iCitizen – Open Source Communication Channels?

Doc Searls (co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto) is speaking at iCitizen about Open Source and Vendor Relationship Management. This is one of only a few sessions I’ve actually been able to attend, and it ended up being quite tech-heavy. Great for me! The idea is about how we can change our perspective on how to manage relationships. Doc (do we call him “The” Doc?) focussed on the role of technology in this matter. We extolled the virtues of open source technology to meet user needs.

He spoke of the VRM (vendor relationship management) work he has been doing at Harvard. The icon or symbol is the relbutton, which looks like two magnets attracted towards each other. The two negotiate a contract based on some as-yet-undefined terms. He mentioned Open Social a few times, and the idea that the user should be in charge of his own data. A good example: when we go to a doctor’s office, we are responsible to manually input our history. Each time we have to regurgitate information, we risk inaccuracies. He gave a statistic of how many people died of “misinformation” every year. So what if this was data we could carry with us?

I was interested in the language we would use to define these relationships – it made me think of established interfaces. There are two parties, how do we negotiate the languge we use to communicate? APIs are getting quite popular, but this is obviously on a much larger scale. He spoke frequently of Open Social, which I will admit I don’t know much about. My thoughts were moreso focused on microformats, the idea of describing our relationships with parties.

After the session I was talking to David Griner, and his thoughts on the matter seemed to be more related to the notion of privacy than openness. Indeed, this entire notion is called “Vendor management”, are we forgetting about the needs and expectations of the consumer? Doc mentioned that the individual was in charge of this data (the whole data portability notion that is de rigueur right now), and then there was also mention of the need for a 3rd party.

Doc is approaching this challenge from a tech standpoint, and I fear that this was a bit of a barrier to many of the folks in the room. It was a good presentation with regards to a potential challenge, but I think the need therefore isn’t entirely established as of yet. I think it’s also an interesting topic in the light of all the social networks data portability announcements that have occured in the past week. Who owns our data, do we really have the power to take it with us, and perhaps most importantly, what is that data? Some of us are experiencing social media fatigue, and I think there was some question from the user perspective if this required an additional level of “data management”. Do I need to define a profile to carry with me to specific sites, or do I establish an online persona that comes with me as I negotiate the web generically? How do we protect that information? Certain services like kaboodle offer us a place to aggregate products related to a certain user task (shopping). Perhaps this needs to be not about data, but about tasks..

I asked David if he had done much with OpenId. I think the model may be similar: there are certain issuers of the IDs, and others that will accept them. As long as we trust the issuers, we could determine our level of comfort with data sharing in other places. Once again, David’s real question was what the benefit was to the consumer. Can I not just go to a site and perform my desired task? Do I need to carry my history/preferences etc with me?

I can see both sides. In a later metrics track, we discussed how it can take several site visits before conversion occurs. Often people want to perform research, establish trust, etc. So I do believe there are merits in the site being aware of some level of the established relationship and history, at least on the site level. But does a system like a generic VSM need to manage that? Or can that stay within the site (as happens now, and as personalization systems like ATG advocate)? This is the same model we see in the brick and mortar stores: the folks at the starbucks start to recognize me, ask me how I’m doing, anticipate my preferences. I think people are comfortable with that level of recognition. It is when behaviour at the starbucks downtown influence how I’m treated at Crimson Cup that people start to be a little concerned.

Plenty of stores accept competitor’s coupons. That’s the level where this sort of universal ID seems to make sense. Let me bring in my deals or specials from someplace else, if I so choose. And perhaps that’s a user opt-in, just like if I choose I want my browser to store my login information. But even if the data lives elsewhere, the control thereof certainly needs to live with the consumer. Do I want to manually write out my health information at each doctor, or do I carry a card that has it all written out, and distribute it. The idea and the infrastructure to support it certainly makes sense, but I don’t know if there is overall value to the forced implementation thereof.

Remember beacon?

2 thoughts on “iCitizen – Open Source Communication Channels?

  • Thanks for listening closely, and for such a thoughtful take on my talk and VRM.

    I should make clear that I don’t see relationship problems as tech challenges, but that tech is required if we’re going to have solutions. That’s why I’m approaching it from a technology angle first.

    The relbutton, by the way, is not a tech concept. It’s a practical one that grows out of something my wife asked in 1995: “Why can’t I take my shopping cart from site to site?”

    No site can solve that problem. It can only be solved by equipping customers with shopping carts — or something better — that belongs to them and is under their control.

    As I said here VRM has to be simple and non-geeky. It needs to be less work for customers, not more. Same goes for vendors. The trade-off has to be clear and so choice-free that You Just Have To Do This.

    This week is the first time I’ve talked about VRM, and the relbutton in particular, outside our own development community. So naturally it’s all both early and rough. I hope you’ll be patient with us as we hurry as fast as we can to make this stuff happen in the marketplace.

    And feel free to throw suggestions our way. We need all the help we can get.

    Thanks again,


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