July 2010

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The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky, when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here is the rest of the list (sans one that goes to a linkproof Flash thing):

Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen—tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks—competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

Here is the difference between an active customer who wants to buy stuff and a consumer targeted by secretive tracking bullshit: everything.

Two things are going to happen here. One is that we’ll stop putting up with it. The other is that we’ll find better ways for demand and supply to meet — ways that don’t involve tracking or the guesswork called advertising.

Improving a pain in the ass doesn’t make it a kiss. The frontier here is on the demand side, not the supply side.

Advertising may pay for lots of great stuff (such as search) that we take for granted, but advertising even at its best is guesswork. It flourishes in the absence of more efficient and direct demand-supply interactions.

The idea of making advertising perfectly personal has been a holy grail of the business since Day Alpha. Now that Day Omega is approaching, thanks to creepy shit like this, the advertsing business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: “consumers” are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.

Rough impersonal guesswork is tolerable. Totally personalized guesswork is not.

Trust me, if I had exposed every possible action in my life this past week, including every word I wrote, every click I made, everything I ate and smelled and heard and looked at, the guesswork engine has not been built that can tell any seller the next thing I’ll actually want. (Even Amazon, widely regarded as the best at this stuff, sucks to some degree.)

Meanwhile I have money ready to spend on about eight things, right now, that I’d be glad to let the right sellers know, provided that information is confined to my relationship with those sellers, and that it doesn’t feed into anybody’s guesswork mill. I’m ready to share that information on exactly those conditions.

Tools to do that will be far more leveraged in the ready-to-spend economy than any guesswork system. (And we’re working on those tools.) Chris Locke put it best in Cluetrain eleven years ago. He said, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get… A picture named not.gif

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal, that dealing may finally come in 2010.

To get started, I highly recommend installing TACO, the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, or its fork, Beef TACO. There are other approaches, but these work for me.

What matters is that they show you at least some of the tracking activity that’s going on. And a little knowledge is better than none. (You can also block tracking as well.)

Meanwhile, this gives us more to talk about (and work on) at VRM+CRM 2010. Bonus barf. I don’t think we need legislation here (it’s too early and sure to have bad unintended consequences), but I also don’t think the Internet Advertising Bureau is operating in Reality.

[Later...] Jeff Jarvis thinks the Journal is being silly. I love Jeff, and I agree that the Journal may be blurring some concerns, off-base on some of the tech (see comments below) and even a bit breathless; but I also think they’re on to something, and I’m glad they’re on it.

Most people don’t know how much they’re being followed, and I think what the Journal’s doing here really does mark a turning point.

I also think, as I said, that the deeper story is the market for advertising, which is actually threatened by absolute personalization. (The future market for real engagement, however, is enormous. But that’s a different business than advertising — and it’s no less thick with data… just data that’s voluntarily shared with trusted limits to use by others.)

[Later still...] TechCrunch had some fun throwing Eric Clemons and Danny Sullivan together. Steel Cage Debate On The Future Of Online Advertising: Danny Sullivan Vs. Eric Clemons, says the headline. Eric’s original is Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet. Danny’s reply is at that first link. As you might guess, I lean toward Eric on this one. But this post is a kind of corollary to Eric’s case, which is compressed here (at the first link again):

I stand by my earlier points:

  • Users don’t trust ads
  • Users don’t want to view ads
  • Users don’t need ads
  • Ads cannot be the sole source of funding for the internet
  • Ad revenue will diminish because of brutal competition brought on by an oversupply of inventory, and it will be replaced in many instances by micropayments and subscription payments for content.
  • There are numerous other business models that will work on the net, that will be tried, and that will succeed.

The last point, actually, seemed to be the most important.  It was really the intent of the article, and the original title was “Business Models for Monetizing the Internet:  Surely There Must Be Something Other Than Advertising.”  This point got lost in the fury over the title of the article and in rage over the idea that online advertising might lose its importance.

My case is that advertisers themselves will tire of the guesswork business when something better comes along. Whether or not that “something better” funds Web sites and services is beside the points I am making, though it could hardly be a more important topic.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the Googles of the world are well positioned to take advantage of a new economy in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand. So, in fact, are some of those back-end data companies. (Disclosure: I currently consult one of them.)

Look at it this way…

  • What if all that collected data were yours and not just theirs?
  • What if you could improve that data voluntarily?
  • What if there were standard ways you could get that data back, and use it in your own ways?
  • What if those same companies were in the business of helping you buy stuff, and not just helping sellers target you?

Those questions are all on the table now.

VRM + CRM 2010

So that’s the logo for the first VRM+CRM workshop, which will happen on 26-27 August, at Harvard Law School. It’s free. You can register here.

ProjectVRM, which I’ve been running as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center has been growing nicely over the past four years, and is on its way toward becoming an independent entity. (It will exist, as always, to support a community of developers and interested parties outside of the project itself.) It’s funny, I remember Jeremie Miller, who encouraged me to choose VRM (before it had that name) as my Berkman project when I started out in late summer of 2006, telling me “it will take five years.” Meaning that’s generally how long any new world-changing development effort spends in the quiet shadows before it breaks out into the open and starts taking off. (If it does at all.) That’s about how long it took for Jeremie’s own Jabber/XMPP efforts. (He predicted five years at the beginning of that too, and he was just a kid then. Wise dude.)

I’ve liked keeping VRM in the shadows, because I felt that code mattered more than anything. Code talks. Buzz walks. And I say that even though I’m not bad at generating buzz when I need to. Now the code base is growing enough that many of us feel a need to start talking about it. Especially to potential partners in the business world.

We’ve described VRM as the “reciprocal” of CRM at various times. It’s much more than that, actually. Its tools that give individuals independence from others, yet useful means for engaging with others — especially organizations, and among those especially sellers. But the core elements are individuals and independence.

I’ve also seen VRM from the start as fundamentally an open source effort, not a commercial one. I also saw open source tools, with their high use-value, having enormous leverage into sale-value for any company selling products or services based on those open tools. This would include, among other things, many fourth-party services — itself another whole new category.

CRM in the meantime has grown to become a $15-billion business. It has also lately enlarged its intrest to include Social CRM. Our friend Paul Greenberg has written extensively on both, and is the driving force behind Destination CRM next week in New York. (Which I hate to miss, but have a prior commitment elsewhere.) Since VRM will be a topic at Destination CRM, and we can get space here at Harvard before the students come back, we put together the workshop to follow at the other end of the same month.

The workshop is for VRM and CRM developers and other interested parties (such as CRM customers) together to start building out the common ground between them. The nature of relationship is to exist between and apart from both parties. Neither controls the other. Both work together, in a common space between the two. We haven’t had that space before. The default on the CRM side (and one that predates CRM itself) is for vendors to control relationships with customers. What VRM proposes is that neither controls the other, but both manage the space between them, in mutually beneficial ways.

The workshop will mostly be an unconference, though there will be some opening briefings by VRM and CRM folks, to set the stage for sessions to follow. Here are a few of the topics and questions I expect will come up. (These are copied over from a post I just put up over on the ProjectVRM blog.) –

  • Terms of service. How can we get past the legal hurdles and shackles that inconvenience both buyers and sellers when they get acquainted?
  • Privacy policies. How can we reduce the suspicions and frictions that these involve?
  • Personal data. What tools, methods and services are being developed for individuals to keep track of data they generate or is being kept by sellers and other parties? What means do we have for sharing or exchanging that data in secure and trustable ways?
  • Signaling. What new methods will both individuals and organizations have for notifying each other of interests, intentions, policies, preferences, or changes in any of those? How can we make these common across the industry, rather than different for every organization?
  • Self-tracking and personal informatics. What vendor-independent means are being developed for individuals to keep track of their own personal data, and manage it?
  • Interactive shopping. The Live Web we saw coming in 2005 is here. So is the mobile one. Combine those facts with the ability to issue personal RFPs (or just to publish your shopping list to trusted retailers and fourth parties), and what do you get?
  • Search. What new paradigms for searching are being developed, especially in the context of all the topics above?
  • Non-coercive loyalty. What ways are being developed for individuals to express and manage their own forms of loyalty to sellers and other organizations? How can this improve existing loyalty programs?
  • Personal RFPs or Advertising in Reverse. How can individual customers notify whole market categories of their intent to purchase a product, safely and securely, without inviting a torrent of promotional jive in response?
  • Leveraging base-level protocols, standards and tools. There are hundreds of thousands of free and open source tools, protocols and other goods already in the world, ready to serve as free building materials and guidelines. What can we use of these, and what new ones do we need? What new ones are in development on the VRM side?
  • Reducing MLOTT — Money Left On The Table. In our current system, a huge sum of demand goes un-met because of the the means for communicating interest and availability are on the supply side. How (including the means listed above and others) can we equip demand to notify supply of money ready to be spent? In the old days this was seen as “lead generation” by suppliers. But now it’s time to get past that.
  • Tie-ins with SCRM. Social CRM is the hottest topic in CRM. How can VRM connect with and through social networking? Important question: Should “social” be restricted to just what can be done through Facebook, Twitter and other commercial services?
  • Patient-driven health care. How can individuals be the collection points for their own health data, and the point of origination for what gets done with it?
  • API symphonics. The commercial world is increasingly building around a collection of interconnected APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. Many CRM systems are built around their own APIs. VRM will surely connect into many APIs. How should we be thinking about and guiding evolution here?
  • The oppposite of cookies. Sites and companies of all kinds have been keeping track of customers through cookies since the mid-’90s. How can customers do the same with their suppliers?

Feel free to add your own, correct these, or make other recommendations.

More details on the event wiki page.

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From roughly 1996 to 1999, my always-on Net connection at home was a wireless one, through Ricochet. Throughput in both directions was faster than dial-up, and always-on. Customer support was good too. As it happened, both homes I lived in then were atop hills on the San Francisco Peninsula, with panoramic views of the whole Bay Area. I remember when I called once from our home in San Carlos, the tech support guy said, “We can see you on 99 nodes.” At the time it turned out that I was mostly getting on via a node in St. Helena, about 60 miles away.

In retrospect, Ricochet was way ahead of its time. It used mesh networking, spread spectrum, low-power license-free channels, and other forms of network coolness. It failed, like so much else, by being gassed up and deflated in the dot-com boom and bust. But what it negotiated with the cities and with private residents for node sites still impresses me. They had a good thing going, and now it’s long gone.

It’s even worse than it appears

The Common Errors of Telecom CEOs, by Rudolf van der Berg, is required reading for anybody who cares about the future of the Internet, and whose hands it’s in.

Immigrants and Crime: Time for a Sensible Debate is a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Francis Fukuyama with the subhead, The gardeners and maids who cross the border illegally are very different from the tattooed Salvatrucha gang member who lives by extortion and drug-dealing.

Here’s the gist:

There is indeed a huge problem of crime originating in Latin America and spilling into the United States. This is almost wholly driven by the enormous demand for drugs from the U.S. There are many things we can and should do to mitigate this problem, but it will persist as long as that demand remains high.

But the problem of gangs and drug violence should not be confounded with the behavior of the vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S., who by and large are seeking the same thing that every immigrant to America has wanted since the time of the Mayflower: to better their condition and that of their families. They are not criminals in the sense of people who make a living by breaking the law. They would be happy to live legally, but they come from societies in which legal rules were never quite extended to them. They are therefore better described as “informal” rather than “illegal.”

Understanding this distinction requires knowing something about the social order in Latin America or, for that matter, in many other developing countries. These societies are often characterized by sharp class distinctions between a relatively small, well-educated elite and a much broader and poorer population.

Note how this re-framings the problem.

Fukuyama goes on to unpack what he means by “informal”:

The rule of law exists in places like Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador; the problem is that access to the legal system tends to be a privilege of the well-to-do. The vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S. come from poor rural areas, or shantytowns in large cities, where the state — in the form of courts, government agencies and the like — is often absent. Registering a small business, or seeking help from the police, or negotiating a contract requires money, time and political influence that the poor do not possess. In many Latin American countries, as much as 70%-80% of the population lives and works in the informal sector.

The lack of legal access does not make everyone in these regions criminals. It simply means that they get by as best they can through informal institutions they themselves create. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has written extensively about the lack of formal property rights, not just in his own country but throughout the developing world. The poor do not hold legal title to their homes, despite having lived in them for years, because of the insuperable barriers the system throws up to formal registration. So they squat in their homes, constantly insecure and unable to use their property as collateral.

The poor are entrepreneurial and form businesses like restaurants and bus companies, but they are unlicensed and don’t conform to official safety rules. They and everyone else would be much better off if they could be brought into the formal legal system, but it is a dysfunctional political system that prevents that from happening.

This is a beautiful linguistic hack, right out of the George Lakoff rulebook. Fukuyama pays respect to bedrock concepts of conservative thinking: rule of law, property rights, entrepreneurship, self-reliance… and disdain for dysfunctional political systems. But he also borrows another rightward concept — formal (a cousin to law), and pulls all wannabe law-abiding imigrants into that frame, but as informal. Subtract the in and your problem is solved.

This artful play by Fukuhama is especially interesting to me, because I think we have been having the wrong debates about the Internet and how to improve it. Carriers vs. Neutralists only amps up the politics. Hand-wringing about lack of rural broadband only plays on the left. The idea of re-classifying the Net as a breed of telecom is a clever regulatory hack by the FCC, but it has shifted debate back into lobby politics, which the agency’s friends and enemies of the moment — Google and the carriers — are good at playing. Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments favoring generativity are good ones, and he’s right that hope lies with users; but the pro-business case isn’t quite there.

I want to make that case. This piece by Francis Fukuyama is a good model for How It’s Done.

Now what I want to see is if his strategy works. If we’re talking about “informal immigrants” in a year, the answer will be yes.

Bonus link.

So I get an email from The River: Integrating Web Intelligence, subtitled “Bridging the Web and Physical Channels”. The first section is this:

1. Audio Tweet 4 min. :

Clickstream Trust / Privacy in Telcos – Part 1/4 in the “Who owns Clickstream data?”

paulmagelli

Series – Courtesy of TelecomTV’s Main Agenda Interactive

Paul Magelli – Nokia Siemens, Head of Subscriber Data Management, Nokia Siemens Networks

I’m interested in the subjects — privacy, telcos, data ownership (or whatever we’d rather call it), clickstreams, Nokia — and Paul looks like a nice guy, so I click on the link (the one above) and it takes me to a page that says I have to be a member to get in.

Why? Am I a member already? I dunno. So I do a search for teradatariver.com in my email pile and find that the current email is the fourteenth since November. Before that there is only one email: an invite from somebody I know, a couple weeks before the emails started. Did I respond to the invite? I click on the link in the email. Teradatariver.com comes up and says the invite has expired.

I don’t know what to do with all that, so I write about it here… last January. That is, everything above this is a draft I started in January, when it was front burner for a minute two and I cared about it. I just discovered the draft and decided to post it rather than throw it away. Who knows, maybe it’ll do some good.

This graphicapple revenue progress, of Apple’s revenues per quarter, broken down by products, tells several stories at once. One is that the iPhone remains huge. (I was amazed by how many I saw in the UK and France.) Another is that the iPod may be getting a bit stale. But the big one is the sudden size of the iPad business.

We have one, a 3G model that arrived when we were in Paris in June. It was nice-to-have but something short of its full promise until a friend in Paris got us a 2Gb SIM so the unit became useful outside of our apartment’s wi-fi zone. (Orange, Apple’s carrier partner in France, requires of Americans a French bank account — just one of many vexing problems with 3G outside anybody’s home country. It’s a freaking mess.) With that SIM, the difference became absolute. Now we could look at maps, shop, and read about topics of immediate local interest, live and on the spot, anywhere. (Even in the subways.) The iPad is much faster than the iPhone and much more convenient than a laptop or a netbook. Form-factor wise, it’s a whole new category.

The question is, can anybody else top it, or even compete with it? Certainly somebody should. Here’s what I’d recommend.

First, a second unit with a smaller form-factor: about half or two thirds the size of the iPad. There’s a need for something that’s bigger than a phone but smaller than the current iPad, which is a bit too large for most purses.

Second, freedom from anybody’s silo. Apple has done it’s vertical thing here. Now it’s time for the horizontal one. In product categories, the horizons are always wider than the skies are high.

Third, featuring the 3G or 4G model, rather than regarding it as a premium exception. This also means working energetically to expose and break down the national boundaries to mobile carrier data plans. We desperately need the phone system to become a data system that also does telephony, rather than the reverse. (More about those in another post.)

Fourth, better speaker(s). The iPad actually sounds quite good, for a speaker that talks out of the same flat hole that’s plugged by the power connector (just like the iPhone).

Fifth, two microphones, for binaural recording. This is hugely under-rated as a feature, and generally ignored by portable gear makers. With binaural recording, you get a you-are-there sound field when listening to the recording with headphones. Related idea: two cameras, for shooting in 3D. The latter would also be a cool peripheral.

Sixth, make the ‘pad a production and not just a consumption device. Shooting and/or editing video, and uploading it to a server on the spot, would be a way cool use for the thing.

Of course, consumer electronics makers are notorious copy-cats. But what they need to do is zig here where Apple zags. There’s infinite room.

… is about Wikileaks. Not the war. But not oddly.

All stories have three elements:

1) A character. A protagonist. The main human subject. Sometimes it’s a cause, but it requires personification. In sports it’s a player or a team. In war it’s a side. In novels it’s a character or a cast of them. I npolitics it’s a party or some other Us. (And there is always a Them. Opponents define characters.)

2) A problem. That is, a situation that cannot be easily resolved. Something that keeps us tuned in, or turning the pages.

