Tag Archive for 'information'

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It’s the experience that matters

One of the great things about working on the DataPortability Project, is the exposure to some amazing thinking. Today alone, I stumped on this great piece questioning the point of a music label (via Crosbie Fitch ). Separately, I also came across this interesting bit of thinking about imagining what a world would look like without copyright . Those pieces helped give me more solid arguments with something that’s been on my mind a lot. That being, consumers don’t pay for content’s representation per se. Instead, they pay for the associated experience.

With the digital age, we have seen an uprooting of these traditional industries that operate in the content industries as we have seen with the recording & publishing industries. Our traditional approaches to managing content are being challenged, because we (or rather, they) grew complacent on the technological limitations of content distribution. However, now that we have a new type of technology to distribute content (due to computing, the Internet and the web), we are seeing greater potential for content to be consumed – and it’s also exposing something we have forgotten. The digital revolution is changing business practices but it highlights the true nature of content: it’s about the experience.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s define content as being products like music and books.

When you buy a album, you are not buying it for the physical CD or the plastic casing. The reason you are buying it, is so you can get access to the music. This access entitles you to experiencing the music. On a similar note, when you go to a concert to hear a band, you are not paying to stand in a concert hall. You are paying for the experience of hearing the music live, which also incorporates the associated experience of being a part of a crowd. Both those experiences trigger an emotional reaction – which can be positive or negative, but regardless, is what makes us feel alive. Humans pay for music, because the emotions being triggered by that content, helps them feel like humans.

beyonce

Beyonce’s movements: something you pay to experience

With books, what you are purchasing is knowledge. The paper that you read the novel on, which although can sometimes been done up nicely, isn’t why you buy it. What you are buying, is an experience to consume that knowledge. Some books offer intellectual stimulation; other books offer excitement through a riveting storyline. Regardless, the experience of the book reading is what you are purchasing.

It’s about the experience, stupid
Talking about cultural artifacts like music and books is one thing. But there is no reason why we can’t consider this with information in a generic sense – as the initial data is simply a stage earlier in the value chain . In the context of my personal data, this is something that I have generated. Nothing really special about it. But it becomes special, when a web application can do interesting things with that data. That meaning, when a application can process my data in such a way that gives me a new experience.

For example, there are certain Facebook applications that reveal some interesting information about my friends, by generating insight. Knowing that 58% of my friends are male is useful when I’m considering a party (more beer and Beam; less wine and champagne). Knowing that some of my friends are traveling or living in a certain country, is useful because it gives me awareness that I can meet up with them. By Facebook allowing applications to process my data in the context of my friends, the information they can generate is a lot more valuable if Facebook locked this down. The experience of having access to this information, is not as emotionally driven as a Jane Austen book; but the experience of insight is still something I get out of it.

The ability to offer a unique experience to a consumer, is what is key to any information-based products. Triggering emotions is a powerful thing about humanity, and a consumer when consuming information is looking to get an experience which in reality can only be captured in their memory. Of course, content in the form of entertainment is more about the emotion, whilst news is more about the access , but that doesn’t take away from the inherent characteristics of information.

Recognising that information-products are an experience, should give a better understanding about what we do with them. For example, writing this blog I don’t get any monetary benefit from it. However, the more people that want to copy my "original work", the better. Whilst that may sound contrary to smart business sense, it’s because I recognise the benefit I get from blogging is reputation (well one of them at least). And despite the fact people can ‘steal’ my content, doesn’t mean they can steal my brain. As a content creator, I am being rewarded with the associated benefits of a good reputation, despite the fact I cannot assert ownership over my words.

permission

"If you put that picture on the Internet I’ll call my lawyer"

So why do we obsess over control?
If you are a web application, a book author, or a musician – the way you make money isn’t through the information you generate. Instead, what you are being rewarded with is with a brand; a relationship with your consumer of trust; or just simply attention. Open source developers can appear to be like some hippies helping the world. But look closely at how they make a living, and it’s on the associated expertise that has been recognised onto them through their brand, which allows them to charge for consulting.

If you operate in the information industry, the way you make money is on the experience you create for the consumer – and by generating that experience, you can then create a monetary stream off it. For example, a band that no one knows about has no demand for their music. A cult following, because people get obsessed over their songs played freely everywhere, allows them to make buckets of money on merchandise and concerts. Twitter is a web application, that when I first heard about it, I would never have used it. Now that I use it, I am willing to pay for certain benefits that make my experience more enjoyable (ie, profiling of tweets, etc). Twitter has an opportunity to make money because I value the experience they offer me, and I’m willing to pay to make it a better experience.

In the information business, experience is ultimately your product. Ignore that, and you will be making decisions that at best, will amount to a huge amount of opportunity cost. Here’s hoping that as we move forward with DataPortability, the thinking of businesses can change. Locking down data is not how you make money; it’s the compelling experience you offer your consumers that is the true source of competitive advantage and ultimately, revenues.

