Customers as a Third Force

Almost all arguments in economics devolve toward one one of two almost opposed positions, which I first saw when visiting two institutions flanking the Charles River in Cambridge: Harvard Business School on one side and Harvard Kennedy School on the other. Above both I saw word balloons in the sky. On the Business School side it said “The answer is the market. What is the question?” On the Kennedy School side it said, “The answer is policy. What is the question?” And between the two I saw a river of customers, all with relatively little power to deal with either or both sides.

So I decided to devote my life’s work toward giving those customers agency—the power to act with full effect—when dealing with both the businesses and governments of the world.

That agency was lost when industry won the industrial revolution, and it remains lost in these early decades of the digital revolution. If it weren’t lost, we wouldn’t have books such as Shoshana Zuboff‘s In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Brett Frischmann and Evan Sellinger‘s Re-Engineering Humanity, You are Not a Gadget (and pretty much everything else) by Jaron Lanier, and everything by Nicholas Carr , David Weinberger, and too many others to list.

My own work toward giving customers (and citizens) agency started with Linux Journal in 1994. It became notorious with The Cluetrain Manifesto (co-written with David Weinberger, Christopher Locke and Rick Levine) in 1999. And then (after notoriety didn’t seem to be working) became a development and research community with ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center in 2006,.

In 2012, ProjectVRM spun out Customer Commons, which since then has quietly been developing personal data usage terms that each of us can proffer, and the businesses of the world can agree to, rather than the reverse (which the GDPR has, alas, exacerbated by normalizing insincere and misleading cookie notices on the Web—a perfect example of policy failing to fix the market problem everybody two paragraphs above has been waxing wise about).

So, after Linux Journal‘s parent company decided, earlier this month, to end that magazine’s 25+ year run (and I was relieved of my duties as its editor-in-chief), I am at liberty to focus my energies on making Customer Commons what we wanted it to be in the first place: a worldwide organization of customers, ready to assert their powers, both individually and collectively, as a third force in the marketplace.

The term third force has multiple uses already, the most common of which seem especially relevant:

  •  “A group of people or nations that mediates between two opposed groups…” —  Free Dictionary
  • (A humanistic psychology that) focuses on inner needs, happiness, fulfillment, the search for identity, and other distinctly human concerns. Psychology: An Introduction, by Russell A. Dewey, PhD

Since customers and citizens are opposed to neither business nor government, but constantly look for positive outcomes in their dealings and relationships with both, third force works.

Our work as a third force is work toward surfacing, equipping, and institutionalizing, customer and citizen powers that align the interests of all three groups: interests which have thus far been subordinated to “what business can do” and “what government can do” for people.

That work requires heavier lifting than Customer Commons can do as a small and lightweight organization. We need to get big and real enough to earn power and standing when dealing with business, with governments, and with allied organizations doing complementary work.

That means we need funding.

We weren’t ready for that in the past, for two reasons. One was that we wanted to see what the GDPR would do. Now we know: it’s not enough. The other was that all of our board members (which thus far comprise the whole organization) were busy with their day jobs. Now that I’ve been liberated from mine, I’m free to talk. If you want to help make customers and citizens a true third force in the connected world’s commons, write me. I’m doc at searls dot com.

By the way, I have a milestone that I’d like to treat as a deadline for the first commitments of funding for Customer Commons: The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Memorial Lecture, which I’ll be giving at the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University, on October 9th. In that lecture (provisionally titled “The Internet as a Commons”) I plan to make the case for a thesis we raised at the start of ProjectVRM: that free customers (and citizens) are more valuable than captive ones—to themselves and to everyone else. Also that our freedom depends on establishing a commons in a connected world—the Internet—that was designed as one in the first place. Toward that goal it will help greatly to make Customer Commons the substantive organization it was always meant to be—and one to which the world’s customers and citizens can all belong.

— Doc Searls