3) Movement toward resolution. Even if the situation gets worse, you have some reason to maintain interest. If your team is up 20 points and there’s less than a minute left, the story is over. If the main character dies, or disappears, we tune out. If the whole situation if FUBAR beyond understanding, we also tune out.

So, in no time at all, Wikileaks’ 91,000+ documents, which apparently (so far) contain no story-making news other than the leaks themselves, has become a story about Wikileaks. Thus we have Air Leaks from Wikileaks Balloon, in the Washington Post.

The character is Julian Assange, who is, if nothing else, a very odd and therefore interesting dude. As Michael Wolff asks in the next link, “Who plays Julian Assange in the movie?”

The problem is Dealing with Wikileaks itself. This is a problem for big-J Journalism, which loves to talk about itself. (Hey, it’s a character too.)

There is no obvious resolution, which is why the air leaks out of the balloon. Wikileaks is what it is: a source. Nothing happening here, move along.

Meanwhile the war remains no less FUBAR than it was before the leaks sprung. Just like health care. Just like the financial meltdown. They’re all what Bill Safire used to call MEGOs. The letters stood for “My Eyes Glaze Over.” These were, he said (something like), “Subjects too important not to cover but too complex or dull to care about.”

But there will be movies. Count on it.

I hate the new Google Image search. I used the old one constantly and A picture named 93px-Lesser_Ury_Lese#7700BF.jpg understood it well, because there wasn’t much to understand. You clicked on an image, and it went to a page with two frames. The one above gave a route to the original image, and the one below was the whole page the image was on. The new one is a montage of larger images. You get a preview with some links if you mouse over one, and if you click on it you get to another Google page on which a blurry version of the image is superimposed — in the manner of an unwanted opt-out ad — over the page with the image on it. You can get to the image directly, or the page’s own URL, by clicking on links in a frame column on the right. (This is the frame that used to be on the top.)

There are also more options on the search results page. That’s cool. But the thing with the preview is just ugly to me. And it reminds me so much of unwanted ads that I wonder how far the advertising-über-alles mentality of the commercial Web has infected Google itself, in spite of the Chinese Wall it likes to keep between advertising and the stuff it runs on.

My advice: keep the new layout on the results page, but go back to the old design on links from each result.

Meanwhile, I’m getting to like Bing’s better and better.

Nice production on consumption

At Consumer Choice, Judi Clark has a nice interview with Jerry Michalski, Tara Hunt and myself. I learned a lot. Highly recommended.

It was Spring of 1969, my last year at Guilford College, in North Carolina. My freind Gene Massey (later of the great Gene’s Books in King of Prussia, PA) and I went into a curb market nearby to get some beer. There we ran into Wayne, a huge former football player at the school, who apparently hung out there, and was drunk. As we walked up to the counter, Wayne approached both of us in a daze, said “Two hippies!” and planted one punch each, a right and a left, into our middles. We were more shocked than hurt. “Wayne,” I said. “Back off, man. We’re just a couple guys from Guilford!” Wayne blinked, squinted and seemed to wake up. “Aw shit! I didn’t know ya’ll boys were from Guilford! Damn. I’m sorry. I thought ya’ll was a couple of hippies.”

In fact Wayne was right. The label applied. Gene’s hair was long to his shoulders. Mine hadn’t seen a scissors in many months and was bushed out. But we were hippies in far more than looks alone. We really thought we were in the midst of a revolution.

Are we again? I hope so, which is why I shouldn’t be surprised to see a post called Hippie 2.0 that seems to be right up, or down, my current alleys.

Quote du Jour

On the phone with Britt Blaser, who just said, Politics is so complicated that only zealots get involved. Of course, he’s been working on fixing that. I think this here can help.

Good 2B Back

The weather here in Cambrige is perfect.

This is also a test to see if the post goes up.

Here’s another line, to see if it shows up on a log.

Does. Cool.

Fuel for denial

Got together with four members of my kid’s 8th grade basketball team and their coach (another dad, much younger and better than me) this afternoon for a shoot-around. I was too wasted to play in the real game (I did sub briefly, and scored one lay-up), but we finished up with a game of P-I-G (a shorter version of H-O-R-S-E), which I joined, since I didn’t think it would take much effort. Amazingly, I won. Not sure why I was hitting a high percentage of shots. Some of the old touch came back, I guess. Felt good.

New post

Back in the outlining saddle again. Liking it.

Visual test

A picture goes on the right: A picture named oneside.jpg

Testing again

This time over Starbucks’ (bless them) free wi-fi.

First edit.

Marketing Needs To Stop Its BS and Wake Up, the headline says.

True.

The bottom line: “At the end of the day, audiences have moved on and their expectations have changed. The next five years will see drastic changes in the way organizations engage with their audiences. It’s not a choice anymore. These are the ‘cluetrain’ years.”

Yes, but what will change most is how ‘audiences’ engage with companies.

r-buttonFor r-buttonone thing, we’re not ‘audiences’ any more. And we’re not here for the show. We’ll have our own ways of engaging, and they won’t just be through “social media” that are privately owned and we don’t control. In fact, those ways might include the symbols you see here. You’re on the left, and the company you’re engaging with is on the right. If that company believes a free customer is more valuable than a captive one, the symbol appears, or turns from gray to red.

For more on all that, go to Cooperation vs. Coercion, which I posted on the ProjectVRM blog this morning. Also see three other posts on this blog from a couple days ago. Pointers to those are here.

If you’re a marketer, and you want some fresh clues about how the tide is turning, take the time to read through those. They’re not gospel, just some blog posts. But they point in a direction, and it’s not toward marketing as usual, even if that marketing is called “social”.

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Sad news

The strangest thing about Dan Schorr dying is that he isn’t here to explain it on NPR. I always liked Schorr’s take on things, even when I didn’t agree with him. When was his last commentary? Haven’t found that yet. Didn’t seem like long ago.

He was 93. We should all live so long, and well.

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Hanging here with Dave, getting outlining going again here. This is our second test post.

This is an update.

A picture named espresso.jpgIt’s nice to know Doc’s inner-four-year-old is alive and well.

Please don’t worry his site wasn’t hacked. This is just a test.

Your friends,

Dave and Doc

From June 13 to July 21, I lived in France. This was the longest I had been out of the country, ever. And, while I loved just about everything about being there, what I’m liking best at the moment is what I failed to take back with me: about ten pounds of fat.

I still wiegh too much. My Withings scale, which produced the graph above, says I’m still carrying around about fifty pounds of fat, with a body mass index of 28.3.

I weighed about 140 when I got out of high school, and about 150 when I got out of college. I gained slowly after that. Except for a couple of diets (McDougal and Atkins), each of which knocked off about 25 pounds, my weight went steadily up. So, on the advice of tweets from @bobmetcalfe, I got the Withings, and started just paying attention. I began on March 26 at 196.2 pounds. I didn’t do much to change my eating habits, though, and I pretty much stayed even. Then, before heading to France, I started purposely eating a bit less. Going without. That’s where you see the decline to 192.1 before we left.

What was different about France? Here ya go:

  1. No breakfast. Usually one of us went to the corner bakery for a baguette, and I’d have a hunk of that, and not always with butter.
  2. Not much lunch either. We’d eat one sometimes, but we were usually too busy.
  3. Great dinners, late at night, by U.S. standards. Peak dinner time in France is 9pm. For the most part we were on what we called “Icelandic Time.” We’d dine late, catch up with the East and West Coasts on our computers after we got back, turn in about 1-2am, and sleep late. The dinners, of course, were full of fat and carbs, but on the whole were just good food. And without the default American obligation to engorge one’s self.
  4. Experimentation. The best tasting anything I had there was rongnon* d’agneau: lamb testicles. My wife talked me into them, at a restaurant that specialized in offal.
  5. Wine. My body doesn’t like alcohol much, though I do enjoy drinking it. But in France I had wine with most of my meals. Not sure what difference that made, but it was a difference in behavior.
  6. No crap food. We ate no chips, no soft drinks (except for the occasional Orangina), no dips. No burgers from McDonalds. No milk shakes. Not much that’s “processed,” as they say, far as I know.
  7. Lots of cheese. France is fromage as much as it is vin.
  8. Walking. Even though we took public transportation to most of the places we went, we also walked a lot — probably several miles per day.
  9. Sweating. Air conditioning isn’t valued or practiced much, at least in the older parts of Paris. And certainly not in the Metro or the RER, the two main underground trains there. Our apartment there also didn’t have it, though it stayed relatively cool with its thick stone walls (the structure dates from the 1600s) and shade. And it was quite hot most of the time I was there.

After we got back, we went shopping. On the list went lots of fruit and off of it went breakfast sausage and other former staples, mostly of the crap food variety. My appetite for them is gone, at least for now. Meanwhile, I like getting into pants I outgrew last year. Next steps: getting into the pants from two years ago, then five years ago…

* This is how I remember it, though I’m told that rognons are kidneys. Maybe somebody can correct me. I know the menu did not say testicules, which is the literal translation. By whatever name, they were lamb nuts.

The sign above points to the toilets of the cafeteria at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. The Kid and I were at the museum a couple days ago, and he spotted the sign, insisting I shoot it. So I did, and here we are.

Now, lest you think that “consumers” is bad Franglish for “customers,” here’s the same sign in French:

Looks to me like a literal translation.

And, it also seems to me, the term “consumer” is far more deeply embedded in Europe than it is in the U.S. Here (I’m back now) I can ask people to say “customer” instead of “consumer,” and they don’t have much trouble with switching. In Europe (especially in the U.K.) it’s harder. I don’t know why.

Still, I think the literal meaning of the word is an issue, and has been for some time. Here’s John Perry Barlow, in Death From Above, his March, 1995 Electronic Frontier column for Communications of the ACM:

Over the last 30 years, the American CEO Corps has included an astonishingly large percentage of men who piloted bombers during World War II. For some reason not so difficult to guess, dropping explosives on people from commanding heights served as a great place to develop a world view compatible with the management of a large post-war corporation.

It was an experience particularly suited to the style of broadcast media. Aerial bombardment is clearly a one-to-many, half-duplex medium, offering the bomber a commanding position over his “market” and terrific economies of scale.

Now, most of these jut-jawed former flyboys are out to pasture on various golf courses, but just as they left their legacy in the still thriving Cold War machinery of the National Security State, so their cultural perspective remains deeply, perhaps permanently, embedded in the corporate institutions they led for so long, whether in media or manufacturing. America remains a place where companies produce and consumers consume in an economic relationship which is still as asymmetrical as that of bomber to bombee.

Eating isn’t a bad metaphor for what we do with the products we buy. But it’s not all we do. For example, I’m writing this on a computer. Is “consuming” all I did with that computer when I bought it? And what about the writing I’m doing now? Writing is production, not consumption. In fact, much of what we do with our electronic devices involves producing information rather than consuming it.

And is information something we consume? Or is it something else? Here’s what I wrote for my chapter of Open Sources 2.0:

Several years ago I was talking with Tim O’Reilly about the discomfort we both felt about treating information as a commodity. It seemed to us that information was something more than, and quite different from, the communicable form of knowledge. It was not a commodity, exactly, and was insulted by the generality we call “content.”[1]

Information, we observed, is derived from the verb inform, which is related to the verb form. To inform is not to “deliver information,” but rather, to form the other party. If you tell me something I didn’t know before, I am changed by that. If I believe you and value what you say, I have granted you authority, meaning I have given you the right to author what I know. Therefore, we are all authors of each other. This is a profoundly human condition in any case, but it is an especially important aspect of the open source value system. By forming each other, as we also form useful software, we are making the world, not merely changing it.

The footnote goes to this:

I had the same kind of trouble when I first started hearing everything one could communicate referred to as “content.” I was a writer for most of my adult life, and suddenly I was a “content” provider. This seemed ludicrous to me. No writer was ever motivated by the thought that they were “producing content.” Their products were articles, books, essays, columns, or (if we needed to be a bit more general), editorial. “I didn’t start hearing about `content’ until the container business felt threatened,” John Perry Barlow said.

“Consumer” is the noun form of the verb to consume. Here’s what Dictionary.com says consume means:

con·sume

–verb (used with object)

1. to destroy or expend by use; use up.
to eat or drink up; devour.
3. to destroy, as by decomposition or burning: Fire consumedthe forest.
4. to spend (money, time, etc.) wastefully.
5. to absorb; engross: consumed with curiosity.

–verb (used without object)

6. to undergo destruction; waste away.
7. to use or use up consumer goods.

So what does #7 say? That there is a class of goods meant to be destroyed or expended by use? Well, yeah.

Are we past that? I hope so. We certainly have more reason to be.

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While walking around Paris for the last month, I’ve been fascinated by the highly fossiliferous limestone that comprises so many of its iconic structures. At one point I thought, Hmm… The City of Light is built with materials of death. I had no idea how much farther that thought would take me.

Without abundant death we wouldn’t have asphalt, concrete, marble, travertine, chert, oil, coal or countless other graces of civilization. Still, there seemed to be an unusual abundance of limestone in use here, and I wondered where it came from. Naturally, from my 21st century perspective, I assumed that all the stone had been quarried in some other place: hills outside of town, perhaps. (Lutetian limestone, it’s called, and it’s a relatively new rock: only only a few dozen million years old. Younger than dinosaurs. It’s also known as “Paris stone”, and has become quite the fashion item lately.) What I hadn’t figured was that nearly all of this building stone, for many centuries, was extracted from beneath Paris itself.

I didn’t learn that fact until we visited the Catacombes a couple days ago.

The Catacombes are bone banks called ossuaries. They occupy abandoned quarries beneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million people. Many of the deceased are surely the same men (and women? probably) who carved out the quarries, mostly in the first several centuries of the last millennium. It must have been quite a project, since they withdrew enough rock to assemble Notre Dame, thousands of other churches large and small, bridges, city walls and homes — and left beneath the streets of Paris more than 300 kilometers (100 miles) of tunnels, including rooms and vaults that together comprise a vast man-made cave system. Top to bottom, a vertical cross-section of Paris looks like this:

  • Surface — streets, buildings, parks
  • Metro tunnels
  • Sewers
  • Quarries

Fossils are bones of stone, I explained to my kid. And limestones are stones of bone. Here in the Catacombes, down hallways that go on and on and on and on, the bones of dead Parisians are stacked into walls, with an artistry that makes one wonder what was going on in the heads of the masons. The walls facing the halls and passing visitors are built mostly with femurs and skulls. The femurs are stacked and interlocked, with the knee knuckles outward, course after course forming a pattern like stitches in a cloth. These are interrupted by horizontal lines of skulls, and usually topped with a final row: a crowning course of human heads. Here and there some arm bones might be used, but femurs and skulls were clearly the preferable building material. Behind these walls behind lie the rest of the bones: remains of remains.

The masons were priests. The bones were gathered from the city’s cemeteries, which had become rotten with an abundance of corpses as the end of the 18th century approached. That’s when it was decided to move the bones down into deeper graves. The quarries were empty, so the bones came down. The whole project went in stages, running from the late 1700s to the middle 1800s. The priests, whose jobs already required exceptional respect for the dead, were conscripted for the work.

The pictures in my collection (such as the one above) aren’t the best I’ve taken. Most of the light was provided by dim illumination in the catacombes itself, or by cell phones. If you wish to know more (and I recommend it), here are a pile of fascinating links:

Since one walks through the tunnels in the company of others, it is less creepy than you might think. After a while, endless aisles of bones also tend to make the bones themselves ordinary. Yet one wonders: Is this skull Robespierre’s? Danton’s? Both lost their heads at the guillotine, but down here all heads are equally ordinary and anonymous, fully respected, but still just building material.

A lesson: different as we all are in life, we are remarkably identical in death. Skulls tend to all look the same. So do other bones. One can say, These were babies once. Then laughing children. They grew up, learned about life, and lived long enough to produce more babies and get work done. And what they’ve left is no different than what everybody else leaves.

What makes us animals is that we eat other living things. (We need their carbon.) We live on things that lived. And we build with them too. Death supplies us. In turn, we supply as well. And all our turns will come.

What makes us different is who and what we are, and what we do, when we’re alive. Life is for the living. And so, it turns out, is death.

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At ProjectVRM we call EmanciPay “a relationship management and voluntary payment framework in which buyers and sellers can present to each other the requirements and options by which they are willing to engage, or are already engaging”. These include preferences, policies and choices about what to pay and how. (Actual payment would be carried out by PayPal, Google Checkout or some other system built for the purpose.)

All of this is new stuff for buyers, and we’re not building it all out at once. In fact, we’re starting with a small piece of code for the seller’s side, so they can signal willingness to engage with buyers in the free and open marketplace, rather than only in the sellers’ own silos. If they want to signal that willingness (which we might call “VRM-friendliness”), they’ll include a bit of RDFa code in their Web pages. If that code is present, the seller’s r-button goes from a default gray to red. If the user already has a relationship (or has had some other interaction) with the seller, the buyer’s side r-button also turns red. So, in this mocked-up example —

— I can see that KQED is VRM-friendly, and that I already have had some kind of dealings with the station.

Right now the code for both sides is in the works, and is also a Google Summer of Code (GSoC) project. It builds to a large extent on Tipsy, described as a “a framework for voluntary donations to bloggers, musicians, and other content creators on the web”. Tipsy is the creation of Oshani Seneviratne and Adam Marcus, both grad students at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), whom I got to know through David Karger, a professor at CSAIL, whom I got to know through Keith Hopper, who fathered ListenLog. Our GSoC programmer is Ahmad Bakhiet, a student at Kings College London.

When we’re through with the current stage, we’ll be ready to test out the seller’s side code with stations (or with anybody), which will include means for deciding what happens when the user clicks on the right-side r-button. What matters most at the first stage is the signal of VRM-friendliness, which is a huge state-change form the old silo’d business-as-usual. What it says is “I’m open to what you bring to the market space between us, and to a potential relationship.”

