David Weinberger
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The Undernet

05 December 1999

I hate to be the last to hear about a buzzword, so when Dr. Gerri Sinclair,CEO of NCompass Labs (www.ncompass.ca) asked the audience at a recentDocumation conference if they'd heard the term "undernet," I was hoping somehands would remain down along with mine. Indeed, Gerri seems to be ahead ofthe curve on this one; AltaVista can't find any interesting instances of theterm.

Whew! It's a great term for a really important phenomenon and deservesgreater currency. Gerri uses it as the fourth type of 'Net, after Internet,intranet and extranet. The undernet, as I understand it (and since itapparently isn't in circulation yet, we can probably understand it any waythat pleases us), consists of the intranets and intranet sites that escapethe official gaze of The Corporation -- the pages created by ad hoc teams,interest groups and individuals with something to say. Your undernet is, inshort, the lifeblood of your organization.

There's little doubt that the undernet is a real phenomenon. In the November15 issue of PC Week, an article by Matt Hicks mentions that Wells Fargo hasmade its intranet avaialble to about 35,000 employees. Since initiallylaunching it as a Human Resources tool, "employee teams have created sitesto manage specific projects..." There are now more than 1,000 sites, whichWells Fargo is attempting to organize through a portal. Likewise, Hicksreports that Lockheed Martin has more than 1,000 intranet sites. And severalyears ago, a chip maker installed a corporate intranet and invited anyonewho'd created her own to get listed; within a few months, over 350 peoplehad registered ... and who knows how many people chose not to?

So, the predictable has happened. Web technology is too simple and by itsnature resists centralization. So of course Web sites spring up likemushrooms in dark, well-fertilized places. No permission or advancedtechnical skills are required. Why, even marketing folks like me can do it!

There are two characteristics of undernets that make them especiallyfascinating. First, as organizations try to regain control of theirintranets by putting policies into place, by requiring that content byfiltered, by building portals as a way to Authorize and Defend the gloriousCorporate Image, they will merely push more people onto undernets. The samewill happen if governments try to control the Internet. The Internet routesaround censors, idiots, and control freaks ... and becomes an undernet.

Second, if you look at undernets as a fourth in the holy trinity ofInternet, intranet and extranet, you'll miss an important change. Undernetsdon't (won't?) respect corporate boundaries. Frequently, customers have morein common with an employee than the employee's manager does. After all, boththe customer and the employee are enthusiastic about the company's product(we hope!) and an employee who's neck deep in product competency forms anatural bond with a customer who uses the product every day. The undernetisn't going to respect the imaginary wall that's supposed to exist betweenthe customer and the employee. (If it's a real fire wall, then there's adifferent type of issue.)

So, undernets are real. Undernets are where the untrammeled creativity ofthe Web is. And, most important, "undernet" is a cool word.

David Weinberger is publisher of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization (JOHO) newsletter and a frequent contributor to KMWorld Magazine.