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Internet Community & Collaboration: Articles and Presentations by Richard Seltzer

Effective Scheduled Chat Work in an Online Business

Based on an article that appeared in Internet-on-a-Disk #19, February 1997. Updated and extended November 1999 and March 2001.

"Business chat" sounds like an oxymoron. But when done right, chat can draw active and involved users repeatedly to your Web site and help you build an archive of high-quality, low-cost content that will attract more users.

Actually, there are two related classes of software, both of which can be used for holding online discussions: chat and forum.

Web-based chat software allows numerous people to exchange text messages simultaneously in the same "session." It is often used for quick, casual, anonymous one-liner conversation. As soon as you type your message, it's available for others in the same session to read. When a dozen or more people actively participate at the same time, it gets very difficult to read what is said and even more difficult to follow the multiple threads of conversation. You need to read fast and type fast, but if you do, and if the topic is up your alley, the experience can be exhilarating and stimulating -- whether you are flirting or flaming or brainstorming.

Web-based forum software, like notes and bulletin board, allows people to leave messages which will be read later. In this case, writers have the time to reflect -- there is no time limit. They also can give their messages titles and indicate if these are answers to previous messages or new threads of thought. Typically, readers can view the list of all messages available or just the ones they haven't read before, with their threaded relationships shown. And the messages can be saved indefinitely and can be searched. Here it is possible to carry on an extended, thoughtful, multi-person correspondence.

The only problem with forums is a matter of human nature -- we tend to procrastinate. We know that we can post and read there anytime that we want, so there is no urgency. If a conversation really gets going, then the momentum can carry it along. But it is often difficult to get that kind of interactivity going. The discussion needs to reach some critical mass before it becomes compelling. Yes, we intend to participate, just like we intend to follow through on New Year's resolutions; but more often than not, it just doesn't happen.

Chat on the other hand has immediacy. And when a chat topic is scheduled for a particular time, you either connect or you miss it. Chat also can generate energy and enthusiasm and stimulate useful ideas because of the element of live interaction.

The best discussion software combines the immediacy/urgency of chat with the ability to save the discussions in threaded form, so those who participated can catch up on what they missed and what they need to reflect on further, and others who weren't able to connect at that time can see what was said; and all can add their followup thoughts and continue the discussion in a more leisurely and reasoned environment.   

Varieties of Chat

Chat is like a hammer -- its value depends on what you do with it. You can create many different kinds of events and experiences, and build many different kinds of business models based on chat-related software.

For example, you can set up:

Scheduled Business Chat

I started doing "business chat" in the spring of 1996, when the Boston Computer Society asked me to host a regular session at the Boston Globe's Web site. The Boston Computer Society has since dissolved, but my weekly chat sessions about "Business on the World Wide Web" continue. For the current schedule and the link to the next session check http://www.samizdat.com/chat-intro.html For a volunteer activity, it's been a lot of work, but I've learned a lot in the process. The following suggestions are based on that experience: Keep in mind that in newsgroups the ratio of lurkers (those who just read) to those who actively participate is about nine or ten to one. Statistics are hard to come by for Web-based chat, but, given human nature, the ratio is probably similar. The transcript and the inclusion of followup messages in transcripts helps to draw some of these people out into the open and make them contributors.

Basically, any Web site that has rich text content and depends on that content to draw much of its traffic, should carefully consider adding scheduled chat programs (with edited transcript) and/or related distance education programs that use chat.

By the way, if you run a business chat session at your site, you might want to set it up so participants, when joining, acknowledge that they are granting you the non-exclusive right to republish material from that session in other media, without having to get further approval from the participants. (Check with a lawyer, but avoid using legal jargon -- you don't want to scare people away or confuse them.) That blanket permission would allow you to include excerpts in CD ROMs or printed books, or in other media, etc. Remember, the future of the Internet is "content".

Software Wish List

I must admit that I am prejudiced in favor of SiteScape Forum, formerly known as AltaVista Forum, and before that as Workgroup Web Forum. It was developed at Digital, by people with whom I worked in the Internet Business Group, back in the early days of the Web. It is a very robust and rich piece of software, now owned and being further developed by SiteScape. I like it not just because I am familiar with it, but also because many of its features reflect suggestions that I expressed to the developers along the way. I now use their software as the platform for my weekly chats. It is the practical fulfillment of the most important items on my discussion-software wishlist.

What are those items?

True Cost of Chat

If you are interested in making your site more interactive and perhaps building an online community, keep in mind that the discussion software is only one small piece of the solution. Thousands of Web sites have set up chat rooms that are typically empty or filled only with noise. It's as if you were given a time slot on a public access cable channel, and instead of planning, developing, and promoting programming, you just set up a video camera in a mall so people who walk by can make funny faces or obscene gestures and generally fool around.

As indicated above, you can use chat and forum for many business purposes, but the success of these ventures depends in large part on people, not software. Lots of work needs to be done in setting up, promoting, and supporting scheduled chat events.

Based on my experiences, here's a rough-cut first estimate of what it would cost in person-hours to do this on a professional (rather than amateur/volunteer) basis.

This presumes that the chat sessions are scheduled -- that a regular time slot is available each week for discussion on a broad continuing subject, and that specific focus topics typically run 3-4 sessions. For instance, my chat program about Business on the World Wide Web has covered such topics as Web access to databases, Internet telephony, and selling content on the Web. when topics continue for several weeks, the promotion effort is spread across that time and word-of-mouth and word-of keystroke have time to build audience.

Total = 14-1/2 to 22-1/2 hours

If you already have your own Web server with disk space and bandwidth to space these hours would represent the incremental cost of doing one weekly one-hour scheduled chat program. If your Web site is hosted on someone else's server, keep in mind that there are sites like Xoom, Delphi, and Groupvine where you can hold chats and forums in free space. But if you want full-function discussion software, a professional look and feel, and pages that reflect your brand, expect to pay for that kind of hosting service.

Keep in mind, too, that the skills needed to do these tasks are in short supply. You can't just ask anyone on your staff to suddenly start doing this and expect the project to be successful. Also, several different kinds of skills are necessary. In fact, it might take three or four experienced, talented, and motivated people to make this work, including a host who not only can type and think fast, and can relate well to people online, but also who is passionate about the subject.

Chat for Distance Education and Training

I just finished helping the Kennedy School of Government with a pilot distance education project, run for them by the Otter Group and using SiteScape Forum as the discussion platform.

That project included experimenting with chat as an educational tool -- pre-course chats to familiarize the participants with what was involved in the course and get them used to the online environment and help them begin to know one another and let the professor know their backgrounds and interests; work group chats run simultaneously with streaming video lecture; and post-lecture office-hours chat with the professor. We just barely scratched the surface in terms of understanding the potential and coming up with procedures to optimize the experience. We still need to test chat for formal work group discussions with learning directors, between lectures; and for information study sessions.

With SiteScape Forum the number of simultaneous users that can be accommodated for chat depends on the hardware configuration. But this solution could usable for an entire department or school with numerous courses if you simply schedule live events so they do not conflict with another or do not add up to exceed the probable maximum for your configuration. (What matters is the number of people making demands on the server -- posting or refreshing -- at the exact same moment, which is a matter of statistical probability, and which is influenced too by the manner in which the chat is conducted.)

The Kennedy School pilot involved both a classroom/satellite-broadcast component and an online interaction component, using chat and forum.

The broadcast was a complex effort to coordinate -- a massive one-shot production. Making the audio/video available afterward over the Internet in archived form adds an interesting dimension. We now have the possibility of editing and packaging this content for other audiences -- adding new broadcast elements and more live interaction. That would fulfill the central goals of the pilot -- showing how it is possible to extend the reach of Kennedy School course content and package it for redistribution in a variety of ways -- making a tangible asset out of what had been relatively spontaneous and ephemeral teaching/learning experiences, and at the same time reaching people who otherwise would not have an opportunity to take these courses and learning from their new and diverse input.

But the online discussion started a process that could take the Kennedy School and the community of learners in new and little known directions. A core group of people who made the effort to activity participate in chats and forums, who got deeply engaged in the class content is now ready for step two: not the next course, not the availability of more of the Kennedy School curriculum from a distance (though they all seem to anxiously await that eventuality. But rather, they are ready for the opportunity to interact with one another and with Kennedy School faculty in a proto-community, continuing some of the threads of discussion to new levels of usefulness and detail, mixing theory and practice as they bring these ideas to their workplaces and come back with new questions.

While plans proceed to add new courses and/or to carry out one or more additional experiments to refine the delivery technique, I would like to see the online discussion continue and expand, with participants and learning directors self-selecting themselves into work groups focused on questions that are of great interest and importance to them (e.g., today's thread about non-profit mergers).

They could do this in asynchronous forums, supplemented by periodic chats with pre-planned topics and invited experts/guests (sometimes Kennedy School faculty; sometimes key figures from elsewhere). The quality and growth of these discussions would depend on the fecundity of the central topic and the creativity and dedication of the learning directors who run them.

Ideally, two to three learning directors would be assigned to each topic area, with one assuming leadership and turning to others for backup and support. The initial topics should come from threads that emerged during the class, in the office hours chat today, and in the forums.

The learning directors could promote their ongoing discussions and special chat events to those who enrolled in the pilot, to those who come to the discussion area later, and other constituencies that they know of and who are deeply concerned about the topics under discussion. If we started six such work groups today (each with its own special focus), perhaps two might survive for two months, and perhaps one might grow in unexpected and valuable directions -- benefiting the active participants in ways that none of them ever imagined when they signed up for the pilot, and providing the learning directors with excellent training. At the same time, such a project would give the school an opportunity to learn about less structured, less curriculum-based ways of delivering education at a distance -- community-style rather than professor--directed and continuous interaction rather than education delivered in discrete time-limited pieces.

At least that's the direction I'd like to see it go...

What Next?

Already we see "voice chat" available for free at sites like Yahoo and Excite. That's kind of like a low-quality, free-form conference phone call. I can imagine occasions when that could be useful and fun. Inevitably, video, too, will be a normal part of some chat programs -- both one-way and two-way. But I hope that as we move in that direction, the base-line for business and education chat remains text -- with the voice and video as enhancements. It is good for there to be a variety of modes of expression. Different people express themselves better in different modes. It's good to give them a choice. But text has the advantage of being easily and economically saved and searched.

There are also occasions when you need to manage large numbers of participants. America Online has a setup in their larger chat rooms that allows a moderator to filter questions from the whole group, passing them on to the scheduled speaker, and allows discussion among participants in a single "row", but only the "speaker" can speak to everyone at once. America Online is great at managing chat areas -- that's probably their number one asset. I'd like that kind of capability to be more widely available. Ideally, I'd like to be able to go to a discussion-hosting Web site and rent or lease a chat/forum rooms whenever I need them.

Many business people will only need this capability for a few hours a month -- it's a natural for rental -- with "rooms" in a variety of sizes, perhaps up to the online equivalent of a convention center.

In any case, as you plan and build your chat program, don't limit what you do to what today's software makes easy. Do what makes sense. If it takes time and energy to do housekeeping chores that you wish were automatic, still don't hesitate to dive in and gain the experience necessary to make this new medium work for you. Your business needs should drive the technology, not vice versa. The more you know first-hand about the headaches and the benefits of business chat, the better you'll be able to pick what's right for you.


Sitechatter

This article was based on  a presentation on the radio program "The Computer Report," which was broadcast live on WOTW 900 AM, Nashua, NH 12-2 PM Sundays.

The volume of new applications intended to boost Internet business is overwhelming and the temptations are great. You could easily go broke checking out freeware and shareware, spending too much time and energy playing with the new stuff and too little generating business. So in self-defense, I went in the opposite direction -- it's probably been a year since I last checked out new software.

But this time I couldn't hold back.

I have an online store (http://store.yahoo.com/samizdat) where I sell plain-text books on CD ROM -- as many as a thousand books on a single CD. About 2500 people a day visit my main content site where I have lots of free information to attract them by way of search engines. About 1 in 25 of those visitors then go to my store. And only one in a hundred of my store visitors buys my CDs.

I've been putting all my energy into creating new CDs, which leads to customers buying more items, giving me more revenue per sale; and also into attracting more traffic through more and better content at my main site.  But to grow my business quickly and substantially, I need to increase the conversion rate -- getting more store visitors to buy. Instead of just 1%, it would be reasonable to expect 2%, 3%, or even 5% of those store visitors to buy. But what can I do to make that happen?

Most people have never read a book on a CD. That's why the conversion rate is so low and also why most buyers today are blind -- the blind often use text-to-voice conversion on their computers to read plain text books. What to sighted people is bizarre and unusual, to the blind is commonplace. And once people have tried these CDs, they love them and come back for more. More than half the people who buy form my store come back to buy again and again. But those who are unfamiliar with the concept -- except for a very small number of pioneer early adopters -- just window shop. They are tempted and interested by the concept of buying a library for the price of a book, but they are reluctant to spend money on something so strange and, to them, untested.
 

I need a way to interact with those prospective customers -- the ones who have been tempted enough to enter my store. I need to be able to answer their questions, remove their doubts, and build a trusting relationship with them, quickly, effectively, and in realtime.

Back when my main business was consulting, I benefited from HumanClick software that alerted me when visitors were looking at selected Web pages of mine and that let me prompt them to initiate a chat session with me. That software was free until the company was bought by another company and became Live Person. The product and service are still great. I use Live Person as a customer whenever I need answers from the folks who run eBay. But it's too expensive for me to use for my own business.

A year ago, as I was starting to focus on my book CD business, Sitechattter, a HumanClick look-alike, appeared, as a service that cost $10 per month. I tried it for a few months, but it didn't bring me a single sale. It had several weaknesses. I didn't get any indication of when people were looking at my pages, and I had no way to prompt or tempt visitors to click on the icon that would initiate a chat with me.

A few days ago, I got a message from Sitechattter saying that they have added important new features. Now I can see when someone is looking at one of my Web pages, and see what page that person looked at last, which means that if they were using a search engine I can see what query led them to my business (since the query is part of the referring URL). More important, now I can initiate a chat session with a visitor, rather than waiting for visitors to start the conversation. And at no additional cost I can add Sitechattter to more than one Web site -- both my store and my main content site. The cost is now $30 per month -- more than I pay my Web host. But selling one additional CD per month would just about pay for that.

So now I've added Sitechattter to dozens of pages and I'm bombarding (and possibly annoying) visitors with my offers of live help and advice. At this point I'm confident in the workability of the software What's likely to matter now depends on me -- when should I initiate chats and how should I introduce myself to increase the likelihood that potential customers will answer and that the ensuing dialogue will lead to sales?  It's likely to take weeks before I know whether this new application is going to boost my business many fold, or whether the ring alerting me of new visitors will interrupt me again and again, fruitlessly, and the stress of being "on call" will make me wish I'd never heard of this new opportunity.

Or at least that's waht I thought a few minutes ago. Before I had a chance to spellcheck this article, I got into a Sitechatter discussion with a distributor in Puerto Rico. Sounds very promising...

Why Twitter?

I’m still a rookie — I’ve only been using Twitter http://www.twitter.com seriously for about a month. But I thought that my observations might be useful to others who are amazed and mystified by Twitter’s popularity.

Once you sign up for Twitter, you can post messages of 140 characters of less whenever you like, as many messages as you like. The 140 characters is absolute. And the message box shows you letter by letter how many you have left.

What can you do with that? Why should you bother to type in a couple sentences announcing to the world what you are doing today? And why would you ever want to see messages like that written by strangers?

To get a feel for the potential, consider late-breaking news.

Unless you have a well-established news-oriented Web site or blog, when something happens unexpectedly that relates to you directly, you have no way (except email) to spread the word. If you post a new Web page with your observations and insights, it could take days, weeks, or months for that page to get into Google and other search engine indexes. And that would only be one item, not a continuous flow of updates. Also, short items tend to get very low priority in search engine results pages.

With Twitter, your posting is available for search as soon as you post it. That search could be for any word in your posting. And with tags (words preceded by #) you can put your spreading news into high gear, making it easy for interested folks to see all your updates.

Say there were an earthquake in Manitoba and you lived there and wanted to spread the word on what was happening. Just include #manitoba in a quick Twitter note. Then anybody who wanted to learn about it could just search for #manitoba and anybody wanting to add info or ask questions about it could include #manitoba in their posts. You create an online channel for disseminating information and the results are instantaneous.

Anybody can make a tag any time, without doing anything more than using it in a Twitter posting. I constantly use #kindle, #book, #books, #publishing. Think of search terms closely related to your business and see how much activity there is for #thisthatortheotherthing. Use ones that are very active to increase the size of your potential audience. Use ones that are rarely used, if ever, if you want to reach a targeted audience who you notify in advance.

If you are at a meeting and you know there were others who wanted to attend, but couldn’t, you could on your wireless laptop or Blackberry or iPhone or whatever connect to Twitter and type in your notes and related thoughts, consistently including the same tag e.g. #brilliantbiomedtalk and letting friends and colleagues know (by email or even by Twitter) that you are doing so.

Some people set up chat sessions that way, without the hassle of getting special chat software and having attendees download and install it. Just establish and publicize a unique tag (#___) and let people know the time and the topic.

If you are in the airline business and your company is losing money due to empty seats, at Twitter post special deals inviting last-minute customers. Include a tag like #airfare and a link for customers to buy their tickets at this special price. (Airlines do this already. Search for #airfare).

The ability to simply type in a web address and have that automatically converted to an active link can add lots of punch to your postings. What you put at Twitter may be just the headline, the attention getter, with the full text at a Web page or blog of yours (that very few people would find without the help of Twitter). And, yes, the link can be to a specific page at your online store where people can not only read, but also buy.

If you have an online store, Twitter is where you should post notices about new products and special deals and time-limited sales.

Yes, your messages have to be short, but you can use that limit creatively. Remember the old Burma-shave ads you used to see on highways — put together a series of short messages that lead to a memorable punchline.

If in your Twitter searches, you find people who seem knowledgeable about topics you are interested in, or who often post pointers and observations that you enjoy or find useful, just click to become a “follower” of that person. Then every time that person posts something, you’ll see it on your Twitter home page, without having to search.

If you’d like to keep your Twitter audience limited to people you know, decline others who ask to be your followers. Or, better still, for the folks you want to communicate privately with, become followers of them and ask them to become followers of you. Then you have the option of sending them direct messages over Twitter — a clear and simple message system, without either of you having to wade through floods of spam. Yes, you are limited to 140 characters per message, but you can break your message up into a series. Besides the 140 character limit is a good discipline, encouraging you to get immediately to what needs to be said.

Benefit from Yahoo Groups

This article was heard on the radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WOTW 900 AM, Nashua, NH 12-2 PM Sundays. The proposition looks too good to be true. And maybe it is.

Managing a large email distribution list in today's spam-polluted environment can be both time-consuming and frustrating. On the one-hand, people change email addresses at a rapid rate, moving from one free service to another, trying to cut down on the number of unsolicited commerical messages and virus messages they receive. That means that your list "ages" fast, and you continually have to go through the rejected messages that bounce back to you and distinguishing between the ones that are "transient" errors and those that are "fatal" and that you should delete from your list; and you also have to spend time adding new subscribers, and changing email addresses of old subscribers who let you know that they moved.

And no matter how useful your messages, no matter how well you do your list maintenance, and how careful you are to only add people who explicitly request inclusion, every time you send out a mailing you'll get at least a few nasty notes from people who don't remember having subscribed and want to get off the list.

So you are tempted to turn to a paid service to help you deal with your email distribution problems. And then it finally dawns on you that Yahoo Groups would do that for you for free.

You can create a Yahoo group such that anyone can sign up to receive your messages and only you can distribute over the list. Then the subscribers do their own additions and deletions and changes. And when emails bounce back, the ones with fatal errors get automatically deleted.

Once you've set up your group, you have a variety of  ways you could manage it to take advantage of this capability:

1) Use this simply as a supplement to your existing list. People searching at Yahoo Groups may find your postings and may choose to subscribe through Yahoo. I wouldn't expect to hook lots of people this way, but it's free and easy to use, and you have nothing to lose.

2) You could send out invitations to part of your current email subscriber list, telling them that if they prefer, they can now get the newsletter by way of Yahoo, which gives them two benefits: they can quickly and easily change or remove their address,  and they will be able to view past issues on the Web in the Yahoo Groups area.

3) You could directly subscribe the folks in your present email list by way of your Yahoo Group. In other words, instead of asking them what they would like, you simply move them over to the Yahoo service. This doesn't happen automatically, because the Yahoo folks need to take a look at your list first, to make sure that you aren't just using them to send out spam.
But in about a week, when you clear their review, you would only need to send each new issue of your newsletter to a single email address (e.g., financialengineeringtimes@yahoo.com) and it will be distributed by Yahoo to everyone on your list.

I have set up a few of Yahoo Groups to get a concrete feel for how that works and what's possible. I'm very impressed with the functionality, and very disappointed in the practical results.

They have good management tools. And you can extract a complete list of email addresses any time you want, for instance to sell/rent the list to a complementary business, whose messages your subscribers would welcome (and not consider spam).

Unfortunately, the messages you send for your business, get delivered with ads tacked on at the end. Those ads may or may not be compatible with your messages. In any case, you get no money for them -- Yahoo does.