We have this in the real brick-and-mortar commercial world, but not in the e-commerce world, for the simple reason that we have lacked mechanisms for creating the open market spaces between buyers and sellers — the space in the middle here:

Phil Windley of Kynetx gives a perfect “History of E-Commerce” slide in his talks. It goes,

1995: Invention of the cookie.

The End.

Cookies are bits of code that sites put in your browser to help them remember stuff about you. These are handy in many ways, but they also put all responsibility in the hands of those sites — of the sellers.

And if you want to do serious shopping, you can’t just put down cash or a credit card, do your business and walk away. No, you have to register. And to do that you need to accept terms of service that are known in the legal trade as contracts of adhesion. These are usually not read by users for several reasons, the most important of which is that they are not negotiable. Whether or not they are unconscionable, or enforceable, is beside the point. If you want to do business, you have to agree.

Where contracts of adhesion apply, markets are not conversations.
Needing to accept these contracts is a big source of friction in the online marketplace. It’s one of those areas where things are slower online than off. It is also therefore one of those areas where the better model is the familiar offline brick-and-mortar one. (In fact, one could argue that loyalty cards bring to the brick-and-mortar world one of the more annoying inventions of online retailing.)

So that’s a big part of EmanciPay’s challenge, and something we’ve been working on at ProjectVRM. What we’re working to create is a two-sided approach to eliminating the need for users to accept one-sided contracts. We’re creating code with easily-understood wording and symbols, which can be read by lawyers, ordinary users, and machines (ideals first articulated by Creative Commons.) This code can be used for expressing preferences, policies and bases on which each side can trust the other. There’s much more that can go on both sides, but those are a start.

When you click on the seller’s r-button in EmanciPay, you might see a pop-down menu that looks like this:

The new item there is the symbol I’ve labeled “terms”. It’s one half of the iconic “scales of justice.” A similar one might be on the buyer’s drop-down menu as well. Also there might be preferences, standing requests for products or services, links to personal data stores, or whatever we feel like putting in there.

We see the r-buttons and their affordances as places where both the buyer and the seller (or the individual and any organization — this needn’t be limited to commercial settings) can offer, selectively, means of engagement and the data required.

But one of the first jobs here is to get the paranoid lawyers out of the room and the engagement-oriented ones in the room, to help describe new terms of engagement that yield little or nothing in real protection, while offering means for engagement that reduce or eliminate the frictions to which we have become too accustomed over the last fifteen years.

While we’re still baking EmanciPay, I want to visit some questions about what my actual or potential interactions with KQED, WBUR, WWOZ and other stations on my ListenLog might be. There are many possibilities here. One might be to take a budget that I pay down proportionately through time. Another might be to just throw some money now and then at sources of programs that I’ve found especially good — or that I like right now, for that matter. We can be real-time about this. Another might be to pledge money to stations where which I spend more than X amount of time. The list can go on.

I can also, at my discretion, also share some or all of my data with stations and other parties (such as program hosts or producers).

And I can also open myself to programmatic approaches, created by other parties, that work inside the EmanciPay framework. The possibilities are endless here, and suggestions are welcome.

At this stage we plan to test out and play with EmanciPay at first by using Tipsy‘s lottery model. In this one, listeners pay one source, on (say) a monthly basis, with the source being chosen as the winner of a lottery. In other words, if you look at the list of stations on my ListenLog, I would budget $X per month to pay out to some lucky public radio station. Code on the station’s side (the same code that lights up the seller’s r-button) would make them eligible for winning my monthly lottery. At the end of the month, the lucky station gets paid. Get enough listeners and stations involved, and we can have some fun with it.

But that’s just a small first step. The ones that follow will shake down richer and more symmetrical, involved and cross-informative relationships between stations and listeners — and then expand out into other territory, I hope starting with the music industry. From there we can move on to other content industries, and then to the broader marketplace in general.

If all goes according to plan, r-buttons will be commonly used and well-understood symbols. Of course, plans can change. Alternative ideas are sure to emerge, along with many improvements to this one, which is among many others in the VRM movement. It just happens to be the one I’ve been working on most.

Meanwhile, big thanks to to Vince Stehle (who has moved on from Surdna, but made the grant happen when we needed it most), to Keith Hopper and NPR, to Jake Shapiro and the crew at PRX, to many other friends in public radio (and to ones in free commercial radio as well, such as Bill Goldsmith of Radio Paradise), to Daniel Choi, Oshani Seneviratne, Adam Marcus, Ahmad Bakhiet and other helpful programmers, to the VRM community, and to the Berkman Center, which has kept faith with me and with ProjectVRM through the years required to get things off the ground.

We’re still getting started here. But we’ve come a long way too.

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In the last post we talked about price.

There’s a broad class of goods that either have no price, or that you can get for free whether they have prices or not. These include all digitized media goods. Most notoriously, these include music and videos, which can be uploaded and downloaded with little friction, even if doing so is illegal. This fact of early Internet life has presented an extreme challenge to “content” industries in general, and to the music industry in particular. You might say that the old container approach crashed, and most attempts since then on the industry side have consisted of creating new containers or raising costs to customers of violating the old ones — mostly by taking what the industry calls “pirates” to court.

At ProjectVRM we have plans for the music business, but first we’d rather work with a smaller industry that welcomes our participation, that hasn’t lost business to freeloaders (because giving the goods away is what they’ve done all along) and that has been working with ProjectVRM from the start. That industry is public radio.

The goods here are free for the taking but worth more than $0 — a claim substantiated by payments from listeners to stations for goods from NPR, PRI, American Public Media, PRX and other producers, as well as from the stations themselves. Business here isn’t bad. And public radio has embraced the Internet far more eagerly than most commercial content producers and distributors. Still, only about ten percent of listeners contribute, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

So the challenge we’ve given ourselves is raising that percentage, while also starting to model the free and open marketplace described above. With help from the Surdna Foundation (working through PRX and the Berkman Center) we began developing two VRM tools that put functionality behind r-buttons. The first is ListenLog. The second is EmanciPay.

ListenLog is the brainchild of Keith Hopper, who works with NPR. Keith and I saw two goals for the program. One was to enable self-tracking as something individuals do for themselves (rather than having some organization do it for them). The other was to give listeners a way to know what they value, find their way back to it, and otherwise do whatever they like with it — including making decisions about what to pay for the goods themselves. (For more about self-tracking, read Self-trackKevin Kelly and Gary Wolf of The Quantified Self.)

As it happened a number of public radio institutions were working together on a free public radio player (originally called a tuner), for the iPhone. To make a long story short, the first generation ListenLog is now included with the Public Radio Player, which lets you tune in hundreds of different stations, plus “on demand” programs (basically podcasts stored in the cloud). ListenLog keeps track of your listening through all of them, and provides three different views:

  1. Current ongoing log
  2. Stream Listening Summary
  3. Program Listening Summary

— along with ways to export and delete data.

ListenLog is open source, and we’d love to see it used alongside other apps on other devices, and to model logging of all kinds of stuff (such as music).

So far the Public Radio Player has had more than 2.5 million downloads, which means there’s some chance you already have it, if you’re an iPhone user. If you don’t, and you listen to public radio, get one, check out ListenLog and offer feedback and suggestions below. Or, if you’re an open source developer, help us out.

Once you have the app, go into Settings, activate logging, and follow the results. You do that by clicking “more” on the bottom right tab of the Player, which goes to the page on the right.

Below are three screen shots of my own logs. These bring up questions that EmanciPay can help answer.

First, my current log:

Second, my Total Listening Time Per Stream:

Third, my Total Listening Time Per Program:

As logging applications go, this one is primitive. In fact, that’s one of the ideas behind it. We want others to take and improve on the ideas (and/or the code)_ behind it, and to put it to new uses.

This is where EmanciPay comes in. That’s the subject of our next piece, the third in this series.

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Three things happen in a marketplace. One is transaction, another is conversation and the third is relationship. Let’s talk about what you, as a customer (not just a consumer), can do with each.

Transaction

Let’s start with price. Here in the industrialized world, price has been something that sellers have set, and buyers have paid, ever since John Wanamaker invented the price tag in the late 1800s. In some cases buyers have had room to haggle (such as with buying a horse or a car), but on the whole we customers pay what sellers ask. Or we move on.

A price is a signal. So is buying something. So, in a less direct way, is not buying. But those aren’t the only signals that matter. A lot can happen between the point where you start shopping and any seller’s bottom line, on both the seller’s part and yours.

Take the signaling system called advertising, which is becoming a half $trillion business, worldwide. Most advertising is, almost by definition, wasted. Wanamaker’s famous quote — ”Half my advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half. — was off by nearly fifty percent. The amount of advertising that does nothing for customers is usually close to one hundred percent. Sure, advertisers try to minimize waste; and in many cases (such as Google’s AdSense and AdWords), advertisers only pay for clicks. And advertising pays for many good things in the world. But there is a limit to what it can do for you, as an individual buyer, and that limit is set by who does the signaling.

