It has all begun to come together.
I started the Soapbox in late 1995. I started using the 'Net a year earlier -- I was only 16 at the time, and the Internet was just then beginning to make itself known. Through four years and 180 Soapboxes, I've described my baby steps on the Internet, detailing my days of mudding, learning how to make a web page, discussing software piracy, braving the flame-baited Usenet, finding MP3s, IRC'ing (a more recent thing I finally succumbed to), using online networks such as The Realm and INN, opining about the future importance of customer reviews on Amazon.com, and so on. I'm not going to pull an Al Gore and say I was involved from the beginning or anything, but I will take credit for being one of the first among my peers (that is to say, "vanity" site authors) to address these things on a personal site. Heck, I haven't really even used eBay.com yet, and I've just started using an online stockbroker.
I like what Justin Hall says: "i breathe the goddamn internet."
What's important here is not how I play into this whole mess we call the rise of the Internet -- no, what's important is to take a step back from the individual parts of the Internet which have taken off like rockets, and see what's going on in the big picture.
The Internet, of course, was conceived partly for scientists who wished to share their research with each other and partly for the military, to build a system which could resist concentrated attacks and still be functional. Interestingly enough, neither groups could contain the transparency and ubiquity which the Internet had inherently built in, and it spread to end-users like you and me. You know the rest. It's like Promethean fire. :)
Many years later, the Internet has changed vast chunks of the way the world works. Just look at television ads for Yahoo! and 3dfx and AmeriTrade, and note the URLs in movie trailers and general ads. This was unheard of two years ago. Despite the ridicule it receives, I still feel that marketing sheds insight into our culture. Seeing how much money companies dump into finding out what you and me want, you have to find some grain of truth in how they choose to market their products. ;) Some shy away from bestowing lavish praise on the 'Net for its being a "revolutionary new medium", but I feel this is hardly even the beginning.
I'm not much of the chatty type anymore, so about the only people I ever talk to are people I want information from. Sure, the Internet is an excellent place to find people who match your interests, I'm not sure that's one of its key strengths. In other words, it's not so much the people, but the information they can give you that you might not have been able to find in your geographical, physical location. Actually, I better not set about to define the Internet in any way -- in truth, it's chaos and can be used as much or as little as you choose. Trying to mold it into rigid shapes and contortions is fruitless and misinformed.
Come to think of it, it's pretty scary. I don't have many 'Net friends. Or friends in general. I'm an antisocial loser. I only have a handful of 'Net friends who have been very patient with me in my delayed e-mail responses. Thanks. :) Strangers and text and access and breaking news and such seem to fulfill most of my need for communication.
Anyway. The Internet is now the tool for the people, the consumers who purchase and evaluate and discuss goods. What was once only accessible to the elite now has the potential to be accessible to most all people in first-world countries, and is reaching out to even third-world countries. What the military intended to protect themselves from hostile attack now protects the consumer from overbearing, manipulative, deceptive companies.
The purpose of this Soapbox is not to run through what movements there are which are shattering old notions of how to distribute products, such as music and books and cars. This Soapbox is a call to power to all those who read it.
You, as a consumer, have no excuse not to use the Internet to help you decide how to spend your money. Whenever you think about buying a CD, a DVD movie, a house, a car, hardcore porn, common NASDAQ stock, or whatever suits your fancy, hundreds of thousands of other people online have already been through the process somewhere. You can choose to do your shopping research through conventional means such as magazines and leaflets and such, but are you really getting honest, thorough answers? Why not turn to people just like you who have searched for the same products you are and who have written their findings and opinions online?
As much importance as I place on the ability of the individual to now find the best product for his needs at the best price, all this seems to be balanced out by the sense of community on the Internet -- the individual and society together...it's already enough for philosophers to digest for the next few centuries or so, I'm sure. When you read what other people think about the product or service you're interested in, sure you get a subjective opinion, but you also get a variety of opinions, many of which are meant in the best interest of other consumers. Overall, other people are looking out for you.
What the Internet is doing is cutting out the middle man. This mostly benefits the consumer, but it also benefits the artist or producer. More on that later. The Internet is killing distributors like record labels and music stores and bookstores and stockbrokers and retail chains. Not only is it cheaper to buy products online, it's also more flexible, easier (in terms of time spent purchasing something), and more intelligent. (that is, more product information is found online than you could find otherwise) Not to mention it's cooler.
