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Business, Government - Written by on Thursday, December 3, 2009 9:53 - 2 Comments

Steve Guengerich
Monetizing your digital self

In his book “Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World,” Don Tapscott talks about a new generation “bathed in bits.” The research in the book identifies eight “net gen” norms that Don goes on to examine and extend into discussions about the coming transformation of institutions and society. Like any great major transformation, seeds of this change were planted years before.

For example, it was over a decade ago that Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun, famously said “There is no privacy…get over it.” Fast forward to a headline article last year in the New York Times during the throes of the financial crisis when banks were grasping for any new way to retain or gain customers – “Banks Mine Data and Woo Troubled Borrowers” – which speaks to the vast array of personalized information available for sale.

That Times article came back to mind this week, as I was sitting in a talk this week at our Fall All Member’s meeting by one of nGenera’s researchers on the subject of “Pervasive Personal Identity.” The talk was highlighting the findings in a major new research report nGenera produced on the same subject, for members of its syndicated research program (executive summary now available to the public).

But, among the points that caught my attention was the enormous breadth and depth of information we are entrusting with various digital services. For example, in November, Google announced general availability of its dashboard for users. Assuming you have an account with one or more Google services (such as G-mail, Youtube, etc.), just sign-in to your Google account and go to the URL: www.google.com/dashboard. You’ll get a fascinating lens into a portion of what Google “knows” about you, all in one place.

Or take the online matching service, eHarmony, for example, where it is estimated that they take in 15,000 new voluntary registrants to their 250-plus question in-depth survey each day. With an estimated nearly 20 million users, this makes them quite likely the best source of deep professional, emotional, and attitudinal data available on the planet at the moment.

Combine these with other sources of data about our selves – some of which we contribute and some of which is assembled without our knowing by vendors and services behind the scenes – and it is easy to see that we are approaching a point where we might be uniquely identified by the accumulation of our digital data. Think of it as your digital DNA, just like the unique marker that your real DNA represents in the physical world.

So, I got to thinkin’ (as we say in Texas) about the following question: “What if there was a better way for people to aggregate and monetize the data about themselves?” In other words, rather than accept that others control the buying and selling of our data, what if the individual was able to get in on the action? The more I thought about it, the more little additional pieces of the puzzle began to reveal themselves, like these:

(1) Ever since Seth Godin published the bible on permission marketing, we largely accept that the best we can do is barter our private data for little online trinkets, more or less valuable at any moment in time. Sometimes it’s free use of a software product; other times, it’s a discount on a t-shirt; or occasionally, it’s just the ability to download that white paper that I really crave. Instead, why not get cold hard cash for my private data?

(2) Ever since David Pullman rocked the investment world (literally) with Bowie bonds, there’s clearly a proven market for an individual’s capacity to produce value over their lifetime (way beyond what the insurance industry’s actuarial tables would indicate). Why let rock stars have all of the fun?

(3) And ever since Facebook started morphing towards the social operating system and Google also revealed that Personalized Search was their friendly way to let you know that – yes indeed – everything that you had ever searched for (including through their shadowy meta-services, like Doubleclick) was filed away somewhere to be mined by you or them (or maybe, who knows…?), there is a vast new, highly personalized set of data that each of us creates and incrementally refines – for free! – every time we use these services.

Any marketer worth their salt knows that the name-of-the-game in mastering profitability of initial customer acquisition and retention is understanding lifetime value. And the more they know about you – your profile, your activities, and your relationships – the more they can personalize offers and the products or services that go with them.

What if there was a new kind of social network service, where you could receive a fee for your participation in the network? Sure, you’d have to agree to be audited, as well as truthfully and accurately complete a comprehensive profile (including things like your detailed health records, down to your genetic makeup, like that available from 23andme.

You would also likely need to make a commitment to use the paid network as your primary (exclusive) social platform. But, why not? If, in effect, all of that same “private” information about you is available already for a fee, wouldn’t it be fair for you to get a cut?

It’s the ultimate form of personal information arbitrage – and you’d be the direct beneficiary. So, in the future, rather than all of these clever new gps-powered apps for the iPhone being the ones to charge advertisers for the ability to have their restaurants or coffee shops presented to you because of the free twitter stream that you generate while you are on the move, why can’t you be the one to receive the royalty fee for letting the advertiser know that you are going to be in the area and, by the way, happen to be awfully fond of lattes in the afternoon?

Don frequently says that we ought to go way beyond issuing social security numbers or inking the footprints of every newborn; additionally, he says, let’s issue everyone a website at birth. Of course, the notion of any government taking a step like that immediately brings to mind the second coming of Orwell’s “1984″ and Big Brother.

But, how about a hybrid? I envision something that is an international, public/private partnership, akin to the Internet naming authority ICANN. It would require a great deal of international cooperation, superior transparency in its operations, and the greatest security, privacy, and legal minds involved in its governance, to provide the level of credibility required to be effective. Call it www.lifetimevalue.me. (But, make sure to send me a royalty: I already registered the domain.)


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Create your personal Tag « The Broad-Brush Update
Dec 4, 2009 10:09

[...] led us to a further discussion about pervasive personal identity and the digital self, which I just posted about this week on nGenera’s Wikinomics blog. The topic with Jerry being [...]

Ronald Poell
Dec 10, 2009 6:01


I liked your article. Nice idea of making money of your personal data. Of course the big commercial brothers will say “Resistance is futile”, but… under some circumstances things might change and perhaps the young generations might move another way.
I have sketched in the past the Information Bearing Agent (IBA) paradigm that might be a feasible implementation allowing also the monetizing aspect you mentioned. I would appreciate if you have a look at it (http://snt.decis.nl/presentations/Information_Bearing_Agents.ppt) and a presentation which shows a larger time context “Back from the Future” (http://snt.decis.nl/presentations/IST-075-Back-from-the-Future-IST-075-WS-20080924-Poellv3.ppt) where the IBA’s are also mentioned.
Complementary we can expect also for other reasons a probable change coming up as illustrated by the short article “(R)evolution in the information world on the road ahead” (http://snt.decis.nl/papers/RevolutionInfoWorld.pdf).

Now available in paperback!
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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