Most people invest a great multitude of both time and effort into the Web. Some of them like to share thoughts and media content, while others seek to share their experiences through specialized blogs. Regardless of the effort any of us provides, every time we use the web, we expect something in return; whether it be self satisfaction, money or reach. With that said, for each level of effort invested, there is a different ROI that can be expected or even reached as a maximum.
Through extensive research and my humble experience, I was able to come up with an analogy of the Web’s contribution levels comparing it with a city made up of 4 different layers.
1. The Web Citizen:
The web citizen is the minimal level of web existence and it requires less effort, money and/or time in order to become a part of an online community. For example, uploading a YouTube video, posting a comment, or uploading a couple of photos to Flickr. There is no question that these events add value to the Web, and give personal satisfaction to the user. But can a user, with more time and resources, do more, and give back more to the Web?
That’s where the second level comes to play…
2. The Cafes & Restaurants of the Internet – the communities:
This is the community and social circles part of our city analogy including blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook and Twitter social circles. By creating an account on any of these, you build a community around yourself (or brand). Now, the effort you’re spending is more organized, benefiting more people, and in return benefiting you by allowing you to reach more people, and maybe make a bit of money if you add adverts to your Blog or YouTube channel. But information, videos and photos are so common, and there is nothing you cannot find online if you look in the right places.
The next level up is offering Web utilities and services…
3. The Services Sector – helping the Web run more efficiently
The third level is building online tools and utilities. Here, you need more resources and skills, but from my point of view, this comes after building an information hub as in level (2). A utility is a service than can help users accomplish a certain task with less time, or just simply, in a better way! Examples of utilities are MindMeister to manage mind maps, Google Docs or Zoho for office productivity, and Netvibes or Google Reader for managing RSS feeds. Such utility web-projects allow users to create their own personalized spaces and do tasks that are ‘portable’ and share-able on the Web. But, how big can these really get?
The missing piece here is the level of freedom and customization. Platforms and APIs have the answer…
4. The City – platforms on the Web
Last but not least, come platforms which represent the city and all of its components. Building a platform is the toughest and most expensive of them all. It needs a lot of thinking and preparation beforehand. It also requires nearly all what the 3 levels above offer, but with scalability and ability to morph and satisfy what requirements the future holds for it. That might sound Japanese to many people, so let me explain what I mean with examples. Take Facebook for instance: You can comment on any picture, note, video or even other comments. You can upload your own content. You can create an entire blog just by using notes, or create a portfolio for your artistic work by simply adding a new album. But what Facebook also is, is a communication utility. It allows people to stay in touch with one another, and communicate instantly through text, photos, videos, pokes and so on. The thing that makes it a platform rather than a utility is the developers’ API. It allows any developer to create a feature/sub-utility by simply building an application and adding it to Facebook. It allows developers to access data in a machine readable format and process it according to their application’s requirements. That’s how it can grow with no limits. That’s why a platform is the highest level in my hierarchy of the Web’s existence.
So the question for anyone looking to start a new Web-based business: which level can you afford? Are you going to contribute on platforms – such as Digg – and create a good rep for yourself, or are you going to invest more time into research and writing to create your own site/blog? If you have a good developer, marketer and designer, why not build a utility website? Better yet, why not build a utility that can be easily turned into a platform if successful – just like Facebook did?