Turning the world I-side out

by Doc Searls

While huge progress has been made toward "user-centric" identity, I still have problems with "user-centric" anything. The point-of-view is still outside the user. It's still organizational, corporate. If you're "centric" about users, where are you? Right, outside the user. And inside something that's, well, not quite human. Or worse, that's super-human. Not a peer, but a superior.

Think about it: Are you "user-centric"?

Reminds me of a line in the movie "The Rose". (Good movie, by the way.) Bette Midler, playing the title character, keeps saying "The Rose wants" this and "The Rose thinks" that. The character Houston, a limo driver (played perfectly by Frederick Forrest) finding himself in bed with the The Rose, gets tired of hearing her self-centric vanities and says, "I think anyone who talks about themselves in the third person is Looney Tunes."

Identity is a first-person matter. It comes from the inside, not the outside. So does everything else we do as individuals. Which is why I'm not just talking about identity this time. I'm talking about everything that's missing in everything we've been doing ever since we first started calling computing "personal", way back in the late Seventies. (Dick Cavett, voice of early Apple commercials, called the Apple II "the most personal computer".)

Computing may be personal, but a lot of stuff that should be still isn't. Three examples:

  1. Identity
  2. Data
  3. Conferences

First, identity.

All the identities in our wallets and purses, from social security numbers to credit card numbers to library and museum memberships, are given to us by organizations. More importantly, they represent "customer relationship management" (CRM) systems that at best respect a tiny fraction of who we are and what we might bring to a "relationship". What CRM systems call a "relationship" is so confined, so minimal, so impoverished and so incomplete that it insults the word.

No matter how "user-centric" we make our CRMs, the fact that we burden the vendor side with the entire relationship reveals how one-sided and lame the whole system really is. Also how antique, in a time when individuals are only becoming more empowered by digital technology and networking. It doesn't matter how respectful we make "federation" between CRMs of different companies. The CRM system will remain broken until it appreciates, embraces and truly relates to customers — not just as complex human beings, but as 1) entities with many other relationships, and 2) potential sources of highly useful intelligence, as well as money.

Two years ago at Digital ID World, Drummond Reed (a prime author of the XRI/XDI standard that may some day underlie the DataWeb) said what we need is CoRM, for "Company Relationship Management". On the latest Gillmor Gang, Mike Vizard called it "VRM", for Vendor Relationship Management. Whatever we call it, we need to equip it on our side: the customer side, the citizen side, the member side. "Vendor" may not be a broad enough label to include government agencies, public radio stations, museums and the other noncommercial organizations we relate with, but it applies to the place to where we need the most help — in the marketplace.

VRM needs to do more than contain the virtual equivalent of credit and membership cards. It needs to contain (or hook into) our transaction histories, our reputations, our preferences, our intentions. A few months ago in Linux Journal I wrote about "The Intention Economy" that will grow from equipping sellers to meet customer demand after customer minds are made up and they're ready to buy — a territory still sorely lacking in existence.

A key capability here, for the customer, is the willingness and the ability to remain anonymous, and to do so selectively. For example, an individual should be able to reveal to the market that he or she has a good credit history, belongs to relevant membership clubs (such as those of airlines, public broadcasting stations and rental car agencies), and intends to do serious business — for example, by expressing the intention to rent a certain brand and model of car in Salt Lake City for the week of January 7th — without revealing his or her name. The system should support anonymity, in any level of detail, on the customer's terms.

The value here, from the customer's side, is not "user centrism" by vendors, but values that are equally deep on the human and personal levels. Not coincidentally, they are the freedoms we fight for: independence, freedom, liberty.

No matter how "user centric" systems may get on the vendor's side, we need a system, or set of systems, on the individual's side, that is at least as powerful — that supports and enables the full measure of independence, freedom and liberty. And as long as we lack that system, we will only have partial solutions to a larger problem, and partial steps toward the last stage of the personal computing revolution.

Second, data.

Steve Gillmor, father and prime mover behind Attention Trust and Gesture Bank (and, more importantly, the prime advocate of individuals' rights to own and control their attention and gesture data, which are both currently accumulating in countless silo'd CRM systems, with near-zero accountability to the individuals being tracked, whether we like it or not), says both those efforts are actually about "user control, pure and simple". He adds, "The user is in charge now. History to come will proceed from that fact."

What Steve looks toward is not a market that's built bottom-up. Because there is no bottom. There is no top. It's not about vendor sports or who's biggest. It's about the individual's ability to bring his or her unique values and choices to vendors who are ready to relate on equal and mutually beneficial terms. Those terms include the individual's right to do what they want with their data — including data accumulating in vendor databases. Because Steve knows what the Industrial System still needs to learn: that customer control of customer data will be good for the vendor as well as the customer.

If this new movement in the marketplace is not top-down or bottom-up, which way is it going?

The answer is inside-out. It's going from the individual out to the marketplace. Individuals needs to be in charge of their independence, their freedom, their liberty, their assets, their choices, their relationships. They will drive market growth in businesses that appreciate how much more can come from independent customers than from dependent ones.

The tools Steve's working on in both Attention Trust and Gesture Bank are wrenches and screwdrivers in a toolbox that still hasn't been developed. Maybe his colleagues in those efforts will develop that toolbox. I don't know. I do know we need it.

Until then, we need to depend on, and support, vendors that respect the individual's ownership of data they produce — especially if those vendors also understand that markets are built on maximized production ability by every participant in that market, including the human gullets we call "consumers".

The best market example I know is digital photography. Who is a digital photo "consumer" any more? Nobody consumes film, and relatively few consume print processing. Instead everybody is a producer in that marketplace. I have close to eleven thousand pictures up on Flickr now. From the start Flickr (a terrific Linux/LAMP hack) and I have both understood that those pictures are my data, and that the two of us are making the most of that fact. Same goes for Tabblo*, a new company that does stuff with photos that Flickr doesn't. Because Flickr has open APIs, and welcomes customers who also work with other vendors, I am able to make montages for printing and sharing, on Tabblo's site, with my Flickr photosets. As a result, Flickr, Tabblo and I all make money off each other, and enjoy productive symbiotic relationships that grow the new photography marketplace.

Meanwhile, where is Kodak, owner of one of the world's largest patent portfolios and leader of the photography industry since the dawn of the category? You tell me. Where I contribute to the market, their name almost never comes up.

In the past we understood market growth largely in terms of "consumer choice" among silo'd competitors. Virtual motto: May the best jail win. In the future we'll understand market growth in terms of conversations and relationships — because markets will increasingly reward companies, and customers, who make the most of both. Virtual motto: May the best relationships win.

As a way of pulling together both independent identity and data ownwershp, Matt Mower wants to turn around the concept of the end user license agreement (EULA), all of which he says "are drafted by a party in a monopoly power position and thus unfair to one party". Instead he sees "a great opportunity to turn the tables on businesses that have been exploiting us. Our persona's should come with an EULA that determines the rights those businesses have with respect to the data we are publishing (which might turn out to be no rights at all). Four posts on this are: Accept my EULA (or... turning the tables), Making personal EULA's work, Fair use in Identity and Life's better when you're in control.

Third, Conferences.

After the latest Linux World Expo, I became more convinced than ever that The System is broken. Cases in point:

  • Nokia loaned out Model 770 Internet Tablets for press people to try using on the show floor, where the show's wi-fi connections barely worked.
  • While leading vendors such as HP, Novell and IBM (where was Red Hat?) had large platoons of professionals on the floor, precious little actual help for actual customers was available. As with every other standard same-old trade show, LinuxWorld is now mostly about sales and marketing. Engineering talk seemed subordinate to sales and marketing functions.
  • Serious geeks, who are still the heart and soul of Linux and the whole free software and open source movements, were at low ebb. You could find them in the .org pavilion and walking around. They weren't gone. But this used to be their show, and it isn't anymore.

And LinuxWorld is hardly alone here. We need trade shows that are put together by whole trades, and by leading practitioners of trades (including leading individuals), rather than just by Big Players who can afford to pay the big bux for the hotel and convention spaces.

I'm not saying that there isn't still demand for booths and sales people and demonstrations and the rest of it. I am saying that the system is hollow if it excludes the most original participants among the ranks of engineers, customers, engineers and thinkers like Steve Gillmor -- who contribute enormously to the market conversation yet don't fit neatly into any of the old categories (customer, vendor, analyst, editor).

Unconferences are off to a good start. Dave Winer invented the category, and his BloggerCons have provided a good example for several years now. The BarCamp movement (kind of an open source movement for conferencing) is growing rapidly. Open space methods are widely used too.

But all those are carefully non-commercial, even when sponsorships are involved. We also need something that brings vendors and users into the same place, to build conversations, relationships and products driven by both. For that the best step may be what Dave calls "HyperCamp"."It's totally commercial, unlike an unconference. The idea is to put commerce together with the media. This is the press room for the 21st century," he writes.

We need to start building markets from the inside out, in every market category that depends on relationships between creators of stuff and the people who use that stuff. Because markets aren't just corporate habitats anymore. They're personal.

[Note: This post began as yesterday's SuitWatch newsletter, emailed every other Thursday. Subscriptions are free.]

*Disclosure: I'm on the Tabblo advisory board. It's a position I probably wouldn't hold if I wasn't a photographer who makes the most of Flickr. — DS

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