The Golden Age of Bullshit

11 04 2014

Everybody in our industry should watch this. You don’t have to agree with it all, but most of it is hard to argue with.


Social Media and Digital Narcissism

14 10 2010

There are more social media ‘experts’ than you can shake a stick at.  Few of them could have written as insightful a piece as this speech that Greg Stekelman gave to Media and the Inner World yesterday and has now transcribed on his blog.  I recognise I mentioned Greg in my Simulacrum post and I’m therefore in danger of looking like a Stekelman fanboy, but the truth is, I am (I’m also trying to bathe in His reflected Glory, but hopefully you won’t notice that) .

What I like about the speech is that it talks about social media in viscerally human terms.  Too often, the experts and the consultants are not as deeply immersed in that on which they pontificate as they should be and therefore frame their discourse in the abstract.  They talk more about conversations than they do about the people having them and, fundamentally, it’s the latter we should be trying to understand.

I think there are all kinds of conclusions one could draw about how we research and how brands use social media, not to mention parallels to with what I wrote in that simulacrum piece, but it feels crass to pull those out of such a deeply personal account.  Instead, I would simply recommend that if you have any interest in social media, be it personal or professional, that you read Greg’s piece in full and draw from it whatever is useful for you.

Social Media and the Simulacrum of the Self

10 10 2010

The Simulacrum of the Self

A little while ago I was following  the MRS social media event on twitter and whilst Andrew Keen was speaking a number of tweets from people at the event began to talk about Marx and alienation (of course, I wasn’t there and I haven’t watched the video up on Research Live that I’ve linked to here, so my perception of this talk is drawn entirely from social media and may have had little or nothing to do with Marx- I’ve done this intentionally for the purposes of this post).  This set my cultural studies spidey-sense tingling and led me to start thinking a little bit about social media through the lens of some of the radical left-wing cultural theorists I know and love.  I spend a lot of time using social media, but I haven’t spent very much time thinking about it, as there’s lots of smart people already doing that for a living, but one cannot always help to where the mind wanders.

The first guy that sprang to mind was Jean Baurdillard who is perhaps most famous for claiming that the Gulf war (what we call the first one, neglecting to count the Iran-Iraq war) did not exist.   At the core of this thesis is the idea, not that nothing happened, but that it wasn’t a war – the nature of warfare applied being so far removed from anything that had previously been conceived as war that what occurred existed solely as a series of CNN reports, night vision footage of rockets being fired and blips on tiny radar screens.  This may give you a clue as to where I am going with this post.

Baudrillard’s interpretation of the simulacrum and, by extension, hyper-reality is what I’m interested in here.  The simulacrum is the signifier with no reference point in reality, it refers to something that does not genuinely exist.  There are a number of stages for this, but in post-modernity Baudrillard argues we have reached a stage where the simulacrum precedes the object to which it refers meaning we are left only with simulacrum – a completely imagined or ‘hyper’ reality.  For the Gulf war, the mediated images of the war precede the war itself.  For social media the projection of the self on facebook and twitter precedes the object of the self – we are left only with a simulacrum of the self, a self which refers to nothing.  Which brings us back to the twitter chatter around Andrew Keen –  the alienation from society predicted by Marx is one thing, alienation from yourself is quite another.

I think it was in his writing on America (though it’s a few years since I read it, so I might be wrong) where Baudrillard takes up the useful example of Snow White’s Castle at Disney World.  This is a great example of hyper-reality – one cannot deny that it exists, it is there in bricks, mortar, paint and no short measure of plastic – but to what does it refer and represent?  A purely imagined castle from Disney’s animated Snow White cartoons – of course there is some basis in reality for castles with this type of architectural detail (thanks to my friend Pete who has just been to Bavaria for the first picture in the Triptych above) but it is pastiched and bastardised beyond recognition.   The danger comes for those people (of whom there are many) whose only experience of a castle is to see Snow White’s castle at Disneyworld – it precedes the knowledge and understanding of what a castle is and what it means – the simulacrum of the castle is the castle and reality is distorted as a result.

As a short aside, this always reminds me of the Eddie Izzard bit from Dress to Kill:

“Disney came over and built EuroDisney.  They built the Disney Castle there.  Everyone was like ‘Make it bigger, they’ve actually got them here…  and they’re not made of plastic.”

Now, of course, this does not really do a huge amount of damage to Bavarian castles, but when we are talking about social media we are talking about perceptions of the self and I don’t think it can be particularly good for the psyche for the self to become a simulacrum.  This leads me on to something I’ve been thinking about for a while, which is largely driven by the development of digital technology and the increasing degree to which social media are ‘always on’ – the pre-eminence of the artefact after the fact.

