This blog has no mandatory terms of service, installs no beacons or cookies (that I know about), and vends no third party ads (I hope—let me know if you see one.) That’s just fine with our second Cluetrain Manifesto co-author of the summer reading list, Doc Searls.
(I do plug our workshops, but I think Searls would be OK with that. I think.)
The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Doc Searls. (@dsearls)
Doc Searls is the leading light behind Project VRM, a movement designed to tip the balance of power away from vendor companies and back towards the customers they serve. (VRM is a twist on CRM—vendor relationship management rather than customer relationship management. We should be managing the vendors, rather than the other way around.)
Searls is a keen and wry observer of all that is absurd about the current situation. He takes particular aim at big data efforts designed to collect information to target advertising to us—leaving aside the privacy invasion, it’s not at all clear that we want or respond well to targeted ads. He also delivers a withering criticism of “contracts of adhesion,” the “click to accept” terms and conditions we acquiesce to at every turn that we don’t have time to review and that the vendor can change at will. There’s a terrible imbalance of power, and customers are being badly treated. Amen.
If this book’s intention had been to draw attention to the problem, I’d give it full marks. Unfortunately, he’s also proposing a solution, in the form of a scattershot of ongoing VRM projects. When stacked up against Facebook, Google, Acxiom, and Apple, VRM looks like pretty weak beer indeed.
Searls clearly believes that the unbalanced relationship between vendors and their customers is bad for the vendors, and that enlightened self-interest (coupled with some good hacks on the technology side) will cause vendors to lower their drawbridges, fill in their moats, and embrace customers as equal partners in value creation. The book is full of inspiring phrases like “free markets require free customers”—a fact that’s so blindingly obvious to Searls that it requires no further justification. Ironically, he cites the notoriously secretive and intentionally non-transparent Trader Joe’s as just this new kind of company. (Who really makes that Trader Darwin’s vitamin pill? They aren’t saying.)
The thing is, no serious vendor I know buys this. None is looking for new ways to cede control to their customers.
Searls’s defenders would say that this is unfair: that it’s early days for VRM, and revolutions take time. But I think the premise is fundamentally flawed.
Fundamentally, Searls is betting on individual consumers to care more about their rights and the personalization of their experience than they care about their convenience. From what I’ve seen, betting against customers choosing price and convenience first is wrong 100% of the time. He’s also imagining a time when Apple, or whatever company takes its place, is going to be open to negotiating legal terms with customers. I’ve worked with Apple Legal, and…no.
I’d deeply love to be wrong about all this.
I’d personally love a world where VRM was a reality. I’d also like a world with unicorns. Given the pace of genetic engineering, I’m guessing I get the unicorns first.
Christopher Carfi says
If you squint, something like the ubiquity of Apache is an example where the right thing done at the right time can enable the right result. I see the points in The Intention Economy as a pointer in the right direction. IMHO, the pieces are starting to come together. I can clearly see something that couples “listening for intent” on the vendor side (something like a NeedTagger) meshing gears with the right tools on the customer side (something like a Prizzm or a Personal.com) igniting this. my $0.02…
Marty Thompson says
I’ve just started reading it, so probably shouldn’t comment strongly. However, I’ve been following the discussion from afar for some time now. I try to separate the commerce aspect from the privacy/personal liberty bit just to make it more manageable. With the changes to web privacy practices in the UK, it will be interesting to see just how many people actually opt out of cookie tracking. It is one thing to inform the public about potential privacy infringements, another to see how they react to the new found freedom in practice. Personally, I am a huge proponent of Internet privacy, and this in its own right might make me a philosophical outlier.
On the commerce front, the allure of lower costs, higher revenues, etc, doesn’t seem to be front and center in the discussion. Given what is happening in the social collaboration space, and what happened to our knowledge management brethren, one can only hope that the big software houses don’t have their way with this effort too soon.
David Kay says
Another influential thinker, John Hagel, lines up behind the Intention Economy: http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com/edge_perspectives/2012/06/the-rise-of-vendor-relationship-management.html
I think Hagel’s focus on the “fourth party” business model is a potentially interesting one, similar to the “deep support networks” posited by Zuboff and Maxmin in “The Support Economy.” As Hegel notes, he’s predicted this before, and it hasn’t worked, but he at least draws some interesting lessons from it.
Doc Searls says
Hey, David. Thanks for reading and reviewing the book.
A few notes.
First, if it were up to the phone and cable companies we never would have had the Internet, or free email, or even PCs, all of which were unicorns in their early days. I can remember companies saying they would never allow PCs to replace mainframe terminals. Then they resisted LANs. The beat went on, but the forces of resistance, large as they were, lost, and then became leaders in the new world. If they survived.
FWIW, price and convenience are in fact motivations being addressed by VRM tools. I’m also betting that companies (Apple included) will adapt when customers are able to express their own preferences and policies. (Agreeing to terms is downstream. Expression comes first.)
And true, the VRM tools we have so far is weak beer. So are all disruptive technologies in their early days. Still, your criticism remains valid until proven wrong. I look forward to the pudding that proves VRM. Meanwhile, working on it beats the hell out of sitting still.
David Kay (@dbkayanda) says
Thanks so much for your gracious and thoughtful response to my book review.
Your book points out the importance of the user interface. Maybe what I’m failing to see — our what we have yet to invent — is how signaling intention becomes the shortest and easiest path for me as a customer to engage with the market. If that happens, as @CCarfi and your book suggests is already in its early days, then I agree that the vendors may well be forced to adapt, whether or not they think it’s in their interest.
But your post mostly reminds me of another key point of your book: it’s kind of fun to stand around complaining, as my original blog did, but it’s more interesting and helpful to do something about it. As “Scoop” Nisker used to say at the end of his radio broadcasts, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
Anyhow, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for taking a stand in public.
Doc Searls says
Scoop Nisker is one of my heroes. “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own” has been guiding me ever since I heard it, on M. Dung’s morning KFOG show, when i showed up in Silicon Valley in 1985.
UI and ease of use are crucial. More to the point, we need inventions that mother necessity: “must-have” apps, services or device uses. Some you might want to check out: Privowny, Singly, Kynetx and Personal. There are many other projects in the fold, but those show off enough to give you a view of some directions that development projects are heading.