Some comments by Christian Lindhold of Nokia and Stewart Butterfield of Ludicorp/Flickr in my comments section got me thinking: Is nothing viral anymore?
If you recall, back in the 1990s everything was viral. Email was viral, auctions were viral, payment systems were viral, and, of course, viral was viral. All of the preceding — including viral itself — were systems in which the participants extended the network by, in effect, becoming unpaid salespeople. Sometimes that was irritating, in the case of the ubiquitous “Sign up for your free email account at Hotmail” sig appended to Hotmail emails; and sometimes it was sensible, as in the case of the Paypal payment network.
But somewhere between 1998 and 2004 “viral” seemingly went away. Has anything changed? Surely not. If anything, we have even more examples of viral technologies since then, with P2P networks the most obvious examples.
What has changed, I’d argue, is that users have become wise to the trick. People are simply not as willing to carry the water for incipient network as they once were — they won’t blithely promote a product without wanting something more than a free service in return.
But does that mean you need to start giving out, metaphorically speaking, tschotkes with every service? I don’t think so. Instead, I think we have moved on to the next stage of viral behavior, one where more matters than single system contagion. Instead, compatibility is required: Moving to a new network — from Morpheus, say, to Grokster — doesn’t mean losing the original network. Call it viral to the second power, viral-squared, and it’s a lot tougher game to play, as P2P vendors, Gaim, and many others can testify to.