Data, Markets, and Power

There’s an election Tuesday, and you’re probably going to vote – whether your vote is meaningful or not. Some call voting a “ritual,” which is not at all to say that it’s not meaningful – rituals do have meaning. But the word is that it’s a symbolic rather than functional, practical event. The actual eddies and currents of power feel little or no impact from your single vote.

Where can you have a real impact? Doc Searls and colleagues working through Project VRM and the Internet Identity Workshop are catalyzing a redefinition of the computer-mediated vendor/consumer relationship, with the potential to transform power relationships in markets rather than in the political sphere. However market experiences dominate so much of our daily commitment of attention and thinking, a redefinition of marketplace relationships could be a redefinition of relationship and power more broadly. If we assume symmetry in vendor/consumer relationshiops, we will also assume that the relationship of an elected official to her constituents will be more symmetrical.

I’m reading Doc Searls’ “The Data Bubble II,” which includes a lot of homework – links to other articles and posts I might read to get deeper into the subjects of online identity and relationship as they pertain to marketing and the redefinition of vendor/consumer relationships. Doc quotes John Battelle, who discusses how emerging conversational media inspired an economic model he calls conversational marketing, “simply the tip of a very large iceberg, representative of a sea change in how all businesses converse with their constituents – be they customers, partners, or employees.” Battelle calls it “The Conversation Economy,” for which Doc says “we’re going to need individuals who are independent and self-empowered.”

Back to voting: the vote is symbolic of your share as a citizen within a power structure that is supposedly of, for, and by the people, though it’s increasingly obvious that votes and voters are manipulable and nodes within power structures are corruptible. In arguing for a more participatory or democratic set of structures, it’s important to know that supposed majorities are also corruptible and can be crazy as hell. We need structures that empower and that also include checks and balances on those empowered. We want to build sanity into the architecture of power, and ease dependence on the ethics and logic of mere mortals. If we build such structures for markets, they will have an impact on governance as well.

(Also interesting: Doc refers to David Siegel on “The Social Networking Bubble.” Siegel says “We’ve overstated and overemphasized the utility of social networking and are now in a marketer’s ‘greater fool’ territory.”)

“Managing relationships, not each other”

I’ve become a fan, adherent, and hopefully participant in Project VRM – Vendor Relationship Management – a practical extension of the Cluetrain Manifesto coordinated by Doc Searls as fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. I have a lot more to say about Project VRM in future posts – essentially it’s about establishing (restoring?) a symmetrical relationship between customers and vendors. Doc describes this in a post following last week’s Internet Identity Workshop as “managing relationships, not each other.” I wanted to post that link asap. Here’s the opening paragraph, which gives you an idea why this is important thinking:

During the Industrial Age, the power asymmetry between vendor and customer got so steep that vendors got to talking about customers as if the latter were cattle or slaves. Customers became “targets” that vendors “captured,” “acquired,” “locked in” and “managed.” As the Information Age dawned, however, customers gradually became more independent. So, midway into the second decade of the new millennium, customers were no longer the ones being managed. Nor, however, were vendors. Instead, relationship itself was managed by both parties.

This gets to my issue about broadcast media, which includes broadcast strategies deployed in “social media” contexts, which we see often enough to know that the cluetrain hasn’t quite left the station. Marketing culture doesn’t warm to symmetrical, interactive customer engagement – for many marketing professionals, a VRM approach feels inefficient and cedes too much control to the customer (though VRM is about finding technologies that make the interactions more efficient). I’m building my practice around facilitating relationships (businesses/customers, ngos/constituents – I’m especially interested in the latter, working with mission-driven organizations).

Out of time for now, but more to come.

Project VRM and e-patients

I’ve been talking to the Project VRM group about healthcare applications of vendor relationship management, also related to the work of the Society for Participatory Medicine and the e-Patients Working Group that preceded it (of which I’ve been a founding member).

Doc Searls and I were talking about this again last week at Fiber Fete; he’s just posted a note about Dave deBronkart’s “Gimme My Damn Data” rant and its implications (expanded and well-overviewed by Dave along with Vince Kuraitis and David Kibbe) to the Project VRM site. Doc takes issue with the use of the word “consume” in the longer piece by Dave et al:

Patients today no longer only consume. They produce. What they want and need is more responsibility for their own health care. More importantly, a patient cannot be a platform if he or she is only consuming. By nature and definition, a consumer is a subordinate creature. It lives downhill from the flow of services. Platforms stand below what they support, but are not subordinate. They are the independent variable on which the variable ones standing on it depend.