An interesting article in today's New York Times describes how Star Trek fans, tired of waiting for The Next Incarnation, are using the suddenly adequate tools of digital video to produce their own episodes. Which made me think of two things: rebar and "free time".
Rebar (reinforcing bar) is the ridged steel rods embedded in concrete structures in order to increase tensile strength. It was generally made from cheaper, lower quality steel and the big established steel makers were happy to ignore the rebar market in favor of high-quality, high-profit steel. But over time, the mini-mills that made rebar raised their quality until it was good enough for other uses and still significantly cheaper than the product from the traditional mills. And then they took over the market. Publicized by Harvard's Clayton Christensen and Intel's Andy Grove, rebar became the symbol of "market disruption from below."
The rebar analogy has been applied mainly to technology markets, like PC's. And while the Times story does illustrate the disruptive impact of inexpensive digital video systems, it also contains a parallel story about the market for creativity. As marketers begin to emphasize media choices over creative choices and international brands seek increasingly integrated, universal (and therefore, simple and visual) creative ideas, they will naturally begin to see that the cheap talent of the net-enabled swarm is good enough. Throw in the fringe benefit that "We can scare the agency. That's just fun to do." (Mike Fasulo, CMO Sony Electronics), and I think agencies have found their rebar.
The article also notes that "as long as no one is profiting from the work, Paramount, which owns the rights to "Star Trek," has been tolerant." Their tolerance may have to last a very long time. Robert Fogel (U. of Chicago, Nobel in economics) believes that by 2040, Americans will have 50 leisure hours per week and 35 years of full-time leisure after retirement. Creative and distributive technologies will get cheaper and better. That adds up to a whole lotta Trek.
It has become a reflex to look for the business model behind any freely distributed goods, but we may be about to see an explosion in the "free" economy, where people use their free time to produce and freely distribute quality goods for free, just for the love of it.