It’s tempting to forget about finding a larger meaning in the story of Kyle MacDonald and to just sit back and enjoy it. Mr. MacDonald is the 26-year-old Canadian blogger who has rocketed from Internet cult figure to mainstream news item since he pulled off a remarkable bartering feat recently, trading up from a single red paper clip to a house in 12 months. (Yes, a house — albeit a small one, in a dot of a town called Kipling, in the unglamorous Canadian province of Saskatchewan.)
He’s so famous that his story has been featured on Japanese television. That fact alone means we are probably going to have find a larger meaning here somewhere. But first, the fun stuff.
Mr. MacDonald, of Montreal, apparently didn’t have much in the way of assets in July last year except for imagination, optimism, an Internet connection and a red paper clip. He certainly didn’t have a house, and he and his girlfriend were getting tired of paying rent. Then, in one of those light-bulb flashes that gave the world E=mc2 and the insight into gravity, he recalled a childhood bartering game he used to play and saw how he could put his random assets to work for him.
He posted a picture of his red paper clip on the free Internet advertising site Craigslist and offered to exchange it for something bigger and better. Before you could say, “Whoa, dude, this will go nowhere,” two women had taken his paper clip for a wooden pen shaped like a fish.
He turned around and traded the fish pen for a ceramic doorknob. That was swapped for a camping stove. The stove netted him a 1,000-watt generator. And so on, through a van, a recording contract, a snow globe and more.
Within the year he had set himself, Mr. MacDonald finally achieved his goal last week when the town of Kipling offered him a house in exchange for a speaking role in a Hollywood movie. The details of his 14 trades, occasionally complex and frequently hilarious, can be found at: oneredpaperclip.blogspot.com.
Kipling has also named Mr. MacDonald mayor for a day and an honorary lifelong citizen. (The town, he notes, “is home to a shade more than 1,100 residents.” When he and his girlfriend move in, “it’ll be a shade more than 1102.”) He has also announced plans for a house-warming party to which the whole world is invited.
So what does this joyous tale portend, if anything? Some observers have waxed serious. “All econ professors should use it in their course material to illustrate how a good’s value is subjective. And how commerce is not a zero-sum game,” reads one comment on the Club for Growth’s Web site.
Others have waxed merely semi-serious, like the person who suggested that Mr. MacDonald write a book about his randomly acquired house and sell it to — who else — Random House for millions of dollars.
Who knows? Maybe it’s just a parable about the power of red. Would it have made a difference if Mr. MacDonald had tried to spin gold out of a blue or black or plain old metal paper clip? Or it could simply reflect the power of personality. As devotees of his blog know, Mr. MacDonald is a charming and astute enough fellow that he could probably sell someone the Montreal Biodome.
Still, he worked hard, in his fashion, to get his house: Over the past year, the red paper clip caper has provided countless jaded people with a cheering diversion. Keeping a blog engaging isn’t as easy as it looks. (We know what would happen if we tried going online to parlay our office stationery into real estate.)
The story is also yet another gloomy instance of someone looking at a computer and seeing a zippy new use for it — something so obvious in hindsight that the rest of us are smacking ourselves we didn’t think of it first. There’s Jeff Bezos and Amazon; Pierre Omidyar and eBay; the British student who sold a million pixels worth of advertising space on his Web site for $1 each; the couple who dreamed up BookCrossing, a Web site that tracks books left around the world; Craig, the genius behind Craigslist, and many more.
Some pursued profits, some fun. Mr. MacDonald, who had an eye on both, might not be the next dot-com billionaire, but he’s surely a worthy addition to the list. If he’s really smart, he’ll figure out a way to keep his idea rolling.
Most interesting, though, is what this story tells us about blog audiences: They’re huge, they’re diverse — Mr. MacDonald drew responses from all over the planet — and they have a lot of spare time. Think of them as an invisible, borderless, irreverent community, at home on the Internet, at ease with English, endlessly gravitating to the next new thing.
Those of us who still use paper clips to clip bits of paper together ought to be taking note.
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