intention economy

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Twelve years ago, I posted The Data Bubble. It began,

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report. It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here is the rest of the list (sans one that goes to a link-proof Flash thing):

Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen—tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks—competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

In fact, I had been calling the tracking-based advertising business (now branded adtech or ad-tech) a bubble for some time. For example, in Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008) and After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009). But I didn’t expect my own small voice to have much effect. But this was different. What They Know was written by a crack team of writers, researchers, and data visualizers. It was led by Julia Angwin and truly Pulitzer-grade stuff. It  was so well done, so deep, and so sharp, that I posted a follow-up report three months later, called The Data Bubble II. In that one, I wrote,

That same series is now nine stories long, not counting the introduction and a long list of related pieces. Here’s the current list:

  1. The Web’s Gold Mine: What They Know About You
  2. Microsoft Quashed Bid to Boost Web Privacy
  3. On the Web’s Cutting Edge: Anonymity in Name Only
  4. Stalking by Cell Phone
  5. Google Agonizes Over Privacy
  6. Kids Face Intensive Tracking on Web
  7. ‘Scrapers’ Dig Deep for Data on the Web
  8. Facebook in Privacy Breach
  9. A Web Pioneer Profiles Users By Name

Related pieces—

Two things I especially like about all this. First, Julia Angwin and her team are doing a terrific job of old-fashioned investigative journalism here. Kudos for that. Second, the whole series stands on the side of readers. The second person voice (youyour) is directed to individual persons—the same persons who do not sit at the tables of decision-makers in this crazy new hyper-personalized advertising business.

To measure the delta of change in that business, start with John Battelle‘s Conversational Marketing series (post 1post 2post 3) from early 2007, and then his post Identity and the Independent Web, from last week. In the former he writes about how the need for companies to converse directly with customers and prospects is both inevitable and transformative. He even kindly links to The Cluetrain Manifesto (behind the phrase “brands are conversations”).

It was obvious to me that this fine work would blow the adtech bubble to a fine mist. It was just a matter of when.

Over the years since, I’ve retained hope, if not faith. Examples: The Data Bubble Redux (9 April 2016), and Is the advertising bubble finally starting to pop? (9 May 2016, and in Medium).

Alas, the answer to that last one was no. By 2016, Julia and her team had long since disbanded, and the original links to the What They Know series began to fail. I don’t have exact dates for which failed when, but I do know that the trusty master link, wjs.com/wtk, began to 404 at some point. Fortunately, Julia has kept much of it alive at https://juliaangwin.com/category/portfolio/wall-street-journal/what-they-know/. Still, by the late Teens it was clear that even the best journalism wasn’t going to be enough—especially since the major publications had become adtech junkies. Worse, covering their own publications’ involvement in surveillance capitalism had become an untouchable topic for journalists. (One notable exception is Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, whose coverage of the paper’s own tracking was followed by a cutback in the practice.)

While I believe that most new laws for tech mostly protect yesterday from last Thursday, I share with many a hope for regulatory relief. I was especially jazzed about Europe’s GDPR, as you can read in GDPR will pop the adtech bubble (12 May 2018) and Our time has come (16 May 2018 in ProjectVRM).

But I was wrong then too. Because adtech isn’t a bubble. It’s a death star in service of an evil empire that destroys privacy through every function it funds in the digital world.

That’s why I expect the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (H.R. 8152), even if it passes through both houses of Congress at full strength, to do jack shit. Or worse, to make our experience of life in the digital world even more complicated, by requiring us to opt-out, rather than opt-in (yep, it’s in the law—as a right, no less), to tracking-based advertising everywhere. And we know how well that’s been going. (Read this whole post by Tom Fishburne, the Marketoonist, for a picture of how less than zero progress has been made, and how venial and absurd “consent” gauntlets on websites have become.) Do a search for https://www.google.com/search?q=gdpr+compliance to see how large the GDPR “compliance” business has become. Nearly all your 200+ million results will be for services selling obedience to the letter of the GDPR while death-star laser beams blow its spirit into spinning shards. Then expect that business to grow once the ADPPA is in place.

There is only thing that will save us from adtech’s death star.

That’s tech of our own. Our tech. Personal tech.

