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 goodwill.
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 pent-up frustration.
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 worldwide conversation.
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), respectively.
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.
Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com) 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 conflict.
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 or reidgold.com.