November 10, 2011

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When we say “social” these days, we mostly mean the sites and services of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and other commercial entities. Not talking on the phone or in person. Not meeting at a café. Not blogging, or emailing or even texting. Those things are all retro and passé. Worse, they’re not what marketers get high off of these days. Meaning they’re outside the Big Data ecosystem, most of which is devoted to improving the vast business of guesswork we call advertising, flowing outward increasingly through digital media.

The marketplace where all the Big Bux are being spent these day is not the public one where culture is made and goods are bought and sold. It’s the marketing marketplace.

Go to SelectOut.org. See who and what is tracking you right now. Chances are it’s more than a few of the hundreds of companies listed here. The market they’re in is putting better crosshairs on your back and your wallet. Not the one where you live and you shop.

Their market is in selling your ass to advertisers. So is Twitter’s, for that matter. It’s not serving you as a customer. You are a consumer. Your job is to consume “content,” and hopefully every once in awhile also click on stuff you might buy. That’s it. Yes, it’s a trade-off, but it’s not a very conscious one, and it’s not very “social,” either. Not when you don’t really know the company, or have a relationship with human beings there. Ever tried to call customer service at Facebook? Or hell, at Google? They don’t do that. They don’t want to get personal with you, even if they give you free personal services. Again, you’re not the customer. You’re inventory.

What’s missing here is real innovation in the real marketplace. (Besides what’s going on in VRM, of course.)

This became clear to me yesterday when John Wilbanks mentioned an amazing idea he had posted recently, titled Consumption Offsets and Sustainable Loyalty Cards. Here are the key paragraphs:

I had two ideas today. One is that if we can trade emissions at a corporate level, we should be able to trade consumption. So if we can track consumption of goods, and the sustainability of those goods, we have the rudiments of a market for consumption. So why not offer (wealthy, western, northern) people the chance to pay extra for an offset for their iPad like they do with their plane ticket?

My other idea was based on the ever present loyalty cards for grocery stores, pharmacies, and even cupcake shops in the US. You give away your personal data in return for lower prices (although I often use the algorithm of [local area code of store] + 867-5309). Why not something similar for sustainable goods? Either you pay the full price, or you pony up your data to save the world. Also you get a sticker to put on your computer to show how much better you are than other people – and that’s big, because being proud of being a sustainable consumer is currently, and unfortunately, densely tied to being one.

Both here and in conversation, John posed an interesting question: If personal data really is an “asset class,” as the World Economic Forum says it is, shouldn’t we be able to sell it? Or to make it fungible in some other way?

John’s second idea raises two interesting questions:

  • Who would buy your personal data?
  • What would they use it for?

Especially when, right now, lots of companies you don’t know (and a few you do) are getting that data for free. Would they pay more than nothing for it? If not, is it possible that it really is worth nothing?

When I ask questions like the two above, the answer I usually get is marketers and marketing. Some of the data you shed in the course of surfing and shopping helps sellers remember and serve you. Amazon always comes up as a canonical example. But even there Amazon is often suggesting books I’ve already bought or would hardly be interested in. Grocery stores, meanwhile, mostly use my shopping data to push coupons for stuff I bought once and might never buy again. The whole loyalty card game is one reason we do most of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t bother with any gimmicks, and gives great service as well.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).

I’m about to lead a session at the Social Business Jam, on Seamless Integration of Social. In the spirit of Dave Winer’s bailing from Facebook today, I’d like to suggest that we look at how social works in real markets, and why we keep mistaking closed private markets on the Web for real ones.

For evidence of how far off base we are, here’s Zemanta‘s list of articles related to what I’ve been writing about here:

Related articles

And, as a small counterweight to that dollarfall of investment and buzz, A Sense of Bewronging.

See ya at the jam.

Fall for trees

Harvard Yard thinks it’s October. The Red, Sugar and Norway maples, the Scarlet and Pin oaks, the dogwoods and hawthorns, have all been at peak Fall color around Boston the last few days. The weather has been glorious too, hovering around 70° in the afternoons. Lots of people walking around in shorts, the sidewalk cafés packed with customers eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. If it weren’t for the freak snowstorm and a mild frost a couple weeks back, the predominant foliage might still be green. It’s been a warm Fall.

After attending a great talk by John Wilbanks at lunch yesterday (and my latest $25 ticket for going several minutes over the 2 hour limit on my parking meter), I moved the car, poured another $2 into another meter, and walked around Cambridge, just enjoying the warmth and the scenery. I took a bunch of pictures with my phone as well, which joined this batch here, which includes shots taken with a real camera, plus some with a scanner.

My interests in Science as a kid were organized as a series of obsessions. Their order went something like this:

  1. Trees
  2. Oceans and sea life
  3. Weather
  4. Astronomy
  5. Paleontology
  6. Radio

The first four were primarily informed by Golden Guide books my parents bought for my sister and me. The titles were Trees, Fishes, Weather and Stars. Amazingly, I still have Trees, “@1956, 1952, by Western Publishing Company, Inc.” (That last link goes to the current version, on Amazon.) I turned nine years old in the Summer of 1956. I remember being so obsessed with trees that I would spend hours at the end of our street, identifying the sycamores, elms, beeches, hickories, oaks and maples of Borg’s Woods, then still decades away from becoming Hackensack‘s pride of a nature preserve. Thanks to fellow obsessives and the Web, anyone in the world can see those trees too.

My old Trees book was helpful in identifying some of the leaves in those shots I’ve taken the last few days. So has Ryan Lynch’s Crimson Canopy, with it’s excellent Harvard Yard Trees. I only discovered the site late yesterday after I got home. If I had the time, I’d walk around again with the iPad and Ryan’s maps to check again on which trees were which.

Perhaps readers inclinded to horticulture, plant taxonomy and dendrology can help puzzle out and correct identification of leaves such as this one here, which on Map 6 of Crimson Canopy is identified as a Red maple, but looks to me more like a Silver maple. (There’s a lot of variation among the Reds, though, I’ve noticed.) I should point out that it’s a big leaf.

So today it’s supposed to rain, and I’m busy, so that’ll be it for this year’s walks among Fall colors. Tomorrow starts several weeks of travel.

Bonus links: