State of the VRooM, 2014

As of today, ProjectVRM is eight years old.

So now seems like a good time for a comprehensive (or at least long) report on what we’ve been doing all this time, how we’ve been doing it, and what we’ve been learning along the way.

My job here is to instigate. So look at everything below as a draft requiring improvement. Bring on the edits, by email (dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu) or by commenting.

Here are some shortcuts to each section:

  1. History
  2. Development
  3. Community
  4. Thought leadership
  5. Causes
  6. Verticals
  7. Investment
  8. Research
  9. Opportunity

1. History

ProjectVRM is one of many research projects at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. It started when I began a four-year fellowship at Berkman in September, 2006. In those days Berkman fellows were encouraged to work on a project. I had lots of guidance from Berkman staff and other veterans; but what best focused my purpose was something Terry Fisher said at one of the orientation talks: that Berkman did its best to be neutral about the subjects it studies, but also that “we do look for effects.”

The effect-generating work for which I was best known at the time was The Cluetrain Manifesto, which I co-authored seven years earlier with Chris Locke, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. By most measures Cluetrain was a huge success. The original website launched a meme that won’t quit, and the book that followed was a bestseller.(It still sells well today). But I felt that its alpha clue, written by Chris Locke, still wasn’t true. It said,

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

There is a theory in there that says the Internet gives human beings (the first person we) the reach they need to exceed the grasp of marketers (the second person your).

So either the theory wasn’t true, or the Internet was a necessary but insufficient condition for the theory to prove out. I went with the latter and decided to to work on the missing stuff.

That stuff couldn’t come from marketers, because they were on the second person side. In legal terms, they were the second party, not the first. This is why their embrace  of  Cluetrain’s “markets are conversations” couldn’t do the job. Demand needed help that Supply couldn’t provide. What we needed, as individuals, were  first party solutions — ones that worked for us.

The more I thought about the absence of first party solutions, the more I realized that this was a huge hole in the marketplace: one that was hard to see from the client-server perspective, always drawn like this:

468px-Client-server-model.svg

While handy and normative, client-server is also retro. Here’s a graphic from Virtual Teams: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology (Jessical Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, 2000,  p. 47) that puts it in perspective:

lipnack

Client-server is hierarchical, bureaucratic industrial and agricultural (see the image below). But it’s also most of what we experience on the Web, and also where the entirety of the supply side sits. So, even if Cluetrain is right when it says (in Thesis #7) “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy,” subversion goes slow when the people running the servers are in near-absolute control and hardly care at all about links. In less abstract terms, what we have on the Web is this:

calf-cow

As clients we go to servers for the milk of text, graphics, sound and videos. We get all those, plus cookies (and other tracking methods) to remember who we are and where we were the last time we showed up. And, since we’re just clients, and servers do all the heavy lifting  (and with technology what can be done will be done) the commercial Web’s ranch has turned into what Bruce Schneier calls Our Internet surveillance state.

By 2006 it was already clear to me that we could make the whole marketplace a lot bigger if individuals were fully capable human beings and not just calves — if we equipped Demand to drive Supply at least as well as Supply drives Demand.

To help people imagine what will happen when Demand reaches full power, I wrote a Linux Journal column a few months earlier, titled “The Intention Economy.” Here’s the gist of it:

The Intention Economy grows around buyers, not sellers. It leverages the simple fact that buyers are the first source of money, and that they come ready-made. You don’t need advertising to make them.

The Intention Economy is about markets, not marketing. You don’t need marketing to make Intention Markets.

The Intention Economy is built around truly open markets, not a collection of silos. In The Intention Economy, customers don’t have to fly from silo to silo, like a bees from flower to flower, collecting deal info (and unavoidable hype) like so much pollen. In The Intention Economy, the buyer notifies the market of the intent to buy, and sellers compete for the buyer’s purchase. Simple as that.

The Intention Economy is built around more than transactions. Conversations matter. So do relationships. So do reputation, authority and respect. Those virtues, however, are earned by sellers (as well as buyers) and not just “branded” by sellers on the minds of buyers like the symbols of ranchers burned on the hides of cattle.

The Intention Economy is about buyers finding sellers, not sellers finding (or “capturing”) buyers.

In The Intention Economy, a car rental customer should be able to say to the car rental market, “I’ll be skiing in Park City from March 20-25. I want to rent a 4-wheel drive SUV. I belong to Avis Wizard, Budget FastBreak and Hertz 1 Club. I don’t want to pay up front for gas or get any insurance. What can any of you companies do for me?” — and have the sellers compete for the buyer’s business.

This car rental use case is one I’ve used to illustrate what would be made possible by “user-centric” or “independent” identity, which was also the subject of the cover story in last October’s Linux Journal, plus this piece a year earlier, and various keynotes I’ve given at Digital Identity World, going back to 2002. It is also the use case against which the new open source Higgins project was framed.

Even though I’ve been thinking out loud about Independent Identity for years, I didn’t have a one-word adjective for the kind of market economy it would yield, or where it would thrive. Now, thanks to all the unclear talk at eTech about attention, intentional is that adjective, because intent is the noun that matters most in any economy that gives full respect to what only customers can do, which is buy.

Like so many other things that I write about (including everything I’ve written about identity), The Intention Economy is a provisional idea. It’s an observation that might have no traction at all. Or, it might be a snowball: an core idea with enough heft to roll, and with enough adhesion to grow, so others add their own thoughts and ideas to it.

So that’s the purpose I chose for my new Berkman project: to get a snowball of development rolling toward the Intention Economy.

The project was lightweight from the start, consisting of myself and volunteers. Our instruments were this blog, a wiki, a mailing list and events. In gatherings of project volunteers at Berkman and elsewhere, we narrowed our focus to encouraging development of tools for independence and engagement. That is, tools that would make individuals both independent of other entities (especially companies) and better able to engage with them. These shaped the principles, goals and tools listed on our wiki.

The term VRM came about accidentally. I was talking about my still-nameless project on a Gillmor Gang podcast in October 2006. Another guest on the show, Mike Vizard, started using the term VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management — or the customer-side counterpart of CRM, for Customer Relationship Management, which was then about a $6.2 billion B2B software and services industry.  (It’s now past $20 billion.) The Gillmor Gang is a popular show, and the term stuck. It wasn’t perfect (we wanted a broader focus than “vendors,” which is also a B2B term, rather than C2B). But the market made a decision and we ran with it. Since then VRM has gained a broader meaning anyway. Every thing (hardware, software, policies, legal moves) that enables an individual to interact with full agency in any relationship is a  VRM thing. “RM” turns out to  be handy for sub-categories as well, such as GRM (government relationship management) and HRM (health relationship management).

ProjectVRM has always been unusual for Berkman in two ways. One is that it has been focused on business — the commercial side of the “society” in Berkman’s name. The other is that it put the development horse ahead of the research cart. So, while we always wanted to do research (and did some along the way, such as with ListenLog), we felt it was important to create research-worthy effects first.

My first mistake was thinking we would have those effects within a year. My second mistake was thinking we would have them within four years — the length of my fellowship. It has taken twice that long, and still requires one more piece. More about that below, in the Research and Opportunities sections.

In its early years, when it was pure pioneering, ProjectVRM had a lot of volunteer organizational help. There were weekly conference calls and meetings, and events held in Cambridge, London, San Francisco and elsewhere. But the main gatherings from the start were at the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW), an unconference I co-organize at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (Our next VRM Day is 27 October. Register here.)

IIW also started with Berkman help. It was first convened as a group I pulled together for a December 31, 2004 Gillmor Gang podcast on identity. Steve Gillmor called the nine participants in the show “The Identity Gang.” The conversation continued by phone and email, with growing energy. So we convened again, this time in person with a larger group, in February 2005 at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was there that John Clippinger asked if we would like “a clubhouse” at Berkman. I said yes, and John had Paul Trevithick create a Berkman site for the gang. As interest collected around the site and its list, three members — Phil Windley (then CIO of Utah), Kaliya Hamlin (aka “IdentityWoman“) and I morphed the gang meetings into IIW, which met for the first time in Fall of 2005. Our 19th is coming up on 28-30 October. (Register here.)  It tends to have 180-250 participants from all over the world. While identity remains the central theme, as an unconference its topics can be whatever participants choose. VRM is always a main focus, however. And we always have a “VRM Day” at the Museum the day before IIW. The next is on 27 October. It’s free.

The Identity Gang  also grew out of other efforts by a number of individuals and groups:

I’ll leave it at those for now. Others can add to it and help me connect the dots later. What matters is that ProjectVRM has both roots and branches that intertwine with the digital identity movement. I unpack more in the Community section below. Meanwhile it is essential to note that Kim Cameron’s Seven Laws of Identity had a large guiding influence on ProjectVRM. This is partly because they were all good laws, but mostly because they came from the individual’s side:

  1. User control and consent
  2. Minimal disclosure for a constrained use
  3. Justifiable parties (“disclosure of identifying information is limited to parties having a necessary and justifiable place in a given identity relationship”)
  4. Directed identity (“facilitating discovery while preventing unnecessary release of correlation handles”)
  5. Pluralism of operators and technologies
  6. Human integration
  7. Consistent experience across contexts

As you see, all of those should apply just as well to VRM tools and services.

We have had two interns in our history, both hugely helpful. The first was Doug Kochelek, an HLS law student with a BS and a EE from Rice. He came on board at the very beginning, in September 2006. He’s the guy who worked with Berkman’s Geek Cave to create the wiki, the blog and the list. He also shook down many technical problems along the way. The second was Alan Gregory, a 2009 summer intern and a law student at the University of Florida. Alan helped with research on the chilling effects of copyright expansion on Web streaming, which was a focus of a research project we did with PRX called ListenLog — a self-tracking feature installed in PRX’s Public Media Player iPhone app. (Here’s a presentation Alan and I did at a Fellows Hour.) ListenLog was the brainchild of Keith Hopper, then of NPR, and was years ahead of its time. Work on those projects was funded by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.

To keep its weight light and its work focused on development and relevant issues, ProjectVRM does not have its own presence on Twitter or Facebook. Its social media activity is instead comprised of postings by individual participants in the project, and the memes they drive. #VRM, for example, gets tweeted plenty, and has come to serve as shorthand for individual empowerment.

In 2007 we did a good job of publicizing what VRM and ProjectVRM were about, and got a lot of buzz. It was  premature, and our first big lesson: it’s not good to publicize anything for which the code isn’t ready. In the absence of code, it’s easy for commentators (such as here) to assume that what we’re trying to do can’t be done.

So we got more heads-down after that, and avoided publicity for its own sake.

not_iball1Still, the idea of VRM is attractive, especially to folks at the leading edge of CRM. This is what caused nearly an entire issue of CRM magazine to be devoted to VRM ,in May 2010. It too was ahead of its time, but it helped. So did two books that came out the same year: John Hagel’s The Power of Pull, and David Siegel’s Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business. John also helped in June 2012 with The Rise of Vendor Relationship Management.

That essay was a review of  The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, which arrived in May from Harvard Business Review Press. The book reported on VRM development progress and detailed the projected shifts in market power that I first called for in my 2006 column with the same title.

While  The Cluetrain Manifesto has been a bigger seller, The Intention Economy Intention-economy-cover has had plenty of effects. Currently, for example, it is informing the work of Mozilla’s commercial arm, headed by Darren Herman, who this year hired @SeanBohan from the VRM talent pool. (Here’s a talk I gave at Mozilla in New York last month.) On the publicity side, the book was compressed to a Wall Street Journal full-page Review section cover essay titled “The Customer as a God.”

So far ProjectVRM has one spin-off: Customer Commons, a California-based nonprofit. Its mission is “restore the balance of power, respect and trust between individuals and organizations that serve them.” CuCo is a membership organization with the immodest ambition of attracting “the 100%.” In other words, all customers. And it is modeled to some degree on Creative Commons CustomerCommonsLogo4(a successful early Berkman spin-off), by serving as the neutral place where machine- and person-readable versions of personal terms, conditions, policies and preferences of the individual can be maintained. Among those terms will be those restricting or preventing unwanted tracking, and among those policies will be those establishing the boundaries we call privacy. Customer Commons is a client of the Cyberlaw Clinic, which is helping develop both. But much more can be done. We’ll visit that in the Opportunities section below.

2. Development

The list of VRM developers is now up to many dozens. While most don’t use the term “VRM” in marketing their offerings (nor do we push it), the term is gathering steam. For example, while updating the developers list a few minutes ago, I found two new companies that use VRM in the description of their offerings: InformationAnswers (“Where CRM meets VRM.”) and PeerCraft (“The main purpose for PeerCraft is to support Vendor Relation Management.”)

Some developers on our list are now familiar brands, though none started that way, and most did not exist when ProjectVRM began. Some of the successes (e.g. Uber and Lyft) have not been directly engaged with ProjectVRM, but are listed because they are what we call “VRooMy.” Other successes (e.g. Personal.com, Reputation.com and GetSatisfaction) have been engaged, one way or another. One that got a lot of notice lately is Thumbtack, for picking up a $100 million investment from Google. That’s atop the $30 million they got earlier this year.

In fact many VRM developers are now having an easier time getting money, thanks to a trend on which ProjectVRM has had influence: a shift of market interest away from “push” (e.g. advertising) and toward “pull” (e.g. VRM). (More about investment below.)

Several years ago, a bunch of VRM developers (and I) worked on developing SWIFT’s Digital Asset Grid. (SWIFT is the main international system for moving money around, and is headquartered in Belgium.) The code is open source, as is other VRooMy work in the financial sector. (Such as the stuff being done by the Romanian company I wrote about here.) OIX also maintains a set of “trust frameworks,” one of which is at the heart of the Respect Network, which I’ll unpack below.

While there is a lot of development in the U.S., and there are VRM startups scattered around the world, the three main hotbeds of activity are the UK, France and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). Each is a community of its own, cohering in different ways. It’s helpful to visit each, because they represent unique contexts and resources for moving forward.

The UK

In the UK, government is central, through a role one official there calls “being a giant consumer of personal data from citizens.” It gets that data either from individuals directly or from companies that provide individuals with what are called variously called personal clouds, data stores, lockers and vaults. While all these companies perform as intermediaries, they work primarily for the individual. To differentiate this new class of company from traditional intermediaries, ProjectVRM calls them “fourth parties”. (That term is alien to lawyers, but is catching on anyway. For example, there is a new VRM company in Australia with the name “4th Party.”)

Leading the UK government in a VRooMy direction from the inside is in the Efficiency and Reform Group of the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the Cabinet Office.  In this presentation by Chris Ferguson, Deputy Director of the GDS we see the government pulling in big companies (e.g. Google, Equifax, Lexis-Nexis, Experian, Paypal, Royal Mail, BT, Amazon, O2, Symantec) to legitimize and engage fourth parties serving individuals (e.g. Mydex, Paoga and Allfiled).

Two outside groups working with the UK government are Ctrl-Shift and OIX (Open Identity Exchange). Ctrl-Shift is a research consultancy that has been engaged with ProjectVRM from the beginning. OIX is a Washington-based international .org focused on ‘building trust in online transactions.’

France

VRM is a familiar and well-understood concept in France. There are meetups (such as this one) and many VRooMy startups, such as Privowny (led by French folk and HQ’d in Palo Alto), CozyCloud, and OneCub. A big organizational driver of VRM in France is Fing.org, a think tank that brings together large companies (e.g. Carrefour, Societe General, Orange and LaPoste) with small companies such as the ones I just mentioned. They do this around research projects. For example, ProjectVRM informed Fing’s Mesinfos research project (described here).

