Category: Intentcasting (page 1 of 2)

Let’s scale #intentcasting

intent-starThe only way #VRM can get scale is by giving customers scale. And customers won’t get scale until enablers of VRM leverage the same open source code and protocols.

Scale for customers means being able to deal with many companies the same way, and to issue signals to whole markets in one move.

We don’t have that yet, though there is lots of development work going on. On the ProjectVRM wiki we list many dozens of development projects, including  22 startups in the Intelligent Personal Assistant and intentcasting categories (“†” signifies a commercial effort):

Intelligent Personal Assistants

  • iNeed † “Your own personal assistant.”
  • MyWave † “‘Frank’ puts the customer in control of “getting personalised experiences anytime, anywhere, on any device.”


Note: Intelligent Personal Assistants, above, by nature also do intentcasting.

  • About2Buy † “A Collaborative Commerce System to Align Internet Buyers & Sellers Via Multiple Channels of Social Distribution.”
  • Crowdspending † “… gives each of us the power of all of us.”
  • GetHuman † “Need to contact a company? Or have them call you? Get customer service faster and easier.”
  • Greentoe † “Finally…There’s a New Way to Shop! Name Your Price & We Negotiate For You.”
  • HomeAdvisor † “We help you find trusted home improvement pros.”
  • Indie Dash Button “This … turns traditional advertising on its head, and removes the need for complicated targeting technology. Customers readily identify themselves, creating more valuable sales channels where guesswork is all but eliminated.”
  • Intently † “Request any service anywhere with”
  • Instacart † “The best way to shop for groceries — Delivered from the stores you love in one hour”
  • Magic † “Text this phone number to get whatever you want on demand with no hassle…”
  • Mesh † “Connect with only the things you love… See ads from brands that matter to you. And block the ones that don’t.”
  • MyTime † “Book appointments for anything.”
  • Nifti † – Intentcasting “puts” in the market at customer (or community-) -chosen prices
  • Pikaba † “Pikaba is Social Shopping Platform that captures consumer intent to purchase and connects them with the right local business.”
  • PricePatrol † “monitors nearby stores for what you want at the price you want”
  • RedBeacon † “Trusted pros for a better home.”
  • TaskRabbit † “Tell us what you need, let us know what we can take off your plate, choose a Tasker, hire one of our fully vetted Taskers to get the job done.”
  • Thumbtack † “We help you hire experienced professionals at a price that’s right.”
  • TrackIf † “Track your favorite sites for sales, new items, back-in-stock, and more.”
  • WebOfNeeds – “A distributed marketplace driven by customer needs.”
  • yellCast † “What you want, where you want it.”
  • Zaarly † “Hire local, hand-picked home services. We moderate every job and guarantee happiness at virtually any cost.”

But so far only two projects on those lists — the Indie Dash Button — and WebOfNeeds — give people (and companies helping them, such as those on the two lists) an open source way to scale across multiple vendors with the same signaling method. (I am sure there are more. If you know some, or want us to correct this list, please let us know and we’ll make the changes.)

Talk about intentcasting has increased lately, thanks to the need for better signaling from demand to supply at a time when more than 200 million souls are blocking ads, and there is a growing sense that this is a crisis for advertisers and publishers that’s too good to waste —and that the best either of those parties can do is a better job of listening for signals from the marketplace that are beyond their control but will do them some good. Intentcasting is one of those signals.

Intentcasting is a good signal because it’s friendly and comes from either new customers wanting to spend or existing customers wanting to relate (for example, to obtain services). In the former case it fits nicely into the existing need (and programmatic interfaces for) lead generation. In the latter case it speaks straight to call centers. What matters most is that both come voluntarily and straight from prospective or actual customers.

I’m wondering if there is a semantic-ish approach to Intentcasting. By that I mean a vernacular of abbreviated simple statements of what one is looking for. Example: “2br 2ba apt 10019″ means a two bedroom and two bath apartment in the 10019 zip code.

Again, what matters most here is that these signals need to be issued to the marketplace outside of the silo system that currently comprises way too much of the business world. I know the IndieWeb folks have worked on something like this. (Theirs is the Indie Dash Button, mentioned above).

And I know there are already bitcoin/blockchain appraoches too.  For eample, @MrChrisEllis’s ProTip, which facilitates Bitcoin payments in a nearly frictionless way. There are the broad outlines of possibility in both EmanciTerm and EmanciPay, which are design models we’ve had for years. (ProTip is an example of the latter.)

We could also use a good generic symbol for intent. I don’t know of one, or it would have made the cover of The Intention Economy. The star photo above is the best I could come up with for a visual to go with this post. But the lazyweb should do better than that.

Whatever we come up with, the time could hardly be more right.

[This post was impelled by the need to enlarge on my comment under Move Over, Doc Searls: It’s Time For A New Intention Economy by Kaila Colbin (@kcolbin) in MediaPost. Thanks, Kaila, for getting me going. :-)]

Two VRooMy posts

Two new posts with VRM themes just went up.

First, in Linux Journal (@LinuxJournal), How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out?

An excerpt:

I’m wondering when and how the Big Data craze will run out—or if it ever will.

My bet is that it will, for three reasons.

First, a huge percentage of Big Data work is devoted to marketing, and people in the marketplace are getting tired of being both the sources of Big Data and the targets of marketing aimed by it. They’re rebelling by blocking ads and tracking at growing rates. Given the size of this appetite, other prophylactic technologies are sure to follow. For example, Apple is adding “Content Blocking” capabilities to its mobile Safari browser. This lets developers provide ways for users to block ads and tracking on their IOS devices, and to do it at a deeper level than the current add-ons. Naturally, all of this is freaking out the surveillance-driven marketing business known as “adtech” (as a search for adtech + adblock reveals).

Second, other corporate functions must be getting tired of marketing hogging so much budget, while earning customer hate in the marketplace. After years of winning budget fights among CXOs, expect CMOs to start losing a few—or more.

Third, marketing is already looking to pull in the biggest possible data cache of all, from the Internet of Things.

Here’s T.Rob again:

IoT device vendors will sell their data to shadowy aggregators who live in the background (“…we may share with our affiliates…”)…

Second, in Harvard Business Review (@HarvardBiz), Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet.

…look for new ways of setting terms of engagement that we each assert in our dealings online. In the past we had to accept the one-sided terms provided by websites and services. With the power to block content selectively, we can signal not only what we don’t want, but what we want and expect from the supply side of the marketplace.

Customer Commons and others in the VRM (vendor relationship management) development community are also working on terms that only start with tracking preferences. These can expand to include conditions for voluntary data sharing, expressing buying interests, and providing standard means for connecting with loyalty programs, call centers and other CRM (customer relationship management) systems on the vendors’ side. Expect to see plenty of news about these and other expressions of individual agency online over the coming months.

Naturally, these will have important effects. Three stand out:

  1. The adtech bubble will burst. In October, executives with two of the largest publishers told me they are contemplating moves to back away from adtech. One of the biggest adtech spenders also told me they just dropped many millions of dollars in annual adtech spending. When these moves, and others like them, become public knowledge, expect to see surveillance-based marketing take a dive.
  2. Terms by which individuals deal with companies will solidify. Once that happens, we can expect The Intention Economy to unfold. This is an economy driven more by actual customer intentions than by expensive marketing guesswork.
  3. The new frontier of marketing will be service, not sales. Or, in the parlance of CRM, retention rather than acquisition. Additionally, as business becomes more subscription-based, service becomes dramatically linked to continuing revenue. This is a huge greenfield that will grow as more, and better, intelligence starts to flow back and forth between customers and companies.

After that, we’ll remember the adblock war as just another milestone in the short history of the internet. Post-war reconstruction, in this case, will begin with productive means of engagement, especially around maximizing agency on the demand side of the marketplace, and adjustments in supply to meet new and better-equipped forms of demand.

And if you’re worried about publishers and advertisers surviving, remember that publishers got along fine before there was adtech, and for most companies advertising is just one form of overhead. They can spend that money lots of other ways — including new ways they couldn’t see when they thought the supply side of the marketplace was running the whole show.

Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade


Those are the three market conversations happening in the digital publishing world. Let’s look into what they’re saying, and then what more they can say that’s not being said yet.

A: Publisher-Reader

Publishing has mostly been a push medium from the start. One has always been able to write back to The Editor, and in the digital world one can tweet and post in other places, including one’s own blog. But the flow and power asymmetry is still push-dominated, and the conversation remains mostly a one-way thing, centered on editorial content. (There is also far more blocking of ads than talk about them.)

An important distinction to make here is between subscription-based pubs and free ones. The business model of subscription-supported pubs is (or at least includes) B2C: business-to-customer. The business model of free pubs is B2B: business-to-business. In the free pub case, the consumer (who is not a customer, because she isn’t paying anything) is the product sold to the pub’s customer, the advertiser.

Publishers with paying subscribers have a greater stake — and therefore interest — in opening up conversation with customers. I believe they are also less interested in fighting with customers blocking ads than are the free pubs. (It would be interesting to see research on that.)

B. Publisher-Advertiser

In the offline world, this was an uncomplicated thing. Advertisers or their agencies placed ads in publications, and paid directly for it. In the online world, ads come to publishers through a tangle of intermediaries:


Thus publishers may have no idea at any given time what ads get placed in front of what readers, or for what reason. In service to this same complex system, they also serve up far more than the pages of editorial content that attracts readers to the site. Sight unseen, they plant tracking cookies and beacons in readers’ browsers, to follow those readers around and report their doings back to third parties that help advertisers aim ads back at those readers, either on the publisher’s site or elsewhere.

We could explore the four-dimensional shell game that comprises this system, but for our purposes here let’s just say it’s a B2B conversation. That it’s a big one now doesn’t mean it has to be the only one. Many others are possible.

C. Reader-Advertiser

In traditional offline advertising, there was little if any conversation between readers and advertisers, because the main purpose of advertising was to increase awareness. (Or, as Don Marti puts it, to send an economic signal.) If there was a call to action, it usually wasn’t to do something that involved the publisher.

A lot of online advertising is still that way. But much of it is direct response advertising. This kind of advertising (as I explain in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff) is descended not from Madison Avenue, but from direct mail (aka junk mail). And (as I explain in Debugging adtech’s assumptions) it’s hard to tell the difference.

Today readers are speaking to advertisers a number of ways:

  1. Responding to ads with a click or some other gesture. (This tens to happen at percentages to the right of the decimal point.)
  2. Talking back, one way or another, over social media or their own blogs.
  3. Blocking ads, and the tracking that aims them.

Lately the rate of ad and tracking blocking by readers has gone so high that publishers and advertisers have been freaking out. This is characterized as a “war” between ad-blocking readers and publishers. At the individual level it’s just prophylaxis. At the group level it’s a boycott. Both ways it sends a message to both publishers and advertisers that much of advertising and the methods used for aiming it are not welcome.

This does not mean, however, that making those ads or their methods more welcome is the job only of advertisers and publishers. Nor does it mean that the interactions between all three parties need to be confined to the ones we have now. We’re on the Internet here.

The Internet as we know it today is only twenty years old: dating from the end of the NSFnet (on 30 April 1995) and the opening of the whole Internet to commercial activity. There are sand dunes older than Facebook, Twitter — even Google — and more durable as well. There is no reason to confine the scope of our invention to incremental adaptations of what we have. So let’s get creative here, and start by looking at, then past, the immediate crisis.

People started blocking ads for two reasons: 1) too many got icky (see the Acceptable Ads Manifesto for a list of unwanted types); 2) unwelcome tracking. Both arise from the publisher-advertiser conversation, which to the reader (aka consumer) looks like this:


Thus the non-conversation between readers blocking ads and both publishers and advertisers (A and C) looks like this:


So far.

Readers also have an interest in the persistence of the publishers they read. And they have an interest in at least some advertisers’ goods and services, or the marketplace wouldn’t exist.

Thus A and C are conversational frontiers — while B is a mess in desperate need of cleaning up.

VRM is about A and C, and it can help with B. It also goes beyond conversation to include the two other activities that comprise markets: transaction and relationship. You might visualize it as this:


From Turning the customer journey into a virtuous cycle:

One of the reasons we started ProjectVRM is that actual customers are hard to find in the CRM business. We are “leads” for Sales, “cases” in Support, “leads” again in Marketing. At the Orders stage we are destinations to which products and invoices are delivered. That’s it.

Oracle CRM, however, has a nice twist on this (and thanks to @nitinbadjatia of Oracle for sharing it*):

Oracle Twist

Here we see the “customer journey” as a path that loops between buying and owning. The blue part — OWN, on the right — is literally the customer’s own-space. As the text on the OWN loop shows, the company’s job in that space is to support and serve. As we see here…

… the place where that happens is typically the call center.

Now let’s pause to consider the curb weight of “solutions” in the world of interactivity between company and customer today. In the BUY loop of the customer journey, we have:

  1. All of advertising, which Magna Global expects to pass $.5 trillion this year
  2. All of CRM, which Gartner pegs at $18b)
  3. All the rest of marketing, which has too many segments for me to bother looking up

In the OWN loop we have a $0trillion greenfield. This is where VRM started, with personal data lockers, stores, vaults, services and (just in the last few months) clouds.

Now look around your home. What you see is mostly stuff you own. Meaning you’ve bought it already. How about basing your relationships with companies on those things, rather than over on the BUY side of the loop, where you are forced to stand under a Niagara of advertising and sales-pitching, by companies and agencies trying to “target” and “acquire” you. From marketing’s traditional point of view (the headwaters of that Niagara), the OWN loop is where they can “manage” you, “control” you, “own” you and “lock” you in. To see one way this works, check your wallets, purses, glove compartments and kitchen junk drawers for “loyalty” cards that have little if anything to do with genuine loyalty.

But what if the OWN loop actually belonged to the customer, and not to the CRM system? What if you had VRM going there, working together with CRM, at any number of touch points, including the call center?

So here are two questions for the VRM community:

  1. What are we already doing in those areas that can help move forward in A and B?
  2. What can we do that isn’t being done now?

Among things we’re already doing are:

  • Maintaining personal clouds (aka vaults, lockers, personal information management systems, from which data we control can be shared on a permitted basis with publishers and companies that want to sell us stuff, or with which we already enjoy relationships.
  • Employing intelligent personal assistants of our own.
  • Intentcasting, in which we advertise our intentions to buy (or seek services of some kind).
  • Terms individuals can assert, to start basing interactions and relationships on equal power, rather than the defaulted one-way take-it-or-leave-it non-agreements we have today.

The main challenge for publishers and advertisers is to look outside the box in which their B2B conversation happens — and the threats to that box they see in ad blocking — and to start looking at new ways of interacting with readers. And look for leadership coming from tool and service providers representing those readers. (For example, Mozilla.)

The main challenge for VRM developers is to provide more of those tools and services.

Bonus links for starters (again, I’ll add more):

Of vaults and honey pots

Personal Blackbox ( is a new #VRM company — or so I gather, based on what they say they offer to users: “CONTROL YOUR DATA & UNLOCK ITS VALUE.”

So you’ll find them listed now on our developers list.

Here is the rest of the text on their index page:


PBB is a technology platform that gives you control of the data you produce every day.

PBB lets you gain insights into your own behaviors, and make money when you choose to give companies access to your data. The result? A new and meaningful relationship between you and your brands.

At PBB, we believe people have a right to own their data and unlock its benefits without loss of privacy, control and value. That’s why we created the Personal Data Independence Trust. Take a look and learn more about how you can own your data and its benefits.

In the meantime we are hard at work to provide you a service and a company that will make a difference. Join us to participate and we will keep you posted when we are ready to launch.

That graphic, and what seems to be said between the lines, tells me Personal Blackbox’s customers are marketers, not users.  And, as we so often hear, “If the service is free, you’re the product being sold.”

But, between the last paragraph and this one, I ran into Patrick Deegan, the Chief Technology Officer of Personal Blackbox, at the PDNYC meetup. When I asked him if the company’s customers are marketers, he said no — and that PBB (as it’s known) is doing something much different that’s not fully explained by the graphic and text above, and is tied with the Personal Data Independence Trust, about which not much is said at the link to it. (At least not yet. Keep checking back.) So I’ll withhold judgement about it until I know more, and instead pivot to the subject of VRM business models, which that graphic brings up for me.

I see two broad ones, which I’ll call vault and honey pot.

The vault model gives the individual full control over their personal data and what’s done with it, which could be anything, for any purpose. That data primarily has use value rather than sale value.

The honey pot model also gives the individual control over their personal data, but mostly toward providing a way to derive sale value for that data (or something similar, such as bargains and offers from marketers).

The context for the vault model is the individual’s whole life, and selective sharing of data with others.

The context for the honey pot model is the marketplace for qualified leads.

The vault model goes after the whole world of individuals. Being customers, or consumers, is just one of the many roles we play in that world. Who we are and what we do — embodied in our data — is infinitely larger that what’s valuable to marketers. But there’s not much money in that yet.

But there is in the honey pot model, at least for now. Simply put, the path to market success is a lot faster in the short run if you find new ways to help sellers sell.  $zillions are being spent on that, all the time. (Just look at the advertising coming along with that last link, to a search).

FWIW, I think the heart of VRM is in the vault model. But we have a big tent here, and many paths to explore. (And many metaphors to mix.)

The most important event, ever

IIW XXIIW_XX_logothe 20th IIW — comes at a critical inflection point in the history of VRM. If you’re looking for a point of leverage on the future of customer liberation, independence and empowerment, this is it. Wall Street-sized companies around the world are beginning to grok what Main Street ones have always known: customers aren’t just “targets” to be “acquired,” “managed,” “controlled” and “locked in.” In other words, Cluetrain was right when it said this, in 1999:

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

Now it is finally becoming clear that free customers are more valuable than captive ones: to themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace.

But how, exactly? That’s what we’ll be working on at IIW, which runs from April 7 to 9 at the Computer History Museum, in the heart of Silicon Valley: the best venue ever created for a get-stuff-done unconference. Focusing our work is a VRM maturity framework that gives every company, analyst and journalist a list of VRM competencies, and every VRM developer a context in which to show which of those competencies they provide, and how far along they are along the maturity path. This will start paving the paths along which individuals, tool and service providers and corporate systems (e.g. CRM) can finally begin to fit their pieces together. It will also help legitimize VRM as a category. If you have a VRM or related company, now is the time to jump in and participate in the conversation. Literally. Here are some of the VRM topics and technology categories that we’ll be talking about, and placing in context in the VRM maturity framework:

Up next: a master app to give customers scale

Businesses love to say “the customer comes first,” “the customer is in charge” and that they need to “let the customer lead.” But for those things to happen, the customer customer needs to actually have the ability to do all three:  to come first, to be in charge, and to lead.

In the networked marketplace, the customer has none of those. And she’ll never get it from the companies she deals with, no matter how well-intended they might be. They can greet her by name, give her a hug and lavish discounts and benefits on her, and it won’t make a damn bit of difference, because they are only one company, and they are not her.

What she needs is native power of her own. Without it, she’s up against CRM and other B2B systems sold to the companies she deals with, all of which are designed to “target,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” customers — all terms better suited to ranching and slavery than to anything that aspires to genuine relationship.

To really come first, to really be in charge, to really lead, the customer needs powers of her own that extend across all the companies she deals with. In another word, she needs scale.

Just as companies need to scale their relationships across many customers, customers need to scale their relationships across many companies.

The customer can only get scale through tools for both independence and engagement. She already has those with her car, her purse, her phone, her personal computer, her email, her browsers, her computer. Every company she deals with respects the independence she gets from those tools, and every company has the same base-level ways of interacting with them. Those tools are also substitutable. The customer can swap them for others like it and maintain her autonomy, independence and ability to engage.

For the last eight years many dozens of developers around ProjectVRM have been working on tools and services that give customers scale. You’ll find a partial list of them here, a report on their progress here — and soon a maturity framework will appear here.

What’s still missing, I believe, is a master app for running all the customer’s relationships: an app that applies standard ways of managing relationships with companies that make and sell her things. That app should include —

  • Ways to manage gradual, selective and trust-based disclosure of
    personal identifiers, starting from a state that is anonymous
    (literally, nameless).
  • Ways to express terms and policies with which companies can agree
    (preferably automatically).
  • Ways to change personal data records (e.g. name, address, phone
    number) for every company she deals with, in one move.
  • Ways to share personal data (e.g. puchase or service intentions)
    selectively and in a mutually trusting way, with every company she
    deals with.
  • Ways to exercise full control over data spaces (“clouds”) for every thing she owns, and within which reside her relationships with companies that support
    those things.
  • Ways to engage with existing CRM, call center and other relationship systems on the vendors’ side.

I believe we have most or all of the technologies, standards, protocols, specifications and APIs we need already. What we need now is thinking and development that goes meta: one level up, to where the customer actually lives, trying to manage all these different relationships with all these different cards, apps, websites, logins, passwords and the rest of it.

The master app would not subsume all those things, but make it easier to drive them.

The master app should also be as substitutable as a car, a wallet, a purse, a phone, an email client. In other words, we should have a choice of master apps, and not be stuck again inside the exclusive offering of a single company.

Only with scale can free customers prove more valuable than captive ones. And only with mastery will customers get scale. We can’t get there with a zillion different little apps, most of which are not ours. We need a master app of our own.

And we’ll get one. I have faith that VRM developers will come through. (And I know some that are headed this way already.)

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.


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:


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:


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:


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., 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.’


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, 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).


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):


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):


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):


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:


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.

Meanwhile, VRooMy companies like trōv are helping individuals do more with what they own — taking their valuables, and making them more valuable.

6. Verticals


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.

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.

#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.

VRooMy developments

Youstice is a new VRM company focused on mediating disputes online. Says the home page, “We help customers and retailers resolve shopping issues quickly and effectively.” Here’s the customer side (shop with confidence). Here’s the retailer side (manage claims easily). And here’s the pitch to partners (“help retailers and customers globally reach resolution of thousands of complaints – all through one simple online application”).

Enable your customers to better engage and make them independent. Become a VRooMer! is a new blog post by Zbynek Loebl that nicely explains VRM and the context it provides for Youstice, which is in beta now. So check it out.

Fargo is the online outliner/publishing system brought to us by Dave Winer and friends. As a tool of independence and engagement, it has many VRM possibilities, methinks. I enjoy following it both in use (I often blog through it) and in the Fargo Blog.

Phil Windley‘s The Compuserve of Things speaks to a problem we all suffer but few of us examine: silo-ization. Phil starts by insightfully observing that Web 2.o, for all the progress it brought, did so at the expense of centralization around sites, services and data sources:

Each of these online service businesses sought to offer a complete soup-to-nuts experience and capitalized on their captive audiences in order to get businesses to pay for access. In fact, you don’t have to look very hard to see that much of what’s popular on the Internet today looks a lot like sophisticated versions of these online service businesses. Web 2.0 isn’t so much about the Web as it is about recreating the online business models of the 80’s and early 90’s. Maybe we should call it Online 2.0 instead.

To understand the difference, consider GMail vs. Facebook Messaging. Because GMail is really just a massive Web-client on top of Internet mail protocols like SMTP, IMAP, and POP, you can use your GMail account to send email to any account on any email system on the Internet. And, if you decide you don’t like GMail, you can switch to another email provider (at least if you have your own domain).

Facebook messaging, on the other hand, can only be used to talk to other Facebook users inside Facebook. Not only that, but I only get to use the clients that Facebook chooses for me. Facebook is going to make those choices based on what’s best for Facebook. And most Web 2.0 business models ensure that the interests of Web 2.0 companies are not necessarily aligned with those of their users. Decisions to be non-interoperable aren’t done out of ignorance, but on purpose. For example, WhatsApp uses an open protocol (XMPP), but chooses to be a silo.

He adds,

If we were really building the Internet of Things, with all that that term implies, there’d be open, decentralized, heterarchical systems at its core, just like the Internet itself. There aren’t. Sure, we’re using TCP/IP and HTTP, but we’re doing it in a way that is closed, centralized, and hierarchical with only a minimal nod to interoperability using APIs.

We need the Internet of Things to be the next step in the series that began with the general purpose PC and continued with the Internet and general purpose protocols—systems that support personal autonomy and choice. The coming Internet of Things envisions computing devices that will intermediate every aspect of our lives. I strongly believe that this will only provide the envisioned benefits or even be tolerable if we build an Internet of Things rather than a CompuServe of Things.

When we say the Internet is “open,” we’re using that as a key word for the three key concepts that underlie the Internet:

  1. Decentralization
  2. Heterarchy (what some call peer-to-peer connectivity)
  3. Interoperability

And concludes,

The only way we get an open Internet of Things is to build it. That means we have to do the hard work of figuring out the protocols—and business models—that support it. I’m heartened by developments like Bitcoin’s blockchain algorithm, the #indieweb movement,TelehashXDI DiscoveryMaidSafe, and others. And, of course, I’ve got my own work onKRLCloudOS, and Fuse. But there is still much to do.

We are at a crossroads, with a decision to make about what kind of future we want. We can build the world we want to live in or we can do what’s easy, and profitable, in the short run. The choice is ours.

This is strong and important stuff.

Here in browser-land (where I’m writing this), Firefox has released a major new upgrade: version 29.0. Here’s an explanation. Firefox matters for VRM purposes because it’s the browser that’s closest to ours alone, and therefore in the best position to become a VRM instrument. The team there has also recently made hires — on purpose — from within our VRM orbit, and this is hugely encouraging. Oh, and they just put out this very cool video.

Same goes for WordPress. Gideon Rosenblatt‘s Automattic for the People: WordPress as a Regenerative Business singles out WordPress for praise as a paradigmatic example. He defines a regenerative business as a people- (rather than a money- or mission-) centric. So, in this respect, it helps to note that the main stakeholders in WordPress, Mozilla and Fargo are the people who put it to use. They are driven by us. This is more important than them being –centric around us. (This distinction is unpacked here and here.)

Regenerative business reminds me a lot of Umair Haque’s concept of thick value. Need to look more deeply into that.

Last but not least, dig Casius, which matches homeowners with pre-screened and qualified contractors in several European countries, so far: intentcasting, of a sort.

Looking forward to seeing lots of you at IIW next week.

Older posts

© 2015 ProjectVRM

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