Phil Windley

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In The Data Bubble, I told readers to mark the day: 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. That same series is now nine stories long, not counting the introduction and a long list of related pieces. Here’s the current list:

  1. The Web’s Gold Mine: What They Know About You
  2. Microsoft Quashed Bid to Boost Web Privacy
  3. On the Web’s Cutting Edge: Anonymity in Name Only
  4. Stalking by Cell Phone
  5. Google Agonizes Over Privacy
  6. Kids Face Intensive Tracking on Web
  7. ‘Scrapers’ Dig Deep for Data on the Web
  8. Facebook in Privacy Breach
  9. A Web Pioneer Profiles Users By Name

Related pieces—

Two things I especially like about all this. First, Julia Angwin and her team are doing a terrific job of old-fashioned investigative journalism here. Kudos for that. Second, the whole series stands on the side of readers. The second person voice (you, your) is directed to individual persons—the same persons who do not sit at the tables of decision-makers in this crazy new hyper-personalized advertising business.

To measure the delta of change in that business, start with John Battelle‘s Conversational Marketing series (post 1, post 2, post 3) from early 2007, and then his post Identity and the Independent Web, from last week. In the former he writes about how the need for companies to converse directly with customers and prospects is both inevitable and transformative. He even kindly links to The Cluetrain Manifesto (behind the phrase “brands are conversations”).

In his latest he observes some changes in the Web itself:

Here’s one major architectural pattern I’ve noticed: the emergence of two distinct territories across the web landscape. One I’ll call the “Dependent Web,” the other is its converse: The “Independent Web.”

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.

A Shift In How The Web Works?

And therein lies the itch I’m looking to scratch: With Facebook’s push to export its version of the social graph across the Independent Web; Google’s efforts to personalize display via AdSense and Doubleclick; AOL, Yahoo and Demand building search-driven content farms, and the rise of data-driven ad exchanges and “Demand Side Platforms” to manage revenue for it all, it’s clear that we’re in the early phases of a major shift in the texture and experience of the web.

He goes on to talk about how “these services match their model of your identity to an extraordinary machinery of marketing dollars“, and how

When we’re “on” Facebook, Google, or Twitter, we’re plugged into an infrastructure (in the case of the latter two, it may be a distributed infrastructure) that locks onto us, serving us content and commerce in an automated but increasingly sophisticated fashion. Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity.

And here is where we get to the deepest, most critical problem: Their understanding of our identity is not the same as our understanding of our identity. What they have are a bunch of derived assumptions that may or may not be correct; and even if they are, they are not ours. This is a difference in kind, not degree. It doesn’t matter how personalized anybody makes advertising targeted at us. Who we are is something we possess and control—or would at least like to think we do—no matter how well some of us (such as advertisers) rationalize the “socially derived” natures of our identities in the world.

It is standard for people in the ad business to equate assent with approval, and John’s take on this is a good example of that. Sez he,

We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.

If we knew, the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.

We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it—so far.

And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

On that last point, our “deals” with vendors on the Web are agreements in name only. Specifically, they are a breed of assent called contracts of adhesion. Also called standard form or boilerplate contracts, they are what you get when a dominant party sets all the terms, there is no room for negotiation, and the submissive party has a choice only to accept the terms or walk away. The term “adhesion” refers to the nailed-down nature of the submissive party’s position, while the dominant party is free to change the terms any time it wishes. Next time you “agree” to terms you haven’t read, go read them and see where it says the other party reserves the right to change the terms.

There is a good reason why we have had these kinds of agreements since the dawn of e-commerce. It’s because that’s the way the Web was built. Only one party—the one with the servers and the services—was in a position to say what was what. It’s still that way. The best slide I’ve seen in the last several years is one of Phil Windley‘s. It says,

HISTORY OF E-COMMERCE

1995: Invention of the Cookie.

The End.

About all we’ve done since 1995 on the sell side is improve the cookie-based system of “relating” to users. This is a one-way take-it-or-leave-it system that has become lame and pernicious in the extreme. We can and should do better than that.

