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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Oxford and “VRM”: Diabetics and Phone Subscribers, Megaphones and Cudgels, Privacy as Currency, Automobiles and Electron Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 25, 2007

Earlier this month I spent a week in London and Oxford, including a day at the Oxford University Internet Institute attending a meeting and work session of web and tech specialists active in giving voice to something called Vendor Relations Management (VRM).


The Oxford meeting was spearheaded by Doc Searls, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” senor editor at Linux Journal,and research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for the Internet and Society. Doc is a pioneer in the development of VRM, which he calls ” … the reciprocal of CRM (Customer Relations Management).” VRM, it seems, is envisioned as an Internet-based means to enable people to cease being mere “consumers” of what companies and institutions offer and aggressively market. Instead, VRM aims to turn ordinary people into active co-determinants of the goods and services markets and societies produce and offer. To accomplish this, VRM entails compiling, managing and “broadcasting” the aggregations of data that comprise one’s online identity or publicly visible persona — a continuous transmission, so to speak, of “lifestyle-,” preference-, and needs-based “RFPs” (requests for proposals).

Concepts into Projects

One of the best ways to clarify and test concepts is to translate them into prototypes and pilot projects. The thrust of the Oxford meeting was to create such existential definitions of VRM by momentarily pushing philosophizing aside and seeking to give shape to VRM by coming up with a set of feasible, fund-able, bench-scale projects with “real world” applications and relatively high chances for success.

Diabetics and Phone Subscribers

Two projects emerged from the meeting. One, conceived by marketing specialist Alan Mitchell, would involve setting VRM to work in the service of a discrete demographic group with clearly defined, urgent needs — in this case diabetics, a population that is skyrocketing as diabetes increases at epidemic rates throughout the industrialized, processed-food- and sugar-consuming world. The proposed project would be implemented in association with one or more UK-based diabetes associations and would enable diabetics to maintain and chart data pertinent to the course of their medical treatment and self-care. Bundling of data by voluntary organizations serving diabetics would also feed into medical research and public policy formation. In a broader societal context, the project would also constitute a step towards getting diagnostic and treatment data out of the propretorship of physicians and insurers and into the hands of individuals. The second pilot project, proposed by Iain Henderson of QCI, would serve the needs both of a major company and of its legacy customers by attempting to put individualized and collective “faces” on British Telecom’s fixed-line customers. The latter are still seen by the former state telecommunications monopoly as “subscribers” identified by phone numbers alone, rather than as multifaceted individuals, families, and companies with variegated communications needs, needs, profiles, and budgets.

An Immense Megaphone and a Hefty Cudgel

My own metaphor for Vendor Relations Management is that it would give individuals the cyberspace equivalents of an immense megaphone and a hefty cudgel. The VRM “megaphone” would enable individuals to make their needs and preferences heard over the noise and artificial categories of marketing-driven product development and corporate branding. As a “cudgel,” VRM would cluster individual’s needs and demands so as to give them the clout to awakening providers of goods and services to the real individuals who make up the collective abstractions we call markets. VR-based “megaphones” and “cudgels” could work equally well to ensure responsive, effective government.

Privacy as Currency

As saloon-goers used to say in 19th-century New York: “There is no free lunch.” Similarly, on the 21st-century internet there will be no free VRM. “The currency for VRM is privacy,” according to Oxford meeting participant Graham Sadd. In other words, to the degree that one wants to make markets responsive to one’s needs and desires, one must also selectively release information about one’s self and, unavoidably, compromise one’s privacy proportionally. There is no way out of this; the alternative is to avoid engaging in any and all informational transactions or, as Graham puts it, “… to withdraw from the world and sit on a mountain top.”

I agree with Graham. I am puzzled by the extreme preoccupation with keeping one’s data private that many internet activists seem to have. Such preoccupation can block the development of empowering innovations such as VRM. Indeed, the point VRM is to make one’s “data” resonate throughout the marketplace. I’ve posted about this before (see the closing paragraphs of this entry) and will return to the subject in the future. My own take is that those obsessed with web privacy might lack faith in their own efficacy to control or influence the societies inwhich they live. They may also be afraid of taking calculated risks — risk-taking being an unavoidable ingredient of innovation and change. (For more on the courage to take risks and the social importance of risk-taking listen to Norman Mailer in his June appearance with Günther Grass at the New York Public Library). A frequent underpinning of the privacy argument is the fear of misuse of data by governments. Interestingly, the terror apparatuses of the major totalitarian regimes of the 20th century may have relied less on sophisticated data gathering than on sheer brutality and, even more important, on social anomie, atomization, and the inculcation of a culture of betrayal and denunciation (see, for example, Eric Johnson’s “The Nazi Terror,” London, 2000) just as, in a far more tentative way, the US had during the McCarthy era and the years of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements. Following the Oxford workshop, I had a chance to chat with Berkman Fellow Mary Rundle whose in-depth work on the internet and government I look forward to reading to inform and balance my future comments on this subject.

Automobiles and Electronic Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source

On my last day in Oxford I had breakfast with Albert “Rick” Lawrence of the Electron Microscopy Department of the University of California at San Diego. As I was describing VRM, Rick pointed out, using the example of automoble manufacturers, that many manufacturers are actually aggregators of systems and of parts. This led me to posit that VRM may have the potential of enabling end-users to exert more influence over aggregation and, figuratively, to move the point of aggregation much closer to their own needs, specifications, and control. Referring to his own field, Rick added that suppliers are sometimes hampered in implementing customers’ needs because their software lags behind that of their customers, not infrequently because such suppliers rely on Microsoft-based platforms rather than on customizable open source software. Rick’s comments on gaps between suppliers and customers highlights a link between the open source movement and the concept and implementation of VRM.


2 Responses to “Oxford and “VRM”: Diabetics and Phone Subscribers, Megaphones and Cudgels, Privacy as Currency, Automobiles and Electron Microscopes, Aggregation and Open Source”

  1. […] As haphazard as the collections of photocopy shops maybe, they do have their logic. In the case of my own favorite shop, the logic is a function of its spatial location, which serves as filter for its stock. Indeed, what copy shops contain are function of the books that are brought it for copying in the first place. The location of my own favorite shop only tens of meters from the Ottoman archives and a little more than a kilometer from Istanbul University give it an academic and Ottoman period focus that is a function of the intellectual lives, intentionality, and daily trajectories of its copy service and book buying customers through the complexities of their own thoughts and the physical immensity of Istanbul — a case study in the dynamics of traditional cities and an analogue precursor and mirror of internet-related concepts of community and even social networking, including my friend and colleague Doc Searls’s Harvard-based quest for systems of Vendor Relations Management. […]

  2. […] reported that Google and Microsoft have entered into the medical information management fray. But, as I wrote following a meeting with Vendor Relations Management activists at the Oxford Internet Ins…, there are numerous opportunities for grass-roots information projects (in this case a proposed […]

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