Have you ever shopped at Camelot Music? Every fucking CD in there is $15-$20. No joke! Most music store chains are that bad. Stores like Best Buy have much more reasonable prices, and are in some circumstances cheaper than shopping from online stores like Amazon.com. Amazon.com... Wow. The sheer variety of CDs and books available, at much cheaper prices ($10-$13 for most CDs), along with sound clips and both print and consumer reviews, is a breakthrough. You're not really paying a middle man the extra dollars on top of the base price. Online stores mail products directly from their warehouses, so distribution costs, inventory costs, placement costs, and so on are substantially reduced. That means better prices for us. :) The only drawback is that you don't get the product immediately, but you still get it within a few days (one day, if you pay more).
Of course, you could download MP3s, which are giving distributors and record labels fits right now... The distributors are finding out that they're replaceable by direct download of music from artists and third-party servers. Serves them right if you ask me. The argument is that the artists don't receive compensation for pirating music. The counter-argument is that MP3s save artists more money than they would lose through piracy, since distributors take hefty sums off the tops of album sales. Me? I still buy CDs -- perhaps more so than ever -- but I also download singles and remixes and imports which I could not, or would not, have bought otherwise. Actually, here's my whole music collection (with credit to Justin Hall for the kick in the butt), as of March 26th, 1999. About 330 singles, 160 albums. MP3s are wonderful. MP3s are right. MP3s have contributed greatly to getting consumers active in copyright issues; not to mention they've opened up consumers to a larger variety of groups and bands.
eBay.com was the rage awhile ago. Now it's becoming more of a usual part of the Internet. It's the common method to trade now. If you don't know, eBay lets you auction off goods or bid on goods from others, and since it's a fairly open system, the variety of goods for sale is quite large. You can almost always find a buyer for whatever you have to sell. I don't think many people would have thought eBay would work that long ago -- I certainly didn't. But now it's a great way to find rare stuff, and to sell it too. You can now capitalize on what you want to get rid of, or purchase.
I just started trading stocks. Yes, just me. Individuals can now trade stocks on the Stock Market at low commission rates (the amount you have to pay to your broker every time you trade), all while doing it online. And the wealth of information about companies and their earnings and sales and press releases and such is staggering. The Stock Market is a little different from most things online because those who have money are willing to contribute information about it. Quite different from the poor college kids like me who trade scraps of information about pirated computer games. ;) Anyway, just a few years ago, people had to pay about $60 a trade to a stockbroker, since online stock trading didn't even exist yet. As you can imagine, not many individuals were involved. Certainly not the kinds of people who can get involved now. Heck, I'm 21 and I've met a few people much younger than me who are trading stocks. Scary shit. Trading stocks online means that you are in more control of your decisions, not having to work through a broker who's leeching you for cash. You pay about $10-$20 a trade online. This crushed past convention. Trading stocks online means you can sit on your ass at home and buy 100 shares of an Internet IPO and watch it go up 40 points in the course of one day. All the operating costs and middlemen and complex bullshit is reduced drastically online.
As a side note, people like Cameron Barrett can kiss my ass. They keep saying how Internet stocks are overvalued and bound to crash any time now, about how all these lesser experienced daytraders and amateurs are ruining the Stock Market. Elitists. You can bitch and moan about how Internet stocks are going to fall apart, and for every day that those stocks continue to jump through the roof, you can sit there and miss out on even more market growth. Suit yourself. While it's prudent to be cautious, it's blatantly stupid to not acknowledge the success of Internet stocks, and to even capitalize on them. Although I guess if I worked for Borders.com, I'd be biased against the more successful Internet stocks (like Amazon.com), too. Not to mention consumers contribute very few reviews to Borders.com. Uptight squares. Anyway...
There are many more examples. Ordering pizza online, online banking and checking, company tech support chatrooms, buying computers online, scheduling appointments online, and so on. You can find huge sites devoted to just about anything hobby or interest you have. Sites like Sidewalk and CitySearch let you read reviews of local restaurants, stores, events, and movies. You have the opportunity to become more educated in your purchases than any past generation has. Whatever it is you buy (two auto dealership companies have just went public with their stock; they let you buy cars online, can you believe that?), you can read dozens to hundreds of reviews telling you of any problems or bonuses that might crop up. More importantly, you can compare different products and services to see how they stack up. Consumer education is perhaps not so much about knowing what your choices are, but knowing how they stack up to each other.
