Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Quote to remember

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When you take an idea or a concept and turn it into an abstraction, that opens the way to take human beings and turn them, also, into abstractions.
- Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel

Cognitive surplus

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… of human creativity that for the last 50 years or so has been sucked out by TV and other cognitive heatsinks. Clay Shirky as always – making sense on stilts. Watch to hear how the Victorians got through industrialisation and the shock of it with the help of.. gin. More importantly, he addresses the stupid question I hear so often from those who don’t have a clue about what the online world is like and what drives people in it – “Where do people find the time?!” It is a variation on too much information and I have fought on that front for a while.

The answer Clay gives is that as options to TV and other passive engagements emerge, people switch away to participate and create. He argues that with the web we start to see cognitive surplus as an asset (creativy, innovation and participation) instead of something to be dissipated. I believe he is right, let’s hope our faith in humanity is vindicated. :)

The money quote: Here is what a four year old knows – a screen that ships without a mouse, ships broken. Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for!
. Amen, brother.

via Johnnie

Here is Clay’s post based on his talk.

On data shadows and giving up control

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Bruce Schneier on what keeps me awake these days.

In the information age, we all have a data shadow.

What happens to our data happens to ourselves.

Who controls our data controls our lives.

We need to take back our data.

This is a tall order, and it will take years for us to get there. It’s easy to do nothing and let the market take over. But as we see with things like grocery store club cards and click-through privacy policies on websites, most people either don’t realize the extent their privacy is being violated or don’t have any real choice. And businesses, of course, are more than happy to collect, buy, and sell our most intimate information. But the long-term effects of this on society are toxic; we give up control of ourselves.

This is why I want the Mine! and why I have designed it as a place where you can reclaim your data, without abandoning the goodness of connectivity and benefits of the network. As I keep saying in my email signature: The network is always stronger than the node… but a network starts with a node.

The individual needs to be stronger, more in charge of their domain. I believe that will improve relationships and transactions with others as well as bring benefits to the whole network.

Models of data imprisonment

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I have been thinking about my data and online data logistics a lot these days in connection with VRM infrastructure as I have been working on (Mine!). As an individual my relationship to my data can be described in matrix of several types of imprisonment. I am interested in building an option where this is not the case.

jail_behind_bars.jpgJail with visiting rights – closed platform a la Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Flickr, Amazon, Expedia, online bank statements and any site that doesn’t allow export of data in interoperable format. My data is under lock and key elsewhere, and I cannot get more than a view of it through the bars of the jail. For instance I would manually enter my profile or other data into a Facebook applications (and now a few ‘trusted parties’), but there is little or no hope that I could get the data back out again, other to save the JPEGs of the resulting output (screen grabs) – which decimate rather than reflect the value of the original input. Further, my data starts losing weight, as any inmate locked up. As the original data is never at my beckoning, only its representation is what I can play with.

housearrest.jpgHouse arrest – desktop applications for data management, iTunes, Excel spreadsheet, word processing, etc. Example, my music (ripped not bought from iTunes store) is my data is on my computer in a format that is hard to share with anyone. The software is not designed to enable sharing of data – the net result is my data is nominally under my control, but it is just as locked up as Facebook. (No export or no guarantee that exported data is in a mashable format)

open_prison.jpgOpen prison – online data management tools, Wesabe, uploading from iPhoto or Picasa to This means I can share (better than house arrest) but the data is centralised a little like Facebook (almost as bad as jail with visiting rights) and although the rendering tools are more advanced and, being centralised, can be upgraded without user intervention, there is still a big similarity to glimpsing my data which is held within the jail.

out_on_bail.jpgOut on bail – feed readers and online calendars, e.g. OPML, Google Calendar, iCal. The data is more or less yours and mostly under your control for export, import and sharing. But it can’t travel far and there is only so much you can do with it. It certainly can’t be mashed up with data in other formats or on other topics than calendar or feeds. (Dopplr lets you go furthest in combining calendar, Flickr and map data etc).