Oceania

If we were to produce a heat map of VRM activity, perhaps the brightest area would be Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been down that way three times since June of last year, to help developers and participate in meetings and events. As with the UK, government in Australia is very supportive of VRM development, and with empowering individuals generally. (We met with three agencies on one of the trips: one with the federal government in Canberra and two with the New South Wales government in Sydney. One of them called citizens “customers” of government services, because “they pay for them.”) Startups there include Flamingo, Meeco, Welcomer, Geddup,4th Party, Fifth Quadrant, Onexus and the New Zealand based MyWave.

Recent changes in Australian privacy policy also attract and support VRM development. Australian companies (and government agencies) collecting personal data from people on the Web (or anywhere) are now required to make that data available to those people to use as they please. (Or so I understand it.) This gives Canberra-based Welcomer, for example, a reason to exist. Welcomer makes “private data dashboards” that “show collected summaries of the personal data held by organisations and by individuals including the person themselves. The dashboard gives a summary of personal data with the ability to link through to the source data (where required).”

This summer, the first commercial community to grow out of ProjectVRM work, the Respect Network (which Privacy By Design (PbD) calls the “World’s First Global Private Cloud Network”) held a world tour to launch the community and stimulate funding for members’ common goals, standards and code development. I was on the tour (London, San Francisco, Sydney, Tel Aviv), and wrote a report on the ProjectVRM blog. (Naturally, I shot pictures. Those are here. I also spoke at each venue. One of my Sydney talks is here.)

3. Community

To understand where ProjectVRM fits in the world, and how it works, I like the Competing Values Framework by Kim S. Cameron (no relation to the one above), Robert E. Quinn, Jeff DeGraff and Anjan Thakor:

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 5.48.45 PM

While there are many VRM developers operating in the lower half of that graphic, what ProjectVRM does is in the upper half of that diagram.  We have a collaborative clan of flexible and creative individuals in an adhocracy, working together on long-term transformational change.

Pretty much everything that gets criticized about our efforts falls in the lower half. That’s because we have no hierarchy and don’t work to control what anybody does. And progress on the whole  has been slow. (Though there are exceptions, such as Uber, Lyft and Thumbtack.)

That graphic is just one of many helpful ones in David Ronfeldt‘s Organizational forms compared, which he’s been updating since first publishing it in May 2009. One reason it is helpful is that the hierarchical short-term stuff is obvious and easily understood, while collaborative long term stuff is much harder to grok. It’s like the difference between weather and geology. Which makes me think that graphic should be flipped vertically: slow stuff on the bottom, fast stuff at the top. That’s what the Long Now foundation does with this graphic, which I’ve always loved:

layers of time

The change we want most is down in the culture, governance and infrastructure layers, even though our focus is on commerce. This also explains why we run into trouble when we play with fashion. The last thing we want is for VRM to be cool. (This is also a lesson I learned and re-learned over two decades of watching Linux, free software and open source for Linux Journal.)

The following graphics are all from David Ronfeldt’s scholastic gatherings. Each in its own way helps explain how our community works — and how it doesn’t. First, from one of Bob Jessop‘s many papers on governance and metagovernance (this one from 2003):

jessop figure

That’s our column on the right.

Then there is this, from Federico Iannacci and Eve Mitleton–Kelly’s Beyond markets and firms: the emergence of Open Source networks (First Monday, May, 2005):

iannacci

That’s us in the middle. We’re a stable and decentralized heterarchy that coordinates by mutual adjustment.

Then there is this from Karen Stephenson‘s Neither Hierarchy nor Network: An Argument for Heterarchy (in Ross Dawson’s Trends in the Living Networks, April, 2009):

stephenson

Again that’s us on the right.

Something I like about those last two is the respect they give to heterarchy, which has been a focus for many years of Adriana Lukas, another VRM stalwart who has been with the project since before the beginning. Here’s her TED talk on the subject.

Finally, there is this graphic, from  Clay Spinuzzi‘s Toward a Typology of Activities (2013):

Spinuzzi

In Spinuzzi’s Losing by Expanding: Corralling the Runaway Object, an object is identified as “a material or problem that is cyclically transformed by collective activity.” With our tacit, inductive and flexible approach, this also characterizes the way our community works.

One can see all this at work on the ProjectVRM mailing list, an active collection of 615 subscribers. We also meet in person twice a year at IIW, starting one day in advance of the event, with “VRM Day.” This adds up to a total of at least eight days per year of in-person collaboration time.

Most of the rest of the VRM community meets locally, or through the organizing work of organizations such as Respect Network (U.S. based, but spanning the world) and Fifth Quadrant (Sydney based, and focused on Australia and New Zealand).

If things go the way I expect, Mozilla will also emerge as a center of VRM interest and development as well. (For example, I expect VRM to be a topic in October at MozFestival in the U.K.

4. Influence

Nearly all VRM influence derives from the work of its volunteers and its developers. “Markets are conversations,” Cluetrain said, and we drive a lot of those. But they rarely get driven exactly the way I, or we, would like. Conversations are like that. EIC awardSo are heterarchical networks. Everybody wants to come at issues from their own angle, and often with their own vocabulary. We see that especially with analysts and think tanks. None of them like the term VRM. (In fact lots of developers avoid it as well. I don’t blame them, but we’re stuck with it.) Ctrl-Shift, for example, calls fourth parties PIMS, for Personal Information Management Services. Kuppinger-Cole, which gave ProjectVRM an award in 2008 (that’s the trophy on the right), insists on the term “Life Management Platforms.” (I pushed it for awhile. Didn’t take.) Here in the U.S., Forrester Research calls the same category PIDM for Personal Identity and Data Management. We don’t care, because we look for effects.

As for the influence of others on ProjectVRM, there are too many to list.

5. Issues

Privacy is the biggest one right now. (A Google search brings up more than five billion results). We’ve done a lot to drive interest in the topic, and have brought thought leadership to the topic as well. (Here is one example.) On behalf of ProjectVRM, I’ve participated in many privacy-focused events, such as the Data Privacy Hackathon earlier this year, and at GovLab gatherings such as the one reported on here. I’m also in Helen Nissenbaum‘s Privacy Research Group at the NYU Law School, where I presented ProjectVRM developers’ privacy work on February 26 of this year.

Tied in with privacy online, or lack of it, is users’ need to submit to onerous terms of service and meaningless privacy policies. Those terms, also called contracts of adhesion, have been normative ever since industry won the industrial revolution, but have become especially egregious in the online world. Today there is a crying need both for better terms on the sites’ and services’ side, and for terms individuals can asset on their side. From the beginning ProjectVRM has been focused mostly on the latter.

Trust is another huge issue, also tied with privacy. ProjectVRM has both encouraged and influenced the growth of “trust frameworks” such as the Respect Trust Framework and others (there are five) at OIX, as well as Open Mustard Seed and OpenPDS under IDcubed at the MIT Media Lab.

VRM+CRM has been a focus from the start, but the timing has not been right until now. At the beginning, we expected CRM companies to welcome VRM. Press and analysts in the CRM space were encouraging from the start (CRM Magazine devoted an entire issue to it in 2010), but the big CRM companies showed little interest, until this year.

Sitting between VRM and CRM is a category variously called CX (for Customer Experience), CRX (for Customer Relationship Experience), EM (for Experience Management) CEM or CXM (for Customer Experience Management) and other two and three-letter initialisms. Another happening in the midst of all these is “co-creation” of experience management. The purpose here is to bring customers and companies together to co-create experience in a lab-like setting where research can be done. This is what Flamingo does in Australia. In a similar way, MyWave in New Zealand (with developers in Australia) “puts the customer in charge of their data and the experience” for a “direct ‘segment of one’ relationship with businesses.”

