Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#107, October 3, 2000


by Marylaine Block

A new study of government web sites released recently found that only 25% of state government sites offer an 800 number, only 34% offer frequently asked questions files, and only 40% allow citizens to file complaints online. A study of 100 major corporations' web sites found that fully 40% failed to respond to e-mail questions about their products. You yourself may have noticed that many theatre web sites are still posting schedules for last season's plays.

Clearly, much of the world remains in the hands of people who think the Internet is a frill, just another place to post their public relations flyers. They don't understand that the Internet changes EVERYTHING.

It changes customer expectations. Amazon users will be dissatisfied with any business that offers less than 24/7/365 access, a large inventory, reviews and personalized recommendations, speedy delivery, swift response to questions or complaints, and a chance to put in our own two cents worth.

The net doesn't just change our ideas about how business should run - it changes our expectations of public agencies, too. Take libraries, for instance. We now expect to get library service without ever leaving home. We expect library's web pages to have online reference desks, FAQ files, reviews, book discussion groups, databases of magazine articles, and guides to good web sites. That's not INSTEAD of traditional services, but IN ADDITION to them. We still expect the library to have plenty of books and magazines and videos to check out, reference librarians to answer our questions, story hour for kids, and public meeting rooms. We expect to be able to use public terminals to search databases and the Internet.

Internet users who apply for scholarships and make travel reservations online will have no patience with agencies that make us stand in line to apply for fishing licenses, building permits, vehicle registration, etc. If we can search everything from the U.S. Code to the Victoria's Secret catalog online, we won't understand why government agencies and merchants who have the information we need haven't put it into searchable online databases.

The internet makes us expect two-way communication. What good does it do companies to offer e-mail addresses to write to if nobody is assigned to READ the e-mail and answer it? Just as infuriating are companies that provide closed loop e-mail addresses - one for each specific kind of problem they expect you to have, but no address for problems that are "none of the above."

The Internet changes power relationships. If companies don't treat their customers well, they can strike back, using bulletin boards to post complaints, or -- the ultimate retaliation -- creating a NameofcompanySucks.com web site.

Many companies have not realized that the Internet doesn't just offer another way to do the same old thing - it changes their business altogether. What will publishers that publish court decisions do, now that those decisions are available free online to the citizens whose taxes paid for them?

Newspapers and networks use their web sites to supplement their core business, posting breaking news, supporting documentation, and archives of past stories. Many of them have not yet realized that their web sites may, eventually, REPLACE their core business. CNN's ratings have plunged, partly because more and more of us go to cnn.com for breaking news.

The recording industry has already lost the battle. Why should musicians settle for 10% of the money they bring their record companies, when they can sell their music directly to fans on the net? If fans can buy CD's cheap for $10 from the artists, why would they pay $18 to a record company? The recording industry may have to re-envision their mission, think about what they're good at -- music production, for instance, or promotion -- and sell those services directly to musicians.

You can't change just one thing. We don't have the world as it was plus the net. We have a world turned upside down by it. Organizations that don't understand that will die. Organizations that recognize that the net is an unparalleled opportunity -- to speak directly with customers and citizens, and create new ways of meeting their needs -- will power the new economy.

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