Reintermediation: Bringing Back the Middle Men (and Women)

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Disintermediation was one of the biggest buzzwords of the first dotcom boom. It means ‘taking out the middle man’ and that’s exactly what the first wave of internet and web services did.

Websites gave customers much more direct access to suppliers, enabling lower prices in the process. No need for a distributor or wholesaler and a network of retailers if you can sell products directly from your factory warehouse online. Publishing information became so cheap that it was cost-effective to publish everything rather than just a selection of content chosen by an editor (another middle man).

This has been great for choice, with the near-infinite ‘long tail’ ensuring products and content to fit almost every niche.

The advantage of middle men (and women) is that they aggregate and filter, cutting out the crap and highlighting the gold. In doing away with the intermediaries we lost a lot of this function. But it is returning, in new, more efficient forms.

It starts with the creators of content, be they vendors, retailers, advertisers or media. Increasingly they are trying to personalise the content they deliver to customers using acquired or built profiles. Land on their website and you are likely to see content tailored to your interests: shoes in your style, stories about topics you have previously shown interest in, adverts for products you have previously examined.

Then there are the curators: human or automated intermediaries assembling coherent feeds of information. This could be users if twitter, focused on a single topic. It could be topic-based aggregated feeds in apps like Flipboard or Feedly.

Then there are the smart user agents: programmable software that does the search on our behalf. Think Google Alerts as a basic example. A piece of software that we own or that sits in the cloud, that will take some parameters and get to know us like a supercharged global TiVo. One that pro-actively filters the morass of content available online and brings us only the most relevant morsels to our interests.

This has its risks: it could be easy to hide in a bubble of selected information, ignorant of world events. But I know plenty of people for whom this is life today. Those of us who like to be informed will remain so.

These new middle-men, women and robots represent one of the most interesting new business opportunities on the web. The most important question is who will own the very personal data collected about our preferences? The profiles that these smart agents will collect — across media, over the course of years — will be incredibly rich.

Will we let the cloud giants — Google, Amazon — own this data? Or will we insist on holding it ourselves?

This post forms part of my Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

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Tom Cheesewright