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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):

A Way to Peace in the Adblock War

Here is what ad blocking looks like in the physical world:

junkmail

What we want to block in the online world is the same thing, only here it’s called adtech.

Like junk mail, adtech —

  • wants to get personal,
  • is data-driven,
  • is based on as much tracking as possible,
  • wants to follow you around (thats called “retargeting”)
  • mistakes tolerance for approval,
  • clogs distribution pipes,
  • is mostly litter,
  • cheapens its environment, and
  • wastes time and space in our lives.

Worse, adtech is also a vector for malware and fraud. That’s because the supply chain for adtech could include any of the following things you’ve probably never heard of, and which together turn adtech into a four-dimensional shell game:

  • Trading desks
  • SSPs (Supply Side Platforms)
  • DSPs (Demand Side Platforms)
  • Ad exchanges
  • RTB (real time bidding) and other auctions
  • Retargeters
  • DMPs (Data Management Platforms)
  • Tag managers
  • Tata aggregators
  • Brokers
  • Resellers
  • Media management systems
  • Ad servers
  • Gamifiers
  • Real time messagers
  • Social tool makers

And those are just a few I’ve gathered by hearing adtech talk to itself. Ask any publisher to tell you exactly where any adtech-placed ad came from, and they won’t know. Refresh the page and chances are that other ads will appear in the same spaces, fed down through that four-dimensional matrix of possibilities.

Want to opt out? The Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) wants you to click on a little Ad Choices button (placed in a corner of one of the minority of ads in which they appear), and then go through a series of clicks after that. And that’s only for a few participating companies.  Ghostery has a much longer opt-out list. Go there and see how many times you need to hit Page Down before you reach the bottom. Yes, the adtech business is that huge.

And there’s no easy way to know if any of these companies respected your wishes.

In marketing lingo, adtech is a form of direct response marketing, which is descended  from the direct (aka junk) mail business, not from Madison Avenue.

The difference is critical, because what we really need to block is  adtech, not all of advertising.

The baby in the adblocking bathwater is Madison Avenue, which has paid for nearly everything on newsstands, radio and TV since their beginnings. Even if we didn’t like ads fattening our magazines and interrupting our shows, we knew the economic role they played, and we appreciated their best work.

Here are three other good things about Madison Avenue advertising:

  1. It isn’t personal.
  2. It isn’t based on tracking you.
  3. You know where it comes from.

In one simple word, it’s safe. You may not like it, but you don’t have to worry about it.

The simplest way to end to the adblock war is for non-tracking-based ads — the safe Madison Avenue kind — to carry a marker* that ad  blockers can whitelist. I also recommended this in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

(Adblock Plus, the most popular ad blocker for Web browsers, has an “acceptable ads manifesto” and a whitelist. While that’s a worthy effort, it doesn’t make a sharp distinction between tracking and non-tracking based ads.)

I also suggest that ad blockers call themselves adtech blockers, so it’s clear that the user’s problem is with the online equivalent of junk mail, and not with the kind of advertising that has supported commercial media for the duration.

As for people who want to be tracked, we’ll need an opt-in way provided by standards and code from .orgs on the individual’s side. But for now, let’s fix advertising by fixing ad blocking, and end this “war” that never should have happened.

At ProjectVRM we approve of ad and tracking blockers, because they meet the first requirement of VRM tools: they give us independence. They also give us agency: the power to act with effect in the world. That’s why we list many here on the VRM developments list.

The second requirement of VRM tools is engagement. So far, ad and tracking blockers don’t engage. They just block (or filter, such as with the EFF‘s Privacy Badger).

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store. That’s the next VRM challenge here.

Finally, for those who want to block all advertising, it’s cool that you’ve got the tools you want already. I’m sure they’ll get better too. Just bear in mind that there’s a difference between the ads that have sponsored publishing and broadcasting for the duration, and the junky stuff that has taught us to hate all advertising online, and created the market for ad blockers in the process.

*I don’t care who comes up with this, as long as it’s open source and everybody can adopt and/or respect it.

 

VRM Day: Let’s talk UMA and terms

VRM Day and IIW are coming up in October: VRM Day on the 26th, and IIW on the 27th-29th. As always, both are at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley. Also, as always, we would like to focus  VRM day on issues that will be discussed and pushed forward (by word and code) on the following days at IIW.

I see two.

The first isUMA-logo UMA, for User Managed Access. UMA is the brainchild of Eve Maler, one of the most creative minds in the Digital Identity field. (And possibly its best singer as well.) The site explains, “User-Managed Access (UMA) is an award-winning OAuth-based protocol designed to give a web user a unified control point for authorizing who and what can get access to their online personal data, content, and services, no matter where all those things live on the web. Read the spec, join the group, check out the implementations, follow us on Twitter, like us onFacebook, get involved!”

