Tuesdays with a farmer -- Communities and networks

Farmer: You have a micro life, just like you have a global life! If you want to rent out your scooter, you are only going to lend it to your neighbor, not to anyone living in Nebraska. At Craigslist, communities are being created in such intimacy that you could not have ever ever done without this kind of technology. Technology has been tempered in such a way that it enables them to do exactly what you want. 

Net is about diffusion of value.
It is not about subtraction of value but creating so much value that actually you cannot even capture. What is the basic minimum requirement that you need to put in place, so that communities are formed around it.?Several companies are nowadays working to create communities of their consumers.  However, the one thing they are finding it difficult to do is create a kind of openness and a specific bias that the consumers must win, not them.

We always talk about virtual life and real life. The idea is: How do you create offerings that enable you to go from real life onto the virtual life and again onto your real life? That may be the design people are seeking. That’s exactly what Craig has created.  How do you mesh these two gears together so that you actually get the maximum impact? At no point does the site get impersonal. Craigslist is a landmark site. It cannot be compared with any body else.

Student: During the 80s, Peter Drucker had written about how businesses can learn from non profits and also addressed the aspect of community which was prevalent in those non-profit corporations. Is it just because of the technology that we are beginning to talk again about communities in a more enlightened manner?

Farmer:  Gandhiji said somewhere that we always dream of creating such things in which humans don’t need to be good. There are no such good things Finally, somebody like Craig Newmark had to stand up and create a new context of how we can do business on the net which is not ruthless . The question is not whether we are for profit or not.  What is the context on which you are placing your offering? Is it really out of service to the community, that you also make money, use technology wisely? Essentially, you are not saying no to anybody. 
But you are doing it in a way that ensures your final objective to the community is achieved. There are lot of real possibilities that would emerge when we get inspired by this model. How we can use this kind of ethos in order to create a business that actually does good for the community but also makes money? Many people are trying stuff based on this inspiration. Don’t trivialize this. I am glad Craig doesn’t employ any MBAs in his business. He doesn’t worry about figures.

Student: I want to know whether Craig’s vision was so strong that he didn’t have to change his business model over the period of ten years.

Farmer: They have changed very little internally. Value wise, they have not changed anything. In some way, the model hasn’t changed. In some ways that was serendipity. That’s my guess. I may be taking away some credit from his brilliance. The truth is, he has gotten more committed to the community. He wants that kind of community life to spread across the globe and he is doing what he can to do that. 

Having said this, however, in India, Craigslist has still not caught on. What could be someof the reasons??

Student: Because in India, our societies are built of strong communities.

Farmer: Because we already have an invisible network.  You know, if you talk to your friends about their jobs, they would start talking about their shitty jobs.  If you ask them why are you doing then, the common reply would be” Paapi pet ke liye” ( Oh, after all for this stomach!) This is the typical dialogue that is used often.The truth is that there is zero chance that anyone here would starve to death. Because somebody will come. In India, nobody lets anyone starve like that. 

Why don’t we sell enough insurance in India?  Because, actually, in some ways, we are insurance to each other. We don’t give the kind of insecurity and loneliness that we feel in the US in India. In the cities, there is still alienation. If you go closer to the smaller towns, the feeling of being supported is just there.  

Student: While you talk about failure of institution of insurance due to India’s invisible network, I am reminded of Dipankar Gupta, where, in his book, Mistaken Modernity, he, in a classic 180 degree shift, blames the tradition for the failure of these social insurance institutions and also avows to dismantle these traditional structures to make way for such institutions.

Farmer: Well, that may be his opinion. It is often quite difficult to find out the true nature of causality.  If somebody, say from the Mars, were to look at our planet and our actions, he might as well conclude that fire-fighters  are indeed the main culprits behind fire-accidents.

 PS: This begins our weekly Tuesday column where I intend to reproduce, to the best of my ability, based on   audio recordings, some of the discussions I and my friends have had in the class with the farmer who taught us  about the mother of networks. I have tried to be faithful in reproducing some of the discussions, with minor editing changes, to retain the essence of the discussion as I was humanly capable. However, this doesn't minimize my personal responsibility which I fully accept.