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Doing it yourself likely isn't a Net gain

Stockbrokers are taking a beating in TV commercials. They no longer are figures of trust, like the Old Man in that black-and-white ad who vowed to serve his clients faithfully "one customer at a time."

Nope. Stockbrokers in commercials these days are losers.

There's the shabby, low-rent nerd, stumbling to his office to make desperate sales calls to suckers.

There's the smug, out-of-date dad who is put in his place by his daughter's boyfriend, a hotshot online trader.

There's the arrogant punk who is told a thing or two by his doctor, who has become a market expert on the side.

In all these commercials for Internet investing, the traditional stockbroker is a dinosaur. Who needs 'em? Be your own broker. Jump right in.

Brokers surely watch these commercials with all the love that a Realtor has for a "For Sale by Owner" sign.

In the traditional economy, professionals such as Realtors, brokers or pharmacists really sold TWO services.

The first service was the process _ knowing how to get something done. The broker actually bought and sold stocks for you. The real-estate agent knew the ropes and filled out the paperwork and got you to the closing. The pharmacist knew how to get the drugs.

But their second product was expertise, not only know HOW to do something, but WHAT to do.

What is happening now, with a more-than-gentle push from the Internet, is the divorce of process from expertise.

Selling or buying a home yourself is easier than ever. You can be your own stockbroker with a click of a computer mouse. You can buy many of your own drugs via the World Wide Web.

In these and many other fields, we have been given the keys to the car, which gives us the impression that we know how to drive. Making things even more deceptive, the stock market has been rising no matter what, so we all are investment geniuses. It's like sticking a net into a crowded aquarium and yelling in triumph: "I got one! I got one!"

The World Wide Web itself represents a democratization of process _ the process of publishing. No printing press, no book contract, no threshold of credibility is necessary.

That is wonderful and empowering. It is the ultimate First Amendment utopia. But as with any young technology, the form initially outraced the content. Any Tom, Dick or Clarice could launch a Web site purporting to offer some truth or another. And they did.

Consumers already have wised up. In the way that they always said, "You can't believe everything you read in the papers," they now know the same is true of the Internet. Demand for quality information has rebounded, and consumers are increasingly willing to pay for it.

For a few years the question was: Will the Internet be the death of newspapers? Now the more relevant question is: Will the Internet be the end of cutting down trees to make paper?

It is the second service _ gathering reliable information and organizing it _ that is the real product.

Turning back to our beleaguered stockbrokers and pharmacists, then, the answer to the question _ is the Internet their end? _ is almost certainly no. The need for the second service of knowledge and expertise will catch up with the revolution in process.

There's a joke about a doctor who cured a patient's hiccups by hitting him on the knee with a hammer, then sent him a bill for $100. The patient was furious and demanded an itemized statement. The doctor obliged with a statement that said:

Hitting knee with hammer: $5.

Knowing where to hit knee with hammer: $95.

There will always be a market for knowing which spot to hit with the hammer, even if hammers can be bought cheaply. Do you think plumbers and carpenters resent Home Depot? No. They cheerfully fix whatever you made worse by first trying to do yourself.