What is data?

The leading voices in technology have exploded in discussion about data portability, data rights, and the future of web applications. As an active member in the DataPortability Policy group, here is my suggestion on how the debate needs to proceed: break it down. Michael Arrington seems pretty convinced you own all your data, but I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say – and at core is the reason he is clashing with Robert Scoble’s view. For things to proceed, I really think a deeper analysis of the issues need to be made.

1) Define the difference between data, information and knowledge. There’s a big difference.
2) Determine what things are. (is an e-mail address data or information?)
3) Recognise the difference between ownership, rights and their implications.
4) Determine what rights (if that’s what it is) the various entities have over data (users, web apps, etc).

This is a big area and has a lot of abstract concepts – break it down and debate it there.

Some of my own thoughts to give some context

1) Data is an object and information is generated when you create linkages between different types of data Рthe ‘relationships’. Knowledge is the application of information.

  • 2000 is data – a symbol with no meaning. Connect it with other data, like the noun "year", and you have information because 2008 now has meaning. Connect that information with other information, like "computer bug" and "HSBC and you now have an application of that information. That being, there was an issue with the Y2K bug that has something to the bank HSBC.

2) Define what things are

What’s an e-mail address, a phone number, a social graph, an image, a podcast…I’m not entirely sure. I wouldn’t be blogging this if I had all the answers. Once we agree on definitions, we can then start categorising them and applying a criteria.

3) Ownership:

Here is something Steve Greenberg explained to me

– Ownership is relevant when there is scarcity.
РOwnership is the ability to deny someone else’s use of the asset.
– So, if data is shared and publicly available, it is a practical impossibility for me to deny use
Рand if data is available in a form where I can’t control others’ use of it, I can not really claim to own it

Nitin Borwankar has a very different argument: you should have ownership based on property rights. He explained that to me here .

4) Rights over data

I personally think no one owns data (which is inspired by the definition of data being inherently meaningless); instead you own things further down the value chain when that data becomes something with value. You own your overall blog posts – but not the words.

But again, this goes back to what is data?

The value chain for information

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value chain of information, based on the Porter model of doing a value chain analysis . Given there is an undeniable trend to an knowledge-based economy (that is, if we’re not already there!), it seems pretty valuable that we should at least understand the different facets in the value chain to better understand the information sector.

Below are some thoughts about what I think are the broad aspects of the value system, with some commentary under each to help you understand my thinking. I’ve used common social computing sites to help illustrates the concepts, as everyone can relate to them. Also my definitions for data, information, and knowledge .

value chain is sweet
The value chain
1) Data collection
– value is in the storage
Competitive advantage: who offers the consumers the lowest price for the most storage. You should not just consider this in terms of cost in hosting but also about whether is costs the user their rights to control over some of their data.
Example: MySpace is where you store all your demographic data; SmugMug is where you store all your photos (which I consider data)

2) Data processing
– value is in the ability to manipulate the data
Competitive advantage: The infrastructure to process vasts amount of data at the highest output with the lowest cost
Example: Facebook calculates how many friends you have. The raw computing power to calculate the information requires substantial computing power, which is why Friendster fell when it captured the imagination of the industry as the first major social networking site.

3) Information generation
– Value is in the type and diversity of information. The connection of data (objects) is what generates information. Requires unique ability to understand what data inputs to pull.
Competitive advantage: Ability to access the most data (ie, relationships with the data storage components in the chain), and be able to creatively apply the data in a unique way.
Example: LinkedIn allows me to know that I am two degrees separated from a certain individual. The ability for LinkedIn to do that is a combination of what data they can use as well as the ability to process it. Essentially, the creativity of the company’s management to determine the feature’s value and the relationships with storage vendors or methods of using their own storage. In a DataPortability enabled world, it’s not so much how much data you can store of a user – but how much you can access from the storage vendors ie, relationships with these vendors.

4) Knowledge application
– value is in the application of information
Competitive advantage is on the application of information in a unique way that has not been done before
Example: A network analysis of my social graph. So if a social networking sites can tell me that 48% of my friends are male; and another piece of information that 98% of them are heterosexual; then therefore it is likely I am a straight male. The ability to derive insight, despite the multiple piece of information available, is filtered by those with the unique ability to recognise application of information in certain ways. The determination that I am straight is inference, which is a higher order type value as opposed to just information (which is grounded in hard data and more based on fact).

Implications of the value chain
It is important to note, and why it will be difficult for you to conceptualise the above, is that the Internet industry which is the backbone of the Information Sector of the economy, is still relatively immature. Flickr for example does most of the value chain – they store my photos, they allow me to make changes to the photos and add addition data like tags; they generate information by allowing me to organise my photos into sets (hence giving more value to the photo by putting it into context). And of course, they allow for knowledge application through their community – people passing by, leaving comments, is quite a unique thing that is unique to Flickr.

