Walk into an audio store and try shopping when there's no sign of a sales person. The chances are that you won't make a purchase.

Faced with the bewildering array of models, features, knobs, buttons, formats, multi-function devices, colors, prices, and discounts, if you don't get help in winnowing down the field, you probably will not make a decision.

That's what good sales people do. It's also what good journalists do. They help the people they deal with make decisions by limiting the amount of information they must process. This is not limiting in the sense of shielding people from certain kinds of information, but in learning how to present the kind of information that is appropriate to the recipient's needs, tastes, way of making decisions, and, usually, the recipient's pocketbook.

This is why when somebody talks glowingly about e-community or disintermediation of information on the Web, I start reaching for my shovel and my hip boots. Our readers, our customers, our clients, do not need pen pals or a porch in a Web-based small town where everybody knows everybody and greets them with a "Howdy, neighbor."

That's why so many discussion groups quickly boil down to a handful of articulate (and often knowledgeable) people who are capable of serving up advice. The lurkers aren't there for a free-flowing exchange of ideas with each other. They want guidance. In many ways, those few active participants in a discussion group or email list have assumed an informal role as consultants.

The Web and email does not disintermediate, that is, it does not remove the need for interpreters, such as editors or sales people, who sit between those producing products, services, and information, and those consuming them.

Indeed, a more active information funnel is required to narrow down the choices because so much more data is available.

Of course, the Internet requires some people to have technical know-how. Without the technicians, things don't work and don't get fixed. However, for those who are in the middle of the information exchange, it instead requires listening and an ability to understand people and their needs.

It's nothing more complicated than that. It's nothing easier than that.

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