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Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold

Mind to Mind

With Donna Hoffman

The Medium is The Market

You're surfing the Web a few years from now, riding a scorchingly fast cable modem, facing a big high-def screen and stereo speakers. The Web has grown into a cornucopia of media: you get commentary, art, journalism, great graphic design, cool videos, excellent music, stimulating discourse and the global top 40 pop hits. Editorial hunter-gatherers distill the information overload into just the bits and bites you need to know right now.

Nothing this professional is going to be free.

What will you be willing to pay for it? Cash? Or would you rather let the publisher monitor your clickstream, extracting market info from your every online move? Would you answer questions about your vacation preferences in exchange for a popular movie?

How information about online behavior is gathered, and who has a right to use it, is not just an economic and political question -- it's a cultural issue.

Maybe the current creative ferment in the Web will all collapse into soap commercials and game shows; maybe some high-quality publishers on the Web will find ways to pay artists, and stay in business.

If anything but the blandest corporate art is to survive on the Web, however, advertising is the only hope I see on the horizon.

Therefore, speaking as an optimistic supporter of the democratizing potential of "many-to-many" media, I predict that, on the Web of the late 1990s: On the Web, advertisers can watch us far more minutely than ever before -- yet we have more choices and options, too. Advertisers have more information, yet consumers have more power -- they can switch to other sites and vendors at any moment. The Web's commercialization raises all sorts of marketing questions, ethical issues and political problems -- but there aren't any maps or even decent measuring devices.

But there are some experts. I first became aware of the work of Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management on the WELL a couple years ago. Hoffman and Novak applied savvy marketing theory to first-hand knowledge of online media and came up with some intriguing hypotheses, which they published as part of their Project 2000 Research Program on Marketing in Computer-Mediated Environments.

One phrase jumped out of the first paper I read, in regard to the commercial potential of the web: "The Medium Is the Market."

Citing speculation by other researchers that web-based marketing sells "ten times the units for 1/10 the advertising cost," Hoffman and Novak recently wrote, in "Commercial Scenarios for the Web: Opportunities and Challenges": "Anecdotal evidence suggests that Web-based commercial efforts are more efficient and possibly even more effective than efforts mounted in traditional channels...Firm benefits arise from the potential of the Web as a distribution channel, a medium for marketing communications, and a market in and of itself."

These are the questions I posed to Hoffman: