I have almost 46,000 photos in my main Flickr account. Most of them face the public rather than just friends and family. All of my public-facing photos encourage re-use and re-mixing, through a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. And frankly, if Flickr made public domain dedication available as a choice I would use that, because I want the photos to be maximally useful in the world.
As a result of this policy, more than 350 of those photos have found their way onto Wikimedia Commons. Many — perhaps most — of those also find their way into Wikipedia, where they are used to illustrate the topic of articles there. The Wikipedia article Upheaval Dome (an ancient crater in Utah), for example, uses this photo in Wikimedia Commons, copied from this one I put up on Flickr. This one, of Denver International Airport’s toothy roof, is in about thirty different Wikipedia articles, in many different languages. It’s not a great photograph and far from my favorite, but I’m glad it’s proven so useful.
Now, what is this data worth? In terms of money, some of the photos have brought me hundreds of dollars, even though I didn’t ask for a dime. Those using the photos simply wanted to pay me. But, overall, the value of any one photo — or hell, the whole corpus — rounds to $0.
Now, if I had wanted to, I could have reserved all rights to these photos, or granted some to, say, Getty Images, and made money that way. It’s possible I could have made quite a bit, if not a living. For example, I could have sold my photos of ice crystals to NBC for its Winter Olympics in 2011, instead of giving them away. (And maybe I could have gotten some perks out of NBC, perhaps for tickets or a hotel room. But I didn’t do that either.)
What matters to me about my photos is their use value, not their sale value. (A difference Eric S. Raymond unpacks nicely.) This is true of everything we own or rent. Every once in awhile we might toss or sell off stuff that has more sale than use value to us, and in those times we’ll take either nothing or far less than we paid for it in the first place. My point here is that we possess and share stuff almost entirely for its use value. Not because we might be able to sell it as well.
Yet because a lot of our data — or data about us — is collected by other parties, the question of sale value comes up. So, the question goes, If Facebook Can Profit From Your Data, Why Can’t You? That’s the headline of an MIT Technology Reviewpiece with the subhead, “Reputation.com says it’s ready to unveil a place where people can offer personal information to marketers in return for discounts and other perks.” That was dated July 30 of this year. On September 1, TechCrunch followed up with Handshake Is A Personal Data Marketplace Where Users Get Paid To Sell Their Own Data. (Handshake is Reputation.com’s new offering.) Pull-quote:
Well, here’s a startup that wants to make this money-for-data transfer a little more explicit — by acting as a platform for consumers to sell their own data directly to companies and make some of that filthy lucre themselves.
They’re not alone. Enliken has been offering something like this for awhile. With Glome “you can anonymously control the Web’s offerings and get paid for interacting with businesses.” Ye$ Profile lets you “rent your profile to brands.” Datacoup provides “the first personal data marketplace.” In Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier makes a similar case, some of which you can see and hear in Should we get paid for our online data, on NPR’s Here and Now program. I also just spotted a new UK company, CTRLio, getting into the game as well, though the text of its video sounds like many of the other companies in the personal data store, vault and locker business. You’ll find those under “Personal Data and Relationship Management” on the Developers List page of the ProjectVRM wiki.
Meanwhile the amounts paid for personal data, within today’s personalized advertising data mills, are miniscule on a per-item (or even a per-person) basis. Financial worth of data comes in at under a penny a piece, says the headline of a Financial Times story. (The rest is behind a paywall.)
But there has always been a market for what salesfolk call “qualified leads.” For a glimpse of that appetite, do this search and see what comes up: https://www.google.com/search?q=qualified+leads. Or go see David Mamet‘s Glengarry Glen Ross.
Why would anybody want to be one of those leads?
The answer is to get better offers, or better deals, whatever those may be. There is no shortage of people who live for this kind of thing. The demographic bulls-eye of this broad cohort stars in TLC’s Extreme Couponing. Pull-quote: “It’s even better than sex.” If that’s you, rock on. If it’s not, read on.
Here’s a simple fact: if you’re exchanging data for money, offers or both, you’re in the qualified leads business — as a lead. This is an old business with a new model: for you. It also respects some rude facts of life in the digital sphere today:
- Data about you is being harvested constantly, and in more ways, every day.
- You have few ways of controlling that harvesting, other than to plug a few leaks here and there, for example with tracking blockers in browsers.
- That data is being sold to marketers who already want to give you more personalized advertising and/or better offers.
- You’re already participating in this system, whether you like it or not
Speaking personally, I have little faith that any of these systems will succeed, for three reasons. First is that each company appears to be building its own closed and silo’d marketplace, and I’m not a fan of those. Second is that the actual size of the markets will be too small. Third is that it will gradually dawn on people that use value trumps sales value.
This is especially true in the subscription economy, which includes all ongoing service businesses. This is where the R in VRM will have the most meaning, and find the most opportunity. I also believe it is a vast new greenfield, and relatively free of current marketing manias.
But my mind isn’t closed about it. VRM is a big greenhouse. Let every flower bloom.