I’m old enough to find it strangely fascinating that I can go on the Internet to find one of my neighbours to help with building my new Ikea bookshelf. But it’s a fact that the Internet is changing the way we think of communities and the way we think of business. In fact over the last few years the way we think of the Internet itself has changed.

It’s a strange phenomenon. On the one hand the advent of the Internet has brought our lives closer to those of people spread around the far-flung corners of the world. I read blog posts from people in Northern Canada, I host my website from a company in the USA, I buy electronics from China, my webcam lets me see my living room while I’m on holiday in Malaysia – and all from the comfort of my own computer screen. That’s the traditional science-fiction vision of the Internet being made real. More recently, though, I’ve noticed that there’s another change occurring. The Internet is allowing me to access local things, things here in Sydney or even in my own suburb because it provides a forum where unusual needs can be brokered.

I’m not talking about ‘unusual’ as in strange, that’s a different story, I just mean things that don’t come up every day. So Airtasker allows me to find someone with time on their hands to help me construct an Ikea bookshelf or transport some stuff to the tip. The other day I stumbled upon Divvy, an Australian service which allows people to casually rent out the parking space in their front drive. Without the Internet a service like Divvy just couldn’t work. Sure you could stick a notice on a lamppost or in your local newspaper advertising a space to rent by the month; but how would you organise rental by the hour? You couldn’t. The Internet allows both access to computing and a critical mass of market size that makes the administration of such a scheme possible.

So that’s the shift. When I first set up an online system pre-Internet it was all about distance, about connecting people a long way apart. That’s still valid, but now there are the two other factors. The first is access to computing power. The second is about connecting people who may well not be a long way apart, but who would otherwise pass each other by.

The cloud, and the distributed services it implies, are just beginning to dig their claws into our common consciousness. The idea that you wont just store information but actually run software and services remotely is already happening. That makes the administrative effort of allowing thousands of people access to scheduling and payment software systems suddenly available even to small companies. Access to that power and geographic distribution in turn facilitates a bigger change.

The bigger change this enables is to create business models around bringing local people together, meeting local needs – and then allowing you to replicate that enough times that it becomes a viable business. Even in the parking wilderness which is North Sydney there isn’t a business in selling occasional parking in someone’s front drive. But do that in a hundred, or a thousand places and it starts to look better and better. That’s exactly the model companies like Divvy and Airtasker are pursuing: taking advantage of these ad hoc communities of interest not once or twice but many times over.

It’s all great stuff and it’s almost as much fun watching it happen as it is using the services that get created.

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