An important point is that liberty, freedom, autonomy and agency at the "bottom" opens up enormously when companies at the top are, in the words of Walt Whitman, "not demented with the mania of owning things".

Doc Searls on Vendor Relationship Management and companies that 'get it'...

Doc Searls, author of "The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge", is speaking at PICNIC Festival 2012 where he will elaborate on his idea of personal empowerment of consumers in the marketplace.

What specific projects are you working on that relate to 'new ownership'?

For the past six years, I have worked with ProjectVRM at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, fostering development of tools and services that make customers both independent of vendors and better able to engage with them. The category for these tools is Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), which in a narrow sense is the customer-side counterpart of customer relationship management (CRM), a many-$billion business that mostly works in a top-down way, and could use some help from the customer's side. At this point, there are dozens of companies that fit in the VRM category, all over the world. 

I don't think of individuals as the “bottom”, though; or of big companies and organizations as the “top”. Instead, I look at what makes us most human, especially our individuality — no two of us are exactly the same, including genetically identical twins — and I see a vast spread of endlessly unique capacities for creativity and positive, cooperative action. The old “top-down” models ignore and suppress that. I think doing that is obsolete in a world where we now all have the capacity to compute and network for ourselves: two capacities that were not available to any human being before the arrival of personal computers and the Internet. 

What companies or organizations do you think “get” new ownership and are at the forefront of this mega trend in terms of their products, services, experiences and business models? 

I would start with all the companies and organizations listed on the developers page at ProjectVRM. They number about fifty now. Many of those are also in the Startup Circle at the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium. Most of those companies are small and young, but that's a good thing. They're also all over the world, but with a bit of a concentration in Europe.

Among .orgs, I would name:

I could go on, but I'll stop there.

Among larger companies, I would single out Google, where it has worked to open markets by pioneering and popularizing the use of open source, open standards and open designs. The most significant effort in that direction has been Android, which has made the smartphone category far more generative (with many phone makers, and many apps developed across all of them) than it would have been if Apple was leading the category alone.

An important point is that liberty, freedom, autonomy and agency at the "bottom" opens up enormously when companies at the top are, in the words of Walt Whitman, "not demented with the mania of owning things." By not trying to "own" the smartphone market, Google has opened up lots of innovation from the "bottom." I should add that this is not an endorsement of everything Google does. But I do like what they've tried to do with Android, and with other opening efforts, such as the Data Liberation Front, and the company's open source programs.

Below the top, but hugely important, is Github, the Web-based code hosting service that uses the Git revision control system, which was created by Linus Torvalds, who also created Linux. Others include: 

  • Kaltura, with its open source video platform;
  • StatusNet, which pioneered open source microblogging;
  • Digium, which created Asterisk, a widely used open source telephony platform;.
  • Tucows, which has Hover (the most friendly and helpful domain registrar I know), and
  • Ting (a no-BS customer-loving mobile phone company).

There are many others that I'll insult by not adding them here.

Still, we are very early in the process of a long revolution. That I can only think of one big company, and in just a couple of categories, is a sign of how far we need to go.

Why did you agree to speak at PICNIC? What are you hoping to bring to the event? What are you hoping to get out of participation?

I've wanted for years to participate in PICNIC, which I know is an awesome show. I'm hoping to bring news and insight about the work I've been fostering and studying, and I'm hoping to learn everything I can from everybody I see, hear and meet there.

Read more by Doc Searls on "The Customer as God".

Do you want to hear Doc Searls at PICNIC Festival 2012, buy tickets here!

I don't think of individuals as the “bottom”, though; or of big companies and organizations as the “top”. Instead, I look at what makes us most human, especially our individuality.

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