Blogging, value and vulnerability: a postscript

Aqualung Ric makes the point that blogging is all about relationships, and that relationships are all about vulnerability.

Doc Searls was talking to me about a conversation he had with George Lakoff; somewhere out of that conversation, they defined blogging as rolling snowballs downhill in comparison with prior forms of multiperson live conversation which sometimes felt like rolling boulders uphill. Doc commented about the way the snowball has no “ownership” by the time it gets downhill.

This too is an important aspect of blogging, the co-creation of value. But the value that is co-created is not ownable in the traditional sense. There is a delayed gratification aspect to blogging, a Goleman-like emotional intelligence; you have to do what you feel is right rather than work out how you will “monetise” what you say. Ideas are free, it’s what you do with them that may be monetised over time.

Talking about Lakoff, I found his work on anchoring and framing very interesting; the subject was introduced to me some years ago by a colleague, James Montier, and also touched upon by Barry Schwartz. Lakoff’s point that framing is about ideas and values sits bang in the middle of this conversation.

Blogging, value and vulnerability

Anyone who blogs must be prepared to be:

  • flamed or otherwise criticised
  • splogged or similarly left with some form of comment spam
  • ridiculed for actions or omissions

It goes with the territory, and I should not be surprised to face all three within a fortnight of going public. The flames have so far been incidental, largely on other sites that link to me. But they are flames nevertheless. The splogs have also been irrelevant so far, all I have needed to do is to moderate them away. And I am sure the ridicule will come.

This brings me to a point which I feel is material to bloggers in general, and I’d love to hear opinions from people “out there”. Can a blogger create value without making herself or himself vulnerable? Isn’t being vulnerable actually part of the process of creating value?

My guess is yes. In this respect I am reminded of the work of Professor Michael Power at the LSE. Some time ago he wrote a pamphlet called The Risk Management of Everything which you can find here. He’s a very interesting guy, I arranged to have lunch with him shortly after reading the document.

While he made many good points, the one that stood out for me (in the context of information) was his assertion that second-order risk management, itself often caused by post-facto regulation in an increasingly litigious society, was creating an environment that was driving out “valuable, yet vulnerable, professional opinion”. These are my quotes, and my apologies for not guaranteeing their accuracy, it has been a while since I read it.

Vulnerability is an essential part of any professional or personal opinion. It comes from not having certainty about the opinion expressed. Opinions presented with certainty must be one of two things: not opinion but fact; or, bigotry and propaganda.

I’m also reminded of another piece of apocrypha, one I really liked. Apparently Justin Hawkins of The Darkness was being interviewed somewhere, sometime and the DJ commented on how the band was perceived as enjoying themselves despite their meteoric rise to fame. And Justin is meant to have said “We take our music very seriously, we just don’t take ourselves seriously”.

There’s something in that for all us bloggers.

Cluetrain and social software and digital markets

People have sometimes asked me why I was so interested in Cluetrain when I was meant to be working in technology in an investment bank. So I’m going to do something that people who know me well dread my doing. Let you get inside my head -)

It’s simple.

0. Without information there are no markets period.

1. Without trust there is no banking, there are no capital markets. How did the word “bankrupt” enter the vocabulary, apparently sometime around 1550? Look here. Sounds like people met to have conversations while sitting on benches, and when someone broke their word, the rest broke his bench. The first Latin words that wannabe City gents learnt after doing various things to a table were Dictum Meum Pactum. My word is my bond. And reputation became collateral.

2. Without conversation there are no markets either. As per Cluetrain. Enough said.

3. Conversations are more about social than transactional, as both John Seely Brown and Doc Searls have pointed out in different ways.

4. Cyberspace is somewhere with different rules, allowing all of us an opportunity to redefine trust, make markets more open and transparent, yet prevent misuse and corruption. Larry Lessig had a lot to do with setting me right on all this.

5. All this was happening at a time when markets were losing faith with capital markets institutions, in one form or the other.

6. And usable social software was arriving on the scene.

And there I was working with talented people in a bank whose culture allowed us to try these things out. Serendipity.

Open versus closed information

I am privileged to work with many talented people, people who like thinking about what they are doing and why. As we began our circuitous route on to an internal blogosphere, two questions kept coming up.

One, should we start with an open approach to information and then close those bits and pieces that need closing….or should it be the other way around?

Two, should we enforce declaration of identity or should we allow anonymity?

I think that both these questions are critical in the context of a number of debates about information, particularly those that touch on digital rights, identity, security, privacy, confidentiality and the like.

I’d love to know what you think about these two questions, and am looking forward to comments that I can learn from.

In the meantime…. my gut feel is that DRM implementations that start with a “closed” approach to information are doomed to failure. I have always believed that knowledge management and information security are kindred spirits. You impute value to an information asset. You declare who can see it. You declare who can’t. You must start with a view that information is an asset that increases in value with reproduction and enrichment and evolution and adaptation. Start with free for all. Only restrict access when there is good and clear reason. And there will be good and clear reasons: confidentiality, privacy, regulation, commercial value, whatever. But it is easier and simpler to close bits when really necessary, in comparison with trying to open bits that default to closed.

I’d be interested in knowing other views on this, whether mad or wise.

I approach the second question almost as if it is the first question. Open is better than closed. There may be reasons for stimulating or encouraging anonymous behaviour, but I don’t find them easy to understand. [I am reminded of a 20s-30s book by Julius Henry Marx entitled “Beds”. Chapter One was headed Essay on the Advantages of Sleeping Alone. The page was blank. And in a footnote the Editor stated “The Author refrained from making any contribution to this chapter”. Or words to that effect…forgive me, it’s thirty years since I last read that book.

Looking forward to the wisdom and madness.

Customer information (continued): If we build it, will they come?

One of the questions that keeps popping up when people discuss “giving the customer’s information back to the customer” is:

Is the customer ready for this?

This is not a trivial point. The social and cultural aspects of such a move need to be thought out and prepared for, one of the reasons why this hasn’t happened as yet. So let’s take a look at what has been happening, but perhaps with a slightly sideways perspective.

One. We have started the process of giving the customer control of transaction execution. Any purchase/fulfilment on the web, even checking in for a flight. We have started the process of providing the customer transparency of the transaction’s status. Fedex. UPS. Amazon. eBay. Everyone’s got it. We have started the process of providing the customer transparency of information held about the customer, in terms of Freedom of Information or Data Protection or whatever. Now all we are talking about is transferring the responsibility of looking after the customer’s own relatively static information to the customer. How different is this from my being in control of my preferences for Amazon or eBay or the Wall Street Journal online. Establish who I am. Indicate what I am interested in, and not interested in. Go through some process of validating my financial status formally; an example would be getting “verified” status on PayPal. And bingo, there I am.

From a consumerisation perspective we have already taken step one of “giving the customer’s information back to the customer”. What consumer product/service providers have not yet done is step two, allowing the customer to share information about vendor A-related activity with vendor B. And this will happen. Despite the wholly predictable pushback from the product/service vendors, who lose a layer of lock-in as a result.
From an institutional perspective there is much to do, given where we are now. The vendor-lock-in argument is even more compelling here, with institutions largely unable to accept or sometimes even comprehend the implications of such a move, that of allowing the customer to share “your” activity information with a competitor. But it will happen. Only a matter of time.

Before we even go into the nature of the technology underpinning all this, in terms of identity formats and microformats, public and private keys, the nature of the encryption, the federated versus centralised models, how trust is conferred and authenticated, what kind of 1000lb gorillas are needed, the role of biometrics, the need for multifactor authentication processes, transaction guarantees and the process involved in guaranteeing, privacy protection, appropriateness of solutions for anti-money-laundering and identity theft protection and the economics of large scale provision of related infrastructure, we need to get the first question answered. Is the customer ready for this?

I can only speak for myself. Would I like to share my eBay activity with Christies or Bonhams or Sothebys? Would I like to share my British Airways activity with Lufthansa and United and Virgin? My hotel and car activity? My books and music activity? Yes yes yes.

I get to control my core “static” information. Who else knows this as well as I do? I get it verified by an independent arbiter, much like I need a birth certificate to get a passport. I choose whom I share what with.

I choose. I look after. I am the beneficiary.

That’s the key.

Then I can get all the downstream benefits of collaborative filtering and recommendations. Then my marketplaces get all the benefits of democratised reputation and rating and profiling and prediction.

A lot has to change. And will change. Provided the plan is: I choose. I look after. I am the beneficiary.