The missing player in the data ecosystem: users
The theme of this week’s Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) annual meeting is “People vs. Data.” Doc Searls would prefer “People Own the Data.”
Searls, well-known technology blogger and co-author of the groundbreaking Cluetrain Manifesto, took the stage at the IAB conference in Palm Springs, Calif., on Monday to champion his latest cause: that individuals should take back ownership of their online data from the publishers and marketers that have built an industry around monetizing that information.
When Cluetrain was released in 1999, the authors objected to the somewhat pejorative terms – namely “eyeballs” and “seats” – that advertisers and publishers used to characterize their website visitors. The eyeballs concept has since evolved more broadly to “data,” but the message from Searls is the same: Users should be allowed to control how their online identities are formed, tracked and sold against. More importantly, users should be able to turn their data into an asset class that they can barter themselves, if they so choose.
“It’s paid content of a new sort,” said Searls. “It’s a pricing gun for customers: ‘Here’s what I have, and here’s what it costs.’”
Searls and his backers have dubbed the concept Vendor Relationship Management – the inverse to Customer Relationship Management. It is being enabled through a research initiative called ProjectVRM, which Searls created when he became a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. ProjectVRM’s mission is to “encourage development of tools by which individuals can take control of their relationships with organizations — especially in commercial marketplaces.”
Searls described VRM as a more informal approach to Do Not Track legislation, but with the same outcome: users should decide what and how to share information with advertisers and publishers in return for something that the users value.
The current cookie-based ecosystem is a “hairball” in which an individual’s online relationships with advertisers and publishers are as spread out across multiple locations. “We have multiple dependencies – there’s no cross-fertilization to who I am when I’m Googling vs. when I’m on Facebook.”
The solution is not about single sign-on. “Trying to solve it through digital identity is not the way to go,” Searls said. “A federated approach to identify will not work. That’s akin to companies having safe sex with customer data.”
Searls predicts that VRM will give rise to a cottage industry of fourth-party “trust businesses” that will house individuals’ data and offer self-tracking services to help them proactively manage what and how they share information with marketers and publishers. He noted that a half-dozen companies are working on personal data stores, also known as online vaults or lockers.
“When you start using your data for things that are convenient to you, that changes the ecosystem,” Searls said. “It puts individuals at the center of the world instead of on the fringes.”
Where does that leave publishers? Searls didn’t address that specifically, but the implications are clear: If the VRM concept comes to pass, publishers and marketers both will have to find new ways to gain the trust of these users – or risk being shut out of their personal ecosystem.
Here's the discussion between Searls and Federated Media's John Battelle: