From me to you: The business of sharing



If there’s anything that you want,
If there’s anything I can do,
Just call on me and I’ll send it along
With love from me to you.
To you, to you, to you.

From Me To You (McCartney/Lennon) The Beatles, 1963

Photo credit: Logan Abassi UN/minustah

[An aside for Beatlemaniacs. Apparently From Me To You was the third and last song to be credited McCartney-Lennon, as opposed to Lennon-McCartney].

Sharing is serious business.

Sharing creates value, and that value gets paid for in a variety of ways. Not all of those ways are understood, or for that matter even visible. Some years ago, Bruce Schneier, an erstwhile colleague and must-read blogger, put it quite bluntly: Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re the product. Its customers are the advertisers.

When I first saw that quote, I laughed. I’d heard the equivalent many times, in variations of “if you’re not the customer, you must be the product” or even more cynically “if you can’t spot the patsy at the poker table then it’s probably you”.

The quote still makes me smile. But it doesn’t deter me from sharing. It doesn’t deter me from joining services like facebook or Google+ or Chatter or Twitter or LinkedIn. Or for that matter the World Wide Web and the internet. [Disclosure: I work for, the makers of Chatter. And I have good friends who are involved with every one of the services named.]

It doesn’t deter me from writing posts like this, and sharing my thoughts with you.

People who know and trust each other can do amazing things together when they are connected and when they can communicate with each other. This has been the case from the time we learnt to talk; when all that connected us was air, we used sound and gesture and light to communicate across the open air. We shouted. We used tools to make our shouting louder. We used mirrors. Sent smoke signals. Whistled. Drummed. Waved flags. All these worked, but distances weren’t great. We could concatenate, daisy-chain our way to distance, passing whatever we wanted to pass from hand to hand. But it was slow, time-consuming, inefficient. So we didn’t do it that often, usually only in emergency.

We learnt to standardise, so that each participant understood what was being communicated in the same way. It didn’t always work, but errors were reduced and the process was accelerated. We moved data around; we got better at it. But it wasn’t persisted, and so it was hard to recall, to analyse, to aggregate, to gain insights from. Then came the telegraph and telephone and radio and television and the internet and the Web and email and chat and SMS and microblogs and and and. Analogue things became digital; broadcast models became networked, sometimes even peer-to-peer; transient data was persisted, then classified and archived. Search got better, so retrieval got better.

And that is how I think of social networks today. Places where people are connected. Where people can communicate with each other. Where they can share with each other. People are social. And they don’t worry too much about monetisation or business models. What they worry about is trust. Can they trust the person they are sharing with, can they trust the person or people who makes that sharing possible, can they trust the people involved in picking up, moving, delivering whatever is being shared? Trust. Not monetisation. Not business model. Trust.

As a result of the web, in our personal lives as well as in business, it has become possible to share pretty much anything. And magical things are happening. We can share our thoughts and ideas, just like I am doing now. I have no monetisation plan, no business model. I share in order to learn and to teach. Many of the people who read this post are people I count as friends. And many of those people share their views with me in similar ways. Platforms like WordPress and Typepad exist to make the sharing of thoughts and ideas possible.  We can share our opinions, we can review products and services, as happens in TripAdvisor or Amazon; and we can share our experiences of buying and selling, as happens in eBay or etsy. We can share our learning via sites like Wikipedia; we can answer questions as in a Quora.

Sometimes we can even use some of these services in ways that weren’t part of the original design: there is a humorous side to what we share. [I particularly love how “The 2009-2014 Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats in Greater China” gets a review of

“I was thinking, ‘Sweet! Finally a version of Outlook that will run on my wooden Chinese toilet seats!!'”


But we know all this. We know about how the web makes sharing possible, easier, more enjoyable. [As a child I hated the idea of sitting and watching someone else’s holiday photographs or film while visiting their homes. Yet now, because I can choose the time and the place, I’m happy to do just that. Times change, conditions change.]

Sharing is serious business.

And with social networks and social logins, sharing has become even more serious business. Now we can share inventory among friends, in the form of food, beds, cars, whatever. We can share other forms of “assets”, such as our wireless passwords; our lifestyle-linked purchasing power; even our intentions (in going to a concert, even down to where we plan to sit), as shown in the snapshot below from ticketmaster:

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 12.23.10

We have to think of social networks as exchanges. Historically, exchanges came with high barriers to entry and access criteria, many were formed initially as exclusive clubs. Social networks, in comparison, come with low barriers to entry. Search costs are low, you can find out who else is there quickly and cheaply. Engagement and contracting costs are similarly low, as are execution and transaction costs.