The Artefact After The Fact

People are increasingly separated from their own experience.  The magic of watching live music for example, is lost, when the intimacy of that experience is mediated through a four inch mobile phone screen (even for those of us not recording it, the sea of phones and cameras has some impact[/rant]).  However, increasingly, having a record that you were there, having the foursquare badge, having 50 photos of your night out on the town – is more important than actually being there and experiencing.  You meet your hero and your first thought is not ‘what have I always wanted to ask her’ it is ‘can I get a picture with her and post it as my facebook profile?’.  You overhear something amusing in a restaurant – your first thought is how can I fire this off pithily in 140 characters rather than how can I covertly share this with those in the restaurant with me.  What is happening now, in front of me, in the real world is preceded by thinking about how I can project it through social media channels – I become one step removed from my own experience.  The simulacrum has won.

If you don’t follow Greg Stekelman on twitter, then you should.  This tweet effectively sums up my 1000+ word post in 140 characters imbued with his usual killer combination of poignancy and self-deprecating humour.  James Seddon has also written at some length (here and here) of the impact twitter was having on the most important of relationships, those with his family – as a result he is one of an increasing number taking a step back from social media so that they can reclaim real experience.

I think this becomes even more pervasive an issue as we start to go further down the road towards augmented reality.  This is probably a blog-post in itself, but I think it would be more pertinent to call it subverted reality.  Of course, I’d be the first to admit that subversion is often a force for good, but when it comes to doing it to reality it’s a bit of a risky business.

So What?

Here’s the rub dear reader.  So what if we are subverting or destroying the reality of our selves?  Does it really matter?  Maybe not.  I haven’t read any Deleuze, but from what I can gather he takes a far more happy-go-lucky stance on the simulacrum and argues that it can be used as a force for positive radical change.  One can employ it to undermine the accepted order of things.  This, of course, is a popular discourse in internet theory – we are able to escape the things we do not like about ourselves and project a more favourable (/better?) persona.  I would argue that you’re probably better facing up to those personal weaknesses, but there’s also nothing wrong with a bit of escapism as long as you’re aware of that’s what it is.

That final point is what’s important for me.  Remembering for a moment that this is supposed to be a research blog, one of the bases on which social media research is currently sold is that it gives a ‘real’, unmediated picture of people’s perceptions on brands or issues; that we are able to understand the conversations people are having ‘in their natural habitat’ where they believe they are undisturbed by our prying eyes and ears.  Whether we agree with Baudrillard or Deleuze on the consequences of social media delivering a simulacrum of the self, it is important for researchers to remember that it is a simulacrum.  The process of mediation is different than that of being asked direct questions in a traditional research context, but the information we get is not, in essence, any closer to being truth.

Whilst we’re talking about French theorists of the left, Foucault, by the way, argues that truth does not really exist – but let’s leave that for another day.

Apple: a threat to diversity and innovation.

2 09 2010

A sure fire way of getting hits and comments is to be critical of Apple, so here we go.  Apple’s press conference yesterday (I won’t put any links in, just visit any tech blog, nay, any website on the World Wide Web and you can read about it) unveiled Ping, their new social network service where you can “Follow your favourite artists and friends to discover the music they’re talking about, listening to and downloading.”.  They also trumpeted loudly the simple to use privacy tools of this system because Apple are renegades against the system and men (/women) of the people.

Well, here, loyal reader, is the rub –  you can only follow your favourite artists if they are on iTunes, you can only follow your friends if they are also iTunes users and, by the way, iTunes is only really any good to you if you consume music using Apple’s hardware.  The fact that everyone is thrilled about this shows how phenomenal Apple are at what they do – iTunes is pretty good, iPods are brilliant pieces of kit (especially if you’re not bothered about your music sounding like you’re listening to it through a particularly thick pillow), but it worries me.  It worries me because Apple now have a potentially very significant hand in the promotion/marketing/discovery of music, the distribution of music and the means by which music is consumed.  Given that music is a cultural artefact, a vertically integrated (near) monopoly of this nature cannot be good for diversity and innovation within that artefact.

