Friday, March 19th, 1999
There was a brief flurry—it may well now have subsided a bit—where every Internet company, no matter what its actual business, wanted to become a portal—that place from where (they hoped) your web browser would start on its exploration of the great .com unknown. It would, they hoped, be a friendly place, customized with the news, stocks, weather, sports scores and other junk that you wanted to see—and of course serve as the search engine—even if what it was doing was linking to another portal’s search engine, so as you typed "golf clubs" in, a piece of software somewhere would make a note the person sitting at your machine, someone who lived at zip code 30324 (you told them this to get the weather) liked golf, so maybe we should be showing him or her golf ads.
It’s always fairly creepy when a banner ad pops up on my web browser showing clear evidence of an attempt to target me based on where I’m surfing—and yet that’s the Holy Grail of advertising. Message reaches audience. The folks who sponsor NASCAR know that if you’re a Dale Earnhardt fan, chances are you want to shop at a certain kind of place, and they can conclude you’d be in the market for, say, Texaco gas and motor oil.
It’d be creepier if "hyper-appropriate" ads showed up on the television show I’m watching, since there’s absolutely no feedback mechanism about what channel we’re tuned to (another reason I like over-the-air broadcast television) —although of course media buyers, the people who buy commercial time on behalf of advertisers—are trying to make similar guesses. If you’re watching "Felicity," you may want to look at this spring’s fashions from Old Navy, for example. Watching Dan Rather? You may have bladder control problems. A recent issue of Electronic Media dove a little more deeply into that paranoid place—where the execs at the older, stodgier TV networks were complaining that since media buyers were, for the most part, folks in their mid-twenties, their personal favorites are the only shows that get advertising money. An endless parade of "Dawson’s Creek"-clones, they say, will be the result. (Not likely. Scary, but not likely.)
This ability to effectively target advertising is one of the reasons big corporations are investing heavily into these all-in-one news/portal/city guide things on the web, and why we’ll be seeing more and more "local" sites that purport to give us the "ultimate" guide to Atlanta. Cox Interactive (yes, more or less the same folks who bring us the AJC and WSB) have quite a head start in this and a handful of other markets, and I give them credit—their Access Atlanta site has a healthy dose of "here" on its zillions of pages. Contrast that with atlanta.sidewalk.com, Microsoft’s extension of a service that’s seen some success in Seattle and San Francisco and some other places out west. I don’t recognize our town in its pages. It feels like a soulless, generic template generated by a server in Redmond, Washington, operating on instructions like "insert the words ‘kudzu’ and ‘grits’ every 18.5 words."
For better and worse, Atlanta’s way more subtle, complex, and inconsistent than that.