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An IT Conversations interview on Framing the Net. At eComm 2009.

On how free customers are more better than captive ones. At The Ideas Project. I spoke in closer to final draft than usual here. A transcript. Some samples:

  • What we’ve had since companies won the Industrial Revolution is the belief that a captive customer is more valuable than a free one. We never knew what a free customer was. We never encountered one. The Internet makes that possible; the Internet sets customers free. Free customers are far more capable of providing intelligence to companies than captive ones are.
  • …’free range’ customers are going to be coming at companies, telling them things that the old dairy-system cattle chutes never allowed customers to say before. That’s going to be good for companies; it’s going to be good for CRM systems…
  • …it would be really great if we had our own terms of service. When you walk into a store, you have great terms of service. You look like a good customer; you’re wearing a blazer. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing jeans; you might actually buy something. They don’t want your identity. They don’t want you to become a member, or anything else like that, in order to spend your money and be a loyal customer. In fact, you’re more likely to be a loyal customer if they don’t interrogate you and make things difficult for you. The way CRM systems tend to work, especially online; they want to scrape up as much data about you so they can spam you later with guesswork about what you might want. It’s almost always annoying, and give you surveys which are almost always a bad guess at what you want.
  • VRM, which is vendor relationship management, (is) the reciprocal of customer relationship management. It’s where the customer controls their information. We become, as a customer, the integration point for our own data, our transaction histories, our credit histories, our preferences, and then the origination point for the way those are used.
  • Advertising is fundamentally flawed. It’s flawed because it’s guesswork. It’s flawed because it’s monologue. It’s flawed because the systems in place are predicated on a whole bunch of assumptions that elevate guesswork to an art. In the meantime, the customers are out there with actual demand, money on the table, ready to buy, for something.

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I’m listening right now to On Point*, where the topic is Pushing E-Health Records. The only case against electronic health records (EHR, aka electronic medical recordsk, or EMR) is risk of compromised privacy. Exposure goes up. The friction involved in grabbing electronic medical records is lower than that involved in grabbing paper ones, especially with the Internet connecting damn near everything.

Here’s the problem with privacy in the Internet Age (which we are now in, with no hope of ever getting out, unless we live the connectionless life): the Net is a big copy machine. It’s amazing how a fact so simple escapes attention until a first-rate metaphorist such as Kevin Kelly comes along to expound on what ought to be obvious:

The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.

Our digital communication network has been engineered so that copies flow with as little friction as possible. Indeed, copies flow so freely we could think of the internet as a super-distribution system, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. We see evidence of this in real life. Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can’t erase something once it’s flowed on the internet.

We’re not going to fix that. The copying nature of the Net is a feature, not a bug. We can fight some of it with crypto between trusting parties. But until we find ways to make that easy, the exposure is there. And, as long as it is, we’re going to have people who say risk of exposure overrides other concerns, such as the fact that dozens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone die every year of bad health care record keeping and communications — in other words, of bad data.

Still, if we want good medical care, we need EHR. That much is plain. The question is, How?

The answer will not be an information silo, or a set of silos. We have too many of those already. That’s the problem we have now — both on paper and in electronic formats (as I discovered last year in one of my own medical adventures).

The patient needs to be the point of integration for his or her own data, and the point of origination about what gets done with it. Even if the patient’s primary care physician serves as a trusted originator of medical decisions, the patient needs to anchor the vector of his or her own care, for the simple reason that the patient is the one constant as he or she moves through various medical specialties and systems.

The patient needs to be the platform. Not Google, or Microsoft, or your HMO, or the VA, or some kieretsu involving Big Pharma, Big Software Companies and Big Equipment Makers.

This requires classic VRM: tools of independence and engagement. That is, tools that enable the patient to be independent of any health care provider, yet better able to engage any provider.

In other words, while the answer needs to be systematic, it does not need to be A Big System (which I fear both BigCos and BigGovs whish to provide).

