Sorry, Mr. Webster

The online culture takes many liberties with language. Just co-opt the conventional meaning of a word, like virus, and make it fit a new model.

Here's the latest mutation of Webster's from cyberspace.

We all know what a computer virus is. Something spread widely, uncontrollably, automatically, through computer networks and with malice intended.

Viral - from virus - something previously used in the context of bad can now mean good, very good, democratically good.

I'm not sure when the word took on this connotation. But if viral refers to information that empowers consumers, it's a good thing.

The Web is a communications tool that lets anyone talk to anyone anywhere anytime. Just imagine people sharing information about something. Your friend e-mails you and says don't buy a given model car. OK. Nice advice. Maybe I'll act on it.

But what if 10,000 people shared the same information about that model car and all their messages were assembled rationally, quantitatively, and were easily accessible. The cumulative wisdom of all those people critiquing something would create a qualitative shift in an individual's take on that product.

Conventional marketers will be turned on their heads according to Pete Blackshaw, founder and CEO of the Web site Planetfeedback. He made that point at a symposium on "Society and the Internet" at Harvard last week.

Virtual marketing, driven by statistically significant data accessible to anyone who wants to know - and for now, free - means no matter how advertisers pitch a product, consumers can beat the half-truths of advertising with data. The Web, again, has changed the way I look at the world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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