VRM

What’s a Good Customer?

For awhile the subhead for our site was,

How good customers work with good companies

It’s still a timely thing to say, since searches on Google for “good customer” are at an all-time high:

 

The year 2004 was when Google began keeping track of search trends. It was also the year “good customer” hit at an all-time high in percentage of appearances in books Google scanned*:

So, What exactly is a “good customer?”

The answer depends on the size of the business, and how well people or systems in the business know a customer. For a small business, a good customer is a person known by face and name to people who work there, and who has earned a welcome. For a big business, it’s a customer known to spend more than other customers.

In all the cases we’re talking about here, the perspective is the company’s, not the customer’s. If you do a Bing or a Google search for “good customer,” most of the results will be for good customer + service. If you put quotes around “good customer” on either search engine and also The Markup’s Simple Search (which brings to the top “traditional” results not influenced by those engines’ promotional imperatives), your top result will be Paul Jun’s How to be a good customer post on Help Scout. That one offers “tips on how to be a customer that companies love.” Likewise with Are You a Good Customer? Or Not.: Are you Tippin’ or Trippin’? by Janet Vaughan, one of the top results in a search for “good customer” at Amazon. That one is as much a complaint about bad customers as it is advice for customers who aspire to be good. Again, the perspective is a corporate one: either “be nice” or “here’s how to be nice.”

But what if customers can be good in ways that don’t involve paying a lot, showing up frequently and being nice?

For example, what if customers were good sources of intelligence about how companies and their products work—outside current systems meant to minimize exposure to customer input and to restrict that input to the smallest number of variables? (The worst of which is the typical survey that wants to know only how the customer was treated by the agent, rather than by the system behind the agent.)

Consider the fact that a customer’s experience with a product or service is far more rich, persistent and informative than the company’s experience selling those things, or learning about their use only through customer service calls (or even through pre-installed surveillance systems such as those which for years now have been coming in new cars).

The curb weight of customer intelligence (knowledge, knowhow, experience) with a company’s products and services far outweighs whatever the company can know or guess at. What if that intelligence were to be made available by the customer, independently, and in standard ways that worked at scale across many or all of the companies the customer deals with?

At ProjectVRM (of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, and out of which Customer Commons was spun), this has been a consideration from the start. Turning the customer journey into a virtuous cycle explores how much more the customer knows on the “own” side of what marketers call the “customer life journey”†:

Given who much more time a customer spends owning something than buying it, the right side of that graphic is actually huge.

I wrote that piece in July 2013, alongside another that asked, Which CRM companies are ready to dance with VRM? In the comments below, Ray Wang, the Founder, Chairman and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, provided a simple answer: “They aren’t ready. They live in a world of transactions.”

Yet signals between computing systems are also transactional. The surveillance system in your new car is already transacting intelligence about your driving with the company that made the car, plus its third parties (e.g. insurance companies). Now, what if you could, when you wish, share notes or questions about your experience as a driver? For example—

  • How there is a risk that something pointed and set in the trunk can easily puncture the rear bass speaker screwed into the trunk’s roof and is otherwise unprotected
  • How some of the dashboard readouts could be improved
  • How coins or pens dropped next to the console between the front seats risk disappearing to who-knows-where
  • How you really like the way your headlights angle to look toward bends in the road

We also visited what could be done in How a real customer relationship ought to work in 2014 and in Market intelligence that flows both ways in 2016. In that one we use the example of my experience with a pair of Lamo moccasins that gradually lost their soles, but not their souls (I still have and love them):

By giving these things a pico (a digital twin of itself, or what we might call internet-of-thing-ness without onboard smarts), it is not hard to conceive a conduit through which reports of experience might flow from customer to company, while words of advice, reassurance or whatever might flow back in the other direction:

That’s transactional, but it also makes for a far better relationship that what today’s CRM systems alone can imagine.

It also enlarges what “good customer” means. It’s just one way how, as it says at the top, good customers can work with good companies.

Something we’ve noticed in Pandemic Time is that both customers and companies are looking for better ways to get along, and throwing out old norms right and left. (Such as, on the corporate side, needing to work in an office when the work can also be done at home.)

We’ll be vetting some of those ways at VRM/CuCo Day, Monday 19 April. That’s the day before the Internet Identity Workshop, where many of us will be talking and working on bringing ideas like these to market. The first is free, and the second is cheap considering it’s three days long and the most leveraged conference of any kind I have ever known. See you there.


*Google continued scanning books after that time, but the methods differed, and some results are often odd. (For example, if your search goes to 2019, the last year they cover, the  results start dropping in 2009, hit zero in 2012 and stay at zero after that—which is clearly wrong as well as odd.)

†This graphic, and the whole concept, are inventions of Estaban Kolsky, one of the world’s great marketing minds. By the way, Estaban introduced the concept here in 2010, calling it “the experience continuum.” The graphic above comes from a since-vanished page at Oracle.

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Beyond E-commerce

Phil Windley explains e-commerce 1.0  in a single slide that says this:

One reason this happened is that client-server, aka calf-cow  (illustrated in Thinking outside the browser) has been the default format for all relationships on the Web, and cookies were required to maintain those relationships. Which really aren’t. Here’s why:

  1. The calves in these relationship have no easy way even to find  (much less to understand or create) the cookies in their browsers’ jars.
  2. The calves have no real identity of their own, but instead have as many different identities as there are websites that know (via cookies) their visiting browsers. This gives them no independence, much less a place to stand like Archimedes, with a lever on the world. The browser may be a great tool, but it’s neither that place to stand, nor a sufficient lever.
  3. All the “agreements” the calves have with the websites’ cows, whose terms the calves have “accepted” with one click, or adjusted with some number of additional clicks, leave no readable record on the calves’ side. This severely limits their capacity to argue or dispute, which are requirements for a true relationship.
  4. There exists no independent way individuals can signal their intentions—such as interests in purchase, conditions for engagement, or the need to be left alone (which is how Brandeis and Warren define privacy). As a calf, the browser can’t do that.

In other words, the best we can do in e-commerce 1.0 is what the calf-cow system allows. And that’s to depend utterly on the operators of websites—and especially of giant retailers (led by Amazon) and intermediaries (primarily Google and Facebook).

Nearly all of signaling between demand and supply remains trapped inside these silos and walled gardens. We search inside their systems, we are notified of product and service availability inside their systems, we make agreements inside their systems (to terms and conditions they provide and require), or privacy is dependent on their systems, and product and service delivery is handled either inside their systems or through allied and dependent systems.

Credit where due: an enormous amount of good has come out of these systems. But a far larger amount of good is MLOTT—money left on the table—because there is a boundless sum and variety of demand and supply that still cannot easily signal their interest, intentions of presence to each other in the digital world.

Putting that money on the table is the job of e-commerce 2.0—or whatever else we call it.

[Later… We have a suggestion.)


Cross-posted at the ProjectVRM blog, here.

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Thinking Outside the Browser

Even if you’re on a phone, chances are you’re reading this in a browser.

Chances are also that most of what you do online is through a browser.

Hell, many—maybe even most—of the apps you use on your phone use the Webkit browser engine. Meaning they’re browsers too.

And, of course, I’m writing this in a browser.

Two problems with this:

  1. Browsers are clients, which are by design subordinate to servers.
  2. There is a lot that can’t be done with a browser.

So let’s start with subordination.

While the Internet at its base is a word-wide collection of peers, the Web that runs on it is a collection of servers to which we are mere clients. That’s because the Web was was built on an old mainframe model of computing called client-server. This is actually more of a calf-cow arrangement than a peer-to-peer one:

So, while we “go to” or “visit” a website, we actually don’t go anywhere. Instead we request a file. Even when you’re watching or listening to a stream, what’s actually happening is a file unfurling itself into your browser.

What you expect when you go to a website is typically the file called a page. You also expect that page will bring a payload of other files providing graphics, video clips or whatever. You might also expect the site to remember that you’ve been there before, or that you’re a subscriber to the site’s services.

You may also understand that the site remembers you because your browser carries a “cookie” the site put there, to helps the site remember what’s called “state,” so the browser and the site can renew their acquaintance. This is what Lou Montulli  meant the cookie to do when he invented it in 1994. Lou thought it up because the client-server design puts most agency on the server side, and in the dial-up world of the time, that made the most sense.

Alas, even though we now live in a world where there can be boundless intelligence on the individual’s side, and there is far more capacious communication bandwidth between network nodes, damn near everyone continues to presume a near-absolute power asymmetry between clients and servers, calves and cows, people and sites. It’s also why today when you go to a site and it asks you to accept its use of cookies, something unknown to you (presumably—you can’t tell) remembers that “agreement” and its settings, and you don’t—even though there is no reason why you shouldn’t or couldn’t. It doesn’t even occur to the inventors and maintainers of cookie acceptance systems that a mere “user” should have any way to record, revisit or audit the “agreement.” All they want is what the law now requires of them: your “consent.”

This near-absolute power asymmetry between the Web’s calves and cows is also why you typically get a vast payload of spyware when your browser simply asks to see whatever it is you actually want from the website.  To see how big that payload can be, I highly recommend a tool called PageXray, from Fou Analytics, run by Dr. Augustine Fou (aka @acfou). For a test run, try PageXray on the Daily Mail’s U.S. home page, and you’ll see that you’re also getting this huge payload of stuff you didn’t ask for:

Adserver Requests: 756
Tracking Requests: 492
Other Requests: 184

The visualization looks like this:

This is how, as Richard Whitt perfectly puts it, “the browser is actually browsing us.”

