Relational-assets are not ‘possessions’

What happens when someone gets confused about the nature of different types of assets? Short answer: they try to treat everything as ‘possessions’ – and that’s when the lawyers have a field-day…

A great example of this is described in a BBC article (pointed to by LinkedIn), ‘Man sued for keeping company Twitter followers‘ (27-dec-2011).

The story revolves around social-media figure Noah Kravitz. During his time at tech-news aggregator Phonedog, he accumulated some 17,000 ‘followers’ to his Twitter-account there (@Phonedog_Noah). When he left Phonedog, he changed his username, and the followers either moved with the account, or moved to the new account (dependent on whether he changed the name itself, or moved to a new account – the BBC article doesn’t say). Phonedog regarded the followers as ‘company-property’ – as a ‘customer-list’, to be precise – which Kravitz had taken with him, and were suing him to get it back as their ‘rightful possession’.

There are so many fundamental concept-errors in Phonedog’s actions here that it’s difficult to know where to start… Yet they’re also very common mistakes in the broader business context: hence it’s worth exploring this from an enterprise-architecture / business-architecture perspective.

What we’re actually dealing with here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of non-tangible assets, coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding about the inherent limitations of an economic model that relies on exchange of ‘rights’ of exclusive-possession over assets.

Let’s start by identifying four fundamentally different asset-dimensions:

  • physical: a ‘thing’ – tangible, autonomous, exchangeable and alienable (“if I give it to you, I no longer have it”)
  • virtual: information, ideas – non-tangible, semi-autonomous, exchangeable but non-alienable (“if I give it to you, I still have it”)
  • relational: person-to-person connection – non-tangible, non-autonomous (exists between two entities), non-exchangeable and non-alienable
  • aspirational: person-to-abstract connection – non-tangible, non-autonomous (exists from person to abstract), non-exchangeable and non-alienable

Assets may express multiple dimensions: for example, a printed book is both a physical-asset (the book itself) and a virtual-asset (the information or ideas in the book), and may also act as an anchor for aspirational-assets (people’s sense of connection to the book and/or to the ideas in the book). This linking of multiple asset-dimensions is often described as ‘bundling’.

The current economic-model relies on exchanges of ‘rights’ of ‘exclusive-possession’. It’s a concept that only makes sense with exchangeable and alienable assets – in other words, physical-assets. ‘Exclusive-possession’ does not and cannot make sense with any other asset-dimension. Yet since bundling of asset-types means that the rules for all asset-dimensions in the bundle will apply, the flawed assumptions of the economic model will seem to sort-of make sense as long as there’s some element of physicality in the bundle. But when that element of physicality is dropped? – well, that’s when things get, uh, interesting

Hence the breakdown of the old media-industry business-models over the past few years. What they actually sell is information, but their old model were based on bundling – printed-books, physical disks, seats in cinemas – hence, with a bit of legal arm-twisting, it could be made to look like a physical ‘exclusive-possession’. But physical things are expensive, with all the concomitant costs and complications of managing them as physical assets: inventory, storage, shipping, building-maintenance, retail-stores and so on. Much cheaper to go all-digital. Which, however, then becomes an unbundled virtual-asset – which can only be exchanged by creating copies, which can then also be exchanged by creating further copies, and so on, all without any exclusive-‘alienability’. Oops…

Hence the media-industries first tried an old tactic, which was to use the law of ‘copyright’ (which was and still is focussed only on the ‘possession-rights’ of publishers, not authors) to assert ‘possession’ over those virtual-assets. But the nature of information is that it ‘wants to be free’ – not necessarily in a monetary sense, but in that it’s only usable/accessible by creating copies, and copies of copies, and copies of copies of copies, which at some point will slip outside of any attempts at ‘control’.

Law alone didn’t work, so the next tactic was to try to control some crucial point in the physical ‘pipe’ for information: hence demands that the computer-industry should redesign all processor- or interface-chips to include ‘digital rights management’ that would be controllable only by Hollywood and their ilk. Not surprisingly, that didn’t go down very well with content-creators themselves – or the computer-industry, who happened to have their own lawyers and lobbyists too. Result: expensive stalemate – and still no ‘control’ of those naturally-volatile virtual-assets.

That’s been followed by one attempt after another to ‘control’ information, mostly by threats of legal action and the like. What the media-corporations are still not doing is facing up to the fact that not only is it inherently futile to try to control virtual-assets as if they’re physical, but doing so calls into question the theoretical and ethical basis of the entire possession-economy – physical-assets included. Definitely ‘oops’…

Which brings us back to the Kravitz/Phonedog case.

In that schema above, Twitter-follows are, in effect, a bundling of relational-asset (the perceived person-to-person link between the ‘follower’ and Kravitz) and virtual-asset (the information within Twitter that denotes the link) plus a certain element of aspirational-asset (because with some 17,000 ‘followers’, most of those will be more a link to the idea of Kravitz rather than a true relational-asset person-to-person link). What there isn’t anywhere in there is any physical-asset component – and hence nothing on which a notion of literally-exclusive ‘company property’ can make any sense.

