Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Digital Identity Roundtable

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Yesterday I attended a meeting called a mashup* event – private Digital Identity Roundtable, organised by the indefatiguable Tony Fish – whose book My Digital Footprint also came out yesterday.

The conversation was varied and under Chatham House rules so can’t talk about it in detail. What I can repeat here is my closing remark – a result of pervasive assumption that there should be identity provider(s) and my data doesn’t need to be mine:

I want to own and drive, manage, share my identity.
I want to do that on my own terms, using technology that enables me rather than provides for me.
I want to be my own ‘identity provider’ and I’d rather address challenges that this would pose than shoe-horn notions and practices of offline identity management onto the online networked world.

There you go, I said it. Here I try to work on it.

A tangled web of differentiations

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This morning, twitter network delivered a bit of a red herring argument due to lack of differentiation between the internet and the web. So it helps to say first what is internet and what is web (these are not proper official definitions but will have to do for the purposes of this post):

The internet is a set of open protocols that have given rise to a specific type of network – a heterarchy. By heterarchy, in this case, I mean a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

The wikipedia article also points out that heterarchies can contain hierarchical elements and DNS is an example. But an (infra-)structural heterarchy such as the internet ultimately undermines hierarchies. I often paraphrase what John Gilmore famously said: The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – replacing censorship with control.

This feature of a heterarchical network:

…no one way of dividing a heterarchical system can ever be a totalizing or all-encompassing view of the system, each division is clearly partial, and in many cases, a partial division leads us, as perceivers, to a feeling of contradiction that invites a new way of dividing things.

- is the internet’s greatest advantage. Built into the fabric of the internet is the ability to bypass missing or ‘damaged’ nodes and so imposition of hierarchical structures is incompatible in the long run – such control is perceived as an obstacle and therefore damage*.

The above is the ‘defence mechanism’ of the internet as a network. Now the ‘offense mechanism’ or better yet, the disruptive one:

What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.

This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.

The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.

Still, even on the web, hierarchy is not the defining organisational structure though closed platforms undermine openness of the web as a whole. There are overtones of feudal serf-lord relationship – you can farm my land in exchange for tithes and/or working for me (just substitute platform and data and you’ve got the current relationship between users and Facebook etc).

That said, there are emerging orders on the web which structurally can be described as power law and socially/politically sometimes as meritocracy. So not all order is automatically a hierarchy.

Another fallacy is due to the term democracy having two meanings. Those who argue that the web is a force for democratisation often use them interchangably which can lead to confusion about the nature of democracy online.

Democracy as open access i.e. right to and equality of voting – one man, one vote (though sometimes it’s not hard to see the one Man with the one Vote) and democracy as rule of the majority. The web is strongly driving the first meaning of democracy – anyone can connect (assuming sufficient resources such as a device and internet connection) and interact online. I can set up an email (communication tool), a blog (publishing platform) and twitter (distribution network). Pretty powerful and heady stuff considering that in the offline world all three capabilities are very expensive and highly controlled and controlable.

Democracy as a rule of the majority is not applicable to the internet or even the web. Nobody tells me what to write on my blog or who I connect and interact with. There is no General Will or Greater Good that would dictate or subjugate my actions online… though social pressures and technical limitations make this a far cry from a utopia. :)

With that out of the way, let’s look at the argument that the internet (or the web) is being used and abused by various government to oppress their citizens. How is that evidence of either the internet or the web being hierarchical? If it is evidence of anything, it is of the effectiveness of online in distribution and management or monitoring of data… and governments’ eventual catching up with those capabilities.

As Alec pointed out in an IM conversation about this – would those citizens be any more free or less oppresssed without the governments (ab)use of the internet? I don’t think so.

The real problem with countries using the internet to oppress its peoples is not in the ‘virtual’ world – they wouldn’t be able to control that any more than the rest of us can – it is in their access to its infrastructural underpinnings.

The use of hackers and cyberwar techniques against other countries by Russia and many other countries is not a sign of governments’ control of the internet either. Such techniques are not limited to governments and can be (and sometimes are) applied to the government.

Finally, I do take issue with the concluding paragraph of the blog post that sparked off this rant:

The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.

The claims that internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies are not exaggerated, they are based on understanding of the nature of the internet as a heterarchy. As long as that is unassaulted, the internet will be able to re-route around censorship, control or hierarchies as damage.

That said, none of this can or should be taken for granted. The web does reflect our mental models of organisation, social conventions and power structures. However, it is build on an infrastructure – the internet – that has already profoundly shifted balances of power, brought about phenomenal technological innovation and is currently having a go at social and organisational conventions. Let’s give it a hand where we can by keeping protocols, data and technology as open as possible.

*An important proviso – the underlying infrastructure of the internet has to remain open and not in the hands of some mega-hierarchy such as government, directly or via telcos.

Quote to remember

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I can’t understand why people are afraid of new ideas, I am frightened of the old ones.
- John Cage

Quote to remember

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They’ve [music industry] had these ten years to develop new business models. And they failed. Instead, the new business models have been developed outside of the legacy industry — and they’re working. Let them be. Don’t give this tool to the legacy players, who failed to innovate. Let them go out of business, and let a new, and much more creative “creative business” industry take over.

You’re being played for as a fool by a legacy industry that wants to squeeze every bit of money it can from a dying business model. Putting up three strikes isn’t giving them space to develop a new business model. It gives them time to squeeze more out of a corpse.

- Michael Masnick on Techdirt in Peter Mandelson Defends His Sudden Conversion To Kicking People Off The Internet

Quote to remember

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Every time I write about the impossibility of effectively protecting digital files on a general-purpose computer, I get responses from people decrying the death of copyright. “How will authors and artists get paid for their work?” they ask me. Truth be told, I don’t know. I feel rather like the physicist who just explained relativity to a group of would-be interstellar travelers, only to be asked: “How do you expect us to get to the stars, then?” I’m sorry, but I don’t know that, either.
- Bruce Schneier in Protecting Copyright in the Digital World

Aroxo – say what you’ll pay.. and get higher price offer

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A couple of weeks ago I signed up for Aroxo, which is a new site for matching buyers and sellers. One description says it’s like eBay but for both, the seller and the buyer. I liked the sound of that so I tested it by creating a request for a camera – an upgrade of my existing one – Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX40.

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I set the price at lower than best retail price as found at Google because I wanted to a) test the system and b) was prepared to settle for less than perfect packaging etc. A few days later I got an ‘offer’.

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I was suprised to see that Aroxo thought £209 plus p&p was a match to my £170. Fair enough, as I can negotiate the offer, and so in preparation I googled the camera and found out that £209 plus p&p is nowhere near the lowest price around, let alone an offer I can’t refuse. What I didn’t expect to find is that the seller made an offer on Aroxo that was higher than the price offered on their site!

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So I contacted the seller:

Date: 18/05/2009
Subject: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX40

I guess, thank you for your response though puzzled about something. UK Digital’s price (which seems to be you judging from your email: sales@ukdigitalcameras.co.uk) price on their site is £205. So why is your ‘offer’ to me higher at £209?
http://www.ukdigital.co.uk/panasonic-lumix-dmc-fx40-camera.htm

Also, FYI Amazon sells it for £204.99 free delivery.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Panasonic-Lumix-FX40-Digital-Camera/dp/B001T0H062/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=electronics&qid=1242650694&sr=8-1

More importantly, I am interested in buying the camera for well below the quoted price. I am testing Aroxo’s ability to connect me with sellers who need to move stock at discounted price and/or have unboxed cameras (but still new). I am not interested in Aroxo as another ‘marketing’ channel for sellers who offer prices higher than on their sites.

Caveat emptor is still valid. And Google is still your (shopping) friend. :)

UPDATE: Shortly after posting this I received a reply from the seller:

Date: 18/05/2009
Subject: Re:Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX40
Click to view Offer
Hi Adriana,

Yes we are UK Digital Cameras, (but the link you gave was to another company UK Digital). We are also at £204.99 plus delivery on our site: http://www.ukdigitalcameras.co.uk/__4_prod3_asp2_1_i4_53661_126_Panasonic_Lumix_FX40_Black8.html

The price on our website has dropped since we sent the offer – hence the difference. Feel free to send me a negotiation and see what happens!

Also – let me know if you want a quote from me about Aroxo on your blog post.

Cheers,

Andrew

So I stand corrected and kudos for willingness to engage i.e. quote for my blog post. Will negotiate and update the post if anything interesting happens.

Social media eBay auction

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For those who follow my escapades, I am auctioning two hours of my time next Wednesday 13 May on eBay, together with Chris Heuer, founder of AdHocnium.

This is a one time only opportunity (for this moment in time ;) This is a low cost way for a smart company to take our minds for a test drive, to see if what we know, and to improve what you are doing with social media, marketing and web strategies to make your organization more succesfull in these efforts.

Quote to remember

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When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.
- Gordy Thompson, manager of internet services at the New York Times in 1993 quoted by Clay Shirky in Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Nightmare on Madison Avenue

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Andrew Grill tells us that the final paragraphs of the biography on David Ogilvy The King of Madison Avenue by Kenneth Roman, sum things up:

Like all businesses, advertising is changing. This could be the most exciting time to be in advertising. Technology is creating new opportunities to reach consumers – and measure the benefits of spending.

What advertising delivers is ideas. … Ogilvy would not recognise much of the new landscape, but he would applaud the growth of disciplines that can be measured such as direct marketing.

Direct marketing?! That sounds more like a nightmare from Madison Avenue…

As I’ve been saying for a long time, mobile is a unique new channel, and it will take a while for all parts of the ecosystem to step up and use its full potential. I hope I am helping to drive this change in some small way.

….Mobile will probably become the most measurable type of direct marketing we will come across – if executed properly.

I think if David Ogilvy was alive today, he would have grasped the mobile advertising opportunity with both hands, given his direct marketing roots, and directed his staff to focus on the utility of the channel, rather than trying to squeeze 50 years of advertising norms onto a small screen.

It is odd to hear statements like this at the time when most people are learning to use technology to control their environment, gearing up to give a permanent finger to interruption and advertising. ‘Executed properly’ to me suggests beheaded, hung and quartered but from context I don’t think that’s what the author intended.

Advertising types look upon people like me with either splattering outrage: How dare I be against advertising! Or they try to talk me off the ledge, oily with condescention: How silly of me to think that advertising will not live through this inconvenient, unprofessional, messy individual empowerment…! Look at our vast budgets, offices, expense accounts. Oh wait, that seems to be drying up! Quick, what’s the next big idea?! Digital New Social Media here we come!!!

But I digress. Deep breath. Let’s try again.

There is advertising and there is Advertising. Advertising with small a is information about products and services by people who provide or use them. A tablet on an ancient road saying: get your stone wheel fixed here!, or by now a dying breed of a classfied ad in a paper, or on craiglist, or a twitter message ‘advertising’ my need for a restaurant in the neighbourhood, etc. This kind of ‘advertising’ is not produced by an agency, or even the company, it isn’t promoted through a campaign. It’s authentic and direct but neither of that is the point. It is not a message, it’s communication. And will ALWAYS be around in some format or another.

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It differs from Advertising with capital A, which stands for the entire industry producing ‘content’ and shoving it down our throats, the supply chain of agencies, clients, brands. That is not set in stone. There is nothing inherent in the business models of Advertising industry. There have been several since the dawn of time, I am sure. One of them is statues. Yes, dear reader, statues…

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Statues are symbols, imagery that is supposed to make us react, think and feel in a certain way about the subject of the statue or the owner. Similar to advertising or branding in fact. And indeed it used to be the way nations, powerful leaders and institutions advertised themselves and projected an image.

This form of advertising is extinct. It is art now. This would definitely have come as a shock to the whole generations of artists, sculptors, quarry owners, workshop apprentices, patrons and potentates. Surely a whole industry can’t disappear? Just watch the chisel of history chip entire supply chains away. A nice reminder that there is nothing intrinsically necessary in our business models, in the way we understand advertising today and that some of the ways that define Advertising may cease to exist in the same way statues, monuments and paintings are no longer used to ‘advertise’ the rich and mighty.

VRM journey

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For those who follow my VRM escapades, I have tried to capture what VRM is about and why I am working on it. So here is my paper (and manifesto) A VRM journey.

Loosely speaking, apart from my consolidate position on VRM, this is what it’s about (as summed up by my friend Carrie):

  1. ‘Social media’ is limited and people are outgrowing it
  2. There is demand from growing number of people for more control over their online ’stuff’
  3. There are benefits to users and ‘vendors’ for re-working the current imbalanced relationship
  4. Some tools are being developed to make that a reality
  5. It will be a hard slog but there is a call to arms for users to even out the balance; the most open vendors will also benefit – bringing more certainty to their future in this uncertain economic climate

Here is the PDF version for those who prefer a non-web format.

Self-service only half right

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Many supermarket have self-service checkouts these day. Jeff Atwood has an interesting perspective:

What fascinates me about self-service checkout devices is that the store is making you do work they would normally pay their employees to do. Think about this for a minute. You’re playing the role of the paying customer and the cashier employee.

He also makes a point that I am the most motivated person to complete the process as fast as possible, so it is a win-win to ‘outsource’ that function to me. All well and good. It is when we come to the user-interface, user-friendliness of the self-service checkout machines things start looking a bit hairy.

And this, dear reader, touches on the essence of my distinction between user-centric and user-driven:

There are certain rituals to using the self-service checkout machines. And we know that. We programmers fundamentally grok the hoops that the self-service checkout machines make customers jump through. They are, after all, devices designed by our fellow programmers. Every item has to be scanned, then carefully and individually placed in the bagging area which doubles as a scale to verify the item was moved there. One at time. In strict sequence. Repeated exactly the same every time. We live this system every day; it’s completely natural for a programmer. But it isn’t natural for average people. I’ve seen plenty of customers in front of me struggle with self-service checkout machines, puzzled by the workings of this mysterious device that seems so painfully obvious to a programmer. I get frustrated to the point that I almost want to rush over and help them myself. Which would defeat the purpose of a.. self-service device.

So often self-service may be performed by myself but it sure as hell ain’t a service.

For completeness, Jeff’s post is not actually about supermarkets, his final point is yet more interesting. It is about open source and I’d argue that it applies to any voluntary collaborative effort.

Indeed, once you destroy the twin intrinsic motivators of self-determination and autonomy on an open source project, I’d argue you’re no better off than you were with traditional closed source software. You’ve created a self-service checkout machine so painful to use, so awkward to operate, that it gives the self-service concept a bad name.

Brand as identity and branding as behaviour

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I have been thinking, again, about branding and its role in business strategy. I have been known to wear my attitude towards branding on my, er, chest.

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However, the word ‘brand’ is being used to describe something that matters to me and needs to be understood. That something is very different from what the term brand currently means. Rather than banish the word entirely, I’ll treat it as a sort of category error and work my way to an alternative meaning of brand.

A person can have various represenations, a photograph or a portrait, which give others an idea of what he or she looks like. It is an image, a projection of likeness. Everyone knows it is not the real person and that often such representations may look rather different or even mislead.

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Branding is the art of creating an image of a company. Like a photograph that is carefully staged and edited. As technology progresses, branding gets clever and innovative. Still, the best it can do is a ‘hologram’. Rich media, marketing campaigns, reputation management, PR, advertising and now online and social media ‘engagement’. A vast range of projections enabled by media and technology. And just like with holograms, the more realistic they look, the more shocking it is to discover you can’t talk to them or shake their hands, any ’social’ gestures go right through it. This is because it is a projected image, there is no person made of flesh and blood.

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Most branding is about image and its projections. When using the term branding, I prefer to think about it as identity and behaviour. Because identity of a company and its behaviour existed long before branding was invented as part of business. That kind of branding comes from the other side of the reality fence. It is driven by behaviour rather than projection.

John Dodds who writes interestingly on such matters has this to say:

It refers to nothing more and nothing less than reputation, reputation you earn by your behaviour or, more realistically, reputation which other people (customers or not) confer on you because of that. It’s not something you impose on others.

The reason for image branding was the nature of distribution of the brand projections. There were channels, mass media, who mediated what companies wanted to communicate. So identity became an image and behaviour and communication messages.

The web has created, unwittingly for most part, an alternative to building what in industry circles counts for a ‘brand’. It resurrected the ‘old ways’, warts and all, of creating reputation by behaviour. There is one major difference between the old times and the web times – before my identity was determined by others and my behaviour was often judged out of context or in a context that was hostile to the individual.

The brand as identity perspective has two major implications. One has to do with the relationship of company with its employees. The other with business strategy.

First is the Who – the balance (or lack of it) between the corporation as legal entity, its management and employees, its structure and culture. These pulls and pushes within the company will determine its identity and its behaviour. Explicit knowledge of this can help companies understand who they are and why.

Then it is the What – the actions, behaviours, based on the raison d’etre of the business. A common mistake is to talk of strategy when meaning tactics. Strategy is the question of what to do and whether to do it in the first place. Tactics is about how to get to where strategy points.

This is all very well but what is a humble communications or marketing person to do? They can’t start reviewing or changing the company’s strategy. But they can start thinking less about projections and messaging and more about identity and behaviours. A hint: One-way communication is messaging, two-way communication is behaviour.

To sum up, the bad news for the branding folks is that messages and projections are not what they used to be. The good news is that a company can define its identity and behave according to who they want to be. That sounds like a good trade-off to me.

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