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Marketing in the internet - as seen from Italy

by Giancarlo Livraghi


No. 12 - December 23, 1997
1. Editorial: It's time for Copernicus
2. Neither bits nor atoms
3. The useless fuss about pull and push
4. Thisnet, thatnet... Mynet
5. Some interesting news
6. When technology becomes a nuisance
red buttonSummary

1. Editorial: It’s time for Copernicus
The time has come, I think, for a “Copernican revolution” in our thinking about the net. The voices of common sense, down-to earth experience and somewhat deeper analysis are not yet prevailing on the general noise of hype and nonsense; but they are beginning to be heard.

Human communication is in a state of turbulent change. We’ve hardly been able to adjust to the innovation of mass media, which is less than a century old (a very short time in the history of our species) and they are already in a state of deep change.

With digital technologies there can, indeed must, be radical changes in audiovisual and printed media. But the outcome will not depend on technology per se. It must be led by the ideas, the imagination and the courage of editors and publishers. We have no reason to believe that radio, television and printed media (including books) will disappear. But they need to evolve and change, in ways that could be quite unpredictable.

The net is something else. Not an evolution of existing media, but something completely new. The “Ptolemaic” temptation to try to understand it by using broadcast criteria is just as clumsy and inefficient as an attempt to explain the movements of stars and planets with an Earth-centered theory. Whatever theory made Columbus believe that our planet is smaller that it is could have led him and his crew to a lonely death by thirst and hunger if he hadn’t bumped into an unexpected continent. Applying the wrong criteria to the net can easily lead us nowhere, or to a completely different place than where we thought we were going.

Is it “impossible” to use electronic communication as a broadcast medium? No: almost anything is possible. But if we try to force the net against its nature, to fit our prejudices and habits, the effort will be much greater, and the results much poorer, than if we keep our minds open, stay flexible and learn as we go. The superior value of an interactive environment is it’s constant cycle: learning and doing are not separate stages, but part of a never-ending flux.

Another problem that we need to overcome is the bizarre notion of reversed priorities. The exaggerated emphasis on technologies generates a solution-problem sequence, which is quite illogical and unnatural. Like saying “I must take a train but I don’t know where I’m going” instead of “I must be in suchplace at suchtime and therefore I must decide how to get there”. It’s quite obvious (but rarely done) that we should start from our needs, priorities and objectives – then look for the most appropriate solutions. We should not think “I should set up a website” but “I should understand which parts of my organization and relationships can be significantly improved by networking, then decide which tools I need; one of which, perhaps, may be a website”. But the system is driven upside down by the power of Ptolemaic software houses, who believe that the universe turns around their products; or want us to believe that, in order to increase their short-term profits. We should, quite simply, turn the priorities upside up.

New as the net is, many of the criteria that can produce the best results are not new at all. There were Earth-around-Sun theories millennia before Copernicus, but they were forgotten in a dogmatic culture. There was a fairly good understanding of networked communities, though shared by a small number of people, before the net expanded very rapidly in recent years.

The unexpected explosion of the World Wide Web and the sudden emphasis on “commercial” use of the net have blurred the picture. Looking back to what we had been learning could help us to gain better focus.

Also, human behavior as we see it in the net is not intrinsically new. Our genes haven’t changed. The availability of new communication media can help us to re-discover values that had not disappeared, but were blurred in the era of mass production and mass media. Such as community, sharing, exchange, individuality and diversity.

The kernel of the cognitive revolution that we need is quite simple (like the Copernican theory). Go back to the essence of human nature and try to understand how it can best express its values in a new communication environment.

But to do so we must free ourselves from the restrictive and flattening culture of the industrial era. Industry is not dead; it is, and will be, an essential part of our economy. But we have stepped out of its standardized way of thinking. We have been saying so for twenty years; the time has come to actually do it. Move into the era of information, or probably beyond that into the network economy. That would not be difficult if we could free ourselves of our ingrained habits and prejudices.

Such an evolutionary jump is not easy on a global scale, in the large systems of culture, government, administration and business. It’s a difficult, cumbersome and possibly traumatic process. But for a single person and company it’s much easier. It can be done here and now, with a touch of intuition and imagination. Technology can help a lot, if harnessed firmly to our needs and desires. This is the challenge that we are all facing, including people who have never touched a computer – or companies that so far have used it only for computing.

There are, and there will be, successful sailors, in the net as in salt water, who are not lead by cosmic theories or elaborate disciplines – but can smell the wind.