The answer needs to come from geeks who know how to eliminate big problems with simple solutions. For example,

  • Consider how the Internet Protocol solved the problem of multiple networks that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how email protocols such as SMTP, POP3 and IMAP solved the problem of multiple email systems that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how the XMPP protocol solves the problem of multiple instant messaging systems that don’t get along.

We need new ways of organizing our own health care data, and communicating that data selectively to trusted health care providers through open and standard protocols (that may or may not already exist… I don’t know).

I wanted to get those thoughts down because there’s a bunch of stuff going on around health care right now (including two conferences in Boston), detailed to some degree in Health Care Relationship Management, over at the ProjectVRM blog.

* On WBUR, a Boston station I pick up here in Santa Barbara over my Public Radio Tuner.

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We’re a little more than a month away from The first ProjectVRM West Coast Workshop. It will will take place on Friday-Saturday 15-16 May, 2009 in Palo Alto. Graciously providing space is SAP Labs which is a beautiful facility at 1410 Hillview Street in Palo Alto. That’s up in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay. (With plenty of parking too.)

It’s free. Sign up here.

The event will go from 9am to roughly 5pm on both days, and come just ahead of the Internet Identity Workshop (IIW2009a), down the hill in Mountain View, at the Computer History Museum. If things go the way they have for the last couple years, VRM conversation and sessions will continue at the IIW.

The tags are vrm2009 and vrm2009a.

As with earlier VRM gatherings, the purpose of the workshop is to bring people together and make progress on any number of VRM topics and projects. The workshop will be run as an “unconference” on the open space model, which means session topics will be chosen by participants. Here is the Wikipedia page on open space. In open space there are no speakers or panels — just participants, gathered to get work done and enjoy doing it. VRM Workshop 2009 wiki is now set up and ready for more detailing.

Our previous workshop was held last summer at Harvard Law School. Here’s the wiki for that. Here are some pictures as well. Those give a good sense of how things will go.

(This is cross-posted from the ProjectVRM Blog.)

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Over the last several days I’ve been writing VRM and the Four Party System. Also illustrating it, with much help from graphics courtesy of Hugh McLeod). I’ll let the piece speak for itself. Right now I need to hit the sack.

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One of the geeks here at the Berkman Center walked into a room recently and started poking his index finger down on a newspaper that was laying on the table, as if expecting it to do something electronic. “This isn’t working,” he said.

So true, in so many ways.

Take for example the Boston Globe, New England’s landmark newspaper, and one to which we have subscribed since we got here in 2007. Like nearly all newspapers, the Globe is in Big Trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph from today’s bad news story:

The New York Times Co., which has threatened to shutter The Boston Globe, is seeking deep concessions from the Globe’s largest union that could include pay cuts of up to 20 percent, the elimination of seniority rules and lifetime job guarantees, and millions of dollars in cuts in company contributions to retirement and healthcare plans.

The Times may own the Globe in a legal sense, but in a much broader way the Globe also belongs to the people of Boston and New England. Everybody in New England benefits from the Globe, even if they don’t read or subscribe to it. It was in this sense that Scott Lehigh‘s column yesterday was titled, Readers, have a say in saving your paper. Here’s the long gist:

We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model. Troubled times have sent advertising revenues plummeting. Meanwhile, we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense – the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.

…I also doubt we’ll be able to maintain the kind of quality newspaper and website readers expect unless we start charging online visitors who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Newspapers, eyeing several earlier failed experiments, including one by the New York Times, are skittish. That approach has worked for the Wall Street Journal, however. And as someone long wary about giving away our product on the Web even as we sell it in print, I think it’s time to try.

So back to my question: What does the Globe mean to you?

Would you pay to read the paper online? Seven-day home delivery currently costs $9.25 a week in the Boston area. Would it be worth $10 or $12 a month to read Globe content on Boston.com? Another idea under discussion in the news industry is micropayments. You’d give a credit card number once, and then be charged a small amount – a nickel, say – for each story you clicked on. Which would you prefer, a subscription or micropayments?

