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By Marc Fisher

Sunday, January 30, 2000; Page W04

YOUR NAME, CERTAINLY, belongs to you. Except when some monster corporation buys it for five cents. Your mother's maiden name -- well, it's sort of yours, until some company demands it to make sure you are really you. Your phone number, your Social Security number, your preferences in clothing, cars and anything else you might buy -- surely you jest.

The traffic in your demographics is getting to a point where it rivals the 14th Street Bridge at rush hour. You couldn't track it if you tried. And what do you get for giving up your info? Junk mail, annoying phone calls and a vague sense that only you and those charming people in the wonderful world of tele-marketing have access to your innermost secrets.

So do something about it. If it's your data, you should get cash for it. Jeff Gates figured he had something valuable to offer. Businesses seemed to want to know everything about him, so he decided to see what the market really was for his information.

Gates is an artist and federal worker, a 50-year-old jester, dabbler and computer type who describes himself as a "magician, con artist, storyteller, creator and teacher." He decided to use the Web to test the cliche that information is the currency of the new millennium.

He went to eBay -- where he likes to buy 1940s neckties -- and offered to sell something to the highest bidder: his demographics. Minimum bid, $100. "Find out what makes this almost middle age artist and bureaucrat tick!" he wrote in his auction blurb. "I am as representative as anyone else in my generation. Maybe more so! I consume and I buy! Bigtime!"

Gates proposed to compile a list of facts about himself, "my socio-economic status, TV viewing habits, magazine subscriptions and computer-related purchases," and deliver it to the highest bidder.

Folks who spend their workdays clicking around the Web instead of doing actual work sifted through the postmodern swap shop that is eBay, found Gates's offer and mulled it over. Several wrote him agreeing that people ought to be compensated for their information. Several took his offer as an artistic statement, a cry against the commodification of everything.

One eBay surfer saw Gates's offer, which included his photo, and wrote, "Unfortunately he is not Chippendale material, or I would spring a couple of bucks!"

Like most artists who are not deeply delusional, Gates long ago concluded that he was not going to make a million. "Everything has to do with power and control," he told me. "The market has put artists on the periphery, but the Internet gives artists the chance to position themselves back in the center of the community, because we can design information." Thus the auction.

Gates is a wry but earnest fellow; conscientious, yet subversive enough to make him interesting. His day job is Web design for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. In his art, Gates focuses on photography and the Web.

Selling his name and preferences was a peculiarly contemporary art performance; the auction was as fleeting as the stuff on any Web site, which is to say that the art existed for the brief period when bidding was open, and then it didn't.

Except, of course, that nothing dies on the Web. You can still read about Gates's auction, even if you can no longer bid.

Actually, as it turned out, no one did bid. Gates's offer drew plenty of comments, but no moola. Zippo.

"I was making a statement that my demographics were worth something," Gates said. Apparently, no one else agreed. Does that make his information worthless? Or does it mean that the market does not necessarily assign an accurate value to everything? Big companies buy names and bits of data by the millions; one person's information is just not worth the effort.

The contradictions here are legion. The auction is over, but it will never die. Every business wants your demographics, but no one wants your demographics. One attraction of eBay and other auction sites is that electronic commerce seems anonymous. You click, you buy, you see and speak to no one. But the truth is that online, the seller knows exactly who's buying. The mystery of the transaction is lifted. All is recorded.

This is one reason Gates wanted to sell his info. "When I've sold art through a gallery, often I don't know who the buyer is," he said. With the Internet, it's just artist selling directly to consumer.

Which could be exciting. Except it didn't work. After all, what would anyone do with a list of stats on Jeff Gates?

And so the artist, ever resourceful, will try again -- right now. At www.outtacontext.com/ebay/auction.html. There, Gates is launching another auction, of an actual piece of art you can hold in your hands: A 35-by-16-inch print of his original eBay demographics auction. See, it's all about the marketing.

Marc Fisher's e-mail address is fisherm@washpost.com.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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