Phil’s own company, Kynetx, has come up with a whole new schema. Besides clients and servers (which don’t go away), you’ve got end points, events, rules and rules engines to execute the rules. David Siegel’s excellent book, The Power of Pull, describes how the Semantic Web also offers a rich and far more flexible and useful alternative to the Web’s old skool model. His post yesterday is a perfect example of liberated thinking and planning that transcends the old cookie-limited world. The man is on fire. Dig his first paragraph:

Monday I talked about the social networking bubble. Marketers are getting sucked into the social-networking vortex and can’t find their way out. The problem is that most companies are trying small tactical improvements, hoping to improve sales a bit and trying tactical savings programs, hoping to improve margins a bit. Yet there’s a whole new curve of efficiency waiting in the world of pull. It’s time to start talking about savingtrillions, not millions. Companies should think in terms of big, strategic, double-digit improvements, new markets, and new ways to cooperate. Here is a road map

Read on. (I love that he calls social networking a “bubble”. I’m with that.)

This week at IIW in Mountain View, we’re going to be talking about, and working on, improving markets from the buyers’ side. (Through VRM and other means.) On the table will be whole new ways of relating, starting with systems by which users and customers can offer their own terms of engagement, their own policies, their own preferences (even their own prices and payment options)—and by which sellers and site operators can signal their openness to those terms (even if they’re not yet ready to accept them). The idea here is to get buyers out of their shells and sellers out of their silos, so they can meet and deal for real in a truly open marketplace. (This doesn’t have to be complicated. A lot of it can be automated. And, if we do it right, we can skip a lot of the pointless one-sided agreement-clicking friction we now take for granted.)

Right now it’s hard to argue against all the money being spent (and therefore made) in the personalized advertising business—just like it was hard to argue against the bubble in tech stock prices in 1999 and in home prices in 2004. But we need to come to our senses here, and develop new and better systems by which demand and supply can meet and deal with each other as equally powerful parties in the open marketplace. Some of the tech we need for that is coming into being right now. That’s what we should be following. Not just whether Google, Facebook or Twitter will do the best job of putting crosshairs on our backs.

John’s right that the split is between dependence and independence. But the split that matters most is between yesterday’s dependence and tomorrow’s independence—for ourselves. If we want a truly conversational economy, we’re going to need individuals who are independent and self-empowered. Once we have that, the level of economic activity that follows will be a lot higher, and a lot more productive, than we’re getting now just by improving the world’s biggest guesswork business.

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The Web is not television, and I would like online advertisers and publications to stop treating the Web like it is. Interruptive ads such as this one at Salon…

… are meant to get 100% click-through rates, I suppose. But in too many cases — namely mine, repeatedly — they get 100% of multiple clicks that fail to go through. I don’t know why clicking on the X next to “Close and enter Salon” doesn’t work for me (on three different browsers), but it doesn’t, and that causes me to be very annoyed, mostly at Salon.

I got to that blanked-out Salon page by following this Jay Rosen tweet. Earlier today I ran across the same thing when I followed this Phil Windley tweet to this page at Freeman. There I was greeted with the same kind of interruption, this time a self-promo for the pub’s email newsletter. Clicking on that X got me through, but I didn’t like having to do that, and frankly don’t remember what I read, because I arrived annoyed. (And I’m new to that pub, which makes the interruption even more rude.)

Here’s what I believe: It doesn’t matter how much money interruptive ads make for publications on the Web. They sap the readers’ tolerance and good will, and any unnecessary amount of that is too high a price to pay. (Videos? Okay, we’re used to that on TV. But serious text-based pubs like Salon and Freeman should chill.)

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I was just interviewed for a BBC television feature that will run around the same time the iPad is launched. I’ll be a talking head, basically. For what it’s worth, here’s what I provided as background for where I’d be coming from in the interview:

  1. The iPad will arrive in the market with an advantage no other completely new computing device for the mass market has ever enjoyed: the ability to run a 100,000-app portfolio that’s already developed, in this case for the iPhone. Unless the iPad is an outright lemon, this alone should assure its success.
  2. The iPad will launch a category within which it will be far from the only player. Apple’s feudal market-control methods (all developers and customers are trapped within its walled garden) will encourage competitors that lack the same limitations. We should expect other hardware companies to launch pads running on open source operating systems, especially Android and Symbian. (Disclosure: I consult Symbian.) These can support much larger markets than Apple’s closed and private platforms alone will allow.
  3. The first versions of unique hardware designs tend to be imperfect and get old fast. Such was the case with the first iPods and iPhones, and will surely be the case with the first iPads as well. The ones being introduced next week will seem antique one year from now.
  4. Warning to competitors: copying Apple is always a bad idea. The company is an example only of itself. There is only one Steve Jobs, and nobody else can do what he does. Fortunately, he only does what he can control. The rest of the market will be out of his control, and it will be a lot bigger than what fits inside Apple’s beautiful garden.

I covered some of that, and added a few things, which I’ll enlarge with a quick brain dump:

  1. The iPad brings to market a whole new form factor that has a number of major use advantages over smartphones, laptops and netbooks, the largest of which is this: it fits in a purse or any small bag — where it doesn’t act just like any of those other devices. (Aside from running all those iPhone apps.) It’s easy and welcoming to use — and its uses are not subordinated, by form, to computing or telephony. It’s an accessory to your own intentions. This is an advantage that gets lost amidst all the talk about how it’s little more than a new display system for “content.”
  2. My own fantasy for tablets is interactivity with the everyday world. Take retailing for example. Let’s say you syndicate your shopping list, but only to trusted retailers, perhaps through a fourth party (one that works to carry out your intentions, rather than sellers’ — though it can help you engage with them). You go into Target and it gives you a map of the store, where the goods you want are, and what’s in stock, what’s not, and how to get what’s mising, if they’re in a position to help you with that. You can turn their promotions on or off, and you can choose, using your own personal terms of service, what data to share with them, what data not to, and conditions of that data’s use. Then you can go to Costco, the tire store, and the university library and do the same. I know it’s hard to imagine a world in which customers don’t have to belong to loyalty programs and submit to coercive and opaque terms of data use, but it will happen, and it has a much better chance of happening faster if customers are independent and have their own tools for engagement. Which are being built. Check out what Phil Windley says here about one approach.
  3. Apple works vertically. Android, Symbian, Linux and other open OSes, with the open hardware they support, work horizonally. There is a limit to how high Apple can build its walled garden, nice as it will surely be. There is no limit to how wide everybody else can make the rest of the marketplace. For help imagining this, see Dave Winer’s iPad as a Coral Reef.
  4. Content is not king, wrote Andrew Oldyzko in 2001. And he’s right. Naturally big publishers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Condé Nast, the Book People) think so. Their fantasy is the iPad as a hand-held newsstand (where, as with real-world newsstands, you have to pay for the goods). Same goes for the TV and movie people, who see the iPad as a replacement for their old distribution systems (also for pay). No doubt these are Very Big Deals. But how the rest of us use iPads (and other tablets) is a much bigger deal. Have you thought about how you’ll blog, or whatever comes next, on an iPad? Or on any tablet? Does it only have to be in a browser? What about using a tablet as a production device, and not just an instrument of consumption? I don’t think Apple has put much thought into this, but others will, outside Apple’s walled garden. You should too. That’s because we’re at a juncture here. A fork in the road. Do we want the Internet to be broadcasting 2.0 — run by a few content companies and their allied distributors? Or do we want it to be the wide open marketplace it was meant to be in the first place, and is good for everybody? (This is where you should pause and read what Cory Doctorow and Dave Winer say about it.)
  5. We’re going to see a huge strain on the mobile data system as iPads and other tablets flood the world. Here too it will matter whether the mobile phone companies want to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, or just conduits for their broadcasting and content production partners. (Or worse, old fashioned phone companies, treating and billing data in the same awful ways they bill voice.) There’s more money in the former than the latter, but the latter are their easy pickings. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes.

I also deal with all this in a longer post that will go up elsewhere. I’ll point to it here when it comes up. Meanwhile, dig this post by Dave Winer and this one by Jeff Jarvis.

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What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later...] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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