Don Marti

Mon 13 Apr 2009 10:55:47 AM PDT

Fourth Parties

(updated 13 Apr 2009: added, 14 Apr 2009: added and

Doc Searls introduces the idea of a fourth party: a company that intermediates a customer-vendor interaction from the customer's side. It's an idea that works in practice, and now that Doc has described it, it works in theory too.

userscripts: A good example of fourth party in action is userscripts for Firefox with Greasemonkey. Here's a fun one: "When you view an Amazon product page, Stone Free will search Craigslist's "free" section for listings similar to the item that you're looking at. Any results it finds get added directly to the Amazon page." In the same spirit: to Brooklyn Public Library checks the library before you buy.

The biggest "vendor" targets of userscripts seem to be news sites. You know that little extra step you have to do when you visit a New York Times story? Wait for the page to load, then click "single page." Seems like that bugs a lot of people.

sniping tools: An early example of fourth parties was auction sniping. As soon as people caught on to the tactic, fourth-party tools popped up to help bidders get in at the last minute. Too many of these to count.

virtual assistants: A lot of the virtual assistant trend is driven by people's demand for fourth-party help with their suppliers. (That link goes to Sacha Chua's "virtual assistant" category.) It might turn out that VAs themselves become early adopters of new fourth-party tools—it might be worthwhile to learn a fourth-party hotel wrangling tool if you spend a lot of time on your clients' travel. Of course, if we're going to count VAs, we should count the guy who puts the COMPUTER HELP flyers up all over town. As IT products have gotten more stable, the vendors have gotten flakier, and I'm sure he can handle IT vendors better and faster than you can.

mail filtering: Another stretch: SpamAssassin intermediates your mail, under your control. Of course, most of what it deals with for you isn't from your vendors, or from vendors you care about. But spam filters are probably the projects closest to having the infrastructure for VRM. At some point you're probably going to want to capture mail from known vendors and share it with trusted SaaS VRM providers, and the spam filter might be a good place to set that up. Drop or add a VRM provider, and you'd just have to change one web form in your mail configuration.

Kayak travel search engine: Kayak is a "travel search engine" that gets revenue from directing customers to travel sellers, but also indexes available travel that it doesn't have a revenue deal with. For example, Southwest doesn't pay travel agents, but Kayak crawls and lists Southwest flights.

car buying system: Fighting Chance claims, "If You Follow The Step-By-Step Instructions In Our Car Buying Guide, You'll Negotiate The Best Price Available Without Walking Into A Car Store As Dealers Bid Competitively To Sell or Lease You A New Vehicle."

group discounts: 1BOG is "a nationwide, community-based program that organizes residents locally and negotiates group discounts with solar energy installers in your city, using a comprehensive vendor selection process."

Anyway, I'll keep adding on here as I find or think of new fourth-party tools or services.