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Lost in Cyberspace

Not all commerce need be online

This article was originally published on March 9, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

A going-away party, a press release and a news story recently emphasized how rapidly and completely the online culture is changing – and how utterly unrealistic some expectations for the Internet are.

The article was from the Reuters news service (Feb. 23), and detailed how various experts were predicting that Avon and Tupperware were in big trouble because they don't offer full-service e-commerce Web sites.

The press release was from Lillian Vernon, the mail-order catalog company specializing in tacky gee-gaws and gadgets, announcing their new Web site were you can now purchase (in complete security, of course) a Leprechaun banner or inflatable backyard skating rink.

The party was for a young man who recently enlisted in the Coast Guard and was shipping out for boot camp.

The press release and article jointly illustrate a mind-set that has recently come to dominate much of the discourse about the Internet: Namely, that the only good transaction is an online transaction, and that if you're not moving your business to the 'Net, you are forever doomed. (And the flip side of that is the rule that the only good Web site is one with secure electronic transactions.)

The party, on the other hand, was a throwback to the earlier days of the 'Net, a more idealistic time. You see, I know young James through both his late father, Ryan, and his step-father, Bob – both of whom I met online more than twelve years ago on a San Diego computer bulletin board system, or BBS. In those heady times, there were only a couple dozen BBSs in all of San Diego County; the entire online community could have (and sometimes did) meet physically in a single pizza parlor.

But there was a sense we were creating something new and special at that time, and many of us, perhaps most from that particular BBS, have kept in touch through the years. James' going-away party brought a handful of us back together, with the conversation alternating between the past and the future – but (interestingly) almost never touching on commerce.

Instead, now as then, it was about community – about how common folks can use the Internet to better connect with others who share their passions and tastes. We've kept up with technology, of course – instead of BBSs, most of us now host our own Web pages or e-mail listservs (private newsgroups devoted to one topic or another) – but the ideals have remained consistent.

Not that commerce isn't important; every one of us at James' party has a job (and bills). Most of us work in the computer or online fields, so we're certainly not hostile to folks making a buck (or a living) off the 'Net.

But the idea that all business must be online strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded – and I wonder if the growing commercialization of the Web isn't clouding all the other good things the Internet offers us.

Besides, as wonderful a tool and invention as the Internet is, the plain fact is that there are some things the 'Net is not particularly good at, will never be good at, and perhaps shouldn't be good at.

Lillian Vernon is probably doing the right thing in offering a full catalog online. They are a catalog-based mail-order company, so a Web site isn't a change of business direction, but simply adding a new medium to their existing way of doing things. The same would go for similar companies, such as Spencer Gifts , which has an entire section devoted to inflatable furniture.

On the other hand, Avon and Tupperware are personal network-based companies: Their profits depend on their salespeople getting to know their customers one on one and building repeat business. It's hard to do that over a computer network.

Which is fine. Not all business needs to happen over the 'Net. There is room enough in the world for both online and physical transactions.

But you wouldn't know that from reading the business sections in most newspapers. Today, it seems that the more gung-ho Internet gurus (who all seem to be the johnny-come-latelies) are fixated on the Internet as the be all and end all of economic life.

Some of these folks aren't going to be happy unless and until every commercial transaction happens online – until you can only order Girl Scout cookies from a Web site.

What these economic analysts and self-appointed experts are overlooking is the human element of all this: Shopping is more than just buying a service or product you want or need: Efficiency isn't everything. (Yes, guys, even for you: Ever see a man get all misty-eyed as he handles a new power tool at a hardware store? Or drool over the latest computer hardware?)

It's a lesson that Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom's have learned in the physical world: Shopping can be a luxury all its own. And it's a luxury that's hard to digitize.

So the next time you read some doom-and-gloom "get on the 'Net or die" message from some analyst, remember this: Since the late '80s, the "experts" have been predicting that newspapers will be extinct by the year 2000, put out of business by (first) text databases, (next) CD-ROMs and (finally) the Internet. How they explain the continued growth of newspaper circulation would make a fine study in creative face-saving.

As for young James, he's promised to keep us all informed of his progress in the Coast Guard – via an e-mail list, of course.

And at his going-away bash, one of the other BBS veterans decided to revive our old biannual get-togethers, the spring and fall Time Change Parties where we crawl out from behind our monitors and make real, physical contact with one another. We're hoping our online comrades of yore will be able to come back to San Diego for a weekend of reminiscing and looking ahead.

Those who can't make it? Well, we can always get a live Web cam and real-time chat room where they can drop by and say hi. Even if they don't have a credit card.