Sep 062007

Personal Reputation

Personal Reputation

There was a recent New York Times article that covered a relatively new company called Rapleaf that aggregates publicly available and privately submitted data about individuals, mostly from social networks, and then resells that data in bulk to marketers to help them target advertising more effectively, supposedly to names they already have permission to mail.  I’m sure the company would think I butchered that description, but it’s close, anyway.

While there are a lot of comments and posts flying around about the ethics of that data collection, I won’t focus on that here.  Publicly available data is publicly available data.  This isn’t a lot different than banks swapping your data to create a FICO score, Abacus swapping your purchase data to cataloggers, or InfoUSA compiling tax and DMV records.

What I think is interesting is the notion of having a global online personal reputation, which, despite Rapleaf’s verbiage, isn’t exactly what they’re doing at scale just yet.  I have often wondered if such a thing would work, especially since Return Path has gotten big into the corporate reputation business through our Sender Score service that monitors companies’ email sending reputations.

Here’s why I think it’s a good idea: the world of peer production and user generated content means that everyone can publish any media at any time.  As a result, the amount of content that’s available out there has exploded to unmanageable proportions.  Lots of sites are and have been working on making it easier to find and discover stuff.  That’s a good start.  But how are we going to start figuring out what things we want to consume and who to trust when even the most efficient search and discovery mechanisms produce too many options?  Think about it like this — you’d never buy something on eBay from someone who had a crappy seller reputation as noted by other eBay buyers who had bought things from the same seller.  Would you watch a random YouTube video (even if you liked the subject) if the producer had a horrible rating?  Would you bother trying to get into that person’s blog?  Would you allow someone to introduce that person to you via LinkedIn?

Here’s why I think it will be difficult to make it work: I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as an accurate universal measure of someone’s reputation.  Yes,  you CAN certainly aggregate a lot of information about people from publicly available sources online.  And many of those sources do have data that point to someone’s reputation.  But do they translate well across sources and dimensions?  To go back to the prior example, if a person has a bad reputation as a seller on eBay…does that mean I don’t want to read his blog?  Or just that I don’t want to buy stuff from him sight unseen?  He might be a marvelous writer but a thief.  Or maybe he has a great credit score but is lousy at follow up.  Also, the notion that someone can lobby for and garner a whole slew of private recommendations from friends on the system, while a nice idea to complement and correct inaccuracies of public data, feels like a system ripe for gaming.

Anyway, it’s an interesting concept, and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

Filed under: Email

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Jan 102006

New Media Deal, Part II – the We Media Deal

New Media Deal, Part II – the We Media Deal

My original New Medial Deal posting from August, 2004, is my favorite posting of all 220 or so that I’ve done to date. It has the most clicks of any posting I’ve done. People mention it to me all the time. I even used it as the foundation for the preface to our book at Return Path, Sign Me Up!

The general thesis (although the original posting is short and worth reading) is simple. Old Media was one-way communication – they produce it, you consume it, and Old Media had a deal with us: they give us free or cheap content, we tolerate their advertising. Think about your favorite radio station or an episode of The Office on TV. The New Media deal is an Internet derivative of that, that is founded on some degree of two-way communication: they give us free services and more targeted advertising in exchange for some of our personal data — just like the Old Media deal, we are willing make a small sacrifice, in this case, some pieces of our anonymity, in a heartbeat if the value exchange is there. This is true of everything from personalized stock quotes on My Yahoo! to the New York Times on the Web. The New Media Deal doesn’t replace the Old Media Deal, it just adapts it to the new environment.

But what about the new generation of services that have popped up on the web around peer production?  The ones that aren’t one-way communication or two-way communication, but community-oriented communciation.  (Note I am resisting hard calling them Web 2.0, but you know it’s there somewhere.)  Does the New Media Deal still apply, or are we on to something else?  I think the rules are morphing once again, and now there’s a new deal — let’s call it the We Media Deal — that builds on the “data as part of the value exchange” moniker of the New Media Deal. Like its predecessor deals, the We Media Deal doesn’t replace the New Media Deal or the Old Media Deal, it just adapts it for new types of services.

The We Media Deal has two components to it:  (1) the value of the service to you increases in lock-step as you contribute more data to it, and (2) the more transparent the value exchange, the more willing you are to share your data.

Ok – that sounds very academic – what do I mean in plain English? Let’s break it down.

1. The value to you increases in lock-step as you contribute more data.  This is something that probably wasn’t obvious with the original New Media Deal, since it wasn’t clear that if you gave My Yahoo! incrementally more data (one more stock quote, for example), you’d get more relevant ads or services.  It’s a pretty static value exchange.  But think about the new generation of web services around peer production.

- The more you use Delicious to bookmark web pages, the more relevant it becomes to you, and the more dependent you become on it as your own “Internet within an Internet.”

- The more you wite a blog or post photos to Flickr, the more engrained the act of blogging becomes in your daily existence — you start looking at the world, ever so slightly, through the lens of “that would make an interesting posting” (trust me).

- The more you use Wikipedia (or wikis in general), the more committed you become to Wikipedia as your first go-to source for information, and the more you get infected with the desire to contribute to it.

The bottom line with the first part of the We Media Deal is that the more you give to the system, the more you want and need out of the system.  A big part of peer production is that most people fundamentally, if quietly, want to belong to any bit of community they can find.  All these new web services of late have transformed the mass Internet from a read platform to a read/write platform, so now everyone can have a say in things.  The same reason eBay is cooler and bigger than the New York Times on the Web will drive this new generation of services, and new spins on old services, forward.

2. Next up — the more transparent the value exchange, the more willing you are to share your data.  Transparecy rules.  When you contribute to the web, you’re exposed, so why is trasparency a help and not a hindrance?  Let’s look at the same 3 examples.

- Delicious let’s you delete your account and all your personal data.  They’re blatant about it during the sign-up process.  The result?  It increases your trust in the network since you can easily exit at any time.

- Blogging and Flickr couldn’t be more transparent.  They’re personal printing presses.  If you’re good at it, you really have to think before you write. It’s you – you’re really hanging out there transparent for all the world to see – therefore you’re even more invested in what you write and derive even more value from the activity.

- Similarly, Wikipedia tracks who changes what, and if you make an error, the community will correct it in an astonishingly short time frame, keeping you honest.

The good news is that, while the We Media Deal is coming of age, our New Media Deal is alive and well and growing stronger as the web evolves as well.  Free services and more targeted advertising in exchange for some of your personal data makes a ton of sense when the right balance of service and data is there.  Transparency and control make the We Media Deal an even stronger stronger bond between company and individual, mostly because the bond is between company and community — the deal gets more solid the more we as individuals invest in it.

Dec 222005

New Media Deal – a comment

New Media Deal – a comment

A user calling him or herself “graciouswings” (who left a bogus email address with his/her comment, so I couldn’t email him/her) made a lengthy comment to my New Media Deal posting (posting here, comment at the bottom or here).

The meat of the comment was:

“advertising doesn’t bug us if it’s not too intrusive and if there’s something in it for us as consumers.” This is simply not true. This notion is based on unfair playing grounds. People don’t like seeing commercials before movies. People _are_ bugged by having to create an account at every website they visit, whether it’s to post a comment, purchase a song, ask a question of tech support, read the news, or get their local weather info — agreeing to the privacy statement by the by. People don’t read the privacy statements. People aren’t given a choice, other than to simply not use the service. People have no choice but to watch those ads in the theater — in spite of having paid a day’s salary for their family to watch the movie — because, if they didn’t, they’d have to be late and get bad seats in the theater. And if you think that not using services or receiving diminished services is a choice, you’re lying to yourself. It’s discrimination.

I’m struggling to come up with a definition of discrimination that fits graciouswings’ argument, since discrimination means “treatment based on class or category rather than individual merit; or partiality or prejudice.”  All consumers are treated equally with respect to advertising, as far as I can tell.

And although it’s only one data point, I do have an interesting anedcote that gets of the core of this argument.  When I was running marketing for MovieFone (777-FILM) back in the 1990s, we ran a survey of our own customers and asked them which they would prefer:  continuing to use the MovieFone service with its 20-second uninterruptible movie advertisement at the beginning of every call; or have MovieFone become an ad-free service on a 900-number at a cost of $0.25 per call to the caller.  The results were *overwhelming* that consumers would rather listen to the ad than pay a quarter for the convenience of the service.  And this isn’t an ad that consumers could skip or flip past like a print ad.  I suspect if we ran a poll asking people if they’d rather pay $3.00 for a copy of the New York Times or pay $1.00 and have a bunch of ads in it, they’d respond the same way.

But maybe consumers are different when it comes to the New Media Deal.  Maybe they would rather pay for services than get them for free in exchange for some of their personal data.  I suspect if that was the case, some entrepreneur (perhaps graciouswings) would make a fortune developing paid, ad-free versions of most major web services that would attract some meaningful portion of consumers under a different model.  But seems to me that the body of empirical evidence is proving otherwise.

Feb 012005

Doing its Part

Doing its Part

Fred had a good posting on spam today, riffing on a New York Times article that  is very “doom and gloom” on spam and how it’s taking over the world.  I’ll buy the Times’ argument that there’s an increasing amount of spam out there these days, but as with Fred, I still maintain, as I did in this earlier posting, that we’re out of crisis mode and are on the path to resolution as improved filtering technology and false-positive identification services trickle down to broader usage.

What I think is interesting, though is the amount of criticism that the CAN-SPAM legislation is getting, including in this article from the Times.  It’s not a perfect law — what law, exactly, is perfect? — but it’s starting to do its part.  People in the industry joke that CAN-SPAM means “you can spam,” meaning that the law makes it easier for people to spam legally.

But the reality is that you can’t regulate something until you’ve legalized it, and CAN-SPAM is a good first step in the process.  In the Times article is yet another example of how the legislation is starting to work — Microsoft’s latest law suit (one of many filed by Microsoft and others in the past 12 months) against a known spammer.

No one ever said solving the spam problem was going to be easy.  And no one ever thought there would be any silver bullet — certainly not a legislative one!  But I argue that CAN-SPAM is doing its part through the enforcement mechanism if nothing else.  And while I certainly hope the next step in the legislation around spam IS NOT a do-not email list, I do hope that there is a successor piece of legislation after another 6-12 months of observing the spam situation and the impact, strengths, and weaknesses of CAN-SPAM.

In the meantime, let’s use the tools at our disposal and keep suing spammers…as well as working on industry-based solutions to spam that bring the problem further under control, from filters to authentication to reputation to accreditation.

Filed under: Email

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Aug 052004

Baby and Bathwater Redux

Katie Hafner’s article in the New York Times Circuits section today about spam and false positives is right on the mark. Spam filters are still evolving, and spammers are evolving right with them. Although the flood of spam is largely stemmed by a good filtering app, the results for consumers are still spotty: false negatives are irritating, false positives can be very painful (as the article suggests), and the process still consumes a little too much time. While the article nails the consumer problem, it does miss the corresponding business problem around false positives (see below).

But things are getting better. While I wrote generally about how email is here to stay a couple weeks ago, there are a couple other things I’d point out after reading Katie’s article that are making the email landscape a brighter place of late:

First, even better than the Bayesian style filters referenced in the article are community-based filters. The leading one is run by Cloudmark and is called SpamNet. SpamNet relies on a community of 1 million hardcore email users voting on whether email is spam or not. I’ve used SpamNet for over a year now, and while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty good at reducing both false positives and false negatives to a tolerable level, and it’s very easy to use (but only with Outlook for now).

Second, a few companies in the email industry — Ironport (Bonded Sender) and Return Path included — are hard at work on solutions to the false positive problem that won’t leave false negatives behind. Once these solutions reach maturity (still 6-12 months away), I think consumers will notice a quantum leap improvement in managing their inboxes.

Finally, one thing I’m always trying to encourage people to realize is that this problem is not just an annoyance for them personally…but it’s an annoyance to legitimate businesses everywhere. Businesses who uses email to reach their customers — when customers request the email — are consistently finding that anywhere from 5 to 50% of their emails are blocked or filtered (with an average of 19%, according to our research). Talk about an ROI buzz kill and a CRM nightmare!

So hang onto those babies out there, consumers and marketers alike…the bathwater really will go down the drain soon!

Jul 142004

Present AND Accounted For

There was a great essay in the New York Times yesterday about multitasking. The gist of the article is that multitasking, when taken to an extreme, is unproductive at best and in the case of driving, quite dangerous.

I’ve long believed that in business, as in any activity relying in part on interpersonal relationships, it’s important to be fully present when talking to other people. This is especially true in one-on-one conversations, but true even in larger meetings. The article talks about the clicking you hear when you’re talking to someone on the phone and he or she is typing in the background. And we’ve all been in meetings where someone picks up a Blackberry to reply to a presumably non-urgent email. How annoying! Better to step out of the meeting if the email is that important…or tell the person who called you that you don’t have time to talk now.

Even forgetting the annoying part, how can you possibly connect with another person when you’re reading or writing at the same time? How can you make a point or read their body language? How can you convey to the rest of the room that you’re taking the subject seriously?

Like most of us these days, I too am addicted to multitasking, repsonding to emails, answering cell phones, and the like. The only way I’ve been able to make sure I focus on the meeting at hand is to turn off the phone, leave the Blackberry or laptop in another room, bring nothing other than a piece of paper and pen to the meeting. Sure, I have to go back and enter a couple things on my computer in my to-do list afterwards instead of in real time, but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. If I’m on the phone, I turn away from my desk or put my headset on and walk around the office to remove other temptations.

I don’t think all multitasking is bad…in fact there are lots of times where it makes great sense and is productive. But the principle of Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well applies here in spades — having a conversation with another person, or being fully present and accounted for in a meeting, are usually worth doing well!

Filed under: Leadership

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May 272004

Why Blog?

There was a good piece in the New York Times yesterday about blogging, including some good quotes from Jarvis.

I’m getting the hang of it, but I have to say that blogging in the bathroom is taking things a little bit too far.

Filed under: Email, Weblogs

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