I was listening to the radio yesterday. There was a story about the start-up Personal. This is a dotcom company on a mission. That mission, being funded by some savvy tech investors including AOL (News - Alert) founder Steve Case, is to upend the notion of value in the digital age. How so?
The answer is by giving subscribers personal data management capabilities. These allow subscribers to protect their personal data and then parse it out to those, and only those, with whom they wish to share it. The goal is to give all of us a way to protect our personal information and to monetize it instead of letting everyone else do so.
For the privilege of providing users with a “life-management platform,” Personal will get a small piece of the action when you reveal yourself to a vendor and engage in a transaction with them acting as a trusted “infomediary.” Pretty novel.
I won’t spoil the interest derived from reading the details about their approach. I will summarize by saying the company provides subscribers with a free data vault where you store what they are calling GEMS. These are “nuggets of reusable information that represent the details of your life your family, pets, car, home, office, food and travel preferences, and more.” GEMS are designed for storage and management purposes.
The people behind this clearly are very smart, very passionate and well-funded. They seemingly have thought of everything. This includes: ease of use, security, liability, etc. Well, not so fast. They may have fallen a bit short.
Futurist Alvin Toffler, in his 1984 best seller, Future Shock, discussed the trend of mass customization and came up with the concept of “the market of one.” This roughly translated into the idea that technology would enable customer service/the ability to market in a way that a customer feels that he or she is an exclusive or preferred customer of a firm. In the intervening years, technology has made it so that the customer not only feels that way, but companies can deliver a truly customized product or service.
That said, getting to the market of one, i.e., you and me, and convincing us to buy is the challenge. That is where “big data” and powerful analytics of all of the bit streams flying around the Internet about us are crunched so advertisers can zero in with customized/personalized offers at low cost to them and with high hit rates. What they want to know from cyber space is not just who we are (name rank and serial number), but a short list of such things as:
- What we like
- Where we go
- What we spend on
- When and why we spend it
- When are we likely to spend again
- Can we be enticed to buy more, more frequently and in adjacent categories
- Who influences our decisions and how
Obviously, they will take whatever they can get and keep pushing for more — which has regulators in Europe very worried and should have regulators around the world concerned as well.
In other words, marketers would like as close to “perfect information” about our demographics and psychographics as possible. Understanding them and all of the correlations that can be developed is how they will make money efficiently. In theory, it is also how they will be able to retain customer loyalty in an increasingly disloyal world. Thank you Internet for improving disloyalty as an option.
So the bottom line is, if I give you as much information as possible, or you can get it from looking at big data, a vendor can know what I want, how and when I want it and present me with an offer I can’t refuse. In short, my personal information, aka “my identity,” is valuable! In fact, if you are interested in the value of identity and its role in the digital world, I unabashedly recommend my recent blog on an important new book, Identity Shift : Where Identity Meets Technology in the Networked-Community Age, written by Alcatel-Lucent’s (News - Alert) Allison Cerra and Christina James. It delves deeply into the subject.
Let’s return to Personal for a moment. As the company points out, the notion that my personal information is valuable and that I own it has not been recognized by current laws. The reason is that is has been presented as being “intellectual property.” The courts are right. My identity is not intellectual property. However, it is property. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is my property. I and not someone else should have total control over how it gets monetized, by whom and for what reason. There also needs to be stronger laws against the improper collection and dissemination of my info.
I would argue that given the value of my identity, everyone who is trying to get me to pay them for something, or wants to use my identity to get others to pay for something, should pay me for the use of that information once they have my permission. All of the privacy settings on Google (News - Alert) and Facebook, etc. are nice, but the leakage of my Internet travels and personal info remains a virtual open fire hydrant. Plus most people, as the book highlights, are trusting souls. A majority of us are willing give out personal information no questions asked. We also tend not to read the fine print. We live in a world where we have to proactively opt-out of the use of our personal information when it should be the reverse.
Personal has the message right, but whether its solution can become widely adopted, especially since it involves a lot of time and effort on the user’s part to manage his or her management system, is certainly problematic. Its biggest challenge is going to be that in order to have impact it will need to reach the critical masses (pun intended) of Facebook (News - Alert) and Twitter. This is because otherwise, it can be easily ignored by sellers.
In the meantime, if you don’t wish to feed the beasts, turn off the location capabilities on your smartphone. Set all of your privacy settings to the highest level of stun. Make sure you have an identity guard service for your financial information. Then keep your fingers crossed.
Ranking right up there with the most profound changes wrought by the pervasive use of the Internet — right there with interoperable email, chat, SMS and social media — has been the Web forever changing the relationship between buyers and sellers. Better information in the hands of buyers, and the availability of choice that is a click away, means buyers, for the first time in history, have and increasing use the upper hand in transactions. Technologic change has been called a revolution. Its speed and scope has been impressive, but one can also argue that the transactional revolution it has enabled may be equally or more important. So far it has meant that those who cannot adopt and then leverage change in fact and not just in words end up being unsustainable businesses.
But the transaction revolution is one in progress. Old habits die hard. Indeed, it appears we are at the bottom of the on-ramp in terms of understanding the parameters governing commerce in the brave new world. What does seem apparent in an era whose dominate transactional issues are going to revolve around permissionand the enforcement of user-defined policies and rules, is that the logical end should be that what is valuable — my bookmarks, surfing history (especially my transactions) and past and current location and not just what is in my vault(s) — should be legally mine.
That means mine to sell, including auction. eBay (News - Alert) are you listening? It’s personal!
Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest and best known brands, and has served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Rich Steeves