Not only I am agreeing to terms and conditions of a
relationship with social networking platforms, there is also no
corresponding agreement with other users. The terms of service are
between me and Facebook, me and MySpace, me and Twitter, me and Flickr,
me and Plaxo, me and LinkedIn, me and the "socnet de jour". They do not
extend to my relationships with other individuals on the same platform.
Relationships are defined the same way as terms & conditions are:
from the point of the platform, not from the point of the individual.
So, ironically, social networking platforms designed to help me connect
with others, to create and maintain relationships with them, are not
really allowing me to define those very relationships.
In other words: there is no way to interact with others
within the silos based on what I'd call P2P terms and conditions.
These could be privacy agreements if we wish, ranging from simply
all the way to granulated preferences for different people in my contact
list. So - just like in the real world - there are people I’d trust with
my address book and there are some I wouldn’t trust with my address.
Instead of building complicated systems and using technology to make
such nuances in relationships explicit, I need tools to help me manage
the complexity of human relationships. I need tools to reflect what is
already implicit, in my head and which defines me as a social animal
whilst not tying me up in legal pretzels over various policies,
permissions and access management nightmares. To
Kevin Marks' Social
Cloud talk at Lift08:
Software cannot match out ability to sort out our
friends and contact, establish how much we trust them and how we
arrive at that trust. No software can fully map the relationships, let
alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain them The
implication is that therefore software should support the kind of
cloud abstraction we have around the internet, also around our social
relationships. You can feed it (the social networking app)
relationships that are in the ’software in your head’, feed the stuff
related to people in your network to software online.
As an individual my relationship to my data can be
described in matrix of
kinds of imprisonment - and I am interested in building an option
where none of these are the case:
Jail with visiting rights - closed platform a la
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, all I can play
with is its "representation".
House arrest - desktop applications for data
management, iTunes, Excel spreadsheet, word processing, etc. Example, my
music (ripped, not bought from the 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 - online data management tools, Wesabe,
uploading from iPhoto or Picasa to Flickr.com. 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 - 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 jail - I hold my data on (explicitly) my
resource for sharing; I can share my data beyond just what
Flickr, del.icio.us, etc, provide as tools 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
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.
Doesn’t that turn
Friendfeed and other such aggregators
into a prison parade?
I want my data out of jail. I want to be able to
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.
For some type of data a flow aka activity stream is just
fine, Twitter, Flickr, FriendFeed, PlaxoPulse, Facebook etc. Structures
sometimes emerge - sets, rooms, groups. For other purposes I may need
alternative data structures and new functionality to build them. A good
foundation would be a pool of tagged objects, flexible and without
pre-determined data taxonomy. Through ownerships of the actual data, as
opposed to its representation, e.g. Facebook, Amazon reviews, the
individual user will be able to manipulate them at will.
Here are some ways of thinking about data organisation:
skeleton - data structures created prior to
data input as a skeleton for data with known or standard structures to
be stored in later, e.g. medical or financial data or other complex
companion - created with input of new
data e.g. when you upload photos, you create sets; when you bookmark a
link, you add tags and notes etc
librarian - created on retrieval, the
hierarchy or structure emerges at click of button depending on what
you are looking and on the flow or the dynamic of the data, e.g. I
click on a tag in del.icio.us and get all articles tagged with it
shoe-horn - rendered through a single
vision – google reader and del.icio.us, pick your means of rendering –
by tag, by who person, date, no tag at all
builder - created from a pool of objects,
with tags and meta-data, with functionality that helps you create
whatever hierarchy you want
Hierarchy is often synonymous with order. A feature of
hierarchy of information (taxonomy) is that it exists outside the user’s
mind. The web has driven home the point that taxonomy is by far
not the only order
But what about convenience? If users have to determine not
only the data flows but their underlying structure, doesn't that mean
more work? To flip the way we tend to think, from the user’s point of
view the structure (taxonomy) doesn’t have to precede data. Emergent
order is more user-friendly in the long run - think folksonomies and
tags vs. directories and folders. In short: order and complexity should
come from usage, not design.
Data in transactions
My data is an externality to purchasing transactions, just like
attention is an externality to my reading, watching or listening to
something else. Marketing lives off my data, advertising lives off my
attention. My data (and by extension me) is not respected because
companies can trade it as a commodity without paying for it. The way to
address this is not to make them pay for the data (and create many snake
oil intermediaries in the process) but to make it possible for companies
to enter into relationships with the true owners of the data.
So what is to be done? How can one internalise the
externality? How do I regain control over something that originates from
me and is used in my transactions with others? This is the stuff of VRM.
Broadly speaking, it is about finding tools and technology that give the
individual sovereignty over his data, so he can exercise choice over who
gets to see it and under what circumstances. This will change the
balance of power and eventually demonstrate to companies that by
respecting people’s data, and by extension, respecting people, they can
make more money.
More Social than Open
When it comes to sharing my data and activity streams with
my friends and networks, I do not want to be restricted to
network aggregators - they are merely another type of prison for my
data. As a user I want to take my information, profile, contacts and
context with me wherever I want. If I invest my time in creating
profiles and gathering contacts (thus inviting my friends to invest
theirs) and in building context - which is more important than data -
then I do not want to lock the value in a silo. Especially since if data
itself has become a commodity then it can be replicated and distributed
without the physical constraints of the offline world. What is now most
valuable and rare is context because
that still a) has to be created by humans and b) is not machine
To elaborate on Tim O’Reilly’s
key principles of Web 2.0:
- It’s the data, stupid. (Formerly “Data is the Intel
- Small pieces loosely joined.
I suggest one of the principles of the Social Web is:
It’s the context, stupid.
Online 'social' applications need to be based and designed
around the user, rather than yet another platform and its VC-fuelled
growth - which is what every social network to date has been. If you
design for the individual, the distributed approach is definitely the
way. How can we design an architecture around increasing control over
our data? Alec Muffett
sums it up:
Let's not throw the baby out with the social network bath
water. Networking on Facebook, MySpace and other silos is like taking
driving lessons. There is no recognisable direction. It seems
unless you know that you are just learning and practising. Facebook and
MySpace seem a lot like that to me - but once people work out how to
drive, know how to operate the machine and how to get from point A to
point B, they will be able to decide what their destination is and get
around under their own steam - and that’s when the real fun starts.
…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 [from being configured
to behave] 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
Social networks are good for communication with friends, if hardly of
much use for
bloggers. It is great to find a long lost friend, knowing they exist
is better than losing contact with them forever. Social networks enable
one-to-many communication for individuals - unheard of before the age of
the web unless you were a politician, an author, a celebrity, or had some
sort of institutional backing whether through politics or the media.
However today I can communicate efficiently and persistently with people
in my contact list and let them expand upon that communication if they are
Social networks are the ‘learning wheels’ for our identity
online. From that perspective, they are not a waste of time, just as
driving in a parking lot of a driving school is not pointless. It is
about the ability to manage one’s own data, and network, and eventually
one's identity. Even social networks built on closed platforms cannot
diminish the first giddy experience of creating a profile that consists
of more than just a username and data which serves 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. For a while not much else will
matter to most users and as a result privacy and security for many is
"nice to have", rather than a "must have". I believe that will change as
people become accustomed to having more control over their online
environment. I want to be able to help when this happens and they'll
want something more - to have their own car and their own choice of the
destination, so I joined the VRM group hoping to equip people with their
own vehicles - tools that enable them to take charge of their data,
provide context for it, learn from them and pass them on as they see
I want two basic functionalities from the online tools
which help me organise my life and connect me with people. First, I want
to capture and sort out my data, upload photos, take notes,
cross-reference information, etc. For that I need applications that are
more analytical than the current social media/web tools. Second, once I
organise my stuff, I want to share it in
that are more social than current web 2.0 tools allow me to be.
Existing web applications have serious limitations: an
example is my uploading photos to
Flickr and structuring them around
my needs. Flickr presents a stream of photos and I am not really in
charge of how they are organised. For example, I have 100+ wine photos
as part of my wine interest; if I upload all of them then that’s what
people subscribing to my Flickr will see as they all appear in my
Flickr stream. I have the choice of a couple of combinations of
friends & family settings to restrict access, but that does
not solve my problem - I may want some people to see the wine photos
whilst I may not want others to be bored by a bunch of wine bottle
shots; plus some people may not be on Flickr, so for them (and me) the
privacy settings don’t help.
On another occasion, I needed to share photos with my
mother who is not on Flickr. It was a practical need - we went
shopping together for items for her apartment and the photo set was
meant to help her remember and decide what to buy and exchange notes
and comments on the photos. I couldn’t make it work. I tried setting a
new account for only those photos but there were too many for a free
account and I didn’t feel like paying $24 for this simple use. I tried
signing her up to Flickr, as a family contact, and uploading
the photos with the family setting. This was awkward as I don’t
necessarily want other contacts with the same privacy setting to see
those photos or me being forced to change their status permanently. In
other purposes I wanted my own photo-storage space, not just for
communication or publishing but for my own notes for future reference.
I also wanted to share it with friends who might be interested in my
wine photos or window-shopping...
But isn’t social networking all about being social? Not
quite. At the moment I don’t drive "who gets to see what" beyond
simple decisions about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Social
interactions and relationships are far more granular than social
networks allow them to be. Usually, this is seen as a privacy issue
and leads to complicated access management, e.g.
Our relationships are determined by others, such as
Plaxo etc, presumably to give us
more control or add structure to our social network and the contacts
in it - but is lumping people into categories imposed by an
application, "social"? By determining the types of relationships
I am able to have – business contact or colleague, family or friend, I
am not able to reflect relationships I already have in their
complexity and nuances. The best social software is not online, it is
on to my cortex, and no software can fully map the relationships,
let alone replace our natural ability to create and maintain
Privacy is merely the other side of the coin of
complexity in human relationships. My ‘privacy settings’ are inherent
in my behaviour. My
policy should not be embedded in any software. In that sense,
software cannot be social, or antisocial - apologies for the
rabble-rousing heading of this section - though it can help me be more
or less social. Software privacy settings limit my ability to be truly
social i.e. capable of maintaining complex relationships and
interactions with others, arguably the purpose of such tools. Truly
social software needs to satisfy both requirements of online life - to
allow its users to organise their data according to their needs, and
to support people’s relationships as defined by themselves.
Social Matrix and the Blue
Our brains and minds are the
social networking tools. Software cannot match our ability to sort
our friends and contacts, establish how much we trust them, and
represent how we arrive at that trust. No software can fully map our
relationships, let alone replace our natural ability to create and
At the moment, we are all connected to the matrix, the
tubes still being more important than our freedom to move. The many
silo-like platforms try to keep us hooked and locked in, whilst giving
us enough delusion of capabilities. Alas, there is only so many times
you can poke or zombie someone before you start wondering "what’s the
The point is I want to be able to hook or unhook myself at
will. I want to be able to connect and create relationships without
lock-ins - other than the ones that relationships bring with them
naturally. I don’t believe I will be able to do that unless the
tools are built around me, for me and eventually by me.
One of the fundamental building blocks of VRM is the
ability of individual users to take charge of their data instead of
managing them via a platform and ‘trading’ that data for the
functionality that the platform might provide. Once I have it in my
hands, I can manage, analyse and whatever else I wish to do with them,
applying various functionality directly. And share and interact with
others in ways richer than platforms currently allow. It might be
messier to start with but closer to human affairs in its complexity. And
that is a Good Thing.
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 in about the same way that a pretty young girl
is safe in hands of a pimp, who is 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 off 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 about got the
On the other hand we have the wonders of connectedness and
sharing which are also very fine things. It’s what made the web what it
is today (in a good way). For most, to
hoard data in isolation would be contrary to the openness and sharing of
the web. However, I should have the option and ability to do so if
that’s what I choose. It is about a balanced ‘relationship’ where
sharing is voluntary, based on trust and entails the power to withdraw
the benefits of relationships. At the moment, my data is held to ransom
in abusive relationships and the fact that I get ’something’ out of it
does not justify the imbalance of power. I should be the one making a
decision about what happens to my data and by extension to my privacy.
This should not be determined by Facebook or any other web-app, silo or
I learned a very important point from security geeks -
that "security is a policy" - security is what you define and want it to
be. If you want to connect an unprotected computer to the internet in
order to study how fast it can be destroyed by viruses and overtaken by
bots, then your computer is 'secure'. Your requirements for security are
met. The same goes for privacy - what is sufficiently private for me may
not be for you, and vice versa.
Also, privacy may be a policy of the individual,
from a given selection in (say) the style of "Creative Commons". There
is a huge difference: for instance, I have a policy about who I let into
my house. I don’t need to display it on my doors or attach it to my
address or business cards. It is far more convenient and flexible for me
to decide there and then, when someone’s knocking at the door. It is my
door-to-door salesmen but just because I can display notices to that
effect, doesn’t mean that is the way to deal with the rest of the
humankind. Online privacy is about creating tools that help the
individual to control access to data to the point where he/she decides
practically and directly who gets to see what - without reliance upon a
third party or intermediary.
Further, what sense can a uniform set of rules or system
make in an environment which is decentralised, where it is near
impossible to enforce and communication is distributed and persistent?
Building privacy systems, instead of letting people implement their own
privacy 'policies', makes privacy an awkward bolt-on when it should be
natural and integral to our behaviour. The more people who learn what
"privacy" means and understand its merits and the price of its abuse,
the better ‘policies’ they can devise for themselves...
Alas, instead, privacy is an issue often regarded as a
trade-off that 'consumers' are only too willing to make in return for
some benefits to them. I tend to think it is an issue of choice - if
there is no meaningful choice and people understand this, they might
just as well forgo a bit of privacy in exchange for what appears
tangible benefit to them - a discount, a better deal etc, but as tools
arise to help people to take charge of their own data, their mindset
will shift too. Peoples' tolerance for privacy violations will decrease,
just as our tolerance for lack of connectivity or quality is dropping;
these are different issues but the same behaviour pattern. For now, we
are used to our data not being 'respected' - that the choice we have
with regard to our privacy is only a binary choice: either you play and
give up your data or you don't and exist in splendid isolation.
The latter is not a way to benefit from the web, whether it comes to
social networking or shopping. People do care about privacy and examples
of how easily they give up their data in exchange for trinkets are not
convincing. so until people feel that they have a real choice such
skewed behaviour is not illogical.
There is a valid perspective which regards many of the
social networking applications to be "stalker's tools". Let's
take Twitter. I explain its benefits
using the term ’synchronicity maximised’, to describe the ad hoc
organisation of real world encounters,
intimacy, connectivity and sharing which makes Twitter so useful and
I am in New York having brunch with a friend and I twitter
about it. This
seem creepy to some, knowns as the
factor’. This usually refers to someone not necessarily violating
your privacy according to the law but to the ability of others to gather
your public details (as private data would be a privacy violation) and
piece together information about you. This allows them to act in ways we
don’t expect or foresee. It is the realisation that someone knows so
much about us by deliberately gathering information and using it to
behave in a way that implies familiarity. It feel like a violation of
autonomy and privacy, even though existence of either is a delusion in
There is a difference between me 'broadcasting' on Twitter
that I am having brunch with a friend plus the exact location, and
learning the hard way that someone is ’scraping’ or gleaning such
information from places that I might have, rather foolishly, considered
private or semi-private, such as Facebook or any kind of behavioural
targeting so favoured by desperate marketers. It comes down to me
knowing what happens to my data. The creepiness comes from realising
that someone is gathering and piecing together information about me for
purposes that don’t directly involve me and/or are not necessarily in my
interest. Twittering my location is not a problem if I am doing it with
awareness of my network and audience.
All this contributes to doomsday talk about privacy and
the view that the web is eroding it, and that the younger generation
using social networks and other web applications don’t value it or give
it away all too easily. Often privacy is considered a legal agreement to
be guaranteed only by an enforceable contract. This is correct with
regard to information about me held or managed by third parties but it
does not address or reflect the way people interact online. Building
systems or processes that force people to ‘behave in their best
interest’ or to ‘protect their privacy’ does not deal with the problem.
Privacy is a policy and not a system. Terms of service and other legal
agreements are creatures of systems, platforms and silos. As an
autonomous individual I am the best judge of my privacy requirements.
When I talk to my friends I know what to tell them and what not to
share. If I mess up, I suffer the consequences and learn not to gossip
with those who betray confidences.
In contexts that are beyond my immediate social circles
and when money or reputation is at stake, I need to understand the
consequences of sharing information so I can manage my privacy. But if
my privacy is not up to me to manage, there can be no demand for such
knowledge to be available. As a result many people have no idea
about how their data is used and abused. So that is part of the
challenge in which the web has helped enormously - it is now possible
for a dedicated or persistent person to find out what’s going on most of
the time although most people tend to underestimate exposure and use of
their data by others.
There is little they can do to act on that knowledge; as
pointed out above, our privacy options are rather binary. Either you
participate in transactions, exchanges, communities, etc., and you give
up some of your privacy - or you don’t. However unacceptable I find the
former, the latter is not the way to live either, online or offline. The
best privacy settings are in my head. At the moment, I have little
to come from the legal world and why not start building tools that help
individuals manage their data and help them to determine their privacy
Bringing Identity Home
There is another concept firmly connected with privacy,
data and especially with social networking - identity.
is one of those elusive concepts that underpin several important
debates. Online, to 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 also relates to identifiers of the kind I see as
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.)
In short, let me have a go at owning 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 and 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 own data sovereignty. Without those how can I ever learn to
fully value privacy, security and engage in mutually beneficial
On the social web, the number of third-party defined
spaces for 'containing' bits of my data - photos, content,
relationships, transactions and purchase history, movements, knowledge,
and privacy, grows by the week. They enable me to create stuff and share
it with others online. But I still lack the means to perform simple
functions of capturing, managing and analysing my data as well as
sharing it on my own terms without the risk of the data being lost or
The good news is that with more tools and ways of
distributing, photos, videos, writings, cartoons etc. are being
'liberated' from the channel world of one-way media. The bad news is
that they more often than not create more platforms and silos. As far as
I am concerned there are only two platforms - the individual and the
VRM is about providing customers with tools that make them both
independent actors in the marketplace and better equipped to engage with
being able to take charge of your information and data, notes and
records about past transactions, your purchase history, future plans
and ideas, preferences and knowledge about areas of your life. At the
moment you are the last person to be able to benefit from all this
accessible only via various platforms. Your ‘digital detritus’ is not
yours, it is information that others harvest and use for their own
purposes. Imagine to be able to do that with the same ease as checking
email, posting to a blog, adding a bookmark to del.icio.us, searching
Google, commenting on an article, uploading a photo to Flickr,
managing your google or ical calendar, leaving a review on Amazon,
adding an application on Facebook. All this whilst protecting your
privacy to the degree you find comfortable, sharing your activity or
data as you wish, not as mandated by the platform providing some
functionality in exchange for your data (Facebook, Amazon etc).
Imagine having your customers share with you what they
like, want and think of you. At the moment, you are dependent on
market research, which is like looking through a keyhole at the rich
‘user-generated’ world. Imagine being able to relate to your
customers, consistently and persistently, where they contribute
directly to your supply chain where it makes sense - whether it is
R&D, product design, distribution and marketing. Interaction with
them is modular, intuitive and user-driven, freeing much of your
resources spent on marketing and transaction cost.
What’s in it for the individual?
The ability to manage and analyze your data will give you better
knowledge about yourself, the kind of knowledge that is the holy grail
of most companies’ customer data management. The awareness of your
preferences, understanding of your needs will help you to articulate
them easier and strengthen your position with vendors.
What’s in it for businesses?
We live in an increasingly decentralized world with more customer
choice, yet vendors continue to fiercely collect and control customer
data and exploit the opportunities therein. The ultimate goal of VRM
is better relationships between customers and vendors, by considering
and constructing tools that put the customer in control of their data
and ultimately their relationships with other individuals, companies
Benefits of ‘letting go’ of customer
Customers share the burden of storing and protecting
the data - eases compliance, privacy & security concerns
Increased access to information about customers -
direct benefits to the customer to share more data rather than less.
New services from previously unavailable access to
It's autonomy, stupid
On the web I decide what I blog, bookmark, read and whom I add to my
network. I have the autonomy to do things that ten years ago only
institutions could - publish, distribute, build audiences, contribute
knowledge, define concepts, ideas and get visibility, create a 'personal
brand', sell and buy.
tap into the autonomy and drive of people to create, share, distribute,
Vendors need to adjust their behaviour and the flow and exchange of data
between vendors and customers needs more level and balanced. The
defining characteristic of such relationships is that both parties are
comfortable with it, and mutually benefit from it.
For vendors VRM can find ways to outsource some of the relationship back
to customers. Companies own whatever passes for a relationship with
their customers and by law are responsible for the entirety of that
customer databases, privacy policies). Think of the junk mail, the
waiting on hold, repeating of the same information to tech support or
customer service staff every time you call, of the endless adverts and
marketing campaigns blasting you with 'messages'. These are not
conversations and relationships, they are a crude foreplay to naked
Companies have no incentive to change anything other then step up the
'stalking' of your behaviour whenever they can. They already collect
data on the web about you, and analyse, mine, capture, and sell them. If
they use them for your 'benefit' - as defined by companies - the data is
part of market research or direct mail.
VRM is not them versus us; it creates a situation where vendors face a
real choice between behaving cooperatively with the customer, or losing
them and a situation where customers also face a real choice, not merely
a choice between silos.
By giving individuals tools to redress the balance of power, the
pressure from customers should help level the playing field.
Independence from vendors, platforms or anyone who would like to benefit
from your data without permission will be key. That is why VRM
needs to start with equipping the individual with tools based upon
existing or new technology and apply an understanding of how people use
such tools online.
Doc Searls' blog post,
from Hell, written what seems like ages ago still resonates:
The Information Age is here, but its future is not
just (as William Gibson put it) unevenly distributed. Large parts of
it aren’t here at all. The largest of those is actual empowerment of
customers — in ways that are native to customers, rather than
privileges granted by vendors. The difference is huge.
That’s why yelling
doesn’t work. What we need instead is to make tools that work
us, and not just
them. We need to invent tools
that give each of us independence from vendor control, and better ways
of telling vendors what we
when we want
how we want to
relate — on
terms and not just on
said to the Architect, “The problem is choice”. That problem will
be with us as long as that axe is in our heads.
The axe is marketing. Marketing is what The Matrix
It’s a waste of time to revolt against the marketing
machine. The job at hand is to build the Real World again, from the
humans out to the companies that serve them.
Relationships are voluntary.
Customers are born free and independent of vendors.
Customers control their own data. They can share data
selectively and control the terms of its use.
Customers are points of integration and origination
for their own data.
Customers can assert their own terms of engagement and
Customers are free to express their demands and
intentions outside any company’s control.
These can all be summed up in the statement Free
customers are more valuable than captive ones.
In a broader way, the same should be true of individuals
relating to organizations. With VRM, however, our primary focus is on
customer relationships with vendors, or sellers.
VRM needs to support independence from vendors and
engagement with vendors; and to do both with tools and methods
that operate on the customer's side.
We've lived many generations in an industrial age
that put consumers at the mercy of producers. We're not used to
thinking about the customer being fully independent of vendors, much
less about putting tools for independence in the hands of customers —
for the good of the supply as well as the demand side. But it's
interesting to start thinking about what it means to actually
relate to a marketplace and not merely to respond to
pleas for attention and sales.
The other day I was talking with a high-ranking
executive at one of the major retail chains. He asked what the payoff
of VRM could be for his store. I replied, "Eliminating guesswork about
what customers actually want". He said "That's a good one". Think of
the billions spent on the guesswork that comprises most of marketing,
advertising and PR. And how much less that becomes when customers are
no longer just "targets" for hit or miss "messages", when intentions
are actually known and served — without the vendor needing to maintain
databases filled with useless information about phantoms.
VRM is an alternative and an improvement upon the existing
ways of communications and interactions between companies and
markets. It attempts to level
the playing field and redress the
balance of power between the individual and organisations. It builds on
empowerment the internet and the web have already made possible. It aims
to shift the power to the individual by giving people tools to manage
information about vendors themselves rather than having them managed by
companies, or intermediaries and third parties. Customer and user
independence from vendors and platforms is central to VRM principles.
Its objective may be improving
but that's only a third of the story. VRM is based in on all three
components of commerce - conversations, relationships and transactions.
Businesses can be involved from the outset - they need to expect and
respect the drive of individuals to redress the existing lack of balance
if companies can do CRM, why can't customers manage relationships with
their vendors - on their own terms, taking the control back where it
will a) make things more effective and b) give them more autonomy. This
potentially reaches deep and wide into the way markets works and ways
companies interact with them. CRM is the right answer to
At one point he [an executive of a large retail
company] talked about “owning the customer”. I asked, “What’s a word
for ‘owning’ a human being?” “Oh my God”, he replied. “It’s
slavery!” Then he said he was amazed, in respect to what had just
become obvious, at how much people at his company talked about
customers as if literal ownership were both desirable as well as a
fact. Such legacies die hard. And it’s the customers themselves who
will have to kill this one.
The real question was, indeed, how do we as a
company manage to treat our customers with some sense of dignity
without actually bothering to zoom in on them from the extreme wide
angle (customer base, segments) to telephoto (households,
individuals). Hence the effort to power up the operational CRM with
capabilities of analytical CRM (that is, building some sort of
number-based insight into the scary X-gigabyte swarm of operational
But the analytical CRM cannot build any meaningful
“insight” into who your customers really are while treating the
customer data as any other kind of transactional data. We humans are
made of shape-shifting bits. We don’t stay transactional very
Company Camera Lenses
One of the reasons VRM may not be the best term for the
goal - although there is good logic behind it - is that VRM is not
just ‘flipping’ CRM, but actually refocusing companies to a picture
bigger than the transaction.
Companies look at the world around them, their markets
and customers as if through a camera lens, their focus firmly set
"fish-eye". They only care about a narrow shot, zooming close,
thinking pixels with replace understanding. (see demographics, data
harvesting, analytics etc) or receding far away from it (market
research, analyst reports, industry-wide papers etc). The resulting
distortion is familiar to anyone dealing with business.
The bigger (and richer) the company, the more expensive
a lens it can afford - one of those large telephoto lenses on
professional cameras - and the more distance they can be from the
object of their focus. Small companies have ‘cheaper’ cameras and end
up being closer to what surrounds them, although the camera ensures
they are not part of the eventual picture.
To push the analogy further, cameras are now widely
available and affordable. Everyone can buy one and use it with
reasonable competence. Amateurs can occasionally achieve amazing
results with their little digital cameras and photography is no longer
the domain of professionals. It is the same with tools that capture
data and understanding of trends and behaviours - online simple,
modular but effective tools match and outperform the lumbering
business IT systems.
Companies are not the only ones capable of taking photos
- we all can do that, often better than them. The camera analogy
brings out another aspect of companies’ interaction with the world -
at arms length, from behind the camera. In my view, they should be
part of the picture, swapping the camera with other photo snappers.
Relationships with customers could go a long way towards that.
Running the show
VRM is not the vendors'
show. They are already running theirs and it's a universal flop if you
ask me. VRM is a customers' show but there is no reason vendors can't
have a front seat and follow the plot. And if they don't stomp all
over the stage, they are free to join in. And we can be ready to help
They join in - or not - but those who do will have an advantage. The
customers (enabled by technology, networked, and informed) are
recording and managing the information themselves and about
vendors. Once people can communicate, manage their data,
identity, purchase history, records, locations and god knows what,
then, cool things will start to happen. And it'll be those cool things
that will determine the direction vendors should be looking.
What VRM Means to Me
There is a sort of VRM mantra I have developed, as I find myself repeating
it over and over to remind people of my position on VRM:
It starts from the individual, companies have to
recognise that they don't drive VRM...
It starts from the individual, third parties and intermediaries
don't get to shape VRM...
I use a range of applications to
manage my data and meta-data. Over time they have helped me learn to
manage and drive my online existence.
Applications such as,
WordPress, Wesabe, Dopplr, Flickr, feed readers, and Twitter already help
me understand my behaviour and make more informed decisions in some
By tapping into what people already do online, and increasing people's
ability to manage and share their data as they see fit, VRM would be a
phenomenon similar to blogging in several important aspects.
Blogging is not owned by anyone. It wasn't designed to make money, or even
to bypass media or dis-intermediate marketing and advertising.
It has emerged from people like me who wanted to articulate their thoughts
and to share them. Not necessarily to influence their audience - for there
was none at the very beginning - but instead to let off steam, find a
voice that can disagree in ways that
shouting at TV. It was only by "doing it" that I and my fellow
bloggers discovered yet other people with same frustrations, opinions, and
desire to interact.
One large echoing and distributed conversation was born, from which many
relationships emerged. In a similar fashion I see VRM giving rise to a
different way of transacting, following the same tectonic cracks that
online disturbed the existing powerplays and institutions. The starting
point of VRM implementation is to investigate existing tools and
technologies to create ways of doing that and develop new ones if
It is the independence they give me
from vendors - and the potential to redefine my relationship with them -
that as an individual
customer excites me about such tools. Think of managing your own health
record or managing information about your risk profile, or your needs,
requirements and purchase history, companies you purchased from,
their service etc. This has implications for not only customers service
and marketing but all areas of customer relations.
As for the existing online tools, I have reached the limits of usefulness
for web apps that give me nice functionality but take away my ability to
manage data across my entire online ‘identity’ and beyond.
I want to be able to connect and create relationships
without lock-ins (other than the ones that some relationships bring with
them naturally). I don’t believe I will be able to do that unless the
tools are built around me, for me and eventually by me. Blogging took
off when people could set up a page and start publishing in a way
previously available only to geeks with HTML skillz. Today I can do more
things with my blog than just publish - tag, add videos, plug-in more
functionality etc. with the underlying technology invisible to me now.
So I want tools and applications that will help me do all that for
transactions as well as relationships.
Once people can do that - manage their data, relationships,
identities, purchase histories, their records, locations etc - then more
interesting things will start to happen. And it will be those interesting
things that will ultimately determine the direction vendors should be
It is also worth noting that bloggers did not set out to change the media
or teach journalists a lesson and yet, the media is looking to adjust to
keep up and evolve in line with changes to content creation, distribution
and social impact as driven by bloggers. Similarly, for VRM, the pressure
on vendors should be coming from customers ready to reclaim their data and
preferences and take charge of the relationships with vendors. With the
right tools, users are already savvy enough to take that up.
'Ownership' of data, whatever that means, is merely a starting point. I
might 'volunteer' information - to me that just means I share it on my own
terms - but the more important point is the ability to establish and
maintain relationships. For that I need and want the following
'functionality' to be enabled for me:
take charge of my data (content, relationships,
manage (arrange, mash-up, analyse) it according to my
needs and preferences
share it on my own terms
whilst connected and networked on the web.
This is what I mean when I talk about turning the individual
into a platform and into the most authoritative source about
themselves. It does not happen by creating a database or a data store,
however personal. The word
passive and static, even with some sort of distribution
layered on top. The objective needs to be equip 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.
It is the user who should define the nature of the data stored, shared,
analysed - and what data is called or labelled, whether confidential or
premium etc. The critical thing is the user's ability to share it and do
all sorts of groovy things with it independently of third parties, and
without the data being hijacked and harvested by third parties in the
There is a difference between those who emphasise data and those who
emphasise relationships. Data can be a vehicle for relationships, but not
the other way around. If relationships are seen as more important, then
third parties get in the way. If data is considered more important aspect,
then intermediaries tend to abound.
Another crucial difference revolves around the meaning of 'personal data'.
One kind of personal data means one's address, date of birth, phone
number, social security number etc etc. And the other kind, proliferating
with the advent of the social web, is the 'data pertaining to a person'.
The former is usually static data, your address or phone number can change
from time to time, and although it is possible to change your name, the
date of birth is unchangeable. The latter is dynamic, at any time only a
snapshot of the person and the more data can be created and captured, the
more granular and valuable it can become. On the web such flows of data
often act as a proxy for a relationship. People subscribing to my blog,
Friendfeed, Twitter, Facebook updates etc - such data is personal, i.e.
related to my person and yet, its existence revolves around sharing it
with others. Personal data stores are for 'personal data' as the
name suggests. We have few means, if any, to harness the dynamic data,
created by persons.
The web has changed the nature of data in at least two ways. It
commoditised data and as a result the context in which the data exists is
becoming at least as important as the data itself - and this applies
not only online. This is where a 'relationship' comes in; it
sustains the data's context and make the data more valuable. VRM should
make irrelevant and inadequate any attempt to mine, harvest or analyse
data without the context of a relationship.
Tomas Kohl says
This isn’t about the internet, Web 2.0 or 3.0. Forget
it. We’re talking real world, real relationships, stuff that involves
our everyday lives. The internet has helped to equalize some of the
relationships we have, very much with the media, the government, and
each other, and the debate should now switch from the virtual to the
actual. We don’t go to bed and neither do we wake up as
In a simplified way, this pyramid captures the VRM future
I have far more conversations than I have relationships
- already true.
The number of transactions is smaller than the number of
relationships, in other words, not all relationships lead to
transactions - at the moment, my transactions are not a result of
conversations and relationships with vendors.
Conversations and relationships are sound foundations
for transactions - already my conversations and relationships with
friends and contacts are increasingly affecting my decisions about who
to transact with but still a long way to go.
It's not all about vendors; the conversations and
relationships are with my friends and contacts - vendors need to
become part of my network in order to improve transactions.
A reminder from Doc:
... the idea with
VRM is to help customers approach and relate to vendors. Not the
reverse. We've got enough of that already. If we do VRM right, CRM
(including recommendations, if those make sense in the VRM context) will
have something substantial to relate to, and will
Equip individuals with tools that are
useful to them, observe what happens, and learn from them. Then lather,
rinse, repeat... We could pontificate about where it will go and what VRM
should be, but I am starting from the 'other' side, which happens also to
reflect my experience - an individual who found the web a source
of autonomy, identity
and independence. I am greedy, as I want more of the same and want others
to have it too, so I want tools that will help me take charge of my data,
information, my knowledge and its sharing - but that's not VRM, merely a
stepping stone to it. But I do believe the pressure on the vendors will
come from users/people doin' their own web thang, not from
wild-eyed VRM evangelists (and I count myself as one
As for vendor adoption, I suggest
looking for individuals within companies who understand this, and who will
see the benefit for themselves, as individuals, first.
Once they do, it'll be in their interest
to make it work for their company. The challenge will be overcoming silos,
processes, lack of real innovation and short-term horizons. And those are
issues that no business plan or set of goals from our side can solve. It
will be brought about by people who will make it happen because it
works for them, making VRM part of their agenda and future.
Businesses, especially large ones (read: with entrenched organisational
structures) won't give up control or their position of power without a
fight. We can push against them up to a point but that rarely amounts to
fundamental shifts. In my experience, the best way is not to try and
change a system from within but by instead building a viable alternative
outside of it, or parallel to the existing processes. The internet offers
that opportunity; with VRM it also offers another pressure point: the
customer/individual. Therefore our focus should be enabling and empowering
the individual before worrying about businesses and how to 'sell' VRM to
them. If a specific application of VRM is found that requires little
dependence on any company and is driven by customers and market pressures,
then it makes sense to spend time with that business. However, the tricky
bit will always be finding the right people within those organisations who
will have a vested interest in VRM. Thinking about 'adoption' in
network terms means starting with a dedicated few that will distribute
further, rather than in aggregate terms like markets, customers,
businesses, and industries.
Technology - including online tools - is built by people wanting to make
something work or to solve a problem. The distributed nature of the
internet makes it easier for others to use that technology in new,
emergent, even unpredictable ways. A group of people cannot design, plan
and implement a significant shift in market power in its entirety. VRM
should focus on those areas that we have seen working online - identity,
user power, tools and applications built around modular and user-defined
purposes. From experience of the social web, blogs, wikis, RSS and other
developments of online technologies and behaviours, and from understanding
of open source and of
effects' we can hope to find the right 'pressure points' to get VRM
off the ground.
Open as in...
locked-in, silo-ed or
Open as in open to the
user and his ability to use his data. It doesn’t mean indiscriminately
open and accessible to everyone. Open as in offering much greater
control over data that belong to me, data that I create and manage. Open
as in making my data available to me for further use.
People are starting to understand that their interest
in, and even their raw attention toward a product has a value. And
deciding to expose any data to a potential vendor is a customer choice,
not a marketers right. - echovar in
Why Marketing is
For example, I'd like to be able to learn from all the data
and purchase history I have on Amazon, in a place that I can call my own.
I'd like to mine or analyse it myself. Combine it with my reading habits,
travels (to make sure I have reading material for those long airport
waits), with my calendar for people’s birthday to buy them a book, with my
notes on vendors i.e. Amazon's payment and delivery practices, my purchase
history, my opinion about their prices, publishing trends and then share
that with my friends as I see fit. A widget on a blog will not suffice as
I need a space that is secure and private, yet shareable, and where I can
run my own affairs. Applications and tools such as ‘To Do’ or
shopping lists do not begin to cover the range of functionality I want to
apply to my data. Amazon and other vendors collect my data for their own
purposes. I want to collect it for mine.
User-centric is not user-driven
for the term user-centric, thinking that it defined users’ wants as
a starting point for a design. User-centric is a definite
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. User-centric instead 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
Twitter etc - are revolutionary not
just because of their functionality, their 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
the question - Can the user add value to it? If yes, the value
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.
Ultimately, without its users
del.icio.us would be pointless,
empty and Flickr dead,
At one of the
IIWs in Mountain
View, I talked with Bob
Frankston about the difference I saw 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 and eventually, better at making the dish.
John Dodds also
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
That said, 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
one of them.