Are We Living in Internet Time?

OK. I’m ready. I’m scared, but ready. Tonight I’m going out to do what I’ve been avoiding for weeks…

I’m going Christmas shopping. At the mall.

Why am I not shopping online? That’s a good question, and one I’ve been asking myself as I gird my loins for the annual ritual from hell that is Christmas shopping. It’s not that I really like going to the mall; in fact, I hate shopping (unless it’s for books, music, or computer games), yet I’m going anyway. It reminds me of that great quote from the movie “Clerks”: “I hate people, but I love gatherings. Go figure.”

As I pondered my hypocrisy (as a web worker I should be honor bound to shop online), I began to think about why I was prepared to put myself through hell in order to fulfill my holiday obligations. After all, I had nothing against shopping online — I’ve bought a load of DVDs and books for Christmas already — but for the rest of the stuff, I just couldn’t bring myself to fire up the browser to shop. Why? Why?

The answer, I think, came to me in a BBC News article sent to me by my friend Jason.

The article basically says this: The Internet is fast to change, but people aren’t. It quotes a recent Andersen Consulting study which says that “the effects of the Internet are profoundly overblown” and goes on to quote a consultant from web consultancy ZEFER, who reminds us that “The idea 8-9 months ago was that there were going to be a lot of new business models around. Now it’s obvious that’s not going to happen.”

Is this true? Has the Internet not really changed as much as the hype had lead us to believe? Are our lives really that much different now than they were 10 years ago? Is there no hope for the long term?

You have to admit, in the short term, things aren’t looking so good. Ex-market-darlings Priceline.com, Garden.com, and drkoop.com are all suffering through hard times. Ex-high-flying consultancies like Viant, AGENCY.COM, and Organic are laying people off as the ripple effect passes through our industry. And the stock market… well, after Microsoft’s latest earnings report, it hasn’t been looking rosy for Redmond.

But despite the gloom and doom (see my article from last week), I don’t think that the end is near. In fact, I think that we’re just at the beginning of the revolution that the Net and technology will bring. But I think that the downturn has taught us something that few of us realized before the shakeout: Technology is quick to change — people aren’t.

If you look at what people are doing online, they’re really not doing anything they weren’t doing before the web; they’re just doing it faster and cheaper. The big successes have come through the way the Net can be used to connect people to people, and people to information.

Email; auctions; instant messaging; P2P file sharing; quick access to corporate information; comparison pricing; and information-based services, such as travel, have transformed the way we do business and how we communicate with each other. From the ever-increasing volume of corporate email (and our dependence on it to communicate with our coworkers, suppliers, and clients) to the constant back chatter generated through teenage instant messagers, it’s a fact that things are different now than they were before we were able to do all this stuff.

While the e-commerce sector has shown spectacular gains, it hasn’t continued to grow at the rate most companies need to stay in business. eToys just reported its sales for the holiday season will probably be half of what it projected. In fact, the situation is so bad that some analysts are predicting the end for eToys is near. eToys spent dearly for its infrastructure over the past year in expectation of explosive growth. Now it can’t pay for it.

The problem with eToys (and a lot of other e-tailers facing hard times) is that, in the end, people have been slow to change. Online spending is increasing — PC Data reports that online shopping is way up — but not enough to stem the tide of red ink coming from many online retailers. They burned through too much money, too fast, in the assumption that people were going to completely change the way they shopped and lived their lives. Now, faced with VCs calling in their markers and public markets hungry for profits, they’re in trouble.

What are people (me included) doing online? Many are “window shopping” on the web — Jupiter Media Metrix reports that online “browsing” will have a big impact on offline sales this season — and looking for news and information. They are buying, too: BizRate.com reports the highest amount of spending ever. Growth continues… slowly.

For us in the e-marketing biz, these numbers (and the trends that show a continued steady but slower growth) are good news as long as we continue to remember that old habits die hard. The idea that we’re all living in Internet time and that being successful means being the biggest and the fastest and the baddest NOW may not be as true as we once thought. Instead, sticking to the basics — providing information, communications opportunities, service, and technically functional sites — is what’s going to win in the long run.

We can’t forget that regardless of all the technology hype out there, in the end it’s people who buy our products, people who must interact with our sites, and people whom we must serve in order to keep making money. People are slow to change, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. This is the last year I’m going to the mall to do my Christmas shopping. I promise…

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