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From misapprehensions to alternatives

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There has been some confusion about the ‘Feeds Based VRM’, the Mine! and its provenance, possibly due to this post and this one. I’d like to put the record straight about where ‘Feeds Based VRM’ comes from and what the Mine! is and what it isn’t.

An earlier paper on ‘Feeds Based VRM’ has dealt with the data logistics using feeds mechanism. Althought it did not explore the Mine! in detail – that was done in a paper posted here last Sunday – it has always been predicated on the existence of something like the Mine!. The feeds approach has appealing simplicity and it has caught the attention of some who assumed it fits in with some of the existing approaches to VRM. To clarify, the ‘Feeds Based VRM’ is an alternative to identity based VRM, not an evolutionary step. This has led to some misapprehensions and the slides and diagrams drawing on the ‘Feeds Based VRM’ and the Mine! amount to running around with the bathwater, often without the baby. Before explaining in more detail, some definitions:

Having opened the user-centric can of worms by pitching the term against user-driven, a couple of other terms have sprung up, such as individual-driven and human centric. The first one misses the point that user and usage is a component of the design and the second is merely a variation on user-centric. Just replace ‘user‘ with ‘human‘ in user-centric sayz – we are going to build a system, put the user in the centre instead of the system to see what I mean. Same thing. A good test of user-driven is whether the user can add value to an application or the (by definition emergent) system itself.

John Dodds hits the nail on the head:

Sorry folks “individual” and “social identity” are pretty much useless because there are too many subjective definitions and associations pertaining to them out there. The strength of user-driven lies in the verb – there can be no doubt here, the user is in charge and actively driving and thus delineates it from user-centric and all the others. That is what you need a term to do.

User-driven has been coined to drive home my discomfort about the term user-centric. It is the user that adds value to the system, which then serves that user and other users. Think Twitter or BitTorrent – applications only as valuable as the user activity on them. The functionality provided depends entirely on whether people use it and more importantly how they use it. For example, Twitter’s reply functionality @USERNAME has come directly from users, they started doing it as part of conversations and Twitter turned it into a reply function.

A design principle for the Mine! applies here:

We are creating better tools for users, not trying to improve what they want to do; i.e. giving them better ways of doing what they are already doing. If we try to improve what they want to do, we are not doing our job – nifty technology is good but usage is even better.

When it comes to driving usage, scaling a network or relying on user-driven design, an important distinction between the primary and secondary objectives has to be made. There often is just one objective – either the benefit to the designer/developer of the application that flows from others using it; or some pre-defined result that benefits everybody but that will emerge only if many people use it towards that end.

Two types of objectives need to be present to foster a community or scale a network.

  • The primary, which taps into the user’s needs, objectives and convenience. Here the benefit to the user has to be immediate, the functionality delivering now.
  • The secondary, which motivates the application designer or the network builder who foresees future outcomes that may be desirable and emerge through users’ behaviour.

User-centric design often focuses on the secondary objective, with no or little attention given to the primary one. The result is often a range of applications or a system with no relevance or convenience to the user. This in turn breeds misconceptions about users and their motivations, habits, preferences, needs and levels of tolerance. I lost count of the number of times I heard some usability wonk or a UI design agency assert their conclusions about ‘users’, their wants and needs, without any first hand experience of how people behave and interact online, in the wild. If not for the open web and the ability of users to bypass the ‘professionals’ by building tools and applications for themselves, scratching their own itch, the system/human/user-centric designs would not be unravelling as they are today.

The Mine! is currently about the primary objectives, with occasional indulgent glimpses of the secondary ones. It needs to be ruthlessly modular:

We are not creating a tool/application/platform that can do everything for them, we are creating the best modular tools for specific functions and let the user put them together. In terms of a car, we build the engine but the user decides the shape, colour, number of doors, seats and, of course, how and where to drive it.

I can, and do, take educated guesses where all this might lead and what the emergent benefits will be (and will do so in the follow up paper on the Mine!’s applications), but that is a far cry from allowing functionality that is not essential to the user now to be hardwired into the Mine!. I want to see what the user does with it, what is useful and what has to change, what the user breaks and what empowers him more. That is why with regard to technical aspects, the Mine! will be an open source project with goals to

  1. invent as little as possible
  2. reuse only popular technologies, techniques and user-interface metaphors in order to enable VRM, and…
  3. provide maximal inclusiveness and extensibility to its implementation, to permit the greatest potential for growth.

My preference for minimalism and modularity aside, this is a practical consideration. The Mine! doesn’t need to spend years in standards committee (we are using Atom and HTTP) or in formats kerfuffles (we are addressing data logistics as we find it with the currently used formats).

Embedding various metadata into feeds is not the way we are going. Suggestions to add any metadata to feeds describing rights, access to objects etc have been and will be resisted for reasons of unnecessary complexity and tech bureaucracy. Such proposals are about attaching another object with metadata such as licenses or access rights to each object in the feed. So my wine feed – a photo of wine bottle, a review of bottle of wine, then another photo of wine bottle – would end up with more metadata objects dropped into it, each of them stipulating how a particular picture may be used e.g. the first one with creative commons license, the other all rights reserved etc. In the end, every object in the feed would require some more metadata objects, amounting to many months in standards committee deciding what format(s) this will be in.

In my view, this is not the web way of doing as it involves invention of and obsession over creating new XML objects. There are simpler ways of achieving this, if and when such metadata is required by users. The non-committee way is simply here’s is a URL of my feed of objects, one that is personalised for you. The first time you access it, you’ll be required to click a button saying “everything I retrieve through the feed will be creative commons license”. Simple, really.

I, for one, want to use the Mine! as soon as possible, for my own purposes. And if there are others who will find it similarly useful, they will be the ‘adoption’ curve. Standards and formats will come back to haunt us but no need to court them before usage.

Now back to the ‘drawing’ board – last week I came across a drawing based on incomplete understanding of the Mine! and ‘Feeds based VRM’. It prompted me to further differentiation between that view and what I am actually working on.

The Mine! is not merely a personal data store – it is a structural element on the web that meets four requirements:

  1. take charge of my data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge),

  2. arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to my needs and preferences and
  3. share it on my own terms
  4. whilst connected and networked on the web.

This does not happen by the Mine! being a database or a data store, however personal. Store implies passive and static, with some distribution via feeds, whereas one of the major elements of the Mine! is equipping individuals with analytical and other tools to help them understand themselves better and give them an online spring board to relationships with others (in VRM context this includes vendors).

The personal data store implies that there is no other reason to be using it other than to slave yourself to someone’s CRM system. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the graphic and the approach it illustrates – it treats people’s Mines! like a back-end to vendors’ CRM systems. It does not capture using the Mine! to manage relationships – see the reference to ‘User Accounts Records‘ which in no sense reflects the customer being in control of their own data.

It is a good example of a user-centric or human-centred approach, but certainly not user-driven. The purpose of the Mine! is not only to put the individual in the centre and align the vendors around him. That is a far more gargantuan effort than what the Mine! is designed to do as the vendors have very little motivation to do that in ways that are useful to the individual. The idea behind the Mine! is to give the individual ability to become the authoritative source of information about him by handling the living breathing data as they go about their life. Taking just the feeds and not groking the autonomous space for my data is like looking at a vast landscape through a key hole, not bothering to open the door.

So once more, with feeling – the feeds and the Mine! feed technology are a subset of the Mine!, which has been conceived as an alternative way to provide data logistics for the individual on the web, one with a higher degree of autonomy and control over one’s preferences that is possible now. It originates from the social web, not from the identity space or any other area. It is a platform for the individual, with the aim to shift the balance of power between individual and platoform (or customers and vendors or other types of locked see-saw). It aspires to be an infrastructure for other solutions but it is not and should not be defined in terms of any of those solutions – identity, VRM, authentication, data portability and hopefully many more. A collection or selection of those solutions can be used as use-cases and that is what the Mine! community is working on.

For the moment, the Mine! prototype is being build according to the concepts described in the paper, (functionality designed by me, with coding by Alec). It is aimed at other hackers who appreciate the non-trivial distinctions that I have laid out and might want to join the open source project to improve it. Those who want to know more feel free to contact me directly via email on this blog. I also organise regular monthly VRM Hub meetings in London where we often discuss the Mine!.

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3 Responses to “From misapprehensions to alternatives”

  1. Trying to get to grips with VRM — 03.01.76
    on May 20th, 2008
    @ 7:12 am

    [...] here it gets pretty technical. A lot of ideas are floating around, but thankfully there are good people, who try to help one sorting everything out. So I’m still an optimist as to one day finally getting [...]

  2. Radovan Semancik
    on May 20th, 2008
    @ 8:45 am

    What you are describing here is an evolutionary approach to software development. Often represented in a form of agile or extreme programming. The problem of all the evolutionary approaches are local maximums. Evolutionary approaches tend to stagnate in the “equilibrium” of the local maximum – unless a mutation is present. And evolution is often slow at satisfying the real needs of the people. Therefore your design will probably work and maybe it will be commercially successful, but it will be far from perfect. Please have a look what kind of beast OpenID guys created to have an idea what I’m talking about.

    … and beware of the disruptive technologies.

    But to be a bit more specific with your proposal, I think you have swapped primary and secondary goals. Long-term solution should be primary goal and migration path should be secondary. The fact that they needs to be executed in the reverse order is not important here.

  3. The Mine! project » What Mine! is not
    on Nov 7th, 2008
    @ 14:55 pm

    [...] my previous writings about Mine! Store implies passive and static, with some distribution via feeds, whereas one of the major [...]

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