We started off just communicating with each other; then we shared our photos and our activities, our opinions and our intentions. Now, particularly via the use of social logins, we can discover more and we can share more as a result. Who else (among our friend network) has done something, is doing something, wants to do something?

The ability to discover the experiences, opinions, actions and intent of our friends is powerful just by itself; when we augment that with the ability to share and exchange our inventory, it becomes truly magical.

Our experiences are themselves assets, when expressed in a codified, shareable, findable, retrievable form. Of course our experiences in terms of food and travel and hotels and buying and selling are valuable.

But not as valuable as our experiences in medical terms. Yet there are many many barriers to sharing medical information.  Initiatives like the Open Data Institute are focused on the larger problem of making the taxonomies available and useful. Smaller, medically focused enterprises such as try and fight for the right to secure and share DNA data for genomics research;  the Supreme Court has had to be involved in ensuring that human genes cannot be patented.

Our ability to share our experiences, often as stories, is part of what makes us human. Our ability to learn from those experiences has contributed to our capacity to exist. We have to fight to retain those rights.

It has become easier for us to share those experiences, to aggregate them, to learn from them. Because we have tools:

  • tools that simplify our ability to share, to aggregate, to learn;
  • tools that reduce the transaction costs involved, in terms of search and discovery, engagement and contracting; execution;
  • tools that help us standardise in order to share;
  • tools that help us have the vocabulary to make that sharing possible and valuable;
  • tools that allow us to associate what we share with verified identities, places, times

I’m used to seeing headlines about people who manage to get asymmetric access to information that was not shared with them in the first place, in an environment where there is neither relationship nor trust.

This is not about those stories. Only today, a friend pointed me towards a story about how Google is working on a service to share clothes and gadgets and stuff with friends; he reminded me that services like Yerdle already do this. Those are the stories I need to see.

We need to see headlines about how value is generated from the sharing of information, between individuals, between groups of friends, across society as a whole. That’s really what social networks are about, at home and at work. Reducing friction and latency in engagements between people. Simplifying access to the ability to discover and share knowledge and inventory; accelerating the capacity to contract and to trade as a result; providing the tools to identify the trends and patterns, the insights that can teach us how to do things better.

And until we see those headlines, I will keep writing posts like this one.

18 thoughts on “From me to you: The business of sharing”

  1. Trust alone isn’t enough to make ‘Sharing’ sustainable. I believe other components such as #Compassion are required to transport sharing into a sustainable state of being. JP, you’ve got me thinking that I need to expand my notion and thinking on #CompassionateCapitalism and extend this thinking into its bottom-up ‘consumption’ compliment. Perhaps we can call this #CompassionateConsumption?

  2. @sasha compassionate consumption …. I like it. I guess I didn’t major on the compassion angle because I try and believe that humans are intrinsically compassionate….. intrigued by where you will take that….

  3. JP – I don’t think you can wriggle off the #Prism #Tempora hook by appealing to our better nature. The financial cost of Prism and Tempora is huge; the economic cost may be even bigger, and the social cost incalculable (even negligible, if everyone just shrugs and gets on with their lives). If there are any seriously bad guys who still use electronic communications to plot, which I doubt, then they deserve what they get.
    Much more vulnerable are companies whose commercial information may be open to be collected, read, repackaged and sold to competitors. This would not be outside GCHQ or the NSA remits; both allow surveillance in the national economic interest. The MI6 regularly warns of the threat of electronic industrial espionage; presumably the Chinese government issues similar warnings, if only to maintain symmetry.
    Put the costs of maintaining these surveillance systems and of protecting against them against number of people caught and jailed as a result of Prism and Tempora leads. They didn’t save Lee Rigby; nor could they, we are told.
    Now apply that money to smart cities, or driverless vehicles, or sustainable energy, or clean water. Or even creating markets for Afghani-made goods and products. Now how many lives could be saved and how much social value could be created?
    If you think that’s a Panglossian view of life, then I point you to Anonymous and Occupy as symptoms of a deep unease that ordinary people have with the status quo. That unease is reflected in voting behaviour, and that unease is confirmed by the revelations of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, The Telegraph over MPs’ expenses, etc.
    Caring and sharing may be all very well at a personal level, and it may even work at a political and economic level. So far there is slight evidence that it can be used as the status quo.

  4. But we already had (have?) the Internet… why do we need a commercialized “box” within which to share? Because YES, sharing and connecting are important… but not as effective when it’s turned into a commodity for a business to profit from.

