Stories

How we got Cyber Monday

Keys spelling out "Cyber"
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Cyber Monday — with a predicted $9 billion in U.S. sales online — has become a self-sustaining phenomenon in the world of e-retail, with email blasts and ad blitzes pushing pre-holiday season discounts.

The big picture: This event did not emerge organically. It's a marketing construct built around a discredited prefix that was originally coined for an invented science.

Background: The term "Cyber Monday" was created by a marketing executive in 2005. Data had shown online sales spiking the Monday after Thanksgiving.

  • Analysts guessed workers were loading up their virtual shopping carts when they returned to their offices' high-speed internet connections after the holiday weekend.

Yes, but: In following years, consumers demanded higher-speed connections at home so they could play World of Warcraft and binge-watch Netflix, and the telecom industry obliged. Meanwhile, most of the population had also put internet-connected smartphones in their pockets.

The bottom line: Those office T1 lines no longer matter, and Cyber Monday should have evaporated, but it's still going strong.

  • Retailers love events, and everyone loves a sale!
  • The occasion is now just one more element in the fierce battle for consumer holiday-shopping mindshare, which takes place everywhere and anytime. Stores now launch many of their online specials on Black Friday — or even on Thanksgiving itself.

Between the lines: No one says "cyber" today, except with reference to security and this one frenzied day of online purchasing. Even in 2005, the "cyber" prefix had lost its cachet.

  • "Cyberspace" had a brief heyday in the 1990s, when the internet first entered public consciousness, and America Online was ushering millions of newcomers into the online universe.
  • The word was the invention of science fiction writer William Gibson, who'd first envisioned a shared dataspace roamed by "console cowboys" in his 1984 novel "Neuromancer" — an instant classic that gave the cyberpunk genre its label.
  • Gibson borrowed "cyber" from the field of cybernetics, the study of feedback-driven control systems in machines and nature, founded by Norbert Wiener a century ago.
  • Wiener based the name on the Greek word for piloting or steering because he saw his new discipline as a means for understanding how humans could find a path through the looming complexities of technological automation.

Why it matters: We could all use some help steering our way safely through today's wilderness of email barrages and coupon codes.

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