With the Internet of Things (IoT) heating up as a topic, there is also an increased focus, on the “own cycle,” rather than the “buy cycle” of the customer experience. I explain the difference here, using this graphic from Esteban Kolsky:

oracle-twist

In our lives the own cycle is in fact the largest, because we own things — lots of them — all the time and are buying things only some of the time. In fact, most of the time we aren’t buying anything, or even close to looking. This is a festering problem with the advertising-driven commercial Web, which assumes that we are constantly in the market for whatever it is they push at us. In addition to not buying stuff all the time, we are employing more and more ways of turning advertising off (ad blockers are the top browser extensions). For advertising and ad-supported companies, including millions of ad-supported publishers on the Web, this is a mounting crisis. According to an August 2013 PageFair report, “up to 30% of web visitors are blocking ads, and that the number of adblocking users is growing at an astonishing 43% per year.” In The Intention Economy, I called online advertising a “bubble” and I stand by the claim. It’s just a matter of time.

As the stuff we own gets smart, and as more of it finds its way onto the Net service becomes far more important to companies than sales. And VRM developers are laying important groundwork in service. I wrote about this in Linux Journal last year, drawing special attention to the pioneering work led by Phil Windley, who has been a VRM stalwart since before the beginning. In fact it’s Phil’s work that makes clear that things themselves don’t need to be smart to exist on the Internet. All they need is clouds that are smart, which Phil calls picos for persistent computing objects. In this HBR post I explain how the shared clouds of products can be platforms for relationship between company and customers , with learnings flowing in both directions.

6. Verticals

Relationship

This was the first for VRM, and it’s still a primary interest. We need tools on the individual’s side for managing many relationships. There still is not a good “relationship dashboard,” though there are a number of efforts in this direction. But as soon as we have code on the VRM side that matches up with code on the CRM side (including, for example, call centers, which are also interested in VRM), we’ll rock.

Payments

Even though ProjectVRM’s mission is centered around relationship and conversation, transaction has always been on the table as well. Our first efforts, starting in 2006, were around making it as easy as possible for individuals to donate money in one standard way to many different public radio stations.

We have been involved in many meetings and discussions around payments and secure data transactions, and some projects as well. We worked with SWIFT on the Digital Asset Grid, and have been in conversations with banks (e.g. Chase) and VISA Europe for a long time as well. With the rise of alternative currencies (e.g. Bitcoin), distributed accounting (e.g. Blockchain), digital wallets and other new means for transacting and accounting, there are many ways for VRM developments to play.

Email

In what is being called “post-Snowden time,” many new secure and encrypted email approaches have evolved. While some are listed on the ProjectVRM developers list, we haven’t been very involved with them — at least not yet. But we are involved with developers working on privacy-protecting tools that can either be embedded in existing email systems or offer alternative communications “tunnels.”

Personal information Management

There are two breeds of development here.

One is fourth party services and code bases for managing and sharing personal data selectively online. There are now many of these. Some support self-hosting as well. (ProjectVRM has always been supportive of free software, open source, and the “first person technology” and “indie” movements.) One organization, the Respect Network, was created to provide a framework for substitutability of services and apps.

The other is code the individual uses to manage his or her own life, and connections out to the world. This is where calendar, email, IM, to-do lists, password managers and other convenience-producing apps for the connected world come together. There is no leader here, though there are many players, including Apple, Microsoft and Google.

A test case for VRM that applies to both kinds of solutions is this: being able to change my address, my last name or my phone number for many services in one move. This is exactly what the UK government is calling for from citizens’ personal information management systems (what Ctrl-Shift calls PIMS). A citizen should be able to change her address for the Royal Mail, the Passport Office and the National Health Service, all at once. Bonus links: Making things open, making things better, by Mike Bracken in the Gov.UK Government Digital Service blog, where Mike’s prior post, Reading the Digital Revolution featured this illustration by our old friend Paul Downey:

cluetrain-620x295

Apple’s HealthKit and HomeKit, which go live with the release of iOS 8on 9 September, also have some VRM developers excited, because it will make this kind of integration at the individual end easy to do in two verticals: Health and Home Automation.

Health

Early on with ProjectVRM, I avoided health as an issue, because I wanted to see real progress in my lifetime — and I felt that the situation in the U.S. was fubar. But other VRM folk did not agree, and have pushed VRM forward very aggressively in the health field. Dr. Adrian Gropper and Dr. Deborah Peel of Patient Privacy Rights have done a remarkable job of carrying the VRM flag up a very steep and slippery hill. Berkman veteran John Wilbanks is another active ProjectVRM volunteer whose work in health is broad, deep, influential and at the leading edge of the pioneering space where personal agency engages the wild and broken world of the U.S. health care system. Brian Behlendorf, the primary developer of the Apache Web server (which hosts the largest share of the world’s Web sites and services) and the CONNECT open source code base for health service collaboration, is also an active participant in ProjectVRM.

A number of VRM developers are working with, or paying close attention to, Apple’s HealthKit. In the words of one of those developers, “It’s very VRooMy.” HealthKit developments go live when Apple rolls out iOS 8 on 9 September.

Automotive

While a number of car makers are eager to spy on drivers, Volkswagen has put a stake in the ground. In March, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winkerhorn gave a keynote at the Cebit show that drew this headline: “Das Auto darf nicht zur Datenkrake warden.” My rusty Deutsch tells me he’s saying the car shouldn’t be a data octopus.

Toward that end, Phil Windley’s Kickstarter-based  Fuse will give drivers and car owners all the data churned out of their cars’ ODB-II port, which was created originally for diagnostics at car dealers and service stations.

Real Estate

The only products that cost us more than cars are homes. Here too we have a VRM greenfield. The leading mover and shaker here is Bill Wendell of Real Estate Café. He has always been way ahead of his time, but it’s clear his time is coming. (Here’s Bill leading a session at IIW 18 in May.)

7. Investment

There is an upswing of investment in start-ups on the “pull” — the individual’s — side of the marketplace. There is also a lot of angel money being spread around. One reason is that VCs on the whole today are more focused on late stage rounds than on early ones. (Watch Crunchbase to see this at work.) The other is that there seems to be a surfeit of wealthy people eager to make high-risk investments. In some cases government is also involved. In the UK, for example, the SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) program offers huge tax incentives to angel investors.

There is also work going on now toward a VRM fund. This is one of the outcomes of the last IIW (in May of this year), where investment emerged as a big theme, with a number of investors for the first time stepping up and participating in sessions. I’m involved in planning the fund, which is still in its preliminary stages. If it moves forward (which I believe it will), it should come into shape before next year, and perhaps even before the next IIW in late October.

8. Research

This has always been the future focus for ProjectVRM. This academic year is when I hope we get started on it in a major way. Read on.

9. Opportunity

There are a zillion things we could work on, but I’d like to focus on just one:  personal terms individuals proffer and sites and services can agree to. The Cyberlaw Clinic is already involved, though its work with Customer Commons, but much more can be done — and needs to be done, soon. The timing is totally right for this.

Respect Network is already working on a safe and private substitute for the “social login” buttons we get from Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. The Respect Connect button (explained here) is based onXDI , a protocol that employs “link contracts.” Drummond Reed, the father of XDI (and CEO of the Respect Network) describes link contracts as “machine-readable XDI descriptions of the permissions an individual is giving to another party for access to and usage of the owner’s personal data.” Very handy. And binding. In code.

So, what are those permissions — those terms? Lets come up with them between now and the end of this academic year.

Thinking out loud here…

We could host focused discussions and invite participants (including law folk — especially students, from anywhere) to vet terms the way the IETF vets Internet standards: with RFCs, or Requests for Comments. At the end of the project we will have both standard terms for posting at Customer Commons and reference implementations hosted by Berkman, or shared by Berkman over Github or some other data repository.

We’d also work with Mozilla (which has Persona, and other browser makers, if they want to get on board — which they should, and with Berkman’s convening power probably will.