By better understanding the value chain, hopefully we can also realise that business can thrive by focussing on specific areas and it may not be in their interest to be in all areas. For example, the notion that locking up a person’s user data as being a competitive advantage is silly, if you can offer value through knowledge application.

To put the above in context, MySpace’s recent data availability announcement is a step into the direction of DataPortability (something that will take until the end of this year to finalise at minimum), but whilst Google and Facebook race to offer similar services to ‘lock’ their data, they are in fact missing the point. The value of MySpace for example is the community, and they get value in accessing data and information from as many diverse places as possible to apply that in a unique way. Because they think locking in the data is what determines their business strategy, it forces them to compete in the data storage market – and that is something I would not want to be in given the ability for it to be commoditised, and the massive compliance demands with government and user expectations with their rights. As highlighted by Nitin , data redundancy is a big issue so battling in the storage market puts you at risk if you are solely relying on it as your source for information and knowledge.

As always, I write my blog posts to extend on my thoughts. I’d love feedback and people to challenge the assumptions I’ve made, because I think this can be a very valuable tool in how we view businesses on the web.

Update 1 June 2008: Tim Bull made a video of this posting, which does a better job explaining the concepts presented above

Emerging trends? Nope – its been a long time coming

When I read the technology news, concepts about cloud computing still seem to be debated . I think to myself: you are kidding me right? I take a step back and think maybe the future won’t be like the current mantra, but then again, trends take time to materialise.

Scanning through my hard-disk, I could not help but laugh after I found a document I wrote to a friend in February 2006 – and as I said in the document "Those six points, as rough as they are, form core elements in my thinking on how I approach business on the Internet …[I’ve been thinking about it] since November 2003"

So below, is literally a copy and paste of that document that has seeds from way back in 2003 when I submitted a grant application for a business idea (ahem, no response obviously…). The fact that nearly half a decade has passed since I first synthesised these ideas (and no doubt, from reading of the thinkers of the day not just me being imaginative) means they are not flake predictions: they are real. Ready?

1. Digital future. All information – news reports, television shows, educational text books, radio shows – are being digitalised, coexisting with their analogue versions. Whether the digital replicas replace their analogue counterparts is pure speculation. But one fact we cannot ignore is that the possibility is there – all content is now digital. And consumers will switch to the digital version if the value of the content consumed is better realised in digital form

  • Quick case study. Many pundits believe newspapers will not exist in 15 years. I know they won‚Äôt exist in 15 years, and I have spent three years thinking about this very point. At first I used to think digital replicas, as shown by http://www.newsstand.com, was what was going to transform the newspaper business. What I didn‚Äôt realise, is that the current newspaper experience far exceeds the digital replica (I was hung up on the idea of electronic paper [www.eink.com] ‚Äì which still remains a big possibility). But I knew the digital future was going to make the current newspaper business obsolete ‚Äì there is more value out of digitial. It only just hit me recently by observing my own behaviour‚Äì traditional newspapers are not going to be replaced by digital versions ‚Äì rather, the method¬¨ that people receive their news is going to change. And this fact is embodied by the recent acknowledgment of the world‚Äôs great newspapers of not being in the newspaper business anymore, but in the information business now. I used to read every single major newspaper, and several international newspapers, as I was a debater ‚Äì I was a heavy news consumer, and I still am. Today, I still follow the news very closely ‚Äì but I have not read a newspaper all year. Why? I receive all my information needs through websites, RSS feeds and blogs. A new method, made possible by the digital future. People means of consuming content will change because of digital.

2. Internet as infrastructure. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the internet will be the core infrastructure of anything to do with information and communications. The power of the internet as infrastructure to communications and information unlocks opportunities that are transforming the world. Radio, TV, phone calls – you name it – can be done via the internet protocol now.


3. Content is king, distribution is queen – but advertising is what pays for the cost of that sting. Google now makes more revenue than the three prime time television stations in the USA. In monetary terms, that’s about $10 billion a year. And yet, 99% of that revenue comes from one thing – Google’s click-through advertising (about 45% from Google results, the rest from the Google network of publishers through adsense). HarperCollins announced last week that they are trialling a new business model of providing books for free but supported by advertising – the consumer book business up until then was literally the only segment of media not reliant on advertising as a revenue model. Whilst broadcasting organisations make money from several sources, advertising is literally the backbone of their revenue. To make money out of any content, you place a huge reliance on advertising.
In short, if you want to make money out of content, you need to understand advertising

4. One-to-one advertising is the superior form of advertising. Partly due to technological factors, the mass media could only advertise through a one-to-many medium – meaning one message to many. The digital-internet future has transformed that ability, by customising content on a one-to-one basis. If advertising, and content can be targeted to an individual’s personality profile and preferences, it allows for the value of the content to be maximised, with 1-to-1 advertising returning a higher return on campaigns Рfar superior than any other form of advertising. Superior because it can make advertising more relvant for consumers (ie, higher response rate), it can increase advertising inventory (mass media advertising is a bit like throwing pamphlets out of a plane, hoping the right people catch them Р1-to-1 means the right people get it at minimal cost and best of all, it creates better accountability which is what advertisers now demand.

5. The best business practice for one-to-one advertising is not there yet. The internet is the platform that enables one-to-one advertising, and yet, this opportunity has still not been fully exploited. There is a massive need in the market, for a means of providing personalised advertising far superior to the current technologies and methods. Google populised an innovative form of advertising through click-throughs. However internet click-throughs, despite providing more accountable and better targeted advertising, still lacks the ability to unleash the real power of one-to-one advertising. The power of the internet as a one-to-one advertising platform is still in its infancy

6. Privacy matters. Privacy is the right to determine what information is available about you, when you want it to be available, and to whom you want it available to. Current practices of companies who gain as much information about you through your sales history, your activity on the web, and the like – are often doing so without the full knowledge of the consumer. It is information collected by spying on a consumer, and whilst some people retaliate by various measures (ie, fake information, anonymous proxies), there is great mistrust by the public in providing personal information, or rather, too much to one organisation. If information is to be used about people, there needs to be proper approval – both for legal reasons (a business model cannot rely on consumer stupidity) but also for the integrity of the data (ie, a cooperative consumer will provide more reliable data)

  • Companies like Double Click who would collect your surfing history relied on placing a cookie on your computer ‚Äì what happens if you delete that cookie? And what happens if your dad, mum, and cousin from Brazil, use the same computer as you? That creates a fairly inconsistent ‚Äúprofile‚Äù of a person that is to be targeted

I had totally forgotten I had written that. And reading it now it’s a bit lame and I could probably extend on things a little bit – actually there are things I have actually written in blog posts this last year. Better still, I can provide actual evidence that validate these trends as advancing like the existence of the VRM project for advertising, the big clash with Facebook and privacy (and lets not forget the first time ), and Microsoft’s recent announcement about moving away from software (to pick but a few examples).

If this is what I was seeing in November 2003 as a naive university student absorbing what the industry trends were back then; February 2006 when I wrote to my friend what I thought he needed to consider about the future; and the fact I still agree with it in May 2008 – I think things are beyond speculation: these are long-term trends that are entrenched.

Analysing the user experience from two social networking sites

Yet again, MySpace has e-mailed me a useless e-mail that frustrates me more than it gives me value . But what I noticed recently, was another social networking site, taking a different approach.

geni

Whereas MySpace is simply alerting me, which is forcing me to painfully log into their service, Geni is actually alerting me the information without me having to take another action.

A few points of reflection on this:
1) Using my business analysis on the consumer Internet , MySpace is offering a content model (hypermedia is how I referred to this in my post) whereas Geni is offering a Utility computing product. Both these businesses consider themselves "social networking" sites and yet both offer a different product model.
2) This also highlights two different business models: MySpace is a platform whilst Geni is working on a network model. Meaning, MySpace’s business model is premised on you visiting them for you to get value; Geni’s isn’t. To be perfectly honest, both MySpace and Geni are irrelevant for me. However platforms can come and go, but network models always stick around. As irrelevant Geni is to me, I still value it – a network business strategy (meaning you follow the user, rather than expecting them to come) builds a long term relationship.
3) Social networking sites when it’s the core product, work best as utility services and not a content business. Look at what a different user experience it is for me, because I can get benefit from my Geni account despite not having to log in. Although I am not giving them pageviews, I am giving them my attention which is translating into greater brand equity for them. When you treat social networking as a content business, this distorts the service offered to users, as misaligned business views on generating revenue drive strategy in a way that is harmful to the consumer ie, I feel like saying "f**k off" whenever I see those e-mails for MySpace . But "thank-you" to Geni.

The main point I want to get at though, is that the user experience is just as important when the user is not on the site as it is when they are on the site. People shy away from the recently-recognised network model of business, because they don’t get the same traffic. I say embrace it, because the market will eventually correct itself to recognise this is a superior type of strategy.

Information overload: we need a supply side solution

About a month ago, I went to a conference filled with journalists and I couldn’t help but ask them what they thought about blogs and its impact on their profession. Predictably, they weren’t too happy about it. Unpredictably however, were the reasons for it. It wasn’t just a rant, but a genuine care about journalism as a concept – and how the blogging “news industry” is digging a hole for everyone.

Bloggers and social media are replacing the newspaper industry as a source of breaking news. What they still lack, is quality – as there have been multiple examples of blogs breaking news that in the rush to publish it, turns out it was in fact fallacious . Personally, I think as blogging evolves (as a form of journalism) the checks and balances will be developed – such as big names blogs with their brands, effectively acting like a traditional masthead. And when a brand is developed, more care is put into quality.

