I am not sure anyone can deny the power of the internet and the transformation it has made on the lives of almost everyone who owns a computer. As I write this on my little netbook, I am laying in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee while my kids play around me. Actually, my oldest is laying on top of me. Before I started to write this, I checked my e-mail, my financial institution's website for my balances, craigslist, and the American Homebrewer's Association Website, all while listening to a podcast from the Brewing Network.
After thinking about it for a few minutes, I almost never watch television or read a newspaper anymore. I used to be religious about the news, and now I log on to read it on-line and almost in real time at my convenience. And as the Superbowl approaches this weekend, I find that I may not watch it at all, because although I got to see Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" live, I can always watch in slow motion on the internet later. I also think of the way the internet has transformed my job and completely changed the process of others. I have a friend that is studying to become a librarian. In the future, the library may not exist (as we know it), but there will still be a place for the librarian to assist with research.
The transformation by the internet of my homebrewing hobby has also been staggering. When I started brewing in 1994, I got my first kit via mail order from Williams Brewing (williamsbrewing.com). They got my business because they mailed me a nice color catalog so I could drool over the equipment and educate myself about their products. I don't know where I learned about their catalog, probably an ad in a beer publication. Ironically, I still get their catalog, and look forward to getting it....but I am on their website a fair amount as well. I also had only one homebrewing shop in my town. It was run by an old hippie and really had very little choices compared to what you expect to find today. I also had joined a homebrew club at the time, but I found that many of the people were there to drink beer, and few had more knowledge than I about brewing matters. Technical information came directly from a handful of books and the bi-monthly issue of Zymurgy.
Today, I have 100's of websites and blogs (including mine) devoted to every aspect of beer, brewing, and equipment. There is the Brewing Network (thebrewingnetwork.com) which functions as an internet radio station devoted to beer and a virtual homebrew club. I like these because I have access to brewers that are far more knowledgable and experienced than I (for years, I have brewed without such access to information....it can be done). I am actually jealous of the BN as I actually had a similar idea way back when I started brewing (remember, I have a broadcasting degree), but didn't believe that I could make it work (and at the time, I bet I couldn't have...both the technology and the sophistication of the homebrewer wasn't there).
I also wonder if companies like Blichmann Engineering, Sabco's homebrewing division, and Stout Tanks could survive with the amount of advertising necessary to make them viable. A good website and free advertising (and sponsorships on the BN) on the forums in word of mouth is all that is necessary these days to make an impact.
But my all time favorite tool on the internet is Craigslist. Thus far, I have purchased my chest freezer and a complete keggerator system. I then sold the old fridge for half of what I bought the system for, and just now, I traded the old sanke commercial keg for a homebrew Corny keg. I keep an eye on craigslist for just the opportunities that arise. I have my eye out for a deal on parts or a keggerator system for my brother (his requirements are that it look good in the den). The latest keg trade had me giving up something I figured I would never use (the keg was too beat up in my opinion to use for my brewing purposes) for something I was going to buy anyway. The guy also sold me another one of his kegs for an additional $30 (which is $14 less then the LHBS and about $10-15 less than others on Craigslist.) Last year I bought my March Pump and another 1/2 bbl kettle with valves for $200.
Another nice thing about buying good Homebrew equipment from advanced homebrewers is that the equipment is usually well cared for and clean. The kegs I traded for and bought were far cleaner than the unreconditioned ones you get from the homebrew shop which still have soda syrup in them. The two that I got had a piece of duct tape on each that told the last time each got new o-rings (which is a great idea). So in this case, the kegs are ready to go for $20 less (and less work) than the ones bought from the LHBS. It has been well worth the effort to meet up with these sellers.
If I were to start homebrewing today, I would buy the entire starter kit off of craigslist. Those are going for anywhere from $40-$75 (more with carboys, less with buckets), and often will include things like caps, corn sugar, and bottles. You can find a nice outdoor burner for 50 to 75 cents on the dollar, and a basic 5 gallon stainless brewpot
As the popularity of our hobby grows, and the first adopters start aging, look for ever more intensive and professional level equipment being offered on Craigslist. Some of it might actually be a good deal if it goes ot a good home.