Study from Scientific American suggesting that if you decrease someone’s sense of proximity to a problem you’re more likely to get a creative solution. This can be by something as trivial as telling students in Indiana that the problem was formulated not in Indiana but in California.
What this made me think about was how the direction of social media is all about creating a sense of proximity - receiving stimulus from friends, and friends-of-friends, rather than strangers. Is it too much of a leap to hypothesise that, if this study is valid, this kind of proximity may be a deadening factor in people’s creativity?
1. Someone posts a link. You read it, think it’s worth posting, but completely differ in your take on it (in this case it was this Spiegel/Chris Anderson thing, which @mathewi thought was “Brilliant” and I thought was “Facedesk”: Anderson in full nihilistic flow, Spiegel failing to land a single blow, asking exactly the “tough questions” he wanted, never following anything up and demonstrating why some professional journalism really isn’t worth monetizing). Do you credit them when you relink the post, even though it’s associating them with an opinion they doubtless disagree with?
2. Someone in your field follows you, is posting on-topic content, replies etc. But all their posts are in a language you don’t understand. A refollow would be a courtesy - they’re certainly not a spammer - but it won’t add any value to your stream.
Mark Ritson says out loud what everyone I know in the biz has always thought about the Business Superbrands list - a massive country-by-country ranking of brands which shows wild fluctuations and turns ‘counter-intuitive’ into a modus operandi. For example, that thriving 21st Century powerhouse, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is in the Top 10 brands. Sorry, not brands, Superbrands Tee Emm.
Not all of the examples Ritson gives are so cutting but he hits the study’s consistency and methodology hard and well. And he also identifies one of the major problems here - the mainstream media coverage the list manages to get.
Ritson’s examples of Superbrand ranking madness sound outrageous because he’s using words like “biggest” or “most powerful”. And these, in fairness, aren’t words Superbrands itself uses. But what is it measuring? A look at Superbrands’ selection process is revealing, sort of. A Superbrand - as defined by Superbrands - “has established the finest reputation in its field”. It must meet high standards of quality, reliability and distinction.
So, no mention at all of size, or of success. Superbrands could turn around and say, “Well, Ritson’s having a go at a straw man here.”. And he is: but in doing so he’s exposing the real issue with the list.
Reading the definition makes Superbrands more comprehensible in one sense and more bizarre in another. Enc. Brit. for instance meets all the criteria and so the brand no doubt deserves a high placing, on Superbrands’ own terms. And what do those terms mean? What use are they? The media reporting the story give no indication.
Ritson hints at the bigger problem in his last paragraph: most big branding studies are struggling hard to define brands in terms of actual value, or at least equity. With marketers constantly having to justify themselves and their budgets in the boardroom this is understandable. Superbrands, though, is nothing more than a particularly skewed popularity contest: it’s like a branding equivalent of a bad “top albums ever” poll.
What’s more, it’s a step back in time to when a ‘brand’ might be nothing more than a vaporous promise of superior quality, and measurement of anything so vulgar as “equity” or “ROI” was quite infra-dig. Now actually, you might be quite nostalgic for those days - but it’s precisely because superior quality didn’t save Encyclopedia Britannica from crisis that more modern concepts of branding evolved.
"Online and mobile research that people actually enjoy": are Invoke the only research firm to make participant enjoyment so central to their USP and message? I can’t think of another one. Good for them!
Worth imagining the absolute bafflement that might have resulted had a research firm used this as a strapline ten years ago. We’re moving in the right direction I think.
Rory Sutherland, on entertaining form as ever, laments the decline of his platonic press advertising ideal. I am utterly unqualified to judge his rightness, but I did find my head nodding at this:
One problem, I think, is that people have started to conflate creativity with brevity. This is absolutely wrong. Good creative work has an immense respect for the value of the reader’s (or viewer’s) time, true, but that need not mean it is always brief: too much brevity can be as much of a discourtesy as too little.
Oh, and just to bring us back on topic, he has a little pop at research too:
Moreover every focus group nowadays contains one certified tyre-kicking twat who seeks to establish his superiority to his fellows through his disdain for all marketing. “I’m not reading all that crap” is a fairly typical way of expressing this.