Regardless, the infancy of blogging highlights the broader concern of “quality”. With the freedom for anyone to create, the Information Age has seen us overload with information despite our finite ability to take it all in. The relationship between the producer of news and consumer of news, not only is blurring – but it’s also radically transforming the dynamics that is impacting even the offline world.

Traditionally, the concept of “information overload” has been relegated as a simple analysis of lower costs to entry as a producer of content (anyone can create a blog on wordpress.com and away you go). However what I am starting to realise, is the issue isn’t so much the technological ability for anyone to create their own media empire, but instead, the incentive system we’ve inherited from the offline world.

Whilst there have been numerous companies trying to solve the problem from the demand side with “personalisation” of content (on the desktop , as an aggregator , and about another 1000 different spins), what we really need are attempts on the supply side, from the actual content creators themselves.

info overload

Too much signal, can make it all look like noise

Information overload: we need a supply side solution
Marshall Kirkpatrick , along with his boss Richard McManus , are some of the best thinkers in the industry. The fact they can write, makes them not journalists in the traditional sense, but analysts with the ability to clearly communicate their thoughts. Add to the mix Techcrunch don Michael Arrington , and his amazing team – they are analysts that give us amazing insight into the industry. I value what they write; but when they feel the stress of their industry to write more, they are not only doing a disservice to themselves, but also to the humble reader they write to. Quality is not something you can automate – there’s a fixed amount a writer can do not because of their typing skills but because quality is a factor of self-reflection and research.

The problem is that whilst they want, can and do write analysis – their incentive system is biased towards a numbers system driven by popularity. The more people that read and the more content created (which creates more potential to get readers) means more pageviews and therefore money in the bank as advertisers pay on number of impressions. The conflict of the leading blogs churning out content , is that their incentive system is based on a flawed system in the pre-digital world, which is known as circulation offline, and is now known as pageviews online.

A newspaper primarily makes money through their circulation: the amount of physical newspapers they sell, but also the audited figures of how many people read their newspaper (readership can have a factor of up to three times the physical circulation ). With the latter, a newspaper can sell space based on their proven circulation: the higher the readership, the higher the premium. The reason for this is that in the mass media world, the concept of advertising was about hitting as many people as possible. I liken it to the image of flying a plane over a piece of land, and dropping leaflets with the blind faith that of those 100,000 pamphlets, at least 1000 people catch them.

It sounds stupid why an advertiser would blindly drop pamphlets, but they had to: it was the only way they could effectively advertise. For them to make sales, they need the ability to target buyers and create exposure of the product. The only mechanism available for this was the mass media as it was a captured audience, and at best, an advertiser could places ads on specialist publications hoping to getter better return on their investment (dropping pamphlets about water bottles over a desert, makes more sense than over a group of people in a tropical rainforest). Nevertheless, this advertising was done on mass – the technology limited the ability to target.

catch the advert

Advertising in the mass media: dropping messages, hoping the right person catches them

On the Internet, it is a completely new way to publish. The technology enables a relationship with a consumer of content, a vendor, a producer of content unlike anything else previously in the world. The end goal of a vendor advertising is about sales and they no longer need to drop pamphlets – they can now build a one on one relationship with that consumer. They can now knock on your door (after you’ve flagged you want them to), sit down with you, and have a meaningful conversion on buying the product.

“Pageviews” are pamphlets being dropped – a flawed system that we used purely due to technological limitations. We now have the opportunity for a new way of doing advertising, but we fail to recognise it – and so our new media content creators are being driven by an old media revenue model.

It’s not technology that holds us back, but perception
Vendor Relationship Management or (VRM) is a fascinating new way of looking at advertising, where the above scenario is possible. A person can contain this bank of personal information about themselves, as well as flagging their intention of what products they want to buy – and vendors don’t need to resort to advertising to sell their product, but by building a relationship with these potential buyers one on one. If an advertiser knows you are a potential customer (by virtue of knowing your personal information – which might I add under VRM, is something the consumer controls), they can focus their efforts on you rather than blindly advertising on the other 80% of people that would never buy their product). In a world like this, advertising as we know it is dead because we know longer need it.

VRM requires a cultural change in our world of understanding a future like this. Key to this is the ability for companies to recognise the value of a user controlling their personal data is in fact allowing us new opportunities for advertising. Companies currently believe by accumulating data about a user, they are builder a richer profile of someone and therefore can better ‘target’ advertising. But companies succeeding technologically on this front, are being booed down in a big way from privacy advocates and the mainstream public. The cost of holding this rich data is too much. Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible, and people demand the right of privacy due to an electronic age where disparate pieces of their life can be linked online

One of the biggest things the DataPortability Project is doing, is transforming the notion that a company somehow has a competitive advantage by controlling a users data. The political pressure, education, and advocacy of this group is going to allow things like VRM. When I spoke to a room of Australia’s leading technologists at BarCamp Sydney about DataPortability, what I realised is that they failed to recognise what we are doing is not a technological transformation (we are advocating existing open standards that already exist, not new ones) but a cultural transformation of a users relationship with their data. We are changing perceptions, not building new technology.

money on the plate

To fix a problem, you need to look at the source that feeds the beast

How the content business will change with VRM
One day, when users control their data and have data portability, and we can have VRM – the content-generating business will find a light to the hole currently being dug. Advertising on a “hits” model will no longer be relevant. The page view will be dead.

