How about an open market for tech support requests?

After making fun of Adobe’s tiered tech support options this morning, I began thinking about the need for an open market for tech support requests. For example, let’s say I’d be willing to pay $15 to find out how to so something in Adobe GoLive CS2 (to pick one product buried within Adobe’s tech support maze). Let’s say my RFS (request for suppport) is “To find and replace double-return characters with paragraph elements in a text document being converted into html”.

Of course, I could put that RFS on a blog (I’m doing that here) and hope for the best — and probably get a response for free.

I could also get a free response by posting a question at, say, Open Tech Support. The problem there is, I’d have to be a member. I don’t see an obvious way to become a member, so I’m already giving up. The friction is too high.

It would be nice to have a low-friction way of asking a question in the open world — one that is free even of the silos we call “sites”. If time really is money, and people are willing to spend money for service, it makes sense to at least explore the possibilities for an open support marketplace.
I think for that we may need to create a new kind of space on the Net — a public space that isn’t a domain (consider the proprietary implications of that word, domain), and is a market in the original literal sense. Is this a VRM project?

I think it might be. I’m recalling a conversation I had last year with Claus Dahl about the absence of public spaces on the Net. (See Mashing up a Commons.) Claus suggested that we don’t have one yet. The personal pulpits we call blogs do not a commons make. Nor does any site. eBay is a private marketplace, not a public one.

What would we need to create a public marketplace? And don’t we need one in order to do many kinds of VRM?


  1. christopher carfi

    Nice one. I’m going to be speaking with the Consortium for Service Innovation next week on the 15th. (Consortium people here, and their mission is here: “The Consortium for Service Innovation is a non-profit alliance of organizations focused on innovation for the customer support industry.”)

    Will do some field work next week and report back.

  2. Kevin

    If markets are conversations (and I agree that they are), where are the tools to enable that communication? This is not a rhetorical question.
    I realize this is the point of VRM, but I wonder if we have become sidetracked on the “place” of marketplace to the detriment of the conversation. When you look at the long strange trip we’ve been on (Confer, Parti, the Well, Usenet, BBS’s, etc) doesn’t it seem odd that we wind up back at email for most conversations?

    I agree that we do not have a Commons and badly need one. But we also need a concept of communications that is not tied to place. In order to truly support VRM (and several other things along the way), communication tools need to bind to the conversation, not the place.

  3. Ryan Nelson

    Interesting that you blogged this right as skype is (apparently) revealing how eBay’s planning to monetize Skype calling… Skype Prime

    ….so, if you’re a great indy tech-support person (or any other phone-supportable endeavor… turkey-cooking on thanksgiving day, maybe), you can both advertise in the skype marketplace and get paid your price per minute. I presume that you can rate your experience after a call.

  4. Mike Warot

    We’d need a good fast search infrastructure like technorati, google blogs, or some such to aggregate things, along with a mechanism to keep reputation tied to the content through the process. This would allow sorting results to a “request” by reputation (aka authority?).

    There would then need to be a further piece of feedback mechanism to allow readers to give credit back to the right answers.

    The trick is to do all of this EXPLICITYLY instead of implicitly with pagerank, etc. This requires, at minimum assertions of trust and transitive trust in machine readable form.

    I think this article is 100% right, and I’m Mike Warot
    I trust Doc Searls 95% on this subject, and I’m Mike Warot
    This article is 100% funny and 0% informative, and I’m Mike Warot
    This author is 100% spam and I’m a member of the spam fighters trust (PGP Key)

    We then make our assertions by whatever means necessary… and the aggregator keeps track of them. The mesh of assertions makes for an interesting database, but can grow to contain immense value.

    The first group to get it done and working right can count on at least matching the value of Google, if not doubling it.

  5. David Weinberger

    How about in addition having a lightweight standard (a microformat, probably) to identify tech support requests and tech support responses? There’s a LOT of support info on the Web which, if we could find it, would probably only a relative handful of questions that need a market-based approach. (This would make the Web the place, in Kevin’s terms.)

  6. Ty Graham

    I found this site after a lot of random research today on social media marketplaces. While I disagree with the approach taken on customer support, I am encouraged by the depth at which ideas I have patent-pending in isolation is now starting to come out as a market need, finally. My direction in “VRM” is extremely well defined as a model for monetizing “social media”. The relationship that leads to an e-commerce transaction between the consumers (aka content producers) I coined as being “blipd”. Anyone who wants to make money off their youtube/flash videos can get blipd by other members who pay them using a digg-like model with added e-commerce features. I am really surprised at the timing of your organization because I have reviewed the lingo and see very similar language and goals. I am an entreprenuer in Los Angeles seeking funding while I continue building the service. I really have the “big picture” in great detail and a snappy name to identify the VRM…. “Blipd”.

    I read Doc’s whole blog back to 2005 so if you’re reading this. Email me at gigaboy20 at with your number. It has certainly been an interesting day for me discovering there is a formal group behind the same idea I am pursuing. Very exciting indeed!

    Ty Graham
    Los Angeles

  7. Jim Bursch

    It won’t address the tech support problem as described, but it does sound like you are coming around to something I call “mindshare trading.”

    In the market for mindshare that I’m building at MyMindshare, mindshare trading occurs when the distinction between advertiser and consumer collapses. We all become buyers and sellers of our mindshare, and price is the signalling mechanism for value and distribution.

  8. Ferdi Zebua

    What would we need to create a public marketplace? And don’t we need one in order to do many kinds of VRM?

    I can’t quite answer those two questions Sir, but I think a possible ‘operating system’ through which such a ‘public marketplace’ can be established is Blake Ross’ (and Joe Hewitt’s) Parakey. I think you’ve written about the project yourself, Doc.

  9. Frank Paynter

    This would be great if there was a fair way to broker requests/fulfillments and a reasonable service interval… like IMMEDIATE. Say I’m sitting in MS Excel limbo, trying to figure out pivot tables… right now the only good answer is RTFM. How about a phone call to someone who knows her stuff and an instant credit/debit slightly bigger than a micropayment, and better than a tip jar. Must ask Andrew Odlyzko how this could work.

  10. Dean Landolt

    I’m fascinated by Mike’s reference to this mesh of assertions. It’s pretty easy to envision a microformat combined with OpenID to make these assertions (adoption not withstanding). Implementation to ‘assert’ nearly any statement could be done inline or with a simple browser extension. Figuring out how to pull off meta-assertions is a little tougher to wrap my head around, but I’m sure it’s doable (even n-level meta-assertions), and this is perhaps where the greatest value in reputation building lies. To my mind, an aggregation of these many mini-assertions is the only way to effective way to build out a flexible, open reputation system…

    Reputation is key, and not just that of the creators, but of atomic items, be it a blog comments, a “requst for support”, the replies to the request — anything. It’s these items that should drive a reputation anyway, but such a system wouldn’t completely punish anonymity. Anonymous responses, whatever the reason for the anonymity, can stand on their own merit, sans credit to the creator. It seems to me the success of VRM depends wholly on the creation of this kind of reputation information.

  11. Ty Graham

    To be honest, this whole thread sounds like a in the web 1.0 world. It’s a simple rating system that can be applied to any question/asnwer site and is not anything compelling or unique enough to apply to a “relationship” management system tied to e-commerce. If the person is clueless enough to not google or craigslist his way to finding an answer, what are the odds he’ll switch his train of thought from finding a solution to searching for an obscure “VRM” site that has the solution? I don’t see the pain here in this post, forums already solve this daily on many levels that VRM is not enhancing.

  12. Doc Searls

    Ty, the original suggestions was, “It would be nice to have a low-friction way of asking a question in the open world — one that is free even of the silos we call “sites”. If time really is money, and people are willing to spend money for service, it makes sense to at least explore the possibilities for an open support marketplace.”

    I take it your response to that is, “No”, since all the clues one needs are provided by the sites we call Google and Craigslist.

    May I invite you to consider the possibility that the Net is not only the Web, and that the world of VRM, and of relationships (including queries) need not be confined to the Web or its sites?

    Might it be that sites are to [what we need here] what online services (AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy) were to the Net?

    Just trying to stretch our frame of reference a bit.

    And I’m not saying you’re wrong. Right now Google and Craigslist may be all you need. But will they always be? Should they be?

  13. Ryan Nelson

    I am tired of Adobe and the tech support options, but i am tired of adobe… I wish someone would try and compete with all of their software, so they improve their performance and try not to just stay par.

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