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Engaging with your public at large may be a great idea - but don't go looking on the internet to find any rational thought...

Speak to anyone in the advertising industry these days and they’ll tell you we’re entering an age of ‘dialogue’. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that advertisers say.

No longer is communication all about ‘interruption’ (that was the Fifties), nor is it about ‘entertainment’ (the Sixties and Seventies) or ‘engagement’ (the Eighties up until today, basically). No, these days it’s all about dialogue, and speaking with your customers.

cyberspace - dylan jones column

Well, it is according to advertising behemoth MediaCom anyway, which recently held a conference about this very issue.

But while it might be fundamentally right about this – MediaCom tends to be right about most things, and no one ever went out of business catering to their customers’ needs – you need to be very careful how you interpret what those customers say.

After all, there are a lot of very disturbing people in the world, and these days most of them tend to live online.

Everywhere we go nowadays we’re being told we have to forget everything we know, forget everything we’ve ever learned, and go online, deep into the darkest depths of cyberspace.

Into the future. Everything you know is wrong, they say; everything you need to know is online. It’s modern, they say – it’s where everyone goes these days.

Everyone talks to each other. All the time. They tell each other what they think about the world. Every five minutes. Every second. It’s instant feedback, the sort that no magazine or media agency can afford to be without these days.

Apparently. It’s not so much B2B as C2C, consumer-to-consumer – consumers who don’t need the media any more and are so sophisticated and so self-contained and so media-savvy and so smart that they have no time for newsprint, magazines or television.

Cyberspace is a place where everyone is famous, where everyone can make a name for themselves and where, because they have access to the media, everyone assumes people are listening to what they have to say.


People used to say that punk rock was the great leveller, because it allowed anyone to pick up a guitar and make a record, ignoring the fact that because nine out of ten punks couldn’t tell B sharp from a council flat, most of what they did was rubbish.

Well, far be it from me to burst your online bubble, but the same applies in cyberspace.

A few years ago, I attended a conference in New York, and the topic, as it always seems to be these days, was the internet. How it was eating old media alive, how it was taking over the world, how it was radically transforming, er, everything.

And much was said about the emerging need to engage with the great unwashed.

'While the net can give you access to anyone in the world, it's also true that in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream'

One of the most vivid examples of how not to interact with your audience was a car company that had given its online customers the software tools to make their own ads.

While there was a huge response, almost all the ads were negative, criticising the company for ignoring climate change, for continuing to build SUVs and for generally being a product of Corporate Pig Capitalism.

So the company had to close the site, and when it was put up again the software had been altered in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to create anything negative.

You only have to sneak a peek at the blogosphere to see how bonkers people are. The world of blogging has become another way for the metropolitan commentariat to talk to each other, in ever decreasing circles.

But if truth be known, most bloggers are actually not that bothered about talking to each other, as all they really want to do is get their opinions across.

It might be reductive to say so, but most bloggers are unemployed journalists, typing furiously into a void in the hope that someone cares enough to read what they write, screaming at the top of their voices.

But while it’s certainly true that the internet can give you access to anyone in the world, it’s also true that in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

Those who live online are destined to die online, and if you delve deep enough you find a world that’s very happy to be separated from the real one.

It’s all very well espousing the virtues of communication with consumers, but often those consumers simply want you to get on with your job.

This is essentially about belief and trust. It’s like going to a restaurant and being given the ingredients and being told to cook your own dinner.

Sure, the customers still want to give a bit of feedback – you know, don’t keep me waiting 45 minutes for my table, make sure the white wine isn’t so bloody warm next time, don’t sit me next to the toilets and why can’t you shave 20 per cent off the bill? – but yes, actually, we’d still like you to do the cooking, if that’s OK with you, that is.

I’m sure the folks at Ferrari take their customers’ views very seriously, although I’m not so sure they’d like them to design their cars for them.

Anyway, remember what Henry Ford once said?

‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