And we’d bring to the table many dozens of developers already eager to see increased agency and term-proffering power on the individual’s side. I can easily see privacy dashboards, on both the client and the server sides of websites.

This work would also separate respectful actors on the supply side of the marketplace from ones that want to stick with the surveillance model. Some open source code for this already exists with Adblock Plus’s white list for non-surveillance-based advertisers. I would hope they’d be eager to participate as well. We (ProjectVRM, the Berkman Center or Customer Commons) could publish lists of conformant requirements for website and Web service providers, and lists (or databases) of conformant ones.

While there are lots of things we could do, this is the one I know will have the most leverage in the shortest time, and would be great fun as well.

It is also highly cross-disciplinary, with many lines of cooperation and collaboration within the university and out to the rest of the world. Right at Berkman we have the  Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project and its many connections to other centers at Harvard. Its mission — “to help enable the collection, analysis, and sharing of personal data for research in social science and other fields while providing privacy for individual subjects” — is up many VRM development alleys, especially around health care.

So let us know what you think.

Learning from bad @TWC #CX

Here in New York City, Time Warner Cable is down. (I’m getting on over my mobile phone’s T-Mobile data connection.)

According to DownDetector, TWC is also down in a lot of places:

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 7.44.38 AM

This is a developing story, in the midst of which I can take the opportunity to have a meaningful encounter with CX — Customer eXperience. Let’s make lemonade.

My cable modem shows the connection is live, but just blinking steadily in its attempt to pass data back and forth with TWC itself. Earlier ping tests (when the connection was merely bad) went somewhere, but latencies were all high. Now they go nowhere.

Calls to Time Warner Cable get me a message: “All circuits are busy now. Please try again later. Message NY-224-55.”

A visit to @TWC_Help finds the last two postings are on 15 and 22 August. TWC’s many other social channels on Twitter are useless promotional vehicles. A Twitter search for TWC shows lots of problems in lots of places, right now. So this is a developing story.
No doubt the story in the mainstream media will go along the lines of these two:
The big angle will be around the planned merger of  TWC and Comcast — two well-hated ogres.
But we’re here to help, not complain. What can we do with VRM here? Not just for TWC, but for every company in TWC’s position? Specifically,
  1. What code do we have already? and 
  2. What development paths are VRooMers on that can lead toward better CX?

[Later...] Nice follow from @Comradity.

Getting Respect

Respect Network (@RespectConnect) is a new kind of corporate animal: a for-profit company that is also a collection of developers and other interested parties (including nonprofits) gathered around common goals and principles. Chief among the latter is OIX‘s Respect Trust Framework, which is “designed to be self-reinforcing through use of a peer-to-peer reputation system.” Every person and organization agreeing to the framework is a peer. Here are the five principles to which all members agree:

Promise We will respect each other’s digital boundaries

Every Member promises to respect the right of every other Member to control the Member Information they share within the network and the communications they receive within the network.

Permission We will negotiate with each other in good faith

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that all sharing of Member Information and sending of communications will be by permission, and to be honest and direct about the purpose(s) for which permission is sought.

Protection We will protect the identity and data entrusted to us

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to provide reasonable protection for the privacy and security of Member Information shared with that Member.

Portability We will support other Members’ freedom of movement

As part of this promise, every Member agrees that if it hosts Member Information on behalf of another Member, the right to possess, access, control, and share the hosted information, including the right to move it to another host, belongs to the hosted Member.

Proof We will reasonably cooperate for the good of all Members

As part of this promise, every Member agrees to share the reputation metadata necessary for the health of the network, including feedback about compliance with this trust framework, and to not engage in any practices intended to game or subvert the reputation system.

The Respect Network’s founding partners are working, each in their own way, to bring the Respect Trust Framework into common use. I like it as a way to scaffold up a market for VRM tools and services.

This summer Respect Network launched a world tour on which I participated as a speaker and photographer. (Disclosures: Respect Network paid my way, and The Searls Group, my consultancy, has had a number of Respect Network partners as clients. I am also on the board of Flamingo and  Customer Commons, a nonprofit. I don’t however, play favorites. I want to see everybody doing VRM succeed, and I help all of them every way I can. ) We started in London, then hit San Francisco, Sydney and Tel Aviv before heading home to the U.S. Here’s the press coverage:

In the midst of that, Respect Network also announced crowd funding of this button:

respect-connect-button

It operates on the first  promise of the Respect Trust Framework: We will respect each others’ digital boundaries. Think of it as a safe alternative to the same kind of button by Facebook.

The campaign also launched =names (“equals names”) to go with the Respect Connect button, and much else, eventually. These names are yours alone, unlike, say, your Twitter @ handle, which Twitter owns.

There is a common saying: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product” In respect of that, =names cost something (like domain names), though not much. Selling =names are CSPs: Cloud Service Providers. There are five so far (based, respectively, in Las Vegas, Vienna, London, New York/Jerusalem and Perth):

bosonweb-logo danube_clouds-logo paoga-logo emmett_global-logo onexus-logo

They  are substitutable. Meaning you can port your =name and data cloud from one to the other as easily as you port your phone number from one company to another. (In fact the company that does this in the background for both your =name and your phone number is Neustar, another Respect Network partner.) You can also self-host your own personal cloud. Mine =name is =Doc, and it’s managed through Danube Clouds. (I actually got it a few years back. The tech behind =names has been in the works for awhile.)

The tour was something of a shakedown cruise. Lots was learned along the way, and everybody involved is re-jiggering their products, services and plans to make the most of what they picked up. I’ll share some of my own learnings for ProjectVRM in the next post.

 

 

Apple HealthKit and VRM

Withhealthkit-hero iOS8, Apple is releasing a pile of new capabilities for developers, such as HomeKit, CarPlay, Family Sharing and HealthKit. These don’t just bring new stuff to your iPhone and iPad. Start digging and you see a framework for personal control of one’s interactions in the world: one that moves Apple away from the norms set by Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other companies that make most of their money in the advertising business.  Explains Greg Lloyd,

Google, Yahoo and others gather correlate, analyze and use personal identity metadata including your location, search history, browsing history to monetize for their own purposes or to sell to others. I believe Apple is trying to build a counter story on security using identity and services encapsulated in devices you own. In addition to continuity, examples include OS8 MAC address randomization for WiFi localization privacy and hardware partitioned storage of iOS fingerprint data.

The italics are mine. Our devices — phones in particular — are becoming extensions of our selves: as personal as our chothes, wallets and keys. They bring new ways for us to engage with people, organizations and other things in the world. There is enormous room for growth in personal empowerment with these devices, especially if those devices are fully ours, and not the hands of advertising companies in our pockets.

Apple, one hopes, aims mainly to enhance our agency — our capacity to act with effect in the world — through our mobile devices. And they have an important advantage, beyond their gigantic size and influence: we pay them. We don’t pay Google, Facebook and Yahoo for most of what we get from them. Advertisers do.

Haydn Shaughnessy unpacks the difference in The Revolution Hidden In The Apple Health Kit :

When you do business with Google, as a consumer, you strike a deal. In return for free search you get ads and for those ads you agree to your data being collected, stored and sold on. The way Apple sees business up ahead, when you use an Apple health service, Apple manages data for you, on your terms. That is a revolution.

health_iconSo, as I’ve been digging thorugh the scant literature on Healthkit and Apple’s new Health app, I’ve looked for ways they line up with VRM principles, goals and tool requirements. Here’s what I see (√ is yes, ? is don’t know. x is no — but I don’t see any of those yet):

VRM Principles

√ Customers must enter relationships with vendors as independent actors
√ Customers must be the points of integration for their own data
√ Customers must have control of data they generate and gather. This means they must be able to share data selectively and voluntarily.
? Customers must be able to assert their own terms of engagement.
√* Customers must be free to express their demands and intentions outside of any one company’s control.

