As They May Choose
What might a post-ad-tech world look like?
You’re a seller. Of products, services, courses of action, ideas, points of view; whatever. You push one or more of those things — for financial benefit, fun, commitment, survival; whatever. (You also ‘buy’ a lot of those things. We’re all buyers and sellers. But leave on your seller hat for a moment.)
Imagine that there is a place where a large number of people show current interest in what you sell. With proper information, some might choose yours. Potential choosers voluntarily disclose their needs, wants, and intentions. As a would-be “choosee,” this is a marketplace of your dreams, since the best targets of your sales efforts self-identify. It turns out that you don’t know who any of them are unless and until they are ready to transact. But you can make your offerings and arguments known to them via voluntary, respectful, and privacy-assured interactions.
While anonymous, the personalities in this Choice Space represent persistent identities with which to interact. Choosers can define their criteria and preferences for a given decision, and keep track of their assessments of options on considerations they care about. They can deliberate about their important cares and concerns, drawing on the experience and insights of fellow choosers. Choice Space is a place for people to confidently store and easily retrieve decisional information. That information is only as visible to collaborators and potential sellers as the chooser specifies.
The result is a high fidelity picture of what people actually care about and how much; of what they want. To the extent a seller can interact with that information, there is little need to waste resources on irrelevant and unwanted messaging. Not only are individual prospects visible, so are market trends and dynamics.
From a chooser’s point of view, a seller’s attempted contact renders somewhat like a sponsored link in a Google or Bing search results page, signaling a belief that the seller has something worth considering by that chooser. Sellers can tailor those signals to the manifest preferences and alternatives of the choosers, manually or algorithmically. They can proffer standardized frameworks and content that choosers might find useful to incorporate into their decisions in progress. They can draw attention to differentiators that a chooser may have neglected. Buyers in turn can influence a seller’s reputation by how they react to its attempted contacts.
One big difference from contemporary digital marketing is that choices in progress are targeted, not the individuals making them. Choices are reified and decoupled from personalities.
We have all kinds of reasons not to be open and frank with each other in buying/selling situations. Yet people will reveal preferences when it is in their interest to do so. If assured of anonymity, people don’t need the benefits to be very high. Sellers can then see, and help educate, authentic preferences.
There are clear motivations for buyers to participate in such a system, whether or not they care to interact with sellers there. People feel relief when they have confidence that important considerations bearing on a decision have been dealt with. Keeping track of them is a backstop against plain old forgetfulness. (Why the heck were we leaning toward that Acme product?) The interface can be made entertaining, enjoyable, and satisfying. Great tools can make reflective deliberation not just a good idea, but pleasurable.
While aspects of this vision are achievable with federations of private clouds, for it to work optimally there needs to be places where critical masses of data co-exist at least momentarily. We’ll want good stewards of choice spaces, intermediaries that are trustworthy, neutral, and benevolent. Participants should feel assured that the tools and content they access aren’t rigged in favor of anyone, and that there are no hidden mechanisms or circuits that compromise their autonomy.
Connecting people to others who can help satisfy their wants is the core function of markets. Unfortunately, our current models are woefully suboptimal, relying as they increasingly do on intrusive data gathering and message personalization that verges on manipulation.
Sales behavior based on knowledge of a prospective buyer’s situation or state of mind that the buyer has not voluntarily disclosed or is not aware that the seller knows is not only inherently deceitful and manipulative, but often ineffective. Sellers can motivate potential customers to be forthcoming and truthful by rewarding that behavior. They should get the business they deserve by making their offerings responsive to what people actually want. Relying on surreptitiously gathered psychographic and behavioral data is not just disreputable; it should be foolhardy.
A world in which choosers construct shared knowledge bases as a side effect of their collaborative deliberations may appear to be disadvantageous to sellers. It certainly will be to those who depend on ignorance or confusion. But most sellers are eventually better served by better serving the authentic needs of well-informed people. And the question is not whether sellers would like this imagined world, but whether they can prevent it. (Cut to video of massive parade under the banner “Choosers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your loss of control.”)
It’s been over seventy years since Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think essay was published in The Atlantic:
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”
I’ve been working on a device called a “choicebox” that can play a role in the space described in this article. Think of it as an intangible tool for decision making that uses interactive visualization to facilitate collaborative deliberation and social knowledge production. The basic ideas can be found in this article. Deployed in a Choice Space it might well help us move from advertising to “invertising,” where choosers gain controls that benefit everyone. That in turn resonates with the ideas of forward thinkers like Doc Searls and others working in Project VRM.
As Charles Eames said,
“Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.”