We did it in the physical world with the personal privacy tech we call clothing, shelter, locks, doors, shades, and shutters. We’ve barely started to make the equivalents for the digital world. But the digital world is only a few decades old. It will be around for dozens, hundreds, or thousands of decades to come. And adtech is still just a teenager. We can, must, and will do better.

All we need is the tech. Big Tech won’t do it for us. Nor will Big Gov.

The economics will actually help, because there are many business problems in the digital world that can only be solved from the customers’ side, with better signaling from demand to supply than adtech-based guesswork can ever provide. Customer Commons lists fourteen of those solutions, here. Privacy is just one of them.

Use the Force, folks.

That Force is us.

In faith that nothing lasts forever, and that an institution that’s been around since 1636 is more likely to keep something published online for longer than one that was born in 1994 and isn’t quite dead yet (and with full appreciation to the latter for its continued existence), I’ve decided to re-publish some of my Linux Journal columns that I hope have persistent relevance. This one is from the February 2007 issue of the magazine.


Building a Relationship Economy

Is there something new that open source development methods and values can bring to the economy? How about something old?

I think the answer may come from the developing world, where pre-industrial methods and values persist and offer some helpful models and lessons for a networked world that’s less post-industrial than industrial in a new and less impersonal way.

This began to become apparent to me a few years ago I had a Socratic exchange with a Nigerian pastor named Sayo, whom I was lucky to find sitting next to me on a long airplane trip.

We were both on speaking junkets. He was coming from an event related to his latest work: translating the Bible to Yoruba, one of the eight languages he spoke. I was on my way to give a talk about The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book I co-authored.

My main contribution to Cluetrain was a chapter called “Markets are conversations”. Sayo asked me what we meant by that. After hearing my answer, he acknowledged that our observations were astute, but also incomplete. Something more was going on in markets than just transactions and conversations, he said. What was it?

I said I didn’t know. Here is the dialogue that followed, as close to verbatim as I can recall it…

“Pretend this is a garment”, Sayo said, picking up one of those blue airplane pillows. “Let’s say you see it for sale in a public market in my country, and you are interested in buying it. What is your first question to the seller?”

“What does it cost?” I said.

“Yes”, he answered. “You would ask that. Let’s say he says, ‘Fifty dollars’. What happens next?”

“If I want the garment, I bargain with him until we reach an agreeable price.”

“Good. Now let’s say you know something about textiles. And the two of you get into a long conversation where both of you learn much from each other. You learn about the origin of the garment, the yarn used, the dyes, the name of the artist, and so on. He learns about how fabric is made in your country, how distribution works, and so on. In the course of this you get to know each other. What happens to the price?”

“Maybe I want to pay him more and he wants to charge me less”.

“Yes. And why is that?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You now have a relationship”.

He went on to point out that, in his country, and in much of what we call the developing world, relationship is of paramount importance in public markets. Transaction still matters, of course. So does conversation. But the biggest wedge in the social pie of the public marketplace is relationship. Prices less set than found, and the context for finding prices is both conversation and relationship. In many cases, relationship is the primary concern, not price. The bottom line is not everything.

Transaction rules the Industrialized world. Here prices are set by those who control the manufacturing, distribution and retail systems. Customers do have an influence on prices, but only in the form of aggregate demand. The rates at which they buy or don’t buy something determines what price the “market” will bear — in a system where “market” means aggregated demand, manifested in prices paid and quantities sold. Here the whole economic system is viewed mostly through the prism of price, which is seen as the outcome of tug between supply and demand.

Price still matters in the developing world, Sayo said, but relationship matters more. It’s a higher context with a higher set of values, many of which are trivialized or made invisible when viewed through the prism of price. Relationship is not reducible to price, even though it may influence price. Families and friends don’t put prices on their relationships. (At least not consciously, and only at the risk of cheapening or losing a relationship.) Love, the most giving force in any relationship, is not about exchanging. It is not fungible. You don’t expect a payback or a rate of return on the love you give your child, your wife or husband, your friends.

Even in the industrialized world, relationship has an enormous bearing on the way markets work, Sayo said. But it is poorly understood in the developed world, where so much “comes down to the bottom line”.

I shared this conversation a few weeks later with Eric S. Raymond, who put the matter even more simply. “All markets work at three levels”, he said. “Transactions, conversations and relationships”. Eric is an atheist. Sayo is a Christian. With those two triangulating so similarly on the same subject, I began to figure there was something more to this relationship business.

