The Technium

The Propriety Path Platform

The most marvelous and unexpected thing about digital technology is that it amplifies two contrasting currents at the same time. It empowers extremely huge systems, like social media platforms, feuling their explosive growth. In fact this tendency to amplify the big is recognized in technology and is called “network effect” or “the law of increasing returns”. Meaning, the big keep getting bigger. It is an inherent trait of networks.

But at the same time, this digital technology amplifies the power of the small lone individual. A solo creator can accomplish tasks that in the past would require a team of experts to do. With new tools a lone person can write, design, layout, produce and print a book, which they can then market and sell themselves. This self-publishing displaces the traditional work of a traditional publishing company with scores of employees.

It is not just book publishing. The same dynamics work in the fields of music, design, movies, and just about every creative path. New digital tools empower ambitious individuals to produce the kind of work that would have taken armies to produce in the past. This force of democratization and individuation is also an inherent trait of technology.

Both paths are viable. While self-publishing, and self-broadcasting, etc. is one option enabled by tech, the huge platforms with mega-audience is another path that still continues to be a valid way. Why not try to expand your audience and customer base by dwelling on these huge networks? Then one can leverage the dynamics of increasing returns to amplify your own reach. If you ride YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Amazon and Google, you can spin fast and reach millions if not billions.

The benefits of the platform path are obvious. The benefits of the solo path are more subtle.

One subset of this solo path is the idea of making a living catering to a very small audience. I theorized about this path 15 years ago and called it the 1,000 True Fan model. It’s been well established as a possibility by now, but this is only part of the second option. It is not just about the size of the audience; it’s about control of the channel. The second path should be called the “propriety path”, in contrast to the platform path.

The propriety path is one that hinges on ownership, property, and propriety. The idea is that the creator controls, and indeed, owns their path. A proprietor does not own anything on a networked platform. They don’t own the tools, they don’t own the data, they don’t own the audience, and they may not even own the content they create.

On the propriety path, the creator would own, or control, which tools they use, and would own or control any improvements, or customizations. They would have control over the data about their customers and audience. They would not need to ask anyone about what they could or could not do to improve. Most importantly, if they want to move, they would take everything they had built with them. This is ultimately the mark of a propriety path: can you take everything with you?

One of the chief costs of a propriety path is that the creator also assumes the responsibilities of owning the system. Any errors are theirs. All failures are theirs. They not only have to fix them, they have to repair the trust that inevitably falls when failures mount.

My walking friend Craig Mod first outlined this path to me. He’s been relentlessly pioneering the practical ways a sole proprietor could operate along this path. Instead of trying to succeed on the giant platforms of TikTok or YouTube, or even Kickstarter and Substack, he aggregates a bunch of tools (some of which he invented himself) into a comprehensive propriety path platform.

In Craig Mod’s case he uses simple email newsletters to connect with his fans (he controls the list of names), and Shopify to sell his merch (he controls the data and list), and his own Craigstarter (Kickstarter clone) to handle the crowdfunding, or more precisely, the fan-funding (he controls the list and all the revenue).

The goal is to own the path; to be the proprietor of the audience and customers. I will attempt to summarize the qualities that these propriety platforms share:

1) You own your audience; you can take them with you if you move.

2) Total design freedom; it can look and work however you choose.

3) Independent content; you can say or do whatever you want.

4) No permission needed. You don’t need to clear material with someone else’s Terms of Service.

5) You are free from having someone else’s algorithm choose what others see of your creation.

6) You can outlast a commercial platform. See Myspace, Geocities, Flicker, Tumblr.

7) Less pressure to align with the “current thing.”

8) The possibility of refined customization. You can use your own tools for your own needs.

9) You can be more transparent to your supporters/customers/fans.

10) Potential much higher high side. You own your success.

This is the test: If the platforms went bankrupt, or kicked you off, or you wanted to migrate, could you take everything you wanted with you? If not, why not build your creations on a path that you control and own? Own as in can use, can manipulate, can improve, can develop, can move, and can be responsible for. On your propriety path you own the audience, the tools, the data, and of course, the content. You own your success.


© 2023