Empire Avenue is a stock market, but it has one key difference from Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange: it puts a price on people instead of companies. Members use virtual currency to buy and sell shares in other people and websites, and the worth of each “stock” is determined in part by the user’s engagement on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn (s LNKD).
Depending on who you ask, Empire Avenue is either an empowering and addictive personal branding tool, or just another creepy sign that modern society is going down the tubes.
Empire Avenue has been criticized for putting a price on things that can’t, or shouldn’t, be quantified. “People shouldn’t be commoditized,” entrepreneur Damien Basile noted in a personal blog post about the website. But Empire Avenue’s CEO Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana told me his company is just empowering people to better understand their value in a market that exists whether they like it or not. And, according to him, the company was founded with a much deeper philosophy than meets the eye.
“It sounds funny at first, but I like to say we’re freeing people from digital slavery. A slave is someone who doesn’t know their value,” Wijayawardhana said in an interview this week. “If you are participating in social networking sites, those companies are making money off of you. You just don’t realize what those values actually are.”
Once Empire Avenue ascribes a monetary value to a user’s social networking behavior, that person can then work to increase that value, he said. Eventually, he says Empire Avenue could put features in place for users to use their stock prices to increase their personal income in some way, perhaps by adding advertising to their stocks’ homepages. “Ultimately it’s your number, and it’s your data. We’re hoping this changes the way you see your activities online.”
In a way, Empire Avenue seems like the ultimate symbol of 21st-century capitalism, so I was a bit surprised when Wijayawardhana told me the company’s concept was born out of a late-night conversation with friends about Karl Marx’s philosophy. “We were sitting around drinking, and we got to talking about Marx’s theories about there being a monetary value to everything,” he said. At its core, Empire Avenue was actually conceived as a way to combat the kind of alienation of the value of labor that Marx warned would occur under capitalism. “We believe every single person has value, and a good value,” Wijayawardhana said.
That’s a nice way to look at it, and for me it made Empire Avenue seem a lot less, well, creepy. But the reality is that Empire Avenue is the only one making money from its users today. The company has a “freemium” model with no revenue-sharing to speak of. Each user starts with the ability to buy 200 Empire Avenue shares, and more virtual currency is available for sale. Empire Avenue also sells virtual luxury goods through partnerships with companies like Ford Motors. Wijayawardhana would not disclose Empire Avenue’s revenue, but he said they are “doing quite well” at the moment and are in the process of talking to venture capital investors.
Personal branding is indeed a powerful thing nowadays. And as evidenced by the popularity of sites like Klout and PeerIndex, people are keen to see hard metrics of how all their online activity stacks up. Whether they’ll be around for the long run may depend on whether these types of tools will fulfill the promise of directly increasing its users’ own fortunes — in real, not virtual currency.