You are currently browsing the archive for the Berkman category.


Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Mahatma Gandhi

I’m not sure if Gandhi actually said that. Somebody did. My best human chance of finding who said it — or at least of gaining a learned enlargement on the lesson — would have been David Sallis. “Big Davy” didn’t know everything, but he came closer than anybody else I know, and he was a living exemplar of Gandhi’s advice.

Davy’s answer would have been knowing, clever and enlarged by a joke, a wild story or both. Alas, I can’t ask him, because he died last Friday of a stroke he suffered a few days earlier. He was just 56, and is survived by his wife Margaret and daughter Rosie —


— both of whom he adored absolutely — and by countless friends and colleagues who remain shocked and saddened by his passing.

I caught a telling example of how much Davy knew when he was visiting in Santa Barbara for the first time a couple years ago, and we took a long walk downtown. Observing the distinctive typeface of the city’s street signs, he described in depth its origin and design elements. I don’t remember what he said, except that the typeface, like the town, was of regional Spanish provenance. Now when I look online, all I can find about the typeface is that it’s called “Mission,” and lives in no standard font library. Whether or not Davy knew more than the rest of the world on the subject, it was totally in character that he might.

Davy didn’t like it when I told other people he was a maths genius. A stickler for accuracy, he said he was taught by some real ones, at Imperial College and elsewhere. But while he might not have been their equal, he was wickedly smart on the topic. One evening I saw that demonstrated at a bar in Silicon Valley. Davy was sitting at a table with another maths whiz, talking about how to solve some particularly vexing problem. Pausing in the midst of the conversation, Davy folded a napkin several ways at various angles and pushed it across the table to the other guy, who said “That’s it!” and looked back at Davy in amazement. Davy returned a look of agreement with one raised eyebrow and a wry smile. It was an expression that at once said both that he had won and this was all in fun — and “Isn’t it great that we’re both learning something here?” Here’s a photo I shot of the scene:


Davy was also a lover and player of music. Here he is on a guitar he brought to our house on a visit:


Davy’s tastes were wildly eclectic and refined. That guitar is an Erlewine headless Lazer — the same one played by Johnny Winter. At the time it was on its way to joining Davy’s extensive collection of vintage saxophones and guitars of every kind, any of which he might pick up and wail away on at a moment’s notice. He could hold forth on Bach and punk with equal authority, and had forgotten more about Frank Zappa than all but a few will ever know.  Here he is with our friend Robert Spensley (another fabulous musician), in their Zappa shirts:


Davy became instant friends with my wife and I when we met in London in May 2013, at a lunch with a handful of colleagues at Visa Europe, which employed his consulting services for many years. It was Davy who brought VRM (subject of my work with the Berkman Center) to the company’s attention, and who had been the main instigator of the gathering.

Suspecting that we might be among the few who would know a world-changing business and technical hack when we saw one, he shared with us plans for Qredo, an architecture for sending and sharing data securely and privately between parties who could also, if they chose, connect anonymously — and then selectively disclose more information as purposes required. Qredo eventually became a startup, and I served through its formative months on the company board, visiting often to Richmond, Davy’s beloved home town. Here he is, describing how Qredo fit into some VRM contexts :


Yet what I love and remember best about Davy was how much fun he was as a companion — at work on Qredo, in conversation at pubs and in other convivial settings, on walks in Richmond and around London, and over countless meals in places both fun and fine. To all those occasions Davy brought the most irrepressible inner child I have ever known in an adult human being. Here is a small collection of shots that show our boy at work and play:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.00.49 PM

Since he left I haven’t gone ten minutes without lamenting how much his absence lessens the world. The one solace I find is knowing how much larger he made the world when he was with us.

For those able to attend, a ceremony and burial will be held on Monday, 30 November, 11 AM at Richmond Cemetery.

In “Cool Influencers With Big Followings Get Picky About Their Endorsements,” Sydney Ember of the NY Times writes,

The more brands that use influencers for marketing campaigns on social platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, the less impact each influencer has. At the same time, many influencers, who once jumped at the opportunity to endorse brands, are being much more selective for fear of appearing to sell out.

In How the gig economy has turned bad analysts into vendor advocates, Horses for Sources writes,

The technology and services industry today is awash with individuals whose only professional activity is flitting from vendor conference to vendor conference, with the sole purpose of writing completely non-objective puff pieces praising their vendor hosts in exchange for money (or in the hope said vendors will pony up some dough in gratitude).

And in MediaPost‘s Influencers: When Are they a Bad Bet?, Erik Sass wisely writes,

Okay, let’s admit some basic facts: when you look at many influencers, there’s really not much to them.

So “influencer,” it appears, is a euphemism for sell-out. We’re talking about shills here.

What should a brand do with truly valuable customers? I see three choices:

  1. Pay the customer to shill for them. That seems to be the default in today’s marketing world.
  2. Reward the customer in some way, as airlines do with frequent flyer programs.
  3. Recruit the customer to get more involved with the company itself, helping to improve its products and services. In other words, use the customer as an influencer on the company, rather than on some target audience. Generate real value at the source.

I submit that #3 has far more value than #1, and can add enormous value to #2.

Think of three companies for which you are a committed customer. Then think about what value you can give to those companies as a veteran user and good source of intelligence and insight.

As examples, I’ll name three of my own:

I’m way past a million miles with United, and have been a “1K” (100k miles/year) passenger for years. Naturally, United is nice to me, as it tries to be with all frequent fliers. I have no complaints, and can think of much to praise. I’ve also done my best to be good to United as well (though not by shilling them). One small way is by tagging with “United,” “United Airlines” and “UAL” all the 10,000+ scenic photos I’ve taken out the windows of their airplanes.

But I would be glad to do more. For free. Like other frequent (and expert) fliers, I have plenty of ideas it would be good for United (or any airline) to hear, whether or not they implement them. But, aside from United’s feedback surveys, there is no easy or standard way to do that.

