VRM

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First, three posts by:

His bottom line in the last of those: “… people are saying the web dumbs us down. This is wrong. The web can dumb us down, but only if we choose to let it.” Much substance leads up to that, including many comments to the first two posts.

In the first post, JP says, “For information to have power, it needs to be held asymmetrically. Preferably very very asymmetrically. Someone who knows something that others do not know can do something potentially useful and profitable with that information.” He adds,

So when people create walled-garden paid apps, others will create unpaid apps that get to the same material. It’s only a matter of time. Because every attempt at building dams and filters on the internet is seen as pollution by the volunteers. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. No pollutants.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. There’s been a lot of talk about the web and the internet making us dumber.

I think it’s more serious than that. What the web does is reduce the capacity for asymmetry in education. Which in turn undermines the exalted status of the expert.

The web makes experts “dumb”. By reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.

Every artificial scarcity will be met by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. And, over time, the abundance will win. There will always be more people choosing to find ways to undo DRM than people employed in the DRM-implementing sector. Always.

Joe Andrieu responds with Asmmetry by choice.  After giving some examples, Joe adds,

These types of voluntary acceptance of asymmetry in information are the fabric of relationships. We trust people with sensitive information when we believe they will respect our privacy.

I don’t see abundance undoing that. Either the untrustworthy recipient develops a reputation for indescretion and is cut off, or the entire system would have to preclude any privacy at all. In that latter scenario, it would became impossible to share our thoughts and ideas, our dreams and passions, without divulging it to the world. We would stop sharing and shut down those thoughts altogether rather than allow ourselves to become vulnerable to passing strangers and the powers that be. Such a world would of totalitarian omniscience would be unbearable and unsustainable. Human beings need to be able to trust one another.  Friends need to be able to talk to friends without broadcasting to the world. Otherwise, we are just cogs in a vast social order over which we have almost no control.

Asymmetry-by-choice, whether formalized in an NDA, regulated by law, or just understood between close friends, is part of the weft and weave of modern society.

The power of asymmetry-by-choice is the power of relationships. When we can trust someone else with our secrets, we gain. When we can’t, we are limited to just whatever we can do with that information in isolation.

This is a core part of what we are doing with and the . Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is about helping users get the most out of their relationships with vendors. And those relationships depend on Vendors respecting the directives of their customers, especially around asymmetric information. The Information Sharing Work Group (ISWG) is developing scenarios and legal agreements that enable individuals to share information with service providers on their own terms. The notion of a is predicated on providing privileged information to service providers, dynamically, with full assurance and the backing of the law. The receiving service providers can then provide enhanced, customized services based on the content of that data store… and individuals can rest assured that law abiding service providers will respect the terms they’ve requested.

I think the value of this asymmetry-by-choice is about artificial scarcity, in that it is constructed through voluntary agreement rather than the mechanics/electronics of the situation, but it is also about voluntary relationships, and that is why it is so powerful and essential.

I’ll let both arguments stand for now (and I think if the two of them were talking here right now they’d come to some kind of agreement… maybe they will in comments here or on their own blogs), while I lever both their points toward the issue of privacy, which will continue to heat up as more people become aware of liberties taken with personal information by Web companies, especially those in the advertising business. I hadn’t thought about this in terms of asymmetry before, but maybe it helps.

The Web has always embodied the design asymmetry of . Sites have servers. Visitors have clients (your computing device and its browser). To help keep track of visitors’ relationships, the server gives them . These are small text files that help the server recall logins, passwords, contact history and other helpful information. Cookies have been normative in the extreme since they were first used in the mid-nineties.

Today advertising on the Web is also normative to an extreme that is beginning to feel . In efforts to improve advertising, “beacons” and flash cookies have been added to the HTTP variety, and all are now also used to track users on the Web. The Wall Street Journal has been following this in its series, and you can find out more there. Improvement, in the new advertising business, is now about personalization. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, told the Wall Street Journal. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

Talk about asymmetry. You are no longer just a client to a server. You are a target with crosshairs on your wallet.

Trying to make advertising more helpful is a good thing. Within a trusted relationship, it can be a better thing. The problem with all this tracking is that it does not involve trusted relationships. Advertisers and site owners may assume or infer some degree of conscious assent by users. But, as the Journal series makes clear, most of us have no idea how much unwelcome tracking is really going on. (Hell, they didn’t know until they started digging.)

