In a previous post I talked about some major changes I would like to see happening to the current web. The most important aspect of that is to provide the user freedom again. I said:
More than 2006, when Time Magazine unfortunately called YOU the most important person of the year, I think and hope 2008 will be the year where the user gets his long-wanted freedom back. 2008 will be a year in which we will see the first brand/portal/network/social graph/device- agnostic services pop up. What does all of that mean? It means that the portal or network concept we are so used to is slowly replaced by initiatives where the user isn’t locked in, but viewed as a traveler reaching a place where service is required.
To reach freedom for the users we need new business models. No one will freely remove the existing “customer or advertiser lock-in”, walled gardens, locked user data unless there is a new economic engine that can really set the user free. At the same time we might question the user’s comprehension of what it means to be locked in or set free. Millions of people are already locked into walled gardens and exploited for advertisement reasons without really knowing it or even caring about it. The same thing holds for advertisers. They are locked into a promise that a new era in media has arrived and that it will bring endless new possibilities to reach a targeted audience using tools like Beacon and SocialAds on Facebook.
At best an advertiser reaches a semi-targeted and somewhat ignorant audience. But most likely these new ways of reaching targeted sets of people will lead to indifference by the user. A new business model or economic engine isn’t enough, we also need to show the user that being free has advantages over being locked in. We need to show the advertiser that advertisement only makes sense if the advertisement itself provides the targeted user value. And we need to convince service creators to work on user value monetization instead of network value monetization.
What would such an economic ecosystem have to look like? What benefits should it address? Difficult questions with difficult answers. Chris Messina points this out very well when he says:
We need instead to frame the discussion in terms of real-world benefits for regular people over the situation that we have today and in terms of economics that people in companies who might invest in these technologies can understand, and can translate into benefits for both their customers and for their bottom lines.
The discussion is continued with Anne Zelenka at GigaOM.
Real-world benefits for the user
What could be real-world benefits for the user to be free? Although some obvious advantages like data freedom and privacy control come to mind immediately, we might need to look beyond that. Let’s face it. There are currently hundred of millions of people locked into social networks like Facebook and MySpace and they do not seem to care that their profile data, friends data, relationships and interactions aren’t their own. It is impossible to export any of that into another service thus providing the user choice. But he doesn’t seem to mind much. His privacy isn’t guaranteed and his data is being used to target advertisers onto his profile. Users are often described (and often behave) like ignorant, lazy, “entertain me” like people. Some even predict it is human laziness that will burst the web 2.0 bubble.
I am a more positive thinker about human nature. People need to interact, and they want to do this as conveniently as possible (we are a bit lazy right). Freedom is about having a choice. Being able to say I can choose it the way I want. I believe that if a user is offered choice between spending time within walled gardens or traveling around as a free man, the choice will be on freedom. Freedom would provide the user the possibility to integrate real-life experiences with “cyber” experiences. In a way that is convenient to him.
I wrote about the web being a surrogate of real-life interactions. But if you can integrate real-life interaction with the ability to share and interact with people who are not physically present it would add value.You should be able to decide how, where, when and with whom you would have that interaction. Regardless of device, technology or platform. That is what freedom is about.
You can use Facebook and the friends you have there, but if you want to do something else, then it should be possible as well. Without you losing the ability to interact because some platform locked your friends away behind some wall. And freedom is a blade cutting 2 ways. If you have the choice to interact in the way you want, a service provider that wants to service you needs to provide value. For it is only that user value that makes you want to use that service provider. So freedom for the user leads to user value innovations, everybody wins.
And with this freedom comes the ability to be able to identify yourself anywhere with one means, and the ability to perform transactions anywhere using a simple mechanism.
Benefits for the advertiser
If a user is free he will choose to interact with a brand or an advertiser. It will be a positive choice, one of free will. It provides the advertiser with a meaningful interaction with the user, providing him valuable opportunities to build a brand, advertise or sell stuff that matter. The advertiser can learn more about the user in a way more targeted than a Facebook profile or Beacon message.
It means letting go, stop waisting enormous amounts of advertisement spendings on large groups of users. Instead the advertiser will have to learn to interact on an almost individual basis with users. Microbranding. Scary, but also potentially very powerful. It also means that advertisers will have to deal with the user being on the move (for he is a traveler). It will focus the attention of the advertiser to add value to the experience of the traveler. Not just broadcasting a message to him, but understanding what the travelers needs are when using a service, and adding value to that user experience by providing brand or advertisement that actually matters.
Benefits for the service creator
Service creators need to let go of their proprietary platforms, the lock in of users and their data, the free but ad-based business model. They need to participate in a user-centric web, become a gas station next to a freeway servicing the traveler passing by.
There are clear benefits for the service creator. Most importantly, instead of providing services for free and creating revenues through ads, the user will pay for the value he obtains. This leaves the service creator to concentrate on user value and monetizing that. It implies that the service creator should not focus on page rank, page views and user clicks but instead focus on meaningful interactions of the user via his service. Interactions to buy or sell things, to find help or provide help, interactions with friends or strangers, search information. Each of these interactions can be monetized if they provide the user value. We are happy to pay for sending an SMS because it allows us to interact with our friends. We pay for a professional Flickr account because it provides us more freedom and value than a free account. We should be paying Twitter when sending an SMS for it adds value to my interactions with others.
This is not an easy step to be taken by the service creator. Right now he is in control, he owns the platform, the data, the social graph, the connections to the advertiser, and yes, even parts of the user in some way. They have to believe that freedom in the end benefits us all. A user that willingly chooses to go to a service creator will be more valuable than a user that is (unwillingly) locked into the service by the service creator. As Milton Friedman, Economics Nobel prize winner, has said rightly:
“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of believe in freedom itself”
I have only provided an outline or framework in which an economic engine might be redefined allowing the user to become free (and taken too many words for it already). More and detailed work needs to be done to define the benefits for all. Then again, courage and the willingness to start is all it takes to set the user free and and the same time making huge amounts of money on the monetization of user value. Any takers out there?