All those requests, most of which are for personal data of some kind, come in the form of cookies and similar files. The visual above shows how information about you fans out to a near countless number of third parties and dependents on those. And, while these cookies are stored by your browser, they are meant to be readable only by the server or one or more of its third parties.

This is the icky heart of the e-commerce “ecosystem” today.

By the way, and to be fair, two of the browsers in the graphic above—Epic and Tor—by default disclose as little as possible about you and your equipment to the sites you visit. Others have privacy features and settings. But getting past the whole calf-cow system is the real problem we need to solve.

Now let’s look at what can’t be done with a browser. If you think the answer is nothing, you’re stuck inside the browser box. If you think the answer is something, tell us what it is.

We have some ideas. But first we’d like to hear from you.


Cross-posted at the ProjectVRM blog, here.

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Just in case you feel safe with Twitter

twitter bird with crosshairs

Just got a press release by email from David Rosen (@firstpersonpol) of the Public Citizen press office. The headline says “Historic Grindr Fine Shows Need for FTC Enforcement Action.” The same release is also a post in the news section of the Public Citizen website. This is it:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Norwegian Data Protection Agency today fined Grindr $11.7 million following a Jan. 2020 report that the dating app systematically violates users’ privacy. Public Citizen asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general to investigate Grindr and other popular dating apps, but the agency has yet to take action. Burcu Kilic, digital rights program director for Public Citizen, released the following statement:

“Fining Grindr for systematic privacy violations is a historic decision under Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), and a strong signal to the AdTech ecosystem that business-as-usual is over. The question now is when the FTC will take similar action and bring U.S. regulatory enforcement in line with those in the rest of the world.

“Every day, millions of Americans share their most intimate personal details on apps like Grindr, upload personal photos, and reveal their sexual and religious identities. But these apps and online services spy on people, collect vast amounts of personal data and share it with third parties without people’s knowledge. We need to regulate them now, before it’s too late.”

The first link goes to Grindr is fined $11.7 million under European privacy law, by Natasha Singer (@NatashaNYT) and Aaron Krolik. (This @AaronKrolik? If so, hi. If not, sorry. This is a blog. I can edit it.) The second link goes to a Public Citizen post titled Popular Dating, Health Apps Violate Privacy

In the emailed press release, the text is the same, but the links are not. The first is this:

https://default.salsalabs.org/T72ca980d-0c9b-45da-88fb-d8c1cf8716ac/25218e76-a235-4500-bc2b-d0f337c722d4

The second is this:

https://default.salsalabs.org/Tc66c3800-58c1-4083-bdd1-8e730c1c4221/25218e76-a235-4500-bc2b-d0f337c722d4

Why are they not simple and direct URLs? And who is salsalabs.org?

You won’t find anything at that link, or by running a whois on it. But I do see there is a salsalabs.com, which has  “SmartEngagement Technology” that “combines CRM and nonprofit engagement software with embedded best practices, machine learning, and world-class education and support.” since Public Citizen is a nonprofit, I suppose it’s getting some “smart engagement” of some kind with these links. PrivacyBadger tells me Salsalabs.com has 14 potential trackers, including static.ads.twitter.com.

My point here is that we, as clickers on those links, have at best a suspicion about what’s going on: perhaps that the link is being used to tell Public Citizen that we’ve clicked on the link… and likely also to help target us with messages of some sort. But we really don’t know.

And, speaking of not knowing, Natasha and Aaron’s New York Times story begins with this:

The Norwegian Data Protection Authority said on Monday that it would fine Grindr, the world’s most popular gay dating app, 100 million Norwegian kroner, or about $11.7 million, for illegally disclosing private details about its users to advertising companies.

The agency said the app had transmitted users’ precise locations, user-tracking codes and the app’s name to at least five advertising companies, essentially tagging individuals as L.G.B.T.Q. without obtaining their explicit consent, in violation of European data protection law. Grindr shared users’ private details with, among other companies, MoPub, Twitter’s mobile advertising platform, which may in turn share data with more than 100 partners, according to the agency’s ruling.

Before this, I had never heard of MoPub. In fact, I had always assumed that Twitter’s privacy policy either limited or forbid the company from leaking out personal information to advertisers or other entities. Here’s how its Private Information Policy Overview begins:

You may not publish or post other people’s private information without their express authorization and permission. We also prohibit threatening to expose private information or incentivizing others to do so.

Sharing someone’s private information online without their permission, sometimes called doxxing, is a breach of their privacy and of the Twitter Rules. Sharing private information can pose serious safety and security risks for those affected and can lead to physical, emotional, and financial hardship.

On the MoPub site, however, it says this:

MoPub, a Twitter company, provides monetization solutions for mobile app publishers and developers around the globe.

Our flexible network mediation solution, leading mobile programmatic exchange, and years of expertise in mobile app advertising mean publishers trust us to help them maximize their ad revenue and control their user experience.

The Norwegian DPA apparently finds a conflict between the former and the latter—or at least in the way the latter was used by Grinder (since they didn’t fine Twitter).

To be fair, Grindr and Twitter may not agree with the Norwegian DPA. Regardless of their opinion, however, by this point in history we should have no faith that any company will protect our privacy online. Violating personal privacy is just too easy to do, to rationalize, and to make money at.

To start truly facing this problem, we need start with a simple fact: If your privacy is in the hands of others alone, you don’t have any. Getting promises from others not to stare at your naked self isn’t the same as clothing. Getting promises not to walk into your house or look in your windows is not the same as having locks and curtains.

In the absence of personal clothing and shelter online, or working ways to signal intentions about one’s privacy, the hands of others alone is all we’ve got. And it doesn’t work. Nor do privacy laws, especially when enforcement is still so rare and scattered.

Really, to potential violators like Grindr and Twitter/MoPub, enforcement actions like this one by the Norwegian DPA are at most a little discouraging. The effect on our experience of exposure is still nil. We are exposed everywhere, all the time, and we know it. At best we just hope nothing bad happens.

The only way to fix this problem is with the digital equivalent of clothing, locks, curtains, ways to signal what’s okay and what’s not—and to get firm agreements from others about how our privacy will be respected.

At Customer Commons, we’re starting with signaling, specifically with first party terms that you and I can proffer and sites and services can accept.

The first is called P2B1, aka #NoStalking. It says “Just give me ads not based on tracking me.” It’s a term any browser (or other tool) can proffer and any site or service can accept—and any privacy-respecting website or service should welcome.

Making this kind of agreement work is also being addressed by IEEE7012, a working group on machine-readable personal privacy terms.

Now we’re looking for sites and services willing to accept those terms. How about it, Twitter, New York Times, Grindr and Public Citizen? Or anybody.

DM us at @CustomerCommons and we’ll get going on it.

 

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Solving Subscriptions


Count the number of companies you pay regularly for anything. Add up what you pay for all of them. Then think about the time you spend trying and failing to “manage” any of it—especially when most or all of the management tools are separately held by every outfit’s subscription system, all for their convenience rather than yours. And then think about how in most cases you also need to swim upstream against a tide of promotional BS and manipulation.

There is an industry on the corporate side of this, and won’t fix itself. That would be like asking AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy to fix the online service business in 1994. (For those not familiar with the reference, those companies were incompatible competing commercial forerunners of the Internet, which obsolesced all of them.)

There’s also not much help coming from the subscription management services we have on our side: Truebill, Bobby, Money Dashboard, Mint, Subscript Me, BillTracker Pro, Trim, Subby, Card Due, Sift, SubMan, and Subscript Me. Nor from the subscription management systems offered by  Paypal, Amazon, Apple or Google (e.g. with  Google Sheets and Google Doc templates). All of them are too narrow, too closed and exclusive, too exposed to the surveillance imperatives of corporate giants, and too vested in the status quo.

That status quo sucks (see here, or just look up subscription hell), and it’s way past time to unscrew it.) But how?

The better question is where?

The answer to that is on our side: the customer’s side.

That’s because subscriptions are in a class of problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side. They can’t be solved from the companies’ side because they’ll all do it differently. Also, most of them will want to hold you captive. Like Compuserve, AOL and Prodigy did with online services before the Internet solved the problem by obsolescing them.

We need to do the same here. Fortunately, by making subscribing (and changing subscriptions, and canceling them) as easy and normalized as possible, companies living on subscriptions will do a better job of making their goods competitive.

Now to how.

The short answer is with open standards, code and protocols. The longer answer is to start with a punch list of requirements, based on what we, as customers, need most. So, we should—

  • Be able to see all our subscriptions, what they cost, and when they start and end
  • Be able to cancel or renew, manually or automatically, in the simplest possible ways
  • Get the best possible prices
  • Be able to keep records of subscriptions and histories
  • Show our actual (rather than coerced) loyalty
  • Be able to provide constructive help, as loyal and experienced customers
  • Join in collectives—commons—of other customers to start normalizing the way subscriptions should be offered on the corporate side and managed on the personal side

Meanwhile, it’s important to also consider where customers stand in the tug-of-war between subscription and á la carte options in both pricing and payment. Because á la carte is what customers would prefer in cases where use is occasional rather than constant.

Years ago at ProjectVRM we came up with an idea for this called EmanciPay. Dave Winer imagines that as a business he calls An EZ-Pass for news:

Not micropayments. Tolls instead of paywalls. 
If I don’t have an E-Z Pass, no access. If I do, it’s seamless.
Suppose one month I spend $84 to read stories on The Atlantic. They can make me an offer to subscribe. Look dude, you’re wasting money. Let us help you.
That’s a lot nicer than — hey asshole you can’t read this article unless you subscribe.

That third point is especially important: that you may make more money from simplified á la carte payments (based on actual use) than from subscriptions, especially if your goods are valuable but not of a kind that a customer would prefer to deal with as a subscription.

So there are really two goals here. One is to fix how subscriptions work for everybody. The other is to make it as easy as possible to pay for á la carte usage or consumption.


The modified image above is a Doctor Who TARDIS console, photographed by Chris Sampson, offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license, published here, and obtained via Wikimedia Commons, here. We thank Chris for making it available.

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What only customers can do

Businesses love to say “the customer comes first,” “the customer is in charge” and that they need to “let the customer lead.”

But the customer can’t come first, can’t be in charge, and can’t lead, without tools of her own: tools that give  her ways to interact in common ways across all the companies she deals with. Ways that give her leverage:

She already has some of those tools. The Internet. The Web. EMail. The phone system. Credit cards. Cars. All of those give a person scale, in roughly the same way that using a common language or a common currency gives a person scale.

For an example of absent scale at work, look at what a customer needs to do when she changes, say, her email address, preferred credit card or last name. She has to go from one website to another, over and over again, logging into all of them separately, like a bee buzzing from one flower to another across a whole garden—only taking a lot more time and wasting a lot more energy.

The reason we have that situation is that companies are still leveraging industrial age norms, in which every company works to “own” the customer, and her experience, separately and exclusively. This is why, even though we’ve been living in a networked world for a quarter century, and we all carry highly advanced digital devices in our pocket and purses, we remain stuck in a world where every company we deal with has its own unique and different ways of dealing with us, and of providing us with ways for relating to them.

The plethorization of separate and unique “customer experiences” (“CX” to the industry) is only compounded with each new company we deal with—and worse, with each new law imposing obligations on companies that will implement compliance differently. We see this today with all the separate ways we “consent” to being tracked by companies doing their separate best to comply with the GDPR and the CCPA as well. Those laws embody the assumption that we still live in an industrial world where all agency over personal privacy resides on the corporate side, rather than on the personal one.

This is why better CRM, CX and GDPR/CCPA compliance approaches actually make the problem worse. Since all are different and exclusive, each one adds unique forms of cognitive and operational overhead on both the corporate and the personal side of every “relationship” that really isn’t.

It’s as if every company required a different language, a different handshake, and a different keyboard layout.

To really come first, to really be in charge, to really lead, the customer needs powers of her own that extend across all the companies she deals with. That’s scale.

Just as companies need to scale their relationships across many customers, customers need to scale their relationships across many companies.

The customer can only get scale through tools for both independence and engagement. She already has those with her car, her purse, her phone, her personal computer, her email, her browsers, her computer, her credit, her cash. (See The Cash Model of Customer Experience.) Every company she deals with respects the independence she gets from those tools, and every company has the same base-level ways of interacting with them. Those tools are also substitutable. The customer can swap them for others like it and maintain her autonomy, independence and ability to engage.

For the last ten years years many dozens of developers around ProjectVRM have been working on tools and services that give customers scale. You’ll find a partial list of them here.

Here is what we have been looking for, from any and all of them together—

  • Ways to manage gradual, selective and trust-based disclosure of personal identifiers, starting from a state that is anonymous (literally, nameless).
  • Ways to manage our many administrative identities (the ones by which companies and other organizations know each of us), as well as our sovereign source identities (how each of us know ourselves).
  • Ways to express terms and policies with which companies can agree (preferably automatically).
  • Ways to change personal data records (e.g. name, address, phone number) for every company we deal with, in one move.
  • Ways to share personal data (e.g. purchase or service intentions) selectively and in a mutually trusting way, with every company we deal with.
  • Ways to exercise full control over our sovereign data spaces (e.g. PIMS) for every thing each ofus owns, and within which reside our relationships with companies that support those things.
  • Ways to engage with existing CRM, call center and other relationship systems on the vendors’ side.

We have most or all of the technologies, standards, protocols, specifications and APIs we need already. What we need now is thinking and development that goes meta: one level up, to where the customer actually lives, working to manage all these different relationships with all these different cards, apps, websites, logins, passwords and the rest of it.

Apps for doing those things should be as substitutable as a car, a wallet, a purse, a phone, an email client. In other words, we should have a choice of apps, and not be stuck again inside the exclusive offerings of any single company.

Only with scale can free customers prove more valuable than captive ones. And only with mastery will customers get scale. We can’t get there with a zillion different little apps, most of which are not ours. We need go-to apps of our own.

One of our jobs at Customer Commons is to stand with the customer as she watches those tools and services being built, and weighs in with input and intelligence of her own. If you want to help us do that, follow @CustomerCommons and DM us there after we follow you back. Thanks.

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The business problems only customers can solve

Customer Commons was created because there are many business and market problems that can only be solved from the customers’ side, under the customer’s control, and at scale, with #customertech.

In the absence of solutions that customers control, both customers and businesses are forced to use business-side-only solutions that limit customer power to what can be done within each business’s silo, or to await regulatory help, usually crafted by captive regulators who can’t even imagine full customer agency.

Here are some examples of vast dysfunctions that customers face today (and which hurt business and markets as well), in the absence of personal agency and scale:

  • Needing to “consent” to terms that can run more than 10,000 words long, and are different for every website and service provider
  • Dealing with privacy policies that can also run more than 10,000 words long, which are different for every website and service provider, and that the site or service can change whenever they want, and in practice don’t even need to obey
  • Dealing with personal identity systems that are different for every website or service provider
  • Dealing with subscription systems that are different for every website and service provider requiring them
  • Dealing with customer service and tech support systems that are different for every website or service provider
  • Dealing with login and password requirements that are as different, and numerous, as there are websites and service providers
  • Dealing with crippled services and/or higher prices for customers who aren’t “members” of a “loyalty” program, which involves high cognitive and operational overhead for customer and seller alike—and (again) work differently for every website and service provider
  • Dealing with an “Internet of Things” that’s really just an Amazon of things, an Apple of Things, and a Google of things.

And here are some examples of solutions customers can bring to business and markets:

  • Standardized terms that customers can proffer as first parties, and all the world’s sites and services can agree to, in ways where both parties have records of agreements
  • Privacy policies of customers’ own, which are easy for every website and service provider to see and respect 
  • Self-sovereign methods for customers to present only the identity credentials required to do business, relieving many websites and service providers of the need to maintain their own separate databases of personal identity data
  • Standard ways to initiate, change and terminate customers’ subscriptions—and to keep records of those subscriptions—greatly simplifying the way subscriptions are done, across all websites and service providers
  • Standard ways for customers to call for and engage customer service and tech support systems that work the same way across all of them
  • Standard ways for customers to relate, without logins and passwords, and to do that with every website and service provider
  • Standard ways to express loyalty that will work across every website, retailer and service provider
  • Standard ways for customers to “intentcast” an interest in buying, securely and safely, at scale, across whole categories of products and services
  • Standard ways for customers’ belongings to operate, safely and securely, in a true Internet of Things
  • Standardized dashboards on which customers can see their own commercially valuable data, control how it is used, and see who has shared it, how, and under what permissions, across all the entities the customer deals with

There are already many solutions in the works for most of the above. Our work at Customer Commons is to help all of those—and many more—come into the world.

 

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Where there’s folk there’s fire

That headline was, far as I know, first uttered by Britt Blaser in a March 2007 blog post titled The people’s law trumps the power law. It was thirteen years ahead of its time.

Among many others, Britt was energized by  The Cluetrain Manifesto‘s 95 Theses, which David Weinberger, Chris Locke, Rick Levine and I nailed to the Web in April 1999. Today the one-liner most often quoted from Cluetrain is its the first of those theses: Markets are conversations, which then became the title of a chapter in the book version of the Manifesto, which appeared in January 2000 and quickly became a business bestseller. Today the word “cluetrain,” which didn’t exist before 1999, is tweeted daily by people all over the world and appears (says Google) on more than 1.3 million Web pages.

In the 10th Anniversary (2010) edition of the book, I explained that markets were actually three things:

  • transactions,
  • conversations, and
  • relationships

I learned that separately from two teachers, weeks apart in 2000. Both were responding to Cluetrain‘s markets are conversations line, which became a runaway marketing meme shortly after the book came out. One of those teachers was Eric S. Raymond, a devout atheist and libertarian who almost single-handedly made open source a thing, starting two years earlier. The other was Sayo Ajiboye, a Nigerian pastor I met on a plane.

Both suggested markets are relationships as a corollary to markets are conversations and markets are transactions; but it was Sayo who gave me the assignment I’m still working on here with Customer Commons: to make markets are relationships far more real than what customer relationship management (CRM) and related corporate functions imagined it was, because they were all too busy thinking markets are transactions. Seeing markets as conversations would be a step forward, Sayo said, but not a big enough step. Relationship was key to fully realizing free, open and productive markets in the industrial world, and it could only be fully achieved by working on solutions from the customers’ side.

That’s why I started ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman (now Berkman Klein) Center in 2006, and why it’s still going strong today, both by itself and in the forms of Customer Commons (its one direct spin-off), the IEEE 7012 working group, and lately the Me2B Alliance as well. (The 2 in Me2B is about relationship, as I explain here.)

I’ve written about my encounter with Sayo in a number of places. But the most relevant to our work here is Mashing Up a Commons, published in the June 2006 issue of Linux Journal, three months before I became a fellow with the Berkman Center and started ProjectVRM. Without that encounter, there is a good chance neither would have happened.

Mashing up a commons is still our assignment. I believe it will be the most leveraged thing to happen to markets since the Internet showed up. I first explained why in Free Customers Make Free Markets, posted in November 2007. It closes with the headline above.

The time wasn’t right then, but it is now. Let’s do it.

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Customers as a Third Force

Almost all arguments in economics are advanced by two almost opposed positions, each walled into the castles of their ideologies, both insisting that their side has the solutions and the other side causes the problems—while meanwhile between the two flows a river of customers who, if they could be heard, and could participate with more than their cash, would have solutions of their own.

Customer Commons’s job is giving those customers full agency for dealing with both the businesses and governments of the world, and in the process proving that free customers are more valuable—to themselves and the businesses of the world—than captive (or tracked) ones.

It’s a long fight, dating back to the personal agency we lost when industry won the industrial revolution. And it’s one we continue to lose, in many ways, through these early decades of the digital revolution.

If it weren’t losing, 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, Jaron Lanier,’s You are Not a Gadget (and pretty much everything else he’s written), plus what Nicholas Carr, David Weinberger, and many others have been saying for years.

The problem with most of what’s been written so far is that it assumes customers will remain victims unless companies or governments (and mostly the latter) rescue them. There is little sense that customers can also bring solutions to the market—ones that are good for every party involved.

One notable exception is Brett and Evan’s book, mentioned above, which closes with a hopeful nod toward some of our work here at Customer Commons:

Doc Searls and his colleagues at Customer Commons have been working for years on standardized terms for customers to use in managing their relationships with websites and other vendors… [his] dream of customers systematically using contract and related tools to manage their relationships with vendors now seems feasible. It could be an important first step toward flipping the scientific-management-of-consumers script we’ve become so accustomed to.”

My own work here started with Linux Journal in 1994, and gained some notoriety with The Cluetrain Manifesto (co-written with David Weinberger, Christopher Locke and Rick Levine) in 1999. Then, after notoriety didn’t seem to be working, I launched ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center in 2006, and in 2012spun out Customer Commons, which since then has quietly been developing on the personal data usage terms Brett and Evan mentioned above.

These are terms that each of us can proffer, and which the businesses of the world can agree to—as an alternative to the reverse, which has become a bane of online existence, alas made worse by normalization of insincere and misleading cookie notices on the Web, caused by (what we regard as a misreading of) the GDPR: a sad example of policy failing to fix a market problem. (So far. In another post we’ll visit ways the GDPR and California’s CCPA might actually help.)

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

  •  “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.

— Doc Searls

 

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Privacy is personal. Let’s start there.

The GDPR won’t give us privacy. Nor will ePrivacy or any other regulation. We also won’t get it from the businesses those regulations are aimed at.

Because privacy is personal. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t have invented clothing and shelter, or social norms for signaling to each what’s okay and what’s not okay.

On the Internet we have none of those. We’re still as naked as we were in Eden.

But let’s get some perspective here:  we invented clothing and shelter long before we invented history, and most of us didn’t get online until long after Internet service providers and graphical browsers showed up in 1994.

In these early years, it has been easier and more lucrative for business to exploit our exposed selves than it has been for technology makers to sew (and sell) us the virtual equivalents of animal skins and woven fabrics.

True, we do have the primitive shields called ad blockers and tracking protectors. And, when shields are all you’ve got, they can get mighty popular. That’s why 1.7 billion people on Earth were already blocking ads online by early 2017.† This made ad blocking the largest boycott in human history. (Note: some ad blockers also block tracking, but the most popular ad blocker is in the business of selling passage for tracking to companies whose advertising is found “acceptable” on grounds other than tracking.)

In case you think this happened just because most ads are “intrusive” or poorly targeted, consider the simple fact that ad blocking has been around since 2004, yet didn’t hockey-stick until the advertising business turned into direct response marketing, hellbent on collecting personal data and targeting ads at eyeballs.††

This happened in the late ’00s, with the rise of social media platforms and programmatic “adtech.” Euphemized by its perpetrators as  “interactive,” “interest-based,” “behavioral” and “personalized,” adtech was, simply-put, tracking-based advertising. Or, as I explain at the last link direct response marketing in the guise of advertising.

The first sign that people didn’t like tracking was Do Not Track, an idea hatched by  Chris Soghoian, Sid Stamm, and Dan Kaminsky, and named after the FTC’s popular Do Not Call Registry. Since browsers get copies of Web pages by requesting them (no, we don’t really “visit” those pages—and this distinction is critical), the idea behind Do Not Track was to make to put the request not to be tracked in the header of a browser. (The header is how a browser asks to see a Web page, and then guides the data exchanges that follow.)

Do Not Track was first implemented in 2009 by Sid Stamm, then a privacy engineer at Mozilla, as an option in the company’s Firefox browser. After that, the other major browser makers implemented Do Not Track in different ways at different times, culminating in Mozilla’s decision to block third party cookies in Firefox, starting in February 2013.

Before we get to what happened next, bear in mind that Do Not Track was never anything more than a polite request to have one’s privacy respected. It imposed no requirements on site owners. In other words, it was a social signal asking site owners and their third party partners to respect the simple fact that browsers are personal spaces, and that publishers and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door.

The “interactive” ad industry and its dependents in publishing responded to that brave move by stomping on Mozilla like Gozilla on Bambi:

In this 2014 post  I reported on the specifics how that went down:

Google and Facebook both said in early 2013 that they would simply ignore Do Not Track requests, which killed it right there. But death for Do Not Track was not severe enough for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which waged asymmetric PR warfare on Mozilla (the only browser maker not run by an industrial giant with a stake in the advertising business), even running red-herring shit like this on its client publishers websites:

As if Mozilla was out to harm “your small business,” or that any small business actually gave a shit.

And it worked.

In early 2013, Mozilla caved to pressure from the IAB.

Two things followed.

First, soon as it was clear that Do Not Track was a fail, ad blocking took off. You can see that in this Google Trends graph†††, published in Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November 2015 in Harvard Business Review):

Next, ad searches for “how to block ads” rose right in step with searches for retargeting, which is the most obvious evidence that advertising is following you around:

You can see that correlation in this Google Trends graph in Don Marti’s Ad Blocking: Why Now, published by DCN (the online publishers’ trade association) on 9 July 2015:

Measures of how nearly all of us continue to hate tracking were posted by Dr. Johnny Ryan (@johnnyryan) in PageFair last September. In that post, he reports on a PageFair “survey of 300+ publishers, adtech, brands, and various others, on whether users will consent to tracking under the GDPR and the ePrivacy Regulation.” Bear in mind that the people surveyed were industry insiders: people you would expect to exaggerate on behalf of continued tracking.

Here’s one result:

Johnny adds, “Only a very small proportion (3%) believe that the average user will consent to ‘web-wide’ tracking for the purposes of advertising (tracking by any party, anywhere on the web).” And yet the same survey reports “almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by tracking walls,” that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked.”

He goes on to add, “However, almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by ‘tracking walls”, that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked. Tracking walls, however, are prohibited under Article 7 of the GDPR, the rules of which are already formalised and will apply in law from late May 2018.[3] “

Which means that the general plan by the “interactive” advertising business is to put up those walls anyway, on the assumption that people will think they won’t get to a site’s content without consenting to tracking. We can read that in the subtext of IAB Europe‘s Transparency and Consent Framework, a work-in-progress you can follow here on Github., and read unpacked in more detail at AdvertisingConsent.eu.

So, to sum all this up, so far online what we have for privacy are: 1) popular but woefully inadequate ad blocking and tracking protection add-ons in our browsers; 2) a massively interesting regulation called the GDPR…

… and 3) plans by privacy violators to obey the letter of that regulation while continuing to violate its spirit.

So how do we fix this on the personal side? Meaning, what might we have for clothing and shelter, now that regulators and failed regulatory captors are duking it out in media that continue to think all the solutions to our problems will come from technologies and social signals other than our own?

Glad you asked. The answers will come in our next three posts here. We expect those answers to arrive in the world and have real effects—for everyone except those hellbent on tracking us—before the 25 May GDPR deadline for compliance.


† From Beyond ad blocking—the biggest boycott in human history: “According to PageFair’s 2017 Adblock Report, at least 615 million devices now block ads. That’s larger than the human population of North America. According to GlobalWebIndex, 37% of all mobile users, worldwide, were blocking adsby January of last year, and another 42% would like to. With more than 4.6 billion mobile phone usersin the world, that means 1.7 billion people are blocking ads already—a sum exceeding the population of the Western Hemisphere.”

†† It was plain old non-tracking-based advertising that not only only sponsored publishing and other ad-suported media, but burned into people’s heads nearly every brand you can name. After a $trillion or more has been spent chasing eyeballs, not one brand known to the world has been made by it. For lots more on all this, read everything you can by Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) and Don Marti (@dmarti).

††† Among the differences between the graph above and the current one—both generated by the same Google Trends search—are readings above zero in the latter for Do Not Track prior to 2007. While there are results in a search for “Do Not Track” in the 2004-2006 time frame, they don’t refer to the browser header approach later branded and popularized as Do Not Track.

Also, in case you’re reading this footnote, the family at the top is my father‘s. He’s the one on the left. The location was Niagara Falls and the year was 1916. Here’s the original. I flipped it horizontally so the caption would look best in the photo.

 

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