Let me be clear, I’m not worried about this because it’s Apple and they are evil and horrible, I think they’re probably quite nice.  I’m worried about it in the same way I was worried about EMI, Sony-BMG and the like dominating the entire music value chain.  Let’s be honest, even though some of their dominance has been crippled by the file-sharing revolution, they still have a pretty significant hand – but in many ways the Apple dominance is even stronger, at least there were 5 of the ‘Big 5’ record labels, both in terms of legal downloads and hardware sales Apple’s individual control is much greater (80% or more market share?).   A single company having so much control over the success and failure of music artists is a huge threat to diversity – and we know Apple have been pretty ruthless on their app store with people they don’t get on with – woe betide any artist that similarly pisses them off and gets booted out from the iTunes closed shop.  Concentration of power is a bad thing wherever it is concentrated.

What Apple have done brilliantly thus far with iTunes and iPod is create some high exit barriers.  If all of your music collection is in iTunes it’s very hard to switch away from iPod – read some Amazon reviews of other portable media systems and see how many people give a low mark to the hardware because it won’t integrate with Apple’s software (because Apple won’t let it, not because there is something wrong with what Sony or Cowon have built).  It’s brilliant strategically.  Now they’ve taken the next step back in the ladder – if you are relying on a social media system built and (to some extent) controlled by Apple for discovery and interaction around music it becomes even more difficult to break away.  Many people will be happy with that system and as with all Apple things I’m sure it will work brilliantly – but a closed shop like this is an undeniable threat to diversity.

Whilst many people (including, no doubt, Sir Paul’s bank manager) are very upset about the Beatles STILL not being on iTunes, the dispute with Apple records is a positive in the context we are discussing.  The logical next backwards step in the chain to become a fully vertically integrated behemoth is for Apple to start producing music as well.  Founding a record label will always be very difficult for them unless they hive it off from the Apple brand completely.

So am I right to be worried about this?  Are my suspicions about Apple driven by my contrarian nature clouding my judgement or is Apple a big hulking monopoly with the potential to impose an iron grip on the music we come to know and love?

Releasing control and co-creation.

16 02 2010

For the last couple of days I was in a strategy planning workshop for one of my clients. For confidentiality I won’t go into too much detail – though I will say the snacks were excellent, particularly a lamb kebab number that went down very well with a Kingfisher during the breakout sessions at the end of the day yesterday.

There were two really interesting themes that came out in the day and they will be themes that you will have heard plenty about in recent discourse. I’m fairly sure, however, that you won’t have heard about them in this context. As the title suggests, the two themes were letting go of some of the control marketers have on their brands and allowing for greater co-creation and customisation to suit specific consumer needs. But we weren’t talk about young urban early adopting Indians in the metros who live their lives through social media – we were talking about difficult to reach rural, ‘bottom of the pyramid’ consumers. One session by Mart was particularly interesting.

The first point at which co-creation is required is product development. You simply can’t conceive of products that will fit the wants and needs of someone in the heart of rural India whilst brainstorming in one of Gurgaon’s five star hotel meeting rooms. Immersive ethnography is required to really understand how people live, buy and consume. One example that was given was something as everyday as a lightbulb – we take for granted that they’ll last 6 months, a year (more if we’re talking long-life low energy bulbs, but generally in India we’re not) – well apparently your standard bulb can only cope with voltage fluctuations of +/- 10%, in most of rural India, voltage typically fluctuates +/- 100% and your average life-span for a lightbulb is 6 days. The rules you know don’t apply.

Next you have to consider the value of every rupee to these consumers – but you should not mistakenly believe that this means they are looking for cheap goods. Microfinance initiatives mean money is available if it is needed, but it will only be spent where it is seen as an investment. You need to show you are there for the long term and build trust – this is a long game. Nothing in these markets is disposable, least of all income. You have to demonstrate how your brand will improve life for your consumer or their family – through better health, education or (and this one is key) increased productivity. These are, out of necessity, an exceptionally resourceful people – if you let them, they will come up with uses for your brands you would never have considered and if they are enabled to improve their lot in life as a result they will become exceptionally loyal to you.

You also have to involve the local population in distribution because you can’t get a truck into these villages, there are few organised retail outlets and each village is too small anyway to shift significant bulk. There was the example of an FMCG brand that had given bikes to local educated but unemployed youths, each bike included a large branded box on the back that doubled as a display case and stock carrier. They would be given a territory of 7 or so villages several KMs apart and would circle around the villages on their bikes setting up their bike based stall at the local Haat (market place) in each one. These guys are trained to explain the benefits of the product as well as to sell it and their bikes are highly visible – so as well as distribution they are playing a key comms role. Haat’s are attended by those from surrounding villages as well, each one could potentially reach 4,500 people. In addition, you are providing meaningful employment to the guys with the bikes.

