For 200,000 years human beings functioned in the physical and mental realms and--innocents that we were--figured that was good enough. Then in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee conceived of the WorldWide Web, and suddenly mankind had a whole new plane of operation that was part corporeal, partethereal; uncomfortably intimate and unbreachably remote; a little bit country but a whole lot morerock and roll. Vast and unsettled, the Web was like a huge blank map with no natural borders. Andbecause people are both incorrigible claim stakers and no fonder of vacuums than nature is, theyimmediately rushed out and began erecting home pages, which were like tiny arrows pointing tothe words I am here.
Well, soon practically everyone was "here." Indeed, by the late '90s it had become tragically unhipto be anywhere else. Business sites proved the most prodigiously multiplicative as they expandedfrom 30-odd at the end of 1993 to 3-million-odd today. (Of course, all efforts to quantify the Webare meaningless, since it grows at the rate of 17 pages a second. While you were reading that lastsentence someone added a page. Wup! Someone did it again! Wup! There's another one!)
At first, those sites were simply places for companies to regale a doubtlessly fascinated globalaudience with their marketing material. Visitors to BizCo's site could read its corporate history("BizCo was started in a garage by cofounders Guy Smith and Guy Jones") and testimonials fromsatisfied customers ("BizCo's sales team took me out to a restaurant that had two kinds of dippingsauces for the mozzarella sticks! Way to go, BizCo!"). Dazzled, those visitors could then log offand try to get BizCo on the horn.
But that dynamic is changing. Recently, the increase in the number of Web sites has beenoutstripped by the increase in visitors' expectations of those sites. Customers don't go online justto be marketed to anymore. They want to place and track orders, configure products, consult a helpdesk, and access a record of their buying history. That gives companies the opportunity to fieldsites so interactive, informative, and customer-friendly that their names will be mentioned fondlyin visitors' prayers. It also gives them the opportunity to blow it more publicly than ever before.Forget the New Yorker cartoon--if you're a dog on the Internet, everyone knows.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan