When the Internet was first starting to take off, I remember a mad scramble to buy up the domain names of major brands and then hold the URLs hostage. It was a simple and old idea: Major companies were slow to realise that owning their URL was critical, and smart, enterprising individuals made them pay for their mistakes. I believe — though I do not remember the details — that some level of regulation meant that no one got an enormous payout for having picked up an address like mcdonalds.com. But certainly that was the game many people tried to run.
A second iteration of the same game is playing out in the social scape with the identities of people and brands as we speak. This time, it is going to be far harder to regulate. And early, sophisticated movers will likely get a whole lot more ransom money. We already watched this happen with Twitter name squatting, but that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
One example of this next generation brand-hostage-taking is Quantcast, a Web stats company. For advertising-driven businesses, Quantcast establishes itself as a trusted source of statistics as the baseline for an advertising market, and then basically forces a brand to hand over ongoing access to their user stats. I suspect, although I cannot prove, that their game is to actually do everything they possibly can to understate the stats and demographic value of ‘un-Quantified’ sites (ones who have not yet paid their ransom) so as to force sites looking for advertising to open up the kimono. At least, if they aren’t running their game that way yet, they should be.
Another example is Get Satisfaction, a “people-powered” customer service site. Get Satisfaction holds your brand hostage by encouraging users to post about their problems, whether your company has a relationship with Get Satisfaction or not. Their search engine optimization highlights customer service problems on Google, forcing brands to engage. The company then charges you for premium management over your brand identity.
A more avant-garde example is a website called Fame Game. The niche NYC-based social scene Web site basically works by crawling photos and guest lists from New York parties and building out social profiles for each person. They then SEO each person’s name. Rather than a traditional opt-in network, Fame Game creates a profile for you. They hold a set of search engine-optimised content about you hostage — and you need to register with them to take control. Essentially, they hold your NYC social scene presence hostage.
An apparently false — but interesting — example is the recent Yelp scandal, where the dining/shopping reviews site allegedly swapped advertising deals with brands for the right to remove bad user reviews from their profiles. My sources say this incident is bunk, but if they could get away with it, they should be doing exactly that. (Or someone else certainly will.)
My question is: Who else can you take hostage in this very new, very old game? The best I can come up with so far is celebrities and politicians (usually the best people to hold for ‘ransom’ in any situation).
I don’t know exactly how to factor it, but someone should create a celebrity tracking service on a per-celebrity basis. Choose which editorial content to post on each celebrity (and look to go slightly to exceedingly negative.) Then, ransom the profile/identity back to the actual celeb.
Even more powerfully, how about a political profile hostage service? Take politicians, and even local political campaigns. Categorize all of the players, and represent them in a useful but unflattering way… then sell them back their identities.
To be clear, when we say ‘taking hostage’, what is really implied is holding SEO ranking and/or social graph relevance on the person’s identity. This is a war of attrition because the big search and social players have it generally in their interest to work in the opposite direction. But the key is that there’s a wide swath of grey area in which to play.