“Extraordinary change means extraordinary opportunity,” Merrill Brown, founder and principal of MMB Media, told the audience at last month’s Drilling Down on Local conference. Few people are more knowledgeable about the impact of new technologies on society than Brown. Before he was a founder of RealOne, before he was the first editor in chief of MSNBC.com, before he was a media and communications consultant for Time Inc., NBC and USWEST, he was a widely quoted writer. In 1983, he authored a story in the Washington Post about videotext. “Listen to this exuberant quote from Viewdata Corp. Vice President Norman Morrison, ‘We are at the beginning of home information technology. The whole world is watching South Florida. We are dancing naked on the stage of history.’ ”
Viewdata was a partnership between Knight-Ridder and AT&T and its primary product was Viewtron, which allowed consumers to access information and shop online. Early participants were J.C. Penney, E.F. Hutton and Ogilvy & Mather, and I was fortunate to represent AT&T in this trial in the late ’70s while working for AT&T. One of the people with whom I worked on the Knight-Ridder side was Mort Goldstrom, who is now vice president, advertising, at the Newspaper Association of America.
Including my colleague and conference host Peter Krasilovsky, at least four of us at the Drilling Down event had been involved in online information for the past 30 years. Mort was kind enough to send me a CD of some of the earliest marketing materials for Viewtron. In those days, the companies were trying to sell the wonders of a new technology: “Sometimes something happens that changes the way we do things,” or “Viewtron is for people who want to get ahead,” or (videotext) will change the way people invest or shop.
Today virtually everyone takes the Internet for granted and the gee whiz is all about new applications. Brown spoke of the death of the American newspaper and the fact that the television business has not shown real interest in the Internet. Visionaries like Craig Newmark of Craigslist “prove what a real entrepreneur can do … we all have opportunities to be entrepreneurs like him.”
Brown was a teacher about new technologies long before the Internet became such a disruptive change for traditional media. He is still teaching those who will listen.