How the decade really went
As the calendar runs down to 2010, most reflections on the decade just passing show an attention span deficit that clouds their perspective, David Bowen says.
|David Bowen/ Yawn of a new era|
In the plethora of ‘story of the decade’ pieces now appearing, the internet always features strongly. Yet, as so often happens, the focus is on the last few years. It is all about Facebook, Twitter and the like – yet Facebook was not launched until 2004, Twitter 2007.
So let me take you back. I have an advantage, because 10 years ago I ran a publishing company with its own magazine, Net Profit, and ever since I have written a twice-monthly column about the way corporates and other large organisations can use the web. For me, the story has largely been about perception and reality failing to meet.
It’s 10 years after…
What were we talking about 10 years ago? The ‘dotcom’ share boom, of course, and how it related to the real world. “There will be clouds in this daytime sky – watch for a ‘correction’ in Internet share prices and a mad rush for shelter by the dotcoms,” we wrote. “But the vision is broadly optimistic.”
We were preoccupied with the way the internet was changing the infrastructure of business, through electronic purchasing and the like, and the growth of ‘co-buying’: we saw the gathering together of consumers online as hugely significant, tipping the balance of power towards them and away from suppliers.
We were right with the first, wrong – or perhaps more than 10 years ahead of reality – with the second. Being wildly ahead of the game is quite possible: one thing that has become clear is how slowly things move. We were also writing in 1999 about how the mobile phone would become the payment device of choice; it still will, but the emphasis is on the word ‘will’.
It was a reality check
If the dotcom boom – which burst spectacularly in the Spring of 2000 – was an example of perception running way ahead of reality, the two or three years that followed were the opposite. Online use continued to rise rapidly and the internet established itself as part of the infrastructure. At the high profile consumer end, online shopping hardly stuttered, while ebay continued to turn consumers into entrepreneurs.
The changes were at least as deep in business-to-business, where e-procurement and the shift of absolutely everything to a web basis created massive upheaval. And, of course, the web was by then the main notice-board for human resources and investor relations departments. Even press offices were starting to use it.
It was a drop in interest levels
But this reality could not stop a massive plunge in senior management interest. All directors could see was that ‘the internet’ was in freefall, as measured by share prices. Websites were kept alive, because they were cheap and because the HR and IR directors demanded them, but they were certainly not things in which to invest.
Not true of all companies, of course. Jack Welch at General Electric wanted to make everything available online – even $2m scanners – and that programme pretty much kept going after his departure. But the general state of the corporate web was, by 2003, pretty shabby – like a giant estate where the gardeners had all been laid off.
Then we saw corporations, a few at least, starting to catch up with reality. The ones that moved first were those where the bosses were either young or mixed with the right sort of people. John Browne of BP was a non-executive director of Intel: I doubt it is a coincidence that BP was one of the first groups to launch a fully-integrated web presence.
It’s been on the up since
Since then there has been a steady stream of relaunches – first in Europe, then in the US – turning corporate websites into the first point of call their users already considered them to be. The steady growth of attention is reflected in the FT Bowen Craggs Index: most European and US sites now score well.
For websites themselves, reality and perception have come closer together. Still not enough senior managers ‘get’ the web; too many continue to see it as marginal, but a lot fewer than before.
It’s déja vu all over again
We do, however, have a new source of unreality, in the form of social media. I don’t need to talk about this so much, because everyone else is, but we are seeing broadly the same pattern.
We may, as I wrote in my most recent column, be reaching the end of the over-excitement phase (in web terms, we’re in about 1999). We could then well go into a total lack of interest phase (2000-2003), and after that come closer to a balance between perception and reality.
I would like to think it will happen a little more quickly but, as I have said, things don’t happen that fast on the internet.
First published on 16 December, 2009