Some think charging for Web content will only deter readers, while keeping links to our website from appearing on other sites. Any payment system must be voluntary, they say. I’m dubious. But tell me, if we nagged you incessantly – ah, make that, politely prompted you at frequent intervals – would you make a voluntary payment of some sort?

Finally, can you think of better ways to have online readers pay for Globe offerings?

Yes, I can. It’s the fifth item in the series of posts below:

  1. Newspapers 2.0 (October 5, 2006)
  2. Still at Newspapers 1.x (August 15, 2007)
  3. Toward a new ecology of journalism (September 12, 2007)
  4. Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. (September 19, 2007)
  5. PayChoice: a new business model for newspapers (February 5, 2009)

PayChoice (later re-named EmanciPay) will be an easy way for listeners to pay stations for public radio programming. It is in the early stages of development, aimed toward appearing later this year in the Public Radio Tuner on iPhones. At last report, downloads of the tuner were moving past 1.5 million, so far.

We could do PayChoice for newspapers as well.

Informing PayChoice on the Public Radio Tuner will be a Listen Log, which is one form of Media Logging. We can do a Read Log as well, at least for the electronic versions of newspapers. Among the many things I’d like the log to perform is what I call ascribenation. That is, the ability to ascribe credit to sources — and to pay them as well. Among other things, this addresses the Associated Press’ concerns about ‘misappropriation’ of its role as the first source for many stories for which it goes uncredited.

Jon Garfunkel also has a good idea worth considering. It’s called PaperTrust.

The bottom line here is that a lot of good people are working on solutions. These solutions are not the same old stuff in new wrappers. They’re original ideas, some of which the papers will have no control over.

But they can help. They can tune in to tech development efforts like the ones I descibe here, and welcome their geeks’ participation in them. They can write and post linky text. (The Globe is better than some in this respect, but still link-averse on the whole.) They can finish following the other recommendations they’ll find here (the first of which isn’t too far from what Scott would like to do).

And, it might still be impossible to save the paper.

The question comes down to living without advertising. Can it be done? If so, how? I guarantee that the answer to those questions will come from the outside. From geeks, mostly.

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Hanging in The Cities on (what wants to be) a Spring Day (a little snow still on the ground), talking deep blogging trash with Sharon Franquemont and Mary Jo Kreitzer. They’re both new to the practice (which isn’t quite a discipline, at least in my case). So bear with me as I show off some stuff.

For example, I just looked up personal health records on Google. As it happens, I already had Greasemonkey and the twitter search script installed. Thanks to that neat little hack, a pile of Twitter search results from the live web appears at the top of a Google search. Here’s a screen shot:

Note that among the Twitter results is one from adriana872, who is none other than my good friend Adriana Lukas, who I see also has a tweet that says “targetted advertising is visual spam”. Which resonates with me totally, of course. She links to her own post on the subject, which sources this post by Brian Micklethwait.

Which is all cool and conversation-inducing as well as expertise-spreading and authority-building and stuff like that. (Remember I’m showing how to blog here. Bear with me.)

I’ll also tag the shit out of all the above. Not sure if the tags appear here (I blog in too many places and I forget), but they exist.

I also just tweeted this post, with a #blogging hashtag, and instantly, we get this:

The Live Web indeed.

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The Internet Identity Workshop , aka IIW, started as the Identity Gang way back in ’05, and has since grown (thanks more to Kaliya and Phil than to yours truly) to become a fixture event in the calendars of many developers and other folks supportive of development work toward working user-driven identity systems. (These today include…

(That’s somewhat abbreviated from the list here.)

What’s cool about IIW is that we have a large bunch of individuals and outfits working in converging directions, creating and/or mashing up solutions to problems faced by individuals needing to control and assert their identity information in the digital world. For all the activity going on here, the whole field is still brand new, with lots of work left to be done before it’s ready for Prime Time, which has been going on in any case since the commercial Web was born 1.5 decades ago. More importantly, much effort is made by everybody involved not to foreclose progress or lock out other solutions where development vectors converge or cross. it’s the only thing like it I know.

What also rocks is that progress happens at every single IIW, sometimes a great deal of it. The whole thing is about doing. We have participants, not just attendees.

There is, however, urgency. Making sure we get our usual space at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View depends on getting enough registrants today.

Do that here.

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Some do. My long-time favorite magazine is The Sun. I bought one of the first issues Sy Safransky sold on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, in 1974, and found myself writing regularly for the magazine for several years after that, watching it improve with every issue.

Back near the turn of the 80s, Sy and his staff decided to improve the magazine by getting rid of advertising. They did that by becoming a non-profit; but that was secondary to the main purpose, which was to become an instrument for readers and writers, and not of one for advertisers. In other words, advertising was beside the magazine’s journalistic points. The Sun publishes for readers, and readers pay the magazine for good writing. Not surprisingly, The Sun’s subscribers are highly involved, contributing an abundance of letters, plus my favorite section: Readers Write (on a different topic every month).

My point is that it’s possible to have an excellent journal that lives on subscriptions, which are a value-for-value exachange. In the VRM community we propose another: PayChoice, which I wrote about in my last post. The idea here is for readers (or listeners, or viewers) to pay any amount for anything they like. The price is not under the seller’s control. Nor are other forms of signalling by the customer.

Direct support from readers (or listeners, or viewers) matters more and more for media where advertising contributes less and less. I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I contemplate a world with fewer (or no) newspapers and many fewer magazines.

Both newspapers and magazines have been supported in most cases primarily by advertising and secondarily by subscriptions. When print publications need to cut overhead, it’s the writers who get cut. Sometimes whole sections go away. The Boston Globe killed its Northwest section last week. Far as the Globe is concerned, where we live is now West. And how long will that last?

I pay the same for the Globe every week, but they deliver less and less, because their advertisers are buying less and less space. Yet I don’t read the Globe for the ads. I read it for the writing, the editorial content. Would I pay more, to take up the slack? Or would I look for the Globe to cut overhead other than just editorial? The latter, I would think. Still, either way, I’m a paying customer.

As a paying customer with an interest in seeing the Globe survive, I would like to know what the costs of producing the paper itself are. What are the costs of printing and distributing the paper? And what are the costs just of editorial? Never mind advertising for a minute, and what it buys. Just tell me what it costs to support the editorial staff, and to put the paper up online.

What would I have to pay if there were no advertising?

I’d ask the same of magazines.

Just fact-seeking here.

Where I’m going is toward where The Sun is today. I’d like to help publications survive by subscriptions and other forms of direct payment, rather than by advertising.

I’m not against advertising here. I’m just trying to pull the topics apart so they’re easier to discuss.

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I’m pretty good at getting buzz when I want it. The irony of running ProjectVRM, however, is that I don’t want much of that. Not yet, anyway. About a year ago I did promote it a bit, got a lot of great response, and also spent a lot of time debugging bad understandings of what VRM is and what’s going on with it.

Since then I’ve kept a pretty low profile with it, and encouraged others to do the same. That way we get fewer people showing up, but a better chance that they’re the right people.

But still, the buzz is out there. And, since it’s a new and as yet unproven idea, it attracts detractors as well. Here’s one that lays out “four fallacies” of VRM, all based on wrong understandings of what it is, and what its roles will be. So, I just tried to debug those understandings with this post here.

As I said there, I urge folks to hold off on their judgement until we’ve got working code and actual stuff that does what VRM is supposed to do. Trust me, it’ll come.


Over at the ProjectVRM blog, two posts: Who in CRM 2.0 will help VRM 0.1? and What’s completely screwed about this picture?

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