Early Concerns about Being Defined by Others (1992)

I would probably be too embarrassed to mention my graduation speech at the University of Michigan in May 1992 had it been a glorious success. As it were, gathering storm clouds over Michigan Stadium forced school officials to rearrange the program, pushing commencement speaker Carole Simpson of ABC News and other dignitaries in front of my speech. In addition to being the opening band trying to follow the main act, I was further thrown off when the wind blew off my my graduation cap as I was about to stand up, putting an exclamation point on the fact that we were all soon to get soaked. I rushed through the speech amid cat calls and growing restlessness. I remember my international affairs professor, Raymond Tanter, telling me later that I had a hard lesson in the fact that timing is everything. Yes indeed.

I only recently realized how much the speech suggested themes of Personal after digging it out of a box in my basement. I was outraged at the time that the label “Generation X” had been so successfully tagged to us by the media and others. At best, we were “materialistic and apathetic”, as I wrote; at worst, we had no name whatsoever. The speech was titled “On Defining a Generation”, and was a call to arms to my peers to take control of their identities and not let others define them individually or as a group. Here are a few excerpts that are eerily relevant to how I believe we are being represented by others who capture our data and define us by it, as well as the value of your intent data (your future behavior) vs. your historical data:

“…Until now, we have been shaped and defined by our parents, our schools, and the media. Today, it is our time to bring together where we have been with where we want to go, and in so doing, to define ourselves.

“…It is a dangerous thing to let others tell you who you are. No one can understand the complexities that make up the mind and soul of another individual. Such attempts to define a person usually fall short; they limit rather than capture essence…Do such attempts to simplify our diverse character affect us?

“…These diverse experiences are all part of our generation, and they show the impossibility of arriving at singular conclusions about our character. We should not attempt to stereotype ourselves, rather, we must reflect on these shared experiences and begin to understand and thoughtfully define our generation.

“…[I]dentity is not simply a composite of the past. We can be identified as much by where we are going as where we have been. This may be the more important task in this process, because it is the part over which you and I have control. What problems are we committed to solving? Are there goals and ideals that the majority of us share that give us distinction from other generations? Or maybe the discipline, will power, and most importantly, the tolerance, to accomplish our goals is what will set us apart.

“I encourage you to be active and thoughtful in defining our generation. Because if we do not define ourselves, experience has shown us that someone else will.”

I was obviously referring to the traditional “media” at the time, and not Google, Facebook or any of the data and technology-driven media companies of today who are defining us digitally by capturing all that we do on their sites and others. Little did I know that one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, was just behind me at Michigan and was soon to envision one of the greatest data collection and organization tools in human history, or that the quality of our lives would be increasingly shaped by our identities and reputations in the online world.

In his far happier commencement speech at Michigan in 2009 (as the main act, not the student warm up band), Page shared one of his favorite quotes, which I had not heard but really like: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.” Amen.

I think this would qualify by his definition: Help people understand how incredibly limiting and inefficient it is to be defined by companies using data they surreptitiously capture about us, and instead provide individuals with the understanding, tools, transparency and incentives to take control and do it themselves.

A New Model Requires New Principles

The first week my team and I started Personal, it was clear to us that we had to have a statement of principles that we would live by internally and be held accountable to by the rest of the world. I don’t mean the mandatory “company values” statement. I mean a fundamentally new set of principles that would govern our every decision; principles based on the conviction that each individual must have the ultimate control, flexibility and benefit of his or her data.

After a thorough review of many good (and not so good) ideas, we agreed on the following:

– Right to data ownership, privacy and economic benefits by individuals
– Transparency in all collection and use of personal data
– Data portability and deletion rights
– Right to simple opt-in and opt-out mechanism
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In the coming weeks, I will explore each of these more deeply and offer early insights into how Personal has built such principles into our products, business model and company culture.

But I want to first share the fact that data portability and deletion rights was especially perplexing when we first debated it. How could we spend all this time investing our time and resources to build such a great platform and innovative business model and just allow people to decide to take their data elsewhere and delete all traces of it on our system?

The answer was simple – we couldn’t find a single compelling argument not to do it. We are building Personal for ourselves and our families and friends as much as anyone, and we all agreed that we would want to be able to pick up and leave if we lost faith in the company for any reason without penalty or friction. Yes, that means, in some ways, we will only be as good as our last pitch, but that is how we believe it should be when it comes to data. Anyone for having your money trapped in a bank you have lost confidence in? Or if you find another bank with far better rates and services? We welcome having to meet such a high standard.

S.

Getting Personal…With Your Data

Welcome to Getting Personal, my first public blog. I will share my views in their raw form around what I believe is a historical opportunity to empower individuals with one of the most precious new resources — their data. I’d like to invite you to add your voice in rich commentary, so please sign up to receive notifications whenever I post.

I’m passionate about building new technologies, business models and even social paradigms that are designed from the ground up to put the individual’s interests first when it comes to their data and their time (that other precious resource we don’t protect enough). If data, as companies exploiting it today are fond of saying, is the indeed the new oil, well it seems to me we are each sitting on top of our own massive, untapped reservoirs.

To help make some of these ideas a reality, I left Nokia subsidiary NAVTEQ with an entire team that has worked together for a decade in data, technology and media to start Personal, based in Washington, DC. We have been working for a year on what the Washington Business Journal recently called a “mystery personal service.”

We have not been trying to be mysterious on purpose — we just needed some time on our own to work through the multitude of technical and business model challenges required to bring our vision to life. We are, first and foremost, building a platform and a company for ourselves, our friends and our families to trust and use for the long term to own, organize and manage the rapidly expanding mass of data about each us – the Digital You and Me.

I am certainly not the first to think about many of these ideas. In the late 1990s, John Hagel III and Marc Singer defined the concept of an “information intermediary,” or “infomediary,” and predicted the revolutionary potential of such a company if enough individuals trusted it with their personal information.

A number of good faith (and not so good faith efforts) have been made since that time to build infomediaries, but none have succeeded. I’ve had the chance to learn from some of these early pioneers. Their failures, along with the growing success of companies whose only business model is collecting and selling data on each of us, have greatly informed my thinking about Personal and how to build a company worthy of such trust.

If we get this right, Personal and its community of Owners (we try not to use the enterprise-centric words “users” or “consumers”) can help ensure that the there will not be a John Rockefeller and Standard Oil that come to dominate this exciting new world of data. We can all be tycoons of our own data and time and enjoy the incredible, life changing benefits that we believe will result. (But more on that in subsequent posts.)

I look forward to hearing your candid thoughts and reactions, including your concerns and worries about the business. As convinced as I am in the ultimate rights and power of personal data belonging to individuals, I think we are entering a period every bit as messy, complex and challenging as the early days of our American experiment with democracy. No one has ever governed a society where the Digital You and Me exists alongside the real you and me. And certainly no one has ever dealt in a world where their digital self becomes the lifeblood and currency of how we live and interact with everything around us. Exciting? Yes! But also scary and entirely unknown.

For those who are interested, sign-upto receive and invitation going out later this fall to join our beta community.

S.