Also, if you choose to send out a Yahoo Groups invitation instead of just moving everyone over without asking them, you will be very lucky is as many as 5% of the recipients go to the trouble of signing up. And if you move them without asking, many people will be confused and remove themselves.

In addition, the Yahoo process for letting people subscribe gives you no way to capture demographic or qualification information about your subscribers. All subscribers need to enter is their email address.

On the plus side, Yahoo Groups is a very flexible tool, giving you an opportunity to test a variety of business models. Yes, you can set up so you are the only person who can send messages, as is typical for email newsletters. I do that for notices related to my weekly chat program, Business on the Web, which I've run since 1996.  The chats themselves take place at
www.samizdat.com/chat-intro.html and edited transcripts and schedule are available at www.samizdat.com/chat.html The format is a group of peers discussing subjects of common interest, sharing with and learning from one another. I send out email notices once or twice a week. If Yahoo was the only way I sent these messages, I could save a lot of time and hassle. But I gave people a choice of signing up for Yahoo Groups, and very few people did. So I continue to use my personally maintained list, in addition. (URL: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/businessonthewebchats   Subscribe:  businessonthewebchats@yahoogroups.com) So, for this activity, the business benefit of Yahoo to me is minimal.

Managing Members-Only Online Discussion

If you would like to hold an organized online discussion, limited to members, you should include live events (text or voice chat), related online reading material, and opportunities for members to contribute their  comments/reactions/related thoughts bulletin-board/forum-style, either before or after the live event -- whenever time permits and the urge strikes.

The live events should have a preset duration -- an hour usually works well -- and should be scheduled at regular, memorable intervals, e.g., Thursdays at noon, every other Tuesday, or the second Wednesday of every month.

Each live event should have a related forum discussion area. And each topic should have an assigned expert. In some cases, the expert will lead the discussion (both in the forums and in the live chat). In other cases, the expert will play a role like the guest on a talk show -- interacting with the host/facilitator and fielding interview-style questions.

Whenever possible, participants should submit questions in advance. That will give the content expert a better chance to prepare and make it more likely that the answers and related discussion will meet the needs of the audience.

The live events should have a host/facilitator, who sometimes poses questions to the expert, sometimes prompts participants to help move the discussion along. In the first chats, before the members are used to the setup, they should address any questions about the chat platform to the facilitator, freeing the expert to focus on the content.

You may have used text-chat software that only lets you see what transpires while you are connected; so if you arrive late you could miss something important, or the discussion gets slowed down with newcomers making comments and repeating questions that have already appeared. Do not use that kind of software for any serious discussion. It is built and intended for transitory, one-liner, flirtatious interaction.

Instead, use a platform that shows you everything that has been posted to the chat room, regardless of when you connect. SiteScape also automatically saves a transcript that you'll be able to access on the Web. That means that you don't have to scramble to both take notes and type your messages -- you can check back later. It also means that if something unexpected comes up and you miss a live event that's important to you, you can still read everything that was said at a more convenient time. Then you can follow up with questions and comments in the forum area, where the discussion will continue, without the constraints of a real-time schedule. The SiteScape platform supports both live text chat and asynchronous (post-whenever-you-want) forums.

Also, make sure that your software gives you the flexibility to set access controls, so, if you wish, you can limit participation to members only. Then members can be as candid and open as they normally would be at face-to-face meetings of the same organization.

At the beginning of each session, ask participants to quickly identify themselves and say something brief about their interests in/involvement with the current topic.

If you are using voice chat, your software should give you administrative capabilities, so you can mute individuals or everyone but yourself and other speakers/moderators. Voice is far more intrusive than text, and misbehavior, off-topic comments, etc. can be far more disruptive. Also, it can be far harder to follow the threads of discussion in voice than in text -- because you only are aware of one voice after another in time sequence; unlike text where you can read back and refresh your memory of what was entered before. Hence you need to be able to assert strong control.

Most text-chat software is peer-to-peer, without built-in-administrative controls. That means that anyone can post an entry at any time. Simply type you comments and questions in the chat box and submit them.

Text-chat software also usually refreshes everyone's screen either at fixed intervals or whenever a new comment is posted. Sometimes the user can select the interval. In any case, your users will be much happier if they have an on-off button (as in SiteScape). In that case, if there is lots of activity and hence the screen is automatically refreshing too quickly for you to read or for you to type your entries, simply click pause or turn off the screen refresh. Then, when you want to see new postings again, you can click to turn it back on.

Under normal circumstances, text-chat conversations move along smoothly without the need to impose any rules, beyond those of simple courtesy. Even when the discussion gets very busy, it can move along naturally, like at a crowded intersection with 4-way stop signs, where traffic can move smoothly if people take turns. That's ideal because some of the best discussion threads may take place among groups of participants following up on points of interest to them, while the expert may have moved along to field new questions. If and when the traffic gets so heavy as to be confusing, you should switch to a "hand-raising" protocol. The facilitator/host simply asks participants to submit messages consisting only of an exclamation mark (!) when they have questions to pose or  comments to make. They should then wait to be recognized by the expert or facilitator. In the meantime they should go ahead and type in their messages -- waiting until recognized to click submit. (Tip -- if there are questions you know you will want to pose or comments that you know you'll want to make and for some reason you prefer to do so live rather than in the forum discussion area, type them up in a Word document, and copy and paste them into the chat box when the time is right.)

The Importance of "Listening" 

a book review by Richard Seltzer

The following article is based on a chat session about the book The Cluetrain Manifesto, with one of the co-authors, David Weinberger, as a guest. 

The main theme of The Cluetrain Manifesto is that markets are really conversations. Traditional companies that lock themselves out of the conversation, lock themselves out of business. People need to express themselves over the Internet in their own unique voice and style, and companies need to let them, to encourage their employees to engage in dialogue with customers and partners, without the usual censorship and corporate-speak. But while it's easy to describe the problem, there doesn't seem to be any simple way to solve it.

Talking about this book with Phil Grove, who I used to work with at Digital, Phil made an excellent point -- voice is important, but listening is also essential, and is often neglected. Especially in a corporate environment, it is very difficult to get people into the mode of listening. Everyone tends to be locked in their own little office or cubicle, with their own narrow goals. That's part of the typical corporate culture.

"Listening" sounds like some New Age touchy-feely seminar topic. But it's a very serious matter. You can't carry on online discussions with fellow employees, customers, or partners if you aren't attuned to "listening" in the broadest sense -- paying close attention to what other people are saying and showing the respect that comes with trying to understand and then responding on their terms, rather than just rattling out your pre-rehearsed PR-trained messages.

So why don't people listen? Weinberger see this not as a business decision, but rather as a psychological/sociological problem. He pointed out that learning to listen is "a lot like learning to join the party. There's a global party going on. And it's where the real work of commerce is going to happen. It's very hard for many companies to take the party seriously. Listening has something to do with respecting others and controlling your urge to 'own' the conversation. It requires giving up the reflex to manage every damn thing that exists... I don't think there are easy techniques to create a culture that values listening. E.g., you don't listen to people you don't respect. And often you don't listen in order to show that you don't respect them. Watch just about any business committee meeting..."

In our chat session, Bob Zwick agreed, "I battle that all the time. It's like my ears are turned on, but I'm not hearing. Just waiting for a good opportunity to jump in and get my say in control."

The typical manager in a major corporation has Internet access today, but uses it just get to static information and to distribute edicts by email. It takes a change of mindset to start to "listen" to what's happening in forums and newsgroups and over distribution lists -- even to really "listen" when people send you email.

Here we have all these great tools for high tech communication -- voice over IP, videophone, full-blown videoconferencing on the desk. But we haven't learned to listen in face-to-face meetings, and we haven't learned to listen to voices that are loud and clear in plain text. As usual, technology is running ahead of humanology. And the biggest benefits for business are likely to come not from adopting more technology, but rather paying attention to the basics of person-to-person communication.


Corporate-Wide Knowledge Management

In one form or another, visionaries have been describing the ideal knowledge management environment for over 15 years.

The objective is to put the right information in the hands of the right people at the right time

In the ideal knowledge management environment:

While the vision is compelling, the reality has been slow in materializing.

There appear to be natural stages in the evolution of the technology needed to make this ideal environment a reality. First information exists in isolated islands around the enterprise, shared, to some extent, within teams or work groups, but not beyond that. Then a more collaborative environment develops where individuals can choose to make their information generally available, across organizations. Then finally, the sharing becomes integrated and automatic. When I post my information it automatically becomes part of the enterprise's information store or knowledge base. It gets filtered and pushed to the right people and can also be found by others who did not receive notice.

Today's tools are well-suited for the second stage. Point products are available to help with gathering, organizing, refining, and disseminating information; but they tend to be technically challenging and there is no easy way to integrate them into a total system.

So while you are tempted, you might hold back and wait for technology to advance further before making large investments in knowledge management tools. But that could be a costly mistake.

Business success does not depend on technology. But it does depend on the adoption and application of technology. It's not what you have, but what you do with what you have that counts.

So what can you do with what you have today? And what can you do today that will prepare you to do more with what you'll have tomorrow?

Fifteen years ago, articles and speeches focused on the need to "bridge the islands of information," to tie together the information resources of corporations. Today, in many cases, the networking infrastructure is in place and tools are installed to make it possible to share information across enterprises; but the reality is often far less dazzling than the promise. Just because information can flow, does not mean that it will flow.

Technology can make large-scale collaboration and information sharing possible. But changes in human behavior are needed to turn the promise into reality.

Management may recognize the importance of company-wide collaboration and may make large investments in technology to make that possible.

But if ingrained habits, reinforced by the corporate culture, pull in another direction, and the company will continue to operate at an earlier stage, with islands of information.

If your people don't use today's groupware and collaboration products, you won't reap the benefits that you could right now. And you also won't be in a position to benefit from a seamless corporate information environment, when the products of tomorrow make that possible.

In other words, the human barriers to achieving the goals of knowledge management are far more significant than the technological ones; and they can and should be dealt with today.

Today, people still view information as a source of power and job security.

They are rewarded for being the "person in the know," rather than being the person who enables others. As a result, who you know often determines what you know, and corporations have many isolated islands of information, making it very difficult to see interdependencies, and to respond rapidly to problems and opportunities. This everyone-for-him/herself environment leads to duplication of effort, inefficient work patterns, lack of focus -- high costs and missed revenue. To change this behavior pattern, to take advantage of the creativity of the full diverse range of people and experiences in your company, you need to change the de facto recognition and reward system.

Interestingly, the Web can be both a medium for exchanging information and also a means for recognizing those who share information.

The first step is to make it easy for those who are inclined to share to do so. That means establishing policies that enable anyone to post company-relevant information on the internal Web.

It also means providing simple, easy-to-use tools, for these people to do their posting, and related training for those who want it. The software should make it easy to upload existing documents and make them available over the internal Web, with conversion to HTML happening automatically. It should also be easy for non-technical people to engage in on-line discussions, in response to posted documents, simply typing in their responses. This software needs to have some built-in security, so documents can be set to be viewable by all or limited to those who have a need to know. (SiteScape Forum provides that capability. It lets anyone upload documents in standard formats, without having to concern themselves with conversion. And it also lets you set up password protected areas, that could be open to a dispersed but pre-determined team.)

The second step is to make it easy for anyone to quickly find the information that they are authorized to see -- wherever it may be stored on the internal Web. (AltaVista Search Intranet software can index all the documents on a corporate Web, or whatever subset is deemed appropriate. You simply aim the crawler (the program that gathers the content) at those sites which you want included. And it is possible to run more than one copy of this program -- creating a general index for all users and also secure indices for use only by those with the special authority. The user interface is the same as that at the public AltaVista Search site -- providing extreme fast responses, and letting users of all degrees of sophistication to find what they want.

AltaVista Search can index the content stored in SiteScape Forum. And SiteScape Forum software also has the same search capability embedded in it, so when the content of a Forum grows large, it is easy for a visitor to search locally for whatever they want.

With these two pieces in place, over time, those employees who are inclined to share will add ever more content to the Web. And the more content is available on the Web, the more likely it will be that answers to pressing questions will be available there, for those who have acquired the skills and habits of searching.

Gradually, those who are adept at using the Web become valued by their colleagues, because of their ability to find information and to help others find it. These same people also become more and more recognized because the files that they posted and/or that they wrote are the very files that people are finding when they need information. And as forums become increasingly interactive, with replies and continued dialogue, rather than just posting of documents, the individuals who are most articulate and knowledgeable and helpful in these dialogue also become recognized.

To help speed up this natural process, a corporation can set up a coordinated effort to post documents on the Web, and also to encourage the use of Forums as an adjunct to regular meetings -- a place to post agendas, minutes, and lists of action items, with their followup. If this kind of behavior becomes common place at the highest levels of the corporation, it will likely be adopted at lower levels. Managers could also use the Web itself to encourage this kind of behavior -- creating Web pages, complete with photos and bios, for recognition/reward of individuals who are outstanding in the use of this new medium and in benefiting the corporation through their information sharing efforts.

Before a company can hope to create a seamless corporate-wide information/knowledge environment, it first needs to build a team-level culture.

In the past, a team was typically a department, a set of individuals all sitting near one another in the same building. Today, teams can include individuals from many different groups across the company and around the world. They also may include consultants, partners, or customers. In this case, you need to be able to create Virtual Private Networks, allowing individuals from home or on the road or from the premises of other corporations to securely connect to the team space on the corporate intranet. With tunnel software, individuals connected by phone lines to public Internet providers can establish an encrypted connection that goes through the corporate firewall and gives them access to the team space and the internal information resources that they need.

All parties can act as equal team members regardless of where they may be -- at home, at the office, or in a hotel room on the other side of the world. The electronic environment tends to foster a democracy of participation as well, focusing on goals and issues rather than personalities. The cogency of one's words weighs heavier in on-line deliberations than physical looks and presence, and sometimes even overcomes barriers of rank and status. In the ideal case, you can run cross-organizational on-line brainstorming sessions, where the outcome of the discussion is far more valuable than what any individual could have thought of alone. Also, the ability to connect to one another without the typical delays of phone-tag and setting up physical meeting space helps maintain continuity and moves projects forward quickly. (Experience seems to indicate that a given individual may end up attending just as many physical meetings as before -- which often is a matter of personality rather than necessity -- but the work of the team gets completed much faster.)

