Doc Searls, VRM, and the Redemption of Tomorrow’s Internet

I spent a couple of hours on the phone with Doc yesterday as he ran back and forth across the Harvard campus, where he’s currently a fellow at the Berkman Center. The conversation was as frenetic and wide-ranging as his movements (from his personal past, through VRM, to the meaning of the modern day Catholic church), but despite this, there was a consistent narrative that helped me understand the real human energy behind VRM.

To really understand Doc, you’ve got to go back to 1969, when he was living with his parents, wife and two kids in Jersey, and his primary activity was avoiding getting sent to the jungles of Vietnam to fight a war. Beginnings like that help put into perspective modern day concerns like not having WiFi in the airport or too much foam in your Frappuccino. In 1976, he found himself playing the role of local radio persona (Doctor Dave–the origins of “Doc”) at a progressive rock radio station in Durham, N.C. and living in near poverty when a couple of local advertising guys noticed his ability to write and asked him to join their nascent advertising firm. Doc was tired of his life, saw this as a way out, and in 1978 Hodskins, Simone and Searls was born.

HS&S then grew to become the largest high-tech agency in North Carolina. Still, that day is significant because, as Doc’s wife would put it later, that’s when he sold out — not because he went into advertising, but because he gave up on radio, which had always been a passion of his. That passion was one of personal connection, not just between performer and audience, but between passionate and appreciative people on both sides. He saw radio not just as a one-way medium for performers and sellers, but as a two-way medium serving common interests and passions.

In 1984 a customer pointed out, “There’s more action on one street in Sunnyvale than in all of North Carolina,” so in 1985 Doc and company packed up and moved to the Valley where by 1987 they had became one of the top high-tech PR agencies and Doc’s role as one of the most prodigious connectors in the technology community began. It was in this role that in 1998 he was talking to Chris Locke and Dave Weinberger (also marketing guys) about the insanity of the DotCom boom and how to get rid of annoying clients when he told them his strategy: Markets are conversations; and conversation is fire. Therefore, marketing is arson. They thought this message itself might be fire-worthy, and a few months later, the phenomenon that was the Cluetrain Manifesto was born.

In 1999, the energy surrounding Cluetrain, Dave Winer’s insistence that he blog, and his wife’s revelation that he’d been living as a sellout for 20 years seemed to open a new horizon for Doc. At 52, in the midst of one of the biggest technology booms and busts this country has ever seen, Doc completed his transition from advertising guy to editor of the Linux Journal and the roving open-source evangelist he is today.

It is in this role (and his consistent role as connector) that the modern identity movement and its VRM off-shoot were born. Doc knew Kim Cameron before Zoomit and its Metadirectory (a technology with may similarities to the Identity Metasystem) were acquired by Mircrosoft. He knew Drummond Reed (XRI/XDI) and Andre Durand (Jabber and Ping Identity), and through his work with the Identity Gang brought in people like Brad Fitzpatrick (OpenID). As Doc explains, many Open Source movements are as competitive and proprietary as anything the corporate world could dream up, but from day one, identity has been a collective effort between technologists who knew that no one could build it all and that if it was going to work, it all would have to work together.

So what do Doc’s past and Identity have to do with VRM, and what is VRM anyway? VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) is the reciprical of CRM (Customer Relationship Mangement). CRM systems are the hugely complicated pieces of sofware where vendors store all the information they think they know about you (remember that time you yelled at the Verizon rep–they remember). They’re supposed to help the vendor provide you with better service, but the problem is that every vendor only has a small piece of you and since, you have no say in how they describe you, they are probably wrong (no Verizon, I’m not a dick–my dog died that day–and your service sucks!).

VRM’s goal is to help you play a larger role in the relationship between you and your vendors. Though its origins are earlier, the term stems from a conversation at Visual Identity World in Denver in 2004 where Drummond came up with “CoRM” (Company Relationship Management–later modified by Mike Vizard during a discussion on the Gillmore Gang to VRM). Any technology or system that puts the customer at the center of the relationship falls under the general umbrella of VRM, but the canonical version sees you owning all of the information that is currently locked in each vendor’s silo and sharing it with vendors as you choose. Obviously a strong sense of Identity along with the principles of Data Portability need to be in place for this vision to become a reality.

Doc and his past have a much more subtle but absolutely pervasive effect on the focus of VRM today. Currently he is working with public radio to enable listeners (particularly those of podcasts) to donate directly to the shows they like with a simple “buy” or “donate” button. Obviously Doc’s origins in radio play a role here, but more importantly, as a marketing professional for over 20 years, he came to see clearly how traditional advertising and fund-raising models create an inauthentic (and even destructive) relationship between buyers and sellers. In the long-term VRM may be about putting the customer in control in a number of ways, but in the short-term it’s a personal crusade against what Doc views as the scourge of the internet and as a practice fully against the principles of VRM–advertising.

Doc talks about Google and its corporate hubris with a sense of disbelief. As he described the excess evident in their Mountain View headquarters, you can see him taken back to the excess of an earlier internet boom where the only business model (and what was in fact, no business model at all) was advertising. As he points out, and what no one is really talking about is that the people–you and me–hate advertising. Not only is it an artificial and unwelcome intrusion into our personal conversations, it is hugely inefficient and ineffective. Vendors spamming every corner of the internet with their best guesses as to what they might be able to sell us isn’t a fair or rational conversation at all–and we’re learning to ignore it.

There is a deeper point to be made here though: how can we, the technorati, who are responsible for instantiating societal values through technology, continue to blithely gorge on the excesses that internet advertising bring us when we know full-well that the model isn’t sustainable and more importantly, that we’re building a machine reliant on wasting what we now know to be one of the most precious and most human resources–our attention?

As Doc rode the bus home, he and I ended our conversation discussing the passing of Bill Buckley and Doc’s occasional relationship with the Catholic church. It was appropriate as the VRM project is, in some sense at least, a project of personal redemption. Doc has spent the majority of his adult life helping companies reach their customers, and no doubt he’s taught them well. He’s now working to help us take back control of those conversations. From one sellout to another, I hope he succeeds. Happy Easter everyone.

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  • Ming Yeow

    great posting… certainly see the parallels for the DP group. One of the main challenges is getting consumers to actually care about DP, and Dr Searls is clearly further along than most of us in terms of understanding how this can happen

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  • marcos

    Agreed that advertising is not a sustainable model. Some re-invention of micropayments is almost certain to emerge in the attention economy.

    Clay Shirky’s excellent “Case Against Micropayments” doesn’t hold up well once user preferences are automatically taken into account. And that is the eventual goal of this personal identity space, yes?

    Some of the primary problems with micropayments previously were the decision-making cost and the psychological block of using “real” money when it all seems free anyway.

    Personal profiles will evolve to know an individual well enough to sidestep the issue of decision making for >90% of the time. And some form of a global internet currency will likely emerge to make this all easier and more palatable (karma points?). Add the fact that users will become more providers of value and not merely consumers and you’ve got a thriving internet marketplace. (Who wants to deal with the issue of foreign currencies when the internet can offer its own flat, borderless marketplace?)

    See also:

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Doc’s right, this is quality writing. Thanks for posting it.

  • devin c holloway

    Agree and disagree.

    Advertising is largely ineffective. But producers do need a way to get the attention of their target market.

    Let’s use technology to eradicate advertising whilst enabling producers to deliver relevant information to their most receptive audience.

    I firmly believe the advertising model is here to stay, just not in its current form.

    Any takers?