Everyone can learn from outsiders, says Alexa Clay, author of The Misfit Economy. In her Social Media Week London session, Clay laid out an impassioned case for why we should appreciate law-breaking, trend-bucking, society-defying misfits. In fact, we have these hackers, con artists, drug dealers, smugglers, activists and zealots to thank for many of the products and services enjoyed by polite society today.
“In many ways, capitalism is a story about black markets and informal economies,” says Clay. “Before McDonald’s invented the franchising model, it was the mafia and groups like the Hell’s Angels who were actually using franchising as an organisational tool. Similarly, we think of streaming technologies like Netflix and Hulu as coming from the tech and start-up community, but they really started in the porn industry.”
Clay is right in her assertion that the most effective or innovative commerce is not always necessarily legit; the online black market Silk Road is a perfect example. Due to the completely anonymous nature of the site, administrators were required to establish a series of complex security measures for the assurance of both customers and vendors, ultimately delivering an online shopping experience more trustworthy in many ways than eBay or Amazon.
Silk Road was only able to exist on the dark web, where terms like ‘intellectual property’ and ‘ownership’ have less meaning, and the common belief is that all knowledge should be open and everything should be available to everybody. This fiercely held egalitarian view is slowly making its way into real-world business, thanks to copycats and patent pirates who are loosening large corporations’ miserly grip on their IP and forcing them to reconsider their pricing structures.
Of course, not all transgressive deeds are done with such lofty goals. As Google’s Sarah Drinkwater points out in her own Social Media Week session, there are approximately 50,000 Nigerians currently working as full-time online con artists, buoyed by the apocryphal ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam of the early 2000s. They follow this line of work, presumably, because they see there is still money to be made from exploiting people’s avarice and naivety. Perhaps then we should be taking tips from these professional hustlers, whose success depends on their ability to tell a convincing tale and elicit feelings of greed or desire.
It is this lawless inventiveness that Clay believes both emerging and existing brands can tap into. With the decriminalisation of drugs like cannabis, she points out that there are people coming out of prisons who can prove to be genuine assets when it comes to commercialising and marketing this new, previously taboo business.
Big corporates can even look inward to find disruptors. Clay recalls taking an anthropological perspective when she joined a large organisation; in doing so she discovered a “lost tribe” — intrapeneurs, people who felt stifled or suppressed by their tradition-led surroundings.
Clay advises companies to develop intrapreneurial micro-cultures which will empower these corporate misfits to express themselves, to collaborate, and to drive change from within. Just like the subcultures on the dark web spawned all manner of creativity, so too will these communities: “There’s a Lone Ranger myth which is really pernicious in the start-up scene,” she says. “Where the magic happens is where you foster bridges between these misfit identities.”
Once you have fallen down the rabbit hole, you can be fearless, says Clay. “Misfits are successful because they take the road less travelled. They can tolerate ambiguity and walk into unknown spaces.” What business, and by extension society needs, according to Clay, is more of these unknown spaces, more rabbit holes; environments where idols and regimes can be toppled to make way for bolder, newer ideas.