According to my personal account pages at, I own six Garmin GPS units and a map for one of them. In fact I’ve owned more than I see on both lists. (Some have been lost or stolen.) I’ve also loved every Garmin product I’ve ever used. My current fave is the little eTrex 20 GPS. That unit and earlier Legend and Vista models have yielded lots of useful data for me, including what’s visualized here on the company’s free BaseCamp map app:


Same goes for data remembered, somehow, by Garmin’s older RoadTrip app:


Note the differences. I’d love to combine and reconcile them somehow, but have no idea how to do that. I’d also like to see the next-generation eTrex bring back some of the virtues I enjoyed in the Legend and Vista (such as the rubbery back and the non-flimsy way the earlier models held a MicroSD card).

I’ve had a number of conversations, over the years, with Garmin call centers, and their agents have always been highly knowledgeable and helpful. But I’d love to have a better way to relate to Garmin than the means the company alone provides.

I actually have only one Apogee product: the Mic microphone. It’s handy, and vastly improves sound over the built-in mics in my laptop and mobile devices. I carry it with me everywhere. In fact, I like the Mic so much that I would be glad to buy some of the company’s other products. But I haven’t, because the legs of my Mic have all fallen off. (Each were held on by a tiny phillips-head screw that easily unscrews and disappears. Two of the legs are now held on by substitute screws and the third by a twist-tie.) I just opened a support ticket on Apogee’s support page, asking for replacement screws, and attempted unsuccessfully to wake up the Live Chat thing. We’ll see how it goes with the support ticket.

I have two points here.

One I’ve already made: good customers have far more value to add than their patronage alone.

The other is new to business: we need a standard and common way for any customer to contribute useful intelligence to any company they care about. This would unlock immeasurable value through improved products and services.

We can’t get there by working the company side alone. Even if every company in the world improves its customer service to the max, every company’s systems and improvements would still be as different as they are today.

We can only innovate here on the customer side.

It helps that there is nothing new about this. The entire Internet is an example of exactly the kind of innovation we’re talking about here. It gives every customer scale, and provides a common way for everybody to engage everybody else. Same goes for basic tools we use on the Net. For example, browsers and email. Browsers especially provide standard and common ways for individuals to engage Web sites and services.

What we’re talking about here is a breed of VRM: Vendor Relationship Management. But it’s one breed, not the whole thing. And it’s a new breed.

I think it needs a name, so we can classify development there. Got one? Lemme have it.

Meanwhile, here is one hypothetical example of an innovation in this space.





dsbabyI was born sixty-eight years ago today, in Jersey City‘s Christ Hospital, at around eleven in the morning. I would have been born earlier, but the hospital staff tied Mom’s legs together so I wouldn’t come out before the doctor showed up. You know Poe’s story, The Premature Burial? Mine was like that, only going the other way: a Postmature Birth. It wasn’t fun.

When they finally took the straps off Mom, I was already there, face-first, with my head bent back so far that, when the doctor yanked me out with a forceps, the back of my C5 vertebra was flattened. The bruise that rose on the back of my neck was nearly the size of my head.

Mom wasn’t happy either, but you didn’t complain in those days. Whatever the shitty new status quo was, it beat the hell out of the Depression and the War. And, to be fair, the postwar Baby Boom was also at high ebb, stripping the gears of all kinds of systems: medicine, government, transport, education, whatever.

So we built a new postwar industrial system, and watched it all happen on TV.

All my life I’ve watched that system closely and looked for ways to have fun with it, to break it, and to fix it. I didn’t realize at first that fixing it was what I was here for, but eventually it dawned on me.

Specifically, it happened at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, in March 1994. John Gage showed off the World Wide Web, projecting Mosaic (the Ur graphical browser) from a flaky Macintosh Duo. I already knew about the Web, but seeing it at work, all over the world, blew my mind and changed my life.

What I saw in the future were near-infinite computing and communications powers on our laps and in our pockets, projecting our very lives into a second digital world that would coexist with our physical one. In this second world we would all be a functional distance apart of zero, at a cost that leaned toward the same. The digital genie had been loosed from the physical bottle, and both would rule our species henceforth.

The question What am I doing here? — which had haunted me all my life, now had an answer. I had to help the world make the most of its new situation. “Your choice is always to help or to hurt,” Mom used to say. I wanted to help.

That’s why I started writing for Linux Journal in 1996, involving myself in the free software and open source movements. It’s why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. And it’s why I started ProjectVRM in 2006.

The simple idea with VRM (vendor relationship management) is to fix business from the customer side, by providing tools that make each of us both independent of businesses yet better able to engage with them. The mass market industrial model is to give businesses “scale”: the ability deliver the same products and services to countless customers. In the VRM model, the customer gets scale too, across all the businesses she deals with. (Imagine, for example, being able to change your address for every business you deal with, in one move, using a tool of your own. Or to set your own privacy boundaries, or terms of engagement.)

It’s a long-term ambition, and success may take longer than it does for me to complete my tour of the planet. But there are now lots of developers on the case, around the world.

I have absolute faith that fully empowered customers will prove good for business. Or, in other words, that free customers prove more valuable — to themselves and to business — than captive ones.

Making that happen is what I’m doing here. Sure, I do lots of other stuff too. But that’s the main thing.

Bonus link: The Final Demographic.

For several years now I’ve been participating with Pew Internet in research on the Internet and its future — mostly by providing my thinking on various matters. The latest round is the Future of the Internet Survey VI, for which I answered many questions. The latest of those to make print is in The Gurus Speak, by and Here is what I said:

“John Perry Barlow once said, ‘I didn’t start hearing about “content” until the container business felt threatened.’ I’m with him on that. ‘Content” is the wrong focus here. It’s just business jive for stuff that floats subscription and advertising revenue online. Sharing knowledge matters much more. The most serious threat to sharing knowledge—and doing the rest of what the Internet is good for—is a conceptual one: thinking of the Internet as a service we get from phone and cable companies. Or worse, as a way to move ‘content’  around.

And if we think the Net is just another ‘medium,’ we’re missing its real value as a simple and cost-free way to connect everybody and everything. This is what we meant in The Cluetrain Manifesto when we said ‘markets are conversations.’ Conversations are also not media. They are the main way humans connect with each other and share knowledge. The Internet extends that ability to a degree without precedent in human history. There is no telling how profound a change—hopefully for the better—this will brings to our species and the world we live in.

What steps are necessary to block changes that would limit people’s optimal future capabilities in using the Internet? We need to understand the Internet as what it really is: a way to connect anyone and anything to anyone and anything else, with little if any regard for the means between the ends.

What Paul Baran described as a ‘distributed’ network in 1964, and he and other geeks built out, is a heterarchy, not a hierarchy. It was not designed for billing, or for managing scarcities. Instead it was designed to connect anything to anything, and to put all the smarts in the nodes of the network, rather than in intermediaries. Its design obeys protocols, which are manners among machines and software. Those manners are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them. (Linux and other free and open software code bases are also like that, which is why they provide ideal building material for the Net and what runs on it.)

But intermediaries called ISPs—mostly phone and cable companies—bill us for access to the Net, and those monthly bills define the Net for us in the absence of a more compelling definition. For providing that definition, geeks have done an awful job. So have academics and regulators.

Nobody has yet made clear that the Internet is a rising tide that lifts all boats, producing many trillions of dollars in positive economic externalities—and that it can do so because it has no interest in making money for its owner.

The Net didn’t grow over the dead bodies of phone and cable companies, but over their live ones. Those companies are just lucky that the Net used their pipes. But they have also been very smart about protecting their old businesses while turning their new one—Internet access—into something they can bill in the manner of their old businesses. Hence ‘plans’ for monthly chunks of mobile data for which the first cost is approximately zero. (Operating costs are real. Ones and zeros are way different, and in many—perhaps most—cases have no real first costs.)

In the U.S., cable and phone companies are also lobbying hard at the federal, state and local levels to push through laws that prevent citizens from using local governments and other entities (e.g. local nonprofits and utilities) to offer what carriers can’t or won’t: fully capable Internet service. These laws are sold to legislators as ways to keep government from competing with business, but in fact only protect incumbent monopolies.

What the carriers actually want—badly—is to move television to the Net, and to define the Net in TV terms: as a place you go to buy content, as you do today with cable. For this they’ll run two-sided markets: on the supply side doing deals with “content providers” such as Hollywood and big publishers, and on the demand side by intermediating the sale of that content.

This by far is the most serious threat to sharing information on the Net, because it undermines and sidelines the Net’s heterogeneous and distributed system for supporting everybody and everything, and biases the whole thing to favor a few vertically-integrated ‘content’ industries.

The good news is that there are a few exceptions to the rule of cable/telephony duopoly, such as Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Wilson, NC, which are attracting businesses and citizens old and new to the shores of the real Internet: the one with virtually unlimited speeds in all directions, and few if any restrictions on what anybody can do with the bandwidth. There we will see the Internet’s tide lift all boats, and not just those of telephony and television.

The end state we will reach is what Bob Frankston calls ‘ambient connectivity.’ We might have to wait until after 2025, but we will get it.”

Elsewhere in the same report, Bob said,

“Today’s online ‘access’ is hobbled by a funding model based on an owner taking a vig and denying us the ability to communicate unless we pay a carrier. We must get rid of the concept of telecommunications and understand that the Internet is a fundamentally different paradigm. See more on my opinion at”

What’s especially important about Bob’s work is that he refuses to frame the Internet in terms of the container shipping business that remains the prevailing paradigmatic frame we use today, but instead thinks and works outward from individual agency.

Simply put, we need to think outside the pipes if we can begin to see the Net as anything more than next-gen telephony and television.

Bonus links:

Several years ago, during a session at Harvard Law School led by a small group of Google executives, I asked one of those executives about his company’s strategy behind starting services in categories where there was no obvious direct business benefit. The answer that came back fascinated me. It was, “We look for second and third order effects.” (Earlier JP Rangaswami and I came up with another term for that: “because effects.” That is, you make money because of something rather than with it.) I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I believe Google’s ability to monitor online activities by individuals on a massive scale serves as a model for governments to do the same.

I bring this up not because I believe Google models government surveillance (even though, without intending to, it does), but because I believe surveillance by governments inevitably causes second and third order effects. The least of those is to chill personal expression. The greatest of those is terror.

The more I think about those effects, the more Hannah Arendt comes to mind. Arendt studied totalitarianism in depth, and its use of terror as a technique for state control of citizens.

I read and re-read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in college, in the late 1960s. That was a time of revolt in the U.S. (most notably against institutionalized racism and the Vietnam war), and both of Arendt’s totalitarian state examples — Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union — operated in recent memory, and still served as models. While I don’t believe we are headed to a totalitarian end in the U.S., I do believe the current news suggests a vector of policy and action ratcheting gradually in that direction.

So I encourage revisiting what Arendt said about the paralyzing unease that state monitoring of personal communication induces in a population.

While the feds may be looking for the needles of bad actors and actions in the haystack of all people and their communications, knowing that all of us are subject to suspicion is bound to make us think more than twice, as for example I am right now, about using the terms “terror” and “terrorism” in something I publish online.

Here are some links I’m accumulating on the topic of PRISM and other forms of government surveillance here in the U.S.:

Yesterday, when Anil Dash (@AnilDash) spoke about The Web We Lost at Harvard, I took notes in my little outliner, in a browser. They follow. The top outline level is slide titles, or main points. The next level down are points made under the top level. Some of the outline is what Anil said, and some of it is what I thought he said, or thought on my own based on what he said, and then blathered out through my fingers. Apologies to Anil for what I might have heard wrong. Corrections invited.

David Weinberger also blogged the event This wasn’t easy, because David also introduced Anil and moderated the Q&A. His notes are, as always, excellent. So go read those first.

You can also follow along with this photo set.

Here goes:

POPS — Privately Owned Public Spaces

A secretive, private Ivy League club.

  • Facebook was conceived as that.

Wholesale destruction of your wedding photos

  • We hear stories about this, over and over, when a proprietary silo — even a POPS — dies, gets acquired or otherwise goes poof
  • Think of what matters. (e.g. wedding photos) Everything else you own is just: stuff
  • The silo makers are allowed to do this, because they have one-sided and onerous terms of service. For example:

Apple’s terms for iOS developers

  • Amazing: “We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

There is a war raging against the Web we once had.

  • “Being introduced as a blogger is like being introduced as an emailer”

They are bending the law to make controlling our data illegal

  • Watch what’s happening. We won SOPA/PIPA, but that was just one thing. Are we going to do that twice? The same way?

Metadata is dying. And we didn’t even notice.

  • Compare Flickr (old Web) and Instragram (new Web), which has no metadata
  • Props to Berkman for doing the right thing by RSS

Links were corrupted. Likes are next.

  • Economics are getting divorced from original contexts.
  • Remember It was all about linking outward. (See David Weinberger on hyperlinks subverting hierarchy)
  • Now links (at pubs and ad-supported sites) go to internal aggregation pages. SOA.
  • Google converted the meaning of links from the expressive to the economic. (Or, to an economic statement.) Link-spam went viral in less than six months.
  • Facebook has what they call Edgerank. “Likes” at first were an expression of intent. Now they are fuel for advertising. We’re seeing “like fraud.”
  • On Flickr, favorites are still favorites because they aren’t monetizable. Thus Flickr has remained, relatively speaking, blessedly uncorrupted

They are gaslighting the Web.

  • Note how unevenly Facebook places warnings. “Please be careful…” they say, about clicking on a non-Facebook facebook link. You see this on many non-BigCo sites that use Facebook logins. But…>
  • With big Facebook partners you don’t get the message. Coincidence
  • >Also, sites that register with them get the warning, while those that don’t register don’t have the message, even though they are less trustworthy. (Do I have that right? Not sure.)
  • This is not malicious. It’s well-intended in its own pavement-to-hell way.>

In the best case, we’re stuck fixing their bugs on our budgets

  • In the worst case, they’re behaving badly
  • This is true for all the things that compete with the Web

Ideas get locked into apps that will not survive acquisition

  • Content tied to devices dies when those devices become obsolete

We’ve given up on formats. We lost.

  • Watch out for proprietary and under-documented formats
  • Exceptions are .jpg and .html.

Undocumented and non-interoperable are now too common.

  • There is an intentional pulling away from that which lowers switching costs, and creates public spaces.
  • “Town halls” in POPS are not happening in public spaces. Example: the White House “town halls” on Facebook

TOS + IP trumps the constitution

  • Everything you say can be changed on FB and they would be within their rights to do that

It’s never the Pharoah’s words that are lost to history

  • POPS and walled gardens are not level playing fields
  • Ordinary people’s interactions are being lost.
  • Can’t we just opt out? What does that cost?
  • There are opportuity and career costs
  • Can I meaningfully expand my sphere of opportunities in a silo’d world run by pharoahs?
  • “If I hadn’t participated in the blogosphere I wouldn’t be here today”

Our hubris helped them do this.

  • We, the geeks of the world, the builders of public spaces, created non-appealing stuff. It didn’t compete. (e.g. OpenID)
  • Thus we (i.e. everybody) are privileging prisons over the Web itself.
  • We (geeks) did sincerely care
  • We were so arrogant around the goodness of our own open creations that Zuck’s closed vision seemed more appealing
  • That Z’s private club was more appealing says something.
  • How we told the story, how we went about it, also mattered. We didn’t appeal. We talked to ourselves.
  • It’s not just about UI, though we did suck at that too. It was about being in tune with ordinary non-geeks
  • If we had been listening more… and had been a little more open in self-criticism…

Too much triumphalism in having won SOPA and PIPA.

  • Can we do that again? Our willingness to pat ourselves on the back isn’t helpful.
  • The people we count on to rally behind our efforts may not show up again

The open web faded away was not for lack of a compelling vision.

  • We were less inclusive than Facebook and Apple.

But it’s only some of the Web, right?

  • We built the Web for pages
  • Then we changed from pages to streams… narrow single column streams
  • Yahoo is now a stream too. See recent changes there. The Web is now more like radio. Snow on the water.
  • These streams feel like apps. But users are chosing something different.
  • (Shows a graph.)
  • Half the time we spent in 2010 was already in a streaming experience. The percentage is much higher now.
  • These streams are controlled-access. They are limited-access highways. This is part of the mechanism for constraining the conversation. A mismatch between the open web advocacy community and what people do. These others have a much more

Geeks always want to fight the last battle.

  • What they need is a new kind of stream compelling enough for normal people to use.
  • Mozilla is an exception, thanks to Microsoft being evil and IE bad.

So, what do we do?

  • Are FB, LI and TW the new NBC, ABC and CBS?
  • The web follows patterns.
  • The pendulum swings
  • Google is trying to be the evil empire now (whether they know it or not), overreaching, making us feel itchy the way Microsoft did in ’97.

Policy works. Fighting Microsoft helped.

  • Reality is: public policy can be an effective
  • Policy is coming around social networking. Count on it. Facebook’s overreach has that effect
  • There are apps that want to do the right thing. (Anil, for example, is doing ThinkUp)
  • The open web community mostly makes science projects and tool kits. Not enough.
  • Are you being more sensitive to what users want than Zuck is?
  • Item: it’s very hard to learn the history of the software industry, even here. How did software impact culture? How did desktop office suites affect business? The principal actors are still here. They have phones and email addresses. Yet we can’t seem to learn from them.

There are insights to be gleaned from owning our data.

  • Can’t imagine a less attractive name for something than Quantified Self; but the movement matters
  • This stuff that is already digital we pay no attention to. Instead we (companies) rely on marketing reports.
  • Odd: it’s much easier to track my heart rate than how often I visit Twitter.
  • These are the vectors for displacement, e.g. Google on meaning, emotion, expression… We have to be able to do better than them.
  • Think about it: if you allow one more color than blue you’re ahead of Facebook

There are institutions that still care about a a healthy web.

  • The White House has a podcast
  • The Library of Congress? (not clear about the reference here)
  • Facebook terms of service had a conflict with federal law
  • Would hve been fun to see them shut down the White House Facebook account.
  • Terms of service aren’t laws. Break them sometimes.

PR trumps ToS 10 times out of 10

  • Look at our culture as being negatively affected by ToSes
  • Look at Facebook’s ToS the same way we look at public laws. They even eliminated the token effort.
  • Look at YouTube. “No infringement intended.”
  • The people have already chosen a path of civil disobedience
  • A Million Mixer march happens every day

Bonus links: Bruce Schneier in the Q&A brought up his Feudal model, which he talked about on Thursday in conversation with Jonathan Zittrain. And this very thoughtful piece by

Making the rounds is , a killer essay by in MIT Technology Review. The gist:

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 900 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command real attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.

This is the first time I have read anything from a major media writer (and Michael is very much that — in fact I believe he is the best in the biz) that is in full agreement with The Advertising Bubble, my chapter on this very subject in The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. A sample:

One might think all this personalized advertising must be pretty good, or it wouldn’t be such a hot new business category. But that’s only if one ignores the bubbly nature of the craze, or the negative demand on the receiving end for most of advertising’s goods.  In fact, the results of personalized advertising, so far, have been lousy for actual persons…

Tracking and “personalizing”—the current frontier of online advertising—probe the limits of tolerance. While harvesting mountains of data about individuals and signaling nothing obvious about their methods, tracking and personalizing together ditch one of the few noble virtues to which advertising at its best aspires: respect for the prospect’s privacy and integrity, which has long included a default assumption of anonymity.

Ask any celebrity about the price of fame and they’ll tell you: it’s anonymity. This wouldn’t be a Faustian bargain (or a bargain at all) if anonymity did not have real worth. Tracking, filtering and personalizing advertising all compromise our anonymity, even if no PII (Personally Identifiable Information) is collected.  Even if these systems don’t know us by name, their hands are still in our pants…

The distance between what tracking does and what users want, expect and intend is so extreme that backlash is inevitable. The only question is how much it will damage a business that is vulnerable in the first place.

The first section of the book opens with a retrospective view of the present from a some point in the near future — say, five or ten years out. A relevant sample:

After the social network crash of 2013, when it became clear that neither friendship nor sociability were adequately defined or managed through proprietary and contained systems (no matter how large they might be), individuals began to assert their independence, and to zero-base their social networking using their own tools, and asserting their own policies regarding engagement.

Customers now manage relationships in their own ways, using standardized tools that embrace the complexities of relationship—including needs for privacy (and, in some cases, anonymity). Thus loyalty to vendors now has genuine meaning, and goes as deep as either party cares to go. In some (perhaps most) cases this isn’t very deep, while in others it can get quite involved.

When I first wrote that, I said 2012. But I decided that was too aggressive, and went with the following year. Maybe I was right in the first place. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, here’s what Michael says about the utopian exhaust Facebook and its “ecosystem” are smoking:

Well, it does have all this data. The company knows so much about so many people that its executives are sure that the knowledge must have value (see “You Are the Ad,” by Robert D. Hof, May/June 2011).

If you’re inside the Facebook galaxy (a constellation that includes an ever-expanding cloud of associated ventures) there is endless chatter about a near-utopian (but often quasi-legal or demi-ethical) new medium of marketing. “If we just … if only … when we will …” goes the conversation. If, for instance, frequent-flyer programs and travel destinations actually knew when you were thinking about planning a trip. Really we know what people are thinking about—sometimes before they know! If a marketer could identify the person who has the most influence on you … If a marketer could introduce you to someone who would relay the marketer’s message … get it? No ads, just friends! My God!

But so far, the sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way eludes Facebook.

The buyer is a person. That person does not require either a social network or absolutely-informed guesswork to know who she is or what she wants to buy. Obviously advertising can help. It always has. But totally personalized advertising is icky and oxymoronic. And, after half a decade or more at the business of making maximally-personalized ads, the main result is what Michael calls “the desultory ticky-tacky kind that litters the right side of people’s Facebook profiles.”

That’s one of mine on the right. It couldn’t be more wasted and wrong. Let’s take it from the top.

First, Robert Scoble is an old friend and a good guy. But I couldn’t disagree with him more on the subject of Facebook and the alleged virtues of the fully followed life. (Go to this Gillmor Gang, starting about an hour in, to see Robert and I go at it about this.) Clearly Facebook doesn’t know about that. Nor does any advertiser, I would bet. In any case, Robert likes so many things that his up-thumb has no value to me.

I have no interest in Social Referrals, and if Facebook followed what I’ve written on the subject of “social” (as defined by Facebook and its marketing cohorts), it wouldn’t imagine I would be interested in

I’m 64, but married. “Boyfriend wanted” is a low-rent fail as well as an insult.

I get the old yearbook pitch every time I go on Facebook, which is as infrequently as I possibly can. (There are people I can only reach that way, which is why I bother.) I don’t even need to click on the the ad to discover that, as I suspected, is a front for the scammy

I’ve never been fly flishing, and haven’t fished since I was a kid, many decades ago.

And I don’t want more credit cards, of any kind, regardless of Scoble’s position on Capital One.

In a subchapter of  titled “A Bad Theory of You,”  calls both Facebook’s and Google’s data-based assumptions about us “pretty poor representations of who we are, in part because there is no one set of data that describes who we are.” He also says that at best they put us into the  — a “place where something is lifelike but not convincingly alive, and it gives people the creeps.” But what you see on the right isn’t the best, and it’s not uncanny. It’s typical, and it sucks, even if it does bring Facebook a few $billion per year in click-through-based revenues.

The amazing thing here is that business keeps trying to improve advertising — and always by making it more personal — as if that’s the only way we can get to Michael’s “sweeping, basic, transformative, and simple way to connect buyer to seller and then get out of the way.” Three problems here:

  1. By its nature advertising — especially “brand” advertising — is not personal.
  2. Making advertising personal changes it into something else that is often less welcome.
  3. There are better ways to get to achieve Michael’s objective — ways that start on the buyer’s side, rather than the seller’s.

Don Marti, former Editor-in-Chief of Linux Journal and a collaborator on the advertising chapters in my book, nails the first two problems in a pair of posts. In the first, Ad targeting – better is worse? he says,

Now, as targeting for online advertising gets more and more accurate, the signal is getting lost. On the web, how do you tell a massive campaign from a well-targeted campaign? And if you can’t spot the “waste,” how do you pick out the signal?

I’m thinking about this problem especially from an IT point of view. Much of the value of an IT product is network value, and economics of scale mean that a product with massive adoption can have much higher ROI than a niche product…. So, better targeting means that online advertising carries less signal. You could be part of the niche on which your vendor is dumping its last batch of a “boat anchor” product. This is kind of a paradox: the better online advertising is, the less valuable it is. Companies that want to send a signal are going to have to find a less fake-out-able medium.

In the second, Perfectly targeted advertising would be perfectly worthless, which he wrote in response to Michael’s essay, he adds this:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself.

John Battelle, who is both a first-rate journalist and a leader in the online advertising industry, says this in Facebook’s real question: What’s the native model?:

Facebook makes 82% of its money by selling targeted display advertising – boxes on the top and right side of the site (it’s recently added ads at logout, and in newsfeeds). Not a particularly unique model on its face, but certainly unique underneath: Because Facebook knows so much about each person on its service, it can target in ways Google and others can only dream about. Over the years, Facebook has added new advertising products based on the unique identity, interest, and relationship data it owns: Advertisers can incorporate the fact that a friend of a friend “likes” a product, for example. Or they can incorporate their own marketing content into their ads, a practice known as “conversational marketing” that I’ve been on about for seven or so years (for more on that, see my post Conversational Marketing Is Hot – Again. Thanks Facebook!).

But as many have pointed out, Facebook’s approach to advertising has a problem: People don’t (yet) come to Facebook with the intention of consuming quality content (as they do with media sites), or finding an answer to a question (as they do at Google search). Yet Facebook’s ad system combines both those models – it employs a display ad unit (the foundation of brand-driven media sites) as well as a sophisticated ad-buying platform that’d be familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google AdWords.

I’m not sure how many advertisers use Facebook, but it’s probably a fair guess to say the number approaches or crosses the hundreds of thousands. That’s about how many used Overture and Google a decade ago. The big question is simply this: Do those Facebook ads work as well or better than other approaches? If the answer is yes, the question of valuation is rather moot. If the answer is no…Facebook’s got some work to do.

But Facebook isn’t the real issue here. Working only the sell side of the marketplace is the issue. It’s now time to work the buy side.

The simple fact is that we need to start equipping buyers with their own tools for connecting with sellers, and for engaging in respectful and productive ways. That is, to improve the ability of demand to drive supply, and not to constantly goose up supply to drive demand, and failing 99.x% of the time.

This is an old imperative.

In , which Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I wrote in 1999, we laid into business — and marketing in particular — for failing to grok the fact that in networked markets, which the Internet gave us, individuals should lead, rather than just follow. So, since business failed to get Cluetrain’s message, I started in mid-2006 at Harvard’s Berkman Center. The idea was to foster development of tools that make customers both independent of vendors, and better able to engage with vendors. That is, for demand to drive supply, personally. (VRM stands for .)

Imagine being able to:

  • name your own terms of service
  • define for yourself what loyalty is, what stores you are loyal to, and how
  • be able to gather and examine your own data
  • advertise (or “intentcast”) your own needs in an anonymous and secure way
  • manage your own relationships with all the vendors and other organizations you deal with
  • … and to do all that either on your own or with the help of that work for you rather than for sellers (as most third parties do)

Today there are dozens of VRM developers working at all that stuff and more — to open floodgates of economic possibility when demand drives supply personally, rather than “socially” as part of some ad-funded Web giant’s wet dream. (And socially in the genuine sense, in which each of us knows who our friends, relatives and other associates really are, and in what contexts our actual social connections apply.) I report on those, and the huge implications of their work, in The Intention Economy.

Here’s the thing, and why now is the time to point this out: most of those developers have a hell of a time getting laid by VCs, which on the whole have their heads stuck in a of the Web, and can’t imagine a way to improve the marketplace that does not require breeding yet another cow, or creating yet another ranch for dependent customers. Maybe now that the bloom is off Facebook’s rose, and the Filter Bubble is ready to burst, they can start looking at possibilities over here on the demand side.

So this post is an appeal to investors. Start thinking outside the cow, and outside the ranch. If you truly believe in free markets, then start believing in free customers, and in the development projects that make them not only free, but able to drive sales at a 100% rate, and to form relationships that are worthy of the word.

Bonus links:

HT to John Salvador, for pointing to Life in the Vast Lane, where I kinda predicted some of the above in 2008.

Okay, my foursquare experiment is over. I won, briefly…

4sq… and, about 24 hours later (the second screenshot) I was back in the pack somewhere.

So now I’m done playing the leaderboard game. I’d like to say it was fun, and maybe it was, in the same way a hamster in a cage has fun running in its wheel. (Hey, there’s a little hamster in all of us. Ever tried to “win” in traffic? Same game.)

The experiment was to see what it would take to reach #1 on the leaderboard, if only for a minute. The answer was a lot of work. For each check-in I needed to:

  1. Wake up the phone
  2. Find foursquare (for me it’s not on the front page of apps)
  3. Tap the app
  4. Dismiss the “Rate foursquare” pop-over window
  5. Tap on the green “Check In” button
  6. Wait (sometimes for many seconds) while it loads its list of best guesses and actual locations
  7. Click on the location on the list (or type it in, if it’s not there)
  8. Click on the green “Check In Here” button
  9. Take a picture and/or write something in the “What are you up to?” window
  10. Click on the green “Check In” button, again.