out_of_jail2.jpgOut of jail – I hold my data on (explicitly) my resource for sharing; I can share my data beyond just what Flickr, etc provide as a tool to render my data, and in more places than just those platforms – for instance with a supermarket or gym or others (vendor?) who could benefit from knowing what I am eating and when I am exercising. In short: the Mine! enables controlled sharing beyond the Mine!’s own rendering itself. The bars are removed and your data can go where you desire it to.

dance_prison_parade.jpgHm, to push the analogy further, doesn’t that make Plaxo Pulse, Friendfeed and other such aggregators a prison parade? :)

In case I haven’t made it clear enough, I want my data out of jail. By that I mean being able to exist online with four requirements met: take charge of my data (content, relationships, transactions, knowledge), arrange (analyse, manipulate, combine, mash-up) it according to my needs and preferences and share it on my own terms whilst connected and networked on the web. That is what the Mine! is designed for.

Two tales of user-centricities

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I get edgy when I hear people talk about being user-centric. I once fell for it, thinking that they saw users’ wants as their starting point. Well, user-centric is an improvement on the system-centric approach where the top-down design forces users into a slot of whatever is built, no matter whether it works well or not. (Hence the phrase user-friendly applies mostly to things not designed for the user. I don’t talk about as being user-friendly, because its simplicity and functionality allows the user to drive the use, not the designer.)

User-centric says – ‘we are going to build a system, put the user in the centre instead of the system’. So far, so good, but this sits uncomfortably with me as a user especially as one that is used to the online tools that have changed many an old way. The tools – blogs, wikis, feeds and feed readers, BitTorrent, Flickr, Dopplr, Twitter etc – are revolutionary not just because of their functionality, bits of code or their interface, but their design for usefulness, their modularity and constant evolution. There is an element of open-endedness in their design, either accidental or deliberate, recognising that the designers cannot foresee all the uses to which people will put the tools to. The simplicity is the key, the complexity coming from usage rather than the design. In other words, they are user-driven.

A simple test of user-driven design is in the answer to a question – Can the user add value to it? Without users would pointless, BitTorrent empty and Flickr dead, Twitter silent.

Last year at the IIW in Mountain View, I got talking to Bob Frankston about the difference I started to see between the user-centric and user-driven. Bob, in his inimitable fashion, used the tuna salad we were having for lunch during the conversation to coin an analogy. A ready-made tuna salad is user-centric – it has been decided what goes into it, in what proportions and what order. It has been designed around me and for me but I cannot add anything to it.

Giving me ingredients, utensils and a recipe suggestion and letting me get on with it, leads to user-driven design- it can still be meant to become a tuna salad but I get to put it together, determine the proportions, skip or add ingredients. The process is driven by me and the experience makes me (hopefully) better at making the dish.


Of course, there are times for user-centric and there are times for user-driven. Not everyone wants to make everything themselves and neither is it the best or most effective way to design all systems or tools. But there are cases when only user-driven will do. And VRM is one of them.

Bringing identity home

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Identity is one of those elusive concepts that underpin several important debates. It appears to me that identity can be tied to a systemic view or an individual view. The former is the provenance of centralised systems and intrusive governments, the latter usually confined to the realms of philosophy or psychology. I’d argue that individual focus plays an increasingly important role in the online world as individuals drive their own identity. My aim (in working on the VRM project) is to find ways to equip them with better tools to continue to do so in all areas of their life, if they choose so.

Offline, we have the crowd who argue about identity in the political sphere, where the debate is really about privacy, rights of the individual, the relationship between the state and its citizens, efficacy of various methods of authentication and security implications. This involves fighting the Big and Bureaucratic Brother in all his shapes and guises, and his equally overbearing cousin the national database or register.

Online, we have the identity gangs within Identity Commons, Identity 2.0 and other identity related projects. Let’s look at Dick’s articulate case for digital identity, Identity 2.0. Without going into too much details, I believe the objective is to mimic the modern identity that revolves around photo IDs (passport, driving license, student card etc) in our online identity transactions. In other words, to enable the user to have the kinds of benefit in the online environment that identity management affords us in the offline world. The requirements for that are scalability of trust, privacy, re-usability, less fragmented identity, convenient ways of accessing and managing one’s identity, secure and private handling of sensitive or private information. For example, the same way your driving license proves your age and allows you to buy alcohol legally, Identity 2.0 is about you being able to prove claims relevant to your online transactions. On another level it is making it more convenient to manage what is currently an ‘identity’ scattered across the net – the ubiquitous logins with passwords, one for every time you deal with someone who created a platform to a) interact or transact with them and b) offer some functionality/capability in exchange for your data. The requirements for that is to be simple & open.

This is all good, as Doc is fond of saying, but this is not the kind of identity I had in mind when thinking about where to start with VRM and how identity relates to it.

According to Dick Hardt identity is what I say about me and what others say about me. The latter being more trustworthy, it makes sense to identify myself through referring to someone who can corroborate what I say. I am therefore defined by external, verifiable and validated statements, facts and information – identifiers. Dick defines his identity as consisting roughly of address, date of birth, URLs of blogs he writes, emails he uses, phone numbers, banks, airlines, clothes and car brands he uses, books, movies and magazines he likes.

These are all shortcuts to what constitutes Dick Hardt as a person, they put his identity in a recognisable frame of reference and allow him to participate in identity transactions.

In the offline world identity is really third-party driven, to put it crudely, we are what our papers say we are. Your birth certificate attests to your date of birth, your utility bills to your residence, your diploma to your education etc etc. It has been so because our identity management has had several fundamental features – it is centralised, system-centric and it is read-only. We are used to deriving our authority and credibility from a system that grants and confirms it. It is important that we can do that as the only way we can transact in a hierarchical environment is via authorisation from the level above us. (a definition of hierarchy is that in order to interact with somebody on the same level I have to go via a superior level).

Whatever the web turns out to be, it is not a hierarchy. It is a network, i.e. a heterarchy, a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role. This has impact on how my identity is defined and who defines it. From blogs to social network profiles, people are learning how to define their thoughts and ideas, record their lives in multimedia formats, share their experiences, swarm around causes and defy companies, institutions and authorities. From linky love to P2P, they are bypassing traditional media and distribution channels, learning the ways of direct connections.

People online build and destroy reputations, create and squander careers, establish themselves as experts or celebrities. That’s the bird’s eye view. The closer look reveals emergence of self-defined (and self-driven) identities. By writing I learn to articulate my thoughts better, by sharing I learn to differentiate from, as well as identify with, others. I become aware of myself and my preferences in ways that in the times before the web were available to a select few – writers, artists, politicians and the more articulate celebrities. We have ways of connecting with others who become validators and authenticators of our self-defined and persistent identities. The challenge is to understand and find how to evolve and use those for other than communication and information transactions.

And yet, instead we build platforms – vestiges of offline identity – third-party defined spaces designed to ‘contain’ bits of your identity. They clash with my ability as an individual to define and drive my identity. Over time I learn to manage who I am and as more tools and networks emerge my fractured existence, scattered across others’ silos becomes more obvious. The silos are a result of various platforms vying for my data, offering bits and pieces of functionality that I find useful and empowering. It got me where I am now as an ‘empowered’ individual. However, a picture of fractured identity emerges.


Centralised database(s) of identity information and its verification, authentication etc is based on a hierarchy mindset. In a heterarchy, each node is self-defined first and then defined by its relationships. I want to have an identity that evolves and exists in a network, i.e. a structural heterarchy. Why not start by ‘defragging’ identity by outsourcing its definition to individuals as they are capable of creating much richer identities than any system.

identity_shadow_sml.jpgTo my amazement I often see logins and passwords to various sites and platforms described as “identity”. I don’t think of them as my identity, but as things that I currently need to access bits of my scattered identity, at best they are my meta-identity. (Btw, by self-defined identity I am not referring to self-asserted identity which still relates to identifiers of the kind I’d call meta-identity. I am looking for ways of establishing identifiers that are part emergent, part validated by relationships rather than by a systemic-level third parties designed to do that. Let’s not have a ‘centralised’ trust, let’s have distributed one.)

What I want is option (with set of tools) for individuals taking charge of their identities.* And on the web that starts with exercising sovereignty over my data. This alternative must be networked and not third party dependent or platform based. As I have said before, there are only two ‘natural’ online platforms – the individual and the web.

But what about authentications and authorisations that are needed for transactions, aside from all the fluffy social empowering self-publishing identity utopia? …I hear you cry. As is often the case on the web, there may be other ways to skin the authentication cat than using identity. The key is in realising that authorisation and identity are related but separate.

Authentication is the act of establishing an identity – this is separate from the existing identity approach where the focus is on collection and disbursement of bits of data to do with someone. The cheap and cheerful explanation of this is that you can authenticate with a password (i.e. something that only you know). However, that password need not reveal anything about you/your identity. It just reveals that you are someone who knows the password. Therefore, authentication is free to be separate from identity. They are in separate but related domains. Have I mentioned that they are separate?

I owe this point to Alec who explains:

Traditionally authentication is one-or-more of three things.

  1. something you KNOW, e.g, you KNOW the password
  2. something you HAVE, e.g, you HAVE the door key,
  3. something you ARE, e.g, you ARE a 4-star general on an army base
  4. The latter tends to be a bit weak, as authentication goes, in my experience it is prone to social hacking. Good authentication might be combining something like: KNOWING the password that UNLOCKS the certificate that you HAVE on the laptop, that permits a remote website to challenge you and get the response it expects, since it KNOWS that you have your certificate on your laptop…

In short, let me have a go at my identity myself, on my own terms, the web way, without intermediaries, ‘trusted’ parties and hierarchical non-direct ways. Locking me into new ‘better’ platforms, offering ’services’ to manage my meta-identity is like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Instead, give me tools, flexible and modular, to reclaim my digital personae, help me piece together my fractured identity. And then allow me to drive it forward with all of the benefits that it can bring me and to those I interact and transact with. Learn to live with the unpredictability and emergent juicy goodness that comes from my independence and lack of your control over me. Finally, let me learn from my mistakes, my first uncertain steps with my data sovereignty. Without those how can I ever learn to fully value privacy, security and engage in mutually beneficial interactions?

*I plan to cover this in more detail in the upcoming white paper on the infrastructural level elements (the Mine! and FeedMe) that enable people to reclaim their data, manage and share them on their own terms whilst being connected, networked and part of the web.

What’s in a social network? A Facebook by any other name would be as useless… discuss

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A friend shared with me a link to this article about how pointless Facebook is.. and while we are at it the whole social networks malarky etc etc…despairing how some people around her are taking refuge, er, applauding wisdom contained within.

I am not an indiscriminate fan of social networks and some of Fabrizio’s gripes have a point especially the one about privacy… although he does come across as an old cranky, dare I say it, web-o-phobe. His objections against Facebook and social networks are not entirely unreasonable and from a personal perspective justified. I would just add that if others subscribe to them too enthusiastically, without further thought, I fear it says more about them, than the nature of social networking. So let’s have that further thought, shall we?

1. The whole thing of social networking is mere bullshit to me.

I would agree that Facebook is pretty pointless in terms of its applications and overall usefulness for a blogger geek like me is zero. However, that is a far cry from social networking being mere bullshit. It is a phenomenon that is worth noting and dismissing it will make you only more ignorant of what is truly happening.

Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems kind of pointless unless you know that it is just learning and practising. Facebook and MySpace seems a lot like that to me. But once people work out how to drive, how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to point B, they will be able to decide what the B is and get around on their own. And that’s when the real fun starts.

2. It’s not the right way to communicate with my friends.

Again, half-right. Just because face to face is still hard to beat, doesn’t mean other ways of communicating are not useful or often better in some contexts, e.g. writing a book is a much better way of communicating one’s ideas, theory or sum of knowledge, then a series of chats in a bar… although it is usually a good start. I am a big advocate of online communications because it enables people to define their thoughts in ways they rarely get to do in an offline social context.

That said, Facebook is not an ideal place for that but it helps people to piece together a record of their life. Self-selected and therefore some might say ‘manipulated’ but as I am keen on people to learn about themselves and their identity, I see it as a feature not a bug. There is a post to be written about a stage when people discover that being themselves brings greater rewards than manipulation of their image, but that’s for another time.

Also, social networks are not pointless for communication with friends, if hardly of much use for early bloggers. It is great to find a long lost friend, knowing they exist is better than losing contact with them forever. And a phone is definitely not the best way of communicating either! Social networks enable one-to-many communication for individuals – unheard of before the age of the web unless you were a politician or an author or a celebrity – in short, had some sort of institutional backing whether politics or the media. I can communicate efficiently and persistently with people in my contact list and let them expand on that communication if they are interested.

The main issue I have about the statement that it’s not the right way to communicate with one’s friends is the subsequent presumption that a phone call or a chat in a bar are the right ways. Since that is the only ‘human’ ways people communicate?! What about the wonderful tradition of letter-writing? Is that not a worthwhile communication with a friend even thought it’s not in a bar or over the phone? This goes deeper to the nature and diversity of communication, which makes such utterances short-sighted or blinkered (check the appropriate box). Stinks of an old fart, if you pardon the pun.

There is no reason why we can’t develop ‘human’ dimension in our communications online equivalent to the meeting of minds we experience in human contact offline. Not much to do with social networks as such, see my point about ‘learning how to drive’ above. The way to get there is to differentiate carefully and correctly – and this is going to take some time methinks – between what bits can and should be automated, what bits can and shouldn’t be automated and which bits we have been forcing technology to handle inadequately. I think the serenity prayer sentiments apply just fine here too:

God grant me curiosity to use my brain where irreplaceable, the skill to design and develop technology to assist it and the wisdom to know the difference.

3. I don’t want others to know too many things about me.

I couldn’t agree more. Privacy is a fine thing and until we are the ones who determine what goes out and what stays in, it will be mostly a delusion. Our privacy is protected about the same way a pretty young girl is safe in hands of a pimp held in check by a few hastily drafted rules that are actually very hard to enforce. As long as he’s seen keeping his hands of her, he’s left alone. But she’s still at his mercy and there is not much she can do if he decides to sell her on. Substitute data and information about you and you’ve got the picture.

On the other hand we have the wonders of connectedness and sharing which are very fine things too. It’s what made the web what it is today (in a good way). So to hoard and isolate would be overshooting although the ability to do so should be part of the deal, if that’s what I chose. It is about the right balance and like in any balanced ‘relationship’ it takes two to tango. At the moment, my data is held ransom in an abusive relationship and the fact that I get ’something’ out of it, doesn’t justify the imbalance of power. I should be the one making a decision about – and bear the consequences of – what happens to my data and by extension to my privacy, not Facebook or any other silo or platform. The problem is we have no way of doing that. Yet.

Finally, as Alec is points out security is a policy and so is privacy – what is private to me, may not be to you and vice versa. So what sense can a uniform set of rules or system make in a decentralised environment where a) it is near impossible to enforce and b) the distributed and persistent nature of our communication makes privacy an awkward bolt-on when it should be integral to our behaviour. The more people learn what privacy means and understand its merits and the price of its abuse, the better ‘policies’ they can devise for themselves.

So back to my point about how social networks are the ‘learning wheels’ for our identity online. Social networking is not bullshit, just like driving in a parking lot of a driving school is not pointless. Just see it in the context of the web and the individual and the picture get more interesting, if also more tricky and longer term.

It is about ability to manage one’s own data and network. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists of more than a username and data serving the platform owner more than the user. It is the control, the flexibility, the fun and play, the ease of communication and technology that makes the whole experience dynamic and mildly addictive. At the moment, not much else matters to the users – that is why privacy and security is a nice to have, rather a must have. I believe that will change as people get accustomed to more control over their online environment.

I want to be there when they want something more – their own car and their own choice of the destination – to push the driving school metaphor to its limits. Cue VRM hoping to equip people with tools that enable them to take charge of their data, provide context for it, learn from them and pass the knowledge on as they see fit.

Workers misuse the internet

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The poor abused internet!

According to a study conducted by the Guardian, since 2004, 132 workers have been sacked, 41 resigned, 868 received formal warnings and 686 received other forms of punishment (such as fines) for internet and email-related issues.

The money quote, emphasis mine:

According to research released recently by Proudfoot Consulting, companies in the UK lose a total of £80 billion a year through the inefficient use of labour.

This is not about doing your bit for the salary they pay you and anyway you signed a contract… most contracts are not detailed enough and let’s be honest, the negotiating position for most employee is not in their favour. It is about treating people who for a company as collaborators who work with you, not as more or less forced labour that needs to be ‘managed’ and coerced to some degree to do what they are told. Just like the term ‘consumer’, ‘labour’ also betrays a mindset that prevents any relationships other than adversarial, abusive and enforced by power. And that’s not a relationship anyway.

OpenSocial – more social than open

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So, been watching all that excitement about Google’s OpenSocial and I couldn’t hear over all that cheering how much do I get to ‘own my data’ and take it with me until I read Tim O’Reilly’s post OpenSocial: It’s the data, stupid:

My disappointment with OpenSocial was crystallized by an exchange between Patrick Chanezon, Google’s developer advocate for the program, and an audience member at the OpenSocial session at Web 2.0 Expo Berlin. The audience member asked something about building applications that can remix data from the participating social networking platforms. Patrick’s answer was along the lines of: “No, you only have access to the data of the individual platform or application.”

That is rather disappointing. I do not just want social network aggregators. As a user I want to take my information, profile, contacts and context with me wherever I want and can. If I am to invest my time into creating profiles and gathering contacts (thus making my friends to invest theirs), then spending time building context, which is actually more important than data. Data has become a commodity, it can be replicated and distributed without the physical constraints data faces offline. What is now rare is context because that still a) has to be created by humans and b) is not machine readable. So to elaborate on Tim O’Reilly’s

…two key principles of Web 2.0:

* It’s the data, stupid. (Formerly “Data is the Intel Inside”)
* Small pieces loosely joined.

…a principle of social web

* It’s the context (and control over it), stupid.

If all OpenSocial does is allow developers to port their applications more easily from one social network to another, that’s a big win for the developer, as they get to shop their application to users of every participating social network. But it provides little incremental value to the user, the real target. We don’t want to have the same application on multiple social networks. We want applications that can use data from multiple social networks.

Such applications would have to be based and designed around the user, not another platform and its growth and maintenance. Which is what every social network to date has been. And if you design for the individual, the distributed is definitely the way (see Small pieces loosely joined). At a VRM meeting in London last Friday, among other things, how to design an architecture around increasing control over our data. Alec summed it up:

…should we consider making a VRM pilot and simplify our lives by making the assumption that the database would be wholly centralised; the answer to that was an emphatic NO; the reason being that working from a perspective of “the data is centralised in a fortress” will lead to thinking that will never be able to accommodate a distributed architecture; whereas there is nothing to prevent an architecture which is capable of distribution in a wholly or partly centralised matter, as a convenience. In short: the web-browser would never have been invented had someone elected to ignore the distributed nature of the Web; instead, they would have merely yet again reinvented the file-browser. So: DESIGN IT DISTRIBUTED, TEST IT DISTRIBUTED, BUT IMPLEMENT IT HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE.

That’s the spirit. But Tim O’Reilly asks the crucial question:

Would OpenSocial let developers build a personal CRM system, a console where I could manage my social network, exporting friends lists to various social networks?

No, it doesn’t look like OpenSocial will, but VRM is predicated on that. Set the data (and their owners) free!

VRM in London

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A couple of weeks ago, on October 15th there was a VRM meeting at our Chelsea HQ. The group was diverse, a CRM expert turned VRM , a marketing/branding strategist , a media analyst from the City, security gurus and uber-geeks from Google and Sun respectively, public sector & government IT expert . And me, although god knows how I would describe myself these days. Our objective was to discuss practical applications of VRM and what each of us can do. Both in business and technical terms, so the diversity of people at the meeting was deliberate.

You can read more general things about VRM here and over the next few weeks and months I will be writing more about it here. Here is William’s account of the meeting and his impressions of first encounter with VRM. The money quote:

VRM opens up all sorts of new markets as people articulate their requirements. The long tail finds its voice and states its needs. It’s counter-intuitive model, and a fundamental shift in how they do business.

Good stuff.