What if you were able to signal your interest in an umbrealla, some binoculars, size 9EEEE running shoes, or a stroller for twins, in the next half hour — and to do that in a secure way that doesn’t reveal to potential sellers any more than they require to respond, and doesn’t put you into any marketer’s pitch mill? What if you could name the price you’d pay for whatever — and not have to do that inside any company’s closed and private marketplace?

Conversation

The first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto is “Markets are conversations.” We meant several things by that. One, as we explained in the book, was

The first markets were markets. Not bulls, bears, or invisible hands. Not battlefields, targets, or arenas. Not demographics, eyeballs, or seats. Most of all, not consumers.

Another was this:

For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.

These were the kinds of conversations people have been having since they started to talk. Social. Based on intersecting interests. Open to many resolutions. Essentially unpredictable. Spoken from the center of the self. “Markets were conversations” doesn’t mean “markets were noisy.” It means markets were places where people met to see and talk about each other’s work.

Conversation is a profound act of humanity. So once were markets.

Marketing got the message, and conversation of the literal sort is now part of the marketing canon. But marketing reform didn’t stop there. Marketing is now all gaga over “social media” as well, in part because many believe that Cluetrain was all about “social” markets. I don’t remember thinking about it that way at the time, but I can see why people think so. Regardless of that, there is a big delta between social activity in markets and “social media” as they are understood today. Here are the first two paragraphs of Wikipedia’s social media entry (since it will be revised, here is the version I’m quoting:

Social media are media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media use web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues. They support the democratization of knowledge and information and transform people from content consumers to content producers. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”[1] Businesses also refer to social media as user-generated content (UGC) or consumer-generated media (CGM). Social media utilization is believed to be a driving force in defining the current period as the Attention Age. A common thread running through all definitions of social media is a blending of technology and social interaction for the co-creation of value.

Social media have been modernized to reach consumers through the internet. Social media have become appealing to big and small businesses. Credible brands are utilizing social media to reach customers and to build or maintain reputation. As social media continue to grow, the ability to reach more consumers globally has also increased. Twitter, for example, has expanded its global reach to Japan, Indonesia, and Mexico, among others. This means that brands are now able to advertise in multiple languages and therefore reach a broader range of consumers. Social media have become the new “tool” for effective business marketing and sales.[2] Popular networking sites including Myspace, Facebook and Twitter are social media most commonly used for socialization and connecting friends, relatives, and employees.

Wisely, Wikipedia has the entry flagged for “multiple issues.” Here are mine:

  1. The “social media” named above are corporate entities, not personal ones. Blogging, instant messaging, texting, emailing, voice and other equally (or more) social and conversational technologies — ones that are not owned by anybody, most of which rely on the Net’s agnostic protocols — are ignored.
  2. “Social media” is for marketing. In other words, something that exists mostly to serve sellers, not buyers.

Forgotten or ignored by the writers, and by marketing in general, is Cluetrain’s prime clue: one that comes before all ninety-five theses:

Social media, as described by that Wikipedia entry, are about extending marketers’ grasp. Not about extending the reach of human beings.

The Cluetrain hasn’t jumped the tracks here. But a lot of marketers sure have.

Relationships

Companies care about relationships with customers, of course. They manage those relationships many ways, including customer relationship managment (CRM) systems. While not nearly as big as advertising, CRM is still a huge industry. In “CRM: Then and Now”, Josh Weinberger of CRM Magazine writes,

According to figures from AMR Research (now part of industry-analysis giant Gartner), annual sales of CRM software exploded from $762 million in 1997 to $14 billion in 2007—nearly a 20-fold increase in just a decade.

Over on your side — the customer side — we have VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management. Thanks to Josh and other good folks at CRM Magazine, VRM is on the CRM radar. (Here’s the table of contents for the May edition of the magazine, with a series of VRM — and Cluetrain — related articles. And here’s what I wrote about those on the ProjectVRM blog.) Right now VRM is a $0 billion business. But then, so was the Internet at one point. (At a base level, it still is, even though it supports $trillions in business activity.) So, while VRM is still pre-natal, the Internet isn’t much older. If we date the commercial Web from the start of e-commerce in 1995, it’s a sophomore in high school. If the slate of economics in the Internet Age has a near-infinite height and width, most of it is still clean.

The informational environment supported by the Internet’s growing protocol suite is already much larger and more thick with possibilities than could ever be contemplated in the old brick-and-mortar retail world. This new environment also encompasses and enlarges the scope of brick-and-mortar business far beyond their old physical dimensions. The Net also invites the development of tools for doing just about anything that can be imagined when every connected entity is at a functional distance of zero from every other entity. That’s why the Net’s protocol suite has grown over the years, and will continue to grow. It seems only reasonable that some new tools coming down the pike will help buyers manage relationships with sellers at least as well as sellers manage relationships with buyers.

Right now there are many tools, services and other stuff in the VRM pipeline. In the next two posts I’m giong to show you a couple of those tools. The first is ListenLog, which provides a way for online listeners to log their own activities, and to better understand which stations ane programs matter to them, and how. The second is EmanciPay, which does two things. One is provide a way for customers to signal the amounts they are willing to pay, and for what. The other is to signal the customer’s own terms of engagement, as an alternative to the current seller-provided terms, which by default —

  1. are based on distrust,
  2. almost nobody reads,
  3. give all advantages to the seller,
  4. have hardly changed since 1995, and
  5. don’t exist in the everyday brick-and-mortar world, where you don’t have to become a “member “of a store just to buy a shirt or shoes there.

Borrowing the argot of economics, we’re looking here to reduce or eliminate information asymmetry, and to apply the Internet’s end-to-end principle to buyer-seller interactions. Our goal is not to create a whole new kind of marketplace, but rather to return the ones we have to what markets were like before industry won the Industrial Revolution: places where buyers and sellers met, talked, came to know one another — and otherwise engaged in a system that was not limited to choices provided only by sellers.

It helps consider the matter of context. That is, your context. Right now, as a customer, your context is usually comprised of many retailers, each with many products. The way the industrial retailing system works today, most sellers want to control their relationship with you, inside their CRM system, or whatever other systems they use. In the tech world, we call each of these a silo. The mental model looks like the image on the left.

Retail silos are controlled and contained spaces, each standing on the seller’s own foundation: its rules for interacting with customers. All the seller’s goods are in there. So are its employees, its legal stuff, its products, its R&D, its trade secrets — and its data about you. That data includes whatever you’ve shared with them, knowingly or nor not, in the course of doing business with them, or simply moving about in the world, leaving a crumb-trail of information about yourself and what you’ve done. In many cases your relationship is formalized with a “loyalty card” (like the ones on the right) or some other form of membership.

Each of these is your membership in a seller’s silo. Thus the pile of cards shown on the right can also be represented this way:

Your relationships in this environment are all separate, requiring that you operate within each retailer’s container. Your personal data, preferences and buying history with one company are not easy to move or duplicate into another. Nor are they meant to be. The way this system works, the sellers make all the rules. And each seller has its own rules. By this system, a free market is your choice of silo.

You too have a container as well. That container is what you consider private and yours alone, even if some of it is shared, selectively, with other parties. This information might include your relationships, your finances, your weight, your diet, your travels, your health. True, much of that data (for example, with health) is out of your hands. But you still have a sense of what’s private and yours alone.

For a look at how much your own silo matters, do a search for “privacy“. The one I just did brought up 1,390,000,000 results. That’s more than the results for “face” and “hand” put together. Privacy is a big deal in these early Internet years because you’re not in control of it. All those silos out there — the ones with your personal data — have far more control over your data than you do.

Markets, in both their literal and metaphorical meanings, are middle grounds. They are places where we are selectively open to society, and especially to sellers — and where they are open to us. One way to represent that is to turn our silos on their sides and open them up, so we each have a representation of containment, but also of openness, and even of attraction. So, instead of having silos, we have magnets, like this:

You are on the left. The seller is on the right. And the market is in the middle.

The VRM community is working on building this out. (As we said above, the CRM community has begun to join the effort as well.) We are doing this by creating ways of relating in which both sides are open to the other, but neither contains the other. The two can have attractions toward each other, but engagement is optional. Think of the result as a market that’s far more free than the your-choice-of-silo model.

We call these two shapes “r-buttons“. The “r” is for relationship. We use the color red, at least some of the time, because that was the color I used when I first drew r-buttons on a whiteboard when I was describing to PRX techies how VRM worked. At the time I was just talking about buyers and sellers, not designing graphic representations of anything. But the casual illustration worked, so we’ve run with it. (My wife just suggested that the two buttons together might be “our-buttons”. I like that.)

Next: ListenLog.

After that: EmanciPay.

Let’s start by asking this question:

Is Google becoming the world’s biggest SEO company?

That question popped into my mind after reading The Google Algorithm, an editorial in Wednesday’s New York Times. It begins,

Google handles nearly two-thirds of Internet search queries worldwide. Analysts reckon that most Web sites rely on the search engine for half of their traffic. When Google engineers tweak its supersecret algorithm — as they do hundreds of times a year — they can break the business of a Web site that is pushed down the rankings.

