Mark Earls – From “me” to “we”

Thanks to Mat kindly donating his ticket, I was able to go and see Mark Earls give a seminar entitled From “me” to “we” at the Royal Society.

herd by mark earlsRather shamefully, I am still yet to read Herd – the book (and associated research) on which the talk was based. This is despite regularly reading the Herd blog and even having a copy in the Essential library. As I said, shameful.

Despite this, I think I was the target audience. Along with a Q&A only notable for the rather aggressive questioning of a lady accusing Mark of ignoring “the female perspective”,  the session offered a fairly gentle precis of the book’s central theory which, if I had read it, I would of course have been familiar with.

The talk

A tenet of the book is that we’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour. To highlight this, Mark recalled a few statistics from his research:

  • Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months
  • Only 30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims
  • Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value two thirds of the time
  • No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

This is particularly worrying because behavioural change comes before attitude change – our thinking comes after the fact. We (post)rationalise rather than act rationally.

Therefore, in order to change attitudes, we need to change behaviour. And to be able to do this, we need to understand who we are. Only then can we can create solutions that work.

The Herd thesis draws upon the Asian culture of believing that humans are naturally social. We are fundamentally social with only a bit of independence, not vice versa.

Although it doesn’t sound particularly controversial, this thinking does run contrary to some well established tenets of both marketing and social theory.

According to Mark, thinking is much less important in human life than it seems. He likens us and thinking to a cat in water – we can do it if we have to, but we don’t particularly like it.

This is because it is easier to follow than think. We know our judgement is fallible and so we outsource the decision by following the crowd. But while this may work in some situations – many illustrated by James Surowieki – it is also arguably a contributing factor to the financial crisis, as financial institutions copied one another without comprehending the implications.

We therefore need to design our theories and tools to accommodate this social behaviour. It is much more rewarding to understand how social norms are created and perpetuated than it is to work on the assumption of cogito ergo sum.

Some initial thoughts

While brief, the talk certainly conveyed the need for me to read the book fully. Perhaps then some of my questions regarding the theory will be answered.

In particular, I’m interested in knowing where movements originate and whether this herd behaviour can be predicted.

For all the sheep, there must be a shepherd somewhere. Are these shepherds always designated as such – the almost mythical influentials – or do we alternate between thinking and following?

Rarely are our choices as clear cut as choosing whether to join the corner of the party where people are talking rather than the one where people are sitting in silence. Instead we have multiple choices and herds – how do we choose?

Is it a level of proximity? In the Battle of Britpop, Northerners sided with Oasis and Southerners with Blur? However, I’m from the Midlands, so was my choice one of the rare occurrences of rational choice (which would make a rather unconvincing deus ex machina) or is it purely random?

If random, then the work of Duncan Watts becomes pertinent. His modelling has suggested that in situations where groups vote up and down their favourite songs, there is no objective winner. Different simulations create different patterns. Purely random.

This creates difficulties for researchers as we like our statistical certainty. We like to have a set answer that we can post-hoc explain given the evidence. Duncan Watts’ research would suggest that research tools that build in mass opinion – such as crowdsourced tagging or wikis – are effectively meaningless. Rather than ultimately deviate towards a “correct” answer, they simply reflect the random order of participation and interaction.

Can mass behaviour be effectively incorporated into a research programme? I’ll report back with some thoughts once I’ve read the book

sk

We’re bad at changing other people’s behaviour

Only 10% of new products survive longer than 12 months

30% of change management programmes begin to achieve their aims

Mergers & Acquisitions lessen shareholder value 2/3 of time (pwc)

No government initiative has created demonstrable and sustainable change

Behavioural change comes before attitude change – thinking comes after the fact

In order to change attitudes, change behaviour

We need to understand who we are so we can create solutions

More rationalising than rational

Cognitive outsourcing – memory is a distributed function so only remember slivers

We are fundamentally social with a bit of independence, not vice versa

Asian culture is inherently social

Gandhi said that humans are a necessarily interconnected species

Thinking is much less important in human life than it seems

“lazy mind hypothesis”

We can think independently, we just don’t like it – like a cat to water

Behave according to other people’s actions e.g. go to busy shops

We know our own judgement is fallible so “I’ll have what she’s having” – wisdom of crowds or financial crisis

Leads to social norms

Need to design our theories and tools to accommodate social behaviour

Genesis random – Duncan watts

Is it proximity that leads us to follow a herd, or example of using rationally weighing up the pros and cons

Herds originate from somewhere – must be a leader. Are these leaders the same in each situation, or are we all capable of being shepherds

Research application – crowdsource answers. But random – no statistical certainty as only one situation

Wikis to collate group opinion?

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How can research inspire?

The question in the title is predicated on the assumption that research can inspire. While the haters may disagree, I truly believe it can.

Understanding the different ways in which it can do so is trickier.

In a slight contradiction to my previous post on “insight”, I’m using the term “research in its most catch-all form. Rather than restricting the thinking to groups or surveys, I’m thinking about all disciplines and all methodologies. Research, data and insight.

In order for research to inspire, the recipient needs to be able to be inspired. Some form of creative process in order to make that new connection or leap is necessary.

In thinking about how research can inspire, I’ve come up with three initial ways. It is by no means a typology and the examples aren’t even mutually exclusive but it seems like a good start in which to organise my thoughts.

Structure:

The way in which research issues are approached and the problems framed. Examples include:

  • Methodology: The methodology itself could suggest new and previously alien ways to approach an issue. This post from Tom Ewing highlights some innovations in how research is carried out, but there are numerous examples of fresh approaches – from fMRI scanning to crowdsourcing.
  • Influences: Research is often (correctly) portrayed as insular but there are notable exceptions – Tom Ewing himself being one of them. He is able to take his knowledge and skills from music criticism and community building and apply them to research problems. Admittedly, this example isn’t research-specific but it nevertheless can inspire others to bring in people with different perspectives
  • Backwards approach: I mean this in a good way – research briefs are often issued to answer specific questions. To discover the most relevant way to get this information, researchers need to start with the answer and work backwards to figure out both the question and the way in which it is asked

Results

While a lot of research may be characterised otherwise, results themselves can inspire:

  • Exploratory research: By its very nature is designed to uncover new observations or – deep breath – insights
  • Fresh perspectives: Seeking to understand different audiences can lead to fresh outlooks as we look at the same issue from someone else’s eyes. While the Morgan Stanley note from their 15 year old intern was undoubtedly overplayed, I did like the notion that teenagers stay away from Twitter because it is full of old people trying to be young (for what it’s worth, I view Twitter as being far closer to Linked In than Facebook – it is useful connections rather than genuine relationships)
  • Holistic understanding: On a larger scale, ethnographers like Jan Chipchase offer us fascinating observations into areas we would never have even previously considered
  • Prototyping: I’ve written about IDEO before, and I love how they actually physically build things in order to better understand the problems
  • Desk research: Somewhat tenuous, but even sitting at your desk and reading, and being inspired, by different blogs or sites can be considered a form of research – whether one is explicitly looking for specific information or not

Implementation and Impact

Moving on from the results themselves, how research is used or the effects it has may also inspire

  • Workshops: Debating how research can be used can lead to further thoughts on idea implementation
  • Social effects of making data public: From last.fm to Nike+ making personal data available both encourages further participation and causes people to adjust their natural behaviour
  • Rewards and recognition: Similarly, in communities there have been noticeable effects on user behaviour and community culture when elements such as post counts or social connections have been introduced
  • Analytics: Avainash Kaushik is a Google Analytics evangelist who is full of great examples in how understanding site data has improved business performance

This question was recently posed to me by a colleague working on an assignment. The assignment is ongoing so any further thoughts, ideas or examples on how research methods, results or implementation can inspire would be massively appreciated.

And perhaps this attempt at crowdsourcing opinion will inspire others to a solution for the issues they are facing…

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephenpoff/

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Crowdsourced consumption and product development

We are all consumers. We choose what to consume. But we also choose how we consume it.

This may be completely different to how the inventor anticipated, or expected, usage. It is the law of unintended consequences.

Contrary actions may prevent a product or service succeeding. But equally, an innovative use that builds on the original concept can be game changing. As Cory Doctorow points out in the article, unintended consequences include such inventions as

Even in a planned economy, inventors can’t dictate how their product or service is used. The community decides. No matter how tightly controlled a campaign is, the product owner cannot dictate outputs.

Similarly, companies cannot dictate perceptions or experiences. Products facilitate actions, but the consumer decides what these actions are. Faris Yakob argues that “A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers” while Justin Porter says that “Designers do not create experiences, they create artifacts to experience”

The internet and social networks may enable individual customisation and organic social constructs but these aren’t new phenomena. The community has always had power.

To jump on the bandwagon, I’ll use Twitter as an example. Media coverage of Twitter concentrates on either celebrity uptake, or its position within breaking news stories. These are popular expressions of Twitter use, but were they anticipated?

One of Twitter‘s co-founders says that it was initially conceived as a text dispatch service. Did they foresee that Twitter could be used for, among other things

  • Microblogging
  • Socialising publicly
  • Socialising privately
  • Linking
  • Echoing
  • Syndicating
  • Following
  • Polling
  • Tracking
  • Searching
  • Reporting
  • Announcing
  • Promoting

I suspect that some of these actions would have been considered. But not all of them.

Friend or Follow is a simple tool that can highlight the different ways that people use Twitter. Promoters will have more followers, followers will be fans of more people, and socialisers will have a high proportion of friends. Each person will use Twitter in a slightly different way.

The Twitter founders accepted and embraced this. And took it a step further. Recognising that business development is constrained by their own imaginations (among more prosaic factors such as finance), they opened up their API to outside developers and effectively told them to “go wild”. Individual consumption is supplemented by devolved development.

These tools may have contributed to the growth in popularity as those not convinced by the core offering may be sold by a new application. Some of these – such as Summize – have even been incorporated into the core offering.

This movement takes the concept of community power to the next stage. Product development has joined consumption, perception and experience in being co-opted by the crowd.

But the consequences aren’t wholly positive. Twitter had to buy Summize. With a closed API, they could have introduced a search function organically with minimal cost. A multitude of functions could create a paradox of choice, or confuse the core offering (while perceptions are individual, a company needs a core offering as an anchor). Not to mention the Firefox levels of bloat that could ultimately occur.

By effectively trusting the masses to create Twitter apps, the company also leaves itself open to nefarious or incompatible activity. This could be fake services phishing passwords, or a service that – for example – could promote fascist behaviour.

This makes the path of product evolution far more unpredictable than within a tightly controlled environment such as Apple (though their iPhone apps store does partially relinquish this). How can Twitter remain confident in their product experience. Is some level of control necessary to ensure a coherent thrust, or can the community be relied upon to promote the positive innovations and marginalise the negative?

I don’t know the answer to this, but it also poses some questions regarding usability testing. Is the only way to facilitate this in real-time through public beta testing, rather than closed-shop research initiatives? A balance between organic, crowd-sourced improvement and publicly known missteps need to be found.

To conclude this wildly incoherent post, I remain fascinated by the ability to appropriate not only imagery but functionality. Whether Twitter, or the burgeoning RFID-enabled internet of things, it is an area producing a myriad of innovative activity.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/heyyu/

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Clay Shirky’s POLIS lecture at LSE

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Clay Shirky give a lecture entitled Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together at a POLIS event hosted at LSE. The lecture was part of the promotional tour for the paperback launch of his bestselling, critically acclaimed book of the same name.

