Shake your money maker

Becky Hogge predicts the second dotcom boom - and bust

It is unlikely that when Prince penned the immortal line "Tonight we're going to party like it's 1999", what he had in mind was a bunch of old media professionals hunkered in a central London hotel basement earnestly discussing ways to "monetise content". Yet at a Guardian new media conference in March, representatives from first Microsoft, then Virgin Radio, then the Daily Mirror, took to the stage to unveil their thoughts on profit in the information economy. It was reminiscent of the years before the dotcom bubble burst.

Spurred on not least by the rise of Google, the money people are back, and it looks like boom time all over again. Since their last foray into dotcom land, the user-generated net has been developing just fine without them - but now they want to harness this people power and turn a profit.

At a recent Silicon Valley-related drinks reception that I attended, most of the entrepreneurs present were in stealth mode, a kind of superhero anonymity for those fearful that revealing their business idea will drain them of their special powers. Were they all touting the same new search algorithm? I'll never know, because the only two men to whom I got a proper introduction were the British bankers sponsoring the event.

The buzzword is "attention", a term originally associated with the US tech publisher Tim O'Reilly. All prospective dotcom billionaires have to do is lure enough users to a site, by offering free storage space for that video of what happens when you drop a Mento in a bottle of Pepsi (www.youtube.com) or by providing tools that make it easy to meet other crazy teens who totally dig the new Reebok campaign (www.myspace.com). Then, as if by magic, payola will follow.

The good news is that getting attention is all about openness. No more hiding behind subscription barriers (with all due respect to this venerable publication) and no more squirrelling away code from competitors. To get attention, you've got to give it away.

The less good news is that, what with all these personal details, family snaps and search preferences floating about, the web is becoming just a little too panoptical for many people's liking. A site that looks like a quick win can soon turn into a legal nightmare: witness the recent anti-paedophile investigations into Bebo and other teen networking sites.

But no matter about those pesky privacy, libel, harassment and hate-speech laws. For now, the long hot summer of the web is here, and this year, it will be silly season in the business pages, too. When the boom is over, another Amazon or eBay may rise from the ashes of a thousand start-ups. Until then, those who have been involved all along can enjoy the ride. As the man from Paisley Park once sang, ". . . life is just a party/And parties weren't meant to last."