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A Sense of Community

Sandra Prior
Jul 23, 2008
The Internet is under siege. Businesses large and small are determined to find new ways to use the Net, and new technologies to add to it, that they might somehow wring massive profits from the vast potential customer base it represents. Two approaches dominate, derived from traditional retailing, and from the mass media.

We know about making money by entertaining and informing people, say the media moguls. Surely we can graft our experience on to this digital world and make money from it too?

We know about making money by selling things to people, say the retail giants. Surely we can make even more money if we can reduce inventory and staffing costs with a virtual store, while simultaneously reaching a bigger market?

Noticeably on both these approaches is that they are based on supply rather than demand. In other words, businesses are saying. I've got something I want you to buy. Ironically, the general trend of most management thinking in recent years has been away from this model, to one which is demand driven, or, put simply, businesses saying; Let me help you get what you want.

This move towards a customer focused model is strikingly absent in most e-business discussions. Instead, we get what can almost be seen as a paternalistic approach - even colonial - where businesses try to impose e-business models on their customers rather than responding to their explicit wants and needs.

This, of course, is hardly new. Indeed, most new technologies go through an early phase where those who designed and those who are charged with selling the technology try to dictate how it should be used. Over a century ago, Alexander Graham Bell was using his newly patented electrical speech machine or telephone as a broadcast device, something which would allow people living in Boston to hear a Mozart symphony being played in New York City.

Later, when the telephone's excellence at two way communication was established, many objected to its use for anything other than business - something as frivolous as having a chat being seen as deeply reprehensible. This disapproval, of course, suggests that people were using telephones for social conversation, rather than what the technology supplier thinks they ought to do. In the end the customer won. The customer always does.

Ironically, when radio was first invented it was seen primarily as a tool for two-way, one-to-one communications, a use that - baring military walkie-talkies and the like - only became mainstream with the recent growth of cellular communications. Its killer application became broadcast.

Home computers provide another example. Initially, the market for such devices was seen to be vanishingly small. After all, who needed to run a payroll at home? Nevertheless, the home computer flourished - despite often, a great deal of contempt from real computer people at the frivolous uses to which it was put. Indeed, it is only in the past couple of years that the mainstream uses of home computers have been accepted by the IT mainstream - purely because the hunger for a better quality gaming experience has driven technological development in ways that most business applications can never hopefully do.
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