First published November 8, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
For the past several columns, I’ve been talking about disintermediation. My hypothesis is that technology is driving a general disintermediation of the marketplace (well, it’s not really my hypothesis — it’s a pretty commonly held view) and is eliminating a vast “middle” infrastructure that has accounted for much of the economic activity of the past several decades. It’s a massive shift (read “disruption”) in the market that will play out over the next several years.
But every good hypothesis must stand up to challenge, and an interesting one came from a recent article in Slate, which talks about the growth of a brand new kind of “gatekeeper,” the new “bots” that crawl the Web and filter (or, in some cases, generate) content based on a preset algorithm. These bots can crawl blog posts, pinpointing spam and malicious posts so they can be removed. The sophistication is impressive, as the most advanced of these tap into the social graph to learn, in real time, the context of posts so it can make nuanced judgment calls about what is and isn’t spam.
But these bots don’t simply patrol the online frontier, they also contribute to it. They can generate automated social content based on pre-identified themes. In other words, they can become propaganda generators. So now we have a new layer of “middle” that acts both as censor and propagandist. Have we gained anything here?
The key concept here is one of control. The “middle” used to control both ends of the market. It did so because it controlled the bridge between the producers and consumers. This was control in every sense: control of the flow of finance, control of the physical market itself, and control of communication.
With disintermediation, direct connections are being built between producers and consumers. With this comes a redefinition of control. In terms of financial control, disintermediation should (theoretically) produce a more efficient marketplace, resulting in more profit for producers and better prices for consumers. That drastically oversimplifies the pain involved in getting to a more efficient marketplace, but you get the idea. In this case, the only loser is the middle, so there’s no real incentive for the producers or consumers to ensure its survival.
Disintermediation of the physical market essentially works itself out. If the product needs a face-to-face representative, the middle will survive. If not, then we’ll figure out how to facilitate the sale online, and you can expect to see a lot of UPS vans in your neighborhood. We consumers may mourn the loss of a “face” in some segments of our marketplace, but we’ll get over it.
When it comes to control of communication, it’s more difficult to crystal-ball what might happen in the future. This area is also where new gatekeepers are most likely to appear.
Communication between marketers and the market used to be tightly channeled and controlled by the “middle.” It also used to flow in essentially one direction – from the marketer to the market. It was always very difficult for true communication to flow the other way.
But now, content is sprouting everywhere and becomes publicly accessible through a multitude of online touch points. It could soon become overwhelming to navigate through, both for consumers and producers. In this case, arguably, the middle served a very real service to both producers and consumers. The middle could edit communication, saving us from wading through a mountain of content to get what we were looking for. It could also ensure that the messages producers wanted to get to the market were effectively delivered. The channels were under the control of the marketplace. For this reason, both marketers and the market may be reluctant to see disintermediation when it comes to communication.
The new gatekeepers, such as those featured in the Slate article, seem to serve both ends of the market. They help consumers access higher quality information by weeding out spam and objectionable content. And they help producers exercise some degree of control over negative content generated by the marketplace. In the absence of tight control of channels, a concept that’s gone the way of the dodo, this scalable, automated gatekeeper seems to serve a purpose.
If the need is great enough on both sides of the market, we are likely to find a new “middle” emerge: an “infomediary,” to use the term coined by John Hagel, Marc Singer and Jeffrey Rayport. According to this definition of the middle, Google emerges as the biggest of the “infomediaries.”
The question is, how much control are we willing to give this new evolution of the middle? In return for hacking some semblance of sanity out of the chaos that is an unmediated information marketplace, how much are we willing to pay in return? And, where does this control (and with it, the associated power) now live? Who owns the new gatekeepers? And who are those gatekeepers accountable to?