"Information is going to be like money. And we’re going to move it around like money. [We already are.] Institutions that hold information are going to be like banks. With a variety of services, and with rights and duties associated with our information, varying according to the service we sign up for."
In taking JP’s statement at face value and doing some reading, I found out a number of things regarding the history of money in North America about which I had been previously unaware. These items may (or, admittedly, may not) provide a number of parallels that could be useful now as we think about issues such as online identity, customer behavior, and VRM.
Lesson 1: "Money" was very fragmented for a very long period of time after the colonization of North America
"Money" as we think of it in the form of cash/paper currency has only been around for about 150 years. Over a period of almost two hundred years both before and after that time, a number of fragmented methods were used to exchange value. These included, but were not limited to:
Wampum – Wampum, or "shell money," is a medium of exchange that was once common. The History of the Canadian Dollar states, "The Aboriginal peoples of eastern North America placed a high value on strings and belts fashioned from beads of white or purple shells found on the eastern seaboard. Early English settlers called such articles “wampum,” an abbreviation of an Algonquin word sometimes spelled wampumpeague. French settlers called shell beads porcelaine. Wampum was highly valued, partly because of the difficulty in making shell beads even after European tools became available in the seventeenth century. By one estimate, it took 119 days to make a 5,000-bead belt (Lainey 2004, 18). Strings and belts made from purple beads were roughly twice the value of those made from white beads, since the purple shell was much more difficult to work." (cite)
Specie – Coins made of gold, silver or other metal.
Potlatch – Potlatch is a festive event within a regional exchange system among tribes of the North pacific Coast of North America, including the Salish and Kwakiutl of Washington and British Columbia. Sponsors of a potlatch give away many useful items such as food, blankets, worked ornamental mediums of exchange called "coppers", and many other various items. In return, they earned prestige. To give a potlatch enhanced one’s reputation and validated social rank, the rank and requisite potlatch being proportional, both for the host and for the recipients by the gifts exchanged. Prestige increased with the lavishness of the potlatch, the value of the goods given away in it. (cite)
Barter – Trading one good for another
Furs – The pelts of native animals such as beavers
Tobacco – The leaf of the tobacco plant
Tobacco Notes -The US state of Virgina was using "tobacco notes" as a substitute for currency by 1713. Tobacco farmers would take their crops to warehouses for weighing, testing and storage, and inspectors would issue "notes" that could be exchanged in lieu of moving the actual leaves around. (cite)
The key thing to note here is that it took hundreds of years for these various value storage media to converge (and both the convergence and creation of new ways of storing financial value continues today…remember that the oldest Euro coins and banknotes in the world are seven years old, the same age as a first-grader).
Now, let’s think about our information about ourselves, our attention, and our purchase histories through the prism of the points above. Our information is undeniably a valuable asset. However, at the current time, we’re at the wampum and furs part of the cycle as far as managing it. These various bits of our online identity and history are in disparate forms, with each bit of information in a different vendor’s CRM system in a non-transferable and often inaccessible state.
Lesson 2: Everybody needs to win
After the ideas of "cash" and "checks" had taken hold and become widespread, there were still many inefficiencies in the system. Cash is cumbersome, and subject to loss. Checks may bounce. This continued until the mid-1900′s.
Enter the credit card.*
The credit card resonated with both customers and vendors because both parties received benefits. For customers, the were afforded an unprecedented amount of flexibility and convenience, in addition to delayed billing. For vendors, it’s a lever for differentiation and reduced transactional friction, as well as a way to access customers who might have previously found the vendor’s products beyond reach. For the issuers, it’s a rich revenue stream. (For now, we’ll assume that the credit cards are being used wisely by customers and not as mechanisms that get individuals into long-term financial straits through overextension.) Perhaps the success of the credit card was a result of this win-win-win scenario.
Now, the widespread usage of credit cards was not something the occurred overnight. Instead, it was something that occurred over a generation. In 1970, only 16% of American households had credit cards. However, by 1995, that number had climbed to 65%. (cite)
As VRM continues to evolve, it is these win-win (or win-win-win) situations that will be kept in mind. Without benefit to all parties, the effort will be stillborn (or, at least stymied). With a view toward mutual benefit, however, the opportunities are expansive.
* – Kudos to Drummond for suggesting this parallel between credit cards and the necessity of mutual benefit as a precondition to VRM success.
photo credit: creditcards.com