Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Doc Searls on “The Intention Economy”

Friend and fellow Berkmanite Doc Searls is presenting his new book, The Intention Economy, at Harvard this evening. That I’m hosting the event doesn’t stop me from blogging it. Doc’s new book is a manifesto designed to change how we think about vendors, customers, transactions and privacy. It’s also a trenchant critique of the advertising business and retail commerce as we know it. I’ve had great fun watching Doc write it and am excited to see it having an impact out in the world.

Here are my notes on Doc’s talk – I wasn’t able to blog the Q&A due to my lame attempts to moderate.


What is the most embarrasing thing about you? Something you’d only share with a really good friend or a licensed professional? Doc asks us to think about that question while we watch a clip from The Onion News Network, which reports on Facebook as an intelligence agency project, described by undercover agent Mark Zuckerberg as “the single most powerful tool for population control ever invented.”

Privacy is very simple in the material world. But it took us thousands of years to understand how privacy should work. We created technologies like clothing and houses to allow ourselves different degrees of privacy. The internet as we know it, Doc tells us, is 17 years old, with widespread adoption of the graphical web browser. There are no rules of privacy in this new world – it simply wasn’t designed into the protocols. The internet is early in its development. “The older I get, the earlier it seems.”

Facebook may know an immense about you, Doc tells us, but that’s not the internet – it’s an application. Facebook wasn’t even around 8 years ago – think of it as an experiment. There will be something else that follows on its heels. We should think about these technologies as a social and technical experiment we’re still working through.

Doc tells us we’ve been in a master-slave narrative since 1995. We go to websites for content – milk – and we get something in addition – a cookie. Cookies were invented to maintain state, to allow web servers to track us over time. We, as clients, are dependents, slaves to the servers, and we haven’t broken away from it yet. Thanks to cookies, we’re being followed… and not just by our friends.

He points us to a series called What They Know put together by the Wall Street Journal. Of the top sites on the web, the only not tracking users is Wikipedia. One site, dictionary.com, sets 234 tracking files on your browser so various companies can understand your online behavior. A site called Ghostery helps you see what’s been set on your system – there’s an amazing list of companies that are tracking you if you’re an average web user. How these companies use this data matters – he references Rebecca MacKinnon’s new book, Consent of the Networked, which points out that privacy setting changes on a site like Facebook have serious implications for dissidents in a country like Iran.

One of the companies Doc features is Rapleaf, an ad targeting company that collects a great deal of information about users. When Doc requested his Rapleaf file, he discovered that most of what the company thought they knew about him was wrong – he’s married, not single; he didn’t complete grad school; his residence is MA, not CA. These companies claim intimate knowledge of you, and what they have is inaccurate and incomplete.

Doc compares the current model of tracking to toddlers who can’t put on their own clothes. Even the Do Not Track compromise buys into the notion that the servers set cookies on you – you can refuse, but they’re still in charge of dressing you.

Companies like to tell us that you’re in charge – IBM’s website announces your visit as “the Chief Executive Customer”. This is window dressing. “I promise you that there’s not a single customer at their Smarter Commerce Global Summit.” These companies are following you around like a pack of dogs you can’t see. These dogs spend a lot of money – $1.5 trillion a year trying to sell you things. That isn’t going away… but the hundreds of millions being spent on analytics is a bubble. They claim that, through their big data, they know you thoroughly… but the truth is, they know very little.

He references Eli Pariser’s book “The Filter Bubble“, which suggests that internet marketing is based on “a bad theory of you.” Doc suggests that our experience with marketing is literally creepy – these theories are stuck in the uncanny valley. Facebook’s attempt to market to us are downright creepy in how they market to us. An ad, “Boyfriend Wanted – Seniors Meet”, seems based on the misperception that he’s single and the reality that he’s old. It’s not what he wants – it’s what the data thinks he wants.

Doc references corporate loyalty cards as a virus that spreads between species. The loyalty card came into play around 1995, and now it’s spreading into the online space. It’s accompanied by agreements we never made, the impossibly long contracts businesses force us to sign before using our iPhones or online services. Friedrich Kessler calls these “contracts of adhesion”, contracts where one party isn’t free to negotiate the terms. Freedom of contract, the ability to negotiate our terms and come to agreement with others, is a fundamental freedom in a democratic society. But in a broadcast age, we find the rise of mass marketing, and mass services. Individual contracts were no longer possible – instead, we had contracts that one side built and the other was required to accept. It’s a bad idea that came into the online world with little questioning.

So what can we do about this? These problems were evident in 1999, when Doc and colleagues wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto. He points to a Chris Locke quote: “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings – and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.” Tragically, this wasn’t true. While Cluetrain became very popular, this idea never caught on – our reach never exceeded our grasp in online spaces.

In the hopes of realizing some of these ambitions, Doc came to Berkman in 2006 and started working on Project VRM. VRM is a term he didn’t coin – it emerged from the community he brought together, as an alternative to “customer relationship management”, a massive industry. VRM is not yet at the scale of CRM, but it’s starting to have impact.

With VRM, Doc tells us, the customer drives. A car is a good example of a VRM tool – it gives us choice, independence and privacy. It’s a way of relating to the world and to commerce. An infrastructure has grown up around it – parking spaces, drive-thru restaurants. The car could never have been invented by a railroad. Anyone running a server alone – Google, Facebook – is in the railroad business.

VRM allows customers to define their own terms of service, define what loyalty is, control the use of your own data, manage your relationships with vendors, and do this all yourself, or through “fourth parties”, third parties who work for you, not the vendor. A fourth party is a buyer’s agent who works for you, a lawyer who represents your interests in the face of other institutions.

Fourth parties in the VRM community include TrustFabric, Singly, Azigo, The Customer’s Voice and several other start up firms. Doc focuses on a French company called Privony, a company that’s part of the VRM movement. Privony gives you a vault for your data, which you can share with companies… but they can’t see your data, as it’s encrypted. Privony provides a menu bar to help you manage your relationships with other sites, turning on or off tracking, and relating in new and better ways with the vendors of the world. With your permission and control, you can make yourself available as a qualified lead… but it’s your choice to do so.

What’s critical is the ability to set your own terms of service: “Don’t track me outside your site or service”, “Give me my data in the usable form I specify”, and so on. Your personal data is in the cloud, but you can control how various servers use it, rather than ceding that responsibility to those servers.

The global money transfer company, SWIFT, is encouraging people to think of your digital assets as a form of money. Thinking through this interesting thought, you end up with ideas like the possibility of escrowing your intention to make a certain purchase, and perhaps advertise your willingness to do so in order to find someone who wants to do business with you.

Project VRM is still starting, even six years into the project. It’s still the space of the innovators, not yet the space of early adopters. The end state – the late majority – is the “Intention Economy”, a space where your intentions are clear, and advertisers and vendors don’t have to guess at what you want.

2 Responses to “Doc Searls on “The Intention Economy””

  1. Kaleberg says:

    It’s good to see people working on identity management. I keep waiting for browsers to get better at it, perhaps allowing one to specify one’s identity on a window by window basis, with each window having multiple tabs. That way I could log in to two different accounts at the same location at the same time and coordinate transactions without firing up a second browser as I have to do now. As a bonus, I could present consistent identities to the sites I visit without worrying about cross talk.

    The internet is indeed younger than we think.

  2. Firme says:

    I had no idea there are so many sites tracking our activity. Most of them are not justified to do this. Is there any way I can stop this?

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