EmanciPay

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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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I don’t go to TV for Journalism any more, even though I’m sure there’s plenty left: needles scattered thorugh a haystack of channels and program schedules that have become so hard to navigate on satellite and cable systems that it’s just not worth the bother. So, while I wait calmly for TV to die (and it will, except for sports), I go to other sources, most of which are on the Web, but some of which are still in print.

The New York Times, for example. This last week we took a bus down to New York, where we visited museums, went kayaking in the Hudson and did fun family stuff. Each morning we were greeted by the Times, which still astonishes me with the quality and abundance of its Good Stuff. We saved a bunch of it to haul back and read on the bus along the way. I still have the stack here. They are, let’s see…

The Times’ treatments of serious subjects — say, for example, President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court — are both essential and unequaled in their thoroughness. For any subject I care about, I’d rather mine the depths of the Times’ coverage (that last link leads to dozens of  pieces) than take on faith the opinionating — or even the in-depth coverage — of all but a handful of other papers; especially those with sharp axes to grind. (Even though I often enjoy those. The Wall Street Journal‘s especially. Here’s WSJ take this morning on Sotomayor.)

The Web and the World are well-met by an easily-navigated website and a fine newspaper. I can think of many ways the Times could do a better job; but right now few if any others (the Washington Post, primarily) are in the same league.

Which is why I’m annoyed by the likes of Bloggingheads, and the Times’ video section in general.

For example there’s this: “Hanna Rosin, left, of Double X and Ann Althouse of the University of Wisconsin Law School debate the sincerity of President Obama’s anti-torture pledge.” I like both these talking writers, but not in a she-said/she-said setup that sinks down into the lame argument culture that Deborah Tannen argued against (unsucessfully) long ago.

There’s some great stuff in there. This piece about Venezuela’s Motorizados, for example. And I suppose this David Pogue take-down of the Verizon Hub is fine; but I’d rather scan Pogue’s review (even though it does drag my eyes across two pages, so I get “exposed” to all those ads I turn to white space with AdBlockerPlus).

But why imitate bad TV?

Television, almost from the beginning, suffered from the need to turn programming into advertising bait: packing material to fill time time slots between spot breaks. What the New York Times is doing with Bloggingheads is imitating one of the most annoying conventions of a dying institution. The Times can do better than that. So can the blogging heads that don’t talk nearly as well as they blog. (At least not in this format.)

In Dave Winer and Jay Rosen‘s latest Rebooting the News, Jay points out that debugging, which works so well for software and hardware, has not been part of the culture of BigTime Journalism. (The proximal example involving the Times and Maureen Dowd is summarized well by Scott Rosenberg.)

A larger issue for me is a structural one visited by David Carr in his review of Newsweek’s wholesale changes. Sez Carr,

The makeover represents a rethinking of what it means to be a newsweekly, but no redesign can gild the cold fact that it remains a news magazine that comes out weekly at a time when current events are produced and digested on a cycle that is measured with an egg timer, not a calendar…

More notably, the new Newsweek will no longer attempt to re-report and annotate the week’s events — an expensive, unsustainable approach to making a weekly news magazine. The magazine will not scramble the jets and deploy huge resources to cover a breaking story unless, as Mr. Meacham put it, the magazine is “truly adding to the conversation.” Instead, the reimagined magazine will include reported narratives that rely on intellectual scoops rather than informational ones and pair them with essayistic argument.

The wonky, government-centric DNA of the magazine is dominant in the new execution, which may have been the idea. The first redesigned issue includes an interview of President Obama by Mr. Meacham; a feature on the retired life of the last president; a look back at the last treasury chief; a profile of the speaker of the House; and a column by George F. Will, who will always be George F. Will no matter what typeface you render him in.

So, what’s “the conversation” Meacham is talking about? Whatever it is, it shouldn’t exclude the helpful voices that come from outside Newsweek’s customary sphere. Much of Dave and Jay’s conversation in their Rebooting podcast is about the subject of listening. They come at it from the angle of empathy, but that’s what real listening requires. If you’re really listening, you’re not ignoring, and you’re not preparing a dismissal or an excuse to pivot off the other party’s points to more of your own. To listen is to accept the speaker as a source.

Journalism without sources is not worthy of the name. Journals today have more sources than ever. And the abundance of sources requires better jouralism than ever. Much of this journalism will have to be original rather than derivative. He-said/She-said fighting-heads is derivative. Worse, it suggests a structure that is inherently narrow and even misleading. It assumes the issues can be reduced to pairs of competing views, each from a single source.

We are still only at the beginning of journalism’s great Reboot. It’s hard for big old papers like the Times to be the boot and not the butt that the boot kicks. There is so much to protect, and that stuff is so much easier to see than the sum of stuff that’s still left to pioneer.

Yet the frontier is much, much bigger.

This weekend I heard second-hand that the Times is on its way to rebooting the late Times Select, by another name. In other words, it’s thinking about putting its content behind a paywall again. And, in so doing, leading the way for the rest of its industry to do the same.

I hope this isn’t true, though I suspect it is, for the simple reason that it’s easier to protect the known than to pioneer the unknown.

Toward the end of Dave & Jay’s podcast (at 32:45), Jay reports that he dropped off  Howard Kurtz’s Relaiable Sources, as had Dave. Neither found it to their liking. Which makes sense to me, because Kurtz’s show is television. And television is a highly mannered game. Those manners are fast becoming anachronisms. Jay’s critique of elitist journalism — what he calls the “Church of the Savvy” — is as much about manners as it is about other skills required for mastering The Game.

That game is, as Jay puts it, insideous, because it’s manipulative by nature. Manipulation and reporting are not the same. You might find manipulation in conversation, but it’s not a healthy thing, even if getting manipulated works for you.

Jay says that the power of The Church of the Savvy is in decline. He gives good reasons, to which I’ll add one more: it’s adapted to television, and television as we know it is a near-absolute anachronism.

Last night I had a long talk with an old friend who is a very wise and quiet investor. A measure of his wisdom is that he’s navigated his way through the crash, and is being very smart about what’s coming along as well. While our conversation ranged widely, it centered on television. His take is that TV is a Dead Thing Walking. From the investment standpoint, you short the satellite guys first, and then the cable companies. There are many good business reasons, starting with the abandonment of the medium by advertisers (for all but, say, sports). But the primary problem is that the audience is walking away. They’re going to Hulu and YouTube and other workarounds of the Olde System. There will be many more of these than the few we already have.

It would be wise for survivors among other Olde Systems not to ape what’s failing about television. Among those failings are forms of journalism that never were. Also the convention of locking up content behind paywalls and indulging in other coercive subscription practices. Nothing wrong with subscriptions, of course. You just don’t want them to be self-defeating. Times Select was exactly that. So are all cable and satellite TV deals. (A la Carte hasn’t been tested, but will be, as a desperate measure, probably much too late in what’s left of the game.)

The bottom line isn’t that the Net is changing everything, even though that’s true. It’s the need to comply with the nature of the Net itself. That nature is both cheap and immediate. The cost of connecting is veering toward zero. So is the distance it puts each of us from the rest of us, and the digital resources we require. There will be costs involved. There will be businesses in providing resources. But they won’t be the old scarcity games. They will be abundance games. That is, games played on a field defined by abundance and to a large degree comprised of it as well.

What’s scarce are talent, originality, and the arts to which both are put. We need to find new and Net-native ways of determining value and paying for it. That’s what the VRM community is doing with EmancPay. If anybody from the Times (or any journal tempted to lock up their content rather than to reboot the market in more creative ways) is reading this, talk to me.

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