Instead, what we may see is an evolution to a subscription model. Rather than content producers measuring success based on how many people viewed their content, they can now focus less on hits and more on quality as their incentive system will not be driven by the pageview. Instead, consumers can build up ‘credits’ under a VRM system for participating (my independent view, not a VRM idea), and can then use those credits to purchase access to content they come across online. Such a model allows content creators to be rewarded for quality, not numbers. They will need to focus on their brand managing their audiences expectations of what they create, and in return, a user can subscribe with regular payments of credits they earned in the VRM system.

Content producers can then follow whatever content strategy they want (news, analysis, entertainment ) and will no longer be held captive by the legacy world system that drives reward for number of people not types of people.

Will this happen any time soon? With DataPortability, yes – but once we all realise we need to work together towards a new future. But until we get that broad recognition, I’m just going to have to keep hitting “read all” in my feed reader because I can’t keep up with the amount of content being generated; whilst the poor content creators strain their lives, in the hope of working in a flawed system that doesn’t reward their brilliance.

How business is done on the Internet

Day in and day out, the Internet continues to show innovations from people all around the world. Yet for all these innovations, it all comes down to the very core of trying to do business in a new way.

I’ve been doing some research recently for an internal publication my firm produces on the future of the entertainment and media industries, and I wondered what exactly does it mean to do business on the Internet. Whilst there are some brilliant thoughts on what business models on the Net are, I think we lack a proper analysis of what it means to do business.

Below is a summary of my understanding from a consumer perspective of doing business (enterprise is a different beast), but which I think will help people better understand how it all works.

First of all, we need to split the three key factors about business:

  1. Business models: What the structure of a business is.
  2. Revenue models: How the business generates cash from customers to fund its operations.
  3. Product models: What the product is that you provide to your customers to generate the cash

Too often, these three components are mixed as one or the same. Another thing that happens, is we struggle to classify the Internet because it contains so many different types of business. Breaking it down gives us more complete view.

Business models

The first thing to understand, is how a business is structured of which there are three varieties:

  1. Destination: driving consumers to a point ie, a website that you try to drive usage by consumers. This was very much what the early Internet was in the manifestation of the world wide web; websites attempting to get ‘eyeballs’. Your business model is based on the premise of getting people to visit your destination.
  2. Platform: a service that you try to build usage by creating an ecosystem for. Arguably, the web is the platform but in reality we are seeing a different type of platform akin to the Microsoft Windows approach of creating a core service that others can build on. You could classify the web2.0 view that websites are communities in this, whereas there are companies trying to create operating systems on the web for widgets that are a similar thing. Your business model, is built on the premise that people interact on your service or use your platform.
  3. Network: a service that people use regardless of where they are on the Internet. This type of business is about attaching to a user as they use the Internet. It’s almost like the flipside of the above two models: instead of having everyone come to you, this is about following everyone wherever they are. Your business model is built on the premise that people use your service in a decentralised manner.

Revenue models
Revenue models are a key factor to understand as they are what sustain long term changes to an industry that is currently been pushed by venture money and acquisitions from the dominant players. There are four types of monetisation models that I can observe:

  1. Fees: Payment of a fixed amount for access or usage of goods and services over the internet
  2. Subscription: Payment of a fixed amount on a periodic basis for access or usage of goods and services
  3. Commission: Payment of a percentage fee of a transaction
  4. Attention: Consumer gives their time, such as viewing an advertisement, in exchange of goods and services

Product models
There are three types of product models:

  1. Markets is the term I am using to explain when businesses use the Internet as a way to allow others to transact goods and services. The product offered by these companies is effectively a mechanism to do commerce. For example, eBay offers a product model that gives the ability for people to auction goods. Their product is to offer the facility for vendors and consumers to transact. They are like a shopping centre, giving space for vendors to sell and centralising the space so that consumers know where they can buy from these vendors. Markets offer the ability to perform trade of some sort with other parties
  2. Hypermedia is the term I am using to describe any type of content offering to people. Philosophically, it falls under the “new media” category that I have previously linked to and I use the term coined by Ted Nelson which is the broader term coined at the same time as “hypertext”. Effectively, you are offering content to a consumer in an Internet environment. Formally defined, it is access or supply of content via visual, audio and/or text over the Internet
  3. Utility computing is what you can call search engines, web applications, and the software as a service variety, which essentially is about providing computing services for information. Maybe a better way to define the concept is that they are computing services that allow for productivity through information retrieval, creation or management.

It is important to note that a business doesn’t have to restrict itself to just one of the above sub-categories. A business must have at least one business model, one revenue model, and one product model (or rather, they should – web2.0 startups seem to forget the revenue model bit). But within those groupings, it doesn’t have to be just one.

Take for example Facebook, which was initially a destination business – people logged in, viewed peoples profiles and their news feed, and the company generated value for the user by them ‘visiting’. With the launch of the applications platform, Facebook became a platform, because it allowed other entities to build on top of its core service. In this regard, Facebook generated value by creating an ecosystem of applications within its confines. As for a network model, Facebook is yet to to this, but imagine if they created an ad network like Google’s – whereby information about you in Facebook is used to determine what advertising to see across the entire internet. Here the value is that Facebook helps add to your experience across the entire Internet (despite being off the actual site)

So as a concept, below is my matrix of doing business on the Internet (I’m graphically inept, but I want to illustrate the three dimensions conceptually). What do you think?

business on the net

If you can draw better than me (not hard), I’ll credit you on this post!

Update May 27 2010: Rethinking this two years on, I think this still stands as a rough analytical framework. But I now believe that business model makes sense for the overall discussion above (ie, the combination of all the components), and what I term as ‘business model’ in the post is actually more like the ‘operating model’ of a web business.

Here’s a secret: the semantic web is the boring bit

Marshall Kirkpatrick caused a wave today, when he gave a brutally honest assessment of one of the most talked up semantic web applications, Twine. It was as per usual, an excellent analysis by Marshall and I don’t think he needs to hide behind his words as they are fair. However, what I think is crucial is now that the semantic web is gaining traction into the mainstream from a academic thesis to real world web applications, is we do a little bit of stakeholder management.

Ready? The semantic web is as boring as bat shit.

Essentially, the semantic web is about structuring content in a way so that computers can interpret the information. It’s a bit like linking every word on the web, to a dictionary entry so that computers understand the language that humans use.

But seriously, how is that exciting? People don’t get the semantic web, because it’s the fundamentals – and thats boring! Take for example RDF, the semantic web building block, and which is about structuring data into subject, predicate and object. This is straight from primary school grammar lessons, where we learn about the fundamentals of the English language (no coincidence I just linked to an grammar guide, not the RDF guide). And if you have heard of subject, predicate and object before in the context of the semantic web, you probably didn’t even realise it’s how the entire English language is based. It’s because you probably did learn it, and forgot – it’s boring as bat shit. But damn, without them, we wouldn’t be communicating right now to each other.

The point I want to make, is that the building blocks are not where the excitement: the excitement, is what you can do once we have those building blocks. In English, we have poetry, literature, and just language in general where we communicate as human beings. Once we get the basics down of information, we are laying the foundation of a whole new world of computational possibilities. Marshall is spot on in saying “…semantics may be best suited to the back end…” because the excitement is what they enable, not the actual semantics itself which is going to take a long time to build up.

Imagine, the sum of human knowledge accessible by a computer to query? Semantic web applications are boring and you won’t ever get them – but what they enable, is a whole new world of potential which once we can flick the switch, will mean a world we will barely recognise from today’s standpoint.

Can you answer my question?

We at the DataPortability project have kick started a research phase, because we’ve realised we need to spend more time consulting with the community working out issues which don’t quite have one answer.

As Chris Saad and myself are also experimenting with a new type of social organisation as we incubate the DataPortability project, which I call wikiocracy (Chris calls it participant democracy), I thought I might post these issues on my blog to keep in line with the decentralised ethos we are encouraging with DataPortability. This is something the entire world should be questioning,

So below are some thoughts I have had. They’ve changed a lot since I first thought about what a users data rights are, and no doubt, they will change again. But hopefully my thoughts can act as a catalyst for what people think data rights really are, and a focus on the issue at stake which I conclude as my question. I think the bill of rights for users on the social web is not quite adequate, and we need a more careful analysis of the issues.

It’s the data, stupid
Data is essentially an object. Standalone it’s useless – take for example the name “Elias”. In the absence of anything else, that piece of datum means nothing. However when you associate that name with my identity (ie, appending my surname Bizannes or linking it to my facebook profile), that suddenly becomes “information”. Data is an object and information is generated when you create linkages between different types of data – the ‘relationships’.

Take this data definition from DMReview which defines data (and information):

Items representing facts, text, graphics, bit-mapped images, sound, analog or digital live-video segments. Data is the raw material of a system supplied by data producers and is used by information consumers to create information.

Data is an object and information is a relationship between data – I’ve studied database theory at university to be authoritative on that! But since I didn’t do philosophy, then what is knowledge?

Knowledge can be considered as the distillation of information that has been collected, classified, organized, integrated, abstracted and value added
(source)

Relationships, facts, assumptions, heuristics and models derived through the formal and informal analysis or interpretation of data
(source)

So in other words, knowledge is the application of information to a scenario. Whilst I apologise if this appears that I am splitting hairs, I think clarifying what these terms are is fundamental to the implementation of DataPortability. Why this is relevant will be seen below, but now we need to move onto what does the second concept mean.

Portability
On first interpretation, portability means the ability to move something – exporting and importing. I think we shouldn’t take the ability to move data around as the sole definition of portability but it should also mean being able to port the context that data is used. After all, information and knowledge is based on the manipulation of data, and you don’t need to move data per se but merely change the context to do that. A vendor can add value to a consumer by building unique relationships between data and giving unique application to other scenarios – where the original data is stored is irrelevant as long as its accessible.

Portability to me means a person needs to have the ability to determine where their data is used. But to do that, they need control over that data – which means determining how it is used. Yet there is little point being able to determine how your data is used, if you can’t determine who can access your data. Therefore, the concept of portability invokes an understanding of what exactly control and accessibility means.

So to discuss portability, requires us to also understand what does data control and data accessibility really mean. You can’t “port” something unless you control it; and you can’t “control” something, if you can’t determine who can “access” it. As I state, as long as the data is accessible, the location of it can be on the moon for all I care: for the concept of portability by context to exist, we must ensure as a condition that the data is open to access.

Ownership
Now here is where it gets complicated: who owns what? Maybe the conversation should come to who owns the information and knowledge generated from that data. Data on its own, potentially doesn’t belong to anyone. My name “Elias” is shared by millions of other people in the world. Whilst I may own my identity, which my name is a representation of that, is it fair to say I own the name “Elias”? On the flip side, if a picture I took is considered data – I think it’s fair to say I “own” that piece of data.

Information on the other hand, requires a bit of work to create. Therefore, the generator of that information should get ownership. However when we start applying this concept to something like a social relationship, it gets a bit tricky. If I add a friend on Facebook, and they accept me, who “owns” that relationship? Effectively both of us – so we become join partners in ownership of that piece of information. If I was to add someone as a friend on MySpace, they don’t necessarily have to reciprocate – therefore it’s a one way relationship. Does that mean, I own that information?

This is when the concept of privacy comes in. If I am generating information about someone, am I entitled to it? If someone owns the underlying data I used to generate that information – then it would be fair to say, I am “licensing” usage of that data to generate information which de-facto is owned by them. But privacy as a concept and in the legislation of many countries doesn’t work like that. Privacy is even a right along side other basic rights like freedom of expression and religion in the constitution of Iraq (Article 17). So what’s privacy in the context of information that relates to someones identity?

Perhaps we should define privacy as the right to control information that represents an entity’s identity (being a person or legal body). Such as definition ties with defamation law for example, and the principle of privacy: you have control over what’s been said about you, as a fundamental human right. But yet again, I’ve just opened up a can of worms: what is “identity”? Maybe the Identity commons people can answer that? Would it be fair to say, that in the context of an “identity”, an entity like a person ‘owns’ that? So when it comes to information relating to someones identity, do we override it with this human right to privacy as to who owns that information, regardless of who generated that information?

This posting is a question, rather than an answer. When we say we want “data portability”, we need to be clear what exactly this means. Companies I believe are slightly afraid of DataPortability, because they think they will lose something, which is not true. Companies commercial interests are something I am very mindful when we have these discussions, and I will ensure with my involvement that DataPortability pioneers not some unrealistic ideal but a genuine move forward in business thinking. It needs to be clear what constitutes ownership and of what so we can design a blueprint that accounts for users’ data rights, without ruining the business models of companies that rely on our data.

Which brings me to my question – “who owns what”?

I’m back!

This is just a short note to say I am still alive, after I had a few of you ask why I haven’t blogged in a while! As I said in my previous entry, I had to prepare for an exam in mid December, and then I spent a month in South America – my first holiday in two years. Since I’ve come back however, I am been spending nearly all my free time helping manage the DataPortability Project which I helped create in November and has just exploded in press – to the point of being called one of the key trends in 2008!

I’ve updated my blog behind the scenes to the latest, and considering a few cosmetic changes. However for those of you that have subscribed, I just want to warn that I will be cleaning up my historical blog posts for weird characters, so be aware if my feed starts pinging a bit crazy.

In addition to this blog, I’ve also got a new feed where I share links I come across the web. I am a still trying to get back into routine, but you can subscribe to it with this address: http://feeds.feedburner.com/LiakoBiz/shareditems

And finally, I just wish to say I am going to post less but with a focus on quality – the frequent posting thing has me realise it puts a strain on you, and for your readers, they have enough trouble keeping up with their information overload. Once a week is my goal…except for the next month which will be murder at work 🙂

I have a lot of interesting things happening to me and in the pipeline, some small and some dramatic. This is going to be an interesting year…