This was the first time I had seen him speak in person, and his charisma and enthusiasm really radiate through. His lucidity and insight make even complex associations sound common sensical, and he has a great ear for a memorable quote. I came away having learned a lot. Some of the outakes and quotes I came away with are as follows:

The five word précis of his book would be “Group action just got easier”

“Lowered transaction costs have reduced the hassle factor of collective action”.

The lecture took us through three examples of participatory media making a difference.

The first example was the Facebook group protesting against HSBC’s withdrawal of interest free student overdrafts. In the past, HSBC would have had an information advantage and a cooperation advantage. But by documenting and sharing information, and coordinating action, these barriers were removed.

“Using information not just as a delivery service but as a site of coordination has changed the dynamic”

He then moved on to look at the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th last. Whereas in the 1970s, China took three months to declare an earthquake took place, now they had no option because pictures and messages were being uploaded to QQ, Twitter, Flickr et al. Social media also mobilised – and to an extent radicalised – the mourning mothers who lost their only child. 7,000 schools collapsed in the earthquake in part due to a corrupt administration overlooking sub-standard safety precautions. It resulted in a local official getting down on his knees to beg forgiveness. The Great Firewall only works in one direction – information can still freely leave the country. Sadly, a teacher who allegedly cited the schools was later detained, showing that there is still not a fully free flow of information in China.

“There are data cables and there are social cables. Information goes where people want it to go”

The final example concerned a certain election that we heard about recently. Shirky asserts that Obama was the first “platform candidate”. While McCain sought to control the message, Obama encouraged people to share and remix their own messages. Sometimes this worked; sometimes it didn’t. However, the net was beneficial.

“Just because your name is on it, it doesn’t mean you are responsible”

Shirky then illustrated the lack of control that Obama had over his new media campaign. On his social networking site – apparently set up to avoid satisfying people and thus sating them – 22,000 members joined a group protesting at Obama backtracking on an issue. While he didn’t change his stance, he was forced to address the issue. He was called to account by his own supporters.

When Change.gov was set up, it sought to crowdsource campaign initiatives. The most popular? Nothing to do with the economy, military action nor medicare. It was the legalisation of medical marijuana. Shirky admitted that he has changed his opinion on the benefits and capabilities of crowdsourcing. As James Madison said in Federalist Paper No. 10 “Everyone complains about factionalism but there is nothing you can do about it”. In other words, factions will always emerge and hijack initiatives. Shirky calls government a playing field and rules for factions to contend – participatory media doesn’t yet have the checks and balances set up to offer a functioning alternative or complement.

“It isn’t a problem of capability. It is a problem of legitimacy”

Even if something is wrong, it needs to be legitimate. With the Al Franken senate seat, the margin of victory was smaller than the margin of error in the counting of votes. Tossing a coin to declare a winner would have been cheaper and easier and just as wrong, but the victor wouldn’t have the legitimacy needed to do his job.

The lecture finished after around 40 minutes and moved onto questions. Below are some of the fragments I took out of it

One of those first questions was obviously by a marketing man, as he kept referring to “brand truth” and Obama. Shirky agreed that the role of president is too charismatic and as a result clarity takes a hit.

Another question was about newspapers. Shirky said with a smile that newspapers have had 20 years to react to supporters destroying their business model but they didn’t.

“Newspapers’ problems are so much of their own making that it is hard to have an ounce of pity”

He doesn’t think bloggers will necessary replace the newsroom as they lack the social coordination to pay enough attention to everything that is going on, and to hold the government truly accountable. Instead, he thinks newspapers may need to move to the non-profit world (arguably they are already there with the Scott trust, and Murdoch being a benevolent dictator).

With regards to a business model for social media, Shirky quoted Tim O’Reilly by saying that one should look to create more value than is captured. There are many business models, rather than a linear option, and money isn’t a sole motivator. He says that in some situations that money can lessen a transaction and uses the example of someone sending money rather than flowers after a date.