I began to ask questions. For example, What happens when you view markets through the prism of relationship? Why do we write free or open source code?

Linus says (in the title of his only book) he does it “Just for Fun”. Yes, there are practical purposes — there have to be. Scratching itches, for example. Development communities are notoriously long on conversation (check out the LKML for starters), and on relationship as well. Not a whole lot of transaction there, either, since the code is free. Next question: Are there economies involved?

I think the answer is yes, and they are concentrated on the manufacturing end. We make useful code for its “because effects”. Thanks to Linux, much money will be made; but because of it, far more than with it. Just look at Google and Amazon as two obvious examples. Perhaps a billion of the world’s Websites are Apache on Linux.

Relationship is involved here, too. Writing code that serves as abundant and free building material is an act of generosity. Dare we say we do it for love? Certainly a lot of us love doing it.

Likewise with performing artists. Musicians don’t take up an instrument and develop their skills just to make money at it. They do it for love of the experience, of playing together with other musicians, of giving something to an audience, and to the world.

Of course, professionals like to get paid for their work too. That’s what makes them professionals.

What if the goods are essentially free (as in beer, air or love)? That’s the case with code, music, art, and anything else that can be digitized and copied. Many artists want or need to be paid for what they do. The question is how we get our love to fund theirs — how we can relate in ways that work financially for both the supply and the demand of essentially free stuff.

The entertainment industry has had an answer ever since the Net showed up. Hollywood wasn’t blind to the Net. Quite the opposite. They correctly saw the Net as a way for every device to be zero distance from every other device — and to pass identical copies of anything between anybody a cost that rounded to zero. They saw this a threat to their incumbent business model. So they came up with a way to deal with that threat: DRM, or Digital Rights Management. DRM worked by crippling recorded goods so it can’t easily be copied except by those whose rights were managed by suppliers.

It hasn’t worked. A few days ago Steve Jobs said so himself, in a landmark essay titled Thoughs on Music, published on February 6. It not only notes the failure of DRM, but subtly recruits customers and fellow technologists to help Apple convince the record industry that it’s best to sell music that isn’t DRM’d. He concludes, “Convincing them to license their music to Apple and others DRM-free will create a truly interoperable music marketplace. Apple will embrace this wholeheartedly”.

The operative verb here is “license”.

Let’s ignore the record companies for a minute. Instead, lets look behind them, back up the supply chain, to the first sources of music: the artists. Part of the system we need is already built for these sources, through Creative Commons. By this system, creative sources can choose licenses that specify the freedoms carried by their work, and also specify what can and cannot be done with that work. These licenses are readable by machines as well as by lawyers. That’s a great start on the supply side.

Now let’s look at the same work from the demand side. What can we do — as music lovers, or as customers — to find, use, and even pay for, licensed work? Some mechanisms are there, but nothing yet that is entirely in our control — that reciprocates and engages on the demand side what Creative Commons provides on the supply side.

Yes, we can go to websites, subscribe to music services, use iTunes or other supply-controlled intermediating systems and deal with artists inside those systems. But there still isn’t anything that allows us to deal directly, on our own terms, with artists and their intermediaries. Put another way, we don’t yet have the personal means for establishing relationships with artists.

For example, I relate in some ways to Stewart Copeland, though he doesn’t know it. Stewart is best known as the drummer in The Police, even though the band hasn’t recorded an album since 1983 and Stewart has since then established himself as a first-rank composer of soundtracks, including “Rumble Fish”, “Talk Radio” and “Wall Street”. IMDb lists him as a composer of scores for sixty-nine movies and TV productions. You have to hit “page down” six times or more to get to the bottom of the listings. Still, much as I appreciate Stewart’s compositions, I’ve always loved his drumming. I’m not a drummer, but I’m a serviceable percussionist. (When I pick up bongos, congas, a rub-board or a tambourine, I get approving nods from the real musicians I jam with — as rarely as the occasion arises.) When the Police ceased touring and producing albums, I missed Stewart’s drumming most of all.

Last year I got a big charge out of hearing an IT Conversations podcast interview with Stewart, though I was disappointed to hear he doesn’t drum much anymore.