Which a number of us in the #VRM community already are — enough, in fact, to lead discussion on VRM Day.

In Regaining Control of Our Data with User-Managed Access, Phil Windley calls VRM “a perfect example of the kind of place where UMA could have a big impact. VRM is giving customers tools for managing their interactions with vendors. That sounds, in large part, like a permissioning task. And UMA could be a key piece of technology for unifying various VRM efforts.”

For example, “Most of us hate seeing ads getting in the way of what we’re trying to do online. The problem is that even with the best “targeting” technology, most of the ads you see are wasted. You don’t want to see them. UMA could be used to send much stronger signals to vendors by granting permission for them to access information would let them help me and, in the process, make more money.”

We call those signals “intentcasting.”

Yet, even though our wiki lists almost two dozen intentcasting developers, all of them roll their own code. As a result, all of them have limited success. This argues for looking at UMA as one way they can  substantiate the category together.

A large amount of activity is going into UMA and health care, which is perhaps the biggest VRM “vertical.” (Since it involves all of us, and what matters most to our being active on the planet.)

The second topic is terms. These can take two forms: ones individuals can assert (which on the wiki we call EmanciTerm); and truly user- and customer-friendly ones sites and services can assert. (Along with truly agreeable privacy policies on both sides.)

At last Fall’s VRM Day, we came up with one possible approach, which looked like this on the whiteboard:

UserTerms1This was posted on Customer Commons, which is designed to serve the same purpose for individual terms as Creative Commons does for individual artists’ copyright terms. We can do the same this time.

Lately Meeco has come out with terms individuals can set. And there are others in the works as well. (One in particular will be of special interest, but it’s not public yet. I expect it will be, by VRM Day.)

So be sure to register soon. Space is limited.

Bonus links/tweets: here and here.

 

 

Loyalty means nothing if customers don’t have their own ways of expressing it

nomorecards

@jobsworth and I were just pointed by @aainslie to a @ronmiller piece in @TechCrunch titled In The Age of Disruption, Customer Love Is More Important Than Ever.

The headline says it all, and it’s true. But, as with all pieces like this, it’s about what companies can (or should) do, rather than what customers can do.

Think about it. What if customers had their own systematic methods of expressing loyalty? Not silo-provided gimmicks like Facebook’s “like” buttons, but standard tools or systems that every customer could use, as easily as they use their own wallets or phones.

Think about how much better it would be for the whole marketplace if we built loyalty tools and systems where loyalty actually resides: on the customer’s side. What customers express through these tools and systems would be far more genuine and meaningful than any of today’s silo’d and coercive “loyalty programs,” which inconvenience everybody and yield rewards worth less than the time wasted by everybody dealing with them.

If loyalty systems are left entirely up to the sellers of the world, we’ll have as many different systems as we have sellers. Which, of course, is what we already have, and it’s a royal mess.

As it happens, loyalty is one VRM development area where there is nothing going on, so far — or at least nothing that fits the description I just made.

So maybe it’s about time to get started. Looks like a greenfield to me.

Speaking of which, I’ll betcha there is stuff that already exists within CRM systems that could be ported over to the customer side, and then match up with seller-side CRM stuff. Be interesting to hear from CRM folks about that. Here’s the key thing, though: customer VRM loyalty tools need to work with all CRM systems. (Just like, say, browsers, email and other standard customer-side tools also do.)

The coming collapse of surveillance marketing

A few minutes ago, on a mailing list, somebody asked me if Google hadn’t shown people don’t mind having personal data harvested as long as they get value in exchange for it. Here’s what I answered:

It’s not about Google — or Google alone. It’s about the wanton and widespread harvesting of personal data without permission, by pretty much the entire digital marketing field, or what it has become while in maximum thrall of Big Data.

That this is normative in the extreme does not make it right, or even sustainable. The market — customers like you and me — doesn’t like it. Technologists, sooner or later, will provide customers with means of control they still lack today.

The plain fact is that most people don’t like surveillance-based marketing. Study after study (by TRUSTe, Pew, Customer Commons and others) have shown that 90+% of people have problems with the way their data and their privacy are abused online.

The Tradeoff Fallacy: How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers and Opening Them Up to Exploitation” by Annenberg (at the U. of Pa) says,

a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data—and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. The study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.

