Where Markets are Not Conversations

Imagine you’re at a party where you’re introduced to an interesting person who turns out to be a psychologist. You get to talking about personality types. Then, in the course of the conversation, the shrink tells you he’ll give you some insights about yourself, in response to a few questions. You say okay, and in the next few minutes you reveal a portfolio of characteristics: that you’re empathetic and extroverted, a bit disorganized, a lover of old buildings and new music, an ex-jock, mother of three, and a repeat parking rules violator. Then, just when the shrink is about to reveal his insights, he says you first need to give him your business card, and insists that you also choose a password, make up a special nickname for yourself, just for him, to provide your date of birth and then answer a “security question”, just so he’s sure you’re you, or whomever you say you are. After seeing the skeptical look on your face, he tells you all this information is “required”. He also assures you that he has a “privacy policy”, and that if you want to read it, he has it in his back pocket. You say, “Yeah, let me see that.”

The policy tells you that, if you fill out this guy’s form, he will plant on your person a tracking device that will report your movements back to him. Collected data might include the type of car you drive, the routes you take, the names and addresses of the places you visit, and the times and dates for all this activity — just to improve his services and your “experience” of them. The form assures you that this information is all kept “private”, but on terms that he defines, and reserves the right to revise. For example, the form says this guy does not “currently provide” personal information to “third parties”, except for those “who may perform certain services” either through him or on their own. “Nevertheless”, it continues, “I may at a later time choose to make certain offers or services available to you from third parties”.

At the bottom of the form, under a heading titled “Your Consent”, it says “In dealing with me, you consent to the terms of my Privacy Policy, my Terms and Conditions, and my processing of Personal Information for the purposes given above. If you do not agree to this Privacy Policy, please stop talking to me. If you continue talking to me, I reserve the right, at my discretion, to change, modify, add, or remove portions from this Privacy Policy at any time. Your continued conversation with me, after I put a new form like this in my back pocket, means means you accept these changes”.

“This is your ‘Privacy Policy'”? you say.


“And your ‘Terms and Conditions’ are something else? Did I hear that right?”


“Let me see those”.

“Okay”, he says, and pulls another form out of his back pocket. He hands it to you.

At the top it says “Terms and Conditions of Use”. Your eye scans down to the all-caps paragraph at the bottom, under the heading “DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES”. It says,


So, at this point, what do you do?

If you’re a normal human being, you walk away.

If you’re a normal Web user, you accept all of it, use the provided services, and blithely browse on, carrying a cookie that reports back your activities.

Without normal Web users, sites like SignalPatterns.com, which inspired this post, would not be able to do what they do.

I was directed this morning by a friend to SignalPatterns, which I had never heard of before. At the top of SignalPatterns’ home page it says they develop “psychology-based mobile and web applications that help their well-being and relationships with others”. Their iPhone apps include Stress Free with Deepak Chopra and Great Career from Franklin Covey. They have social network apps that run on Facebook. They have Web apps that test for musical tastes, parenting styles and personality patterns. I took the last one of those. That’s where, just after flashing the results, they turned the screen gray and gave me one of these:


I followed the Privacy Policy link from there, and then the Terms and Conditions link from the Privacy Policy. Text from those was barely altered (to make it personal rather than corporate) from those originals.

So, why do companies behave like this? Why do they act on the Web in ways that nobody would act in person, whether at a party or even in the privacy of, say, a doctor’s office? The answer is that the Web isn’t human. At least not yet.

You are not a human being on the Web. In fact, as Paul Trevithick put it (at one of our first VRM meetings at the Berkman Center), the Web has no concept of a human being. It is fundamentally an arrangement of files and connections between those files. Hyperlinks on the Web may subvert hieraraches, especially when they are authored by human beings (such as here, in a blog, which is a human expression); but the Web itself is oblivious to that. We still lack the means, on top of the Web (and the Net) to form and maintain relationships that are anything more than a very crude, partial and highly distorted imitation of those we have out in the real, human, social world.

Put another way, social contracts in cyberspace have a long way to go before they catch up with those in real-world social space. In fact, they may be two hundred and fifty years behind. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”, Rousseau wrote (in The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique), in 1762. The Age of Enlightenment followed, during which we began to work out a variety of social contracts involving governance, commerce, education and religion. I submit that we have hardly begun to do the same on the Net or the Web.

“Markets are conversations,” the famous first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto (and later a chapter of the book by the same title) was meant to help model the social contract in cyberspace after the ones we have in meat/meet space. This has happened only in those places where the interactions are most human. It has barely happened where the interactions are most corporate.

I am sure that SignalPatterns is a fine company. The person who recommended them to me says they’re among the best of their type. But, in the absence of a social contract that says “this is a line you will not cross,” the line simply isn’t there. And, in its absence, systems for scaffolding real relationships, modeled on real interactions between real human beings, don’t get built.

We’ve been talking lately on the ProjectVRM list about defining that line, perhaps by creating a site where we can talk about it. The idea would not be to beg companies for better treatment (which would be like petitioning sovereigns in Rousseau’s time for rights they would rather not yield), but to explore how best to define in cyberspace those lines of rudeness one either does not find in civilized discourse, or finds only where suckers don’t get an even break. (Meaning, a lot of real-world business, still.)

Your thoughts are invited.


  1. Mike Warot

    Hi Doc,
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of the live web we’re all building, and I too am interested in building a new type of market. My idea is to build yet another Wikipedia, but this one for ideas instead of facts… maybe Memepedia?

    Ok… I spent $9 to get the domain memepedia.net (the others were taken)… it’s a place to discuss ideas, and especially to put pointers to articles, blog entries, etc… about ideas, in a categorical place as soon as I’m done reifying it.

  2. George Howard

    The meet-at-a-party analogy is fantastic. Certainly, one of our social “contracts” is that if we meet someone at a party, etc., and we enjoy speaking with them, we part ways after having exchanged a business card. I’ve tried to take this approach with the companies I work with when considering how to approach asking for an email address for a visitor to the site(s).

    At what point in the “conversation” is the site’s visitor most likely to feel they’ve learned enough – through “conversation” – to deem it agreeable to part with their email.

    Certainly, email addresses are the central currency of much of the Internet, and viewing the act of a customer handing theirs over as a social convention akin to the exchange of business cards is helpful. What becomes problematic is the slippery slope beyond this email transfer. Is it a logical extension to next ask for a zip code, the person’s gender, etc? The answer is decidedly no. One wouldn’t ask for the home address/phone number of the person whom they had just exchanged business cards with until the “conversation” had moved beyond the initial interest stage to a different social level. The web has certainly not figured this out yet, and there is tremendous tension (on both sides, by the way: those asking for information, and those receiving) because of it.

    Thanks for the post; fantastically useful in articulating one of the central issues.



  3. Mike Warot

    Here is a couterexample which does things the right way…. it’s silly, and fun… you can find out how long you’d last after a zombie bite


    They don’t ask for any tracking information, but rather they want you to carry the meme (and their ads) along for them. Which I think is a bit more reasonable.

    It’s silly, but they say I’d last almost 1 1/2 hours. 😉

  4. Allan Hoving

    Hi, Doc. Good post. In RL, I’d say I don’t bring business cards to parties. Online, I’d just give bogus follow up info and read the insights. P.S. I’d be curious to know whether you think Avatar (which I won’t see because spending $400 million on a movie is immoral) is a more engaging experience than creating in Second Life.

  5. Tom Stites

    Great post. The Web is not by its nature dehumanizing, but many of the Web structures that businesses and their lawyers have created are horribly so. It’s wildly ironic that a service as intimately personal as Signal Patterns could behave in such a dehumanizing way.

    What most turns me on about VRM is its potential to rehumanize business so that it can be conducted on a relational basis between customer and proprietor, with none of the deceptions that the lawyers’ boilerplate build into the example you offer. Which is to say, business with relational integrity.

  6. Charles Andres

    EULAs came into existence because delivering software online is faster and cheaper than sending it to you on any media. Privacy Policies came a bit later in response to valid concerns related to incidents where personal financial or identifying data was stolen or lost.

    So we all click on these statements because the only choice we have is to write off the investment we made to get to this point, and because it seems a small hurdle to get the service we are about to receive.

    Creating legal documents is often done by starting with boilerplate t’s & c’s. What is to prevent us from creating t’s & c’s that acknowledge basic VRM principles, and then publicize companies that add them into their EULAs and Privacy Policies? Such legal contracts are ways for both parties to agree on terms that go beyond current federal or legal regulations.

    In the beginning, it will only be Scanaroo or the Mine! that are “VRM approved”. But once we take the first small steps, others will follow.

  7. Jim caruso

    It would be nice to have a Creative Commons for Web site Terms & Conditions of Use.

  8. Roland

    “I was directed this morning by a friend to SignalPatterns”
    That was no friend, that was a con artist. Or perhaps a dummy.

  9. Suzanne Lainson

    Here’s something that allows marketers to pull a lot of information about people just based on their email addresses. On the one hand, I suppose it useful for marketing people to know as much about their customers or potential customers as possible. But, on the other hand, as someone handing out emails, I’m not sure I want to be tracked to such an extent.


  10. Jorge

    I find that a simple set of rules on data handling and giving some power to the user/customer over the data they provide will be good. Something like a creative commons, instead of a huge code or text nobody reads give a simple 4 or 5 line “contract” guided by symbols so everybody that identifies those symbols identifies what will be done with their data.

  11. Karl


    I have long been confounded by what you are trying to achieve with VRM. Your seem to think that markets can be fixed somehow to better serve individuals. I would suggest that we will have to look beyond the idea of markets altogether to have any meaningful changes in society.

    When I look up the definition of ‘market’ on M-W online, I see that it refers to a space where buying and selling occurs. It is about the exchange of scarce resources. Communication (conversation) is about sharing ideas. At this point in time, no idea or piece of information (all of which can be digitized) can ever be scarce except by making it artificially so. There is no market for oxygen or FLOSS because they are not scarce.

    If we are to make any progress as a species, we must make a concerted effort to eliminate scarcity, not enshrine it, as the current capitalist culture does. It would be much more helpful to work towards making markets obsolete rather than trying to ‘fix’ them.

    How about the idea ‘environments are conversations’?

  12. Doc Searls

    Karl, markets are one of the oldest, most well-established, yet corrupted concepts in civilization. A market was literally — and in some cases still is — a place where people gather to do business and make culture. More recently “market” has come to serve as a synonym for categories (“the SUV market”), demographics (t”he men 18-34 market”), regions (“the Sussex County market”), appetites (“the market for candy”) and more. As the meaning of “market” has been borrowed to synomymize so many different things, we have lost much of its original and highly grounded meaning.

    “Markets are conversations” was meant to do several things. One, as I explained above, was to frame the humanizing of commercial activity and relationships on the Web. Another was to restore some humanity to the understanding of markets within business, by recalling the original meaning of the word.

    In fact, one can say that nearly everything is “a conversation”. Try it. Interesting trick, no?

    Anyway, right now the Web is a place in which we carry around countless cookies from companies, because the only way relationships can be organized is on a one-by-one basis that only companies control. We are at the mercy of each of them. Over the last few years something similar has happened in the meat/meet world as well, with loyalty cards. Between my wife and myself, we must have several dozen of these things, and they’re all a pain in the ass for everybody involved. (They’re as dumb, and widespread, as Green Stamps were during their heyday.) These are problems that need fixing. That’s what VRM is about.

    VRM is about fixing the means by which each of us relate to companies. We should have simple and common means of relating to multiple companies. We should be the points of integration for our own data, and the points of origination about what we do with that data. We should have our own terms of engagement and service, which companies that we deal with can accept or not. We should not have to remember a zillion different logins and passwords in order to deal with companies or other entities. The absence of those abilities is what needs to be fixed. If “the market” gets fixed along with that, cool.

