VRM is user-driven

In Two tales of user-centricities, Adriana Lukas gets at something that has bothered me for years about the term “user-centric”. It always seemed too external to me. It equates too easily with terms like “customer-focused”. It’s something an organization does for a user. Not something a user does for herself or himself.

In the past I’ve tried to steer the identity development community away from it, suggesting terms like “independent” instead of “user-centric”. But I failed and just accepted “user-centric” as is. Hell, I don’t like the term “user”, either.

But I think Adriana is right about “-driven”. It’s a much better term. I don’t know if it’s too late to get the identity community to adopt it, but we’re still getting started with VRM. Regardless of what adjectival phrases we use to describe what VRM is about, it’s essential to get our vectors right.

With VRM, our vectors are anchored on the user side, the customer side, the individual’s side. The relationships we establish and manage are on our terms and not just those of vendors. We are not against vendors in the least, of course. Our logic is AND, not OR. But it starts with the sovereign autonomy and independence of each individual as a fully-empowered participant in the relationships that comprise markets and other social arrangements. “-driven” says that much more clearly and correctly than “-centric”.

Same goes for the identity development efforts I’m most familiar with. The difference is that they’re downstream with their vocabularies and we’re not.

For the identity folks, I’d like to see a session at IIW (and discussion in any case) about concepts and vocabularies. Because when I look at this goal of Identity Commons

To support, facilitate, and promote the creation of an open identity layer for the Internet, one that maximizes control, convenience, and privacy for the individual while encouraging the development of healthy, interoperable communities.

… I see “-driven” rather than “-centric”.

So hey, maybe it’s not too late. The Identity Thing is still pretty young, too.

Another problematic noun in the identity lexicon is “provider”. Here OpenID talks about “identity providers” both as servers the user operates and as something you get from other entities. Specifically,

OpenID allows anyone who can run a web server to run an identity server. Your identity server is separate from your identity, so you are free to use any identity server that has some ability to validate your identity and you can change between them at will. An identity server is sometimes referred to as an identity provider. If you wish, you can use the services listed below with your own website as your identifier using delegation

The following sites provide OpenID identities and servers to verify them.

People want to feel, to know, that they are in charge of their own identities, and how those identities are used. “Providing” identities from the outside seems quite different, even if we’re actually talking about infrastructure that supports individuals providing for themselves — which OpenID does.

So, food for re-thought.

And, while we’re at it, maybe we should lose the term “user” as well.


  1. Iain Henderson

    How about ‘individual’ rather than user, i.e. individual-driven.

    Not very elegant I agree but more suitable than ‘user-driven’ I suspect. Also, the terms ‘individual’ or ‘data subject’ are embedded in privacy legislation…which is helpful in certain contexts. But ‘data subject driven’ would be a step too far????



  2. Crosbie Fitch

    How about ‘social identity’.

    A human being is not in control of their social identity (except as a reflection of their relationships and reputation), but more importantly , nor is any other person, corporation, or ‘identity provider’.

    Identity is not something that one can be in control of or it then ceases to operate as identity.

    One can certainly select which identity to utilise at any particular time (online) and one can then take care what one says or does whilst operating a particular identity, but careless mistakes cannot be undone. One cannot edit or delete an identity, only continue or abandon one.

  3. Adriana

    Well, the user-driven term was coined as a counterbalance to the user-centric, which bugged me for a while now. Not sure either is perfect but it’s a step in the direction I see the web going… 🙂

  4. David Cushman

    Doc, Adriana, wonderful to see the term being widely discussed. Language can make such a difference to our thinking. It is worth the battle!

  5. Doc Searls

    As I’ve said, perhaps too often, it’s early. Our terminology needs work, obviously. And we need to keep working on it.

    I think Iain is on the right track with “individual” (rather than “user”) as the departure point, the anchor of the vector. There’s no box office there, but I don’t believe that’s a bad thing.

    That’s why I’m happy with “relbutton”. The term sucks and can’t be used in the long run. But it serves as a label for something we need to work on, in relative quiet, and free from ambitious fantasies that outrun our ability to fulfill them.

    It became clear to me in Munich that fantasies about OpenID had outrun the realities. The interviewer from Spiegel and others in the room kept asking me questions premised on the notion that OpenID was a “failure” because it wasn’t widely adopted yet. That’s like declaring a race over when the driver has barely put the car in gear. Or hell, when the designers are still shaking the car down on the test track. Or declaring the Web a failure in 1993 because there still wasn’t a graphical browser. I’m not saying this to defend OpenID, but rather to point out how quickly the mainstream press (in this case a top German magazine) wants to make everything a race and declare winners and losers. Hey, if they’re doing it with OpenID, they’ll do it with VRM too. If we’re seen as this year’s Darling Idea, woe is us.

    We need code. Some of it is going to come from our own work (such as Iain’s). Some will come from open source sections of the user-centric identity portfolio. (Whether we like “user-centric” or not.) Some will come from other places. What matters is substance. We need it. And it comes in the form of code.

    Meanwhile, concepts matter. Metaphors matter. I’m kicking myself today for not having been more insistent two years ago about finding something better than “user-centric” as an adjective for individual-driven personal identity. But, as I said above, it may not be too late. It’s certainly early for VRM, but not so early we can let it slide.