More from Penn News:

Survey respondents were asked whether they would accept “tradeoffs,” such as discounts, in exchange for allowing their supermarkets to collect information about their grocery purchases.  Among the key findings:

    • 91 percent disagree (77 percent of them strongly) that “if companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.”
    • 71 percent disagree (53 percent of them strongly) that “it’s fair for an online or physical store to monitor what I’m doing online when I’m there, in exchange for letting me use the store’s wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, without charge.”
    • 55 percent disagree (38 percent of them strongly) that “it’s okay if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.”
Only about 4 percent agree or agree strongly with all three propositions.

But 58 percent agreed with both of the following two statements that together indicate resignation:  “I want to have control over what marketers know about me online” and “I’ve come to accept that I have little control over what marketers can learn about me online.”

The Net we know today was born only twenty years ago, when it opened to commercial activity. We are still naked there, lacking in clothing and shelter (to name two familiar privacy technologies in the physical world). Eventually we’ll have clothing and shelter in many forms, good means for preventing and permitting the ways others deal with us, and full agency in our dealings with business and government.

In the meantime we’ll have a status quo to which we remain resigned.

I suspect that even Google knows this will change.

Bonus Link.

Think about an irony here. Most brick-and-mortar merchants would be appalled at the thought of placing tracking beacons on visiting customers, to spy on them after they leave the store, just so they can be “delivered” a better “advertising experience.” And obviously, customers would hate it too. Yet many of the same merchants hardly think twice about doing the same online.

This will change because there is clear market sentiment against it. We see this through pressure toward regulation (especially in Europe), and through ad and tracking blocking rates that steadily increase.

But both regulation and blockers are stone tools. Eventually we’ll get real clothing and shelter.

That’s what we’ve been working on here with ProjectVRM. It’s taking longer than we expected at first, but it will happen, and not just because there is already a lot of VRM development going on.

It will happen because we have the Net, and the Net is not just Google and Facebook and other modern industrial giants. The Net is where all of those companies live, in the company of customers, to whom, — sooner or later, they become accountable.

Right now marketing is not taking the massive negative externalities of surveillance into account, mostly because marketing is a B2B rather than a B2C business, and there persists a blindered mania around Big Data. But they will take those externalities into account eventually, because the Cs of the world will gain the power to protect themselves against unwanted surveillance, and will provide far more useful economic signaling to the businesses of the world than marketing can ever guess at.

Once that happens, the surveillance marketing business, and what feeds it, will collapse.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said. That was in 1858, and in respect to slavery. In 2015 the language of marketing — in which customers are “targets” to be “acquired,” “controlled,” “managed” and “locked in” — is not much different than the language of slave owners in Lincoln’s time.

This will change for the simple reason that we are not slaves. We are the ones with the money, the choice about patronage, and the network. Companies that give us full respect will be the winners in the long run. Companies that continue to treat us as less than human will suffer the consequences.

A #VRM outline for the #4th

I’ve been liveblogging lately: writing live in an outline. Here is today’s. And here is the VRM section of it:

That’s copied and pasted from the web page, with all the outline levels opened. On the original they can be expanded and collapsed. In the authoring page they can also be expanded and collapsed. Dave Winer, who invented liveblogging (and  much else we take for granted), explains it here.

If your voice comes from a company, you don’t have one

Got this in my email today:

Oracle pitch

I’m sure Oracle Service Cloud is good at what it does. Such as:

  • Deliver an integrated customer experience while equipping employees with the right tools
  • Drive and meet consumer expectations in the new omni-channel world
  • Adapt their service to customer needs by researching and considering their demographics

The problem is that this assumes customers have no voices of their own, and need to be given one. And, since every company has its own way to give customers voices, the customer turns into a Tower of Babble, speaking with many different voices to many different companies.

For example, today at a medical center I had to give exactly the same personal information to two different systems operating in the same office — and this was information already known to countless other systems with which I’ve had dealings over the years. Why? “Because we’re using two different CRM systems.”

You can look at the problem here as one of scale. Systems such as Oracle’s give companies scale: one way to deal with many different customers. Likewise, customers need one way to deal with many different companies, regardless of what CRM systems they run. This is a fundamental VRM challenge. And it’s one that should be good for CRM too. Win-Win.

You can see how it would work if you imagine being able to  change your phone number or email address, for every company you deal with, in one move. Lots of VRM developers are working on that, but we aren’t there yet.

It helps that we already have the Internet, which bridges many networks (why it’s called internet), along with email, phones and other things that give us one way to deal with many different entities.

But we don’t yet have voices of our own (meaning scale), or we wouldn’t see headlines like the one above.