    The problem in the meantime is that we keep looking to the big companies to fix these problems for us. They’re not going to do it. In fact, they can’t — any more than AOL could fix email, or Yahoo could fix instant messaging. All these companies tend to do is make what they already do for themselves work better. Thus a free market becomes “your choice of silo.”

    We won’t get a truly free market until we equip individuals with tools of engagement that are independent of any one “provider.” We have to provide for ourselves. Sure, services can be built on what we bring to the market’s table as free and autonomous actors; but those services won’t have anything to work with if we don’t bring what can only come from us: our freedom, our ability to act autonomously, and our ability to do what only we can do — and no company can do for us.

  13. Katherine Warman Kern


    When new products/services are created that no one will pay for, then the investors and business people go to great extremes to find some derivative value – in this case data collection and analysis – to make money. And their lawyers come up with all sorts of CYA language to protect them from potential backlash.

    One guy makes money doing this, and everyone else keeps repeating the same mistake.

    What is the alternative? Develop products and services that add enough value to people that they will pay enough for it to sustain it. Then there is no upside to deceive or exploit to create derivative value. In fact there is a risk to betraying the trust behind the consumers who pay and losing them.

    I gave my 5 year old niece a birthday card featuring “enhanced” rhino’s with very short legs in tutus doing the Can Can. Inside it said “just because you Can Can doesn’t mean you Should Should”

    This motto should be on the desk of anyone who thinks technology has value because it can get to the outcome faster, cheaper than in the “real world”. The truth is, in the “real world”, the outcome may not be what people pay a lot for. It is in the process.

    If the outcome – the final score of a football game – were all that mattered, why would people watch the whole thing. Furthermore, why would they pay hundreds of dollars, in advance, to sit in the cold to watch it live. Something happens before, during, after that is much more valuable than sitting at home, in comfort, even with some friends, watching those 4 quarters on TV. Has High Def TV discouraged ticket sales? Will 3-D television discourage ticket sales?

    I understand that figuring out what it is that they are paying for is elusive, complex, and difficult.

    But some of us think that is fascinating and hope to find tech folks who are equally intrigued by creating ways to deliver the benefits of the “real world” experience for folks who can not access it.

    Katherine Warman Kern

  14. Gil Reich

    “an interesting person who turns out to be a psychologist.” Ha, you’re hysterical! Oh, that wasn’t the punchline. Never mind.

    Your premise of “social contracts in cyberspace have a long way to go before they catch up with those in real-world social space” presumes that cyberspace would be better off if it “progressed” to today’s offline social conventions. That man is in chains if he lets sites track him. I’m reminded of the scene in Dharma & Greg where Larry is horrified that Dharma got a Social Security card. “Now you’re on the grid!” he says ominously.

    Perhaps this can, should, and will go the other way. A generation ago people chose untraceable usernames and lived a second life online where “nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today we use our real names as Twitter handles and Facebook Connect into social applications. Our online presence is part of our total presence. Online man is born anonymous but surrenders his anonymity to society so that we can interact responsibly and with accountability as our true selves. We shed some of the lies and barriers and interact with greater openness than in the past.

    This isn’t just an online thing. My parents and grandparents had many family secrets. Intimacies, squabbles, diseases, and struggles were covered up lest family members be shunned from future work or social relationships. People changed their names to hide their religious and ethnic identities.

    Perhaps there’s a 250 year difference between the online and offline worlds. But in which direction are we going? In which direction should we go? What’s progress?

  15. Doc Searls

    Gil, all great questions. With ProjectVRM, we’re working on answers that give individuals more control of the data they gather, the data they leave, what they share and what they don’t, and control over the conditions for all of that.

    Katherine, all good points as well. I’d just add that there is only so much companies can do. We need tools that give individuals both independence from companies and better ways of engaging with them.

    Jim and Jorge, a CC or the equivalent for individual control of their own terms and conditions — in the simplest possible ways — for engagement is a good idea. Some of us are working on parts of that.

    Suzanne, flowtown looks to me like one more way that our “social” representations can help marketers put better targets on our digital backs. What’s missing, as always, is understanding that all this stuff makes sense only in the absence of means for demand to drive supply at least as well as supply drives demand. Flowtown is a pure attention economy play: one more way for supply to target and drive demand — presumably a bit more personally than other plays for attention. What we need is to equip an intention economy based on what customers actually want. There is a pile of MLOTT (money left on the table) out there, waiting to be spent. There are absent relationships between customers and suppliers that could be built out from the customer side, and aren’t, because CRM systems can hardly comprehend it. So, we need to build those systems.

    Mike, thanks for memepedia.net. Let’s think about at what we want to do there, or in other new places that fellow VRM folks have created.

  16. Michael O'Connor Clarke

    I think I’m experiencing something like serendipitous dissonance – I just came to read this post after reading the RWW piece on Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about the ed of the “Age of Privacy” (at least, Zuckerberg’s comments as interpreted by Marshall Kirkpatrick). The link is here: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebooks_zuckerberg_says_the_age_of_privacy_is_ov.php

    So now I’m stuck somewhere between the squirming discomfort imparted by Zuckerberg’s view of privacy norms, and the utopian vision of a world where VRM is the accepted norm.

    One of the things this contrast highlights for me is the simple fact that the old way of doing things (as epitomised in your SignalPatterns anecdote) may simply be too well-established to ever be corrected. In other words, the average online punter is already pre-conditioned to accept invasive and spammy clickwrap agreements without thinking, rendering the mission to reverse such deeply complacent behaviour utterly hopeless.

    Or perhaps I’m just having a miserably misanthropic and pessimistic Monday.

  17. Doc Searls

    First, Michael, I don’t think most people know what they’re giving up. Yet.

    Second, there is a limit to how well the current “system” works. And we’re reaching it.

    At some point, and in some way, demand starts to drive supply better than supply thinks it’s driving demand.

    The spending money is on the demand side. So is all the meaningful loyalty, and other forms of “relationship” worthy of the name.

    We just have to build the tools, that’s all.

  18. John S. James

    Is it really just coincidence at corporate sites, how often you must click “submit”?

    The reason I submit (sometimes) is that otherwise it would be next to impossible to use the Internet in a normal way, as part of existing communities. Almost all computers, software, social networking, and other services that I or anyone buys would have to be returned immediately.

    Also, due diligence on the legal “contracts” you “sign” would require hours of expensive law-firm time, often raising the product cost by 10 to 100 times. And then there would be nothing you could do anyway to negotiate better agreements. Why even bother to read them, beyond scanning for a few flash points to reduce the risk of trouble later? Which is why people don’t read the terms of use, etc., but instead keep quiet and hope to pass under the radar.

    A major case for net neutrality, and against ACTA, etc., is that corporations clearly will abuse every power they get. Including sovereign powers — as governments increasingly become auction houses where the laws of the land are packaged and sold to high bidders.

  19. Eliza Keagan

    Greves Detectives is a New Delhi (India) based investigation agency, providing a broad range of investigative services to corporate, government and legal clients.

  20. julian

    I like the idea of having a Creative Commons-type simplified contract like Jorge mentions (above).

    It’s interesting, in light of your example, that I am “required” to leave my email in order to leave a comment here. I’d never really thought about it before, and it’s an example of how the existing technology leads to pervasive unreflective practices.

    Is it possible to get blog software that does not require bloggers to require emails?

    I suppose the logic is that leaving an email will deter malicious commenters and the like, but as Allan above says, anyone can just leave ‘fake-email@whatever.com’ if they want.

    It doesn’t bother me, but would you require a person who visited your house for an open party, or an open seminar, (this blog post is open to all comers) to leave their business card, or a telephone number?

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