So let’s say we can construct trusted relationships with sellers. By we I mean you and me, as individuals. How about if we have our own terms of engagement with sellers—ones that express our intentions, and not just theirs? What might we say? How about,

  • You will put nothing on my computer or browser other than what we need for our  relationship.
  • Any data you collect in the course of our relationship can be shared with me.
  • You can combine my data with other data and share it outside our relatinship, provided it is not PII (Personally Identifiable Information).
  • If we cease our relationship, you can keep my data but not associate any PII with that data.
  • You will also not follow my behavior or accumulate data about me for the purposes of promotion or advertising unless I opt into that. Nor will your affiliates or partners.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not saying any of the points above are either legal or in legal language. But they are the kinds of things we might like to say within a relationship that is symmetrical in nature yet includes the kind of asymmetry-by-choice that Joe talks about: the kind based on real trust and real agreement and not just passive assent.

The idea here isn’t to make buyers more powerful than sellers. It’s to frame up standard mechanisms by which understandings can be established by both parties. Joe mentioned some of the work going on there. I also mention some in Cooperation vs. Coercion, on the . Here’s a long excerpt:

What we need now is for vendors to discover that free customers are more valuable than captive ones. For that we need to equip customers with better ways to enjoy and express their freedom, including ways of engaging that work consistently for many vendors, rather than in as many different ways ways as there are vendors — which is the “system” (that isn’t) we have now.

There are lots of VRM development efforts working on both the customer and vendor sides of this challenge. In this post I want to draw attention to the symbols that represent those two sides, which we call r-buttons, two of which appear above. Yours is the left one. The vendor’s is the right one. They face each other like magnets, and are open on the facing ends.

These are designed to support what calls , which he started talking about back in 2005 or so. I paid some respect to gestures (though I didn’t yet understand what he meant) in The Intention Economy, a piece I wrote for in 2006. (That same title is also the one for book I’m writing for . The subtitle is What happens when customers get real power.) On the sell side, in a browser environment, the vendor puts some RDFa in its HTML that says “We welcome free customers.” That can mean many things, but the most important is this: Free customers bring their own means of engagement. It also means they bring their own terms of engagement.

Being open to free customers doesn’t mean that a vendor has to accept the customer’s terms. It does mean that the vendor doesn’t believe it has to provide all those terms itself, through the currently defaulted contracts of adhesion that most of us click “accept” for, almost daily. We have those because from the dawn of e-commerce sellers have assumed that they alone have full responsibility for relationships with customers. Maybe now that dawn has passed, we can get some daylight on other ways of getting along in a free and open marketplace.

The gesture shown here —

— is the vendor (in this case the public radio station , which I’m just using as an example here) expressing openness to the user, through that RDFa code in its HTML. Without that code, the right-side r-button would be gray. The red color on the left side shows that the user has his or her own code for engagement, ready to go. (I unpack some of this stuff here.)

Putting in that RDFa would be trivial for a CRM system. Or even for a CMS (content management system). Next step: (I have Craig Burton leading me on this… he’s on the phone with me right now…) RESTful APIs for customer data. Check slide 69 here. Also slides 98 and 99. And 122, 124, 133 and 153.

If I’m not mistaken, a little bit of RDFa can populate a pop-down menu on the site’s side that might look like this:

All the lower stuff is typical “here are our social links” jive. The important new one is that item at the top. It’s the new place for “legal” (the symbol is one side of a “scale of justice”) but it doesn’t say “these are our non-negotiable terms of service (or privacy policies, or other contracts of adhesion). Just by appearing there it says “We’re open to what you bring to the table. Click here to see how.” This in turn opens the door to a whole new way for buyers and sellers to relate: one that doesn’t need to start with the buyer (or the user) just “accepting” terms he or she doesn’t bother to read because they give all advantages to the seller and are not negotiable. Instead it is an open door like one in a store. Much can be implicit, casual and free of obligation. No new law is required here. Just new practice. This worked for (which neither offered nor required new copyright law), and it can work for r-commerce (a term I just made up). As with Creative Commons, what happens behind that symbol can be machine, lawyer or human-readable. You don’t have to click on it. If your policy as a buyer is that you don’t want to to be tracked by advertisers, you can specify that, and the site can hear and respond to it. The system is, as Renee Lloyd puts it, the difference between a handcuff and a handshake.