Giving our voices scale isn’t a CRM job. It’s a VRM job. It also has to be done in a way that speaks directly to the Oracle Service Clouds of the world, engaging what they already have in place.

I know people at Oracle and its competitors who are ready and eager to see VRM developments that speak — literally and figuratively — to their corporate systems. They know VRM is going to make their jobs a lot easier and cause a lot more business to happen and improve.

Conversations are happening, and that’s good. But we also need more development in the direction of convergence. Expect to see reports on that in coming months.

Positive #VRM signs

First, there’s this tweet by @EvaPascoe, featuring this photo (which I just transformed from a trapezoid to a rectangle):

htw-slide

Then there is this from three analysts at KuppingerCole, which has been covering VRM since giving ProjectVRM an award in 2008.

I’ll also be presenting at  VRM et Données Personnelles (VRM and Personal Data) on Tuesday evening in Paris.(Wish I could be there in person, but I’ll be on a good connection from nine time zones west of there.) VRM has been a happening thing in France for awhile now.

Privacy isn’t about secrecy and freedom isn’t about license. Both are about agency.

Agency is the power to act with effect in the world. We have agency when we type on a keyboard, hammer a nail, ride a horse or drive a car.  Here’s a dictionary definition:

a·gen·cy (ā′jən-sē)
noun.

  1. The condition of being in action; operation.
  2. The means or mode of acting; instrumentality.

It is derived from agere: Latin for to do.

We are built to do a lot: with our brains, our opposable thumbs, our lack of fur, our capacity to sweat and to learn — and our strange ability to walk or run on two feet instead of four (almost ceaselessly, at least when we are young and fit) — we can do an amazing variety of things with our bodies.

For what we can’t do, we invent tools and machines. These extend our agency outward through technology. A hammer becomes another length of arm. With one in our hand, we have the power to drive nails with a metal fist. A car gives us an engine and wheels, so we can zoom down roads at dozens of miles (or kilometers) per hour. A plane gives us engines and wings, so we can fly far and high.  Each expands our agency to distant horizons of effect and experience in the world.

Infrastructure and services expand what each and all of us can do as well. But at the base of human capacity is the individual’s ability to do stuff in the world. Or, in a word, agency.

Which brings me to the second world we built alongside the physical one we all share. That second world is the Internet: a Giant Zero shaped by an oddly simple protocol: TCP/IP. Never mind how it works. Just note what it does: reduce to zero the functional distance between everything and everybody on it. Also the cost.

As a way to expand human agency, the Internet has no rivals. It gives all our voices, all our ideas, all our actions, worldwide scale. Any of us can speak, write, publish and much more, across any distance, at levels of inconvenience and cost that veer toward zero.

And we’ve been doing that, routinely, ever since the Internet assumed its current form. (That happened in April 1995, when the NSFnet‘s backbone — one network within the Internet — was decommissioned and commercial activity, which the NSFnet forbade, could begin to flourish across the whole Net.)

The Net has an end-to-end architecture. Every body and every thing is an end point, and the Net’s protocol does its best to move data between any and all of those. This is what Paul Baran, one of the Net’s fathers, described as a distributed design, rather than a centralized or decentralized one. Here is how he illustrated the difference, way back in 1962:

Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications Networks, 1962

And that became the Net’s basic design. Or at least its ideal.

Yet, for the sake of convenience — especially in the early days of the Net, when most of us were still on dial-up — we defaulted to a client-server architecture for deploying servers and services. With client-server, each server is a central point, which makes the Net, in a practical sense, a decentralized thing, rather than a distributed one.

And yet the distributed nature of the Net persists, grounding our agency in the world it defines.

Conflicts between centralized, decentralized and distributed capacities on the Net — and uneven development of tools and services enlarging our agency — are behind many of our crises on the Net today.

Take privacy for example. It’s a huge issue. Survey after survey (e.g. from Pew, TRUSTe and Customer Commons) say that 90% and more of us are concerned about personal privacy on the Net, don’t trust many service providers, or lie and hide to obscure personal identity. Advertising and tracking blockers are the most popular browser extensions, and with good reason: we are still naked on the Net.

That’s because the Net, like nature in the physical world, doesn’t come with privacy installed. We have to make it for ourselves. In the physical world we did it by inventing clothing and shelter. In the virtual world we still don’t have either. Tracking blockers are fig leaves at best. They also all work differently. We are still in early times.

