I don’t have a problem with anybody receiving some outrageous monies for his work. 19 billion USD might seem a bit over the top for a mom and pop pseudo-SMS operator. But it’s Mark Elliot Zuckerberg billions, so I don’t care if he spends them on platinum popsicles or a piece of heavily used software.
Unfortunately, the deal points to a pattern. That’s what Robert Reich is pointing out, first on his Tumblr (sold for 1.1 bn USD), then at Salon. It might be an occupational hazard that the former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton is keeping an eye on he job market. But his diagnosis is pretty spot on:
The winners here are truly big winners. WhatsApp’s fifty-five employees are now enormously rich. Its two founders are now billionaires. And the partners of the venture capital firm that financed it have also reaped a fortune.
And the rest of us? We’re winners in the sense that we have an even more efficient way to connect with each other.
But we’re not getting more jobs.
It’s the core problem of our networked digital economy (just ask Jaron Lanier). And it’s a reiteration of the pitfalls of productivity, which lead Henry Ford to his famous statement “cars don’t buy cars”.
Back then, the problem was a bit more in the open. Pay your workers well, and the humming economy will pay you back with interest.
But, as Reich states: our new economies have a different problem. It’s not that the WhatsApp-workers are impoverished human beings, wrought out in the treadmills of late stage capitalism.
The problem is: they’re hardly needed anymore. Look at a traditional telco like Sprint Nextel. Their market cap is just 50% higher. Now look at the employment numbers:
– WhatsApp: 55
– Sprint Nextel: 79,000
That’s right. Merge the app team into the telco, and it disappears as a mere rounding error.
Can productivity be the problem? Hm. In the first electrified trains, a mandatory stoker had to be on the train. This approach may have solved one family’s bread and butter problem, but reeks of institutionalized madness.
So maybe it’s more about the distribution of the productivity gains? Let’s have a look at the wealth creators of the last years: Facebook, Twitter, AirBnB, Uber, Soundcloud, and now, WhatsApp. Great services all of them, highly successful as well. I prefer (almost) any AirBnB accommodation over a run of the mill business hotel. Me likes Twitter. Facebook. You name it.
All those services share one thing: they are highly centralized. In terms of the service, and in terms of the wealth they created. I tweet and become a participating member of the attention economy. But the intrinsic value of the tweet is absorbed somewhere else. I rent out my place. But the listing service receives a huge percentage.
In terms of the value distribution, the chain looks like that
- founders and early investors
- later stage investors
- early employees
- service providers to the company
- employees on the payroll
- eventually: outsourced service providers (Uber drivers, AirBnB hosts, …)
You may rent out to peers. But the value distribution is definitely not peer to peer.
Producing value as in content usually is valued as zilch. Look at Medium as a new publishing model. All words are meant to be free. Not as in speech. But as in freebie.
Don’t get me wrong. Founders and early investors should get a big chunk. They’re taking an oversized risk (I know what I’m talking about). But it might be the right time to look at different models of value creation and distribution.
As I’ve been annoying everybody in the last couple of months with my harping on crypto currencies, you might know what’s coming. Yes. Let’s talk about crypto currencies.
Crypto currencies may look a bit weird. But they have some serious implications.
Just try this thought game:
– A crypto coin like Bitcoin is a token of ownership.
– Ownership always comes with increased interest (as nicely described in the endowment effect).
– Ownership of a crypto coin makes you a stakeholder in a crypto economy.
Now look at this: crypto coins like Bitcoin are basically programmable money. You can build economic entities which practically run themselves (like WhatsApp). But those new entities can share the created financial values between all stakeholders.
How can this look alike? David Johnston’s paper on Decentralized Applications is taking a very good lead here. One of his examples would be a Meshcoin: a crypto system to run a decentralized network of meshed WiFi hubs, which is not based on donations or the “hey, we could sell some ads”-model, but offers economic incentives to run and mesh up your hub with many others. Which could look like a FON on steroids.
Because, don’t forget: routers don’t buy routers and jobless Tweeters do not need any ads.