Then I heard last week on the radio that the Police may be getting back together and touring again. I can relate to that. But how? Stewart’s website is one of those over-produced flash-filled things that recording an performing artists seem to think they need in order to “deliver an experience” or whatever. Nearly every internal link leads to a link-proof something-or-other in the same window, among other annoyances. To call it relationship-proof would be an inderstatement.

So instead let’s look at relating through the IT Conversations podcast. I say that because yesterday Phil Windley, who runs IT Conversations, posted Funding Public Radio (and ITC) with VRM on his blog, and listed some of the things he might be looking for from VRM or Vendor Relationship Management. That is, from something that lives on the demand side, but can relate on mutually useful terms with the sjupply side — which in his case is IT Conversations.

Here’s the first answer: It can’t be limited to a browser. I want a button, or a something, on my MP3 player that allows me to relate not only to IT Conversations as an intermediary, but to the artist as well — if the artist is interested. They may not be. But I want that function supported. What we need on the user’s side is a tool, or a set of tools, that support both independence and engagement.

If what we’re looking for doesn’t exist, how hard will it be to build? I’m sure it won’t be easy, but it will be less hard than it was before the roster of open source tools and applications grew to six figures, which is where it stands now. And that’s not counting all the useful standards that are laying around too.

What do we need?

First, I think we need protocols. These should be modeled on the social ones we find in free and open marketplaces. They should work like the ones Sayo talked about in his Socratic dialogue with me on the airplane. They should be simple, useful and secure.

Second, we need ways of supporting transactions. This is a tough one, because to work they need to be low-friction. I should be able to pay IT Conversations (or any public radio station, or any podcaster) as easily as I pay for a coffee. Or better yet, as easily as I tip a barista. So PayPal won’t cut it. (Not the way I’ve experienced PayPal, anyway.)

Third, we need ways of selectively and securely asserting our identities, including our choice to remain anonymous. This means getting past sign-on hurdles on the Web, and past membership silos out in the physical world (such as the ones that require a special card, or whatever). Again, the friction should be as low as possible.

Fourth, we need ways of expressing demand that will bring supply to us. Let’s say I want to hear other interviews with Stewart Copeland. I don’t want to go through the standard Google/Yahoo text search. I want to tell the marketplace (in some cases without revealing yet exactly who I am) that I’m looking for these interviews, and then have them find me. Then I want an easy way to pay for them if I feel like it. As Sayo suggests, I might be more willing to pay something if I can relate to the source, and not just invisibly use goods produced by that source.

In Putting the Wholes Together, which I posted recently at Linux Journal, I said public broadcasting would be a good place to start — not just because public broadcasting needs to find ways to make more money from more listeners and viewers, but because payment is voluntary. Seems to me that when payment is voluntary, relationship will drive up the percentage of those who pay. It’s just a theory, but one that should be fun to test.

Soon as I get the time to put it together, I’ll put out a challenge for developers (that’s you, if you write code) to help out on this. Some developers are already collected at ProjectVRM, which is where we’re organizing the effort.

I’m meeting with NPR in Washington, D.C. in a couple hours, and again tomorrow. I’ll bring up the possibility of help from you guys when I talk to them. And I’ll be in many meetings and talks next week at the IMA Convention in Boston and Beyond Broadcast in Cambridge. Help is welcome.

Let’s show these folks how much more they can do because they relate. Let’s obsolete those annoying fund-raising marathons when they shut off programming, plead poverty and give you some schwag if you send money. There has to be a better way. Let’s build it.

There’s an economic theory here: Free customers are more valuable than captive onesto themselves, to the companies they deal with, and to the marketplace. If that’s true, the intention economy will prove it. If not, we’ll stay stuck in the attention economy, where the belief that captive customers are more valuable than free ones prevails.

Let me explain.

The attention economy is not native to human attention. It’s native to businesses that  seek to grab and manipulate buyers’ attention. This includes the businesses themselves and their agents. Both see human attention as a “resource” as passive and ready for extraction as oil and coal. The primary actors in this economy—purveyors and customers of marketing and advertising services—typically talk about human beings not only as mere “users” and “consumers,” but as “targets” to “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in.” They are also oblivious to the irony that this is the same language used by those who own cattle and slaves.

While attention-grabbing has been around for as long as we’ve had yelling, in our digital age the fields of practice (abbreviated martech and adtech) have become so vast and varied that nobody (really, nobody) can get their head around everything that’s going on in them. (Examples of attempts are here, here and here.)