I presume that somewhere there will be some utility that can extract a follower-list from Twitter – in other words, create a sort-of transferrable virtual-asset that Kravitz can give to Phonedog. Yet in practice even that makes little to no sense. First, the followers are not ‘customers’ in a transactional sense, either of Phonedog or of Kravitz: they’re just people who have a passing interest in what Kravitz might happen to say, an interest that may or may not relate to Phonedog as such, even in Kravitz’s (literal!) persona as ‘Phonedog_Noah’. It’s a trust-relationship, not ‘customer’-relationship. And second, transferring the list does not transfer the relationship: in fact it’s more likely to kill any potential relationship with the company, because it implicitly treats the ‘followers’ as if they themselves are nothing more than exchangeable ‘possessions’ – which many (most?) people would take as a fairly extreme insult. Certainly not conducive to creating trust, anyway.

In short, Phonedog’s attempts to ‘possess’ the relationships have all but guaranteed making it impossible for Kravitz to transfer them. The relationships are not under his control: relational-assets are real assets in a business sense, yet they exist only whilst they’re maintained by both parties to that relationship. The only direct option he has within Twitter is to destroy the link, by blocking: he can’t create a new ‘follower’ link, or transfer the link to someone else. (The equivalent is true with direct person-to-person links, of course.) Suing him for damages, about something that by definition isn’t in his control anyway, is both absurd and unfair.

There is (or, by now, probably only was) another option: emphasise the aspirational-asset element (person-to-idea rather than person-with-person), create a strong crosslink between the idea of Kravitz-as-employee-of-Phonedog and the idea of Phonedog-the-company, and use that crosslink to gently persuade Kravitz’s followers to also ‘follow’ Phonedog. (Note that a ‘follow’ to a company has a much higher aspirational-asset component than relational-asset component – something I probably need to explain in another post?) But all of that depends on fairly complex multi-way trust-relationships: for example, the followers need to trust Kravitz’s recommendation, and Kravitz also needs to trust that Phonedog will treat ‘his’ followers with similar respect. And again, there’s not much of those trust-interactions that’s under Kravitz’s personal control – hence again it makes little sense to try to assign him the sole legal responsibility for them.

In practice, Phonedog has done just about everything that they could do to destroy all of those trust-relationships – and then, having done so, tried to blame and even punish everyone else for their ‘loss’.

Not exactly wise, we might say?

Yet also not exactly uncommon, either. Quite the opposite, in fact…

The moral of this sad story, from an enterprise-architecture perspective, is be clear which asset-dimensions you’re dealing with in every context, and ensure that those assets are managed accordingly. Because if you aren’t clear about it, and fail to handle each asset-dimension appropriately, your organisation will inevitably find itself in this kind of mess. And the only people who ‘win’ from this kind of mess are the predators, parasites and scavengers in the legal-profession and elsewhere. Oh joys…

Over to you, perhaps?

4 Comments on “Relational-assets are not ‘possessions’

  1. Tom. This topic is also fundamental to the whole topic of Identity and the different between (core) Identity and Personas. The issue you describe was foreseen in work done by my former colleague and friend, Michael Boley (and used by me in presentations over the years). The Jericho Forum published an excellent set of “commandments” on this topic earlier this year 
    So yes, the ownership question is equally important but I see Identity, its use and misuse as something really central to so many issues we’re confronted by today.

    • Stuart – ouch… 🙂

      This is another whole topic that I’ll haven’t looked at properly at all as yet, but yes, it’s clear they’re very closely related.

      One view on core-Identity is that it’s a personal-asset in exactly the same sense that I’ve described above:

      — It’s a physical-asset – the physical ‘my body’ – that needs maintenance as a literally living physical-asset, and also carries capabilities and skills
      — It has virtual-assets – ideas and information and experiences and feelings
      — It is both source and destination for relational-assets – person-with-person links with other people
      — It is a source (and, in some cases, destination – e.g. ‘celebrities’) for aspirational-assets – person-to-abstract links with ideas, companies, communities,etc

      Persona is best understood as its literal translation, ‘that through which I sound’, the Mask through which an Identity interacts with the wider world.

      ‘Identity-theft’ and suchlike is perhaps less often identity-theft as such, but more often Persona-theft: hijacking a Mask that more properly ‘belongs’ to (is the personal asset of) another Identity. (Sadly, real ‘identity-theft’ does indeed occur: look at any police-state or ‘groupthink’ context for all too many examples…)

      I will admit I haven’t looked into the detailed technical IT-oriented aspects of this, because, well, it’s IT, and other people do that a lot better than I do. People such as you, for example. 🙂

      Do I need to tackle this right now? Or is this post above enough to get started?

      Many thanks again, anyway.

  2. Tom. You don’t need to tackle it right now but not because of any IT aspect. The Jericho (identity) commandments have absolutely nothing to do with IT or indeed any other form of implementation.
    I’ll pick this up with you via email and then we can see whether either of us needs to say anything further at this stage.
    For any casual readers I’d like to recommend, apart from the Jericho work referenced in my first comment, this both entertaining and thought provoking performance by Dick Hardt from several years ago

    • Stuart – thanks for the Dick Hardt video.

      Kinda reminded me of Chris Potts’ dictum: “customers do not appear in our processes” – Identity 1.0 – “we appear in their experiences” – Identity 2.0.

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