The office certainly looked as up-to-date as Internet culture could make it. The ceiling panels had been ripped away to expose the ductwork. Only a few managers had offices – everyone else was in a vast open space, working with Power Macs on long sterile tables.
They were also doing real Internet work. Some were designing web sites, others online advertising campaigns, and still others were crafting marketing proposals involving email. It was the very model of a modern major e-business.
Yet when I began to speak of the Internet and the rules governing commerce on it, I was amazed at the utter Cluelessness of some in my audience. (That’s why I am not mentioning the name of this outfit.) One suggested that spam wasn’t bad, that it was “just a matter of opinion.” Another didn’t understand how cookies worked.
The man who’d invited me to speak (he had one of those offices) smiled and thanked me for setting folks straight. The level of savvy in his shop varies widely, he admitted, from those who “get it” to those without a Clue.
I was about to wonder how anyone without a Clue got a job in this place when the light bulb in my head went off. The vast wealth of the Internet economy is now sucking in people from outside, plunking them into these sterile spaces, and expecting them to work for us. The man who had invited me understood this, and made training a basic part of his corporate culture.
As I rode home from that office, a Clue came to me. Youth, sweaters and ductwork don’t make you Internet savvy. Only experience makes you Internet savvy.
Getting burned in a flame war makes you Internet savvy. Getting a flood of spam makes you Internet savvy. Making a relationship – even a casual relationship – in an Internet chatroom makes you Internet savvy. Finding Nazis and pornographers, and choosing not to visit them again, makes you Internet savvy. Actually buying something online and then finding (a few weeks later) that the merchant never had the merchandise makes you very Internet savvy.
The Internet is a messy place, because the people who build it and use it are human. Upon return to the office, I interviewed the head of an outfit called NetComply, who sells filtered Internet access aimed at keeping employees focused on their work and not the great wide world. I wound up feeling sorry for his customers, because if you only see the Internet as a tool, if you don’t let yourself get distracted by it, you’ll never learn about it, and you’ll never get Internet savvy.
Internet savvy comes from free unfettered, unfiltered, burn-risking use of the Internet. If your company is monitoring email, filtering out chatrooms, and reminding employees every day that you own the resource (as well as their time) your people aren’t learning. Learning comes from reaching, trying and making mistakes. You only learn when you change your mind.
Since we’re all pulling people in from outside, the winners will have to be those who risk mistakes and see Internet savvy as a key asset. Singapore, and all the little Singapores of corporate America, will never dominate the Internet. Keeping your people dumb is not an option.