And to do that a lot. For example, at Harvard Square a few days ago, I checked in at the Harvard Coop, Radio Shack, Peets Coffee, the Cemetery, Cambridge Common and the Square itself. For just those six places we’re talking about 60 pokes on the phone. (Okay, some of the time I start at #5. But it’s still a lot of pokes.)

To make sure I had the poke count right, I just did it again, here at the Berkman Center. Now my phone says, “Okay. We’ve got you @ Berkman Center for Internet & Society. You’ve been here 45 times.”

Actually, I’ve been here hundreds of times. I only checked in forty-five of those times. The difference matters. What foursquare says in that statement is, If you haven’t checked in on foursquare, you haven’t really been there. Which is delusional. But then, delusion is part of the game. Being mayor of the 77 bus (which I have been, a number of times) confers no real-world advantages to me at all. I even showed a driver once that I was mayor of the bus. She looked at my phone, then at me, like I was a nut case. (And, from her perspective, I surely was.) Being the mayor of some food joint might win you a discount or a freebie if the establishment is so inclined. But in most cases the establishment knows squat about foursquare. Or, if it does know something, squat might be what it does.

That was my surreal experience after checking in at a Brookstone at Logan Airport last October. I coudn’t miss the large placard there…

… and asked the kid at the cash register what the “special” would be. He replied, “Oh, that’s just a promotion.” At the other end of the flight, while transferring between concourses in Dallas-Fort Worth, I saw this ad on the tram:

On my way to the next plane I checked into as many places as I could, and found no “great deals.” (Here is my whole mini-saga of foursquare screenshots.)

But, credit where due. An American Express promo that I ran across a number of times at SXSW in Austin earlier this year provided $10 off purchases every place it ran, which was more than a few. (Screenshots start here.) We also recently got a free upgrade from Fox, the car rental company, by checking in with foursquare. And I agree with Jon Mitchell of RWW, in What Is the Point of… Foursquare?, that the service has one big plus:

Isn’t Foursquare just for spamming Twitter and Facebook with what Geoloqi’s Amber Case calls “geoloquacious” noise about your trip to the grocery store? It can be, and for too many users, it is.

But turn all that off. Forget the annoying badges and mayorships, too. There’s one useful thing at which Foursquare is very, very good: recommendations.

So I’ll keep it going for that, and for notifying friends on foursquare that I’m in town, and am interested in getting together. (This has worked exactly once, by the way, with the ever-alert Steve Gillmor.)

But still, you might ask, why have I bothered all this time?

Well, I started using foursquare because I like new stuff and I’ve always been fascinated by the Quantified Self (QS) thing, especially around self-tracking, which I thought might also have a VRM benefits, somewhere down the line. I’m also a born geographer with a near absolute sense of where I am. Even when I’m flying in the stratosphere, I like to know where I am and where I’ve been, especially if photography is also involved. Alas, you can’t get online in the air with most planes. But I’ve still kept up with foursquare on the ground, patiently waiting for it to evolve past the hamster-wheel stage.

But the strange thing is, foursquare hasn’t evolved much at all, given the 3+ years they’ve been around. The UI was no bargain to begin with, and still isn’t. For example, you shouldn’t need to check in always in real time. There should be a setup that keeps track of where you’ve been, without the special effort on your part. If there are specials or whatever, provide alerts for those, on an opt-in basis.

But evolution is planned, in a big way. Foursquare Joins the Coupon Craze, a story by Spencer E. Ante last week in The Wall Street Journal, begins with this:

Foursquare doesn’t want to be another popular—but unprofitable—social network. Its new plan to make money? Personalized coupons.

The company, which lets users alert their friends to their location by “checking in” via smartphone from coffee shops, bars and other locations, revealed for the first time that it plans to let merchants buy special placement for promotions of personalized local offers in July in a redesigned version of its app. All users will be able to see the specials, but must check into the venue to redeem them.

“We are building software that’s able to drive new customers and repeat visitors to local businesses,” said Foursquare co-founder and Chief Executive Dennis Crowley.

This tells me my job with foursquare is to be “driven” like a calf into a local business. Of course, this has been the assumption from the start. But I had hoped that somewhere along the way foursquare could also evolve into a true QS app, yielding lat-lon and other helpful information for those (like me) who care about that kind of thing. (And, to be fair, maybe that kind of thing actually is available, through the foursquare API. I saw a Singly app once that suggested as much.) Hey, I would pay for an app that kept track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done, and made  that data available to me in ways I can use.

Meanwhile, there is one big piece of learning that I don’t think anybody has their head fully wrapped around, and that’s the willingness of people to go to all this work, starting with installing the app in the first place.

Back in the early days of ProjectVRM, it was taken as fact amongst developers that anything requiring a user install was problematic. Now most of us have phones with dozens or hundreds of apps or browser extensions that we’ve installed ourselves. Of course Apple and the browser makers have made that kind of thing easier, but that’s not my point. My point is that the conventional wisdom of today could be old-hat a year from now. We can cite example after example of people doing things which, in the past, it was said they were unlikely to do.

Amazon is now shipping my new book, The Intention Economy. Yes, the Kindle version too. They even have the first chapter available for free. You can “look inside” as well.

Thanks to Amazon’s search, you can even find stuff that’s not in the index, such as the acknowledgements. Those include a lot of people, including everybody who has ever been active on the ProjectVRM list.

The book isn’t for me. It’s for customers. All customers, that is. Not just the ones buying the book. The first paragraph of the Introduction explains,

This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

That’s what the VRM development community has been working toward since I launched ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center in 2006. Now that community is getting kinda large. Here at the European Identity and Cloud Conference (#EIC12) in Munich, I have met or learned about a bunch of VRM developers I hadn’t known  before. Pretty soon I won’t be able to keep up, and that’s a good thing.

