A newspaper metaphor
As many readers will not have had the experience of taking part in an e-mail discussion forum, it may be useful to use a metaphor to illustrate the essence of a this unique Internet phenomenon. For this metaphor we'll use a newspaper: not a regular newspaper, but, a newspaper that consists of nothing else but readers' letters.
E-mail discussion forums, in their various forms, arrange for any e-mail sent in by one of the forum members - known as a subscriber - to be read by all other members on the list. For the metaphor, we might imagine that each day, instead of sending out copies of the posts by e-mail, the posts from the subscribers are printed onto large sheets of paper and a copy of these sheets sent out to everyone on the list. Effectively, this is how an e-mail discussion forum works.
Each day, the subscribers can read the letters they are interested in and, if they feel so inclined, respond to any letter by sending in one of their own. This doesn't go directly to the original letter writer but gets published in the newspaper for all subscribers to read. Some letters might be responded to by many subscribers, so, the next day the newspaper might contain many letters relating to a particular topic. Subscribers reading the responses to that topic might then respond to the responses and these letters will also be printed in the newspaper that goes out the following day (note: any collection of responses, all relating to a single topic, is known as a thread).
If you imagine people sending in various kinds of letters to these hypothetical newspapers: asking questions; answering questions; expressing a point of view; disputing a point of view; calling attention to an interesting Web site; explaining some technicality; announcing a new version of software; describing an approach to a problem, etc. - it isn't difficult to see how such a newspaper can provide a mine of interesting information. Not only would it provide interesting random information, it could also be used to get specific knowledge or help with a particular problem - simply by sending in a letter of request.
As each of these newspapers will be limited to a specific subject area, most people will want to subscribe to the newspapers of other groups, where they can read letters relating to other subject areas they are interested in. In this way, anyone can tap into the conversations of many people in a range of different speciality areas of knowledge - by receiving a number of different newspapers each day.
With this metaphor in mind, lets now see how these newspapers might be used:
1) As a source of random information
The letters sent into these metaphorical newspapers would contain all kinds of information, some interesting and useful, others not relevant at all. Probably, there would be too many letters for you to read and you'd just skim through them, looking for interesting subject lines and reading only those that catch your eye. After a few weeks of doing this you'll begin to recognise some of the names of the people who contribute regularly and if you discover their interests are similar to your own you might start to look for their names as you look over each day's letters.
The most important criterion will be the noise to signal ratio, this is the ratio of interesting to non interesting information. This would have to be above a certain level for it to be worth the time and effort even to skim through the letters.
Probably you'd concentrate your attention on only one or two of the newspapers, those that were most closely aligned to your current interests. The others you'd glance through briefly just to keep in touch with what is happening in other areas.
2) As a source of specific information
If you required specific knowledge, or help with solving a particular problem, simply reading though letters would be of limited value. It wouldn't be the most efficient way to find out what you wanted to know because the signal to noise ratio would be too low. You'd need to send in a letter yourself - explaining your problem or asking for specific information - and hope somebody would see it and take the trouble to respond.
Whether your letter is responded to will depend upon the interest it arouses. As most people will be skimming through the paper, selecting just a small proportion of the letters to read, it would need a suitably interesting subject heading to catch the eye. It would also help if you were a regular contributor to the newspaper such that the readers skipping through the letters recognised your name.
3) As a source of making contacts
All letters to these metaphorical newspapers will be accompanied by the writer's name and email address. These will represent a wealth of possible contacts. Through the content of the letters, you'll know the writer's interests and can get an idea as to the extent of their knowledge and expertise. Many of them will include a Web site address that will allow you to see more precisely who they are, what they have done and what they may be capable of doing.
Having all this information available is very useful when deciding to make contact with someone, but, it doesn't necessarily imply that that they would welcome any unexpected approaches. They would probably have too many correspondences to handle already and might be reluctant to add any more.
First approaches are best made within the context of the forum itself - so that an intended contact can see evidence of your worth before an approach is made. This might mean participating in newspaper discussions where the intended contact is taking part. It might involve supplying information or help to others in a way that demonstrates the particular values you have to offer.
The corollary of this is that if you write interesting letters to the newspaper, perhaps responding usefully to other people's letters, you might be approached yourself by valuable contacts. Looking at this possibility, it is easy to see how you'd be more likely to respond favourably to an approach from somebody you'd recognised from their published letters than you would be to approaches from a complete stranger.
The beginnings of making contact and establishing some kind of personal relationship with somebody is not easy - especially if they show evidence of being somebody who would make a valuable contact. Most likely they will have more than enough contacts already and will not be anxious to add more unless they see some exceptional benefit.
In the event that you did make direct contact with a letter writer, it is worth bearing in mind that this would be the first move in a series of tit-for-tat exchanges. It must start off with a small gift of some kind, perhaps a piece of useful information. This would give the person a chance to respond positively. A first encounter that simply asks a favour is unlikely to get a response - unless the other person saw you as being a potentially valuable contact and was themselves inviting a series of tit-for-tat exchanges to establish a relationship with you.
An initial direct approach would stand much more chance of success if it offered the possibility of future benefit, but, the Game Theory concept of trust must be kept in mind. A tit for tat strategy to establish a relationship must always start with a cooperation: giving without obligation an immediate value or a promise of future value. If it is a promise of future value, this must be backed up by providing a realistic expectation that this promise will be kept.
4) As a source of ideas and inspiration
Randomly sampling many different articles that appear in these hypothetical newspapers would be likely to inspire many different thoughts and ideas for: e-businesses; career advancement; new areas of speciality; interesting subjects to study or investigate. The problem would be though that the signal to noise ratio might be too low to make the effort worthwhile. Unless you had absolutely no idea of what you wanted to do, this is unlikely to be a profitable use of your time.
Think back to the example of the businessman in chapter three, who was described as being like a surfer on a beach waiting for a suitable wave to arrive. Such a surfer would be very silly if they chose a beach at random and waited patiently for a suitable sized wave to appear. They might find themselves waiting on a beach where the right kind of waves never appear.
Just such a situation might occur if a reader of these hypothetical newspapers randomly read through all the articles waiting for the right idea to come along that just happens to suit their circumstances. It might happen, but it could take a very long time. It would be more sensible to do something intelligent, so as to improve the chances of success.
Here is where the strategy of 'spread misere' (chapter twelve - laying all your cards on the table) can come in very useful. Instead of waiting for an idea or inspiration to come out of the blue you can prompt them to come out by declaring your hand. As an idea comes to you, you can put it down in a letter and send it in to the newspaper for everyone to read.
An entrepreneur might sketch out the details of a business plan. An auteur might explain a particular approach to an e-business solution. An expert might define the limitations of their expertise or describe a new area of interest they were thinking of pursuing. A particular problem can be described. A range of options listed. A letter can be written to spell out exactly the state of the writer's current thinking.
These kind of articles are liable to spark interest. Responses might expose weaknesses in ideas and plans. New insights might be put forward and unexpected directions or solutions proposed. The situation can be compared to making a stop in the Amazon rain forest to take a compass reading and looking at the positions of the stars: It represents the stop before the next step forward - the end of a generation in an evolutionary strategy and the beginning of another - where stock is taken of current progress before starting out in a new direction: the next stage in an ongoing strategy.
In a steady state, predictable world, publishing current plans and ideas would be naive and foolish. It would mean presenting competitors with your ideas on a plate. They would be able to use those ideas and plans to gain an advantage at no cost to themselves. But, in the volatile, fast changing, unpredictable environment of e-business, such a strategy would make a lot of sense.
It must be remembered that current plans and ideas in an evolutionary strategy are a snap shot in a continuously adapting and changing solution. The snap shot itself is of limited value unless it is accompanied by the system from which it evolved. This system would belong solely to the writer of the letter, the publisher of the snap shot.
It wouldn't matter if competitors knew any current plans or ideas because they wouldn't be viable for very long, current ideas will be quickly be out of date. Also, any current idea or plan described would be particular suited to the writer's situation and current knowledge. It would be taking into account the writer's circumstances and range of contacts that were tailored specifically to the writer's unique position. It is unlikely that they would be as suitable to anyone else.