:Ben Metcalfe Blog

PaperKarma, Craigslist and unintentional disruption

disrupters will be googled

I study and write a lot about disruption caused directly or indirectly by the Internet.

It’s actually the key tenant that matured my wonder and fascination with the Internet beyond just the technical/geeky aspect but into the socio-economic.

Most disruption is intentional, and it’s now a well-weathered story to hear about a genius young entrepreneur out-smart an entire stalwart old-school industry in a way that the big guys didn’t see until it was too late.

Yay the underdog! Go the little guy! Fuck the establishment!

But some disruption is unintentional, and often with negative impact. The biggest example is probably Craigslist and, as amazing as it is, the incredible negative impact it has had upon the quality of journalism in the US and around the world – especially local and niche journalism.

This is, of course, due to the fact that those clumsy paid-classifieds adverts financed the journalists in the newsroom. No more classifieds meant fewer journalists, which meant reduced circulation, which meant reduced advertising rates, and so on into a race to the bottom.

So it is with interest that I read today about an interesting startup whose aim is to make it easier to stop junk mail (of the physical kind) landing in your mailbox.

With PaperKarma (for iOS, Android and Windows Phone yuk – not linking to that) you snap a photo of the offending junk mail item and their system will attempt to notify the junk sender of your wish to be removed and to be put on their “do not contact” list.

Sounds awesome.

Except when you consider that its junk mail that is keeping the US Portal System afloat. Remove the junk mail, and just like removing the classifieds in local journalism, the money funding the system will disappear.

A PBS “Need to Know” article from September 2011 states:

“The days of custom stationery, handwritten letters and scented envelopes may be long gone, the USPS has been increasingly reliant on junk mail — advertisements, catalogs and other unsolicited mailbox “gifts” — to keep the service afloat. BusinessWeek notes that revenue from junk mail increased by 7.1 percent in the last quarter of 2010 – although volume has not increased since. [Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe] has also expressed optimism that junk mail volume and revenue will increase as the economy improves. But the lower cost of direct mailings means that more junk mail is needed to circulate in the system to make up for the accelerating loss of first-class mail.”

And that BusinessWeek reference notes:

“[USPS] relies on first-class mail to fund most of its operations, but first-class mail volume is steadily declining—in 2005 it fell below junk mail for the first time. This was a significant milestone. The USPS needs three pieces of junk mail to replace the profit of a vanished stamp-bearing letter.”

(emphasis mine)

I quite like having a postal service. I certainly wouldn’t want their service to deterioate any further than it already has. Perhaps I should keep my junk mail? I recycle it after all.

Postscript

It’s also interesting to consider why unintentional disruption occurs.

In both examples, there was a symbiotic relationship between two otherwise disparate and unconnected factors within an economic ecosystem.

It seems strange that people wanting to sell their car, hire a nanny or find a couple to swing with would be directly funding journalists to sit in the local courtroom or investigate corruption in City Hall.

It seems perverse that we have to suffer receiving catalogs and flyers we don’t want (including the impact on the environment from the creation of these items) just so that we can receive our bank statements, periodicals and other requested and desired items delivered to us in the mail.

The free-market means anyone can build anything (within the law) and disrupt anyone they want (intentionally or not). Yay the free-market!

But that means we need to think carefully about other examples where there are dubious, untenable or just plain-crazy symbiotic financial relationships that don’t otherwise make sense. And protect or fix them before more young entrepreneurs come by and disrupt them.

I miss my local journalism, although I guess I wouldn’t miss receiving my credit card statement in the mail every month.

I still say fuck the establishment, however.

Photo: CC Steve Rhodes