Since we have no privacy yet (other than by staying off the Net, or by isolating ourselves on it by declining to accept cookies and staying away from services such as Google’s and Facebook’s), we tend to think about privacy in terms of secrets: things we don’t want others to know about us. But think instead about what we do to create privacy in the physical world, with clothing and shelter. Both do more than cover our bodies and and our lives. We express both. We also express with them. Our clothing and shelter send signals about ourselves. They speak of our tastes, our gender, our status, our memberships. Most of these speakings are subtle, but many are not. What matters is that they all valve our exposure to others. Buttons and zippers on our clothes speak of what can, can’t and shouldn’t be opened by others, without permission. Doors, shades and shutters on our homes do the same.

All of those things facilitate our agency. We need the same in the networked world.

The main difference is that we’ve had thousands of years to work them out in the physical world, and just twenty in the networked one. In the history of civilization, and even of business, this is close to nothing. We’re barely started.

There will, inevitably, emerge a symbiosis between centralized, decentralized and distributed capacities. Brian Behlendorf uses the term “minimum viable centralization” to label what we’re looking for here. Meanwhile we have maximum viable centralization on a network that is also distributed by design. Just like the humans on it.

We are seeing today a collapse of intermediary institutions. Publishing (e.g. blogs) Hospitality (e.g. Airbnb), dispatch (e.g. Uber), broadcast (e.g. Meerkat and Periscope) and payments (e.g.  Bitcoin) come quickly to mind, and many more are coming along. Yet through all of those there must remain some degree of trust in the graces that institutions — governments and companies — alone can provide. How can their minimum viable agencies help us enlarge our own? That’s the main challenge for the coming years.

The question we need to ask, as we address that challenge through VRM, is this: What is best done by the individual, and what is best done by the institution — and how an the two work together?

To answer that, agency must be key. Without it we’ll only get more centralized BS to distrust.

 

 

 

First we take Oz

Sydneydoc 017-018_combined_medAustralia’s privacy principles are among the few in the world that require organizations to give individuals personal information gathered about them.* This opens the path to proving that we can do more with our own data than anybody else can.

Estimating the size of the personal data management business is like figuring the size of the market for talking or driving. (Note: we can also do more with those than companies can.)

Starting us down this path is  Ben Grubb (@BenGrubb) of the Sydney Morning Herald. Ben requested personal data held by the Australian telco giant Telstra, and found himself in a big fightwhich he won. (Here’s the decision. Telstra is appealing, but they’re still gonna lose.)

Bravo to Ben — not just for whupping a giant, but for showing a path forward for individual empowerment in the marketplace. Thanks to Australia’s privacy principles, and Ben’s illustrative case, the yellow brick road to the VRM future is widest in Oz.

Here (and in New Zealand) we not only have lots of VRM developers (Flamingo, Fourth Party, Geddup, Meeco, MyWave, OneExus, Welcomer and others I’ll insulting by not listing yet), but legal easement toward proving that individuals can do the more with their own data than can the companies that follow us. And proving as well that individuals managing their own data will be good for those companies as well. The data they get will be richer, more accurate,  more contextual, and more useful.

This challenge is not new. It’s as old as our species. The biggest tech revolutions have always been inventions individuals could put to the best use:

  • Stone tools
  • Weaving
  • Smithing
  • Musical instruments
  • Hand-held hunting and fighting tools
  • Automobiles
  • PCs
  • The Internet (which is a node-to-node invention, not an advanced phone or cable company, even though we pay those things for access to it)
  • Mobile phones and tablets
  • Movable type (which would be nowhere without individual authors — and writing tools in the hands of those authors)

There should be symbiosis here. There are things big organizations do best, and things individuals do best. And much that both do best when they work together.

Look at cars, which are a VRM technology: we use them to get around the marketplace, and to help us do business with many companies. They give us ways to be both independent and engaging. But companies don’t drive them. We do. Companies provide parking lots, garages, drive-up windows and other conveniences for drivers. Symbiosis.

So, while Telstra is great at building and managing communication infrastructure and services, its customers will be great at doing useful stuff with the kind of data Ben requested, such as locations, calls and texts — especially after customers get easy-to-use tools and services that help them work as points of integration for their own data, and managers of what gets done with it. There are many VRM developers working toward that purpose, around the world, And many more that will come once they smell the opportunities.

These opportunities are only apparent when you look at the market through your own eyes as a sovereign human being. The same opportunities are mostly invisible when you look at the market from the eye at the top of the industrial pyramid.

Bonus links:


* My understanding is that privacy principles such as the OECD’s and Ontario’s provide guidance but not the full force of law, or means of enforcement. Australia’s differ because they have teeth. See the Determination on page 36 of the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation and decision. Canada’s also has teeth. See the list of orders issued in Ontario. If there are other examples of decisions like this one, anywhere in the world, please let us know.

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