Has this ever happened to you? You're looking for information
about a product, you Google to its Web site, and you e-mail
off your question. Then you hear nothing back. This has
happened to me too many times.
It's almost better for a company to refrain from having
an Internet presence if it's not going to use the Internet
for what it is. By using the Net merely as a low-cost
billboard, instead of gaining sales, companies lose
The Net is all about interactivity, the sharing of
information as well as opinions, experiences, and fellowship.
It's the fruition of one of the core and noblest of
American ideals, the free and open marketplace of ideas.
Much is made of the Internet as a massive library,
an international “meet” market, and gargantuan
shopping mall. But the Net is also a far-reaching soapbox.
What the telephone did for personal communication, the
Internet is doing for public discourse. The Net has
been called the best development in participatory democracy
since universal suffrage and the most participatory
form of mass speech yet developed.
Because the Internet operates without traditional media
gatekeepers controlling what is said, freedom of speech
is often the snarly sort. The Net can sometimes seem
like a monstrous fountain of obscenity, hate, and lies,
the ultimate refuge for sociopaths releasing years of
But as the Internet approaches early adulthood, it
increasingly reflects the diverse interests and activities
of those people building it—you. There are lots
of ways you can participate in the Net's never-ending
Older technologies include e-mail and Usenet discussion
groups. Both now have a Web presence, most prominently
at Yahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com)
and Google Groups (http://groups.google.com),
These groups cover topics ranging from the buttoned-down
and business-oriented to the anything-goes. E-mail-
based groups are typically more tightly controlled and
less prone to argumentation than Usenet-based.
More and more individual Web sites have their own discussion
forums as well. Among the most vigorous are those of
newspapers and magazines. At media Web sites, space
limitations no longer prevent you from getting your
letter to the editor published in full, no matter how
long or rambling.
Talk City (http://www.talkcity.com)
is a web site devoted strictly to talk. You can access
bulletin boards, where you post messages for others
to see at their convenience, or chat rooms, where you
converse with others in "real time."
Some of the most useful online discussions take place
at product review sites. Epinions.com (http://www.epinions.com)
is among the best. Reviews must be 100 words or longer
and free of objectionable language. You can quickly
find reviews others have written in categories ranging
from Beauty to Sporting Goods.
for some time has done an excellent job of letting shoppers
review the books, CDs, DVDs, and other products it sells.
Likewise, Yahoo! Shopping (http://shopping.yahoo.com)
has done an excellent job of letting shoppers rate the
stores that have hung their “@” there.
On the other hand, eBay (http://www.ebay.com)
has put up multiple barriers to communication, making
it difficult for customers to reach it and to communicate
with one another about current auctions, thereby making
it easy for scammers to hide their past behavior. Consequently,
fraud is a serious problem at eBay, as has been reported
by the FBI.
eBay has overreacted to the negative aspect of open
communication, which is easy to do. If you happen to
find yourself or your company on the receiving end of
someone else's "free speech," think twice
about responding freely in return.
The best response to cybersmearing is often to ask
about the circumstances that led to the person's dissatisfaction
and to explore how you might resolve it together. The
very act of trying to establish a cordial dialogue can
go a long way toward resolving or at least lessening
If want to hold forth in a more personal way, you can
create a blog—short for Weblog. Blogs are online
diaries or journals that you open to the world, or whomever
happens to come across it. It can be on whatever you're
thinking about or have experienced that day, or it can
be more narrowly focused on a topic such as politics,
popular culture, or business affairs.
Among the best sites for creating blogs or reading
those others have created is Blogger (http://www.blogger.com).
There's no shortage of opportunities for putting your
own ideas out there, or of people doing this. Some companies
may not get the Net, but the millions of individuals
using it do.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org