Another question related to relative abilities of public and private companies. Shirky said that in general public companies make small steps with big press releases, while private companies procrastinate, panic and then make a big leap. However, the speed of change is a difficult thing to manage. There is a balance between a culture clash and slow movement causing good people to leave.

Going back to the legitimacy question, Shirky said that he sees new models of participation having a legitimacy gap as nothing seems to scale as well or be as accepted as voting. The Google algorithm may have saved the web, and Wikipedia’s “last edit” function is popular, but whether these can transfer is a big question.

Shirky also had a great quote in relation to a great question about social media mobilisation only working in opposition. Wilfred Bion, who ran group therapy for neurotics, once said that nothing solidifies a group faster than an external threat. If there is no external threat, people gravitate to neurotics as they’ll be able to find one

Overall, 90 minutes extremely well spent

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oreilly/

EDIT: James Devon has uploaded the audio from the lecture here

Crowdsourcing needs confines

Last week I went on a media planning course. Once the introductions, overviews and drinking socialising was done with, we got down to business with developing a media strategy for a new value range of products. In an afternoon.

It was incredibly challenging (especially considering we were all researchers) but extremely rewarding. We eventually found the balance between inspiration and insight, and came up with a half-decent plan.

In effect, the brief we were working on was being crowdsourced.

I have some problems with crowdsourcing, which I have written about before. It can work, but needs certain circumstances. A major problem we faced was a problem many crowdsourced projects face – finding the right dynamic.

We were placed in small groups of peers, each from a different background (media agency/ research agency/ software company etc). We had little knowledge of one another, and by dint of being peers there was no natural leader. By my nature, I work in a fast scatter gun fashion. Others are slower but more methodical and thorough. Both are equally valid, but it can be difficult to get them to complement one another.

We essentially needed a project manager to direct us.

Crowdsourcing has many benefits. But for it to be effective it needs to be tightly structured with the constituent elements clearly demarcated. A leader needs to fashion a coherent and cohesive central vision by pulling the pieces together to ensure that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.

Take brainstorming as an example. I love brainstorming (I try to avoid “thought showers”). It is a great way to create ideas and to bounce them off different people and thoughts. But it needs a facilitator to carefully select the participants, to steer discussion and to ultimately make sense of the outputs.

And projects need project managers. Impetus comes from ownership. A project manager doesn’t necessarily have to possess total authority, but that person needs to keep the cogs whirring/plates spinning/pick appropriate metaphor. They need to delegate tasks to the most appropriate individuals, identify the weak links, keep the project focused, and ensure the deadlines are in sight.

But while the project manager doesn’t need total authority, he or she does need some. The Apprentice neatly shows the problems a leader picked from a group of peers encounters, and that was the challenge we faced on our course (though thankfully we largely managed to keep it good-natured).

Newspapers need editors. Exhibitions need curators. And projects need managers. Crowds have power, but that power needs someone to harness it.

sk

The failure of the wisdom of crowds

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds argues that across a large and diverse group, the average response will be better and smarter than individual experts. He illustrates this point with the jellybean answer. In a large room of people, few will get close to guessing the correct number of jellybeans in a jar. But the average of their collective responses will be remarkably close to the true number.

A photography exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum entitled Click experimented with curating through crowd-sourcing.

The exhibition was a critical failure. Crowdsourcing works when there is a quantifiable number. When it is subjective opinion on what makes a good photo, opinion congeals into lowest common denominator crowd-pleasers. (Does Hollywood operate via crowdsourcing?)

To quote the Slate article:

Ultimately, “Click!” demonstrates that people—whether they’re experts or laymen—like pictures that remind them of things they’ve seen before.

Curators need to look forward – to know what’s been done before; to recognize exhausted styles and idioms; and to select art that confounds, surprises, and provokes

Which makes sense. In my experience, design by committee descends into a bureaucratic nightmare – appeasing everyone by pleasing no-one.

Long may the power of the auteur continue.

Hat tip to Mintel Alerts for bringing this to my attention.

sk

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vividbreeze/

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