What could be more social than a real marketplace?

When we say “social” these days, we mostly mean the sites and services of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare and other commercial entities. Not talking on the phone or in person. Not meeting at a café. Not blogging, or emailing or even texting. Those things are all retro and passé. Worse, they’re not what marketers get high off of these days. Meaning they’re outside the Big Data ecosystem, most of which is devoted to improving the vast business of guesswork we call advertising, flowing outward increasingly through digital media.

The marketplace where all the Big Bux are being spent these day is not the public one where culture is made and goods are bought and sold. It’s the marketing marketplace.

Go to SelectOut.org. See who and what is tracking you right now. Chances are it’s more than a few of the hundreds of companies listed here. The market they’re in is putting better crosshairs on your back and your wallet. Not the one where you live and you shop.

Their market is in selling your ass to advertisers. So is Twitter’s, for that matter. It’s not serving you as a customer. You are a consumer. Your job is to consume “content,” and hopefully every once in awhile also click on stuff you might buy. That’s it. Yes, it’s a trade-off, but it’s not a very conscious one, and it’s not very “social,” either. Not when you don’t really know the company, or have a relationship with human beings there. Ever tried to call customer service at Facebook? Or hell, at Google? They don’t do that. They don’t want to get personal with you, even if they give you free personal services. Again, you’re not the customer. You’re inventory.

What’s missing here is real innovation in the real marketplace. (Besides what’s going on in VRM, of course.)

This became clear to me yesterday when John Wilbanks mentioned an amazing idea he had posted recently, titled Consumption Offsets and Sustainable Loyalty Cards. Here are the key paragraphs:

I had two ideas today. One is that if we can trade emissions at a corporate level, we should be able to trade consumption. So if we can track consumption of goods, and the sustainability of those goods, we have the rudiments of a market for consumption. So why not offer (wealthy, western, northern) people the chance to pay extra for an offset for their iPad like they do with their plane ticket?

My other idea was based on the ever present loyalty cards for grocery stores, pharmacies, and even cupcake shops in the US. You give away your personal data in return for lower prices (although I often use the algorithm of [local area code of store] + 867-5309). Why not something similar for sustainable goods? Either you pay the full price, or you pony up your data to save the world. Also you get a sticker to put on your computer to show how much better you are than other people – and that’s big, because being proud of being a sustainable consumer is currently, and unfortunately, densely tied to being one.

Both here and in conversation, John posed an interesting question: If personal data really is an “asset class,” as the World Economic Forum says it is, shouldn’t we be able to sell it? Or to make it fungible in some other way?

John’s second idea raises two interesting questions:

  • Who would buy your personal data?
  • What would they use it for?

Especially when, right now, lots of companies you don’t know (and a few you do) are getting that data for free. Would they pay more than nothing for it? If not, is it possible that it really is worth nothing?

When I ask questions like the two above, the answer I usually get is marketers and marketing. Some of the data you shed in the course of surfing and shopping helps sellers remember and serve you. Amazon always comes up as a canonical example. But even there Amazon is often suggesting books I’ve already bought or would hardly be interested in. Grocery stores, meanwhile, mostly use my shopping data to push coupons for stuff I bought once and might never buy again. The whole loyalty card game is one reason we do most of our grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, which doesn’t bother with any gimmicks, and gives great service as well.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).

I’m about to lead a session at the Social Business Jam, on Seamless Integration of Social. In the spirit of Dave Winer’s bailing from Facebook today, I’d like to suggest that we look at how social works in real markets, and why we keep mistaking closed private markets on the Web for real ones.

For evidence of how far off base we are, here’s Zemanta‘s list of articles related to what I’ve been writing about here:

Related articles

And, as a small counterweight to that dollarfall of investment and buzz, A Sense of Bewronging.

See ya at the jam.


  1. mark’s avatar

    love the post doc –

    as you know we are trying to solve for some of what you opine here…

    i am sending you a slide via PM on our latest take on this

    best – Mark

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Mark. Everybody else, Mark’s Getabl is a key VRM company.

  3. David Scott Williams’s avatar

    Great post, and as is usual for you (I try to emulate whenever possible) LINK RICH. This means it is a post that keeps on educating long after, on subsequent reads…

    I think the spirit of “Farmers’ Markets” needs to be brought to the web (local is of course a main driving spirit, but also “From the horses mouth” and “From the potter’s wheel” type of spirit (or even “from MY chickens’ asses”) exists in these markets… and it is important… Not sure how that gets accomplished…

  4. Peter Brown’s avatar

    Hey Doc,
    You continue to post great stuff that is seldom expressed so well, on any other site, in a public fashion, by anyone with an ounce of relationship to technology. This issue of “social” desperately needs continued attention. It would seem that when a narrowly defined “discrimination” was appropriately discarded beginning in the late fifties, it became easier in the more recent decades to simply abandon all sense of “discrimination”. No discrimination, no thinking. Like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. What is “social media” really?

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Peter.

    Can you give us more definition on what you mean by discrimination in this context? I’m somewhat sure what you mean, but not enough yet to respond.

  6. Peter Brown’s avatar

    There is an expression often heard today “It’s all good”. Well, it is not all good. Some of it is bad, or less than good, or unhealthy, not so good. There are many ways to say this in our post-modern world where even drawing the distinction between bad and good requires that we moderate the judgement “bad”. The “discrimination” that I refer to is simply the discrimination required to form a judgement that perhaps this is healthy and this is unhealthy, this is good and this is bad. As per your original post, when thinking,ie discrimination, is undervalued or devalued such that it is no longer appreciated as a healthy aspect of adult life then in the world of technology “it is all good”. This is also the world where “social media” can masquerade as social reality and “free” really means caught. We all need to remember that it is called the World Wide Web for good reason, emphasis on Web.

  7. Morten Blaabjerg’s avatar

    Here’s where I’m going with this: The marketplace that matters is the primary one where we live and work and shop. Not the secondary one where people we don’t know are sniffing our digital butts to see what we’ve consumed and might want to consume instead (or again).

    Is the world really this simple?

    I believe one of the great promises of the internet/web is to help us create a much more pinpointed communication and accordingly a much more efficient and less wasteful distribution : in other words, let producers sell their products to their customers in more targeted ways, and let their customers more easily find what they’re looking for (and find what they’re not looking for, but are intensely interested in). In other words, a more connected world, with less waste of eyeballs, time, energy and ressources. Local producers need to reach their potential customers on the other end of the internet, especially if they’re producing within a niche, which does not make economically sense if based solely on their local customers (say, those within driving distance).

    I agree very much the “sniffing of digital butts” (what a magnificent expression!) has come much too far. It extends and twists the thinking of conventional one-way marketing to “fit” an internet context and sees internet users as nothing but consumers in need of convincing to (occasionally) click on banner ads. It is indeed one-dimensional and short-sighted.

    But where I disagree is that “local” businesses won’t need to connect with their current and potential customers on the other end of the internet, and in the process collect data on their transactions along the way. I believe you can do this respectfully and transparently, and partly have to, because you want to deliver the best possible (and less wasteful) communication and service.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Morten.

    I don’t mean to suggest that local businesses (or any businesses) won’t need to connect to actual and potential customers.

    My work with ProjectVRM is toward creating a marketplace where customers and sellers and engage in productive and respectful ways, rather than in ways where customers are being spied-upon, spammed with unwanted junk messages and trapped inside silos and walled gardens. The problem we’ve had for a long time is that all the latter is normative in the extreme, and getting far worse on the Net than it was in the physical world where unwanted junk and manipulation at least had physical and cost limitations.

  9. Morten Blaabjerg’s avatar

    Thanks for elaborating on this, because this post actually left me confused. I understand where you’re going much better after taking a look at the ProjektVRM (again – I remember I have seen this before reading one of your posts). I see what you describe (to some extent) as a great experimental phase we’ve been in for a long while, where we still have a lot of problems figuring out the best (technically as well as economically) and most efficient ways to reach and connect with our “markets”. A lot online marketing activity happening is of course also outright opportunistic in it’s character, although sometimes it’s difficult to say whether some of the more opportunistic schemes won’t lead to ideas and architectures which will enable models which are less so and much more customer-centric.

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