Proponents of VRM and the Personal Data Ecosystem are facing an uphill battle. In order to move the locus of power away from organizational interests and towards individual interests, the architects of this new space will need to break two very powerful dependencies: corporations' dependency on the income derived from capturing and reusing their users' data, and individuals' dependency on the free or nearly free services that they get in exchange for giving up that data. These two forces form a kind of magnetic attraction to each other, one that won't easily be broken.
This point was driven home to me by this excellent post from Ian Wilker about Sam Harrelson, who deleted his Facebook, Google, and Twitter accounts back in November and wrote this about why he did so:
I don’t blame them. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple etc are corporations. Corporations are inherently out for themselves and their stock holders. I blame myself for falling into the trap of shiny and nifty free/freemium services in exchange for my data and my online identity. I want my children and students to grow up in an era that includes an open web that isn’t based on advertising or 3rd party cookie data mining.
There are few of us who are as committed to the idea of breaking our dependency on these services as Sam is. I can't do it. I might be able to live without Twitter at this point. I've walked up to the line of deleting my Facebook account, but can't pull the trigger. Google is just a bridge too far for me. No way can I replace the convenience of Gmail.
And the punchline is that even Sam can't completely leave Twitter. In a comment to his own post on leaving these services, he writes:
Oddly enough (or not), my 8th graders have been on my case constantly about my Twitter sojourn. So, I'm using the @GriffinScience account as my "teacher"/personal account to keep in contact with the students who rely on their Twitter stream pretty heavily (growing number and I want to encourage their exploration).
Online services like Twtter, Facebook, et al, have become so embedded in our lives that, lacking alternatives, we are left with two painful choices to make: either 1) continue to use these web services and pay the price by contributing to the erosion of our privacy and control, or 2) give up these services and cut ourselves off from a vibrant online society and a powerful set of communication tools.
We need other choices to make. Organizations need alternative ways to make a profit other than capturing and storing user data. Individuals need low-cost, high-value services that come with tools to control the movement and use of their personal data.
But new services that offer these choices will need to overcome the strong symbiotic bond that currently exists between users and the current set of services. Personal Data service providers will need to offer alternatives that look a lot like the current options and that provide similar levels of utility, while also providing the extra features that move the balance of control back towards individuals. Like Nicorette for smokers or methadone for heroin addicts, Personal Data services need to satisfy current cravings while simultaneously replacing them with something healthier. And that, while not impossible, is going to be a challenge.