The difference between information and knowledge is people. Computers store and process and distribute information/data and people turn that into knowledge. Hence knowledge management is in part people management.

Yes, we do not yet have fully integrated knowledge management systems or tools that let the unsophisticated users accomplish whatever they want in the most intuitive ways. But today's systems for gathering and organizing and disseminating and refining knowledge are sufficiently robust that you can train people to make very good use of them. The very people who show initiative and the desire to share information -- the pioneers in posting and finding and interacting on the Web -- could and should be singled out for advanced training in these tools, because they are the ones most likely to share their learning with their colleagues, and also because these advanced training opportunities will serve as another tangible reward and recognition for their good efforts.

Once the tools are in place, and pioneers are using them regularly, and everyone is aware of them, you can begin to build communities within your company and with customers/partners.

A team is defined by an organizational structure or by a project. A community consists of people who have common topics and issues that they care deeply about and want to discuss. Over time these people develop relationships and loyalties, which can prove valuable when unexpected cross-organizational needs arise. And in any case, they learn from one another on a regular basis.

A business community can consist of employees, partners, and/or customers.

Once on-line collaboration begins to take off, you will find that certain topics and issues command attention and tend to lead to valuable business-related discussions. Also, certain individual will step forward and express themselves clearly and passionately on those topics. If and when that is the case, management can try to systematically grow these discussions into full-fledged self-sustaining communities. This takes some focus and commitment.

Someone has to identify the topics and the leaders; gather existing content and assemble it in ways to stimulate further discussion, and make sure that it is easy for interested people to find it. Systems people have to make tools and framework available and easy to use by the community leaders. And management has to free up sufficient time for the community leaders to devote to this project.

What would a business community look like. Imagine:

Tools are only of value if people use them, and they only use them if they believe they'll benefit from their use. Also, the knowledge to be managed derives from people -- they need to willingly make that knowledge available.

In other words, the Web is creating new opportunities along with new challenges. We can and should use the new Web-based information tools to help reshape our corporate cultures -- to convert personal knowledge to corporate knowledge, and to create an environment where personal advancement derives from sharing knowledge rather than hoarding it. That will in turn to enable us to get the most out of today's capabilities, while preparing us for the higher levels of sharing and cooperation that will be necessary to benefit from the more sophisticated knowledge solutions of the future.


Building Communities on the Internet

Today, if you are a publisher with a Web site, you may feel like you're running on a treadmill. With the growing competition for the attention of readers, you feel compelled to keep redesigning your pages and adding flashier graphics and gimmicks to get people to come back. With competitors like Disney and Time-Warner that can be quite a challenge.

It seems that many Internet users are just surfers or tourists. Graphics and fancy tricks may induce people to come to your site once or twice, but how can you get them to come again and again? How can you give them real and continuing value? Remember that in this environment a picture better be worth 10,000 words, not just 1,000, because that's about what it takes in storage and time to download. The graphics have to say something, not just be there as decoration, or users will see them as an annoyance rather than a benefit.

So how can you both attract users and build their loyalty, without having to make large investments?

Remember, the Internet, which has captured everyone's imagination over this last year, is an anomaly. The World Wide Web and point-and-click browsers are so easy to use that even people who normally shy away from PCs take to this new environment immediately.

But while the Internet traditionally was extremely interactive -- every user potentially interacting with every other user through mail and newsgroups and chat and other utilities -- the first users of the Web simply retrieved information. Interactivity faded into the background.

By using on-line forms, the user could interact with the information provider -- asking questions, commenting, and even placing orders. And the latest Web browsers can make it easy to send email and participate in newsgroups without opening a separate application. But still the Web itself does not foster the collaborative interaction among users that in the past was the life and excitement of the Internet.

Fortunately, collaboration and group interaction are now coming to the World Wide Web -- first as adaptations of older Internet capabilities (like newsgroups and chat) and transplants of other networking tools (like notes files).

These new tools will make it far easier to create not just repositories of multi-media information, but rather true communities of common interest, where people congregate to share their experiences and insights, as well as to learn and to shop. These communities on the Internet will build and maintain audience loyalty. Combined with intelligent search capabilities, they will open new business opportunities for publishers.

In other words, we see the coming of a whole new set of business opportunities, built on the old Internet culture and environment. This culture is based on a pioneer spirit of sharing, of helping one another with no expectation of payment. It's a culture of pull rather than push, where unsolicited mailings are taboo. It is an environment that if you invite people to come into your Web site, and you make it interesting enough, they will not only come, they will return, and bring their friends. To be successful, one needs to understand the culture, respect it, and work within its bounds. Then profit will follow.

To understand the Internet environment, it's helpful to visualize a series of concentric circles . At the center of the Internet is the community of users. Here everyone talks to everyone, freely and candidly through email, in newsgroups, and in chat. Most people are attracted to the Internet not as a place to read news or to shop, but as a place to relate to other people who have similar interests. (That kind of user-to-user environment has also been at the heart of successful dial-up bulletin-board services as well as America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy.)

Next comes the circle of free information. Built on open communication and the spirit of sharing, the Internet has accumulated vast resources of public information -- provided by users, schools, libraries, governments, and non-profit projects such as Project Gutenberg .

Moving outward, the next circle is the realm of subscriptions, directories, filtering, translation tools, and search engines. People are willing to pay more to get less, when what they get is exactly they want -- gleaned from all the mountains for free information. They are also willing to pay for timely targeted information that matches a profile of their interests. Long-term, this is an important area of opportunity for publishers, and some are already doing good things here. For example, check out Dow Vision , NewsPage from Individual Inc., InfoSeek .

The farthest circle is the realm of transactions, where people buy merchandise on-line by credit card. That's the area that has gotten a lot of hype in the press, and it would be a natural add-on to on-line advertising, but it is still in its infancy.

The gravitational pull of the Internet is toward the center -- toward users interacting with one another and toward the rich resources of free information.

To catch the interest of Internet users and earn their loyalty to come back again and again to do business, companies will want to build on this environment, rather than simply mimic their old business models.

Don't presume that that's easy. Remember you are competing for the attention of users who are attracted by all the person-to-person talk and free information. You've got to provide real value-added to win these potential customers. To take full advantage of the opportunity will take investment and creativity.

The ideal business on the Internet would build a loyal audience by providing an attractive environment in which users could discuss matters of common interest with one another and with experts. In addition, this site would provide lots of related information for free. Search and abstracting capabilities as well as information that has time-sensitive value could be available for a fee or by subscription. Then on top of such an infrastructure, a publisher and its sponsors could offer all manner of content, goods, and services for sale -- backed by graphics, audio and video -- all the glitz that technology can provide -- and an easy-to-use on-line payment system.

Imagine a Web site that not only provides information but also acts as a "user group" -- a place for readers to talk to one another, share their insights, express their opinions, and help one another. This could be in the form of on-line Letters to the Editor, welcoming readers to react to articles in your magazine of newspaper and to one another's comments. It also could be part of a product support system, where users can post their questions as well as their insights and innovations and look for responses from company experts as well as one another Such a dialogue can become a source of free and valuable content. Remember the experience of talk radio and talk television -- the candid comments of ordinary people can be compelling, especially when the audience knows they too can participate in the dialogue if they wish. And remember, too, that some of your customers may know more about your products than your best support people and may be proud and pleased to share what they know with their peers. Also, remember that positive word of mouth is the best marketing tool. So if you have products that are worth talking about, then you could provide a virtual meeting space and empower your customers to talk to one another and to others, becoming sales people for you.

