It’s misses like this that have people thinking there’s nothing to fear from AI.
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It’s misses like this that have people thinking there’s nothing to fear from AI.
If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?
Yet there is lately a widespread urge to claim personal data as personal property, and to create commodity markets for personal data, so people can start making money by selling or otherwise monetizing their own.
ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of its wiki a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:
Yet, while I salute these efforts’ respect for individuals, and their righteous urges to right the wrongs of wanton and rude harvesting of personal data from approximately everybody, I also think there are problems with this approach. And, since I’ve been asked lately to spell out those problems, I shall. Here goes.
|Rivalness||YES||Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers||Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents|
|Rivalness||NO||Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works||public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting|
The second problem is that nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation
Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is essential in a very human way.
The third problem is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data.
Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, even though it’s combustible.
Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist?
What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other combustible public goods, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.
Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. I do too. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.
Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something. It’s a helpful one.
Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage.
Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.
The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.
Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:
Trying to get in on that business is just an awful proposition.
Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?
Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)
And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?
What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.
It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.
It’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. It’s too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.
So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting our most human of powers to work.
The most basic form of agency in the digital world is control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.
Nature and the Internet both came without privacy.
The difference is that we’ve invented privacy tech in the natural world, starting with clothing and shelter, and we haven’t yet done the same in the digital world.
When we go outside in the digital world, most of us are still walking around naked. Worse, nearly every commercial website we visit plants tracking beacons on us to support the extractive economy in personal data called adtech: tracking-based advertising.
In the natural world, we also have long-established norms for signaling what’s private, what isn’t, and how to respect both. Laws have grown up around those norms as well. But let’s be clear: the tech and the norms came first.
Yet for some reason many of us see personal privacy as a grace of policy. It’s like, “The answer is policy. What is the question?”
Two such answers arrived with this morning’s New York Times: Facebook Is Not the Problem. Lax Privacy Rules Are., by the Editorial Board; and Can Europe Lead on Privacy?, by ex-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Both call for policy. Neither see possibilities for personal tech. To both, the only actors in tech are big companies and big government, and it’s the job of the latter to protect people from the former. What they both miss is that we need what we might call big personal. We can only get that with with personal tech gives each of us power not just resist encroachments by others, but to have agency. (Merriam Webster: the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.)
We acquired agency with personal computing and the Internet. Both were designed to make everyone an Archimedes. We also got a measure of it with the phones and tablets we carry around in our pockets and purses. None are yet as private as they should be, but making them fully private is the job of tech.
I bring this up because we will be working on privacy tech over the next four days at the Computer History Museum, first at VRM Day, today, and then over next three days at IIW: the Internet Identity Workshop.
On the table at both are work some of us, me included, are doing through Customer Commons on terms we can proffer as individuals, and the sites and services of the world can agree to.
Those terms are examples of what we call customertech: tech that’s ours and not Facebook’s or Apple’s or Google’s or Amazon’s.
The purpose is to turn the connected marketplace into a Marvel-like universe in which all of us are enhanced. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of laws follow.*
But hey, let’s invent the tech we need first.
*BTW, I give huge props to the EU for the General Data Protection Regulation, which is causing much new personal privacy tech development and discussion. I also think it’s an object lesson in what can happen when an essential area of tech development is neglected, and gets exploited by others for lack of that development.
Also, to be clear, my argument here is not against policy, but for tech development. Without the tech and the norms it makes possible, we can’t have fully enlightened policy.
Power of the People is a great grabber of a headline, at least for me. But it’s a pitch for a report that requires filling out the form here on the right:
You see a lot of these: invitations to put one’s digital ass on mailing list, just to get a report that should have been public in the first place, but isn’t so personal data can be harvested and sold or given away to God knows who.
And you do more than just “agree to join” a mailing list. You are now what marketers call a “qualified lead” for countless other parties you’re sure to be hearing from.
Is the form above one of those “public areas”? Of course. What wouldn’t be? And are they are not discouraging caution by requiring you to fill out all the personal data fields marked with a *? You betcha. See here:
III. How we use and share your information
A. To deliver services
In order to facilitate our delivery of advertising, analytics and other services, we may use and/or share the information we collect, including interest-based segments and user interest profiles containing demographic information, location information, gender, age, interest information and information about your computer, device, or group of devices, including your IP address, with our affiliates and third parties, such as our service providers, data processors, business partners and other third parties.
B. With third party clients and partners
Our online advertising services are used by advertisers, websites, applications and other companies providing online or internet connected advertising services. We may share information, including the information described in section III.A. above, with our clients and partners to enable them to deliver or facilitate the delivery of online advertising. We strive to ensure that these parties act in accordance with applicable law and industry standards, but we do not have control over these third parties. When you opt-out of our services, we stop sharing your interest-based data with these third parties. Click here for more information on opting out.
No need to bother opting out, by the way, because there’s this loophole too:
D. To complete a merger or sale of assets
Okay, let’s be fair: this is boilerplate. Every marketing company—hell, every company period—puts jive like this in their privacy policies.
And Viant isn’t one of marketing’s bad guys. Or at least that’s not how they see themselves. They do mean well, kinda, if you forget they see no alternative to tracking people.
If you want to see what’s in that report without leaking your ID info to the world, the short cut is New survey by people-based marketer Viant promotes marketing to identified users in @Martech_Today.
What you’ll see there is a company trying to be good to users in a world where those users have no more power than marketers give them. And giving marketers that ability is what Viant does.
Curious… will Viant’s business persist after the GDPR trains heavy ordnance on it?
See, the GDPR forbids gathering personal data about an EU citizen without that person’s clear permission—no matter where that citizen goes in the digital world, meaning to any site or service anywhere. It arrives in full force, with fines of up to 4% of global revenues in the prior fiscal year, on 25 May of this year: about three months from now.
In case you’ve missed it, I’m not idle here.
To help give individuals fresh GDPR-fortified leverage, and to save the asses of companies like Viant (which probably has lawyers working overtime on GDPR compliance), I’m working with Customer Commons (on the board of which I serve) on terms individuals can proffer and companies can agree to, giving them a form of protection, and agreeable companies a path toward GDPR compliance. And companies should like to agree, because those terms will align everyone’s interests from the start.
I’m also working with Linux Journal (where I’ve recently been elevated to editor-in-chief) to make it one of the first publishers to agree to friendly terms its readers proffer. That’s why I posted Every User a Neo there. Other metaphors: turning everyone on the Net into an Archimedes, with levers to move the world, and turning the whole marketplace in to a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.
If you want to help with any of that, talk to me.
Sometimes you get what you pay for.
In this case, a good microphone in a bluetooth headset.
Specifically, the Bose Soundsport Wireless:
I’ve had these a day so far, and I love them. But not just because they sound good. Lots of earphones do that. I love them because the mic in the thing is good. This is surprisingly rare.
Let’s start with the humble Apple EarPods that are overpriced at $29 but come free with every new Apple i-thing and for that reason are probably the most widely used earphones on Earth:
No, their sound isn’t great. But get this: in conversation they sound good to ears at the other end. Better, in my judgement than the fancy new AirPods. (Though according to Phil Windley in the comments below, they are good at suppressing ambient noise.) The AirPods are also better than lots of other earphones I’ve used: ones from Beats, SkullCandy, Sennheiser and plenty of other brands. (I lose and destroy earphones and headphones constantly.) In all my experience, I have have not heard any earphones or headphones that sound better than plain old EarPods. In fact I sometimes ask, when somebody sounds especially good over a voice connection, if they’re using EarPods. Very often the answer is yes. “How’d you guess?” they ask. “Because you sound unusually good.”
So, when a refurbished iPhone 7 Plus arrived to replace my failing iPhone 5s two days ago, and it came with no headphone hole (bad, but I can live), I finally decided to get some wireless earphones. So I went to Consumer Reports on the Web, printed out their ratings for Wireless Portable Stereo Headphones (alas, behind a subscription wall), went to the local Staples, and picked up a JBL E25BT for $49 against a $60 list price. I chose that one because Consumer Reports gives it a rating of 71 out of 100 (which isn’t bad, considering that 76 is the top rating for any of the 50 models on the list)—and they called it a “best buy” as well.
I was satisfied until I talked to my wife over the JBL on my new phone. “You’re muffled,” she said. Then I called somebody else. “What?” they said. “I can’t hear you.” I adjusted the mic so it was closer to my mouth. “What?” they said again. I switched to the phone itself. “That’s better.” I then plugged the old EarPods into Apple’s Lightning dongle, which I also bought at Staples for $9. “Much better.”
So the next day I decided to visit an Apple Store to see what they had, and recommended. I mean, I figured they’d have a fair chance of knowing.
“I want a good mic more than I want good sound,” I said to the guy. “Oh,” he replied. “I shouldn’t say this because we don’t sell them; but you need a Bose. They care about mics and theirs are the best. Go to the Best Buy down the street and see what they’ve got.” So I went.
At Best Buy the guy said, “The best mic is in the Bose Soundsport Wireless.” I pulled my six-page Consumer Reports list of rated earphones out of my back pocket. There at the top of the ratings was the Soundsport. So I bought a blue one. Today I was on two long calls and both parties at the other ends said “You sound great.” One added, “Yeah, really good.” So there ya go.
I’m sure there are other models with good mics; but I’m done looking, and I just want to share what I’ve found so far—and to implore all the outfits that rate earphones and headphones with mics to rate the mics too. It’s a kindness to the people at the other end of every call.
Remember: conversations are two-way, and the person speaking has almost no idea how good they’re sounding to the other person over a mobile phone. So give the mics some weight.
And thanks, Bose. Good product.
The term “fake news” was a casual phrase until it became clear to news media that a flood of it had been deployed during last year’s presidential election in the U.S. Starting in November 2016, fake news was the subject of strong and well-researched coverage by NPR (here and here), Buzzfeed, CBS (here and here), Wired, the BBC, Snopes, CNN (here and here), Rolling Stone and others. It thus became a thing…
And he hasn’t stopped. To Trump, any stick he can whup non-Fox mainstream media with is a good stick, and FAKE NEWS is the best.
So that pretty much took “fake news,” as a literal thing, off the table for everyone other than Trump and his amen chorus.
So, since we need a substitute, I suggest decoy news. Because that’s what we’re talking about: fabricated news meant to look like the real thing.
But the problem is bigger than news alone, because advertising-funded media have been in the decoy business since forever. The difference in today’s digital world is that it’s a lot easier to fabricate a decoy story than to research and produce a real one—and it pays just as well, or even better, because overhead in the decoy business rounds to nothing. Why hire a person to do an algorithm’s job?
In the content business the commercial Web has become, algorithms are now used to target both stories and the advertising that pays for them.
This is why, on what we used to call the editorial side of publishing (interesting trend here), journalism as a purpose has been displaced by content production.
We can see one tragic result in a New York Times story titled In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen (@davidwchen). In it he reports that “The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”
This calls to mind how Saturday Night Live in 1977 introduced the Blues Brothers in a skit where Paul Shaffer, playing rock impresario Don Kirshner, proudly said the Brothers were “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.”
To be viably commercial today, all media need to be in the content production business, paid for by adtech, which is entirely driven by algorithms informed by surveillance-gathered personal data. The result looks like this:
To fully grok how we got here, it is essential to understand the difference between advertising and direct marketing, and how nearly all of online advertising is now the latter. I describe the shift from former to latter in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:
Advertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.
Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.
Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.
First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.
Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making brands sponsoring a game familiar to everybody watching it.
In their landmark study, “The Waste in Advertising is the Part that Works” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375–390), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. Thus branding is about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative one.
But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.
In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.
See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.
Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.
Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.
And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.
So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.
Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.
It is now an article of faith within today’s brain-snatched advertising business that the best ad is the most targeted and personalized ad. Worse, almost all the journalists covering the advertising business assume the same thing. And why wouldn’t they, given that this is how advertising is now done online, especially by the Facebook-Google duopoly.
And here is why those two platforms can’t fix it: both have AI machines built to give millions of advertising customers ways to target the well-studied eyeballs of billions of people, using countless characterizations of those eyeballs.In fact, the only (and highly ironic) way they can police bad acting on their platforms is by hiring people who do nothing but look for that bad acting.
One fix is regulation. We now have that, hugely, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s an EU law, but it protects the privacy of EU citizens everywhere—with potentially massive fines. In spirit, if not also in letter (which the platforms are struggling mightily to weasel around), the GDPR outlaws tracking people like tagged animals online. I’ve called the GDPR an extinction event for adtech, and the main reason brands (including the media kind) need to fire it.
The other main fixes begin on the personal side. Don Marti (@dmarti) tweets, “Build technologies to implement people’s norms on sharing their personal data, and you’ll get technologies to help high-reputation sites build ad-supported business models ABSOLUTELY FREE!” Those models are all advertising wheat, not adtech chaff.
Now here’s the key: what we need most are single and simple ways for each of us to manage all our dealings with other entities online. Having separate means, each provided by the dozens or hundreds of sites and services we each deal with, all with different UIs, login/password gauntlets, forms to fill out, meaningless privacy policies and for-lawyers-only terms of service, cannot work. All that shit may give those companies scale across many consumers, but every one of them only adds to those consumers’ relationship overhead. I explain how this will work in Giving Customers Scale, plus many other posts, columns and essays compiled in my People vs. Adtech series, which is on its way to becoming a book. I’d say more about all of it, but need to catch a plane. See you on the other coast.
Meanwhile, the least we can do is start talking about decoy news and the business model that pays for it.
[Later…] I’m on the other coast now, but preoccupied by the #ThomasFire threatening our home in Santa Barbara. Since this blog appears to be mostly down, I’m writing about it at doc.blog.
Personal data, that is.
Because it’s good to give away—but only if you mean it.
And it’s bad to take it, even it seems to be there for the taking.
I bring this up because a quarter million pages (so far) on the Web say “data is the new oil.”
That’s because a massive personal data extraction industry has grown up around the simple fact that our data is there for the taking. Or so it seems. To them. And their apologists.
As a result, we’re at a stage of wanton data extraction that looks kind of like the oil industry did in 1920 or so:
It’s a good metaphor, but for a horrible business. It’s a business we need to reform, replace, or both. What we need most are new industries that grow around who and what we are as individual human beings—and as a society that values what makes us human.
Our data is us. Each of us. It is our life online. Yes, we shed some data in the course of our activities there, kind of like we shed dandruff and odors. But that’s no excuse for the extractors to frack our lives and take what they want, just because it’s there, and they can.
Now think about what love is, and how it works. How we give it freely, and how worthwhile it is when others accept it. How taking it without asking is simply wrong. How it’s better to earn it than to demand it. How it grows when it’s given. How we grow when we give it as well.
True, all metaphors are wrong, but that’s how metaphors work. Time is not money. Life is not travel. A country is not a family. But all those things are like those other things, so we think and talk about each of them in terms of those others. (By saving, wasting and investing time; by arriving, departing, and moving through life; by serving our motherlands, and honoring our founding fathers.)
Oil made sense as a metaphor when data was so easy to take, and the resistance wasn’t there.
But now the resistance is there. More than half a billion people block ads online, most of which are aimed by extracted personal data. Laws like the GDPR have appeared, with heavy fines for taking personal data without clear permission.
I could go on, but I also need to go to bed. I just wanted to get this down while it was in the front of my mind, where it arrived while discussing how shitty and awful “data is the new oil” was when it first showed up in 2006, and how sadly popular it has become since then:
It’s time for a new metaphor that expresses what our personal data really is to us, and how much more it’s worth to everybody else if we keep, give and accept it on the model of love.
Who Owns the Internet? — What Big Tech’s Monopoly Powers Mean for our Culture is Elizabeth Kolbert‘s review in The New Yorker of several books, one of which I’ve read: Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things—How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.
The main takeaway for me, to both Elizabeth’s piece and Jon’s book, is making clear that Google and Facebook are at the heart of today’s personal data extraction industry, and that this industry defines (as well as supports) much of our lives online.
Our data, and data about us, is the crude that Facebook and Google extract, refine and sell to advertisers. This by itself would not be a Bad Thing if it were done with our clearly expressed (rather than merely implied) permission, and if we had our own valves to control personal data flows with scale across all the companies we deal with, rather than countless different valves, many worthless, buried in the settings pages of the Web’s personal data extraction systems, as well as in all the extractive mobile apps of the world.
It’s natural to look for policy solutions to the problems Jon and others visit in the books Elizabeth reviews. And there are some good regulations around already. Most notably, the GDPR in Europe has energized countless developers (some listed here) to start providing tools individuals (no longer just “consumers” or “users”) can employ to control personal data flows into the world, and how that data might be used. Even if surveillance marketers find ways around the GDPR (which some will), advertisers themselves are starting to realize that tracking people like animals only fails outright, but that the human beings who constitute the actual marketplace have mounted the biggest boycott in world history against it.
But I also worry because I consider both Facebook and Google epiphenomenal. Large and all-powerful though they may be today, they are (like all tech companies, especially ones whose B2B customers and B2C consumers are different populations—commercial broadcasters, for example) shallow and temporary effects rather than deep and enduring causes.
I say this as an inveterate participant in Silicon Valley who can name many long-gone companies that once occupied Google’s and Facebook’s locations there—and I am sure many more will occupy the same spaces in a fullness of time that will surely include at least one Next Big Thing that obsolesces advertising as we know it today online. Such as, for example, discovering that we don’t need advertising at all.
Even the biggest personal data extraction companies are also not utilities on the scale or even the importance of power and water distribution (which we need to live), or the extraction industries behind either. Nor have these companies yet benefitted from the corrective influence of fully empowered individuals and societies: voices that can be heard directly, consciously and personally, rather than mere data flows observed by machines.
That direct influence will be far more helpful than anything they’re learning now just by following our shadows and sniffing our exhaust, mostly against our wishes. (To grok how little we like being spied on, read The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploiitation, a report by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy and Nora Draper of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Our influence will be most corrective when all personal data extraction companies become what lawyers call second parties. That’s when they agree to our terms as first parties. These terms are in development today at Customer Commons, Kantara and elsewhere. They will prevail once they get deployed in our browsers and apps, and companies start agreeing (which they will in many cases because doing so gives them instant GDPR compliance, which is required by next May, with severe fines for noncompliance).
Meanwhile new government policies that see us only as passive victims will risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with regulations that last decades or longer. So let’s hold off on that until we have terms of our own, start performing as first parties (on an Internet designed to support exactly that), and the GDPR takes full effect. (Not that more consumer-protecting federal regulation is going to happen in the U.S. anyway under the current administration: all the flow is in the other direction.)
My loyalty to Peet’s Coffee is absolute. I have loved Peet’s since it was a single store in Berkeley. I told my wife in 2001 that I wouldn’t move anywhere outside the Bay Area unless there was a Peet’s nearby. That pre-qualified Santa Barbara, where we live now. When we travel to where Peets has retail stores, we buy bags of our favorite beans (which tend to be one of the above) to take to our New York apartment, because there are no Peets stores near there. When we’re in New York and not traveling, we look for stores that sell bags of one of the bean bags above.
I ordered those beans (Garuda and New Guinea) two Thursdays ago, June 16, at 7:45am. A couple days after I ordered the beans, I checked my account online to see where the shipment stood, and the site said the beans would be shipped on Monday, June 19. According to the email I got yesterday (a section of which I show above), the beans didn’t ship until the following Wednesday, June 21. Now the estimated delivery is next Wednesday, June 28.
While this isn’t a big deal, it’s still annoying because we just ran out of our last batch of beans here and we’ll be gone when that shipment arrives. Subscribing (which Peet’s e-commerce system would rather we do) also won’t work for us because we travel too much and don’t settle in any one place for very long. True, that’s not Peet’s problem, and I’m a sample of one. But I’ve experienced enough e-commerce to know that Peet’s shipping thing isn’t working very well.
And maybe it can’t. I don’t know. Here’s what I mean…
Way back in the late ’90s I was having lunch in San Francisco with Jamie Zawinski, whose work as a programmer is behind many of the graces we take for granted in the online world. (He’s a helluva writer too.) At one point he said something like “Somebody should figure out what Amazon does, bottle it, and sell it to every other retailer doing e-commerce.” And here we are, nearly two decades later, in a world where the one e-commerce company everybody knows will do what it says is still Amazon. (I’ll spare you my much worse tale of woe getting new air conditioners bought and shipped from Home Depot.)
So that’s a problem on the service side.
Now let’s talk marketing. A while back, Peet’s came out with an app that lets you check in at its stores for rewards when you buy something there. You do that this way at the cash register:
I’ve done this a lot, or at least tried to. Here are just some of the problems with it, all of which I offer both to help Peet’s and to dissuade companies everywhere from bothering with the same system:
Here’s the thing: None of this stuff is necessary. Worse, it’s pure overhead, a value-subtract from the start. And Peet’s is one of the all-too-rare retailers that doesn’t need this kind of crap at all. It has already earned, and keeps, the loyalty of its customers. It just needs to keep doing a better job of making better coffee.
In The Intention Economy I tell the story of Trader Joe’s, another retailer that does a good job of earning and keeping its customers’ loyalty. You know how they do that? With approximately no marketing at all. “We don’t do gimmicks,” Doug Rauch, the retired President of Trader Joe’s told me. No loyalty cards. No promotional pricing. No discounts for “members.” (In fact they have no discounts at all. Just straightforward prices for everything.) Almost no advertising. Nothing that smacks of coercion. And customers love them.
My recommendation to Peet’s on the service side is to ship as fast and well as Amazon, or to stop trying and let Amazon handle the whole thing. Amazon already carries a variety of Peet’s beans and other coffee products. Either way, there is no excuse for taking almost two weeks to deliver an order of beans.
On the marketing side, I suggest dropping the app and the gizmos at the stores. Save the operational costs and reduce the cognitive overhead for both personnel and customers. Personal data gathered through apps is also a toxic asset for every company—and don’t let any marketers tell you otherwise. Like Trader Joe’s, Peet’s doesn’t need the data. Make the best coffee and provide the best service at the stores, and you’ll get and keep the best customers. Simple as that.
You’re in the coffee game, Peet’s. Keep winning that way. For everything that isn’t doing what you’ve always done best, less is more.