Renee is a lawyer and self-described “shark trainer” who has done much in the community to help us think about agreements in ways that are legal without being complicated. For example, when you walk into a store, you are surrounded by laws of many kinds, yet you have an understanding with that store that you will behave as a proper guest. (And many stores, such as Target, refer by policy to their customers as “guests.”) You don’t have accept “terms of service” that look like this:

You agree we are not liable for annoying interruptions caused by you; or a third party, buildings, hills, network congestion, rye whiskey falling sickness or unexpected acts of God or man, and will save harmless rotary lyrfmstrdl detections of bargas overload prevention, or if Elvis leaves the building, living or dead. Unattended overseas submissions in saved mail hazard functions will be subject to bad weather or sneeze funneling through contractor felch reform blister pack truncation, or for the duration of the remaining unintended contractual subsequent lost or expired obligations, except in the state of Arizona at night. We also save ourselves and close relatives harmless from anything we don’t control; including clear weather and oddball acts of random gods. You also agree we are not liable for missed garments, body parts, electronic communications or musical instruments, even if you have saved them. Nothing we say or mumble here is trustworthy or true, or meant for any purpose other than to sphincter the fears of our legal department, which has no other reason to live. Everything here does not hold if we become lost, damaged or sold to some other company. Whether for reasons of drugs, hormones, gas or mood, we may also terminate or change this agreement with cheerful impunity.

[   ]  Accept.

And for that you get a cookie. Yum.

gives a great talk in which he reduces History of E-Commerce to one slide. It looks like this:

1995: Invention of the Cookie.

The End.

Not content with that, Phil has moved history forward a step by writing KRL, the , which he describes in this post here. The bottom line for our purpose in this post is that you can write your own rules. Terms of engagement are not among them yet, but why not? It’s early. At last Friday, showed how easy it is to program a relationship—or just your side of one—with KRL. What blew my mind was that the show was over and it was past time to leave, on a Friday, and people hung out to see how this was done. (Here’s a gallery of photos from the workshop.)

And those are just some of the efforts going on in the VRM (and soon, we trust, the CRM) community. What we’re trusting (we’re beyond just hoping at this point) is that tools for users wishing to manage relationships with organizations of all kinds (and not just vendors) will continue to find their way into the marketplace. And the result will be voluntary relationships that employ asymmetry by choice—in which the choice is made freely by all the parties involved.

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VRM + CRM 2010

So that’s the logo for the first VRM+CRM workshop, which will happen on 26-27 August, at Harvard Law School. It’s free. You can register here.

ProjectVRM, which I’ve been running as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center has been growing nicely over the past four years, and is on its way toward becoming an independent entity. (It will exist, as always, to support a community of developers and interested parties outside of the project itself.) It’s funny, I remember Jeremie Miller, who encouraged me to choose VRM (before it had that name) as my Berkman project when I started out in late summer of 2006, telling me “it will take five years.” Meaning that’s generally how long any new world-changing development effort spends in the quiet shadows before it breaks out into the open and starts taking off. (If it does at all.) That’s about how long it took for Jeremie’s own Jabber/XMPP efforts. (He predicted five years at the beginning of that too, and he was just a kid then. Wise dude.)

I’ve liked keeping VRM in the shadows, because I felt that code mattered more than anything. Code talks. Buzz walks. And I say that even though I’m not bad at generating buzz when I need to. Now the code base is growing enough that many of us feel a need to start talking about it. Especially to potential partners in the business world.

We’ve described VRM as the “reciprocal” of CRM at various times. It’s much more than that, actually. Its tools that give individuals independence from others, yet useful means for engaging with others — especially organizations, and among those especially sellers. But the core elements are individuals and independence.

I’ve also seen VRM from the start as fundamentally an open source effort, not a commercial one. I also saw open source tools, with their high use-value, having enormous leverage into sale-value for any company selling products or services based on those open tools. This would include, among other things, many fourth-party services — itself another whole new category.

CRM in the meantime has grown to become a $15-billion business. It has also lately enlarged its intrest to include Social CRM. Our friend Paul Greenberg has written extensively on both, and is the driving force behind Destination CRM next week in New York. (Which I hate to miss, but have a prior commitment elsewhere.) Since VRM will be a topic at Destination CRM, and we can get space here at Harvard before the students come back, we put together the workshop to follow at the other end of the same month.

The workshop is for VRM and CRM developers and other interested parties (such as CRM customers) together to start building out the common ground between them. The nature of relationship is to exist between and apart from both parties. Neither controls the other. Both work together, in a common space between the two. We haven’t had that space before. The default on the CRM side (and one that predates CRM itself) is for vendors to control relationships with customers. What VRM proposes is that neither controls the other, but both manage the space between them, in mutually beneficial ways.

The workshop will mostly be an unconference, though there will be some opening briefings by VRM and CRM folks, to set the stage for sessions to follow. Here are a few of the topics and questions I expect will come up. (These are copied over from a post I just put up over on the ProjectVRM blog.) —

  • Terms of service. How can we get past the legal hurdles and shackles that inconvenience both buyers and sellers when they get acquainted?
  • Privacy policies. How can we reduce the suspicions and frictions that these involve?
  • Personal data. What tools, methods and services are being developed for individuals to keep track of data they generate or is being kept by sellers and other parties? What means do we have for sharing or exchanging that data in secure and trustable ways?
  • Signaling. What new methods will both individuals and organizations have for notifying each other of interests, intentions, policies, preferences, or changes in any of those? How can we make these common across the industry, rather than different for every organization?
  • Self-tracking and personal informatics. What vendor-independent means are being developed for individuals to keep track of their own personal data, and manage it?
  • Interactive shopping. The Live Web we saw coming in 2005 is here. So is the mobile one. Combine those facts with the ability to issue personal RFPs (or just to publish your shopping list to trusted retailers and fourth parties), and what do you get?
  • Search. What new paradigms for searching are being developed, especially in the context of all the topics above?
  • Non-coercive loyalty. What ways are being developed for individuals to express and manage their own forms of loyalty to sellers and other organizations? How can this improve existing loyalty programs?
  • Personal RFPs or Advertising in Reverse. How can individual customers notify whole market categories of their intent to purchase a product, safely and securely, without inviting a torrent of promotional jive in response?
  • Leveraging base-level protocols, standards and tools. There are hundreds of thousands of free and open source tools, protocols and other goods already in the world, ready to serve as free building materials and guidelines. What can we use of these, and what new ones do we need? What new ones are in development on the VRM side?
  • Reducing MLOTT — Money Left On The Table. In our current system, a huge sum of demand goes un-met because of the the means for communicating interest and availability are on the supply side. How (including the means listed above and others) can we equip demand to notify supply of money ready to be spent? In the old days this was seen as “lead generation” by suppliers. But now it’s time to get past that.
  • Tie-ins with SCRM. Social CRM is the hottest topic in CRM. How can VRM connect with and through social networking? Important question: Should “social” be restricted to just what can be done through Facebook, Twitter and other commercial services?
  • Patient-driven health care. How can individuals be the collection points for their own health data, and the point of origination for what gets done with it?
  • API symphonics. The commercial world is increasingly building around a collection of interconnected APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces. Many CRM systems are built around their own APIs. VRM will surely connect into many APIs. How should we be thinking about and guiding evolution here?
  • The oppposite of cookies. Sites and companies of all kinds have been keeping track of customers through cookies since the mid-’90s. How can customers do the same with their suppliers?

Feel free to add your own, correct these, or make other recommendations.

More details on the event wiki page.

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Marketing Needs To Stop Its BS and Wake Up, the headline says.

True.

The bottom line: “At the end of the day, audiences have moved on and their expectations have changed. The next five years will see drastic changes in the way organizations engage with their audiences. It’s not a choice anymore. These are the ‘cluetrain’ years.”

Yes, but what will change most is how ‘audiences’ engage with companies.

r-buttonFor r-buttonone thing, we’re not ‘audiences’ any more. And we’re not here for the show. We’ll have our own ways of engaging, and they won’t just be through “social media” that are privately owned and we don’t control. In fact, those ways might include the symbols you see here. You’re on the left, and the company you’re engaging with is on the right. If that company believes a free customer is more valuable than a captive one, the symbol appears, or turns from gray to red.

For more on all that, go to Cooperation vs. Coercion, which I posted on the ProjectVRM blog this morning. Also see three other posts on this blog from a couple days ago. Pointers to those are here.

If you’re a marketer, and you want some fresh clues about how the tide is turning, take the time to read through those. They’re not gospel, just some blog posts. But they point in a direction, and it’s not toward marketing as usual, even if that marketing is called “social”.

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There are two essential concepts of location for the World Wide Web. One is you: the individual, the reader, the writer, the customer, the singular entity. The other is the World.

I live and work mostly in the U.S. I also speak English. My French, German and Spanish are all too minimal to count unless I happen to be in a country that speaks one of those languages. When I’m in one of those places, as I am now in France, I do my best to learn as much of the language as I can. But I’m still basically an English speaker.

So, by default, when I’m on the Web my language is English. My location might be France, or Denmark or somewhere else, but when I’m searching for something the language I require most of the time is English. That’s my mental location.

So it drives me nuts that Google sends me to http://google.fr, even when I log into iGoogle and get my personalized Google index page. When I re-write the URL so it says http://google.us, Google re-writes it as http://google.fr, no matter what. On iGoogle I can’t find a way to set my preferred language, or my virtual location if it’s not where I am right now. I can’t do that even when I have Google translate, instantly, in my Google Chrome browser, the page text to English. (I’m sure there’s a hack, and I would appreciate it if somebody would tell me. But if there is why should it be so hard?)

Bing comes up all-French too, but at the bottom of the page, in small white type, it says “Go to Bing in English”. Nice.

So now, here in Paris, I’m using Bing when I want to search in English, and Google when I want to search for local stuff. Which is a lot, actually. But I miss searching in English on Google. I could ask them to fix that, but I’d rather fix the fact that only they can fix that. Depending on suppliers to do all the work is a bug, not a feature.

What matters is context. I’m tired of having companies guess at what my context is. I know what my contexts are. I know how they change. I want my own ways of changing contexts, and of informing services of what those contexts are. In some cases I don’t mind their guessing. In a few I even appreciate it. But in too many cases their guesses only get in the way. The Google search case is just one of them.

(disclosure: I’ve done work for Phil) gives a talk in which he provides a brief history of e-commerce. It goes, “1995: Invention of the cookie. The End.” Thanks to the , we have contexts — but only inside each company’s silo. We can’t provide our own contexts except to the degree that each company’s website allows it. And they’re all different. This too is a bug, not a feature. (Just like carrying around a pile of loyalty cards and key tabs is a bug. Hey, I know more about who and what I’m loyal to than any company does — and I’d like my own ways of expressing that.)

At this moment it is commonly believed that the contexts that matter most are “social”. This is defined as who my friends are, and where I happen to be right now. This information is held almost entirely by commercial services: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Foursquare, Groupon, Blippy and so on. Not by you or me. Not by individuals, and not independently of all those services. This too is a bug. Who your friends and other contacts are is indeed a context, but it should be one that you control, not some company. Your data, and how you organize it, should be the independent variable, and the data you share with these services should be the dependent variables.

Some of us in the community (including Phil and his company, ) are working on context provided by individuals. In the long run these contexts can work for any or all commercial and non-commercial institutions we deal with. I expect to see some of this work become manifest over the next year. Stay tuned.

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VRM meets CRM

CRM Magazine has devoted much of its May 2010 issue, including its cover and lead stories, to VRM and the growing power of individual customers, within which VRM is one vector.

Naturally, is also covered, since it pointed in this same direction, long ago.

This is an impressive move on the part of the CRM Magazine folks, and I hope the industry it covers follows its lead.

I put up a longer post about this over at the ProjectVRM blog. Read the rest there. And if any of ya’ll have a hard copy of the magazine, please save it, since I haven’t seen one yet and would like to collect a few in any case.

Meanwhile, a high five to Tara Hunt, who introduced the CRM Magazine folks to VRM, and got the ball rolling with then.

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First, read Dave‘s The Mother of all Business Models. The money grafs:

Want to get a message to Dave while he’s on the BART riding under SF? $5. Want to get a message to him while he’s walking the tradeshow at CES? That costs more.

If you’re important enough you shouldn’t even pay to use the mobile device. They’re going to make so much money from your attention. If you’re really important, thinking Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Mike Arrington, they should pay you — a LOT — to use their device. Wow.

That got me excited. That’s what they have to be thinking at Google. And why not Twitter. Trying to think of a title for this post, I came up with The Mother of All Business Models. This is as far as I can see. A new economy. Nobodies pay, but important people are paid to use your brand cell phone/mobile device. I’m sure that’s the future. Might be horrible but we’re already almost there.

This is great stuff: a whole new frame for the sell side.

Now let’s look at the buy side, and how to keep the sellers from being horrible moms. What do we want there? Or what should we want there, if we knew we had the power, independent of advertisers and their media? I mean native power here: power that each of us has — not by grace of some company or government agency, and not limited to a company’s “platform”, which is almost always the floor of a silo or the lawn of a walled garden (and worth less or nothing outside of it).

We already have some of that power, thanks to protocols, formats and code that (essentially) nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve. One of the most widespread of those, thanks to Dave, is RSS — Really Simple Syndication. Look up RSS on Google. You get 3,210,000,000 results, as of today. Much of that huge number owes to RSS’s nature as essential builing material for the Web that anybody can use, easily.

