AMATEUR SPECIALISTS STEP UP TO THE CYBERSOAPBOX
A CYBERSOAPBOX WITH ADMISSION PRICE
By Dolores Kong
The Boston Globe
When Jake Walker got an e-mail inviting him to expound
on his area of specialty on a new financial Web site,
he jumped at the chance to get on the virtual soapbox,
and maybe make a profit while he was at it.
So the 21-year-old Babson College senior, whose areas
of concentration are economics and international
business, uploaded a paper on international monetary
policy to the site that is, fittingly enough, called
He's sold only one copy of the admittedly academic
report - titled "Why the Bretton Woods Institutions
Are Good for the Developing and Developed World" - for
But Walker's not disappointed by his experience on
Soapbox.com, a new venture by The Motley Fool, the
popular investment team started by brothers Tom and
David Gardner. "The concept is fascinating," he said.
In the latest twist in Internet culture and commerce,
financial Web sites like Soapbox.com are creating a
marketplace for regular folks with an area of
specialized information, amateur stockpickers, and
other self-styled money specialists, potentially
allowing them to profit from their ability or
Since the launch of Soapbox.com in June, some people
already have made thousands of dollars selling reports
about everything from how to retire early, to stem
cell therapy, to wireless communication. In fact, the
site's best-selling author has made more than $25,000
At the same time, buyers of that knowledge may get the
chance to interact by engaging in online conversations
with the sellers or rating the information they
Of course, "buyer beware" is still the operative
phrase. Tom Ryan, chief of enforcement for the
Massachusetts securities division, said people who are
considering investing based on information bought
online should "look at things with a little bit of
skepticism. Why is this person saying this? Is there
other information I could look at?" But he added that
he is not aware of any complaints lodged against these
This latest trend in financial Web sites fits right in
with the ever-evolving cyberculture, say people who
study virtual communities.
On the one hand, these sites appeal to those Internet
users who have a strong desire for recognition. On the
other, they have a democratizing effect, of letting
virtually everyone proclaim their area of expertise,
say specialists in understanding the Internet culture.
"We've seen this in numerous other sectors of Internet
culture," said Steve Jones, professor and head of
communication at University of Illinois-Chicago, and
author of "Cybersociety" and other books on virtual
"It's not as if the Internet itself has created people
who seek attention. But what I think it's done is
provide a medium that allows people to gain attention
in particular, specialized areas, in ways they're
unable to get attention in their own local
communities," Jones said.
In July, Wired magazine, that chronicler of
cyberculture, used the phrase "egoboo" - short for ego
boost - to describe why some people are addicted to
giving free advice or opinions at sites such as
But for folks who post on these new financial Web
sites, there's also the added profit motive.
"Instead of people just swapping ideas for the
socialness or fun of doing it, they're doing it for
financial gain," said David Silver, adjunct professor
in the master's program in communication, culture and
technology at Georgetown University, and director of
the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies.
Silver considers the emergence of financial sites such
as Soapbox .com, iExchange.com, and others as a third
generation of virtual communities.
"The first one could be called social communities,"
where people freely swapped ideas, as if in a "gift
economy," Silver said. "The second generation is what
I would call consumer communities, like at Amazon and
eBay. Users contribute for notoriety and public
attention, but ideas ultimately benefit the
But in the third generation exemplified by these
financial Web sites, "the user can be both consumer
and profiteer," Silver said.
These new Web sites also seem to push the edge of the
cyberculture envelope by elevating the quality of
discussion and content over what might be found on
free stock discussion boards at sites such as
RagingBull.com, and by appearing to disprove the
mantra that people won't pay for content online, said
Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community"
and other books about the Internet culture.
"This seems like the right model," said Rheingold in a
telephone interview from California, as he brought up
Soapbox.com on his computer. "People aren't going to
pay for information online unless it's specific,
timely, from an expert, and with a direct application
to their need."
Kevin Dewalt, director of Soapbox.com, said the
concept of selling such information occurred to The
Motley Fool based on the quality of some of the
comments on Fool.com's free discussion boards.
"We saw people coming in and having incredibly rich
conversations," Dewalt said. The Motley Fool did a
trial run by asking one of its frequent posters, a law
student studying to be a patent attorney, to write a
report on his area of expertise, biotechnology. The
report sold around 2,000 copies - and Soapbox.com was
"People really will buy content from other people,"
Dewalt said. "What most consumers are interested in
buying is teach-and-tell content. . . . `Here's
information about the wireless communications industry
and here's five investment possibilities.' That's the
kind of stuff people gravitate to."
Since the site's launch in June, about 100 authors
have signed up, and nearly 200 online reports are
available to be purchased, typically priced between
$10 and $25 each, according to Dewalt. Authors keep 60
percent of the sales price. Among the authors: A
Harvard Medical School student named Arlo Miller who's
sold nearly 200 reports based on his knowledge about
such topics as stem cell research and gene therapy.
Soapbox.com offers a money-back guarantee for people
who are unhappy with reports they've bought. Fewer
than 2 percent of purchases have been returned, but
Dewalt would not disclose overall sales figures. While
Soapbox.com has an application process and disclosure
policy that authors must abide by, it does not do a
background check on applicants.
Most of the other new-generation financial Web sites
don't have quite the same model as Soapbox .com.
Rather, such sites as iExchange.com and marketocracy
.com give amateur stock-pickers the chance to be
recognized based on how their stocks do, and the
possibility of profiting in such ways as winning cash
for having the best track record, or being hired as a
money manager. One of the sites at one time did sell
stock research reports by some of the stock-pickers,
but has apparently stopped that practice.
Walker, the senior at Wellesley's Babson College, may
have made only a few bucks from selling his
international monetary policy paper on Soapbox.com.
But he credits another report he bought from the site
with helping him to cut his losses on what has turned
out to be an emblem of the dot-com and stock-market
meltdown of 2000: Priceline.com.
At the time he bought the report, Walker was deciding
whether to buy more shares as the price came down from
where he first purchased the stock, in the $40 to $50
range. He decided to stop buying more. "My decision
wasn't solely based on that. It was influential," said
Walker, who plans to start an online business in
London, selling tickets to events, after he graduates
from Babson in May.
"I still own some, unfortunately. I'm waiting for it
to do something. Any move up at all, and I'm about
ready to sell it. It's below $2."
But, he added, "It could have been a lot worse."
SIDEBAR: A personal soapbox
Some samples of papers available on Soapbox.com and
what buyers had to say about them.
- Oh My god, Oh My God! Agghhhh!!!
Number of pages: 6
Number of copies sold: 6
An introduction paper on the topic of faith and wealth
integration in our lives.
Sample review: This article is extremely light on
content. Mostly, it seems to be part advertisement,
part preview of his grandiose plans for future
articles on the topic. . . . However, this article was
so lacking in content that I have requested a refund.
- A Fuel Cell Primer: The Promise and the Pitfalls By
Number of pages: 30
Number of copies sold: 824
Sample review: Wow. Great job. This was the best $25 I
ever spent!! . . . This brought all the pieces
together and filled gaps in my knowledge. You not only
made the point that you didn't have all the answers,
but gave signposts for us to watch for as this journey
unfolds. Excellent job of fog-lifting!
Why the Bretton Woods Institutions Are Good for the
Developing and Developed World By Jacob Walker
Number of pages: 6
Number of copies sold: 1