— and then goes on about the company’s “pecuniary incentives to favor its own over rivals” and how “the potential impact of Google’s algorithm on the Internet economy is such that it is worth exploring ways to ensure that the editorial policy guiding Google’s tweaks is solely intended to improve the quality of the results and not to help Google’s other businesses.”

The framing here is business. That is, the Times is wringing its  hands about Google’s influence over businesses on the Web. That’s fine, but is business all the Web is about? Is the “Internet economy” limited to businesses with Web sites? Is it limited to the Web at all? What about email and all the other stuff supported by Internet protocols? Have the Internet and the Web, both creations of non-commercial entities and purposes, turned entirely into commercial places? The Times seems to think so.

Google’s dominance of the search business is an interesting problem, but it’s also something of a red herring. Seems to me the bigger problem is what the search business — which consists entirely of advertising — is doing to the Web.

Ever since Google invented AdSense, making it possible for advertising to appear on websites of all kinds, there has been a rush to riches, or at least toward making a few bucks, by grabbing some of that click-through money. That’s what SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is mostly about. As a result the number of websites that exist mostly — or entirely — to make advertising money, has grown. I’ve been looking for numbers on this and can’t find any, but I’ll bet that the non-commercial slice of the Web’s total pie has been shrinking, and the portion paid for by advertising (or just looking to make money on advertising) has been growing.

Thus it makes sense that Google will care more about that growing slice of the Web’s pie, and less about the non-commercial stuff. I’m not saying that’s the case. It just seems to me that the Web is more about advertising than ever, and a lot more of that gets in the way of what we might be looking for — especially if what we want isn’t advertised.

So that’s one thing. Here’s another: Adam Rifkin‘s Pandas and Lobsters: Why Google Cannot Build Social Applications. Very insightful and interesting piece. Not sure I agree with all of it, but it does make me think — about malls.

Remember back when e-commerce was new, in the mid-90s? Seemed like all the big guys and wannabes wanted to build malls on the Web. It was wacky, because the Web isn’t a farm on the edge of town that you can pave and put a bunch of stores on. It’s a wide open space. But an interesting thing has happened here, fifteen years later. “Social” sites are malls. They’re places people go to hang out and buy stuff. They’re enclosed, separate. Big and accomodating. Fun to be in. But private. Here’s a long quote from Adam:

Facebook is a lobster trap and your friends are the bait. On social networks we are all lobsters, and lobsters just wanna have fun. Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment, or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back. Facebook is literally filled with master baiters: Whenever I return to Facebook I am barraged with information about many friends, to encourage me to stick around and click around. Every time I react with a like or comment, or put a piece of content in, I’m serving as Facebook bait myself. Facebook keeps our friends as hostages, so although we can check out of Hotel Facebook any time we like, we can never leave. So we linger. And we lurk. And we luxuriate. The illogical extreme of content-as-bait are the Facebook games where the content is virtual bullshit. Social apps are lobster traps; Google apps do not bait users with their friends.

Quora is restaurant that serves huge quantities of bacn and toast. Quora is a dozen people running dozens of experiments in how to optimally use bacn to get people to return to Quora, and how to use toast to keep them there. Bacn is email you want but not right now, and Quora has 40 flavors of it that you can order. Quora’s main use of Bacn is to sizzle with something delicious (a new answer to a question you follow, a new Facebook friend has been caught in the Quora lobster trap, etc.) to entice you to come back to Quora. Then, once you’re there, the toast starts popping. Quora shifts the content to things you care about and hides things you don’t care about in real-time, and subtly pops up notifications while you’re playing, to entice you to keep sticking around and clicking around. Some toast is so subtle it doesn’t even look like a pop-up notification — it just looks like a link embedded in the page with some breadcrumbs that appear in real-time to take you to some place on Quora it knows you’ll find irresistible. For every user’s action, bacn’s and toast’s fly out to others in search of reactions. (Aside: if I were Twitter, I would be worried. Real-time user interfaces are more addictive than pseudo-real-time interfaces; what if Quora took all of its technology and decided to use it to build a better Twitter?) Social apps are action-reaction interaction loops; Google apps are designed just for action.

I really don’t care that Google sucks at social apps (if that’s true, and I’m not sure it is… not totally, anyway). What I care about is that all this social stuff happens in private spaces. Maybe there’s a better metaphor than malls, but I can’t think of one.

Oh, and how do these malls make their money? Advertising. Not entirely, but to a large extent.

The problem with that is what it has always been. Advertising is guesswork, and most advertising is wasted, even when advertisers only pay for click-throughs. The misses far outnumber the hits, and that’s a lot of waste — of server cycles, of bandwidth, of time, of pixels, and of rods and cones in the backs of our eyes. Ad folks calls the misses “impressions,” but who’s impressed?

It helps to remember what the Web  was in the first place — and what the Web is still for. Nobody has ever explained that better than David Weinberger, in a Cluetrain Manifesto chapter called The Longing. David wrote that in 1999. Like other fine antiques, it only gets more valuable with age. And with the degree to which modern forms depart from old and better ideals.

[Later...] There’s always a bigger picture, of course. I love this one from Ethan Zuckerman, whose has been spreading my horizons for a long time and keeps getting batter at it.

If you want to get the most out of your Verizon FiOS (fiber to the home) Internet connection, here are your top two tiers:

FiOS tiers

I have the one on the left, and that’s what I’m paying for it. The service is rock-solid and reliable. So is support, as rarely as I’ve needed it.

But when I go to work, my upstream speeds are higher — up to 100 Mbps. I get more done. And I’m not the only techie who appreciates high upstream speeds. Boston is the world’s biggest college town, and full of other industries (pharma, big science, finance) that are staffed by professionals that could use the speed too.

But Verizon does this weird thing with the next tier up: they cut back the upstream speed from 25 Mbps to 20 Mbps. At double the price. WTF is that all about? When I ordered the 25 Mbps tier several months ago, the guy on the phone told me the reason was “just marketing.” He also said “We could give you 100Mbps tomorrow and blow everybody else out of the water.”

So why not?

Oddly, all of FiOS’ “Triple Play” (Internet + TV + phone) bundles here have relatively low Internet speeds, compared to the two tiers above. If the Net is your main interest, you might be better off without the TV and the phone. (In fact, we had the other two “plays” we got FiOS originally, and dumped them later, mostly because  we hardly used them.) If you view more bundles, your best speeds are still just 25/25Mbps.

My request (and advice — and companies do pay me for this stuff) to Verizon is to do two things:

  1. Come up with a sensible offering — one that doesn’t subtract upstream value at twice the price.
  2. Try localizing a bit. Boston isn’t Red Bank. (And no offense to that town or other FiOS service areas.) See what happens when you super-serve a region with an offering that makes sense for it.

Maybe Verizon is doing that, sort of, with its business offerings. But getting to the actual offerings requires many clicks and filling out forms. Where I finally arrived in my latest hunt was a page with this set of choices:

First, this is much better than what I remember about my last look at FiOS business deals.

Second, that 35/35 offering is attractive.

Third, once again, we have an upstream speed drop when you go to the highest tier.

Fourth, the “static” offering is poorly explained. What this means is a real IP address, rather than one dynamically assigned by the router. This is real Internet stuff, so the customer can, say, run a server. (The copy does say “host websites.”) But, unless I’m missing it, nowhere does it say how many IP addresses the customer gets. For customers who care about this stuff, that’s the first question that will come up.

Fifth, the examples are poor. Here are some of the things that serious professional customers might care about:

  1. Offsite storage or backup
  2. Virtual computing in the cloud, such as with Amazon’s EC2
  3. Running servers in a co-lo or some other heavy-lifting environment
  4. Remote rendering, such as RenderCore

Verizon (or any ISP) could offer any of those services locally themselves, taking advantage of low latencies. In fact, in some cases that can be a huge advantage, and therefore a selling point.

Again, the service I’ve had all along with FiOS (going on three years now) has been solid and good — so good, in fact, that I miss it a lot when I’m gone. (Such as with this example here.) I just want it to be better. Hope this helps.

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The California is serpentine (correct name, serpentinite), which comes in many varieties, some which contain asbestos, which doesn’t get dangerous unless you grind it up and spread it into the air. Just sitting there, as it does through much of California and in other parts of the world, serpentine is mostly a greenish grace on the landscape.

Serpentine’s provenance is also remarkable (at least to geology types like me). It’s formed deep in the planet’s crust, under the spreading centers of oceans, where sea water penetrates mantle rock and, under great heat and pressure, lends lustrous colors and textures to what would otherwise become the plain old peridodite.

Anyway, have found a friend in , who is working to dump serpentine as the state rock. You know, like it matters. (Only 27 states bother having a state rock.) Read more in Burrito Justice and in the many posts that come up when you search for. Or you can skip all that and go to ‘s Speak Up for Serpentine at .

Here’s the opposing (anti-serpentine) view.

My home state, (also that of my nonfictionist hero, ) has no state rock, mineral or gem. How about asphalt, rhinestone and dirt? Just trying to help.

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paris in the rain I don’t think I’ve ever loved Paris in the rain more than I do right now. It’s 6:40am, and I’ve been up since 5am, when I got tired of failing to sleep on sweat-soaked sheets. Last night was one more to endure in the heat wave that has been with us for nearly the whole month we’ve been here.

There’s no AC in our little apartment, as there isn’t in the Paris Metro, the RER (the other main underground train), most apartments, and most restaurants. One of our favorite restaurants has only been making salads and other cold food arrangements, because the heat in the kitchen is unbearable for the staff.

But about 20 minutes ago a thunderstorm rolled through. Bright blue flashes blink down the two shafts that comprise our view (one is a small courtyard behind a library, the other is floored by the back work areas of two restaurants), thunder rolls, and rain plinks on surfaces above and below.

The wind is cool and a huge relief. I’m keeping the windows open (they’re the size of doors and swing open the same way), and covering the sills with towels. Hope it stays cool after the storm blows over. That will make working on a hot laptop a little easier.

I’ve been wondering why AC is so rare here, and I think the attitude is about the same as the one that non-tropical Southern U.S. cities have toward snow-removal equipment. The irony is that it does get hot in Paris, and it does snow in Greensboro and Richmond.

Anyway, the storm is fading now, and I’m going to try sleeping again.

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There are two essential concepts of location for the World Wide Web. One is you: the individual, the reader, the writer, the customer, the singular entity. The other is the World.

I live and work mostly in the U.S. I also speak English. My French, German and Spanish are all too minimal to count unless I happen to be in a country that speaks one of those languages. When I’m in one of those places, as I am now in France, I do my best to learn as much of the language as I can. But I’m still basically an English speaker.

So, by default, when I’m on the Web my language is English. My location might be France, or Denmark or somewhere else, but when I’m searching for something the language I require most of the time is English. That’s my mental location.

So it drives me nuts that Google sends me to http://google.fr, even when I log into iGoogle and get my personalized Google index page. When I re-write the URL so it says http://google.us, Google re-writes it as http://google.fr, no matter what. On iGoogle I can’t find a way to set my preferred language, or my virtual location if it’s not where I am right now. I can’t do that even when I have Google translate, instantly, in my Google Chrome browser, the page text to English. (I’m sure there’s a hack, and I would appreciate it if somebody would tell me. But if there is why should it be so hard?)

Bing comes up all-French too, but at the bottom of the page, in small white type, it says “Go to Bing in English”. Nice.

So now, here in Paris, I’m using Bing when I want to search in English, and Google when I want to search for local stuff. Which is a lot, actually. But I miss searching in English on Google. I could ask them to fix that, but I’d rather fix the fact that only they can fix that. Depending on suppliers to do all the work is a bug, not a feature.

What matters is context. I’m tired of having companies guess at what my context is. I know what my contexts are. I know how they change. I want my own ways of changing contexts, and of informing services of what those contexts are. In some cases I don’t mind their guessing. In a few I even appreciate it. But in too many cases their guesses only get in the way. The Google search case is just one of them.

(disclosure: I’ve done work for Phil) gives a talk in which he provides a brief history of e-commerce. It goes, “1995: Invention of the cookie. The End.” Thanks to the , we have contexts — but only inside each company’s silo. We can’t provide our own contexts except to the degree that each company’s website allows it. And they’re all different. This too is a bug, not a feature. (Just like carrying around a pile of loyalty cards and key tabs is a bug. Hey, I know more about who and what I’m loyal to than any company does — and I’d like my own ways of expressing that.)

At this moment it is commonly believed that the contexts that matter most are “social”. This is defined as who my friends are, and where I happen to be right now. This information is held almost entirely by commercial services: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Foursquare, Groupon, Blippy and so on. Not by you or me. Not by individuals, and not independently of all those services. This too is a bug. Who your friends and other contacts are is indeed a context, but it should be one that you control, not some company. Your data, and how you organize it, should be the independent variable, and the data you share with these services should be the dependent variables.

Some of us in the community (including Phil and his company, ) are working on context provided by individuals. In the long run these contexts can work for any or all commercial and non-commercial institutions we deal with. I expect to see some of this work become manifest over the next year. Stay tuned.

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Purple Reign Ends

Prince, to the Mirror:

“The internet’s completely over. I don’t see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won’t pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can’t get it.

“The internet’s like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good.

“They just fill your head with numbers and that can’t be good for you.”

Dr. Weinberger responds:

Breaking News: The Internet Declares Prince to be Completely Over

Now we can party like it’s 2010.

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We are what we do.

We are more than that, of course, but it helps to have answers to the questions “What do you do?” and “What have you done?”

Among many other notable things l did was survive breast cancer. It was a subject that came up often during the year we shared as fellows at the Berkman Center. It may not have been a defining thing, but it helped build her already strong character. Persephone also said she knew that her personal war with the disease might not be over. The risks for survivors are always there.

So it was not just by awful chance that Persephone showed up at a Berkman event this Spring wearing a turban. She was on chemo, she said, but optimistic. Thin and frail, she was still pressing on with work, carrying the same good humor, toughness, intelligence and determination.

The next time I saw her, in early June, she looked worse. Then, on June 24, Ethan Zuckerman sent an email to Berkman friends, letting us know that Persephone’s health was diminishing quickly, and that she “probably will not live through July.” He also said that she had moved to a hospice, but was doing well enough to read email and accept a few visitors — and that he had hoped to visit her on July 6. Just five days later, Ethan wrote to say that Persephone had died the night before. I had been working in slow motion on an email to her — thinking, I guess, that Ethan’s July 6 date was an appointment she would keep. This post began as that email.

Persephone is gone, but her work isn’t, and that’s what I want to talk about. It’s a subject I wanted to bring up with her, and one I’m sure all her friends care about. We all should.

What I want to talk about is not “carrying on” the work of the deceased in the usual way that eulogizers do. What I’m talking about is keeping Persephone’s public archives in a published, accessible and easily found state. I fear that if we don’t make an effort to do that — for everybody — that we’ll lose them.

The Web went commercial in 1995, and has only become more so since. Today it is a boundless live public marketplace, searched mostly through one company’s engine, which continues to adapt accordingly. While Google’s original mission (“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) persists, its commercial imperatives cannot help but subordinate its noncommercial ones.

In my own case I’m finding it harder and harder to use Google (or any search engine) to find my own archived work, even if there are links to it. The Live Web, which I first wrote about in 2005, has come to be known as the “real time” Web, which is associated with Twitter and Facebook as well as Google. What’s live, what’s real time, is now. Not then.

Today almost no time passes between the publishing of anything and its indexing by Google. This is good, but it is also aligned with commercial imperatives that emphasize the present and dismiss the past. No seller has an interest in publishing last week’s offerings, much less last year’s or last decade’s. What would be the point?

It would help if there were competition among search engines, or more specialized ones, but there’s not much hope for that. Bing’s business model is the same as Google’s. And the original Live Web search engines — Technorati, PubSub, Blogpulse, among others — are gone or moved on to other missions. Perhaps ironically, Technorati maintained an archive of all blogging for half a decade. But I’ve been told that’s gone. is still there, but re-cast as a news engine. Only persists as a straightforward Live Web engine, sustained, I suppose, by Mark Cuban‘s largesse. (For which I thank him. IceRocket is outstanding.)

For archives we have two things, it seems. One is search engines concerned mostly about the here and now, and the other is Archive.org. The latter does an amazing job, but finding stuff there is a chore if you don’t start with a domain name.

Meanwhile I have no idea how long tweets last, and no expectation that Twitter (or anybody other than a few individuals) will maintain them for the long term. Nor do I have a sense of how long anything will (or should) last inside Facebook, Linkedin or any other commercial walled garden.

To be fair, everything on the Web is rented, starting with domain names. I “own” , only for as long as I keep paying a domain registrar for the rights to use it. Will it stay around after I’m gone? For how long? All of us rent our servers, even if we own them, simply because they use electricity, take up space and need to be maintained. Who will do that after their paid-for purposes expire? Why? And again, for how long?

Persephone worked for years at Internews.org. I assume her work there will last as long as the organization does. Here’s the Google cache of her Key Staff bio. Her tweets as (her last was June 9th) will persist as long as Twitter doesn’t bother to get rid of them, I suppose. Here’s a Google search for her name. Here’s her Berkman alum page. Here’s her Linkedin. Here are her Delicious bookmarks. More to the point of this post, here’s her Media Re:public blog, with many links out to other sources, including her own. Here’s the Media Re:public report she led. And here’s an Internews search for Persephone, which has five pages of results.

All of this urges us toward a topic and cause that was close to Persephone’s mind and heart: journalism. If we’re serious about practicing journalism on the Web, we need to preserve it at least as well as we publish it.

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