RSS is easy to make yours, personally, as your tool. Thanks to RSS (atop the Web’s and the Net’s other supportive standards, formats and protocols) anybody can produce, edit, update and syndicate pretty much whatever they like. You don’t have to go to Google or Twitter or Facebook. That independence is key, and has been there from the start, as a founding premise.

Now, what else can we create, to help assert our sides of commercial interactions and relationships — which is the central concern of the VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) community? In the Markets Are Relationships chapter of the 10th Anniversary edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto, I wrote this about the purposes of VRM efforts:

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data are no longer scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by others, and for how long. At the individual’s discretion, this may include agreements requiring others to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own terms of service, reducing or eliminating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces), and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.
  9. The Intention Economy.

All these will also give rise to:

The latter is the title of the following section of the chapter, where I  explain that advertising is a bubble, and “so is the rest of the ‘attention economy’ that includes promotion, public relations, direct marketing, and other ways of pushing messages through media.” I then explain,

The attention economy will crash for three reasons. First, it has always been detached from the larger economy where actual goods and services are sold to actual customers. Second, it has always been inefficient and wasteful, flaws that could be rationalized only by the absence of anything better. Third, a better system will come along in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand. In other words, when the “intention economy” outperforms the attention economy.

Some context:

The attention economy will not go away. There will still be a need for vendors to promote their offerings. But that promotion will have a new context: the ability of customers to communicate what they need and want—and to maintain or terminate relationships. Thus the R in CRM will cease to be a euphemism. This will happen when we have standard protocols for all three forms of market activity: transaction, conversation, and relationship.

Transaction we already have. Conversation we are only beginning to develop. (Email, text messaging, and other standard and open protocols help here, but they are still just early steps—even in in 2009, ten years after we said “markets are conversations” in The Cluetrain Manifesto.) Relationship is the wild frontier. Closed “social” environments like MySpace and Facebook are good places to experiment with some of what we’ll need, but as of today they’re still silos. Think of them as AOL 2.0.

Now, what do we need to create The Intention Economy? (That link goes to a piece by that name written almost four years ago.) What’s already there, like RSS and its relatives, that we can put to use? What new protocols, formats, tools and code do we need to create?

Improving selling is a good thing. Improving buying is a better thing. And improving how buyers and sellers relate is better than both. Those last two are what VRM is about. (And the last one is what CRM has always been about, though it hasn’t had any reciprocating system on the buy side, which is what VRM will provide.)

If you want to see some of what we’re up to, or to contribute to it, here’s the wiki. And here’s the list.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a book titled The Intention Economy: What Happens When Customers Get Real Power. If you’re interested in pointing me to helpful scholorship, research and stories for the book, feel free to weigh in with those too.

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What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later…] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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For years I’ve been watching my old pal Britt Blaser work to improve the means by which citizens manage their elected politicians, and otherwise improve governance in our democracy.

Now comes Diane Francis, veteran columnist for the National Post in Canada (but yes, she’s an American), summarizing the good that should come from Britt’s latest: iVote4U, and its trial run toward the elections in New York coming up in just a few days. New York’s Digitized Dems Can Take Over City Council Sept. 15, says the headline. In addition to the Drupal sites of the last two links, there is a Facebook app as well.

The idea, sez Britt, is “to give voters a way to manage their politicians as easily as they manage their iTunes”. If you’re a New Yorker who plans to vote next week, give it a whirl. If enough of you do, you might begin to see what we call Government Relationship Management (or GRM) at work.

iVote4U pioneers as a fourth party service.Follow that link for more on what I mean by that; or check out Joe Andrieu’s series on user driven services. If we want government that is truly of, by and for the people, we need tools that give meaning to those prepositions. Especially the first two. Britt has dedicated his life to providing those tools. Give them a try.

You don’t need to be a Democrat, by the way. These tools should work equally well for voters of all political bendings.

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A couple days ago I responded to a posting on an email list. What I wrote struck a few chords, so I thought I’d repeat it here, with just a few edits, and then add a few additional thoughts as well. Here goes.

Reading _____’s references to ancient electrical power science brings to mind my own technical background, most of which is now also antique. Yet that background still informs of my understanding of the world, and my curiosities about What’s Going On Now, and What We Can Do Next. In fact I suspect that it is because I know so much about old technology that I am bullish about framing What We Can Do Next on both solid modern science and maximal liberation from technically obsolete legal and technical frameworks — even though I struggle as hard as the next geek to escape those.

(Autobiographical digression begins here. If you’re not into geeky stuff, skip.)

