The Personal Revolution

individualWhile the history of computing and communications often appears to be one led by big entities in business and government, the biggest revolution has actually been a personal one.  Each of us, as individuals, have acquired abilities that were once those of organizations alone — and have done far more with those abilities than the big players ever could — for those big players as well as for ourselves.

It started in the early ’80s, when the IBM PC became host to thousands of new applications for individuals. Personal computers suddenly proved to be a far more fertile ground for application development and new ueses than were the old corporate mainframes and minicomputers. Computing was no longer only about calculating and data processing. It was about everything one could imagine. The result was a profusion of new capabilities for individuals that also brought great benefits to organizations of all kinds and sizes.

A little more than a decade later, in the mid-’90s, the Internet did for communications what the PC did for computing. It gave individuals abilities that went far beyond those enjoyed by big organizations anywhere. Thanks to the Net, anybody could connect with anybody (or anything), anywhere in the world, using protocols that nobody owned, everybody could use, and anybody could improve. Even though there were many owned networks within the Internet, none governed the whole, and the result was a system that put every connected thing at zero functional distance from every other thing, at costs that could often be treated as zero. The positive economic and social externalities of the Internet today are beyond calculation. Again, as with PCs, this owes to new power in the hands of individuals that proved good for organizations as well.

Then in the late ’00s, smartphones and tablets put personal computing and communications advances — won by the PC and the Internet — into devices that fit in pockets and purses, running on platforms that invited millions of new applications. Once again, the increase in personal power and freedom proved essential to organizations as well. Initial resistance to BYOD (bring your own device) has ended, and companies now develop their own apps for employees and customers to use on their smartphones and tablets.

The upward trend in personal empowerment will move next to the “Internet of things,” as more of those objects and devices become equipped with computing and communication abilities — and as individuals gain the power to combine and program interactions between those things and the many services available through APIs ( application programming interfaces) and apps. Each of us will be able, either by ourselves or with the help of “fourth parties” (ones that work for us, as do brokers and banks) to control our identities, secure our privacy, and manage our many interactions in the world, without having to rely on any one platform, vendor or other enabling party. Far better economic signaling will move in both directions between demand and supply. Genuine, trusting and productive relationships will develop, and earned loyalty will prove far more useful than the coerced kind. In sum, the market will discover that free customers and citizens will prove more capable and productive than captive ones, and that this will be good for both business and society.

Progress in this direction will not be easy or even. All through the history just outlined, there have also been constant efforts to contain and limit what individuals can do with their computing and communications abilities. Large incumbent players have worked to create dependencies from which we cannot escape, and to resist competition in open markets. In spite of the many advances they have brought to the market’s table, phone and cable companies today still operate actual or virtual monopolies, and have been working from the start — aided by captive legislators and regulators — to subordinate the Internet’s boundless positive economic externalities to their own legacy business interests. Copyright and patent absolutists have also pushed successfully for laws and regulations that thwart or stop innovation and growth outside their own virtual castles.

And now, in many countries that value neither free markets nor free citizens, efforts are afoot to move Internet “governance” (an oxymoron from the angle of the Internet’s founding protocols) from organizations such as ICANN to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union, now part of the U.N.), where they can partition the Net along national lines, censor it (as in China today), and impose tariffs on data traffic across borders — enriching governments at great expense to economic growth and prosperity, and the welfare of citizens.

Yet the computing, communications and programming genies continue to do their magic for individuals and the organizations they comprise and support. Those genies will not go back in their old bottles. Thus the way to bet in the long run is on personal and economic freedom, and the general prosperity that arises from both. The only way to make that bet pay off, however, is to work on the side of individuals and the developers that empower them. That’s our job here at Customer Commons, and we invite you to join us in that work.

Discounts are free if your time has no value

“Love it or hate it, Black Friday is all about the deals,” AdAge says, in Target, Amazon, Poised to Win Black Friday. That love/hate conflict speaks to the mixed blessings (and curses) of tying a store’s — or a whole market’s — success to “deals” alone. The bargains, for both retailers and customers, can be Faustian.

Exhibit A: Kmart.

Back around the turn of the millennium, I attended a retail conference where two of the speakers were myself and Lee Scott, then the CEO of Walmart. We represented the bookends of demand and supply: as a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, I represented the customer. As CEO of the world’s largest retailer, Lee represented his whole industry.

The location was Lucerne, and the lunch was boxed. It was a nice day, so my wife and I took our boxes outside and sat at a small table near the lake. Lee came over and asked if he could join us. I said sure, and then used this rare opportunity to pump the dude with questions. My first was “What happened to Kmart?” — which was then closing stores and heading toward bankruptcy.

His answer: “Coupons.” Some large percentage of Kmart’s overhead, he said, was devoted to publishing what amounted to its own currency, and then dealing with numerous effects, which only began with the time wasted by handling that currency at check-out. In addition to inconveniencing everybody involved, couponing also had the effect of “downscaling” the demographics of the customer base to a caste then known to the trade as “coupon-clippers.” (This population has now become so large — and expert — that the reality TV show Extreme Couponing persists into its third season.)

Walmart, Lee explained, minimized its dealings with coupons — and even advertising, which was limited (by decree of the late Sam Walton) to some small percentage of the company’s overhead. Instead they let the company’s tagline, “Everyday low prices,” do most of the work. (That tagline was also Sam’s.)

When I asked Lee if there were any large retailers he thought did an especially good job, he singled out Costco, which also succeeded through simplification. (Yes, they do publish and take coupons, but it’s a side thing, rather than the main thing. As a Costco customer you don’t need coupons to obtain the sense that you’re paying a low price for the goods they sell.)

Retailing has long had its time-sucking frictions. When I was growing up, in the 1950s and ’60s, the big one was stamps. The main driver of the trend was S&H Green Stamps, which had many competing imitators. The original idea was for retailers to differentiate from other retailers by offering sheets of stamps with every purchase, which customers could paste into a booklet, which they would later trade in for an outdoor grill, a door mat, or some other item from a catalog. It’s been said that S&H at its peak issued more stamps than the U.S. Post Office, and that the largest press run in human history was the 1966 Green Stamps catalog. Eventually, however, nearly every store offered the stamps, differentiation ended, and whole fad collapsed.

Today we have a similar fad with loyalty cards. Never mind that most retailers (or so it seems) now have them, but that they have costs to both retailers and customers. Here are just a few:

  • Maintaining two or more prices for items throughout the store
  • Forcing both personnel and customers to attend constantly to the differences in prices on “discounted” items
  • Partially or completely obscuring what the “real” price might be. Is the non-discounted price a surcharge for non-card-carrying customers? Probably, if the “regular” price for a dozen eggs is $3.99, and the “discount” price is $1.99 — when, say, Trader Joe’s (which has a single non-discount price for everything) wants $1.99 for the same eggs.
  • Maintaining “big data” systems for tracking customers and “personalizing” offers for them.
  • Obscuring the real value of goods gets even more than it already might be.
  • Coercing loyalty rather than earning it, causing emotional dissonance that can damage a company’s brand value.

All those practices, and many more, are both normative and highly rationalized within retailing today. Yet the notable exceptions, such as Trader Joe’s, reveal how much time, money and effort by both sellers and buyers in systems that are essentially coercive.

What would happen if we began to respect time as our most essential value? Would we have discounting at all? Not sure, which is why we need to talk about it. There are real costs to discounting. If our time has any value at all, then discounting is not free. And the hidden costs may be far higher than the obvious ones.

Join Customer Commons at our Salon on Personal Data and Identity — Ignite Style

Please come to the Customer Commons Salon, Monday, October 22  6-9pm !!

WHERE:   Singularity U at Moffett Field / NASA in Mountain View
WHAT:   Ignite sessions from 7-8pm on Personal Data and Identity projects
AGENDA:  Dinner: 6-7pm
7-8pm: Ignite talks including: Doc Searls on VRM, Jennifer Cobb on Customer Commons, Ben Adida on Persona — a Mozilla project for identity online, Salim Ismail on Big Data and Credit Reporting Agencies, Shelia Grady on Big Data and Advertising, Iain Henderson on Personal Data Stores .. and More!
8-9pm Dessert and networking
If you have a suggestion for a talk, please email me at hodder @ gmail.
Thanks and SIGN UP AT EVENTBRITE to cover your dinner:

Cataracts for Customers

Let’s say you have an iPhone, and your carrier is AT&T.* That puts you deep inside what Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) calls a confusopoly (and illustrates here). His text explanation:

A confusopoly is a situation in which companies pretend to compete on price, service, and features but in fact they are just trying to confuse customers so no one can do comparison shopping.

Cell [mobile] phone companies are the best example of confusopolies. The average consumer finds it impossible to decipher which carrier has the best deal, so carriers don’t have normal market pressure to lower prices. It’s a virtual cartel without the illegal part.

Now let’s just take data (and leave text and voice charges aside). Whether you choose the mobile share or the individual plan, you’re certain to pay for more than you use, unless you work carefully to use exactly 300Mb, 3Gb, 5Gb or whatever you guessed you’d use when you set the plan up in the first place.

But how can you know exactly what you’ve used? Well, by doing this:

You go into settings, hit General, then Cellular, then Cellular Usage (be sure to scroll down, because it’s off the screen), then Reset Statistics. But first you’ll want to freeze the prior total by taking a screen shot. You do this by pressing the round button in the front and the rectangular one on the top, at exactly the same time. Since resetting causes the phone to forget all prior data usage, you’ll need to save the screen shots so you can track that usage, by eyeball (since you don’t have the data, just a snapshot), and do all this repeatedly, over time. Not easy. (For example, I missed screen-shooting the middle bottom one in the example above, so I created a new one just to illustrate how disadvantaged your ability to track usage actually is.

Usually you don’t need to pay much attention, especially if you’ve got a data plan in the GB rather than the MB range.  But you need to do this often if you leave the country and need to get on the Internet. Because, according to AT&T’s Affordable World Packages page, every KB will cost you $0.0150 in Canada and $0.0195 in the rest of the world. Since there are 1000KB in a MB, and 1000MB in a GB, we’re talking $15/MB and $15,000/GB in Canada and $19.50/MB and $19,500.00/GB elsewhere. This kind of non-plan tends to cause “bill shock.” In many cases, shock is an understatement. (Here’s a report on my own run-in with Sprint several years back.)

So instead you go for one of the “affordable” plans, which look like this:

att international

The overage in each case is $30/120MB, which is 25¢/MB, or $250/GB, which is 25x the overage AT&T charges on its 3GB and 5GB domestic plans for individuals.

Confused? Of course. The whole system is partially opaque, like a cataract, or frosted glass. On purpose. This whole thing is designed so the phone company’s billing system knows constantly what’s going on while you don’t.  Knowledge, by intent, is highly asymmetrical. That way they win and you lose — while thinking you’re winning because you’ve picked the “best” plan, and have avoided getting a $10,000 bill after making the mistake of watching a movie over a cell connection in London when you thought you were on the hotel wi-fi. (Easy to do. The only thing that looks different while you’re watching is a tiny wi-fi symbol at the top of the screen, which you won’t see if you’re watching the movie in landscape mode.)

Yes, AT&T does send little text warnings when you land in another country, and notifies you as well when you hit an overage threshold, at least stateside. (I dunno about overseas.) But they still hold nearly all the cards, while all you’ve got is guesswork up front and a labyrinth of screens to spelunk through just to see where you stand, cringing every time you go there, in fear that maybe you didn’t set things right in the first place, or that you forgot to turn off cellular data (steps 1-3, above) when you left your hotel room’s wi-fi zone.

This actually sucks for the phone companies as well as for their customers. That’s because customers are a company’s nerve endings in the marketplace. If a company has a genuine and respectful relationship with customers, those customers send clear and strong signals reporting on what’s actually happening in the marketplace. Company and customer see clearly together, rather than with one clear and one half-blind eye.

Mobile phone companies don’t have to suck. A good case in point is Ting, an independent mobile phone company operating here in the U.S. With Ting, you pay only for what you use. They do publish plans, but they do that only because plans are what people are used to. Beyond that it couldn’t be more simple. Each month you are either credited for what you didn’t use, or charged for what you did, if you went over your planed amount. They also publish their phone number right on the home page, and have clear help pages and forums linked there too. They do sell phones, as cheaply as they can; but they don’t subsidize any. You either bring your own phone or buy one from them. They don’t care. There is also no charge for stopping your account. Or (and this is cool) for tethering, for example by using your phone as a wi-fi hotspot.

Ting was started by customers who were tired of having to deal with mobile phone companies that game customers with gimmicks and gotchas. They’re a great model for what innovative companies in other industries can do to break up confusopolies there as well.

And I do have some* hope for AT&T. At the Retailing Summit in Dallas this week, Kelly King of AT&T did a good job reporting how hard the company is working to change its ways, and to become more customer-friendly and helpful. It was an impressive talk, and made clear how much catching up to demand all mobile data carriers have to do.

Do you know of other companies breaking out of the confusopoly mold? Let us know in the comments below.

* I don’t mean to pick on AT&T. They just happen to be my mobile phone carrier, and the one I know best. One could say the same of Sprint, TMobile and Verizon, I’m sure. (And yes, there is this, about a different division of AT&T. It matters, but it is also beside the points being made here.)

Personal vs. Personalized

In Worth The Deal? Groceries Get A Personalized Price, Ashley Gross on NPR says,

Heather Kulper is one of those people who really wants to get a good deal. She’s a mom in a suburb north of Seattle who writes a blog about coupon clipping and saving money.

On a recent shopping trip to Safeway, Kulper pulls up a special Safeway app on her phone called Just For U. It shows her deeper discounts on products that she’s likely to buy based on her shopping history. The deals are lower than the club card discount listed in the aisle. When she checks out, she gets that personalized sale price.

“This is the artisan caramelized onion bread, which is normally $4.29. Priced with the Safeway club card, it’s $2.99,” Kulper says. “But with the Just For U personalized deal, it’s 99 cents.”

Kulper says it feels a little bit like she’s getting a secret deal.

It’s kind of like the old days, when you walked into a relative’s small grocery store, and they gave you the family discount. Except now, this is a big corporation using computers to calculate exactly your propensity to buy and at what price.

She concludes,

On this most recent trip, Kulper saved 41 percent with the Just for U app and coupons — $21 altogether — on her purchases. She says she’s happy with her discount, and she doesn’t mind that Safeway knows every tiny little detail of what groceries she buys. To Kulper, it’s worth it, as long as she can save money.

I can’t find Heather Kulper’s blog (the story doesn’t provide a link, and searches go mostly to the story), but it’s clear that she’s one kind of shopper: the aggressive bargain hunter. Is Safeway trying to turn all customers into full-time bargain hunters? Hard to say at this point, because it’s not clear whether a card-carrying Safeway customer is hunting for bargains, or simply forced to use the card to avoid paying the inflated “normal” price. It’s also not clear whether a personalized discount is any different than a coupon. The image above is one I shot of a Stop & Shop scanner, telling me about one in a series of discounts it offered me, based (presumably) on past purchases at the store.

Let’s think about about turning this around, to a system you control as a customer. You share your shopping list with the stores where you like to shop, and they come back with information about what they’ve got. Maybe they tell you they’ll give you a discounted price, or maybe they’ll tell you something is out of stock, or maybe they try to switch you to buying something else. In any of those cases you should also be able to tell them what you like or don’t like about what they’re telling you, and why. What matters in this alternative system is that the system is yours, not theirs. You take the lead, you control the information you share, and you aren’t trapped into many separate relationships, each with its own system for relating with you. In other words, it’s personal — by you —rather than personalized for you.

This is VRM, for Vendor Relationship Management. It’s how you run your relationships with many different companies, rather than how they run their relationships with many different customers. (Those are called CRM, for Customer Relationship Management, a many-$billion business.)

It’s still early, so there’s lots of room for customers to take the lead in helping develop VRM tools and services. You’ll find a list here, in the ProjectVRM wiki.

Why CRM needs to turn around

This guest post is by Charles Oppenheimer, creator of Prizzm and

CRM (customer relationship management ) are systems that companies use to track their customers.  The hope for most companies that invest in CRM is that their  investment will produce happier customers, that loyal customers will produce more profits.

To some extent CRM investment has worked for companies that have made long term investments in CRM processes, despite the flaws with these systems.     Apple is a decent example, they invest in very high end  CRM systems – but no amount of money they spent on customer service is too much, they are wildly profitable, and probably just want to spend more to make customers happier.   But many customers  feel that the investment hasn’t worked, they aren’t happy, or often outraged and appalled by terrible service and awful ads  and marketing.  Here is a recent one about United Airlines – one of the few cases where terrible customer service is almost life threatening. Usually it’s not that bad, but as customers we have the right to express ourselves if we don’t like our vendor, either by taking our business elsewhere or complaining – or both.

There are a number of problems with  CRM promise:

1. CRM doesn’t work.  CRM doesn’t “manage” relationships with customers. Oops.  They are databases that track a few data points and transactions – at best. Often they fail to do that too. Oops again.

2. They are inefficient – they can cost an enormous amount of money, smaller businesses generally don’t use them at all.  The cloud/saas has reduced some of the costs, but many costs are organizational and haven’t fallen that far.

That isn’t stoping the CRM industry, many players are growing as fast as ever. Who doesn’t want happier customers?  But there is a shift going on in CRM  – powered by the proveribal social media firehose.  Although there is a lot of hype, it’s true, things have changed, both in marketing sideand service side of CRM. Customers now have systems of their own and public voices. For every corporate dashboard showing stack ranking of satisfied customers, there is likely to be an outraged blog post, or tweets or facebook messages about the company for all the world to see.  The fact that each person is a publisher has changed the way many companies see their customers.  They are a bit scared, and excited by the opportunity, the changes in what’s going on with social media.

Companies are excited about social media because it may produce new revenue channels, and they are scared because customers can say anything they want about any company, with better reach than most marketing campaigns.   And indeed, the fastest growing segment of CRM is those parts that deal with social media. Systems that publish tweets, that monitor sentiment, scanning twitter and responding – these systems are flying off the shelf.

CRM systems have always been fancy databases. Databases of first name, last name, middle name, multiple addresses.  Companies fill that information out themselves,  and hundreds of different companies track the same people, often inaccurately across multiple systems they spend billions on.  And that doesn’t tend to make  happier customers.

The problem with the Social Media investments in CRM is companies are making investments in the same the traditional database CRM model – companies owning the data. They scan social networks and import the data into their CRM system, and believe they know customers better.

Proposal.  Here is where CRM needs to go: Customers need to track companies, and use their own systems to do it.  A model that is the reverse of the current system, companies tracking and marketing to their own customers.  A system that the fundamental data model radiates from the individual, each customer tracking multiple companies.

It’s not how CRM systems are built now. It should be.

Each customer should have records of companies and products they deal with, what they think about them, what issues they have, what they recommend.  That is already happening to some extent – how many of your friends have complained about companies on facebook, how many times do you turn to Yelp for a review instead of the yellow pages? This trend isn’t stopping there needs to be more tools that support customers more efficiently, so each customer will have evolving tools that hopefully work more like Facebook than Oracle.

Let’s help NBC prep for the 2014 Winter Olympics

ice crystals and olympics symbol

The 2012 Summer Olympics are almost over, but not the challenge of a world where more and more customers are looking to watch coverage — especially of the live kind — on devices other than TVs, and through connections other than cable and satellite.

This has proved hard for many cable and satellite TV customers (myself, for example.) who would also like to watch NBC’s coverage on computers, smartphones, tablets, or large screens connected directly over the Internet.

For example, in spite of NBC’s good efforts (in the form, for example, of smartphone and tablet apps), it has often proven hard for cable and satellite TV customers to authenticate with their providers, or to find what programming packages are required to obtain NBC’s coverage services for the olympics.

No doubt NBC will soon be sitting down with itself, and with its distribution partners, to discuss what they have learned over the last few weeks, and to begin preparing for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Customer Commons wishes to help with that, by convening an independent forum where all of us can discuss what we’ve learned, and where customers can offer constructive help.

This will not be the place to complain, or to assume that the only parties in a position to come up with good ideas and solutions are NBC and its distribution partners. Out here in the long tail, we have plenty of good ideas too, and are willing to help any way we can. (In fact, I did that for NBC’s Winter 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, by contributing ice crystal images that appeared on screen throughout the event.) We are mindful that the goods are not free for the taking, and that improvements must be worthwhile for everybody, starting with NBC and its bottom line.

We’ll start with comments here, while we set up the forum. If the forum proves successful, we will also have a body of experience that can be leveraged in other markets where meeting demands of a fast-arriving future are daunting for everybody involved. We also invite ProjectVRM and PDE.Cc developers to come help out too. (These are developers working to solve market problems from the customer side, in cooperation with sellers.)

We have a unique opportunity here, while the olympics are still going on, to direct everybody’s interests in a positive and mutually helpful direction, a year and a half before the next olympics begin. So let’s go for it.


I’ve been following the Craigslist/PadMapper news.    As the situation has unfolded to include 3Taps,  Craigslist suing both companies claiming all sorts of legal infractions including the assertion that the User Generated Content on Craigslist is now owned by Craigslist (per the rights claims in the Terms of Use) citing those terms as:

“Any access to or use of craigslist to design, develop, test, update, operate, modify, maintain, support, market, advertise, distribute or otherwise make available any program, application or service (including, without limitation, any device, technology, product, computer program, mobile device application, website, or mechanical or personal service) that enables or provides access to, use of, operation of or interoperation with craigslist (including, without limitation, to access content, post content, cross-post content, re-post content, respond or reply to content, verify content, transmit content, create accounts, verify accounts, use accounts, circumvent and/or automate technological security measures or restrictions, or flag content) is prohibited. This prohibition specifically applies but is not limited to software, programs, applications and services for use or operation on or by any computer and/or any electronic, wireless and/or mobile device, technology or product that exists now or in the future.”

I have to remind myself that this is ‘Craigslist’ that ‘hippiesque’ community postings hub.   BUT reading this I am reminded that it is a corporation and compared to PadMapper and 3Taps it is an ’800 pound gorilla.’   Nothing demonstrates that better than this language quoted above from their TOS and their lawsuit.  How can they not see how these terms are in direct conflict with the desires of their huge community of users.  Put simply,  the legal posture misses the forrest for the trees.  The community (Craigslist CUSTOMERS) get this,   of Digital Trends writes:

All that said, putting sites like PadMapper out to pasture is incredibly, incredibly anti-consumer. And it means that Craiglist has two choices: Either allow the likes of PadMapper to exist, or massively update your platform. I’m in favor of the former — slap a licensing fee on interested parties for all I care, and those that are truly getting traffic thanks to the database that Craigslist has created will pony up the cash. Sure, you’re feeding your competition in that scenario, but unless you’re willing to redesign your site for a pleasant and successful user experience then you may as well demote yourself from consumer-facing application to platform.

As something of a short term (but maybe long term) solution, PadMapper is promoting its own service, PadLister, where you can list a home for free on the site. The entire debacle is getting so much hype that PadLister’s name is rising. Considering the angry mob ready to charge with virtual pitchforks, this could easily have a negative effect on Craigslist.

It sounds childish to say this, but you’re being plain mean to users, Craigslist. Your site is chock-full of data I need, but your interface is an exercise in torture. Either give me the tools to effectively use your site or allow someone else to do it.

Craigslist is fundamentally about community, it’s success is because of community support and now it is biting the hand that feeds it . In the wake of this news and community uproar, I wondered if Craigslist would respond to their community,  attempt to mitigate this community relations disaster.  Perhaps  engaging with them to address complaints about the outdated platform.

Given the community uproar Craigslist’s lawyers ought to be urging their executives to ‘make love not war!’  Not so.  Yesterday, Craigslist ‘upped the ante’ by sneaking the following exclusive license clause in Craigslist posts:

Clicking “Continue” confirms that craigslist is the exclusive licensee of this content, with the exclusive right to enforce copyrights against anyone copying, republishing, distributing or preparing derivative works without its consent.

In his blog post, Jonathan Berger writes:

I don’t remember seeing this before at the bottom of the Craigslist posting form. I’m guessing this is the result of the Padmapper debacle?

Claiming an exclusive license over user content is, until yesterday, unheard of and, in this case,  it is just dumb.    Moreover, sneaking in terms, after the fact, is plain wrong.  By doing this, Craigslist made it clear that they have officially moved to the dark side.

From a legal perspective claiming ownership (exclusive license) of the content copyright would make sense if there was a copyright to claim.   You can’t copyright facts so in a classified ad perhaps the only ‘copyrightable’ content is the descriptive wording of the ad .  The  ‘substance’ such as price, rooms, location (in the case of rental listings) is not subject to copyright.  Put simply, dumb move all the way around!  Timothy Lee of Ars Technica wrote an excellent analysis which concludes with the following insight:

“Craigslist fails to recognize that its users gain value by having their advertisements widely distributed and searchable. Instead of working to benefit its users by developing new, innovative features itself or encouraging third-party developers to do the same, Craigslist believes it can retain its strength in the market simply by clinging to its user’s content in a Gollum-like fashion.” 

By standing with the interests of their community, Craigslist could benefit on the business side, too.   As it stands, they are giving up a tremendous opportunity for additional revenue.  As a user of Craiglists’ free service I would gladly pay a small fee to have my listing distributed more widely on other networks. Craigslist could have additional revenue from it’s users and additional revenue from partnering agreements with other networks by becoming a data broker on behalf of their listing users.

I know that this situation will likely be discussed at business schools and maybe it will even be written up as a business case study, in the future.   Depending on the outcome of the litigation, the litigation claims may be discussed in law schools.  It is unlikely that the discussion at the business school will be anything like the one at the law school.   Unfortunately, both will miss the point, that in their zeal to win they are really losing.

A question of intent

The concepts behind Facebook’s rumored “WANT” button are rooted in the idea of the “intention economy” and are generalizable beyond the Facebook ecosystem. Both customers and enterprises, using today’s existing infrastructure and conventions, can create and listen for intention signals using open, lightweight mechanisms, with customers creating those signals and enterprises listening for them. The approach described here outlines one such mechanism.

The Facebook “WANT” button is the canary in the coal mine for the “intention economy”

On June 27, 2012, blogger Tom Waddington discovered that Facebook had included the ability to create a “WANT” button in its software development kit (SDK). According to reports from Waddington, as well as others including Inside FacebookGizmodoVentureBeat and Mashable, the button will be a way for individuals to indicate their desire to purchase a product.

Inside Facebook had the following to say:

“Just as the Like button allowed Facebook to collect massive amounts of data about users’ interests, the Want button could be a key way for the social network to collect desire-based data. A Want button plugin will make it easy for e-commerce and other sites to implement this type of Facebook functionality without having to build their own apps.”

The fact that Facebook may be testing the “WANT” button is the clearest indication to date that we are on the path to the “intention economy.” Doc Searls has described the intention economy as “an economy driven by consumer intent, where vendors must respond to the actual intentions of customers.” Others, such as John Hagel, have stated that this thinking around the intention economy “is a graphic demonstration of the shift from push to pull that is disrupting our business world.

The “WANT” button, however, is hobbled by the fact that it only works in the Facebook ecosystem and, more importantly, appears as if it’s going to require a non-trivial bit of work to implement. Additionally, the “WANT” button is 100% driven by vendors who are selling items – if the vendor hasn’t indicated through a bit of arcane code that the “WANT” button is available for an item, the button will not appear. There is no way for an individual to initiate the conversation around desire for an arbitrary product or service.

Although definitely a step in the right direction, indicating interest through the proprietary “WANT” button within Facebook is a relatively coarse-grained way for a customer to signal intent.

Internet culture has already created conventions for signaling

That said, there are other pieces of the intention puzzle already in place that can be used. The expression of intention is, at its core, a signal. For the past few decades in particular, however, most of the “signaling” between vendors and customers has come from the vendor in the form of advertising, PR and the like. (In fact, one could argue that the whole discipline around creating “messaging platforms” for large enterprises is, at its core, an attempt to create clear, differentiated signals from the vendor side.) However, as more customer-driven publishing and communication methods have been created, first with blogs and more recently with customer-created conventions on top of proprietary platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, individuals have started to introduce their own signaling mechanisms into the fray. Here are two examples:

The hashtag (#) is a signal of topic, organization or keyword. For instance, including a hashtag of #bacon in a post or tweet makes it easy to search for posts that are about bacon.

In the example above, the #bacon hashtag makes it easy to find this post.

The interesting thing about the hashtag construct is that is was created organically. It wasn’t created by a committee, it wasn’t designed by an organization, it wasn’t created as part of a marketing campaign. The hashtag was simply proposed by Chris Messina (@chrismessina) in a single tweet in 2007 as a way to easily find related conversations about BarCamp that were happening online at that time.

You can learn more about the history of the hashtag here.

Since then, the humble hashtag has become the de facto signal that the text that follows it is related to a topic or is a concept of importance to the author of that post. In contrast to the “WANT” button, which needs to be supported by Facebook and explicitly supported by the vendors of products or services that a customer might “want,” it’s important to note that there is no central organization that creates or approves hashtags. Hashtags follow the “NEA” protocol of the open internet:


  • Nobody owns them
  • Everybody can use them, and
  • Anybody can improve them

The NEA concept is important. If something conforms to NEA, it can scale, grow, evolve and morph as a market evolves, without constraint. This enables the possibility of a very fast, very efficient process of innovation and improvement.

If the hashtag is a signal of topic and organization, then the at-reply (@reply) is the de facto signal of social connection. The at-reply convention has evolved to signal that the message contains information that is of particular interest to a particular individual or entity.

Lou really, really loves Zappos and wants to make sure that Zappos knows it.

Like the hashtag, the concept of an “at-reply” evolved organically, though a conversation of individuals on Twitter. You can learn more about the history of the at-reply here.

Sometimes these conventions get combined. For example, Micah Baldwin (@micahproposed the concept of a “Follow Friday” online event, when he sent a tweet and named a number of individuals with the at-reply notation. In doing so, he started a ritual that many people invoke every week on Friday. Now, every week tens or hundreds of thousands of people recommend others in their networks as individuals who are worthwhile to follow on the Twitter service using the #followfriday and #ff hashtags coupled with those individuals’ Twitter handles.

Although both the hashtag and at-reply conventions were initially invoked on Twitter, they are concepts that are platform agnostic at their core. Since then, both concepts have jumped to other platforms including Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+, underlining the fact that useful, simple solutions to individuals’ needs are not constrained to any one technology silo.

A question of intent

In the same way that the hashtag is a signal of organization and the at-reply is a signal of connection, the question mark (?) could be a signal of intent. For example, including ?rentalcar in a post could indicate that the poster has intent to procure a rental car, the inclusion of ?flight could indicate that the poster is looking for airfares for an upcoming trip, and so forth.

The first example of this I’ve seen in the wild occurred earlier this week.

For vendors, this approach triggers a number of things, the first of which is that it turns on a lead-generation mechanism with extremely high fidelity. If an individual has explicitly stated intent via this mechanism, that individual is the hottest possible prospect. This mechanism is beacon to vendors: “Here is a customer who wants to buy what you’re selling.”

Organizations are already using tools such as Radian6, Sysomos, Attensity, and even free tools such as Tweetdeck and basic Twitter search to seek out individuals who are mentioning their brands. The extension of those listening efforts to additionally listen for intent signals of this type are nominal. (Listening tools like NeedTagger are already starting to move in this direction.) From the customer’s side, there is a similarly minimal learning curve required. Anyone can state intent in this manner using existing tools in a matter of moments.

We saw that explicit technical support for concepts such as the hashtag and at-reply did, after a period of time, eventually become a part of the systems upon which they were built. It is a similarly straightforward effort for platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to support this question mark based notation for intent. In doing so, those platforms would be also able to generate highly valuable trend information on the types of intention signals that are “trending” across various geographies and demographics, in the same way that Twitter and Google+ today highlight trending topics within their services based on the frequency of use of particular hashtags.

A statement of permission

There’s a flip side to this idea of unambiguously indicating intent with a statement such as ?flight. By explicitly indicating intent, an individual is indicating interest and is also explicitly giving permission for vendors to contact them. This is the grail for marketers. In the current state of affairs, there is still a huge differential between what vendors, advertisers and publishers of information believe that a particular individual is interested in, and the actual reality of the situation. We’ve all received “targeted” ads on social platforms that are so off the mark to be laughable. With clear intention signals, however, that guesswork is reduced to near-zero; the interaction is all signal and no noise. (Huge kudos to @lisastone for this insight on how the flip side of intention is permission.)

So…what do folks think about using the ? as an indicator of intent, in the same way that we’ve used other signaling mechanisms as noted above?

This post originally appeared at

Free vs. Followed

grasped hand The fight between the free market and the followed market is about to begin. And the way to bet is on the free market, because it’s what we know works best. Also because the followed market is nuts.  It only persists because it’s normative at the moment, and an enormous sum of investment is going into improving what’s most nuts about it: following people around and constantly guessing at what they might want (or trying to make them want something some algorithm thinks it might be able to make them want).

Let’s look at those norms a bit more closely. In the followed market, we —

  • Maintain separate logins and passwords for every site and service with which we do business, which might number in the hundreds
  • “Agree” to terms of service and privacy policies that we don’t bother to read because we have no choice but to accept them if we want to use the offered services
  • Acquiesce to stalking by sites and their third parties, even as we travel out of those sites and around the Web

In the physical world where the free market remains defaulted, you are free to be who you say you are (or to remain anonymous — that is, nameless in the literal sense), and to arrive at whatever terms are agreeable to you and the sellers you engage, with minimal coercion. This is what we enjoy when we walk through a bazaar, down Main Steet, or through a shopping mall. We don’t have to become a member of Nordstrom, or Trader Joe’s, The Container Store, or the corner grocer, to shop there, or to buy anything from them. And, when we do, we usually assume that we are not being tracked by the store after we leave.

In the followed market, we are free to choose between captors who make all the rules. Our personal identity is the separate one we have with each of them, and which they administrate. Our relationship with each of them is fully contained within their separate silo’d systems. Worst of all, we are stalked after we leave, as a matter of course. “Social” sites such as Facebook aid in surveillance by making it easy for us to spill all kinds of personal data — about ourselves and our contacts — when we “login with Facebook” elsewhere.

And its getting worse.

On July 30, 2010, The Wall Street Jounal inaugurated its What They Know series ( with The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, by Julia Angwin. Here were the key findings she reported:

• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.

On the 17th of this month, in Online Tracking Ramps Up, Julia begins,

Online tracking on 50 of the most-visited websites has risen sharply since 2010, driven in part by the rise of online-advertising auctions, according to a new study by data-management company Krux Digital Inc.

The average visit to a Web page triggered 56 instances of data collection, up from just 10 instances when Krux conducted its initial study, in November 2010. The latest study was conducted last December.”The main reason for the difference is live online auctions of data about you:

Krux estimated that such auctions, known as real-time bidding exchanges, contribute to 40% of online data collection.In real-time bidding, as soon as a user visits a Web page, the visit is auctioned to the highest bidder, based on attributes such as the type of page visited or previous Web browsing by the user. The bidding is done automatically using computer algorithms.

On June 26, the Journal published On Orbitz, Mac Users Steered to Pricier Hotels, by Dana Mattioli, who writes,

The Orbitz effort, which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people’s online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information—in this case, the fact that customers are visiting from a Mac—to start predicting their tastes and spending habits.

Imagine walking with a friend down 5th Avenue in New York and attempting to have a conversation about the totally different scenes both of you see when you look into the stores you pass or enter together. One of you sees hats in a store window while the other sees shoes. One sees a door where the other sees a wall. One sees a counter of candies while the other sees an aisle of garden tools. When one of you pauses to look at the cosmetics counter, the colors of lipstick suddenly change, because the store — or its third parties — know it’s you and start making guesses about what you might want, or that the companies paying for shelf space in the store hope to make you want. When the other looks at the store directory, she finds that the departments have been re-arranged. Now the shoe department is to her right when it used to be to the left. The dress shoes are now in the back, and all of them are red and black. Athletic shoes are now in front, because she paused to look in the window of a sporting goods store back up the street.

Whether or not this kind of personalization works is beside a more essential point: that in today’s online marketplace we are being followed constantly, with at most only our tacit approval. Without the conscious involvement of fully human customers, operating as free and independent actors possessing full agency, the online environment has gone insane. That is, without coherence, or grounding in reality. It makes sense only to the vendor’s side of the marketplace, and even there it’s not fully together. Writes Julia Angwin in her most recent story,

More than half the time, Krux found that data collectors were piggybacking on each other. For example, when a user visited a website that had code for one tracking technology, the data collection would call out to and trigger other tracking technologies that weren’t embedded on the site. As a result of such piggybacking, websites often don’t know how much data are being collected about their users.

‘It may be the first medium where the buyers have more information about the price, the value and the amount of inventory than the seller,’ said Krux President Gordon McLeod.

In the free market, as it has been understood since our ancestors first traded shells for seeds, certain things are stable and well understood. These include not only the physical nature of locations, but social norms and protocols for interacting with each other, which begin with the assumption that the other party is a free, independent and sovereign being who controls what is public and what is private about themselves. (Which is why, for example, we tend to wear clothes in public and live in enclosed spaces.)

In the free market it would be absurd for a guy from a store to put a hand in your pocket and hold onto your leg while you walked around, saying “Don’t mind me. I’m just here to see what you’re up to. Actually I don’t want to know your name, but just to track what your body is doing so you can get the best advertising and product offerings, based on what some machines think at the moment would be best for you and for us. It’s for your own good.” Or, more literally, to do the same with an invisible robot tick that attaches to your body and sucks out your data. But in the followed market, that stuff is normative in the extreme. And it works well enough, so far, at least for the advertisers and their intermediaries, that it persists in spite of its absurdities.

The followed market will fail not only because it is absurd and offensive to human sensibilities, but because it is not as effective as the kind of simple human interactions we were all built for in the first place. We don’t have those online yet — not in the commercial space comprised of billions of competing silos. But we will. Count on it. The Web we know is just seventeen years old (dating back to the first graphical browsers in 1995).

In a general way, what the free market still lacks online is a build-out of capabilities on the customers’ side to match the build-out of capabilities on the vendors’ side. That’s what ProjectVRM has been working toward for the past six years. The result so far is a growing list of developers, projects and prospects for major breakthroughs in customer capacity to assert independence, establish privacy boundaries, and deal with vendors as self-empowered equals and not as vendor-defined and -controlled dependents.

Customer Commons’ mission is to preserve and improve the free market, both online and off, by helping customers become free and independent participants in that market. So, while ProjectVRM remains focused on development and developers, Customer Commons is focused on putting those developments to work for customers — and for giving customers a way to participate in that development, and to lead it forward.

And we welcome your help with that.