You of course still need purchasing interest, time, and money. But at least you're more involved in the transaction, and you're not paying so many people.
I'm afraid, in writing this, that I'm preaching to the choir. Are you the type who knows all this shit already, and is wondering why I'm not more aware of how passé this subject is? Maybe it's all basic for you. I'm sorry. Or is purchasing online still relatively foreign? I don't know. Perhaps there's some merit in discussing the basics, if only for perspective. Let me mix this Soapbox up a bit, to be safe.
I remember my roots -- my main thing when I first started was how the Internet was allowing teens and young children to get involved in the real world more. Teens are still stereotyped and targeted as being immature when people find out their age online. I know how it feels. But the whole thing is, that's all changing. Not only are teens being allowed to spread their wings more, so that they are judged on their merits and not by their age (so that teens are being hired to write articles and reviews, set up computer networks, build computers, and...hehe...design web sites), but they are also becoming the core group out there. The movers. All too often, and perhaps it's just because I frequent areas which are full of younger people, it is the old people who others react to. People are less likely to be shocked by someone saying, "I'm 17" than they would be hearing, "I'm 26." Older (that's scary, since I'm 21 and already feel old on the damn Internet) people just don't make up the bulk of people that I run into. I don't run into an awful lot of high school kids either -- mainly it's college kids. But young people are common, online.
With online shopping and trading and such, it's more comfortable for children to get involved in their financial responsibilities. Usually all they need is a credit card number, and they're ready to go. Children are more receptive and more comfortable with computers and the 'Net, and I feel they have potential to turn into real experts in what they're interested in, through the 'Net. Young people I run into are so well-read on services and products and stocks that it's uncanny. It's hard to make them flinch because they know their shit already. It's appealing to take an active role in the purchasing process.
With the plethora of information online, now the only problem we have is processing it all into useable chunks.
I can't remember the last product I was disappointed in. I bought my computer online, by individual components, so I got everything I wanted. It took forever to read about all my options, but I'm extremely satisfied in what I have now. I strongly recommend 128MB of RAM, at least, along with a large hard drive. And a fast connection. (sigh...) The albums I buy are albums I've heard before through sound clips or MP3 or reviews, the services I subscribe to have the features and options I need. Plus, it's saving me a fortune. This is optimum consumer postpurchase behavior.
We're living in a time when we're conquering the crude, primitive forms of control the distributors had on us in the past. The only thing stopping music piracy was the lack of recordable CD burners (guess why they took so long to produce) and the size of CD tracks. Well, hard drives are now approaching 10GB for $150, and CD recorders and CDs are cheap. Music companies' form of CD protection was physical infeasibility. Now that that's gone, they have nothing to fall back on. That's their fault for not anticipating this. Software companies are still relying on the same thing, and all they have left going for them is the problems that arise downloading 750MB of a CD image. But with @Home and RoadRunner, not to mention xDSL, coming into more peoples' homes, along with ethernet in universities, this is not going to be a problem for piraters for much longer. Books have been marked up by bookstores, but shopping online eliminates that. Distributors are being fucked over, as they rightly should.
I urge you to begin shopping and researching online. Do it at least once next week, if you don't normally. Make it a habit to buy online. It's comfortable, it's easy, it's cheaper. It pisses distributors off. Safety? I haven't heard of any reports of mysterious hackers stealing credit card numbers online. Shopping online is as safe, if not more safe, than shopping over the phone or using a credit card in other locations. Besides, you always receive a credit card statement.
Make purchase decisions online because you believe in the 'Net. Do it because you just want a damn cheaper product. Do it because you now have the power to do so. Take advantage of what you have that those in the past didn't have. You are empowered. Hundreds of thousands of people are out there, willing to help you out. And you can help them in return. And we're all the wiser because of it. Don't let companies rip you off any longer. No longer must you yield to the demands of companies that make far too much money anyway.
This is what it's all about, isn't it? Hell yeah. Now is a great time to fully immerse yourself in the 'Net. I love this shit.
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