Bruno Brookes used to present the UK Top 40 when I was a teenager. And Bruno had a policy (well, OK, the show did). You play the stuff at the top, and the stuff on the way up, but you don’t bother with records once they’re going down the charts.
That worked fine for the Top 40. But when I see the same policy being applied by tech and social media commentators I have to raise an eyebrow. I saw a tweet today from a quite well-respected tech journalist saying, in essence, “God why does anyone care about Yahoo! What year is this again?”
Now Yahoo are the #2 destination in the world, according to Alexa. 1 in 4 Internet users globally goes there. Facebook might overtake them this year but it hasn’t yet, and yes, their audience is in a slow decline. But, you know, 1 in 4 people. That’s a lot of reach.
And then there’s MySpace - whose decline is more precipitous, and who have been written off by most commentators as far as I can see. Here the issue isn’t over a service’s long-term prognosis but over its short-term use. I saw a blog post on social media expertise which took the line that you shouldn’t take any consultant who mentions MySpace seriously. This is idiotic: not only are lots of people still using MySpace, they’re probably a different group of people to the ones who go on Facebook (or Twitter, which MySpace still dwarfs).
Why do people go all Bruno Brookes when it comes to websites? Fashion plays a part, but mostly it’s pretension. Social media types want to believe that they’re leading edge, and that doesn’t just mean embracing the new shiny things, it means ruthlessly discarding the old ones. The annoying persistence of the likes of Yahoo doesn’t fit with this self-perception and so they’re simply better ignored. What year is it again?
For some websites there are good reasons for taking this editorial slant. A site like TechCrunch, for instance, lives and breathes new start-ups and a strong line on which of the big players is worth caring about helps its reputation. The equivalent of paying most attention to the climbers and the number one works well for them. But not every tech site should be TechCrunch, and certainly social media commentators should think twice before aping its approach. As for market researchers - it shouldn’t even be up for discussion!
Think of it this way: social media is about the people who use it. If you dismiss Yahoo or MySpace as yesterday’s news you’re essentially dismissing those people, suggesting that their interactions, creativity and choices are of zero interest because of the platform they’ve chosen. It’s hard to think of anything less in the ‘social’ spirit.
Stephen Downes of QBrand talks about Australia’s Triple J Hottest 100, an occasional poll of the greatest songs of all time which this year ended up 95% white and around 98% male.
Some people - including Triple J on-air personnel - have defended the Hottest 100 over the last 24 hours using what I call “the Logies excuse”, i.e. that it’s a popularity contest and it’s not about merit.
Problem is, Triple J has successfully leveraged its listeners’ musical tastes for years in the form of the Hottest 100 brand. And half a million votes sounds like great level of audience engagement. But previous annual polls and compilations have never reflected such an overall narrowness of musical style and audience appeal.
So what’s happened is either:
SAMPLING ERROR: The section of the audience voting doesn’t reflect the total audience.
REPORTING ERROR: The use of a straight “Top 100” list only reflects the largest segment of the audience - this means of presenting the data has made other segments invisible.
SURVEY ERROR: The section of the audience voting does reflect the total audience but the specifics of the exercise don’t get at their real taste (perhaps by using the word “greatest” instead of “favourite”, bias is being introduced)
NO ERROR: The section of the audience voting does reflect the total audience; the specifics do reflect their real taste; and it’s the station that’s out of touch.
It’s worth pointing out that any of the first three are errors any researcher would be well-advised to guard against - especially if relying on the power of the crowd. The fourth poses a nasty dilemma: do you change to meet your audience or do you try to take your audience with you? (English DJ John Peel had similar issues, as I’ve written about at length.)
There’s some good comments on this one so go look at the permalink…
I just submitted a blog post to the new MRS thing about the Morgan Stanley teenage research sensation (and why any, y’know, actual researchers ought to be smashing their head on a wall right now), and then clicked on this link to find that Suw Charman-Anderson had said the same thing, only better and with less reliance on gags.
My gags were quite good though so I’ll still link to my version when it’s up.
Storytelling, Authority, and Co-Creation: A Toddler's Perspective
My son is two and a half and has strong views on stories.
Sometimes he likes stories from a book - right now he’s keen on Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, but before that he insisted most nights on a Kipper story by Mick Inkpen.
I like Sendak but I can’t be doing with Kipper - it’s whimsical hippie rubbish and what’s more it’s achingly slow. So every now and then I change something round to amuse myself. When Kipper makes a cake, instead of currants and butter I tell the boy he puts in sausages and ice cream.
"NO DADDY. NO sausages. NO ice cream." He’s genuinely cross.
This kind of story is inviolate - changing the details ruins it. He won’t interrupt - though if you ask him questions about what’s happening, he’ll reply, or point things out in the pictures.
The other type of story he asks for are ones I make up. These have a list of ingredients which tend not to vary much - him, his brother, our pet rabbit, Muck from Bob The Builder, Spooky Spoon from Numberjacks. But he’s keen for the details of the story to vary, and often if I include something he’s not interested in he’ll stop me and change things round.
So this kind of story is malleable - he likes collaborating, remixing, providing inspiration. He’s comfortable with the idea of characters from different stories crossing over - as they do when he plays with his toys.
Text is ritual: story is play.
(I’m sure there’s lots of literary theory exploring this stuff, which I’m just dabbling with empirically as part of the whole parenting thing!)
But what does it mean for commercial co-creation, and brands or marketers wanting to make content people love?
I’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ essays on spreadable content - as opposed to viral content. Spreadable media is changed and repurposed as it’s passed around: viral media uses the participant as a host to make perfect copies of itself. In a networked system spreadable media is more powerful; it becomes more relevant to more people because those people make it relevant to themselves.
When my kid wants a book he’s getting static content: he loves it, absorbs it, and drops it. When my kid wants me to make up a story with a mix of characters he’s getting spreadable content - stuff that exists in a continuum with his play. Children’s books and TV shows are a special case, of course: static content that’s specifically designed to introduce spreadable material into a child’s life and play. The kind of activities that are seen as weird, nerdy or piratical in adults are encouraged in kids!
Anyway, the lesson I’d draw is that if you want to make spreadable content you really need to be thinking in terms of toolkits as well as (not instead of) text. Finishing something might push it into the realm of the static and the ritual - so completion might be your enemy. But on the other hand you need some finished things as proof that your toys are worth playing with. After all, not just anything get into the set of characters my son draws on for his made-up stories - only the ones that really matter to him.
One last thing: making up the stories for my kid is a lot more challenging and enjoyable than reading them out. Spreadable, malleable content isn’t just good - it does you good.
I have linked this column of mine absolutely everywhere else, so Blackbeard may as well get it too. (God help you if yr following me on Friendster!)
It’s for Pitchfork, so it uses pop as a lens, but it’s also about social media, crowdsourcing and the idea of serendipity - basically, what’s the best way to get new information and perspectives into self-perpetuating (and largely oligarchic) communities?
"The public perception of Wikipedia editors and moderators is that they are an altruistic group of bright sparks who volunteer their time to expand the world’s knowledge, but…"
The public perception of Wikipedia editors is surely NO SUCH THING. Inasmuch as the public think of them at all I’d guess they would see the bad ones as single-issue lunatics and the good ones as vaguely harmless pedants.
In fact this is one of the awesome things about Wikipedia - the fact that it’s a project which has yoked a lot of individual bads (egocentricity and pedantry) into a gigantic collective good. Wikipedia is unique in that it’s a community that actually works better the more nit-pickety and humourless its members are! God bless it.
Disclosure: I am part of a WPP agency, though I have no influence whatsoever over the wider digital strategy discussed here.
Meanwhile, the world’s biggest holding company, WPP (@wpponline), has the biggest presence of its competitors, with an impressive 3,000 or so followers. Hard to understand why, though, because it follows no one back — not even its own agency brands — and the feed reads as a series of links to press releases.
This is a great example of an article turning a dogmatic view on how to use a tool into a straw man argument. Plenty of individuals at WPP agencies use Twitter. The WPP feed makes no claims to be an individual’s work - it’s a broadcast tool, a delicious-style bookmark feed, unashamedly so.
And by not following anyone back it’s actually being more honest about its status as such. Following is a promise of attention: the WPP feed has no attention to give, and thus promises none. As the Ad Age article admits, it has 3000+ followers who are presumably well aware of this - though Ad Age seems to assume they’re idiots or dupes.
This week might see a little bit less activity on Blackbeardblog because of some upcoming developments. I’ve been asked to blog about the intersection of social media and research for the Research Live website, which will be introducing blogs later this month as part of their ongoing site-wide upgrade.
Obviously this is exciting for me, but I also see it as an opportunity to support a wider online research community, and to shout about the fascinating stuff happening in the burgeoining research blogosphere. I’m planning to link to other people’s posts and blogs as much as they’ll let me, and will (for example) be swiping Neil Perkin’s excellent "Post Of The Month" idea.
Where does this leave Blackbeardblog itself? Hopefully in an even better place - for more general readers I’ll still be wandering around the wider socialverse, and for the research posse I’ll be using BBB to post stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate in the more spotlit forum of an MRS website. That sounds juicier than it actually will be, I’m sure!
I’ll let you know when the Research blog launches - don’t even know the address as yet. Wish me luck!
You can tell this article about Second Life was on a science site not a social media one because the researchers are humble about their findings and play down the implications!
"While some of our findings may seem quite intuitive, what I find most exciting is that we were actually able to test some rather controversial and competing hypotheses about the role of social networks in influence."
Don’t be fooled though - this is some interesting and useful data mapping how “gestures” transfer from player to player (i.e. friend to friend) within Second Life. Of course it’s a big and open question whether this tells us much about real world networks (or indeed other online social nets). But the data suggests a couple of things:
- “Early adopters” and “influencers” aren’t the same thing. This isn’t new news at all but it can’t be repeated too often given that (in my experience) researchers seem to fixate on one or the other and assume they’ve got a handle on both.
- Peer-to-peer transfer is less effective at ensuring a wide distribution than promotional efforts outside the system. Again, “intuitive” but listening to a lot of social media marketers you wouldn’t think so! I wonder if this backs up the Duncan Watts hypothesis - that the best way to ensure something becomes viral is to seed it like crazy.
“We don’t do focus groups. They just ensure that you don’t offend anyone, and produce bland inoffensive products.”—
Jonathan Ive talking to the Royal College Of Art. Magazine editors need to read this quote as much as designers. The tyranny of focus grouping has deadened magazine craft. People make products they think some fantasy reader will like rather than the best and most exciting publication possible. Mr X might not exist and even if he does, he doesn’t necessarily know what he wants. (via brokenbottleboy)
The anti-consumer who gets “offended” by a rad new product is often also a fantasy, of course, or at least is someone who’d be outside the target market for a thing anyway.
Focus groups - like market research in general - are a nice Aunt Sally for people who have a corporate job but like to think of themselves as the type of person who doesn’t. Of course they’re not the solution to everything but the reason focus groups go bad isn’t because talking to people about the stuff you’re making is an inherently terrible idea. If you end up letting a focus group kill off something awesome or make something crap then the explanation is likely to be one of the following:
You recruited the wrong people.
You asked the wrong questions.
You used the focus group at the wrong point in the process.
You gave the focus group way too much power in the process.
It wasn’t actually that awesome (or: it’s less crap than you think)
If it’s 1 or 2, it might be your supplier’s fault. If it’s 3 or 4, it’s probably your fault. If it’s 5, you’ll thank them later.
Of course, it might also be that you are a magical snowflake genius whose ideas are so awesome that any contact between them and other people will crush them like a flower is crushed beneath the wheel of a dung-cart. If that’s the case then yeah, stay well away from focus groups dude.
Longer, better expansion by danah boyd of her thoughts on this stuff. ACTUALLY IMPORTANT for social media, market research, journalism, pop culture, erm EVERYTHING I’M INTERESTED IN. Blimey.
Not everyone has the skills or understanding to engage with the public sphere in a meaningful manner. If you think that civics education is in bad shape in this country, take a look at media literacy. Digital publics combine the worst of both of these. Most of you in this room learned to use Twitter and Facebook through your friends. Collectively, you set the norms for what is appropriate among your network. If you aren’t part of these networks, these technologies may feel very foreign. I recommend each and every one of you to login to MySpace and try to make sense of it today. It will feel foreign to you because it’s not your community, it’s not your friends. Now imagine how people who aren’t like you feel when they walk into Facebook or Twitter.