One thing we know for sure is that martech and adtech rationalize taking advantage of absent personal privacy tech in the hands of their targets. What we need there are the digital equivalents of the privacy tech we call clothing and shelter in the physical world. We also need means to signal our privacy preferences, to obtain agreements to those, and to audit compliance and resolve disputes. As it stands in the attention economy, privacy is a weak promise made separately by websites and services that are highly incentivised not to provide it. Tracking prophylaxis in browsers is some help, but itworks differently for every browser and it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on.

Another thing we know for sure is that the attention economy is thick with fraud, malware, and worse. For a view of how much worse, look at any adtech-supported website through PageXray and see the hundreds or thousands of ways sthe site and its invisible partners are trying to track you. (For example, here’s what Smithsonian Magazine‘s site does.)

We also know that lawmaking to stop adtech’s harms (e.g. GDPR and CCPA) has thus far mostly caused inconvenience for you and me (how many “consent” notices have interrupted your web surfing today?)—while creating a vast new industry devoted to making tracking as easy as legally possible. Look up GDPR+compliance and you’ll get way over 100 million results. Almost all of those will be for companies selling other companies ways to obey the letter of privacy law while violating its spirit.

Yet all that bad shit is also a red herring, misdirecting attention away from the inefficiencies of an economy that depends on unwelcome surveillance and algorithmic guesswork about what people might want.

Think about this: even if you apply all the machine learning and artificial intelligence in the world to all the personal data that might be harvested, you still can’t beat what’s possible when the targets of that surveillance have their own ways to contact and inform sellers of what they actually want and don’t want, plus ways to form genuine relationships and express genuine (rather than coerced) loyalty, and to do all of that at scale.

We don’t have that yet. But when we do, it will be an intention economy. Here are the opening paragraphs of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012):

This book stands with the customer. This is out of necessity, not sympathy. Over the coming years, customers will be emancipated from systems built to control them. They will become free and independent actors in the marketplace, equipped to tell vendors what they want, how they want it, where and when—even how much they’d like to pay—outside of any vendor’s system of customer control. Customers will be able to form and break relationships with vendors, on customers’ own terms, and not just on the take-it-or-leave-it terms that have been pro forma since Industry won the Industrial Revolution.

Customer power will be personal, not just collective.  Each customer will come to market equipped with his or her own means for collecting and storing personal data, expressing demand, making choices, setting preferences, proffering terms of engagement, offering payments and participating in relationships—whether those relationships are shallow or deep, and whether they last for moments or years. Those means will be standardized. No vendor will control them.

Demand will no longer be expressed only in the forms of cash, collective appetites, or the inferences of crunched data over which the individual has little or no control. Demand will be personal. This means customers will be in charge of personal information they share with all parties, including vendors.

Customers will have their own means for storing and sharing their own data, and their own tools for engaging with vendors and other parties.  With these tools customers will run their own loyalty programs—ones in which vendors will be the members. Customers will no longer need to carry around vendor-issued loyalty cards and key tags. This means vendors’ loyalty programs will be based on genuine loyalty by customers, and will benefit from a far greater range of information than tracking customer behavior alone can provide.

Thus relationship management will go both ways. Just as vendors today are able to manage relationships with customers and third parties, customers tomorrow will be able to manage relationships with vendors and fourth parties, which are companies that serve as agents of customer demand, from the customer’s side of the marketplace.

Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion. So, rather than “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers, as if they were slaves or cattle, vendors will earn the respect of customers who are now free to bring far more to the market’s table than the old vendor-based systems ever contemplated, much less allowed.

Likewise, rather than guessing what might get the attention of consumers—or what might “drive” them like cattle—vendors will respond to actual intentions of customers. Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase. The result we will call the Intention Economy.

This new economy will outperform the Attention Economy that has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising. Customer intentions, well-expressed and understood, will improve marketing and sales, because both will work with better information, and both will be spared the cost and effort wasted on guesses about what customers might want, and flooding media with messages that miss their marks. Advertising will also improve.

The volume, variety and relevance of information coming from customers in the Intention Economy will strip the gears of systems built for controlling customer behavior, or for limiting customer input. The quality of that information will also obsolete or re-purpose the guesswork mills of marketing, fed by crumb-trails of data shed by customers’ mobile gear and Web browsers. “Mining” of customer data will still be useful to vendors, though less so than intention-based data provided directly by customers.