  5. I thought the first album was credited McCartney-Lennon, with From Me To You the 3rd single… Good post. News stories thoroughly depressed me last night. No real trust. Think you could have mentioned books between flags and telegraph. Science was social even when the conversation took decades.

  6. @paul could be. I didn’t check albums, just singles. Glad you liked the post. And yes, I should have touched upon books and magazines and print, I was concentrating on the last two hundred years….

  7. @joseph somehow I have to be able to present a friend graph to the service in order to get friend-related information. That’s what social logins let me do. if someone came up with a nonprofit way of holding the friend graphs of a billion or more people, and making that info available to all services, I would find that very interesting. but don’t underestimate the size and shape of it.

  8. @ian my post had nothing to do with prism or tempora. it was about peer-to-peer sharing amongst people who trust each other and the benefits that it brings.

  9. JP – I got that. What I’m saying is that Prism, Tempora etc are making peer2peer = face2face.

  10. Yes – interesting but flawed. He writes “authority is a collective social process…” but as Mao noted, power grows from the barrel of a gun. Even Machiavelli knew that new brooms have to sweep clean or risk being deposed by envious competitors. To retain power, the boss has to set the rules and make sure everyone knows them; for anyone breaking them justice has to be swift and destructive. That holds true in democracies as much as in dictatorships.
    I question how much trust you can engender in an online relationship when you know that everything you say is being collected, recorded, analysed and either discarded or held forever and perhaps shared with persons unknown by a third party over whom you have no control.

  11. @Ian the Calcutta I lived in was to me a collection of neighbourhoods. Within each neighbourhood everyone knew everyone, who did what, who liked what. “Secrets” were hard to protect. As Kenny Dalglish said when responding to questions about how he brought Ian Rush back from Juventus while keeping it a secret “Simple. I didn’t tell anyone”. All sharing involves vulnerability and risk.

    In that set of neighbourhoods I had many friendships, many relationships, steeped in trust. This, despite the lack of privacy and the gossip.

    In the UK I live in, a series of governments have seen fit to make us the poster child for CCTV. There are probably more CCTVs in the UK than in the rest of Europe combined. So when I walk around I can be seen, those walks are collected, recorded, analysed; some are held forever, some are discarded; some are probably shared with persons unknown.

    These are not things I like. I am not a fan of CCTV everywhere. I am not a fan of being eavesdropped or watched all the time. And I do not trust the people who do that.

    But that does not stop me from trusting my friends. That does not stop me from sharing with my friends.

    Two different things. I can despise the asymmetric spying, despise the mangling of the legal process, despise the abuse of power that allows that to happen.

    And at the same time I can celebrate the value that comes from openness and trusting and sharing.

    It is the asymmetry I despise. The misuse and abuse of due legal process I despise. Not sharing per se.

  12. I’m with you there, JP. But I think your comments might be misinterpreted and sent to the Pre-Crime Unit…;-)

  13. Nice post. My last comment on your previous post, I made an error, I spoke to another speaker at the Amplify festival, but good thing I made that mistake as I’m enjoying your posts JP.

    On the topic, I feel that sharing, openness and transparency despite surveillance on us, like Prism etc. is what essentially de-powers such things. If we’re already completely transparent, who’d care if we’re being spied on? This might be oversimplifying it, but see it as a simple formula – the degree we are willing to be transparent = the degree of which our sharing is authentic = the degree of which we are willing to be vulnerable = the degree of which others will trust us = the degree of which we are actually trustworthy and = the degree of which we are willing to be ourselves despite being afraid to do / be so. This also equals the capacity we have to be full and happy individuals too in my opinion.

    When it comes to sharing I feel the intention makes all the difference. Real sharing I reckon creates exchange by default but when that’s the intention (an exchange), we start hitting brick walls. Passion for something makes us want to share, it’s almost impossible to be passionate about something and not share it. A passion for a certain topic makes us burst at the seams, we can’t help but share it. Doing so, may or may not result in direct exchange but in reality it’s more likely to result in exchanges happening in all directions, that’s the nature of life. Perhaps the idea of direct and fair exchange results in all this being lost in translation, bartering / money etc. is all about securing fair exchange but the issue here, on the topic of trust – is these types of interactions are always based on a foundation of dis-trust. We won’t be creating instruments of trust (like money), unless we’re already suspicious and in a state of dis-trusting people around us. That’s why I feel passion is the break through cure, we might be dis-trusting and we might have a thousand reasons to be so but when we are passionate about something, we allow ourselves to share in a real sense despite all this.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I tend to waffle on these subjects but clearly for me it’s a fascinating area worth waffling over :)

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