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Research 2008: The Great Debate (Part 4 of 4)

Go to part 3 here

Part 4 contains (1) Web 2.0: Capitalising on communities, (2) Closing remarks and (3) My conclusions

Day 2 Session 3: Web2.0: Capitalising on Communities

The final formal session of the conference was also the most fun. There was little particularly relevant to my work, but it is a subject I am interested in and the passion of the speakers was obvious.

Mario Menti of GMI and Diana Derval of Derval Research opened the session with a look at research within Second Life. They exploited the fact that objects within Second Life can integrate with other software. This means that avatars can be created to ask a series of questions, which are then automatically sent to market research survey software for analysis.

The speakers mentioned that there were 12m people in Second Life and that it is a mass media targeted by affinity. I’m not sure about this – have the number of active users risen above 16,000 now? Irrespective, they showed that they had segmented Second Life users into one of ten personas and, with the only truly interactive element I witnessed across the two days, we were invited to vote for the personas we would most like to see more of. The waitress, the housewife and the disabled person won out.

Questions from the audience predictably revolved around the representativeness of this type of research, and how we could know who is who within Second Life. The speakers argued that as there is no incentive, there is no reason to take part other than a wish to be helpful and that arguably we could be more confident in their demographics that we could with an online panel. There seemed to be a qualitative element to their analysis – it was mentioned that they read between the lines with answers and tracked and traced across surveys. I’m not sure how workable this is on a larger scale (or is that the point?). And I for one can’t get over the limited nature of Second Life – the audience is going to be very particular and there is no guarantee something that works in a Second Life survey works in the wider world. However, it was an innovative use of new technology and I will be interested in seeing whether it progresses to Home or similar worlds.

Tom Ewing of Research International followed up with a witty look (including excellent use of the words “buoyant” and “knobheads”) at the lessons he has learned from moderating online communities, and how these can be translated to the world of research.

One of his main points is that every community evolves a culture. Therefore, he had to rename his I Love Music (ILM) site to I Love Everything (ILX), since people started talking about things other than music. Researchers need to be part of this culture to understand how to interpret the chat. For instance, if ILX declare Metal Machine Music to be the best Lou Reed album, is it because they do genuinely love it, because it influenced their chosen musical niche, or are they just joking?

Tom then relayed Amy-Jane King’s model of web communities where people move from lurkers to newbies to regulars to elders to having a legacy. This then linked in with the in-group and out-group theory. As communities evolve norms, they become more insular and the social element overtakes the content element of the community. Research communities need to limit or prevent this insularity and Tom suggests six ways of doing this

  1. Get involved and join the respondents
  2. Start conversations that get people passionate
  3. Be a good troll
  4. Beware of a hierarchy
  5. Recruit by grafting i.e. small groups that won’t join an existing orthodoxy
  6. Love noise and the inane remarks that come with it

Lisa Galarneau of Intrepid Consultants presented the final paper, which looked at her involvement in the MMORPG City of Heroes/City of Villains. She mentioned that she was an anthropologist and that therefore it was important to become a participant herself in order to make accurate observations.

She argued that these environments are self-organising and that if someone tries to control them they will wither and die. However, experiences can be shaped. But because they are organic, we have to go to them rather than vice versa.

One way leverage this is to exploit the collaboration and collective action intrinsic to the world. She pointed our attention to both Threadless as a good example of a participatory production eco-system and to Carnegie Mellon’s ESP photo-tagging game as a good example of crowdsourcing.

Lisa mentioned that we are only at the beginning of this journey. She compared it to cinema, where it took the Great Train Robbery film to show that cut scenes could be used and that films didn’t have to merely replicate plays. We need to think how proclivities can be used as research tools, to employ contributors as researchers and to lower research effects by recruiting deeply immersed people. Aside from simply studying them, I’m not sure what other research could be used in these environments. However, it was a very insightful look into an area I am not particularly familiar with.

The session concluded with a short panel session with Quentin Ashby of Virtual Surveys joining the speakers. He noted that online research is changing from an adult to child relationship to adult to adult, but wondered if getting too playful would undermine the objectives of the research.

This topic was a great way to end the conference. It is experimental and playful, and the papers conformed to that tone. Some of the examples of activity cited were hilarious and while practical integration with everyday research is still limited, there are plenty of things to consider in the long-term.

Day 2 Session 4: Closing remarks

The conference concluded with some closing remarks from the organisers. Sadly, there were no questions from the audience relating to the content of the papers. Which sums up the apathy towards debate over the two days. There were plenty of good points raised and some great papers, but not much of a debate and there was no evidence of a consensus being met between the speakers and the audience. If Rupert Howell were to come back in another 15 years, would both he and the industry still be talking about the same things?


The overt theme of the event was to change business through better customer understanding. Being as this is what customer-facing market research should be doing anyway, I was expecting a series of best practices and future thinking. Instead, there was a lot of introspective assertions that research needs to raise its profile in business, and to do this it needs to go beyond the data and provide actionable solutions. To act less like data providers, and more like consultants or partners.

None of this is new thinking, and I can see that conference veterans would take umbrage with speakers saying the same things. A little less conversation and a little more action perhaps? As I have only been to a few conferences, I am not yet overwhelmed by hearing the same message and I managed to pick up several useful pieces of information and opinion that I will take away with me.

My event highlights can be split into three sections. In terms of methodology, I was particularly inspired by the papers from IGA/TNS on in-game advertising and MESH/Unilever on the text diaries. Presentation wise, the pecha kucha session was a great spectacle, the interactivity of the GMI/Derval Research’s presentation was an excellent use of the facilities, and Gregg Fraley was incredibly engaging. And in terms of pure content, Rupert Howell’s speech cut right to the heart of the issue, with the ensuing debate a high-quality continuation of his talk.

The venue was also a good choice – high-quality food, well-trained staff, excellent facilities and plenty of room. I confess I didn’t take advantage of the networking facilities a great deal – I slipped out both lunchtimes to go to Tate Britain over the bridge and went home shortly after each day concluded. And the electronic handsets added an extra dimension to the debate – it would be good to see them incorporated more next time.

Overall, there are pluses and negatives but I’d give the event a thumbs up. I had a better experience this time than in previous years, and took more away from it. As I believe I fit the target demographic of being both a client and under 30, the organiser’s can certainly take heart. I would definitely go back again (assuming my company pays for my ticket).



One Response

  1. Si – I can’t remember if I’ve linked you this before, but Tom’s marketing blog is here: http://www.blackbeardblog.com/

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