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Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold

Mind to Mind

With John Duhring

The Clickstream Is A Sacred Trust

When I heard John Duhring use the phrase "sacred trust" in reference to online advertising, I began to suspect he was onto something interesting. The last time I had seen him, at Apple Computer nearly 15 years ago, he was one of the first people to try putting book publishing, education and personal computers together.

Duhring -- now vice president of business development for WAIS, Inc., which was recently acquired by America Online -- was talking to an audience of old-guard, ink-on-paper editors and publishers who attended the Stanford Publishing course in the summer of 1995. The mention of sacred trusts and databases came up when he was discussing the value of the information exchanged between consumer and sponsor, customer and vendor, in the new media.

Duhring thinks it's significant that the feedback loop between audience and publisher online has become so tight that it's becoming a form of communication -- a new form of communication that could change the nature of advertising.

The established mass-media advertising paradigm is based on broadcasting to huge audiences, more or less simultaneously, hoping that a significant proportion of the audience will be in need of your product.

Using the lowest common denominators of sex, youth, and social status, mass-media advertising became more and more effective at reaching large numbers of people with simple ideas, attractively presented.

Newspapers, magazines, radio, and finally television evolved into powerful means of marketing both the attention of audiences and the products sponsors want them to buy.

What if you had a way of addressing the very opposite of a mass audience? What would that do to the nature of the entertainment industry and communication media? This "de-massified" group would be numerically smaller than a mass audience, and each member of this new kind of audience would tune in at his or her leisure. But each would already have a demonstrated interest in your type of product -- and the power to give you information about what kinds of communication they want and don't want.

You don't need to billboard a million people if you know where to find a thousand people who have already expressed an interest in whatever you have to sell. Computer databases and click-see-buy networks make it possible to learn a great deal about what kind of advertising each individual consumer prefers.

Personal data is at the root of several significant technological challenges to established law and custom. It's also a source of wealth: marketers who find ways to attract and keep the attention of Websurfers will be the most successful -- the ones still standing when the online shakeout happens.

I asked Duhring three questions.