Carry On, Jeeves

As promised, a look at Bill Densmore’s Information Valet Project (IVP).

Bill’s on a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, developing the ideas he presented in his proposal entitled “Building the Information Valet Economy.” (And as it happens, he is the cubicle neighbor of Matt Thompson, whose ideas for “Wikipedia-ing the News” have been the subject of a couple of previous posts of mine: 1 2. This being apparently fertile ground, I may go explore what the rest of those Fellows are up to.)

Today, as background, I’m going to restrict myself to introducing Bill and attempting to explain the origins of his thinking. Tomorrow, we’ll get into the IVP itself. Bill is a longtime friend and colleague of mine, going back to pre-Internet days. After he sold a Berkshires (Mass.) weekly called The Advocate, he spent a number of years nursing a firm called Clickshare through its development stages. The basic idea of Clickshare was (and is):

Clickshare allows a consumer to have one account at a most-trusted website and buy from other websites without having to pass around a credit-card number, register or give out personal information. One ID, one account, one bill.

This assumed consumers would wish to buy, from many web sites, small amounts of information (news), and pay for it in very small increments charged to their Clickshare account. Sounds simple enough, but then it got complicated in ways that I confess I never fully understood, including ways for consumers to earn small payments for viewing website advertising, and for sites to earn a share of the microcharges incurred by consumers originally signed to Clickshare accounts via their sites. As far as I know, the payments network aspect never got fully off the ground, and the system is used primarily to process things like subscription payments for individual sites.

But Bill was certainly prescient when he wrote, a number of years ago, these further words explaining the system:

“It was my thought that newspapers were facing a business train wreck in the new century if they didn’t learn how to become digital infomediaries for their readers and customers,” says Densmore. “The Internet provides the perfect solution in terms of universal access to digital goods. But what was missing was a mechanism for independent publishers to share their customers without losing them, and to profitably share each other’s content with those customers.

“We conceived Clickshare as a solution the problem. But the Clickshare Customer Exchange Platform (TM) has evolved really to be the digital-content operating system for the new century and is broadly applicable to words, music, video, multimedia, software and services such as loyalty marketing, affinity groups and site access control.

“What’s so unique? In the past, words, music, movies and software had to be packaged in newspapers, books, tapes and disks before they could be distributed. Their form and context had to be fixed. With the Internet, digital content can be stored in pieces on a content-owner’s server and assembled ‘just-in-time’ in a myriad of customized packages for individual consumers. No content owner can foresee all the ways to package the pieces.

“With distribution now a commodity, agents with millions of users are now in a position to serve as retailers, adding value to content by finding it and sorting it in new ways, then acquiring it from content owners at wholesale “just-in-time” to instantly turn around and resell it to users. Clickshare Service Corp. is the first company to identify this new approach to content selling, and to develop a proprietary service which enables it.”

In other words, when Clickshare was launched, “digital information” available online consisted mainly of words. But today, beyond words in news stories, a consumer might purchase music at iTunes, video via Blockbuster or Netflix, books from Amazon, or games or software from various sources, all with different payment methodology. As a customer your private information goes wherever you might shop online. Clickshare’s system (aspects of which are patented) protects the customer’s privacy, but more importantly (and as distinct from the likes of Paypal), it seeks to create a Consumer Commerce Network in which information vendors benefit from all future purchases made by consumers initially registered at their site.

In any event, Clickshare is still waiting for its day, perhaps largely because the vast majority of news sites have elected not to charge for most, or any, of their content. And Bill’s at Mizzou, serving up the Information Valet, about which more tomorrow.