Category: Problems (page 1 of 4)

If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have ad blocking

jblflip2This is a shopping vs. advertising story that starts with the JBP Flip 2 portable speaker I bought last year, when Radio Shack was going bankrupt and unloading gear in “Everything Must Go!” sales. I got it half-off for $50, choosing it over competing units on the same half-bare shelves, mostly because of the JBL name, which I’ve respected for decades. Before that I’d never even listened to one.

The battery life wasn’t great, but the sound it produced was much better than anything my laptop, phone or tablet put out. It was also small, about the size of a  beer can, so I could easily take it with me on the road. Which I did. A lot.

Alas, like too many other small devices, the Flip 2’s power jack was USB micro-b. That’s the tiny flat one that all but requires a magnifying glass to see which side is up, and tends to damage the socket if you don’t slip it in exactly right, or if you force it somehow. While micro-b jacks are all design-flawed that way, the one in my Flip 2 was so awful that it took great concentration to make sure the plug jacked in without buggering the socket.

Which happened anyway. One day, at an AirBnB in Maine, the Flip 2’s USB socket finally failed. The charger cable would fit into the socket, but the socket was loose, and the speaker wouldn’t take a charge. After efforts at resuscitation failed, I declared the Flip 2 dead.

But I was still open to buying another one. So, to replace it, I did what most of us do: I went to Amazon. Naturally, there were plenty of choices, including JBL Flip 2s and newer Flip 3s, at attractive prices. But Consumer Reports told me the best of the bunch was the Bose Soundlink Color, for $116.

So I bought a white Bose, because my wife liked that better than the red JBL.

The Bose filled Consumer Reports’ promise. While it isn’t stereo, it sounds much better than the JBL (voice quality and bass notes are remarkable). It’s also about the same size (though with a boxy rather than a cylindrical shape), has better battery life, and a better user interface. I hate that it  charges through a micro-b jack, but at least this one is easier to plug and unplug than the Flip 2 had been. So that story had a happy beginning, at least for me and Bose.

It was not happy, however, for me and Amazon.

Remember when Amazon product pages were no longer than they needed to be? Those days are gone. Now pages for every product seem to get longer and longer, and can take forever to load. Worse, Amazon’s index page is now encrusted with promotional jive. Seems like nearly everything “above the fold” (before you scroll down) is now a promo for Amazon Fashion, the latest Kindle, Amazon Prime, or the company credit card—plus rows of stuff “inspired by your shopping trends” and “related to items you’ve viewed.”

But at least that stuff risks being useful. What happens when you leave the site, however, isn’t. That’s because, unless you’re running an ad blocker or tracking protection, Amazon ads for stuff you just viewed, or put in your shopping cart, follow you from one ad-supported site to another, barking at you like a crazed dog. For example:

amazon1

I lost count of how many times, and in how many places, I saw this Amazon ad, or one like it, for one speaker, the other, or both, after I finished shopping and put the Bose speaker in my cart.

Why would Amazon advertise something at me that I’ve already bought, along with a competing product I obviously chose not to buy? Why would Amazon think it’s okay to follow me around when I’m not in their store? And why would they think that kind of harassment is required, or even okay, especially when the target has been a devoted customer for more than two decades, and sure to return and buy all kinds of stuff anyway?  Jeez, they have my business!

And why would they go out of their way to appear both stupid and robotic?

The answers, whatever they are, are sure to be both fully rationalized and psychotic, meaning disconnected from reality, which is the marketplace where real customers live, and get pissed off.

And Amazon is hardly alone at this. In fact the practice is so common that it became an Onion story in October 2018: Woman Stalked Across 8 Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.

The ad industry’s calls this kind of stalking “retargeting,” and it is the most obvious evidence that we are being tracked on the Net. The manners behind this are completely at odds with those in the physical world, where no store would place a tracking beacon on your body and use it to follow you everywhere you go after you leave. But doing exactly that is pro forma for marketing in the digital world.

When you click on that little triangular symbol in the corner of the ad, you can see how the “interactive” wing of the advertising business, generally called adtech, rationalizes surveillance:

adchoices1The program is called AdChoices, and it’s a creation of those entities in the lower right corner. The delusional conceits behind AdChoices are many:

  1. That Ad Choices is “yours.” It’s not. It’s theirs.
  2. That “right ads” exist, and that we want them to find us, at all times.
  3. That making the choices they provide actually gives us control of advertising online.
  4. That our personal agency—the power to act with full effect in the world—is a grace of marketers, and not of our own independent selves.

Not long after I did that little bit of shopping on Amazon, I also did a friend the favor of looking for clothes washers, since the one in her basement crapped out and she’s one of those few people who don’t use the Internet and never will. Again I consulted Consumer Reports, which recommended a certain LG washer in my friend’s price range. I looked for it on the Web and found the best price was at Home Depot. So I told her about it, and that was that.

For me that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t, because now I was being followed by Home Depot ads for the same LG washer and other products I wasn’t going to buy, from Home Depot or anybody else. Here’s one:

homedepot1

Needless to say, this didn’t endear me to Home Depot, to LG, or to any of the sites where I got hit with these ads.

All these parties failed not only in their mission to sell me something, but to enhance their own brands. Instead they subtracted value for everybody in the supply chain of unwelcome tracking and unwanted message targeting. They also explain (as Don Marti does here) why ad blocking has grown exactly in pace with growth in retargeting.

I subjected myself to all this by experimentally turning off tracking protection and ad blockers on one of my browsers, so I could see how the commercial Web works for the shrinking percentage of people who don’t protect themselves from this kind of abuse. I do a lot of that, as part of my work with ProjectVRM. I also experiment a lot with different kinds of tracking protection and ad blocking, because the developers of those tools are encouraged by that same work here.

For those new to the project, VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management, the customer-side counterpart of Customer Relationship Management, the many-$billion business by which companies manage their dealings with customers—or try to.

Our purpose with ProjectVRM is to encourage development of tools that give us both independence from the companies we engage with, and better ways of engaging than CRM alone provides: ways of engaging that we own, and are under our control. And relate to the CRM systems of the world as well. Our goal is VRM+CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are today at the leading edge of VRM development, because they are popular and give us independence. Engagement, however, isn’t here yet—at least not at the same level of popularity. And it probably won’t get here until we finish curing business of the brain cancer that adtech has become.

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Humanizing the Great Ad Machine

This is a comment I couldn’t publish under this post before my laptop died. (Fortunately I sent it to my wife first, so I’m posting it here, from her machine.)

OMMA’s theme is “Humanizing the Great Ad Machine”  Good one. Unfortunately, the agenda and speaker list suggest that industry players are the only ones in a position to do that. They aren’t..

The human targets of the Great Ad Machine are actually taking the lead—by breaking it.

Starting with ad blocking and tracking protection.

I see no evidence of respect for that fact, however, in the posts and tweets (at #MPOMMA) coming out of the conference so far. Maybe we can change that.

Let’s start by answering the question raised by the headline in Ad Blocking and DVRs: How Similar? I can speak as an operator of both technologies, and as a veteran marketer as well. So look at the rest of this post as the speech I’d give if I was there at OMMA…

Ad blocking and DVRs have four main things in common.

1) They are instruments of personal independence;

2) They answer demand for avoiding advertising. That demand exists because most advertising wastes time and space in people’s lives, and people value those two things more than whatever good advertising does for the “content” economy;

3) Advertising agents fail to grok this message; which is why—

4) Advertising agents and the “interactive” ad industry cry foul and blame the messengers (including the makers of ad blockers and other forms of tracking protection), rather than listening to, or respecting, what the market tells them, loudly and clearly.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

The first wash was VCRs. Those got rinsed out by digital TV. The second wash was DVRs. Those are being rinsed out right now by the Internet. The third wash is ad blocking.

The next rinse will happen after ad blocking succeeds as chemo for the cancer of ads that millions on the receiving end don’t want.

The next wash will be companies spending their marketing money on listening for better signals of demand from the marketplace, and better ways of servicing existing customers after the sale.

This can easily happen because damn near everybody is on the Net now, or headed there. Not trapped on TV or any other closed, one-way, top-down, industry-controlled distribution system.

On the Net, everybody has a platform of their own. There is no limit to what can be built on that platform, including much better instruments for expressing demand, and much better control over private personal spaces and the ways personal data are used by others. Ad blocking is just the first step in that direction.

The adtech industry (including dependent publishers) can come up with all the “solutions” they want to the ad blocking “problem.” All will fail, because ad blocking is actually a solution the market—hundreds of millions of real human beings—demands. Every one of adtech’s “solutions” is a losing game of whack-a-mole where the ones with hammers bang their own heads.

For help looking past that game, consider these:

1) The Interent as we know it is 21 years old. Commercial activity on it has only been possible since April 30, 1995. The history of marketing on the Net since then has been a series of formative moments and provisional systems, not a permanent state. In other words, marketing on the Net isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s scaffolding. Facebook, Google and the rest of the online advertising world exist by the grace of provisional models that have been working for only a few years, and can easily collapse if something better comes along. Which it will. Inevitably. Because…

2) When customers can signal demand better than adtech can manipulate it or guess at it, adtech will collapse like a bad soufflé.

3) Plain old brand advertising, which has always been aimed at populations rather than people, isn’t based on surveillance, and has great brand-building value, will carry on, free of adtech, doing what only it can do. (See the Ad Contrarian for more on that.)

In the long run (which may be short) winners will be customers and the companies that serve them  respectfully. Not more clueless and manipulative surveillance-based marketing schemes.

Winning companies will respect customers’ independence and intentions. Among those intentions will be terms that specify what can be done with shared personal data. Those terms will be supplied primarily by customers, and companies will agree to those terms because they will be friendly, work well for both sides, and easily automated.

Having standard ways for signaling demand and controlling use of personal data will give customers the same kind of scale companies have always had across many customers. On the Net, scale can work in both directions.

Companies that continue to rationalize spying on and abusing people, at high costs to everybody other than those still making hay while the sun shines, will lose. The hay-makers will also lose as soon as the light of personal tolerance for abuse goes out, which will come when ad blocking and tracking protection together approach ubiquity.

But the hay-makers can still win if they start listening to high-value signals coming from customers. It won’t be hard, and it will pay off.

The market is people, folks. Everybody with a computer or a smart mobile device is on the Net now. They are no longer captive “consumers” at the far ends of one-way plumbing systems for “content.” The Net was designed in the first place for everybody, not just for marketers who build scaffolding atop customer dislike and mistake it for solid ground.

It should also help to remember that the only business calling companies “advertisers” is advertising. No company looks in the mirror and sees an advertiser there. That’s because no company goes into business just so they can advertise. They see a car maker, a shoe store, a bank, a brewer, or a grocer. Advertising is just overhead for them. I learned this lesson the hard way as a partner for 20 years in a very successful ad agency. Even if our clients loved us, they could cut their ad budget to nothing in an instant, or on a whim.

There’s a new world of marketing waiting to happen out there in the wide-open customer-driven marketplace. But it won’t grow out of today’s Great Ad Machine. It’ll grow out of new tech built on the customers’ side, with ad blocking and tracking protection as the first examples. Maybe some of that tech is visible at OMMA. Or at least maybe there’s an open door to it. If either is there, let’s see it. Hashtag: #VRM. (For more on that, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_relationship_management.)

If not, you can still find developers here .

The Castle Doctrine

home castle

The Castle doctrine has been around a long time. Cicero (106–43 BCE) wrote, “What more sacred, what more strongly guarded by every holy feeling, than a man’s own home?” In Book 4, Chapter 16 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone (1723–1780 CE) added, “And the law of England has so particular and tender a regard to the immunity of a man’s house, that it stiles it his castle, and will never suffer it to be violated with impunity: agreeing herein with the sentiments of ancient Rome…”

Since you’re reading this online, let me ask, what’s your house here? What sacred space do you strongly guard, and never suffer to be violated with impunity?

At the very least, it should be your browser.

But, unless you’re running tracking protection in the browser you’re using right now, companies you’ve never heard of (and some you have) are watching you read this, and eager to use or sell personal data about you, so you can be delivered the human behavior hack called “interest based advertising.”

Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, has a term for this:surveillance capitalism, defined as “a wholly new subspecies of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance and modification of human behavior.”

Almost across the board, advertising-supported publishers have handed their business over to adtech, the surveillance-based (they call it “interactive”) wing of advertising. Adtech doesn’t see your browser as a sacred personal space, but instead as a shopping cart with ad space that you push around from site to site.

So here is a helpful fact: we don’t go anywhere when we use our browsers. Our browser homes are in our computers, laptops and mobile devices. When we “visit” a web page or site with our browsers, we actually just request its contents (using the hypertext protocol called http or https).

In no case do we consciously ask to be spied on, or abused by content we didn’t ask for or expect. That’s why we have every right to field-strip out anything we don’t want when it arrives at our browsers’ doors.

The castle doctrine is what hundreds of millions of us practice when we use tracking protection and ad blockers. It is what called the new Brave browser into the marketplace. It’s why Mozilla has been cranking up privacy protections with every new version of Firefox . It’s why Apple’s new content blocking feature treats adtech the way chemo treats cancer. It’s why respectful publishers will comply with CHEDDAR. It’s why Customer Commons is becoming the place to choose No Trespassing signs potential intruders will obey. And it’s why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers.

The job of every entity I named in the last paragraph — and every other one in a position to improve personal privacy online — is to bring as much respect to the castle doctrine in the virtual world as we’ve had in the physical one for more than two thousand years.

It should help to remember that it’s still early. We’ve only had commercial activity on the Internet since April 1995. But we’ve also waited long enough. Let’s finish making our homes online the safe places they should have been in the first place.

 

A reading list for online publishers

I’ll be talking to a pile of publishers today at a Meet the Blockers thing hosted by DCN in New York. Here are a few of the many links I’ve accumulated as a background for the conversation I hope ensues. (These are in addition to my own Adblock War Series, now 53 posts long.)

I’ll report more on my exact advice later.

 

Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade

reader-publisher-advertiser

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:

displaylumascape:

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:

rotated

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

stophandsignal

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:

Handshake_icon_GREEN-BLUE.svg

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, et.al.) 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 (pbb.me) 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:

pbbWheel

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.)

Preparing for the 3D/VR future

Look in the direction that meerkatMeerkat and periscopeappPeriscope both point.

If you’ve witnessed the output of either, several things become clear about their evolutionary path:

  1. Stereo sound is coming. So is binaural sound, with its you-are-there qualities.
  2. 3D will come too, of course, especially as mobile devices start to include two microphones and two cameras.
  3. The end state of both those developments is VR, or virtual reality. At least on the receiving end.

The production end is a different animal. Or herd of animals, eventually. Expect professional gear from all the usual sources, showing up at CES starting next year and on store shelves shortly thereafter. Walking around like a dork holding a mobile in front of you will look in 2018 like holding a dial-phone handset to your head looks today.

I expect the most handy way to produce 3D and VR streams will be with  glasses like these:

srlzglasses

(That’s my placeholder design, which is in the public domain. That’s so it has no IP drag, other than whatever submarine patents already exist, and I am sure there are some.)

Now pause to dig @ctrlzee‘s Fast Company report on Facebook’s 10-year plan to trap us inside The Matrix. How long before Facebook buys Meerkat and builds it into Occulus Rift? Or buys Twitter, just to get Periscope and do the same?

Whatever else happens, the rights clearing question gets very personal. Do you want to be broadcast and/or recorded by others or not? What are the social and device protocols for that? (The VRM dev community has designed one for the glasses above. See the ⊂ ⊃ in the glasses? That’s one. Each corner light is another.)

We should start zero-basing the answers today, while the inevitable is in sight but isn’t here yet. Empathy is the first requirement. (Take the time to dig Dave Winer’s 12-minute podcast on the topic. It matters.) Getting permission is another.

As for the relevance of standing law, almost none of it applies at the technical level. Simply put, all copyright laws were created in times when digital life was unimaginable (e.g. Stature of Anne, ASCAP), barely known (Act of 1976), or highly feared (WIPO, CTEA, DMCA).

How would we write new laws for an age that has barely started? Or why start with laws at all? (Nearly all regulation protects yesterday from last Thursday. And too often its crafted by know-nothings.)

We’ve only been living the networked life since graphical browsers and ISPs arrived in the mid-90’s. Meanwhile we’ve had thousands of years to develop civilization in the physical world. Which means that, relatively speaking, networked life is Eden. It’s brand new here, and we’re all naked. That’s why it’s so easy anybody to see everything about us online.

How will we create the digital equivalents of the privacy technologies we call clothing and shelter? Is the first answer a technical one, a policy one, or both? Which should come first? (In Europe and Australia, policy already has.)

Protecting the need for artists to make money is part of the picture. But it’s not the only part. And laws are only one way to protect artists, or anybody.

Manners come first, and we barely have those yet, if at all. None of the big companies that currently dominate our digital lives have fully thought out how to protect anybody’s privacy. Those that come closest are ones we pay directly, and are financially accountable to us.

Apple, for example, is doing more and more to isolate personal data to spaces the individual controls and the company can’t see. Google and Facebook both seem to regard personal privacy as a bug in online life, rather than a feature of it. (Note that, at least for their most popular services, we pay those two companies nothing. We are mere consumers whose lives are sold to the company’s actual customers, which are advertisers.)

Bottom line: the legal slate is covered in chalk, but the technical one is close to clean. What do we want to write there?

We’ll be talking about this, and many other things, at VRM Day (6 April) and IIW (7-9 April) in the Computer History Museum in downtown Silicon Valley (101 & Shoreline, Mountain View).

How do you maximize the help that companies and customers give each other?

I’m not talking just about what companies and customers learn from each other through the sales, service and surveys — the Three S’s. Nor am I talking only about improving the “customer experience,” (a topic that has been buzzing upward over the last few years). I’m talking about how companies and customers help each other out. I mean really help. Constantly.

One way, of course, is by talking to each other. There are exemplars of this. Among big companies, Apple leads the way, gathering intelligence though its responsive call center and the Genius bars at its retail stores. Among small companies, my favorite example is Ting, a U.S. mobile phone carrier.  According to Consumer Reports, Ting is tops in customer satisfaction, while Sprint is dead last. Here’s what’s interesting about that: Ting runs on the Sprint network. Meaning the actual performance of the network is the same for both. This gives us a kind of a controlled study: one network, two vastly different levels of customer satisfaction. Here are two reasons for that difference:

  1. Ting’s offerings are simple. They have rates, not plans. You only pay for what you use. That’s it. And usage is low in cost. Sprint, Verizon and AT&T, on the other hand, all comprise a confusopoly. They offer complex, confusing and changing plans, on purpose. In confusopolies, the cognitive overhead for both companies and customers is high. So are marketing, operational and administrative overheads. That’s why they are all more expensive than Ting, and unloved as well — even as, no doubt, they have CRM systems that pay close attention to the customer service performance of their website and call center.
  2. Ting actually talks to customers. They are fanatical about person-to-person service, which means both sides learn from each other. Directly. Ting’s products and services are constantly improved by intelligence coming directly from customers. And customers can sense it. Directly.

Now, what about the times when you and the company are not talking to each other? For example, when you just want something to work, or to work better?. Or when you think of a way a product or a service can be improved somehow, but don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to get in touch with the company?

I answer that in the next post.

How music lovers can fix the broken music business and stop screwing artists

In Taylor Swift, Spotify and the Musical Food Chain Myth, musician Doria Roberts (@DoriaRoberts) details a problem that we’ve been hearing about for the duration:  artists have been getting screwed by the music industry, which now includes streaming services such as Spotify, paying tiny fractions of a penny for every tune everybody hears through them. She writes,

…not only have physical CD sales been down, but also the digital money I used to get from legal downloads all but disappeared. Instead of getting weekly payments ranging between $200-$750 from my distributor, I started getting an average $11.36, once a month from all streaming services combined. Yes, $11.36/month is what I get from all of them. That is not a sustainable business model for a truly independent artist.

And it will get worse as streams gradually become the main source for music. Signs and portents in that direction:

Doria also offers some answers:

HOW CONSUMERS CAN HELP REVERSE THE COURSE

As a consumer and a fan, you are at the top of this food chain, not the bottom. You are not subject to the whims of popular culture; you are the arbiter of it. If you want to see less “fluff” in the music industry, if you want to see your artists remain authentic, creative and prolific beings and, if you want them to come back to your hometowns:

1. Start buying our music again. Digital, hard copy, doesn’t matter, just pay for it. If you can pay $4 for a coffee, you can pay $9.99 for something meaningful that you’ll enjoy forever.

2. Stop using streaming services that only pay us $.0006 per listen if you don’t already own our music either via a legal download or a hard copy. Educate yourself. If you think the profits that oil companies make are obscene, I urge you to do some digging about what some of these streaming companies are really about. [Editor’s note: Spotify claims to have paid Taylor Swift over $2 million dollars in streaming royalties. Her label says that’s not even close to the truth.]

3. And, this is important: Set your DVRs on your favorite show nights and go to our concerts. If I had a dime for every time a person told me they weren’t able to make my show because it was the finals of DWTS or The Voice, I wouldn’t be writing this post. I’d be sitting in a bungalow in Costa Rica sipping something fruity and delicious.

Simple solutions sometimes require difficult choices. Oh, and this goes for independent movies, books, indie/feminist bookstores, small venues and small businesses, too. Just know this: you have the power to change the cultural landscape around you. Use that power wisely.

In reply below, I wrote,

All the course-reversing suggestions are good, but also assume that the only possible choices are the ones we have now. This has never been the case. We can invent new choices — new solutions for this already-old problem.

I believe the best solutions are those that make it very easy for consumers to pay whatever they want for whatever they like (and not just music).

One outline for this is EmanciPay, at ProjectVRM: . My own idea for an expression of EmanciPay is a user-side system set up to automatically pay (or pledge to pay) a penny per listen to any song heard anywhere, including one’s own music collection. That’s a high multiple of whatever coercive rates are being extracted on the supply side of the marketplace today — and in the whole future, which will suck.

Way back in ’98, when the DMCA birthed the ancestor of today streamed music royalty regime, it framed coercive rates with this context: “in the absence of a willing buyer and a willing seller.”

So let’s quit working only the seller-side of the marketplace. Let’s equip the willing buyer.

If anybody wants to work on the code for that, contact me (I’m not hard to find). We’ll get a posse together and go do it. Given the sum of existing code in the world already, it shouldn’t be too hard.

If we really are at the top of the food chain, we need better ways to pay for what we eat. If we don’t come up with those, all we will have are government-regulated ways to screw both the artists and the media. (Ask Spotify and Pandora how much they’re profiting in the current system.)

What we have today with streaming is guided by language like this (from the last link above):

…rates for the statutory licenses for webcasting and for ephemeral recordings must be the rates that most clearly represent the rates that would have been negotiated in the marketplace between a willing buyer and a willing seller. — http://www.copyright.gov/carp/webcasting_rates_final.html

The boldface is mine. Here’s my point: Regulators and their captors in the record industry have believed from the start that listeners to streams cannot be willing buyers.

I want to prove them wrong.

The time wasn’t right when we started writing about this back in the late ’00s.  But now it is. Let’s do something about it.

 

State of the VRooM, 2014

As of today, ProjectVRM is eight years old.

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

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

Summary

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

Here are shortcuts to each section:

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

1. History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

468px-Client-server-model.svg

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

lipnack

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

calf-cow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Development

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

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

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

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

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

The UK

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

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

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

France

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

Oceania

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

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

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

3. Community

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 5.48.45 PM

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

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

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

layers of time

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

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

jessop figure

That’s our column on the right.

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

iannacci

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

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

stephenson

Again that’s us on the right.

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

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

Spinuzzi

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

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

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

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

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

4. Influence

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

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

5. Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

oracle-twist

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

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

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

6. Verticals

Relationship

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

Payments

Even though ProjectVRM’s mission is centered around relationship and conversation, transaction is a big part of it too — just not the only part, as business often assumes. Our first efforts, starting in 2006, were around making it as easy as possible for individuals to donate money in one standard way to many different public radio stations.

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

Email

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

Personal information Management

There are two breeds of development here.

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

The other is code the individual uses to manage his or her own life, and connections out to the world. This is where calendar, email, IM, to-do lists, password managers and other convenience-producing apps for the connected world come together. There is no leader here, though there are many players, including Apple, Microsoft and Google.  So far, this area has only seen centralized and siloed players, with inherent security and data mining disadvantages. But recently, commercial and open source conversations about a decentralized approach to this opportunity have been taking place.

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

cluetrain-620x295

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

Health

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

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

Automotive

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

Toward that end, Phil Windley’s Kickstarter-based  Fuse will give drivers and car owners all the data churned out of their cars’ ODB-II port, which was created originally for diagnostics at car dealers and service stations. With an open API around that data, developers can create apps to alert you to schedule maintenance, monitor your teen’s driving and much more.

Real Estate

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

7. Investment

There is an upswing of investment in start-ups on the “pull” — the individual’s — side of the marketplace. Many wealthy individuals, some quite new to tech investing, perceive an opportunity in “pull” side tools, so interest is building, especially in angel funding. There are currently at least three initiatives coming together to invest in VRM or intention based start-ups in Silicon Valley and Europe. This is one of the outcomes of the last IIW (in May of this year), where investment emerged as a big theme, with a number of VC’s for the first time participating in IIW sessions. I’m involved in planning a VRM specific fund, which is still in its preliminary stages. If it moves forward (which I believe it will), it should come into shape by next year.

In some cases government is also involved. In the UK, for example, the SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) program offers huge tax incentives to angel investors.

8. Research

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

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

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

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

Respect Connect  is based onXDI, which the Respect Trust Framework also specifies. XDI is a protocol that employs “link respect-connect-buttoncontracts.” Drummond Reed, the father of XDI (and CEO of the Respect Network) describes link contracts as “machine-readable XDI descriptions of the permissions an individual is giving to another party for access to and usage of the owner’s personal data.” Very handy. And binding. In code.

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

At the end of the project we will have both standard terms for posting at Customer Commons and reference implementations hosted by Berkman, or shared by Berkman over Github or some other data repository.

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

(Thinking out loud here…) We could host focused discussions and invite participants (including law folk — especially students, from anywhere) to vet terms the way the IETF vets Internet standards: with RFCs, or Requests for Comments. Some open source code for this already exists with Adblock Plus’s white list for non-surveillance-based advertisers. I would hope they’d be eager to participate as well. We (ProjectVRM, the Berkman Center or Customer Commons) could publish lists of conformant requirements for website and Web service providers, and lists (or databases) of conformant ones.

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

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

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

9. Questions

What if we fail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

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