Why bother buying them, putting them up, electrifying them and then taking them down again?
After all, the economist wonders, what's in it for you?
The very same non-economic contribution is going on online, every single day. More and more of the content we consume was made by our peers, for free. My take:
People like the way it feels to live in a community filled with decorated houses. They enjoy the drive or the walk through town, seeing the lights, and they want to be part of it, want to contribute and want to be noticed too.
Peace of mind and self-satisfaction are incredibly valuable to us, and we happily pay for them, sometimes contributing to a community in order to get them.
The internet is giving more and more people a highly-leveraged, inexpensive way to share and contribute. It doesn't cost money, it just takes guts, time and kindness.
No wonder most people don't insist on getting paid for their tweets, posts and comments.
Two asides: First, it's interesting to note that no one (zero) gets paid to put up Christmas lights, but some towns are awash in them.
and second, I think there's a parallel to the broken windows theory here. Broken Windows asserts that in cities with small acts of vandalism and unrepaired facades, crime goes up. The Christmas Light corollary might be that in towns (or online communities) where there's a higher rate of profit-free community contribution, happiness and productivity go up as well.
Since the invention of media (the book, the record, the movie…), there's been a pyramid of value and pricing delivered by those that create it:
Starting from the bottom:
Free content is delivered to anyone who is willing to consume it, usually as a way of engaging attention and leading to sales of content down the road. This is the movie trailer, the guest on Oprah, the free chapter, the tweets highlighting big ideas.
Mass content is the inevitable result of a medium where the cost of making copies is inexpensive. So you get books for $20, movie tickets for $8 and newspapers for pocket change. Mass content has been the engine of popular culture for a century.
Limited content is something rare, and thus more expensive. It's the ticket that everyone can't possibly buy. This is a seat in a Broadway theater, attendance at a small seminar or a signed lithograph.
And finally, there's bespoke content. This is the truly expensive, truly limited performance. A unique painting, or hiring a singer to appear at an event.
Three things just happened:
A. Almost anyone can now publish almost anything. You can publish a book without a publisher, record a song without a label, host a seminar without a seminar company, sell your art without a gallery. This leads to an explosion of choice. (Or from the point of view of the media producer, an explosion of clutter and competition).
B. Because of A, attention is worth more than ever before. The single gating factor for almost all success in media is, "do people know enough about it to choose to buy something?"
C. The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is precisely zero. One more viewer on YouTube, one more listener to your MP3, one more blog reader–they cost the producer nothing to produce or deliver.
As a result of these three factors, there's a huge sucking sound, and that's the erosion of mass as part of the media model. Fewer people buying movie tickets and hardcover books, more people engaging in free media.
Overlooked in all the handwringing is a rise in the willingness of some consumers (true fans) to move up the pyramid and engage in limited works. Is this enough to replace the money that's not being spent on mass? Of course not. But no one said it was fair.
By head count, just about everyone who works in the media industry is in the business of formalizing, reproducing, distributing, marketing and selling copies of the original creative work to the masses. The creators aren't going to go away–they have no choice but to create. The infrastructure around monetizing work that used to have a marginal cost but no longer does is in for a radical shift, though.
Media projects of the future will be cheaper to build, faster to market, less staffed with expensive marketers and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.
The secret of good reviews and positive word of mouth is simple: if people get the joke, feel like insiders, finish the book, grow, learn, and are part of what you make, you win.
If they don't, if your product or service makes them feel dumb or poor or excluded, they won't talk about you the same way.
You don't need everyone to talk about you. But obsessing about making a target group feel smart and successful is a great way to make those conversations happen.
The flip side: if someone outside of the target group doesn't get the joke, don't worry. That's not why you made your art in the first place.