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2. Neither bits nor atoms
“It’s easier to move bits than atoms”. Pretty obvious. But even Nicholas Negroponte says that he is quite surprised to hear it repeated so often.

There are several reasons why this is not as simple as it sounds. For instance:

  • Even before e-mail was invented, it was quite clear that it’s more functional to move information than people or goods. If we look at people waiting in line or stuck in traffic jams, we see that this idea may be understood in theory, but is not practiced as much as it should. The technologies are there, the organization is not.

  • Some things can be done by moving information, but not all. We still need to move “atoms”. The most effective solution is not found by looking at parts of an system as separate. We need to understand how all factors work together, and how and where information can make the process smoother and more effective. To some extent, we are doing so. But not as much as we can and should. We are still far away from the levels of simplicity, efficiency, and overall “quality of life” that we could achieve if we learnt how to share and apply knowledge more effectively.

  • Bits may not take up “physical” space, but they do take up space. In the memories of computers and in the communication channels. Not to mention the considerable amount of human effort needed to read, understand, store and use information. The level of “noise” (material transferred that carries no real information) is often too high. The quality of “signal” (not just technically, but conceptually) is often very poor. We are not managing information well; by doing so we don’t just waste bandwidth but we also waste human time and temper – and often cause misunderstandings. If we don’t learn to be more careful and effective in content and human exchange, no technology can rescue us from the resulting mess.

  • Sometimes technology is more of a curse than a blessing. Too often it’s engineered the wrong way round: instead of solving problems it creates unnecessary complications. I shall get back to that in the last part of this issue.

Above all... the most important element in any human society, and especially in a networked community, is not made of bits or atoms. It’s an “immaterial” asset of enormous value and importance: thought. Not only data and information, but also ideas, opinions, feelings, emotions. This is the ultimate resource. It doesn’t matter if it’s carried by digital bits, modulated frequencies, waves, electrons, photons, atoms of paper and ink – or puffs of smoke. The one thing that matters is the quality of communication between people.

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3. The useless fuss about “pull” and “push”
I’ve heard and read more discussion about “pull” and “push” than I can possibly care for. My honest opinion is that most of it is a waste of time.

There are two mistakes in this concept. The first is that it’s based on traditional broadcast and distribution logic. The second is believing that simplistic “good for all” formulas can replace the analysis of each individual situation. The more a solution is based on the specific critical nodes and synergies of an individual operation, the more effective it will be.

As any generalization is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, also the point I am going to make is not “automatically true”. But if we must  have a general concept that can bear fruit, then I think we should start from a completely different notion. Instead of “pulling” or “pushing” or in any way trying to force the system, we should try to generate self-nourishing circuits. A dynamic and lively community will find it own patterns; the push-or-pull problem will solve itself. Each person can decide what, when and how she or he wants to go and find something or have it delivered.

If what we are doing or planning isn’t strong enough to generate such a “virtuous cycle”, we should stop and re-think our strategies.

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4. Thisnet, thatnet... “Mynet”
Another thread that tends to make me sleepy is the one about Internet, Intranet and Extranet.

Of course the definitions are correct. There is a conceptual difference between the three approaches (though not necessarily a distinct technical solution for each). But it can be explained in two minutes and from there on the discussion is not particularly interesting, except maybe for those who have some software to offer – a secondary detail that is better handled by comparing available offerings after  we have defined our specific needs.

Everyone seems to be making up mew words all the time, so here’s another idea. Why not Mynet? Unique, distinct and unlike anyone else’s. Conceived according to my needs and peculiarities, nourished by my imagination and its own ever-changing nature, shared with all my relevant partners and customers, shaped not only by my desires, but also by other people’s needs and contributions. More or less open or closed depending on the community of which it’s a tool. Based on the bare minimum of technical resources, especially in the beginning, and with the greatest possible flexibility, so that technology fits its evolving needs (never vice versa).

This is not really a new idea. Throughout human history, economic and social systems have been based on networks of relationships; the more distinct and recognizable their styles and behaviors, the stronger and more effective they are. If this was less visible (though it never disappeared) in the general flatness of “mass culture”, the time has come to revive it boldly with the new tools offered by electronic communication. We could miss big opportunities by not doing so; and lose out to competitors if they do, and we don’t.

Is it difficult? Not really, as long as we have clear strategies, constant attention, and a gift for listening and dialogue. But without those qualities I wonder if we should be on the net – or even in business in the world of today and tomorrow. The lack of such abilities can not be remedied by buying some ready-made packaged technology off the shelves of a messy software store.