Depending on your business model, you could aim to build a global virtual community of people with common interests -- staking out your subject-matter niche -- or you could use this medium to forge closer ties with your local, physical community. For instance, an on-line bookstore or book publisher could include virtual "rooms" and "events" where customers could talk to one another about the books that they have read and for-a-fee forums where they could interact with authors, editors, reviewers, and other experts and celebrities. Or a small newspaper could use these capabilities to allow citizens to discuss matters of common interest with one another and with figures from local government and the education and business communities.

A handful of companies are already moving in this direction. The Village Group in Massachusetts is franchising its "village" concept and already has the beginnings of Armed Forces Village , and One Place: a Christian Community . These will be virtual towns where people of common interest congregate and talk to one another and do business: places to belong to -- not just on-ramps.

Netscape recently announced its Netscape Community System, which is likewise a step in this direction of getting users to interact with one another as a way to build a loyal and stable audience, which can serve as a basis for businesses of many kinds.

And Foster's Daily Democrat , a newspaper in Dover, New Hampshire, in partnership with Digital Equipment Corporation , is setting up a presidential primary Web server which will not only include traditional newspaper content, but will also allow voters to talk to one another about the key issues, and to ask the candidates questions, and where on-line debates can be held among candidates in a format where the content remains on-line, for others to benefit from later.

Such projects will use a variety of tools that harness and extend the Internet's traditional chat and newsgroup technologies, making them easier to use and more powerful. Already the Internet Roundtable offers WebChat , which allows realtime text-based conversations. And there are a number of experiments for using the Web environment for events and discussions among users, where the results are stored as part of ever-growing archives of useful and interesting information. This includes one developed by Digital Equipment which both the Village Group and Foster's Daily Democrat are using -- Workgroup Web Forum.

A year from now we expect to see many more Internet villages and communities, and these will be enriched by even powerful and exotic tools that enable people to interact with and relate to one another in new and unique ways. Already we see Internet Phone from VocalTec and NetPhone from Electric Magic , which are making it possible to convey voice live over the Internet, not just as a cheap substitute for long-distance telephone, but also as the foundation for live voice chat -- for live meeting rooms and ham radio/talk-radio type interaction, without the hassles involved in having to type your input. And there's an interesting experiment that was recently announced by Fujitsu and Compuserve called WorldsAway . They plan to create a graphical chat environment. Users will be able to construct their own individual persona or "avatar" from a menu of body parts, and that image will be able to move around rooms and other virtual spaces and interact with the images of other members of chat session. We can expect that projects such as that will use 3D effects, live video, and virtual reality -- whatever technology and bandwidth will allow to help people interact and collaborate, to entertain one another and to do business with one another.

The most successful publishers will be those that build their business based on communities of common interest. The publishers that help form such communities and build their service and product offerings around the needs of those communities will win customer loyalty, which is the key to success. Users will see such an Internet site as a place that they belong to, where they can expect to encounter their friends and where they're likely to find information and discussion that meets their needs and interests. Where people congregate, they will do business. But it will not be business as usual. The successful businesses will be the ones that adapt to the culture and make it work for them.

The winners will be those that creatively embrace the power of the Internet, adapt to this environment and culture, and provide good service to a loyal customer base.


Anonymity for Fun and Deception

Chapter 7 from The Way of the Web

Copyright 1995 Richard Seltzer

"What are you? What am I? Nobody knows who anybody is. The data which life furnishes, towards forming a true estimate of any being, are as insufficient to that end as in geometry one side given would be to determine the triangle." --Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

Party time

Anonymity is one of the elements that attracts people to on-line chat sessions on the Internet.

Yes, people come to talk to other people, to socialize -- this is the electronic water hole, the corner pub. But at the same time, the Internet chat environment allows them to reveal as little or as much about themselves as they choose. They can "be themselves" -- with or without their actual name. Or they can build a separate and completely fictitious persona for themselves, which they elaborate over time. Or they can select new and different "handles" when they come back again -- either to start afresh or to have the fun of trying on different identities, like trying on new clothes or new hair colors or new cosmetics.

It's human nature to use anonymity, role play, and make-believe to create a liberating and fun party atmosphere. This can be your masquerade party, your electronic Mardi Gras. Reasonable assurance that you can, if you choose, remain anonymous is intoxicating, removing social inhibitions. It's also a way of revealing yourself to yourself -- what are you willing to say and do when no one you know will ever know about it? And like a social drinking environment, once you enter the party, there's social pressure to join in the fun -- to let go and depart from your normal behavior and normal expectations of yourself -- to the same degree as others there.

People pose and play roles and put on pretenses often in ordinary life, both deliberately and from habit. And one of the most difficult challenges we face is sorting the real from the deceptive, putting our confidence where it belongs, and trying to behave appropriately ourselves -- balancing our social roles with our need for inner integrity and authenticity. At a party where everyone is anonymous or playing outlandish roles, you know that you don't know -- you know that others are putting on acts, just as you are, and you have the fun of guessing and sensing the tension between the real and the make believe.

In ordinary life, we play the same roles day after day, over and over again; and we can easily lose our sense of ourselves as having an identity and integrity separate from those roles. In the theater and fiction, comic works often play on lack of self-awareness, mocking people who act mechanically and predictably, having lost themselves in their roles. Such works humorously prod the audience to wake up from their usual sleepwalking state and get back in touch with themselves. Other works explore the dramatic tension and tragic potential, when sensitive people become aware of the growing gulf between who they think they are or want to be and the ways they feel compelled to act.

Much of childhood play involves pretending to be whoever you want to be, trying on all kinds of fantastic roles with impunity -- enjoying the illusion of dangerous adventures without the actual danger -- and figuring out who you really are and want to be and what you really can do by testing again and again the distinction between make-believe and reality. And as adults, role-play make-believe games can still sometimes help us discover aspects of ourselves and of others. Ironically, when we temporarily cast aside our day-to-day roles, and try on other artificial ones, we force ourselves to be spontaneous -- no longer able to fall back on habit -- and hence by deliberately trying not to be ourselves, we may find ourselves and also may reveal more about ourselves to others than we ever intended. Perhaps we reveal ourselves the most when most we seek to disguise. Similarly, we discover new aspects of ourselves by identifying with the characters in the fiction we read or experience as well as through the act of writing and other artistic expression.

The Internet provides ample and unique opportunities for us to exercise this side of our personality and our social playfulness.

Keep in mind that anonymity in varying self-selected degrees is not just limited to chat. For email and other Internet activities, you are known by your user name, which is not necessarily the same as or even in any way connected with one's real name. Some services, like CompuServe and Prodigy arbitrarily assign numbers as user names. Others give the user a choice -- limited only by the need to avoid duplicate addresses.

Some Internet communities are deliberately providing expanded opportunities for self-selected degrees of anonymity and role play. These include the use of "avatars" -- on-line graphic images that match the name you choose and are changeable just as your name is. These avatars can be used in conjunction with chat sessions or as part of elaborate multi-player game environments. Such environments can be fantasy realms a la Dungeons and Dragons. Or they can resemble theater experiences where the audience becomes part of the show (like bizarre weddings where the audience are the guests, and murder-mystery dinners where the audience tries to figure out whodunit). They also can resemble the real-life events staged by such role-play organizations as the Society of Creative Anachronism, where members don elaborate period costumes, act out elaborate roles as if they lived in the Middle Ages, and socialize, flirt, and fight (in staged tournaments and battles) while keeping to the characters they have chosen. The science fiction classic Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson shows this trend developed to the extreme of a massive Internet-based alternate world -- the Metaverse -- where social interaction, business, and crime are carried on in parallel with the "real" world.


"Gombrowicz had an idea as comical as it is ingenious: The weight of our self, he said, depends on the size of the population on the planet. Thus Democritus represented a four-hundred millionth of humanity; Brahms a billionth; Gombrowicz himself a two-billionth. By that calculation, the weight of the Proustian infinity -- the weight of a self, of a self's interior life -- becomes lighter and lighter. And in that race toward lightness, we have crossed a fateful boundary." -- Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

It's a Big World

What's the practical meaning of anonymity in an immense world? Unless you are a celebrity -- unless you have "made a name for yourself" -- what does your name mean to anyone? Except to a small circle of friends and family, and to government agencies and credit companies, you have no choice but to be anonymous.

The immensity of the world is measured not just in sheer numbers people but also in how they are connected to and separated from one another. Today there are about ten times as many people in the world as there were in the days of Shakespeare. But the set of people he could actually interact with was far smaller than the population of the world. Even at the height of his popularity, at best a few thousand people in London constituted Shakespeare's community/world. Since that time, advances in communications and transportation have made the world much smaller in the sense that you and your words and images can go from one place to another far faster than before. But in another sense, those advances have made the world much larger. Mass broadcast media have virtually eliminated the physical and geographic boundaries which previously isolated communities. We all feel like we belong to the single vast community presented to us daily in the mass media - a world so large that the ordinary individual is no more than a dust speck, like the earth lost in a sea of stars, which are lost in a sea of galaxies.

To maintain a sense of our identity and individuality and self-worth we need to find or create worlds within the world -- communities that are a manageable size to which we feel we really belong. And these communities, whether on the Internet or in the physical world, can be self-selecting: to a much greater extent than previously in human history, we can choose where and how to belong, rather than having that imposed upon us as our birthright and birthburden.

Broadcast media create a mass, undifferentiated, and passive audience. They are supported by advertising which thrives in a huge homogeneous environment, where a single message can predictably elicit a common response from millions of people. The popular television quiz show Family Feud plays on this phenomenon, with contestants on screen and viewers at home testing themselves to see if their personal patterns of word association match those of the "survey." The right answer is not a fact that can be found in a reference book, but rather a response that matches the responses of a large sampling of the general public. You are rewarded not for intelligence or memory, but for thinking like everyone else.

Broadcast media create an environment in which only the people who appear on screen can be known and appreciated, and the mass viewing audience is anonymous, with no connections among one another other than their common experience of the media. And today many people have no other community than this mass community. As a side effect, celebrities are worshipped like gods and demigods. Many people feel compelled to try to establish a connection with one or more celebrities, and pay ridiculously high prices to get near. Some act as if they need contact with celebrities as confirmation or their own reality, identity and worth. We also see increasing instances where individuals commit bizarre, dangerous, and violent acts to attract the attention of the media and hence achieve some level of notorious celebrity themselves. And many others behave erratically, like ships without rudders, for if what you do doesn't really matter, you are free to do whatever you want.

While the Internet is large, connecting tens of millions of people, its effect is quite different from broadcast media. Here there are opportunities to find and interact with others who share your interests, concerns, and view of life; and you can also choose the size of the cyberpond you feel most comfortable swimming around in. Your community/world can consist of dozens, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people from all over the globe.

Yes, here too we see many examples of celebrity worship. (And there are enormous business opportunities on the Internet that involve charging people for the opportunities to interact with celebrities). But the medium has a transforming effect, putting fans in touch with other fans, and presenting opportunities for them to form among themselves creative and self affirming communities.

So anonymity by choice on the Internet is far different from the imposed anonymity of broadcast media and mass society. It can be playful and life affirming, one way of feeling closer to others and to yourself.


Practical uses for anonymity

As long as anonymity can be assured, individuals can enjoy both the right to privacy and the pleasures and benefits of social interaction.

Some communities require anonymity for them to be effective, because without it members would not participate. This the case with Alcoholics Anonymous, AIDS support groups, drug addiction support and other mutual help organizations, particularly when there is some risk of social ostracism or even legal consequences should the identity of the members be revealed.

Business also needs a mix of anonymity and verifiable identity to function smoothly. The success of marketing surveys, customer satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and employee and customer suggestion programs often depends on being able to guarantee anonymity, because with anonymity comes candor, freely expressing what you think without concerning yourself about what people will think of you or what the consequences of your honest words might be. There are cases where customers will only conduct business if their identity is concealed (for instance, because they don't want their competitors to know what they are doing), and also cases, like drug testing, where anonymity is required by law to protect the privacy of individuals. It might be far less expensive to achieve the desired degree of anonymity on the Internet than by traditional methods (like the difference between trying to create a vacuum on the earth's surface and taking advantage of the natural vacuum of outer space).

Many writers and politicians have expressed concern that personal privacy is at risk in a world in which computers record every transaction. They say that Big Brother is coming in a new incarnation, not in the form of totalitarian governments, but rather in the form of big business, armed with detailed information about all aspects of everyone's life. Ironically, in the case of the Internet, it seems that computer technology can provide us with new levels of self-chosen anonymity, greater privacy than ever possible before

Aside from fun and games, online anonymity can have far reaching practical consequences. In countries where citizens do not have the right to free speech and free press, the Internet provides an alternative mode of self expression, a natural channel for dissidents to interact with one another and with the outside world, including the media. People who wish to report wrong doing, but would feel at risk if they had to reveal their identity have similar needs. Such underground activity can be facilitated through "anonymous remailers," which allow ordinary users to perform feats of self disguise that otherwise would be limited to expert hackers. Anonymous remailers are Internet sites which provide the service disguising the origin of a message, resending it to its destination, and also forwarding the replies.

The ability to disguise who you are, or to only tell people as much about yourself as you wish, also helps avoid prejudice due to age or race or culture, so ideas can contend on their merits. The science fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card shows an extreme instance of this phenomenon. Two bright 10-year-olds establish adult personas on the Internet and influence world politics through the cogency of their writings.

The anonymity of the Internet may also hold considerable attraction for celebrities. In our society, part of the price of fame and fortune is the loss of privacy. Many go to great lengths and pay large sums to recover some of that privacy. Often that means seclusion in walled off estates and subterfuge to conceal their whereabouts. For them the unique anonymity of the Internet means they can avoid the hassles and intrusions of fans, and yet still socialize with the general public or whatever electronic communities they choose. This is the online extension of the old tradition of kings and celebrities disguising themselves to mingle with the public -- to find out what they are really thinking (and at the same time to have fun "slumming").


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