The book has four main parts:

  1. Customer Captivity
  2. The Networked Marketplace
  3. The Liberated Customer
  4. The Liberated Vendor

In a way it follows up on work begun with The Cluetrain Manifesto. The subtitle there was The End of Business as Usual. The subhead for The Intention Economy is When Customers Take Charge. Hey, when one thing ends, another must begin. This is it.

We’re not there yet. If The Intention Economy speeds things up, it will do its job.




(Cross-posted from the ProjectVRM blog.)

left r-buttonright r-buttonFor as long as we’ve had economies, demand and supply have been attracted to each other like a pair of magnets. Ideally, they should match up evenly and produce good outcomes. But sometimes one side comes to dominate the other, with bad effects along with good ones.

Such has been the case on the Web ever since it went commercial with the invention of the cookie in 1995, resulting in a  in which the demand side — that’s you and me — plays the submissive role of mere “users,” who pretty much have to put up with whatever rules websites set on the supply side.

Consistent with  (“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”) the near absolute power of website cows over user calves has resulted in near-absolute corruption of website ethics in respect to personal privacy.

This has been a subject of productive obsession by  and her team of reporters at The Wall Street Journal, which have been producing the  series (shortcut: since July 30, 2010, when Julia by-lined . The next day I called that piece a turning point. And I still believe that.

Today came another one, again in the Journal, in Julia’s latest, titled Web Firms to Adopt ‘No Track’ Button. She begins,

A coalition of Internet giants including Google Inc. has agreed to support a do-not-track button to be embedded in most Web browsers—a move that the industry had been resisting for more than a year.

The reversal is being announced as part of the White House’s call for Congress to pass a “privacy bill of rights,” that will give people greater control over the personal data collected about them.

The long White House press release headline reads,

We Can’t Wait: Obama Administration Unveils Blueprint for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” to Protect Consumers Online

Internet Advertising Networks Announces Commitment to “Do-Not-Track” Technology to Allow Consumers to Control Online Tracking

Obviously, government and industry have been working together on this one. Which is good, as far as it goes. Toward that point, Julia adds,

The new do-not-track button isn’t going to stop all Web tracking. The companies have agreed to stop using the data about people’s Web browsing habits to customize ads, and have agreed not to use the data for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. But the data can still be used for some purposes such as “market research” and “product development” and can still be obtained by law enforcement officers.

The do-not-track button also wouldn’t block companies such as Facebook Inc. from tracking their members through “Like” buttons and other functions.

“It’s a good start,” said Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But we want you to be able to not be tracked at all if you so choose.”

In the New York Times’ White House, Consumers in Mind, Offers Online Privacy Guidelines Edward Wyatt writes,

The framework for a new privacy code moves electronic commerce closer to a one-click, one-touch process by which users can tell Internet companies whether they want their online activity tracked.

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

No they won’t. Buttons can be plug-ins to existing browsers. And work has already been done. VRM developers are on the case, and their ranks are growing. We have dozens of developers (at that last link) working on equipping both the demand and the supply side with tools for engaging as independent and respectful parties. In fact we already have a button that can say “Don’t track me,” plus much more — for both sides. Its calle the R-button, and it looks like this: ⊂ ⊃. (And yes, those symbols are real characters. Took a long time to find them, but they do exist.)

Yours — the user’s — is on the left. The website’s is on the right. On a browser it might look like this:

r-button in a browser

Underneath both those buttons can go many things, including preferences, policies, terms, offers, or anything else — on both sides. One of those terms can be “do not track me.” It might point to a fourth party (see explanations here and here) which, on behalf of the user or customer, maintains settings that control sharing of personal data, including the conditions that must be met. A number of development projects and companies are already on this case. Some have personal data stores (PDSes), also called “lockers” or “vaults.” These include:

Three of those are in the U.S., one in Austria, one in France, one in South Africa, and three in the U.K. (All helping drive the Midata project by the U.K. government, by the way.) And those are just companies with PDSes. There are many others working on allied technologies, standards, protocols and much more. They’re all just flying below media radar because media like to look at what big suppliers and governments are doing. Speaking of which… :-)

Here’s Julia again:

Google is expected to enable do-not-track in its Chrome Web browser by the end of this year.

Susan Wojcicki, senior vice president of advertising at Google, said the company is pleased to join “a broad industry agreement to respect the ‘Do Not Track’ header in a consistent and meaningful way that offers users choice and clearly explained browser controls.”

White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Daniel Weitzner said the do-not-track option should clear up confusion among consumers who “think they are expressing a preference and it ends up, for a set of technical reasons, that they are not.”

Some critics said the industry’s move could throw a wrench in a separate year-long effort by the World Wide Web consortium to set an international standard for do-not-track. But Mr. Ingis said he hopes the consortium could “build off of” the industry’s approach.

So here’s an invitation to the White House, Google, the 3wC, interested BigCos (including CRM companies), developers of all sizes and journalists who are interested in building out genuine and cooperative relationships between demand and supply::::

Join us at IIW — the Internet Identity Workshop — in Mountain View, May 1-3. This is the unconference where developers and other helpful parties gather to talk things over and move development forward. No speakers, no panels, no BS. Just good conversation and productive work. It’s our fourteenth one, and they’ve all been highly productive.

As for the r-button, take it and run with it. It’s there for the development. It’s meaningful. We’re past square one. We’d love to have all the participation we can get, from the big guys as well as the little ones listed above and here.

To help get your thinking started, visit this presentation of one r-button scenario, by Adam Marcus of MIT. Here’s another view of the same work, which came of of a Google Summer of Code project through ProjectVRM and the Berkman Center:

(Props to Oshani Seneviratne and David Karger, also both of MIT, and Ahmad Bakhiet, of Kings College London, for work on that project.)

If we leave fixing the calf-cow problem entirely up to the BigCos and BigGov, it won’t get fixed. We have to work from the demand side as well. In economies, customers are the 100%.

Here are some other stories, mostly gathered by Zemanta:

All look at the symptoms, and supply-side cures. Time for the demand side to demand answers from itself. Fortunately, we’ve been listening, and the answers are coming.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

« Older entries