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5. Some interesting news
A few more numbers

We’ll do some more data-crunching next year. In the meantime, here are just a few simple numbers. According to a NUA report there could be 90 million internet users.

Millions; rounded figures
World 90
U. S. and Canada 54
Europe 20
Asia-Pacific 14
Latin America 1
Africa 1

Of course these data are debatable and probably overstated, but once again we find that 60 percent of the net is still in two countries, with 5 percent of the world’s population.

China is on the move, but restricted

After the opening in India, there seems to be some change also in China. France Press quotes a report from the Xinhua (government owned) agency that the “internet population” in China is 600,000 (100,000 of which in Peking). It’s unclear if this means “people with access” or “users”; for obvious reasons there appear to be multiple users for each access in China. Lu Xinquan, of the government internet task force, says that there over 100 ISPs in his country.

For many years the Chinese government has been hostile to the internet, fearing that it may bypass its tight controls on information and opinion. Now it seems to be opening up, but only for use of the net in Chinese. The idea is not to let Chinese users access the uncontrolled flux of worldwide communication, but to keep them within a system base on their own language; more like a giant intranet that internet as we understand it, in order to offer access only to sources that are considered “politically correct”.

According to Peter Lovelock, a telecommunication researcher at Hong Kong University, the Chinese are succeeding in what we thought impossible: maintaining political control on the net. The objective, says Lovelock, is no longer to block internet access, but to make it remote and difficult for most people in China, who don’t understand English and have a limited knowledge of access technologies. It’s becoming theoretically possible to access content beyond government controls; but that requites a degree of commitment, and technical effort, that is out of reach for most Chinese people.

There is some content in Chinese available from other counties, such as Taiwan, Singapore and Australia, but not easily accessed from China. All connections, even if managed by “independent” providers, are under central government control. And several countries in South-East Asia have strict censorship on the net.

Arab Emirates financing censorship

Other countries are following the example of Saudi Arabia. The second richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates federation will invest $2.7 million to aid in censoring the internet. The Inter Press Service reports that the Dubai Police Chief, Major General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, acknowledged that “putting air tight restrictions on access to the internet is impossible. But we have not lost hope especially since we came to know that Singapore has successfully done it.” Dr. Mansour Al-Awar, from the Dubai Police, said that the Internet is “a danger to the high moral values, traditional practices and religious beliefs of Gulf States.” The internet, according to Tamim, needs “the same kind of censorship applicable to books, publication and movies, and aids the spread of radical and racists ideas among children.” Therefore, Dubai has outlawed pornography, violence, nudity, homosexuality, and lesbianism on the Internet. Dubai will use the $2.7 million to further police the net.

Dubai will employ the British Firm JBB Consultancy Services to analyze information being downloaded. “The Net Map system traces user patterns by identifying how certain sites on the web are visited. Through the use of a collection device attached to the main telephone line and an alarm signal, the authorities can be alerted each time forbidden information is viewed or downloaded.”

And in Singapore...

Heeding an 18 member National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) suggestion to remove provisions of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority’s (SBA) Internet Code that would “curtail genuine free speech,” Singapore’s Ministry of Information and the Arts has released new guidelines that clarify prohibitions on speech.

According to The Straits Times (Singapore), the revised code of practice has removed a clause that prohibited internet content that might have incited contempt against the government. Lim Hock Chuan, the SBA’s CEO, felt the revision was appropriate because Singapore already has a Sedition Act. Chuan argued that the “The SBA is not against the freedom of political speech.” He means registered  political speech. The SBA has not removed provisions that call for web sites to be registered with the government if they promote political or religious causes.

The government has clarified its provision on hate speech. Any content that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance” is proscribed. The SBA has also removed a provision that dealt with “religious deviations and occult practices.” These are already regulated by Singapore’s Society’s Act.

On the sex side, Chuan noted his concern that it would be impossible to monitor millions of sites the government deems objectionable. That, however, hasn’t stopped the government from blocking access to what it calls “100 mass impact pornographic sites” or from keeping eight monitors who surf the web regularly in search of sexual material. Chuan added that the SBA will still investigate complaints of offensive sites and block them, if necessary.

In a bow to NIAC’s recommendation that the SBA avoid vagaries and use specific language, the new regulations also prohibit sexual material that “depicts nudity of genitalia in a manner calculated to titillate” or “depicts a person, who is, or appears to be under 16 years of age in sexual activity, in a sexually provocative manner or in any offensive manner.”

Not much “internet commerce”, even in the US

According to a report in USA Today, only 8 percent of American entrepreneurs use “electronic commerce”. At the Entrepreneur of the Year International Conference in California, 80 percent of the people attending said that they use the internet. Of 395 entrepreneurs interviewed, 36 percent said they use e-mail, 37 percent that they use websites to offer information, 8 percent that they practice “electronic commerce”

Banner effectiveness declining

On December 2 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the click-through rate on banners is declining. In a conference in Sydney Dr. Marshall Rose of First Virtual (a Californian organization) revealed that less than 2 percent of banners on high traffic sites are clicked trough, and the percentage is declining. Rose said that people don’t click on banners because they don’t like to be distracted from what they are reading or driven away from their chosen path.

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6. When technology becomes a nuisance
This year I shan’t give a single christmas present that has anything to do with computers or “high tech”. Partly because I’m sick and tired of being perceived by people who have no familiarity with the net (that’s almost everybody) as some sort of dumb attachment to a machine. But mostly because I am losing trust in technology. The more new gadgets look innovative and intriguing, the less they work or serve any real purpose.

Let me just quote a few examples, out of many. I am deliberately starting with things that are not computers (though almost everything today contains some sort of electronic device).

When I lived in New York I had a car that didn’t speak, but made all sorts of noises to tell me that it didn’t agree with what I was doing. It was quite irritating. One of those devices indicated that safety belts were unfastened. Many people left fastened belts on the seat to keep the alarm quiet, and forgot to wear them.

Then... there were talking cars. Luckily, a short-lived fashion. I tried one and I found it unbearable. A friend of mine rented one, went into a skid and hit a lamppost. No major damage; but he found himself surrounded by a small crowd while a silly voice kept repeating “the radiator is leaking”. In addition to repairs to the radiator and bodywork, he had to pay an electrician to fix the wires that he had torn out in despair.

Telephones are full of little voices. I don’t mind the alerts about some cellular phone being out of reach (though I wish they would use normal language instead of telcom burocratese). But now in my country there is a voice that says “the line is busy”. Does that make any sense? Is there anyone over age two that can’t recognize a busy signal?

A week ago I bought a new cordless phone with an answering system. The instruction manual is 80 pages. I am not much more stupid than the average person, I have programmed easily many such devices and installed much more complicated equipment. But that recording machine drove me nuts. There is a little voice explaining every step, but the process involves pressing several different buttons in a complex sequence. Though I followed the instructions carefully, I couldn’t record the answer message. After a dozen attempts I called the manufacturer’s customer service. The person answering was so familiar with the problem that I think he has been called by every person that bough that machine. Yes,  he said, I was puzzled too; it’s a matter of timing . The device doesn’t work unless buttons are pressed at certain time intervals, which are quite unnatural for any human being. If the timing is not strictly exact, the machine installs another of its countless functions, which is of no use whatsoever to most people.

This is not an isolated case. More and more, devices are crammed with useless functions that interfere with the few that we really need. Why don’t engineers test their devices with ordinary users before they put their crazy inventions on the market?

If we look at computers and connection software, there are more problems every day. I have learnt that if I install any new software (I am trying to do so as seldom as I can) I shall not only spend a few hours configuring it to work the way I want it, but I shall also have to go hunting for default functions that I don’t want.

One more example of poor use of technology has just appeared in conventions. Boring and repetitive as they are, there can always be some bit that is interesting and I want to study more carefully. They used to distribute papers at the meeting, or at least put them online. Now some don’t... all I find online is “real audio”. They are just being lazy. Anyone who has spoken in public knows that turning “voice” comments into understandable writing needs some intense editing. Also, a written document can be printed, edited, quoted. That’s much more difficult with “audio”; and adding “video” is useless, unless I’m doing some deep research on someone’s attitude and body language. Once again, a false notion of “technology” is used to provide poor service.

Anyone that had the patience to read this far may ask: What does all this have to do with net communication and marketing?  A lot, I think. For two reasons.

The first is that we should use, as far as possible, the simplest technique that fits our needs, to make things easy for other people. What is familiar for us may be quite uncomfortable for others, and vice versa.

The second is that we need to organize content so that it’s practical and logical for readers. That’s not easy. Hypertext can be wonderful, if used properly; or very messy and confusing. If the architecture doesn’t fit the needs of readers, they can easily get bored and move away.

Good programmers have beta-testers that check and criticize their work. I believe that even an apparently simple thing such as putting up a website should be subjected to that discipline. Obvious? Of course. But from what we see online it seems to be rarely done.

This, like other things we need to do if we want to be effective online, is time-consuming; and a never-ending task. We should be aware of that before we venture into net communication.

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