Information Today
Volume 17, Number 6 • June 2000
• Focus on Publishing •
Tremors in Dot-Com Nation
A Web shakedown is inevitable, but when will it happen? 
by Robin Peek

I happen to live in one of the epicenters of dot-com nation: Cambridge, Massachusetts—the home of Harvard and MIT. I have friends who work for dot-coms, neighbors who work for dot-coms, students who work for dot-coms, and colleagues who study dot-coms. Our vocabulary has been greatly enhanced by the scattering about of the “E’s”: e-commerce, e-books, e-food, e-stuff … well, you catch the drift. So when investors started chilling out on Internet stocks 2 months ago, there were a lot of dot-comers drowning their sorrows in the local coffeehouses.

How quickly things went from giddy to grim, from courted to condemned. In April, both Forrester Research and GartnerGroup predicted that most of the dot-com companies will fail over the next 2 years. GartnerGroup presented a particularly depressing 95-to-98-percent failure rate. Already auditors have announced that CDNOW will probably become “CDTHEN” come fall when the money runs out. Online grocer Peapod and online bank Wingspan look to face similar fates. Industry analysts have even turned rabid on the giant dot-coms, declaring that Web fixtures like eBay and Yahoo! may tumble. This insecurity has only been made worse now that even mighty Microsoft may no longer be invincible. Even if things should bounce back to the high-flying ways (which seems unlikely), the dot-coms will not forget this storm.

These are somber days in dot-com nation. Disappointment, even grief, abounds as high-flying visions have suddenly turned into short-term survival plans. In some quarters, a sense of betrayal also emerges as the realization that being cute, being popular, even being damn brilliant is no longer enough. For some, a bright, shining future seems uncertain as the unforgiving reality of profitability suddenly looms on a very real horizon quickly heading straight for you at Internet-speeds.

Just Another Gold Rush
Long before the Internet, history provided us with clues on what was probably going to happen with our virtual version of a gold rush. I suppose that almost everyone has dreamed of being rich. As a native Northern Californian, I am well acquainted with the gold rush that transformed the state. The Internet reminds me of that gold rush. Many people gave up everything they had, ventured into unknown country, worked endlessly—sometimes to death. More people went broke than made their fortunes, because there was only so much gold to go around.

One of the great technology gold rushes was the automobile revolution. At one time there were hundreds of automobile manufacturers. Again, many people risked everything they had trying to create their vehicle of choice. Of course, Henry Ford and only a few others succeeded.

Now, the Internet isn’t quite the same resource as gold, and while it is technology, it’s more like a new form of media. And we haven’t had a new medium since the invention of the television over 50 years ago. Television, like radio before it, created much speculation about how it would change the future. Television (and radio, too) was supposed to transform the manner in which education was delivered. Instead of a “sage on stage” we would have a “sage on the tube.” Futurists of the time believed that television would displace newspapers and radio, yet both have persisted.

On the other hand, it has been very easy to make predictions about the Internet, but it has been more difficult to actually predict its course. I know of several dot-coms that concluded it was impossible to do predictor market research with their products because people simply wouldn’t know what the dot-coms were talking about. Even companies that tried getting a handle on the market discovered that people might suggest they want a product or service, but once it becomes available they change their minds. While people said they would buy their groceries online, virtual grocers like Peapod realized that this was true for only a few.

Not the End of the Road
While this may be the end of the Web’s Golden Age, this shakedown was not only inevitable, but even desirable. In spite of the fact that for many there’s going to be pain ahead, it’s time for the Web—and perhaps for some of these people working for the dot-coms—to move on. There comes a time when you must face the fact that for some of these Web sites it wasn’t only the lack of a good business plan, it was the lack of a good idea. Being on the Web doesn’t make a business immune from the same types of small-business failures that happen in the real world. Grow up, get over it, and move on.

Web publishing will go on, and it will thrive. Publishers like governments, colleges, and non-profits will thrive because the issue is getting the message out, not making a profit on it. And yet I don’t see paper disappearing in the near future. While college Web sites are now considered wildly important to an institution’s overall promotion and advertising plan, these institutions still send prospective students a mountain of paper. Nor do I see these institutions ending the publication of paper alumni magazines, because it’s unlikely they’ll give up this way of reaching potential alumni donors.

The U.S. federal government may inadvertently end up as one of the cornerstones of Web publishing. Its data are Web-mandated and cost-effective for distribution to a broad audience. Unfortunately, it will probably continue to be an unpleasant experience for users, no matter what the format, as I’ve recently discovered with the National Science Foundation FastTrack Web site. (The motto of this Web site should be: “You will use it, you will enjoy it, and, if you make a mistake, we will erase all your work and send you back to the login screen. Ha!”) But more on this in another column.

Some commerce will indeed survive and perhaps even thrive once the marketplace has stabilized. There are simply too many Web sites competing for too little gold. We’ve learned one important lesson in the past couple of years: There are people who still like shopping in real stores! One of the reasons that business-to-business e-commerce is seen as the future of Web commerce is that these aren’t the types of stores that people get a thrill out of visiting. (And, of course, it’s difficult to see the elite of the dot-com nation getting excited about pushing products like office chairs and forklifts.)

The Internet has been the catalyst to fancies of visionaries, dreamers, and perhaps a few psychopaths. But it has also been a heady kick of unabashed, exuberant optimism—all the thrill of going West to mine for gold, without ever having to leave town. And, as most working members of dot-com nation will attest, there’s the thrill of never having to leave the workplace. The hope is that finding that gold, building that car, or creating that Web site will make one rich and legendary. Gold-fever, Internet-fever—both burned equally bright. Internet-fever will also pass, and life will go on.

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and a columnist for Information Today. Her e-mail address is

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