VRM Goals

√ Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations.
√ Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data are no longer scattered throughout a forest of silos.
√ Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
√ Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by others, and for how long. At the individual’s discretion, this may include agreements requiring others to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
? Give individuals the ability to assert their own terms of service, reducing or eliminating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
? Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
? Make individuals platforms for business by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers
? Base relationship-managing tools on open standards and open APIs (application program interfaces).

VRM Tools:

√* VRM tools are personal. As with hammers, wallets, cars and mobile phones, people use them as individuals,. They are social only in secondary ways.
? VRM tools help customers express intent. These include preferences, policies, terms and means of engagement, authorizations, requests and anything else that’s possible in a free market, outside any one vendor’s silo or ranch.
√ VRM tools help customers engage. This can be with each other, or with any organization, including (and especially) its CRM system.
√ VRM tools help customers manage. This includes both their own data and systems and their relationships with other entities, and their systems.
√* VRM tools are substitutable. This means no source of VRM tools can lock users in.

That’s a wishful reading, and conditional in many ways. The *, for example, means “within Apple’s walled garden,” which may not be substitutable. Greg thinks this isn’t a problem:

…many people value a safer, more consistent, curated, and delightfully designed user experience to a toolkit… I want my personal information and keys to access heath, home, car, family information stored in a walled garden in a device I own, with gated access looking in for Apps I authorize, and freedom to search, link and use anything looking out. Apple appears to be develop its stack top down, starting from a vision of a seamless user experience that just works, giving developers the extensions they need to innovate and prosper.

As a guy who favors free software and open source, I agree to the extent that I think the best we can get at this stage is a company with the heft of an Apple stepping and doing some Right Things. If we’re lucky, we’ll get what Brian Behlendorf calls “minimum viable centralization.” And maximum personal empowerment. Eventually.

I am also made hopeful by some of the other stuff I’m seeing. For example, Haydn quotes this from @PaulMadsen of Ping Identity (both of which are old friends of VRM):

Apple is positioning its Health app as the point of aggregation for all the user’s different health data, and Health Kit the development platform to enable that integration.

In this I hear echoed (or at least validated) Joe Andrieu‘s landmark post, VRM — The User as a Point of Integration.

I also think Apple is the only company today that in a position to lead in that direction. Microsoft might have been able to do it when they dominated the desktop world, but those days are long gone. Our main devices are now mobile ones, where Apple has a huge share and great influence.

Apple is also working with Epic Systems (the largest B2B tech provider to the health care business) and the Mayo Clinic (the “first and largest integrated nonprofit medical group practice in the world”). Out of the gate this has enormous promise for bringing health care systems into alignment with the individual, and for providing foundations for real VRM+CRM connections.

Of course we’ll know a lot more once iOS 8 gets here.

Meanwhile, some questions.

  • Can data gathered in the Health app easily flowed out into one’s non-Apple personal cloud or data store, and then flowed into the health care system of the individual’s choice?
  • In more concrete terms, would a UK citizen with integrated data in her Health app be able to flow that data into her Mydex personal data store, and from there into the National Health Service?  I don’t know, but I hope Mydex, Paoga, Ctrl-Shift and other players in the UK can find out soon, if they don’t know already.
  • Likewise, for the U.S., I would like to know if data can flow, at the individual’s control, back and forth from one’s Personal data vault or one’s Bosonweb or Emmett personal cloud and one’s Apple-hosted health data cloud (or a self-hosted one connected to one’s Apple cloud. And if data can easily flow from those to doctors and other health care providers. In Personal’s case, I’d like to know if data can flow through the Fill It app, which would be a handy thing.
  • For Australia and New Zealand, I’d like to know if the same thing can be done for individuals from their MyWave, Welcomer, Geddup or Onexus personal clouds. I’d also like to know if data in the Health app can be viewed and used through, for example, Meeco‘s app. And what are the opportunities for any of those companies, plus 4th Party, Flamingo and other players, to participate in an ecosystem that has any and all of the companies just mentioned, plus Medicare (the Australian national health service, not to be confused with the American one just for persons 65+)?
  • Same questions go for Qiy in the Netherlands, CozyCloud in France, and many other VRooMy developers in other places. And what’s the play for the Respect Network, which brings consistencies to what many of the developers listed above bring to the market?

In all cases the unanswered question is whether or not your health data is locked inside Apple’s Health app. Apple says no: “With HealthKit, developers can make their apps even more useful by allowing them to access your health data, too. And you choose what you want shared. For example, you can allow the data from your blood pressure app to be automatically shared with your doctor. Or allow your nutrition app to tell your fitness apps how many calories you consume each day. When your health and fitness apps work together, they become more powerful. And you might, too.”

Sounds VRooMy to me. But we’ll see.

 

Cluetrain’s One Clue

dillo2Most people reading The Cluetrain Manifesto go straight to its 95 Theses, and usually quote the top one. I won’t mention it, because I would rather focus on Cluetrain’s main clue, which most people miss. It says this:

“if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp.

deal with it.

This statement expresses the full Cluetrain spirit —not only because of what it says, but because it adrenalized us, and guided everything we wrote in the Manifesto from that moment forward.

If Chris Locke hadn’t sent that little .gif to David Weinberger, Rick Levine and me, it’s possible (or probable) that Cluetrain would not have been written. The One Clue was, and remains, that important.

I think there are four reasons why Cluetrain’s One Clue rarely gets quoted:

  1. It’s separated from the 95.
  2. It’s a graphic, so people can’t copy/paste text out of it.
  3. It’s too hard for business people to accept.  And, because of that,
  4. It’s not yet true.

I have come to believe it is mostly #3 and #4.

Cluetrain went up first as a website, in April 1999. Its first edition as a book went out in January 2000. (“Just in time to cause The Crash,” some have said.) It was niched from the start as a business book (subhead: “The end of business as usual”). And, from the start, it has been  stocked with marketing books in the business sections of bookstores, libraries, and  Amazon. Most of its readers are also marketing folk. They’re the ones who made the book a bestseller, and they are the ones tweeting about it as well. (Typically, many times per day.)

Irony: the One Clue was spoken straight to marketers, yet many of them (even clueful ones) are still treating us as seats, eyeballs, end users and consumers, and not as fully empowered human beings. Worse, many of them (or their systems) are spying on us in ways that simple manners would never allow in the physical world.

I started ProjectVRM because I believed #4 was true: our reach did not yet exceed marketers’ grasp. I also felt that marketers (and all of business) would benefit from increased native individual power. But something needed to be done before that could prove out.

We adopted the term VRM — Vendor Relationship Management — because it worked as the customer-side counterpart of CRM — Customer Relationship Management, which was already a many-$billion B2B business. In fact VRM is broader than that, because it applies to relationships with organizations, government agencies, and even each other. But the baby was named, and we stuck with it.

ProjectVRM is coming up on its 8th birthday in September.  We’ve made huge progress over the years. There are now many dozens of developers around the world, working on VRooMy tools, services and code bases. But we will not have succeeded fully until the One Clue proves true — or at least accepted , and therefore a just a historic artifact, rather than a glaring irony stuck in the craw of Business as Usual.

One tool still missing in the VRM box is the ability to set one’s own terms, conditions, policies and preferences, in one’s own way, for every company or service one deals with.

This capability was foreclosed early in the Industrial Age. That was when mass manufacturing, distribution and (eventually) marketing needed scale. Thus “standard form” or “adhesive” agreements, for many customers at once, became the norm in big business throughout the Industrial Age.

I expected them to be obsoleted as soon as we got the Internet. Instead they became far more widespread and abused on the Net than in the physical world.

An example is websites. We need to be able to say, for example, “I will only accept the following kinds of cookies, for the following constrained purposes.” Or, “If we already know each other, and it’s cool with me, you can follow me as I go about my business, but only for purposes I allow and you agree to.”

