Before we go out, my wife will often ask “how are people dressing tonight?” I’m never quite sure how to answer – at least for her. In essence, she’s asking me to read the room we’ll be in, and then translate the social nuance of that room to her choice of clothing.
While I certainly pay attention to what I wear, I’ve come to the point in my life where choosing clothes for a social night out isn’t that big a deal anymore. Women, or perhaps my wife in particular, seem far more attuned to the symbolism of social dress than I (perhaps that’s why it takes them so long to get ready!). It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well tailored jacket – I do – it’s just…well I know what I like, and I like things simple. If you’ve seen me speak at a conference, you pretty much know what I look like at dinner on a Saturday night. Instrumenting the nuances of my social dress pretty much comes down to “white shirt or black?” and “those jeans or these?” (Though I will admit to a weakness for shoes.)
Of course there are a lot of nuances in the choices of which jeans, shoes, shirts or jackets we wear, even if they seem similar on their face. And those nuances count, a lot, in how we feel about ourselves in the context of a social situation, and they doubly matter in how others view us. Clothes may or may not make the man, but we all wear clothes (for the most part!), and we all wear them differently.
We humans have been obsessed with clothing for literally thousands of years, and we’re the only animals on the planet that purposefully drape ourselves in social symbols of our own creation. (Clearly, many animals have “clothing” of their own – plumage comes to mind – but we’re the only ones who change our plumage pretty much every day, if not more often.) And in the past few hundred or so years, brands have emerged (from Abercrombie to Zegna) which have very real meaning to us. We drape ourselves in these brands, and they project all manner of meaning into the world.
Where am I going with all this? Well, stick with me. I was on the phone with Doc Searls last week, preparing for an onstage conversation we’re having at the IAB conference later this week. We’ll be discussing issues of how consumers’ data is used by marketers, and why, so far, no ecosystem has evolved that puts the customer in the driver’s seat when it comes to leveraging our own data (Doc is working on this under the rubric of “VRM“). The theme of the IAB meeting is “The People vs. Data” – framing the debate as “us vs. them” – where “us” is folks on the web, and “them” is the ecosystem of marketing infrastructure using “our” data to serve increasingly sophisticated messages to us.
But who owns that data? Don’t we, at least in conjunction with the services we use? And why haven’t we taken control of it?
Well, possibly because we don’t see data as social clothing. But I think, in time, we will. Every day, we wake up and spend at least a few minutes instrumenting our clothing choices for the day. Why don’t we do the same with our data and identities online?
I’m tempted to blame Facebook for this – because as I’ve pointed out here many times, Facebook is currently a pretty homogenous place, with relatively poor instrumentation of who we are, socially. Our Facebook identities are the same no matter to whom we present them. How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?
I suggested that one reason was that we, as consumers and customers, simply didn’t want to spend the time required to instrument our data so that it was presented in such a way as to be valuable to us. It’s just too much work. But over time, I think we will change our views of this, and begin to clothe ourselves in various highly instrumented digital garments. And there’s a very large business opportunity out there for brands to emerge as creators, distributors, and yes, sellers, of this new digital clothing.
Update: The Journal has a piece today around startups in the privacy and personal data “asset class” which smacks of a kind of digital clothing.