Category: freedom (page 1 of 5)

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.

ProjectVRM has always been both a group effort and provisional in its outlook and methods. So look at everything below as a draft requiring improvement, and send me edits, either by email (dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu) or by commenting below.

Summary

After eight years of encouraging development of tools and services that make individuals both independent and better able to engage, ProjectVRM (VRM stands for vendor relationship management) is experiencing success in many places; most coherently in France, the UK and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). There are now dozens of VRM developers (though many descriptors besides VRM are used), and investor interest is shifting from the “push” to the “pull” side of the marketplace. Government encouragement of VRM is strongest in the UK and Australia.  ProjectVRM and its community are focused currently on “first person” technologies, privacy, trust, identity (including anonymity), relationship (including experience co-creation), substituability of services and the Internet of Things. Verticals are personal information management, relationship (VRM+CRM), identity, on-demand services, payments, messaging (e.g. secure email), health, automotive and real estate.  There are many possibilities for research, possibly starting with the effects on business of individuals being in full control of their sides of agreements with companies.

Here are shortcuts to each section:

  1. History
  2. Development
  3. Community
  4. Influence
  5. Issues
  6. Verticals
  7. Investment
  8. Research
  9. Questions

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. He said 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 has been lightweight from the start, consisting of myself* and other volunteers. Our instruments are 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 third parties, 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).

There are many other organizations with which ProjectVRM is well aligned. Among them are:

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 astride or beside 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 customer experience. 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 is a big part of it too — just not the only part, as business often assumes. 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.  So far, this area has only seen centralized and siloed players, with inherent security and data mining disadvantages. But recently, commercial and open source conversations about a decentralized approach to this opportunity have been taking place.

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. With an open API around that data, developers can create apps to alert you to schedule maintenance, monitor your teen’s driving and much more.

Real Estate

The only products that cost us more than cars are homes. Here too we have a VRM advocate in Cambridge-based 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 on VRM in Real Estate 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. Many wealthy individuals, some quite new to tech investing, perceive an opportunity in “pull” side tools, so interest is building, especially in angel funding. There are currently at least three initiatives coming together to invest in VRM or intention based start-ups in Silicon Valley and Europe. 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 VC’s for the first time participating in IIW sessions. I’m involved in planning a VRM specific fund, which is still in its preliminary stages. If it moves forward (which I believe it will), it should come into shape by next year.

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.

8. Research

There are many questions we can probe with research, but only one I want to work on in the near term: What happens when individuals come to websites with their own agreeable terms?creativecommons-licenses

Such as, “I’m cool with you tracking me on your site, but don’t follow me when I leave.” And, on the site’s side,  “We’re cool with that.” In proper legalese, of course — but expressed on both sides in code and symbols that work like Creative Commons’ licenses (there on the right).

The Cyberlaw Clinic is already involved, though its work with Customer Commons on a broader set of terms than the one I just mentioned, and Berkman’s own  Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data could assist with and follow the process, both through the term-creation process and as the terms get implemented in code and materialize on the Web.

We would be dealing with cooperative efforts that require this already. One is Respect Network’s Respect Connect “Login with Respect” button.  As I explain here, the terms of OIX’s Respect Trust frame require the setting of, and respect for, the boundaries of individuals. This can be done, even within the calf-cow framework of client-server.

Respect Connect  is based onXDI, which the Respect Trust Framework also specifies. XDI is a protocol that employs “link respect-connect-buttoncontracts.” 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.

Mozilla has also made efforts in this same direction, most recently with  Persona (there on the right). signinWe can help them out with this work, and I am sure other and other browser makers will also want to get on board — which they should, and with Berkman’s convening power probably will.

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.

And we would 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.

(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. 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.

This work would also separate respectful actors on the supply side of the marketplace from ones that want to stick with the surveillance model.

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.

9. Questions

What if we fail?

What if it turns out that free customers are not more valuable than captive ones for most businesses? That’s been the default belief of big business ever since it was born.

What if the free market on the Net turns out to be “Your choice of captor?” Client-server lends itself to that, although we can work around its inequities with moves like the one proposed in the Research section above.

What if the only VRM implementations that succeed in the marketplace are silo’d and non-substitutable ones? To some degree, that’s what we have with Uber and Lyft. While they are substitutable (as two apps on one phone), we don’t yet have a way to intentcast to multiple ride sharing providers at once, or to keep data that applies to both. Maybe we will in the long run, but so far we don’t.

Apple may be VRooMy with HealthKit and HomeKit, but both still operate within Apples silo. You won’t be able to use them on Android (far as I know, anyway).

And what if the Internet of Things turns out to be a world of silos as well? This too is the default, so far. Phil Windley mocks the Apple of Things and the Google of Things by calling both The Compuserve of Things — and making the case for substitutablility as well.

And what if customers just don’t care? This too is the default: the body at rest that tends to stay at rest. For VRM to fully happen, the whole body needs to be in motion — to move from one Newtonian state to another. It’s doing that in places, but not across the board.

Finally, what if we succeed? VRM is about making a paradigm shift happen. So was  Cluetrain before it. On the plus side, the Net itself lays the infrastructural groundwork for that shift. But the rest is up to us.

Whether we  fail or succeed (or both), there will be plenty to study. And that’s been the idea from the start too.

_________________

* Disclosures: I was paid modest sums as a fellow early on, but otherwise have received no compensation from the Berkman Center. I make my living as a speaker, writer and consultant. I have consulted a number of companies listed on the ProjectVRM development work page, and am on the boards of two start-ups: Qredo in the U.K. and Flamingo in Australia. In my work for them my main goal is to see VRM succeed, and I don’t play favorites in competition between VRM companies.

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.

#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.

Why we need first person technologies on the Net

mousehammerWe need first person technologies for the same reason we need first person voices: because there are some things only a person can say and do.

Only a person can use the pronouns  “I,” “me,” “my” and “mine.” Likewise, only a person can use tools such as screwdrivers, eyeglasses and pencils. Those things are all first person technologies. They were invented for individual persons to use.

We use first person technologies the same unique ways we use our voices. “The human voice is unmistakably genuine,” The Cluetrain Manifesto says. “It can’t be faked.” Same with first person technologies. GoPro cameras, for example, are first person technologies that are used as many different ways as the people who strap them to their helmets.

Here in the physical world, first person technologies are extensions of our bodies and our senses. When we swing a hammer, twist a fork, ride a bike and drive a car, our senses dwell within each of those things. They become part of us, and us part of them.

There are social influences on how we use first person technologies, of course, just as there are social influences on how we speak. But that does not diminish the personal nature of what we do with our tools and our voices. Each of us speaks, writes, walks and drives in ways that are ours alone.

What’s purely personal is clear in the physical world. In the networked world, however, it is not — and this is a problem that needs fixing.

For example, there was a time when personal computers were truly personal. They ran applications that you acquired (or created) and used by and for yourself. You did not have to subscribe to them as services, and they did not require some company’s cloud. That time was before personal computers became network nodes. We are in a new world now — one in which first person agency is both provided and limited by what the lawyers call second and third parties, out on the Net.

Take smartphones and tablets for example. These are personal in many intimate ways, but they are also suction cups on corporate tentacles. So, while you can still operate a PC as independently as you would a typewriter, you cannot operate your mobile device except by the graces of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and other controlling parties — especially your mobile network provider. And, unless you are a serious hacker, you can’t acquire apps except through company stores. Many of those apps are also just interfaces on remote services over which you have little control.

This state of things is one of the reasons why privacy has lately become a big issue. The term covers several concerns at once. Here is how Eben Moglen unpacks them:

Privacy—as we use the word in our conversations now all around the world, and particularly when we talk about the net— really means three things.

The first is secrecy, which our ability to keep messages “private,” so that their content is known only to those who we intend to receive them.

The second is anonymity, which is our ability to keep our messages—even when their content is open—obscure as to who has published them and who is receiving them. It is very important that anonymity is an interest we can have in both our publishing and our reading.

The third is autonomy, which is our ability to make our life decisions free any force which has violated our secrecy or our anonymity.

Our old PCs provided all of those graces. (So does your GoPro camera.) We have none of them with our smart mobile devices today. Not yet, anyway.

Books in the physical world are first person technologies as well. Digital ones we “buy” from Amazon are not, because they come with leashes. Eben asks, “What if every book for the last five hundred years had been reporting its readers at headquarters?”

We won’t get back our privacy, or make real progress toward real personal freedom, until we develop and deploy first person technologies for everybody. Without them our democracies and marketplaces will also continue to be compromised, because both require those three virtues of privacy.

First person technologies are also required  by the distributed design of the Net, which Paul Baran first describede in 1964, using this drawing:

The Internet is the one on the right. In it each node is equal and possesses full agency. It is also what Adriana Lukas calls a heterarchy. Routing (which Paul Baran called “hot potato” and we now call packet switching) takes the best available path, rather than running only through central (or multi-central) relay points.  He posed this in contrast to the centralized model of computing, which prevailed at the time, and to decentralized networks, which reduced some of the risks of centralized networks but still held the same vulnerabilities, because they still contain central hubs and therefore also hierarchies. We experience those vulnerabilities  today when services we depend on are attacked, and the privacy of many is compromised at once.

Design models and habits die long and hard, however; and it remains too easy to create centralized services, such as corporate clouds, and to deliver benefits from those that are good enough — until something goes wrong.

First person technologies are a step in the right direction: the distributed one.

From the start a variety of ProjectVRM developers have been developing first person technologies. Here’s a quick list:

Everything there is open source or uses open standards and protocols. There are many others I insult by not listing (corrections are invited); but the main thing is not just to give credit where due. It’s to show groundwork toward a whole new category: first person technology.

Nailing down what this category means, and contains, is job one. It isn’t easy, because there is plenty of gray in the networked world. But lines can and must be drawn. Here’s one: we can use them to make a dent in the universe. Here’s another: They move us from what Dave Winer describes as Model #1 to Model #2:

Once we’ve done that, we can see how first person technologies, for example, deliver benefits in all four of the development categories Fred Wilson listed in the speech he gave at LeWeb in December:

  1. Money
  2. Health and wellness
  3. Data leakage
  4. Trust and identity

Solutions here will come, like our own voices, from our sovereign and independent selves, using tools that extend our native capabilities. They won’t come only from systems others provide for us. They will, however, make those systems better as well.

Bonus link: Tahrir.

Reporting on the Data Privacy Hackathon

Data Privacy HackathonIn case you missed the Data Privacy Hackathon, held this past weekend in London, New York and San Francisco, there should be a good mother lode of posts, tweets and videos up now, or soon.

Here is a small starter-pile of links from the New York one:

  • The hackathon page.
  • #privacyhack on Twitter
  • Videos of the event, courtesy of the New York Chapter of the Internet Society.  VRM and I come in at ~ 27 minutes into the first video. Finalist hacks are presented in this video here. One of the entries, Re-entry, led by Lina Kaisey, Harvard Law School ’14, starts at about 56 minutes into the last video link, and is to some degree based on my challenge in the first video link. It came in second. The winner was Ghostdrop, the presentation for which follows Lina’s, and which allows private communications between individuals. (Re-entry does that too, for prisoners re-entering the free world, and communicating with The System).

More at LegalHackathon.net.

LG jumps on advertising bandwagon, runs over its own customers

Used to be a TV was a TV: a screen for viewing television channels and programs, delivered from stations and networks through a home antenna or a cable set top box. But in fact TVs have been computers for a long time. And, as computers, they can do a lot more than what you want, or expect.

Combine that fact with the current supply-side mania for advertising aimed by surveillance, and you get weirdness such as Doctor Beet‘s LG Smart TVs logging USB filenames and viewing info to LG servers. According to Doctor Beet, viewer activity is actually reported to a dead URL (which may not be, say some of the comments). The opt-out is also buried an off-screen scroll. And LG tells Doctor Beet to live with it, because he “accepted” unseen opt-out terms and conditions.

But wait: there’s more.

If you want to really hate LG — a company you barely cared about until now, watch this. It’s a promotional video for “LG Smart AD,” which “provides the smartest way to reach your targeted audiences across the borders and connected devices with excitement powered by LG’s world best 3D and HD home entertainment technology” and “enables publishers to maximize revenues through worldwide ad networks, intelligent platform to boost CPM and the remarkable ecosystem.” The screen shot above shows (I’m not kidding) a family being terrorized by their “immersive” advertising “experience.”

This promotional jive, plus the company’s utterly uncaring response to a customer inquiry, shows what happens when a company’s customers and consumers become separate populations — and the latter is sold to the former. This split has afflicted the commercial broadcast industry from the start, and it afflicts the online advertising industry today. It’s why the most popular browser add-ons and extensions are ones that thwart advertising and tracking. And it’s why the online advertising industry continues to turn deaf ears and blind eyes toward the obvious: that people hate it.

Clearly LG is getting on the surveillance-based advertising-at-all-costs bandwagon here. The sad and dumb thing about it is that they’re actually selling customers they already have (TV buyers) to ones they don’t (advertisers). Their whole strategy is so ham-fisted that I doubt they’ll get the message, even if bad PR like this goes mainstream.

The one good effect we might expect is for competing companies to sell surveillance-free viewing as a feature.

Bonus link.

Cracks in the walls of the online advertising castle

On the advice of @SteveLohr and @michikokakutani ‘s review in The New York Times, I just ordered Dave Eggers‘ The Circle — a tale of the dystopian present taken to its future extreme: a world where we are all fully devolved into data, and one big company serves us exactly the poop it knows — and helps — us want.

Provided, of course, that there is still money in it.

But there won’t be. The most vulnerable big money game in the commercial Web today is advertising — and it’s headed for a dive, if not a crash. That’s the case @TimHwang and @AdiKamdar make in The Theory of Peak Advertising and the Future of the Web. It’s also the one @DonMarti makes in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, and that I make too, in both The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge and Beyond the Advertising Bubble, a post I put up earlier today at Customer Commons.

In addition to the evidence compiled in those sources, there’s Flash Ad Takeovers Drive 55% of Consumers Away (by Tyler Loechner in MediaPost). The headline actually understates the case. Here’s the opener:

Adblade, a content-style ad network, commissioned a study carried out by research company Toluna which found that 82% of consumers feel that online ads are “detrimental” to their online experience at least some of the time. The report focused on questions revolving around the obtrusiveness of ads…

The emphasis is mine, not that it’s required. More stats:

When it comes to ads causing one to navigate away from content, an overwhelming majority (55%) of respondents said flash ad takeovers are most likely to do the trick. The ad type that is second-most likely to drive consumers away from a page are right-side banner ads (10.4%). Pre-roll (9%), top banner (8.5%), and middle-of-the-page ads (7.1%) round out the top five.

The source might be a bit self-serving, though. See here:

Over 66% of respondents believe middle-of-the-page ads to be the most obtrusive, compared to just 4% for end-of-article ads.

Adblade specializes in end-of-article ad placements, so those particular results play into their hands.

Still, we’re talking about least-aversive stuff here.

That’s always been an imperative of sub-optimal advertising, though not of advertising that actually appeals. And indeed, appealing advertising does exist. Every fat magazine testifies to the fact of advertising that appeals in some settings at least as much as does the editorial. Note that those ads are not personal, and depend not at all on surveillance of privacy invasions of any kind. They simply do a good job of sending strong signals — economic and otherwise — to populations that are interested in them.

The other breed of in-demand advertising, I would ad, are classifieds. The success of Craigslist and Google’s (search-results) Adwords  attest to that as well. Note that those don’t creep us out. At their best, they just work.

And that’s what always wins in the long run.

Leveraging Whitman

On the ProjectVRM list the conversation has once again drifted to identity.

Nearly all conversation about identity in development circles around stuff Devon Loffreto of Noizivy calls administrative. It’s a good term. That’s what we get from every card some company, school or government agency prints with our name on it and we stick in our wallet. It’s what we also get from “social” login shortcuts such as Facebook’s and Twitter’s.

Regardless of the conveniences these administrative things bestow on us, what they provide is not our true identity. It might be one we use, but it is not imbued with our fully human essence, which Devon calls sovereign. In Recalibrating Sovereignty he makes a strong connection between that personal essence and what we write large (in the U.S. at least) as a nation-state of free people. Or that’s the idea anyway.

I don’t see this as a Libertarian thing (though I am sure Libertarians will find it agreeable). I see it as an elementary expression of what makes us most human: our individuality. This is not in conflict with what also makes us social, or the social nature of political, cultural, economic, educational and other institutions. Rather it enriches all of them. Saying that each of us is sovereign goes deeper than saying each of us is unique. Because we are not merely different. Each of us brings our own genius into the world. (Read John Taylor Gatto on genius, which he considers “common as dirt.”) Even genetically identical twins possess profoundly individual souls. That individuality is at the core of identity.

Right now I’m reading Orson Scott Card‘s Tales of Alvin Maker. By the fourth book Alvin’s surname has changed from Miller (what Alvin’s father was) to Smith (what Alvin was trained to be) to Maker (what Alvin becomes), each one expressing his role in the world. The name Maker identifies Alvin’s sovereign nature — one that transcends the identifier and is rooted in his nature as a sovereign soul. (The Tales are set in an early stage of American history in which this kind of choice was a common one. Check your own surname for evidence of what some ancestor did for a living. Searls, as I understand it, is a variation of Searle, which likely descends from Serlo, a Germanic or Norman word for soldier.)

From slightly later than Alvin’s time comes Walt Whitman, the great American poet, and a tireless advocate of personal sovereignty — though I’m not aware that he ever put those two words together. Rather than explain Whitman, I’ll compress further the abridged Song of Myself that put up on the Web more than seventeen years ago:

I know I am solid and sound.
To me the converging objects of the universe
perpetually flow.
All are written to me,
and I must get what the writing means.
I know I am deathless.
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept
by a carpenter’s compass,

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.

I exist as I am, that is enough.
If no other in the world be aware I sit content.
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
and that is myself.
And whether I come to my own today
or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I cheerfully take it now,
or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite.
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.

I speak the password primeval.
I give the sign of democracy.
By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have
their counterpart on the same terms.

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me.
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

It is time to explain myself. Let us stand up.

I am an acme of things accomplished,
and I an encloser of things to be.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me.
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing,
the vapor from the nostrils of death.
I know I was even there.
I waited unseen and always.
And slept while God carried me
through the lethargic mist.
And took my time.

Long I was hugged close. Long and long.
Infinite have been the preparations for me.
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing
like cheerful boatmen;
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings.
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother
generations guided me.
My embryo has never been torpid.
Nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb.
The long slow strata piled to rest it on.
Vast vegetables gave it substance.
Monstrous animals transported it in their mouths
and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employed
to complete and delight me.
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

I know that I have the best of time and space.
And that I was never measured, and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey.
My signs are a rainproof coat, good shoes
and a staff cut from the wood.

Each man and woman of you I lead upon a knoll.
My left hand hooks you about the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes and continents,
and a plain public road.

Not I, nor any one else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born
and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

Shoulder your duds, and I will mine,
and let us hasten forth.

If you tire, give me both burdens and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip.
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me.

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams.
Now I wash the gum from your eyes.
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waited,
holding a plank by the shore.
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again,
and nod to me and shout,
and laughingly dash your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own
proves the width of my own.
He most honors my style
who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

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.

No administrative entity can make that barbaric yawp.

I don’t yet know how to create a Whitman-compliant identity system (or, whatever); though my hope persists that there is already one or more in the world. Should somebody produce that system (or whatever), I’ll gladly give them SpottedHawk.com, which I’ve held for many years (with other suffixes as well), waiting like Whitman:

The last scud of day holds back for me.
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any
on the shadowed wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the desk.

I depart as air.
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt and grow
from the grass I love.
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean.
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless.
And filtre and fiber your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged.
Missing me one place search another
I stop some where waiting for you.

Freedom vs. Tracking

In The Mobile Customer as Data vs. Customer Data, Chuck Martin in MediaPost‘s Mobile Shop Talk says this:

The world of data tracking for mobile commerce is getting much more precise.

The phone knows where the phone goes, as we all know. And that knowledge can be used to help provide better services to those carrying them.

Any driver using Google Navigation, for example, gets the benefit of other phones being tracked to identify bottlenecks on roads ahead. The next step was for Navigation to automatically re-route your trip to avoid the traffic jam, so the benefit became seamless.

The tracking of phones at retail also is being used in efforts to provide a better shopping experience.

In these cases, the value comes from the data about the phone being tracked, not information about the person.

This is about the use of customers as data rather than data about the customer.

This data about phone movements already is being used at hundreds of stores ranging from small mom-and-pop shops to national chains and shopping centers.

He goes on to talk about Euclid, “a three-year-old California company that likens what it does to Google analytics but for the physical world.” And he explains what they do:

Rather than tracking phones by apps, sign-ins, GPS or cell tower, Euclid installs sensors at stores to capture MAC addresses, which are part of every smartphone.

The company doesn’t capture any information about the person, just the identification of smartphones that are on with Wi-Fi enabled.

The idea is to map shopper traffic and analyze how stores can become more effective. The large volume of aggregated data of phone traffic patterns is what provides the value.

Here is what I put in the comments below (with paragraph breaks and links added):

I am a customer. I am not data. I do not wish to yield personal data, even if anonymized, to anybody other than those with whom I have a fully consenting, non-coercive and respectful relationship.

I do not wish to receive offers as a matter of course, even if machines following me guess those offers might might be relevant — especially since what I am doing most of the time is not shopping.

I also don’t wish to have a “better experience” with advertising inundation, especially if the “experience” is “delivered” to me rather than something I have for myself.

Familiar with Trader Joes? People love them. Know why? They do none of this tracking jive. They just talk, as human beings, to customers. There’s no way to automate that, and they save the overhead of marketing automation as well.

Now think of the “mobile experience” we call driving a car, or riding a bike. Our phones need to be the same: fully ours. Not tracking devices.

I know mine is a voice in the wilderness here, but I’m not alone. It’s not for no reason that the most popular browser add-ons are ad and tracking blockers. That’s the market talking. Marketers need to listen.

In a commencement speech this past May, former presidential speechwriter @JonLovett says this (around 14:30): I believe we may have reached peak bullshit.

He continues: I believe those who push back against the noise and the nonsense, those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government, will be rewarded. And that we are at the beginning of something important. He also pushes back on what he calls “a process that is inauthentic.” (Here’s a transcript.)

Here’s what’s real: For whatever reasons, we blew it by not building browsers to be cars and bikes in the first place. Same with smartphones and tablets. We gave wonderful powers to users, but greater powers to companies that would rather track us than respect us, who would rather “deliver”us the “experience” they want us to have than equip us to operate as fully human beings in the world — beings with independence and agency, able to engage in our own ways, and on our own terms.

So, what we’ve got now, nice as it is in many ways, is a feudal system. Not real freedom.

It’s a feudal system run by advertising money, and it is worse than broken: it looks to its masters like it isn’t working well enough. Those masters include lots of good people trying to do the Right Things. But they aren’t listening, because they are too busy talking to each other. The whole marketing ecosystem is an echo chamber now. And we, the users and customers of the world, are not in it, except as magnets for tracking beacons and MAC addresses sold to marketing mills.

There is now a line in the sand. On one side is industrial control of human beings, and systems that “allow” degrees of freedom. On the other side is freedom itself. On that side also lies the truly free marketplace.

Here’s a bet. A lot more money will be made equipping individual human beings with means for enjoying full agency than there is today in “delivering” better sales “experiences” to them through browsers and phones that aren’t really theirs at all.

And here’s betting we’ll get better social effects too: ones that arise from freedom of association in an open world, rather than inside giant mills built for selling us to advertisers.

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