We would say this in proper legalese, of course, and in forms that are readable by machines and ordinary muggles, as well as lawyers — like we have with Creative Commons licenses.

Writing these personal terms and policies is a challenge raised by references to “boundaries” in the Respect Trust Framework, which I visited in Time for digital emancipation  and  What do sites need from social login buttons?

We created Customer Commons to do for  personal boundaries what Creative Commons does for copyright. That’s why I want to see at least some of those terms inside Customer Commons, and put to use across the Web, before ProjectVRM’s 9th birthday.

Meanwhile, big thanks to the Berkman Center for giving us a great clubhouse for all these years. It’s been huge.

Live blogging #Smalldata NYC

I’m at SmallData NYC, hosted by Mozilla.  What I’m writing here is not a report on the event (which will be up on the Web for all to see, soon enough), but rather my own #VRM-based riffs on what the panelists (and later the audience) are saying.  The purpose of an event like this is to get people thinking and talking. So that’s what I’m doing here.

  • New word for me: deconvolve. I like it, but gotta look it up.
  • Actual and clear intent is more valuable than inferred intent.
  • Whatever happened to AskJeeves-type search?  Such as “I’m looking for Michael Jordan the AI expert, not the basketball player.”
  • Thought: Why does search have to be so effing complicated.
  • The Net has no business model. That’s why it supports an infinitude of business.
  • At the moment a common (if not prevailing) business model on the Web is surveillance-based personalized advertising. This is not the same thing as the Web itself. If protecting your privacy,  or “becoming an exile” from surveillance fails to support this business model, it does not break the model so much as provide feedback on what isn’t working — or what else might work better. And it certainly does not “break the Web.”
  • “The Industry” is an interesting term. (One of the panelists “speaks for the industry.” I think here it means “commercial players on the Web.” In Hollywood it means Hollywood. I don’t think we’re even close to that level of metonymic maturity.
  • “Small animal taxidermy is specifically an eBay problem.” I think I just heard that.
  • I like “giving a user recommendations that are out of the cone of relevance.”
  • Cone of Relevance is a good name for a band.
  • Netflix recommendations are at least partly (or largely) about developing a long-term relationship with the company. Keeping subscribers. “If you know Netflix knows you, you’ll stay.”
  • Battlestar Gallactica, by pure numbers, has high correlations with a children’s show for 3 year olds. Possibly because watchers of the show have little kids. “The math works,” but the manners don’t.
  • On break, I’m with @Deanland, who sez, “All they seem to care about is how to glean information from people for the benefit of the sell side, with no discussion or apparent thinking about what the user wants, feels, means or cares about. The data is on a one-way street from buyer to seller, but only for the benefit of the seller, not the benefit of the buyer. Saying ‘It’s about serving them better’ actually means ‘We can sell them better.’ There is also a sense that it is a given that The Machine, run by the seller, can get all this information, with no conscious involvement at all by the people yielding the information.” (Hoping Dean — and others — will bring this up after the break. We’ve only had presentations so far, not discussions yet.)
  • Also from the audience on break: “We need a personal data silo. For the person, the #smalldata holder — not the marketing machine.”
  • Wendy Davis of Mediapost (moderator) is challenging the apparent belief, by the panel,  that more information about individuals held by companies is better for individuals. (I think she’s saying.)
  • I’m a person. I want my to do my own damn personalization. Just saying.
  • David Sontag, panelist, says usage data with Internet Explorer all goes to Microsoft.
  • “People get much more upset with bad personalization than no personalization.” (Not sure I got that down right.)
  • Chris Maliwat, panelist: It’s sometimes hard to perceive a company’s intentionality.
  • All these companies are in the train business. We’re passengers, whether we like it or not. Meanwhile, what we need are cars: instruments of independence, agency and personal utility — for ourselves, following our own intentions. I believe Mozilla is the only major browser that can fill this role, because it’s on our side and not on these companies’ side. The other browsers are all instruments of their parent companies.
  • A reason people don’t get more creeped out by all this surveillance and personalization, is that there have not yet been clear, big, news-making harms. Once that happens, the game changes.
  • David Sontag: “I can ‘t get a credit card that won’t share my information with other companies.”
  • Wendy: “How do researchers get users’ true intent?” (e.g. her gender may be irrelevant to her search, but The System notes her gender anyway)
  • Chris: Personalization is not about perfection, but about providing a range of choices.
  • Wendy: “Do people actually know what they want?” My answer: yes. And the assumption that people mostly don’t know is a flaw in The System. So is the assumption that we are in the market to buy stuff all the time. If I want to know the height of Mt. Everest, that doesn’t mean I want to go there, or buy mountaineering gear, or anything commercial.
  • Pat, from the audience, on intelligibility of recommendations: Pandora has filters that are domain aware… But lack of domain makes it harder to make recommendations intelligible.
  • So far all of this is inside baseball. Except the game isn’t baseball. It’s building out the system in Minority Report. But instead of “pre-crime,” it’s all about what we might call “pre-sales.” It’s this scene here.
  • The panel conversation is currently (I think) about the user’s intent “being understood.” So I find myself channeling Walt Whitman: I know that I am august. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize. Also, Do I contradict myself? Very well then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes… The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. I feel one of those yawps rising in me now.
  • A question from the back of the room for “opt in, rather than opt out.” (Of tracking and all that.)
  • Chris’s reply: “Google already exists.” The point is that Google and today’s Web giants are the environment. Deal with it.
  • Audience guy: There is an imbalance between their control and mine as an individual. Right.
  • Wendy: Targeting based on zip code isn’t especially personal. But what we’re talking about here is very personal. Doesn’t this raise issues?
  • Slobodan: Maybe the Net will become more like the insurance business. (Did I hear that right? Missed the point, though.)
  • Audience guy: What kinds of restraint exists now for users that don’t care about privacy at all — as with some young people.?
  • I stirred things up a bit at the end (my barbaric yawp, you might say), but it’s over now, so I’ll need to do my own wrapping later.

Currently 9:15pm, EDST.

Okay, next day, 5pm.

I had hoped that Dean, quoted above, would be called, but he wasn’t, so I raised my hand and said that what the panel had talked about up to that point was mostly inside baseball — a metaphor that at least Chris wasn’t clear on, because he asked me what I meant by it. What I meant was that all three of the panelists were inside The Industry. And what I tried then to do was get them to stand on the other side, the individual’s side, and look at what they do from that angle. When they asked what was being done on the individual’s side, I brought up VRM development, and volunteered Kenneth Lefkowitz of Emmett Global to speak as a VRM developer. Which he did.

So that was it, or as close as I’m going to get in a blog post. When the event goes up on the Web, I’ll add the links.

A partial VRM FAQ

I want to do two things here.  One is to get going on a long-form FAQ for ProjectVRM. The other is to address some of the questions about VRM that have come up, both on the ProjectVRM list, and on the recent Respect Network launch tour.

Q: How can VRM succeed when the Average Joe shows no interest in it?

A: First, there is no Average Joe. Difference is a fundamental human quality. All of us have different faces, voices, thoughts, flaws, aspirations, phobias and the rest of it. Even identical twins, both grown from the same split egg, can have radically different souls and lives.

Second, inventions mother necessities. The world is full of things that nobody wanted until they saw them, and what they could do. And, once they started using them, those things became ordinary.  Here’s Louis CK on how this happened with aviation. What began as the Miracle of Flight is now a subject of constant complaint about bad service to crowds speeding across the stratosphere.

If all future progress was based on what an average Joe would do with present technology, there would be no progress. In fact, we had exactly this with stone tools, which on the whole failed to advance — or advanced only in small ways, every few dozen hundreds or thousands of years. (For more on the present evolutionary picture, see Race Against the Machine  and The Second Machine Age, both by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.)

Step back from history, look across the decades, and ironies abound. In Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” — a song about a kind of average Joe, with the chorus “… something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” — the final line is “you should be made to wear earphones.” Dylan wrote that at a time when earphones were worn only by audiophiles and people whose work required them. Today in a subway car, you’ll see a lots of riders wearing earbuds or headphones that look like wood clamps. All of them are plugged into devices in purses or pockets that crunch more data and run more applications than anybody working on a Univac could imagine with the tech of their day.  And at trivial costs.

The tide of tech history, over the last four decades, has been one of personal empowerment, and of corporate and government opposition to it, followed by widespread realization that personal empowerment is good for everybody.

We saw that with personal computing in the 1980s, worldwide personal internetworking in the 1990s, mobile devices that provided both in the 2000s, and now with personal clouds (aka stores, vaults, PIMS) in the 2010s. (I also spoke about this two weeks ago at Amplifyfest in Sydney.) For partial lists of early work going on in the mid-2010s, see the ProjectVRM developments list, PDEC’s startup directory and the Respect Network Founding Partners list.

Q: A lot of VRM seems to be about people managing their own data. Who wants to go to the trouble and why?

A: Everybody with a laptop or a smartphone is already managing data. They may not think of it that way, but they are. All emails, calendars, contact lists, photo albums, movies and files created with office applications (spreadsheets, text documents, drawings, financial reports, whatever) are data people manage for themselves, or with help from companies that provide the means. “Personal cloud” is a term for the place where we manage and put to use the data that’s most useful to us in various market spaces. For example:

  • fitness and health data
  • automobile performance, maintenance and service data
  • intentcasting data (what we intend to buy, but in our own space rather than in some company’s sales and marketing space)
  • usage and service data (for household appliances, utility providers — anything we own, use, care about and occasionally need support for)

Today that data is isolated in silos. Even fitness data, produced by wrist bands and phone apps, is fractioned off into many silos over which we have littler or no control. Personal clouds are where we will integrate that data and decide how best to use it. Some of those will be self-hosted, others will be provided by services. Those, ideally, will be substitutable.

Q: What about legal hurdles? Vendors and service providers seem to still be holding all of the legal cards, and the “agreements” we make are always one-sided. How can that change?

A. On this one we are still at Square Zero. But it will have to change. Inevitably. (See chapters 4 and 20 of The Intention Economy.) And work is being done on it already. Watch this space for more on that.

#VRM and the OpenNotice Legal Hackathon

The OpenNotice Legal Hackathon is happening now: 12 July 2014. Go to that link and click on various links there to see the live video, participate via IRC and other fun stuff.

It’s multinational. Our hosts are in Berlin. I’m in Tel Aviv (having just arrived from Sydney by way of Istanbul). Others are elsewhere in the world.

It’s moving up on 5pm, local time here, and 10am in New York.

I’m prepping for talking #VRM at this link here and  this link here.

Here are some core questions we’ll be visiting.

I’ll add more links later. This is enough to get us started.

#TakeBackControl with #VRM

That’s a big part of what tonight’s Respect Network launch here in London is about. I’ll be speaking briefly tonight at the event and giving the opening keynote at the Immersion Day that will follow tomorrow. Here is a draft of what I’ll say tonight:

This launch is personal.

It’s about privacy.

It’s about control.

It’s about taking back what we lost when Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

It’s about fixing a marketplace that has been ruled by giant companies for a hundred and fifty years — even on the Internet, which was designed — literally — to support our independence, our autonomy, our freedom, our liberty, our agency in the world.

Mass marketing required subordinating the individual to the group, to treat human beings as templates, demographics, typicalities.

The promise of the Internet was to give each of us scale, reach and power.

But the commercial Internet was built on the old model. On the industrial model. What we have now is what the security guru Bruce Schneier calls a feudal system. We are serfs in the Kingdom of Google, the Duchy of Facebook, the Principality of Amazon.

Still, it’s early. The Internet as we know it today — with browsers, ISPs, search engines and social media — is just eighteen years old. In the history of business, and of civilization, this is nothing. We’ve barely started.

But the Internet does something new that nothing else in human history ever did, and we’re only beginning to wrap our heads around the possibilities: It puts everybody and everything at zero functional distance from everybody and everything else — and at costs that want to be zero as well.

This is profound and huge. The fact that we have the Net means we can zero-base new solutions that work for each of us, and not just for our feudal overlords.

Archimedes said “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

That’s why we are here today. Respect Network has been working to give each of us a place to stand, to take back control: of our identities, our data, our lives, our relationships… of everything we do on the Net as free and independent human beings.

And what’s extra cool about this is that Respect Network isn’t just one company. It’s dozens of them, all standing behind the same promise, the same principles, the same commitment to build markets upward from you and me, and not just downward like eyes atop pyramids of control.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this tomorrow at Immersion Day, but for now I invite you to savor participating in a historic occasion.

I’m sure I’ll say something different, because I’ll speak extemporaneously and without the crutchware of slides. But I want to get this up  because I can’t print where I am at the moment, and it seems like a fun and useful thing to do in any case.

For more, see A New Data Deal, starting today, at my personal blog.

VRM is as distributed as humanity

VRM is for the  individual human beings we call customers.

While human beings form collective groups — families, teams, parishes, parties — what makes each of us most human is our individuality — and our capacity to grow and change.

We are all different. Even identical twins, grown from the same split egg, can be as different as male and female.

Our species evolved faces so we could tell each other apart, express ourselves differently, and live separate and unique lives. No other species has the same degree of variation among faces and voices, or has the same ability to customize personal appearance, behavior and voice, through diet, exercise, piercings, markings (such as tatoos) and other choices.

And yet we also form organizations — tribes, churches, businesses, governments — that cannot scale to usefulness without treating people as populations, groups and templates. We need these organizations to operate civilization.

But we also need our individuality. This is why we bristle when asked in a survey to provide our age, ethnicity or income group. Both asking and answering those questions insults our dignity as separate and distinct individuals: ones with dominion over ourselves, born to possess full agency in the world, and irreducible to demographic characteristics.

Humanity by its nature is also distributed. Scattered. In the computing and networking worlds — which are now the same — distributed means comprised of individual points of autonomy and control. The same goes for links between those nodes.

Paul Baran described the different ways humanity and its networks can be organized, with this drawing here —

fig1

— in this essay for the Rand Corporation on the subject of distributed communications. It was radical when it was written, in 1962, because centralized networks were the only kind. But Baran was also writing  at the height of the cold war, when the need to create the smallest possible “attack surface” was imperative. Hence the distributed design that later became the base-level nature of the Internet: as basic and elemental as chemical valency — the combining power of elements — and human nature.

This design is what David Isenberg calls “stupid” — because its purpose is to put all the intelligence at the network’s infinite number of ends (which are mostly human), rather than in the middle(s), where it is vulnerable.

Over the last decade, however, large businesses operating on the Internet, and provisioning access to it, have become increasingly centralized — or at best decentralized, but in very central ways. Visualizations of the Internet, such as this

internet

— and this

Internet_map_1024_-_transparent

 

— are of type B in Baran’s drawing above: decentralized, rather than distributed.

But the forces of decentralization and distribution are still with us, growing up from the Net’s own grass roots: individual geeks, working together on behalf of the Net itself, and its native nature.

Jon Udell wrote about them yesterday, pointing to this amazing list by @rossjones by way of @Jeremie Miller, father of XMPP, one of the most widespread protocols in the Internet suite. It’s far longer than our own here at Project VRM. But we will include it, because what they’re doing supports what we are doing, in the most fundamental way possible.

Lately I’ve been asked, along with many others, if there is still hope for a Net free from control by giant Net-based corporations, governments, phone and cable companies, the entertainment industry, and combinations of all those forces. On the surface it looks like the answer is no.

But looking down in the grass roots, growing upward out of the Net’s deepest and most permanent layer — also the most human one — gives me faith.

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