    Crosbie, I’m with you on most stuff, but not on “social identity”. This is complicated, but bear with me while I try to unpack this a bit.

    First, the Identity Thing will not be easy to solve in any case, and shouldn’t be our job. The Identity Gang has been arguing within itself for years about whether or not, for example, one can “own” or only “control” one’s identity data. It’s a good argument, but not one we should let bog us down. With VRM we need to take the best of what identity development folks have given us (and the rest of the world), and let the other stuff slide. Look for good building materials and move on. VRM overlaps with identity, but is not about identity. It’s about relationship. Different thing.

    Second, VRM is personal first and social second. It’s about equipping individuals with tools that empower them to relate to vendors and other entities — tools that are under the individual’s control and responsibility. As soon as we suggest that individuals have power only in social contexts, or only in aggregate, two things happen: 1) we subordinate the personal to the social, which includes the cororate, the governmental, the many in all its forms; and 2) the Facebooks of the world show up and say “we can take care of that for you”. We need to be able form our own social connections, networks, groups or whatever — based on tools and connections that live with us, rather than with “social networks”.

    The Net and the Web were both built for both the one and the many. VRM starts with the one. We need to build that out. If we subordinate the one to the many, we only add to the problems we’re trying to solve.

  6. Doc Searls

    I don’t know why Technorati and Google Blogsearch haven’t found OpenID and VRM – can you be bothered? on hackbash yet, but it needs pointing out. Joe and I have both responded to it.

  7. Crosbie Fitch

    What’s in a name? A rose by any other would smell just as sweet. You don’t have to call it social identity, but natural identity is a social construct. Even distributed systems have to adopt the same approach and cannot refer to any central authority, nor entrust control over identity to the individuals to be identified.

    There are some things that people feel they should own, but they cannot – the laws of nature prevent.

    Owning one’s published works – impossible.
    Owning one’s reputation – impossible
    Owning one’s identity – impossible.

    I’m only quibbling on semantics, not your methodology.

    As I’ve suggested before, it’s quite possible for an identity system’s implementation to be entirely p2p in nature, and each peer payload may be mistaken by each person as their identity, even though their identity is actually distributed among their peers and the payload (like a single brain cell) can be lost or corrupted without significantly affecting the system.

    But, as you suggest, architects need not concern themselves with the mechanics, just the function and aesthetics.

    However, I would be wary of promising what you cannot deliver. I’d not suggest that VRM is about enabling individuals to own what they cannot. It may well involve remedying the ills of centralised government or corporate identity schemes, but the remedy is non-ownership, not changing ownership from a central authority to the individual.

  8. John Dodds

    Sorry folks “individual” and “social identity” are pretty much useless because there are too many subjective definitions and associations pertaining to them out there. The strength of user-driven lies in the verb – there can be no doubt here, the user is in charge and actively driving and thus delineates it from user-centric and all the others. That is what you need a term to do.

    It tells everybody where the focus lies and I think is a good example of why you need to get the terminology right as early as possible Doc. Even if you’re using a term in relation to something that’s being worked on “quietly” as you put it, those who are working on it will take messages from the terminology that is used. As an observer and occassional participant at VRM meetings, I’ve seen it happening from the start with the VRM term itself. Its lingusitic closeness to CRM has spawned a group of people whose mind-set is I would suggest closely related to that mindset while others are thinking along really quite different lines.

  9. Crosbie Fitch

    Ok, John, I happily defer.

    But I’ll throw another word into the pot just for the heck of it. 😉


    As in ‘VRM is anthropocentric’.

    Yup, it’s in my pipe and smoking. 😉

  10. Glenn

    First time reader here, courtesy of Paul Greenberg’s blog. As a CRM professional I appreciate the dialogue on the correct terms to use. But sorry, Crosbie, having come out of Operations, along with the term “Best of breed,” I can tell you “Anthropocentric” is not going to fly there.

    Strive for a word that does not have to be defined or requires only minimal definition. While “Individual-driven” may not be perfect, it can be dropped into a conversation with someone for Sales or Ops and not have to be explained.
    “Social Identity” and other terms require too much definition and can derail a conversation.

    Influenced by the books, The Laws of Simplicity, and Made To Stick, I suggest striving for simplicity. In this case that means creating words that are easily understood, not jargon that may eventually become barriers in persuasive conversations.

  11. Len Ellis

    I’m a first time reader and hope this p-o-v isn’t already obvious to everyone in the VRM community, but I think the nomenclature matter could be un-packed and better explained if you embraced the “ideological” dimension of your position.

    Microsoft Identity Architect Kim Cameron writes in the “Laws of Identity” that whether a law “meshes with values is not the relevant issue.” Okay, that’s where Info Card is at.

    In contrast you anchor VRM in the “sovereign autonomy and independence of each individual as a fully-empowered participant….”

    Echoes of Locke and Bentham are fine with me. I see no downsides in having values — as long as they’re explicit — inform tech development and business practices, and you’ve certainly been explicit.

    Here’s to plain speaking! Cheers.

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