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The Intention Economy and thoughts on VRM

22 June, 2012 (15:07) | social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier this week I attended a talk by Doc Searls for his new book, The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge [and yes semi-ironically that link is to Amazon w/my tracking details – feel free to buy your copies anywhere you like]. I haven’t yet finished reading the book (full disclosure all attendees were given a Kindle copy of the book by Weber Shandwick the PR firm that organized the event) but I have been following the VRM space for year and Doc Searls is an old friend.

At the talk I observed the following and Doc requested that I share my observation publicly to the Project VRM mailing list so here it is:

There are TWO important parts to what the VRM movement is talking about.

Part one is about individual intentions being shared and routed via some means to the entities that could fulfill those intentions with the goal of connecting the two parties to enable transactions to occur. Done well this can reshape business at the local, national and international level.

Part two is the discussion around Internet privacy and security of individual data. This is the part that geeks geek out about, the stuff that involves observing the volume of tracking cookies and technologies on many websites, the privacy concerns of the policies of many companies and the sheer volume of data being created around every individual’s activities online (and offline for that matter). This stuff is important to be sure but it is also of only vague interest to most individuals and the connection between “personal data stores” and the broader ideas of “share your intentions and get help fulfilling them” is tenuous at best.

To move forward I would encourage the VRM community to think about how to split the focus between the technology challenges of personal data capture and sharing and the business challenges of thinking about how intentions can be expressed (and documented in some means), shared broadly, filtered and routed to the entities that could potentially fulfill the intentions and then those parties connected via some means to enable transaction(s) to occur. All of which could, in fact, take place without any technology.

For example imagine the non-technology enabled version of the Intention Economy. A group of us walk around a large crowd – say of 100 people and captured everyone’s Intentions for lunch today. Some folks have very broad goals (“spend less than $10 for something tasty – but could be any type of cuisine with no restrictions” while others have very precise Intentions – “spend less than $10 for a gluten-free, vegetarian lunch w/o red peppers and with something spicy”.

These intentions could then be clustered into similar categories and we could go call up a bunch of local restaurants and compare menues and current deals and offers to find and connect people to restaurants that could fulfill their Intentions for lunch today. How this last bit happens could be any number of means (we could place a number of delivery orders, we could send folks out to each local restaurant to place orders and pick up food, each individual could decide whether to call for delivery, send a friend or leave the building to go get lunch in person etc).

Nothing about this imaginary intention-driven set of transactions would require personal privacy focused technology. Yes, it could leverage such systems if they were in place – perhaps to transparently and securely collect payments from everyone for what they order plus delivery charges all without exposing each person’s personal data to the restaurants – who just need payment. But equally such a system could just rely on non-technology means such as collecting cash from each person individually.

The point is that the power of the narrative of large pools of people sharing their Intentions and getting them fulfilled is lost when the conversation is only about complex to grasp technical points. Shared intentions leading to actions can inspire business people to build new businesses and reshape old businesses.



Comment from Doc Searls
Time: June 22, 2012, 8:46 pm

Thanks, Shannon.

Several points to make here, which might help clarify a few things.

First, VRM is about development. That’s the heart of it. Talk on the list and out in the world (including my own talking) is secondary.

VRM development is about creating tools that make individuals both independent of organizations and better able to engage with them. Since the focus is mostly on business, we’re mostly talking about customers and vendors. Either way, this bridges both the Part 1 and Part 2 you’re talking about.

Second, in respect to Part 1, VRM activities include expressing (I tend not to think of it as “sharing,” but that’s just me) intentions, but not just to enable fulfillment or transaction. For example, my intentions might consist entirely of expressing my preferences and policies in dealing with organizations. Those might include “don’t track me,” and “only use this data for approved purposes.” No transaction or fulfillment required. Relating and relationship — the customer-side counterpart of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is also important. VRM tools need to help scaffold genuine relationships between equals in the marketplace, rather than the coercive ones that are normative today’s vendor-dominated world.

About Part 2, I agree that there are many circumstances where privacy concerns don’t play or don’t need to play. (Nor do identity ones.)

I should add that on the whole our focus with VRM is on the individual, and not on social or aggregated demand expression. This isn’t because those things don’t matter, but because development for the individual is fallow ground. It’s a market hole we’re working to fill.

Finally, there is lots of VRM development activity that isn’t covered on the list, for a variety of reasons. In some cases the developers are not the sharing type. In others there are companies who don’t wish to disclose work to competitors. There are also other lists for other subjects. UMA (User Managed Access), for example, has a very active list. The Personal Cloud development conversation also now has a list of its own. There are others as well.

In any case the ProjectVRM list, and the conversation on it, is not fully representative of VRM development. That’s a feature, by the way. Not a bug. I think it’s important to have a kind of central space where everybody interested can check in and talk about whatever they like. Also that the focus shifts around.

Hope that helps.

Comment from Shannon Clark
Time: June 22, 2012, 9:45 pm


Thanks – great to get clarifications. I do think that simplification would have some value in getting adoption – and that even with a focus on the individual some attention needs to be put on aggregating the expressions of intent, filtering and routing them in some form (perhaps to others whose intentions overlap or intersect in some detectable manner). In fact as I think of it one way to, perhaps, enforce equality between parties would be for the tools for “vendors” to be identical to those for individuals – i.e. for everyone to be treated as individual entities publishing intents/capabilities and/or subscribing to some form of filtering on public intents?

It indeed helps! Thanks.

Comment from Doc Searls
Time: June 23, 2012, 8:18 pm

Thanks, Shannon.

Where we are now is a lot simpler than where we were several years ago. But what we need still is an invention that mothers necessity, and by its nature that invention needs to be simple and obvious or it won’t be used

Today talking about VRM is like talking about hypertext and browsing and universal email in, say, 1993. Those things were complex until a first generation of tools made them simple.

The only problem I have with the aggregation strategy is with starting there. Because it’s too easy to then say “we can only have power in groups.” And if we work only in that direction, we tend not to get development for individuals. We also tend to get, yet again, intermediaries working toward “scale” in the form of aggregated numbers of individuals.

A key mission for VRM — perhaps the key mission — is to get scale for the individual. I want each of us to be able to address whole markets, and multiple organizations (especially vendors) in our own ways. For example, to be able to change our address or phone number with many organizations at once. That’s a simple thing, and it has scale. Today we can’t do that. We need to go around from one silo to another, changing our data with each one, in their ways rather than ours. That’s the calf-cow problem we talked about. To be fully human we need to be fully individual.

I’m not saying here that the VRM tools we make should be different for each of us. These tools should be, at their base, the same. We should have one simple and standard way to change addresses with many organizations at once. That probably won’t happen right away, because there are competing tools and services offering that capability today. But in time we’ll narrow it down to one, just like we narrowed email down to SMTP, POP3 and IMAP.

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