In my opinion, the greatest power of the Internet is the ability to connect. There has never been another tool so remarkably suited to communication.
Companies, through the use of instant messaging, are encouraging online conversations for a of issues, from customer service to sales. Email has become the standard of communication, facilitating nearly instant response and an electronic paper trail not easily duplicated with phone calls. Wikis, collaborative Web site development tools, are offering easy and effective collaboration at unprecedented levels. Even blogs are being used at all levels to help foster communication, internally and externally.
Large organizations (such as Microsoft, Bank of America-even the IRS) can adopt a more personalized, human face. When I exchange e-mail with a company, I'm connecting to a person. Many sites offer the ability to chat in real time with a customer service representative. While the humanizing factor provided by technology seems an oxymoron, it's not. In these cases, the technology brings people together.
One business seems to have taken this to heart: The publishing industry, much to the chagrin of people who predicted its demise at the hands of the Internet, has embraced technology to connect with customers. Authors once seemed to be ivory-tower types who lived a remote existence, creating their next great work. Now, they're beginning to understand that books often are outdated as soon as they're printed. To help their message to remain relevant, authors increasingly are turning to the Web to connect with readers.
This is particularly true in the world of non-fiction. Business books and self-help books, for example, are harnessing the sheer marketing power of being relevant and using blogs to keep in touch. Sarah Susanka, author of the "Not So Big" series of books, is using her blog (www.notsobiglife.com) to preview the content of her new book, "The Not So Big Life," before its release.
Self-described "agent of change" and author Seth Godin writes a blog on marketing and related topics at www.sethgodin.com. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of "Freakonomics," regularly post new examples at www.freakonomics.com. William Taylor and Polly LaBarre, writers of "Mavericks at Work," explore the concepts of their book at www.mavericksatwork.com.
Perhaps the most amazing side effect of this trend is the writers' accessibility to readers. If you want to comment on something you've read or enter a discourse on a concept-or even argue a point-they all welcome the interaction. I admit that I'm smitten with the idea of speaking directly with the author and becoming fully involved in a conversation. As Williams and LaBarre would tell you, the crowd is always smarter than the individual, and this type of discourse can only further our knowledge, insight and understanding.
Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at email@example.com.