In opposition to Walmart's global hegemony and financial power -- the highest expression of basic corporate success to date -- we have the newest and in some ways most fascinating business model of all: the personal, customizable, one-on-one transactions of sites like Etsy and the most basic, early operations of eBay-type sites.
What the Internet gives us is the possibility of linking up with one other person, who is willing to sell us one custom or specific product, at an agreed-upon price. Add up those transactions, or aggregate them like Etsy, and you end up with more business than with one simple high-volume, high-demand product. When people refer to the "long tail," that's what they're talking about: While a bestseller may do brisk business for an online bookseller, for example, on any given day the bookseller is making way more money on the total of items they're selling for which there is less demand.
Sites such as the one-of-a-kind craftseller aggregator Etsy, the T-shirt design site Threadless and micropayment sites like Kickstarter and Donors Choose all operate on this concept: Even a single, customized, one-of-a-kind piece of art is worth enough, in the long tail, to make the sites worthwhile. That means doing business with likeminded, single individuals and knowing where your money is going.
Never before in human history have we had this capability to shop, pay for, ship and deliver such a grand assortment of merchandise. Even 10 years ago, the idea of a person-to-person (p2p) economy of art goods or books that is commonplace today would have been unheard of. Thanks to the Internet, p2p commerce is now a real idea, and one that is quickly becoming the most influential of all, as other business models begin to change and shift to incorporate its qualities into their own.
Without the threat of person-to-person sales, for example, would businesses ever have gotten so obsessed with involving themselves in our social networking? Something worth thinking about.