I want to note one issue that emerged from the discussion. When people hear about VRM, the idea that they are in control of the data is very easy to grasp and accept. In fact, it takes about 5 minutes to get that across. I note with some wonder that it is easier to explain VRM to a cab driver than to a marketing director.

Once people mentally flip the ownership of data on its head i.e. your data (purchase history, notes on products, recommendations) is owned by you, not captured and locked in inside a vendor’s silo, they see the power flowing from the control, management and sharing of information about themselves. But looking ahead and building on that ability, it is interesting that most people assume their market power will come from aggregation. Along the lines of.. if enough people want something they can get together and exert some influence over vendors. Similar to this perhaps.

I don’t think this is about aggregation. It will be a result of people’s behaviour as facilitated by VRM tools – the demand side as the sum of informed and networked individuals will have continuous impact on the supply. But I do not believe that is where we start when building VRM applications.

I am rather fond of saying ‘the network is always stronger than a node’ – so much so it appears in my email signature. But the context is that the stronger the node, the more robust and better the network. It starts from the understanding the human need for identity, ownership and a degree of autonomy or sovereignty. VRM needs to help create a framework where many tools and applications, modular or integrated, will help people to achieve just that and let the Web again work its magic.

Where this is not about pure power play is in accepting that businesses also need to be nodes in the network. We need to work with businesses that understand having customers on their side is much better than herding them into their silos for the all important, money-making Lock-In.

VRM for business then is flipping the mass customisation on its head, where it belongs. Businesses know individualisation is expensive now. And yet expected by their customers more and more as they are learning to behave and treat each other as individuals. The pressure on the industrial age mindset that sees standardisation as cost reduction is increasing. All existing processes are forcing one route, the best way to achieve efficiency is to streamline that one way. Scaling is god. Processes are the priesthood. In this context, focusing on the individual is about providing above and beyond that standard. And that can cost a lot. What we need to do is demonstrate it is not necessarily the case, when customers are genuinely part of the ‘process’. We will need both tools and change of mindset for that.

You let the enemy in…

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There is a storm in one of the blogosphere’s corners – the pharma one. It makes a change from the ‘upheavals’ of the usual social media or the political digerati. It is also interesting to see that similar issues are affecting them all – transparency, credibility, reputation and monetisation. Once communities and networks get some traction and visibility the onslaught of marketers or advertisers begins.

Sermo, the two-year-old online forum where 30,000 docs love to dish, has inked a deal to collaborate with Pfizer, which can now freely access the site and post, post, post.

This is what doctors in the Sermo community have to say about it.

“I am not a fan of PhRMA…and I am especially not thrilled at the idea that they will now have one more way to ‘get at’ physicians via Sermo.”

“Any influence from Pfizer has to be absolutely marked and labeled loud and clear! I am sick and tired of industry people sneaking in their subtle, hard-to-detect influences into everything and every media corner money can buy.”

“No Pfizer docs acting like reps in here!”

“There is no way Pfizer is interested in anything but marketing in this ‘partnership.’ ”

“I’ll add this to my list at”

“Daniel, you let the enemy in. Shame on you.”

It is never possible to please everyone, so picking the negative voices is not fair, one might say. But let’s see what they are saying, not just put a minus or plus sign next to them. They all react against the intrusion – for different reasons.

The first comment is about Pfizer getting to a space that docs see as their own. It is about their autonomy, in this case, the ability to control and manage who and how is ‘getting’ at you, if you are a doctor. The second comment is about transparency. It show just how delusional the industry methods of ‘influencing’ are. People don’t fall for it, only the agencies and their clients who seem to believe their own BS. The third and fourth comments are about business practices – companies’ main objectives is to sell, sell, sell. It is a sad truth that some people wouldn’t see anything wrong with that. But it is. A doctor also wants to make money but if you believed that his only motivation for treating you is to earn more money, you’d be a) a fool and b) couldn’t trust him as far as you could throw him. Yes, some doctors can be motivated by money but that is what often makes a bad doctor is, not a good one. The same goes for companies. If people believe that the only motivation for a company’s existence and activities is to make more money, there is no trust, just transaction. And a pushback every time the company crosses a certain line or people find new ways to push back its intrusive manners. Hence the label ‘enemy’.

And this is what Craigslist people understand:

In what turned out to be a culture clash of near-epic proportions, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster spoke to the investment community this morning at the UBS global media conference in New York. UBS analyst Ben Schachter asked Buckmaster a standard financial world question: How does the site plan to maximize revenue? The CEO of the online classifieds site answered as follows: “That definitely is not part of the equation. It’s not part of the goal.” “I think a lot of people are catching their breath right now,” responded Schachter, as the crowd absorbed Buckmaster’s remarks.

The difference between the doctor and a company is the one between an individual and an institution. When you meet a doctor you can decide whether you trust him or not. It is much harder with a company, there is no-one to meet or talk to. No-one to deal with directly. No-one who could give you a real clue as to the motivations and goings on within the company. Marketing and advertising campaigns can’t do that and even the successful ones rarely survive the passage of time.

Commerce these days is focused on transactions and transactions only. Sell, sell, sell. But the best salesmen tell you that it is about the relationship. And a relationship begins with a conversation, where both parties have independence and freedom to start or end it at will.

Lesson number one – don’t build or take over communities for marketing purposes. This is because monetisation of a community will never work if you do something that the community doesn’t like. In case of Sermo it’s letting Pfizer in. In case of others, it’s advertising or some other disturbance. There are plenty of bad examples but I can think of only one good one. Yes, Craigslist again…

Buckmaster acknowledged that Craigslist had been approached about placing text ads on the site. “We’ve had the numbers crunched for us,” he said. “The numbers are quite staggering.” But, no, the site wasn’t interested. “No users have been requesting that we run text ads, so for us, that’s the end of the story,” he said to the befuddlement of the crowd. “If users start calling out for text ads, we’ll listen.”

Lesson number two – communication is a one-to-one affair, not one-to-many. (The net has enabled many-to-many as a way of network scaling). If you are a large company, don’t behave like one. Your brand is worth very little if you cannot communicate with people. And you can do that only as people. So fracture the brand, let people talk to people, your employees to each other and to those outside the company. Instead of fearing your employees expression, be grateful for their ability and willingness to lend the company their voices. Treat them with respect and they’ll reciprocate. After all, if you can’t trust your own employees, why do you expect your customers to trust you?

Lesson number three – transparency starts at home. Decide what you are about and why you are in business. Don’t bother with missions and strategic visions, they are not fooling anyone, so they shouldn’t fool you. Once you find what it is that gets you to work every day, get on with it and communicate that on your own terms. Then watch and listen to what others think and say and then communicate some more. It can be a beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Confessions of a (former) control freak

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David Tebbutt finds out at Creative Coffee Club meeting in London why social networks are no place for control freaks:

Inside organisations, we are all trained to prepare for meetings, to have agendas, objectives, checklists and actions. The theory is to conduct the proceedings as efficiently as possible and have a means of control if things get out of hand.

Accordingly, my thoughts about the CCC were to let people mingle for a while, then tap a glass to attract their attention and make an objectives-type announcement. My colleagues were much too polite to call me mad. They just said: “Hmmm. Not quite what we had in mind.”

Agendas and objectives for meetings are for people who don’t want to be there. If you have things you want to talk about or share, care about a project or want to connecting with others, you will have plenty to say. The crucial thing is to have the right people there – they are those who choose to be there. And we are back to autonomy…

In such gatherings a structure will emerge. There is no need to impose objectives or agendas that often represent a thinly disguised command & control attitude. The result may not be what you are used to, or imagined or would like others to conform to but something will happen alright. And most likely it will be a lot better than anything you could come up with. [Insert a respectful nod to Johnnie Moore who both preaches and practices this.]

The funny thing is that David and I used to meet in Dana Centre cafe for discussions that lasted several hours at a time and never seem to come to a natural halt. There was no structure or even an objective other than enjoyment of talking about stuff we both found interesting.

I also have a confession to make – it was the internet that has driven the futility of control freakery home for me too. Once you start blogging, interacting and communicating, there is no point in trying to make people pay attention to you, let alone force or manipulate them to do what you consider right or appropriate. And anyone, whether an individual or business will struggle with the web until realise that they should control what they can, not what they wish they could.

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