Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Beauty and the Beast" teaches us the future of social commerce

If you want to understand where technology is taking us, look no further than Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Although Belle longs to escape her provincial life, in her small village everyone knows everyone else, and daily life is a series of highly personal interactions among village folk.

Once we grew beyond a single small village, we’ve used technology ranging from iron keys to letters of credit to chip-encoded passports to confirm our identity and our rights. Something you possessed took the place of village recognition as proof that “it’s me!”

As things got more complex there were fewer interactions between people who actually knew each other. Technology enabled more and more distance between people, and more layers of separation between those who consume and those who provide.  “Good morning, Belle!” has been replaced by “please listen carefully, as menu options have recently changed.”

That’s the background for the revolution technology is now making possible: the re-emergence of the village metaphor. We’ve already seen our village become the “wall” on Facebook or its equivalent, and in constant touch with different circles of friends and interests.  Google picked up on that very idea with the “circles” in Google Plus.  

Replacing the fact that everyone in the village knows you and will vouch for you hasn’t caught up yet.  Nothing has quite given us a new version of “hi, how are you, would you like your favorite table?” “Hi, neighbor, try the apple pie today, it’s delicious!” “Shall I just put that on your tab?” Proving who you are by the fact that you’re just plain recognized and known is long gone.  Yelp and Foursquare and other early versions of recommendation engines are trying to apply technology to the “try the pie” equation, but they are still very primitive, require that you actively work to find things out, and are disconnected and ad hoc.

You’ve probably heard “social” attached to way too many things by now: the social network buzzwords and all the associated catchphrases: social selling, social enterprise, social graph.  It’s communities of interest, not communities of place.  But at its heart, the online social world, our “circles,” represents Belle’s village, with internet nodes replacing cobblestone streets.

The “era of you” concept is based in the idea that technology can re-personalize a lot of everyday life and business transactions, and that the village metaphor has much to teach us as it does.

  • You are the hub of a network of information, all coming into view as consumable services that can be combined into a “you” layer.  As I’ve pointed out in discussions about the forthcoming digital personal assistant, it can access your roles, your rights, your preferences, and your behaviors to facilitate work, shopping, travel, entertainment, learning, and social interaction.  Technology can recognize things and people to provide context in real time.  
  • Technology can enable a new security model based on circles of community: circles of trust.  Using the “degrees of separation” model, shared contacts across contact circles attest that you are authentic; a “likelihood of mutuality” algorithm can generate authentication that is not two-or-three-part, but thousand-part, almost impossible to game or falsify. It duplicates at scale the village dialog, “I don’t know you, but my best friend does, and if he says you’re OK, that’s enough for me.”
  • Objects and people can also now recognize you, in ways that can re-introduce the village “I know you, come on in” proof of identity.  Adding to mutuality-based authentication, facial recognition programs can now recognize you with very high accuracy.  Add a layer of “you” service to attest that you’re in a role, location, and activity that meets the standards of authentication.  At that point, we’ve really done completely away with the need for such familiar objects as keys, licenses, passports, credit cards, and tickets--and the bane of modern technology, the password.  If you belong on that plane, in that theater, charging that meal, driving that car, the world-as-village knows and allows it without further action.  The digital wallet concept, is suddenly very old news.  Tap-to-pay, near field communications?  SO yesterday.  “I know it’s you, here’s your receipt.”

The possibility takes the standard CRM “one single view of the customer” a big step forward: “one single view of YOU.”  There’s no reason Starbucks shouldn’t know your favorite drink and your name as you approach the counter.  There’s no reason your airline can’t recognize your travel patterns, offer to bill your ticket to your corporate account because it has figured out your itinerary is a business trip, and pre-populate your expense reports.  Will we see this reality of the entire world treating you like royalty? Not likely to happen.  But will we see someone who sees the value in providing the integrative “you” layer, and someone else who grows their business dramatically with tech-assisted personalization?  Will demand for personalized services grow? Count on it.  The digital personal assistant could be the user iterface to this richness of personalization.  

This “re-villagization” of security and commerce show us another side of the social promise of technology.   Authentication and personalization represent great opportunities to deconstruct old ideas into services that can be used in many ways, and to use technology to re-introduce highly personalized services that feel like village life in its most idealized form.   Who will dream big enough to bring it to us?  As Belle said, “there must be more than this provincial life.”

Thank you, Belle.

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