So, you have to let go of your control because your traditional iron clad distribution channels are not going to work – the only way you can reach these consumers is if you have their help and permission in doing so. Further, the only way you can deliver a product to them that is meaningful and useful is if you take their help in creating it in the first place. To me, the parallels with the internet economy are obvious – brands can’t just use push marketing anymore, it’s not about selling to consumers, it’s about partnering with people. It’s a two way conversation and brands aren’t going to get anywhere by just selling product – you have to work with people to improve their lives.

The learning for me is that this type of thinking has to apply to any market that is operating based on a completely different set of rules. We’re not talking about subtle cultural differences with which we’re generally familiar and well equipped to deal with, we’re talking about markets where the usual rules fundamentally do not apply – it doesn’t matter if that’s rural India or an augmented reality, social media fuelled freeconomy – letting go and co-creating will be necessary.

FoMR 1: Where the growth is.

18 01 2010

Living and working in India, this is probably an obvious place for me to start – but I also would have thought it should be an obvious place for all of us to start, though it seems that’s not the case.

If we are asking ourselves where the Future of Market Research (FoMR) lies, it’s probably sensible to consider where the future lies for the brands and businesses of our clients. Many of our major clients will be looking towards the BRICs (and the next markets behind them in the queue), where there is significant scope for rapid growth amongst a burgeoning middle class with increasing disposable income and an appetite for spending it. The not insignificant upheaval of recent years in more developed markets can only have accelerated this process. If marketing budgets are increasingly being moved in that direction, then research budgets will almost certainly follow.

Yet when I read about the FoMR, the things being discussed are almost totally irrelevant to the realities of MR here in India.

First, you read an awful lot about how people are living their lives online. Social media is transforming people’s attitudes to privacy and the survey is about to die a death as we’ll just be able to mine the reams of data that people trail behind them in an ever more complex web so we won’t actually need to ask anyone anything. Well, depending on who you want to find out about, there’s plenty to say to argue against that view even in the most developed of markets – but here, you’re lightyears away from being close to the truth.

Landline telephone penetration in India sits at somewhere between 30 and 40%, so the chances of the bulk of her 1.2 billion people living their lives online anytime soon is fairly remote. Yes, there are 400m mobile subscribers, but the bulk of them have simple handsets that just make calls and the roll out of 3g is tied up in your standard Indian bureaucracy anyway. If you’re looking at very high end consumers in the major metros you may get some joy from twitter, Orkut and Facebook but very few brands target groups are quite so refined as to target only these welathy few. Further, the real growth now is in rural and semi-urban areas and our likely data source there is going to be PAPI for some time to come.

Which brings me to another thing you read a lot about – there seems to be quite a groundswell around online data quality with all the big players rubbing their not inconsiderable skulls together to come up with a consensus on how we best manage panels to deliver quality data. No doubt, this is admirable and important work, but without digressing into a long and depressing rant about my travails over the past year or so, suffice it to say that I would love to have the problems that come with panel data in place of the quality issues I’m grappling with. The questionnaire building tool we have in MB defaults to PAPI – if you ask it why, the rationale is that the majority of interviews we conduct are still PAPI – given the rapid growth of research in markets where PAPI remains the norm, I can’t see that changing for some time. So, I wonder, where are the pan-industry working groups tackling the issues of interviewer quality (starting with paying a decent enough rate), field management and so on. It may be counter-intuitive – but much of the FoMR will be PAPI.

Finally on this – we’re very good in Market Research at not practicing what we preach. The way we have globalised is a prime example. We’re all aware (or should be) that to be a real success on the global stage it is likely that you will need to tailor your offer to meet local customs (whilst staying true to its core) – official MB blogger and all round market research hero Nigel Hollis has written a very good book on the matter. But I wonder how well the industry has done that with the branded tools and techniques it offers. I don’t think there are fundamental differences in the way people make brand decisions or process advertising based on culture – but their comfort and ability with telling us about how they do those things in unquestionably different. The former means that the tools we have exported work, the latter means that they could probably work much better. Undoubtedly, better tailoring of our tools and approaches to the needs of different cultures should be part of the FoMR debate.

So, I recognise the very real importance of keeping the home fires burning and making sure some speccy kid with an algorithm and a design degree doesn’t steal all our thunder in developed markets – but please, when you’re thinking about the FoMR, think about what’s happening in the markets where our industry is relatively healthy and growing and how we might keep it that way.