InfoValet, at your service

Continuing from yesterday’s introduction to Bill Densmore…

Bill is now at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, as one of their Reynolds Fellows, developing his Information Valet Project. For the full scoop on his project, follow his blog on the subject, and see the original proposal, (which is linked from his July 17 post, no separate URL available). The InfoValet (my shorthand) is described as follows:

A service network of “information valets” will replace the old physical product-oriented music, publishing and entertainment industries, replacing many CDs, newspapers, DVDs, perhaps even books. These valets will compete across geographic and topical spheres with search, advice, community, research, linking, hosting, data storage and other services. They will compete to be best at meeting the consumer’s diverse information needs within communities defined by individual users. Information resources will not typically be owned by the valet. Rather, the valet will be compensated for finding, shaping and referring them to the consumer, much as a retailer aggregates and merchandises for wholesalers.

What I’m interested in is the “finding, shaping and referring” part, which would seem to have implications for the news business. I’m still not sure if what Bill is trying to develop is simply an information commerce network, or an information commerce network that has some aspects of the Intelligent Interface Agents I referenced on Sept. 24, long envisioned but still unrealized “knowbots” that can take the drudgery out of surfing the Net.

Michal Migurski of Stamen, commenting on that post of mine, says, in effect: “Forget it, just use RSS feeds that reflect various largely human-edited aggregators; this is not going to be done by software agents.” But I’m not convinced, and I hope Bill will build the idea into InfoValet — after all, if your valet can’t figure out your needs, what good is it? And indeed, Bill’s proposal continues with this vision of the news organization of the future:

The next news organization is not principally a newspaper — centralized daily printing is going to become a niche product for the wealthy and depends on non-renewable resources and expensive manufacturing. Rather, it is a 24/7, platform-agnostic nerve center that finds, organizes, shares and makes sense of information from a vast array of paid, volunteer, independent and partisan sources — and then serves it how you want it, when you want it.

It will be a service organization — like a law or accounting firm — and it will be paid accordingly. At first, it will be extremely difficult to convince people to pay for such a service. But as the years go by, it will be seen as an absolutely indispensable way to get through the day. People will become as reliant on their “Newshare” as on their car, doctor, parent or colleague. Larger cities will have multiple “new shares” offering competing information valet services.

They will compete largely on technical grounds — which sorts best, who finds the real gems, and who provides premium information at the right price bundle? Advertising will be part of all this, but it will be an option—if you are willing to receive advertising, the cost of your “Newshare” will be less.

The competition for mass-audience advertising on the web is such that it seems hard to imagine sustainable rates will ever support the amount of original reporting the United States has enjoyed for the last 50 years. Audiences are now atomizing and the only future for advertising is in presenting targeted messages to individual users. This means the entity that earns the right to receive value for advertising is going to be the one which does the best job of understanding and then servicing the needs of an individual user — including privacy. In the informationservice economy, you[r] information valet will be paid for arranging your attention when you look at an ad, and that payment will be a credit to an account, will offset your purchase of premium
information. This represents an ebb and flow of attention and info-currency, depending upon whether it is information someone wants you to have or information you want.

I’ll buy the idea that with certain obvious safeguards against manipulating the system, consumers might share in the advertising revenue targeted at them. But I disagree with the idea that consumers will get over their enormous resistance to paying for online news content, and be willing to pay in some fashion as they once did for print. If the InfoValet system materializes, and I use it to shop online for music, video, games, software, anything downloadable—then the service itself needs to be free. And news, since it’s already 99 percent free online, should remain on the free side of the package.