As a kid growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s I was obsessed with electricity and radio. I studied electronics and RF transmission and reception, was a ham radio operator, and put an inordinate amount of time into studying how antennas worked and electromagnetic waves propagated. From my home in New Jersey’s blue collar suburbs, I would ride my bike down to visit the transmitters of New York AM stations in the stinky tidewaters flanking the Turnpike, Routes 46 and 17, Paterson Plank Road and the Belleville Pike. (Nobody called them “Meadowlands” until many acres of them were paved in the ’70s to support a sports complex by that name.) I loved hanging with the old guys who manned those transmitters, and who were glad to take me out on the gangways to show how readings were made, how phasing worked (sinusoidal synchronization again), how a night transmitter had to address a dummy load before somebody manually switched from day to night power levels and directional arrays. After I learned to drive, my idea of a fun trip was to visit FM and TV transmitters on the tops of buildings and mountains. (Hell, I still do that.) Thus I came to understand skywaves and groundwaves, soil and salt water conductivity, ground systems, directional arrays and the inverse square law, all in the context of practical applications that required no shortage of engineering vernacular and black art.

I also obsessed on the reception end. In spite of living within sight of nearly every New York AM transmitter (WABC’s tower was close that we could hear its audio in our kitchen toaster), I logged more than 800 AM stations on my 40s-vintage Hammarlund HQ-129x receiver, which is still in storage at my sister’s place. That’s about 8 stations per channel. I came to understand how two-hop skywave reflection off the E layer of the ionosphere favored flat land or open water midway between transmission and reception points . This, I figured, is why I got KSL from Salt Lake City so well, but WOAI from San Antonio hardly at all. (Both were “clear channel” stations in the literal sense — nothing else in North America was on their channels at night, when the ionosphere becomes reflective of signals on the AM band.) Midpoint for the latter lay within the topographical corrugations of the southern Apalachians. Many years later I found this theory supported by listening in Hawaii to AM stations from Western North America, on an ordinary car radio. I’m still not sure why I found those skywave signals fading and distorting (from multiple reflections in the very uneven ionosphere) far less than those over land. I am sure, however, that most of this hardly matters at all to current RF and digital communication science. After I moved to North Carolina, I used Sporadic E reflections to log more than 1200 FM stations, mostly from 800 to 1200 miles away, plus nearly every Channel 3 and 6 (locally, 2,4 and 5 were occupied) in that same range. All those TV signals are now off the air. (Low-band VHF TV — channels 2 to 6 — are not used for digital signals in the U.S.) My knowledge of this old stuff is now mostly of nostalgia value; but seeking it has left me with a continuing curiosity about the physical world and our infrastructural additions to it. This is why much of what looks like photography is actually research. For example, this and this. What you’re looking at there are pictures taken in service to geology and archaeology.

(End of autobiographical digression.)

Speaking of which, I am also busy lately studying the history of copyright, royalties and the music business — mostly so ProjectVRM can avoid banging into any of those. This research amounts to legal and regulatory archaeology. Three preliminary findings stand out, and I would like to share them.

First, regulatory capture is real, and nearly impossible to escape. The best you can do is keep it from spreading. Most regulations protect last week from yesterday, and are driven by the last century’s leading industries. Little if any regulatory lawmaking by established industries — especially if they feel their revenue bases threatened, clears room for future development. Rather, it prevents future development, even for the threatened parties who might need it most. Thus the bulk of conversation and debate, even among the most progressive and original participants, takes place within the bounds of still-captive markets. This is why it is nearly impossible to talk about Net-supportive infrastructure development without employing the conceptual scaffolding of telecom and cablecom. We can rationalize this, for example, by saying that demand for telephone and cable (or satellite TV) services is real and persists, but the deeper and more important fact is that it is very difficult for any of us to exit the framing of those businesses and still make sense.

Second, infrastructure is plastic. The term “infrastructure” suggests physicality of the sturdiest kind, but in fact all of it is doomed to alteration, obsolescence and replacement. Some of it (Roman roads, for example) may last for centuries, but most of it is obsolete in a matter of decades, if not sooner. Consider over-the-air (OTA) TV. It is already a fossil. Numbered channels persist as station brands; but today very few of those stations transmit on their branded analog channels, and most of them are viewed over cable or satellite connections anyway. There are no reasons other than legacy regulatory ones to maintain the fiction that TV station locality is a matter of transmitter siting and signal range. Viewing of OTA TV signals is headed fast toward zero. It doesn’t help that digital signals play hard-to-get, and that the gear required for getting it sucks rocks. Nor does it help that cable and satellite providers that have gone out of their way to exclude OTA receiving circuitry from their latest gear, mostly force subscribing to channels that used to be free. As a result ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox and PBS are now a premium pay TV package. (For an example of how screwed this is, see here.) Among the biggest fossils are thousands of TV towers, some more than 2000 feet high, maintained to continue reifying the concept of “coverage,” and to legitimize “must carry” rules for cable. After live audio stream playing on mobile devices becomes cheap and easy, watch AM and FM radio transmission fossilize in exactly the same ways. (By the way, if you want to do something green and good for the environment, lobby for taking down some of these towers, which are expensive to maintain and hazards to anything that flies. Start with this list here. Note the “UHF/VHF transmission” column. Nearly all these towers were built for analog transmission and many are already abandoned. This one, for example.)

Third, “infrastructure” is a relatively new term and vaguely understood outside arcane uses within various industries. It drifted from military to everyday use in the 1970s, and is still not a field in itself. Try looking for an authoritative reference book on the general subject of infrastructure. There isn’t one. Yet digital technology requires that we challenge the physical anchoring of infrastructure as a concept. Are bits infrastructural? How about the means for arranging and moving them? The Internet (the most widespread means for moving bits) is defined fundamentally by its suite of protocols, not by the physical media over which data travels, even though there are capacity and performance dependencies on the latter. Again, we are in captured territory here. Only in conceptual jails can we sensibly debate whether something is an “information service” or a “telecommunication service”. And yet most of us who care about the internet and infrasructure do exactly that.

That last one is big. Maybe too big. I’ve written often about how hard it is to frame our understanding of the Net. Now I’m beginning to think we should admit that the Internet itself, as concept, is too limiting, and not much less antique than telecom or “power grid”.

“The Internet” is not a thing. It’s a finger pointing in the direction of a thing that isn’t. It is the name we give to the sense of place we get when we go “on” a mesh of unseen connections to interact with other entitites. Even the term “cloud“, labeling a utility data service, betrays the vagueness of our regard toward The Net.

I’ve been on the phone a lot lately with Erik Cecil, a veteran telecom attorney who has been thinking out loud about how networks are something other than the physical paths we reduce them to. He regards network mostly in its verb form: as what we do with our freedom — to enhance our intelligence, our wealth, our productivity, and the rest of what we do as contributors to civilization. To network we need technologies that enable what we do in maximal ways.  This, he says, requires that we re-think all our public utilities — energy, water, communications, transportation, military/security and law, to name a few — within the context of networking as something we do rather than something we have. (Think also of Jonathan Zittrain’s elevation of generativity as a supportive quality of open technology and standards. As verbs here, network and generate might not be too far apart.)

The social production side of this is well covered in Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, but the full challenge of what Erik talks about is to re-think all infrastructure outside all old boxes, including the one we call The Internet.

As we do that, it is essential that we look to employ the innovative capacities of businesses old and new. This is a hat tip in the general direction of ISPs, and to the concerns often expressed by Richard Bennett and Brett Glass: that new Internet regulation may already be antique and unnecessary, and that small ISPs (a WISP in Brett’s case) should be the best connections of high-minded thinkers like yours truly (and others named above) to the real world where rubber meets road.

There is a bigger picture here. We can’t have only some of us painting it.

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It’s been a long travel day, and we’ve got an hour to go before getting unstuck here in the Denver airport, which is in Nebraska, I think. Got an early flight out of Boston, then failed to get on by standby with two flights so far. But we’re reserved on the third, and due to arrive in Santa Barbara an hour and a quarter before tomorrow.

Anyway, my normally sunny mood, even in the midst of travel woes (one should appreciate the fact that commercial aviation involves sitting in a chair moving 500 miles an hour, seven miles up), was compromised earlier this evening by an unhappy exchange with Enterprise, the rental car company. I wrote about it in Unf*cking car rental, over in the ProjectVRM blog. It concludes constructively:

So I want to take this opportunity to appeal to anybody in a responsible position anywhere in the car rental business to work together with us at on a customer-based solution to this kind of automated lameness. It can’t be done from the inside alone. That’s been tried and proven inadequate for way too long. Leave a message below or write me at dsearls at cyber dot law dot harvard dot edu.

Let’s build The Intention Economy — based on real, existing, money-in-hand intentions of real customers, rather than the broken attention-seeking and customer-screwing system we have now.

There’s the bait. We’ll see if anybody takes it.

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