In economic terms, there will be high opportunity costs for vendors that ignore useful signaling coming from customers. There will also be high opportunity gains for companies that take advantage of growing customer independence and empowerment.

But this hasn’t happened yet. Why?

Let’s start with supply and demand, which is roughly about price. Wikipedia: “the relationship between the price of a given good or product and the willingness of people to either buy or sell it.” But that wasn’t the original idea. “Supply and demand” was first expressed as “demand and supply” by Sir James Denham-Steuart in An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy, written in 1767. To Sir James, demand and supply wasn’t about price. Specifically, “it must constantly appear reciprocal. If I demand a pair of shoes, the shoemaker either demands money or something else for his own use.” Also, “The nature of demand is to encourage industry.”

Nine years later, in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, a more visible bulb in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote, “The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is that of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence.” Again, nothing about price.

But neither of those guys lived to see the industrial age take off. When that happened, demand became an effect of supply, rather than a cause of it. Supply came to run whole markets on a massive scale, with makers and distributors of goods able to serve countless customers in parallel. The industrial age also ubiquitized standard-form contracts of adhesion binding all customers to one supplier with a single “agreement.”

But, had Sir James and Adam lived into the current millennium, they would have seen that it is now possible, thanks to digital technologies and the Internet, for customers to achieve scale across many companies, with efficiencies not imaginable in the pre-digital industrial age.

For example, it should be possible for a customer to express her intentions—say, “I need a stroller for twins downtown this afternoon”—to whole markets, but without being trapped inside any one company’s walled garden. In other words, not only inside Amazon, eBay or Craigslist. This is called intentcasting, and among its virtues is what Kim Cameron calls “minimum disclosure for constrained purposes” to “justifiable parties” through a choice among a “plurality of operators.”

Likewise, there is no reason why websites and services can’t agree to your privacy policy, and your terms of engagement. In legal terms, you should be able to operate as the first party, and to proffer your own terms, to which sites and services can agree (or, as privacy laws now say, consent) as second parties. That this is barely thinkable is a legacy of a time that has sadly not yet left us: one in which only companies can enjoy that kind of scale. Yet it would clearly be a convenience to have privacy as normalized in the online world as it is in the offline one. But we’re slowly getting there; for example with Customer Commons’ P2B1, aka #NoStalking term, which readers can proffer and publishers can agree agree to. It says “Just give me ads not based on tracking me.” Also with the IEEE’s P7012 Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms working group.

Same with subscriptions. A person should be able to keep track of all her regular payments for subscription services, to keep track of new and better deals as they come along, to express to service providers her intentions toward those new deals, and to cancel or unsubscribe. There are lots of tools for this today, for example TruebillBobbyMoney DashboardMintSubscript MeBillTracker ProTrimSubbyCard DueSiftSubMan, and Subscript Me. There are also subscription management systems offered by PaypalAmazonApple and Google (e.g. with Google Sheets and Google Doc templates). But all of them to one degree or another are based more on the felt need by those suppliers for customer captivity than for customer independence.

As Customer Commons unpacks it here, there are many largely or entirely empty market spaces that are wide open for free and independent customers: identity, shopping (e.g. with shopping carts of your own to take from site to site), loyalty (of the genuine kind), property ownership (the real Internet of Things), and payments, for example.

It is possible to fill all those spaces if we have the capacity to—as Sir James put it—encourage industry, restrain fraud and correct negligence. While there is some progress in some of those areas, the going is still slow on the global scale. After all, The Intention Economy is nine years old and we still don’t have it yet. Is it just not possible, or are we starting in the wrong places?

I think it’s the latter.

Way back in 1995, when the Internet first showed up on both of our desktops, my wife Joyce said, “The sweet spot of the Internet isn’t global. It’s local.” That was the gist of my TEDx Santa Barbara talk in 2018. It’s also why Joyce and I are now in Bloomington, Indiana, working with the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University on deploying a new way for demand and supply to inform each other and get business rolling—and to start locally. It’s called the Byway, and it works outside of the old supply-controlled industrial model. Here’s an FAQ. Please feel free to add questions in the comments here.


The title image is by the great Hugh Macleod, and was commissioned in 2004 for a startup he and I both served and is now long gone.