This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
23 & 24 march 2010, the Park Plaza riverbank London
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION
Social Media Knowledge Leader, Kantar Operations
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 1
CuLtures oF CoLLaBoration
Social Media Knowledge Leader, Kantar Operations
INTRODUCTION The age of communities
is it safe to say now that the use of social media for research is mainstream? “Listening” to social media has become an industry buzzword, enthusiastically embraced by major client companies with publications like the arF’s “Listening Playbook” and ray Poynter’s forthcoming book on ‘new mr’ offering researchers practical guidelines on how to use social media tools in their work.1 as for online communities, the other growth area for “new mr”, they were first tried in the early 00s, the current buzz around them began several years after that, and the focus now is beginning to shift to the practicalities of running them and making a profit from them. no conference nowadays is complete without several good case studies and examples of online community and listening research work. When the most contentious issue around a technique stops being whether it works and shifts to how you name it – mroCs? orCs? – you know it’s here to stay. naming arguments often conceal a deeper issue, though, and this is no exception. online communities – particularly ones set up or sponsored by brands – aren’t simply research tools. in fact research is often rather low on the agenda for brands investing in communities, which are seen as part of a wider spectrum of marketing functions. Communications, customer relationship management, Pr and direct marketing all have an interest in a branded community – consumer insight isn’t always high on the list2. this forms the background against which researchers are looking to define what a “research community” might mean – or whether one can even truly exist. Forrester, in their annual reports on the mroC (market research online Communities) sector, offer a broad definition: “private online communities that are systematically used for research purposes”3. But their definition includes restrictive small print: it sets boundaries on the size of a community, the duration, and the number of clients who can use one4. are interactive environments which fall outside these somehow not communities? the question i am asking in this paper is: to what extent does the evolving research definition of a “community” match how communities and other collaborative projects form and operate when no researcher is involved? and what can a researcher learn from how these projects work “in the wild”? in order to do this i’m going to focus on how the user experience of social media – and of the internet as a whole – is changing. CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 2
in particular, i’m going to look at a category of collaborative online activity that exists outside the static and bounded “online community” we’ve become familiar with as researchers – dynamic, network-driven collaborative events which i’m referring to as ‘currents’. this category of activity is becoming increasingly important to how users experience the internet, and it’s something researchers will need to be more aware of in future. in the first section of the paper i’ll talk about how the experience of the internet is changing as users’ “social graphs” become the interface by which content spreads and conversation happens online, and offer some thoughts on how this affects information owners. in the second section i’ll look at the mechanics of online collaboration via the social graph and introduce the idea of ‘currents’ online – short-term, often spontaneous collaborative events. in the third section i’ll offer four examples of how these currents work in practise, across a variety of web services. and in the fourth section i’ll speculate on how researchers might use and tap social currents in the future. a word of caution: this paper is not attempting to present new research techniques. it is intentionally speculative, presenting a lot of theoretical material, and grounded in how people are using social media tools away from the research industry. i will be doing work intended to test and explore some of its hypotheses and their usefulness to research over spring and summer 2010 and hope to present more concrete and practical findings in future papers. in the meantime, this paper will hopefully serve as both a summary of an important development in the online world and a springboard for experimental approaches in the future.
“Stuff people do together”
my interest in these questions isn’t just as a researcher. as a private individual i’ve been building and running online communities for a decade, beginning in 2000 with a music community, iLm. my experiences running these, and what i felt they could teach researchers, were detailed in a previous mrs paper, Confessions Of A Moderator5. since writing that paper i’ve joined Kantar operations as part of an initiative it’s been running called intouch. the purpose of intouch is “to transform the digital research experience for respondents”. it’s already made great progress in improving the experience for people taking web surveys for Kantar group companies, but we have a wider remit too. our job is also to look at the platforms for research – particularly mobile phones – and at how social media can inform the research we do. this last forms the basis for my work as a “social media knowledge leader” at Kantar operations. Working out what a knowledge leader might do was relatively easy compared to deciding exactly what “social media” might cover. i ended up taking the pragmatic and inclusive option, and my working definition of it is “any online service based around user interaction or user-generated content”. that definition is rather formal, though: you could refine it still further. social media, as far as i’m concerned, is stuff people do together online. so my job is to look at stuff people do together online and ask: what does this have to teach researchers? how can this improve people’s experience of research? and it’s important to keep in mind that the answers might be “nothing!” and “it can’t”. there’s no reason, after all, that the practise of research ought to reflect how people do things when a researcher isn’t around. the practise of research will generally be about getting the most useful and accurate information to a client as quickly as possible. But from another angle, the history of market research has been the history of an industry building on quite an unnatural format – asking individuals a series of fixed questions with limited and abstract answers – by introducing more and more methodologies which relate to the ‘real lives’ of its participants. From group-conversations to in-location surveys, research has often looked to adapt to its participants. as Pete Comley put it in 2008, “what we propose… is that research should learn from the Web 2.0 world and steal key elements from it.6” in other words, online communities themselves have enjoyed such interest as a tool partly because they recreate environments – message boards and internet forums – which users are broadly familiar with. in recent years the vanguard of research – from “listening” to ‘we-research’ to neuroscience – has flirted with the removal of the question-and-answer schema altogether, and the extinction of the traditional ‘respondent’7.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 3
so it’s crucial to keep on top of how people are using the web, as ultimately this will shape people’s expectations of a collaborative experience, and the way they share information within it. in the first section of this paper i’ll talk an online trend which will ultimately have major implications for how collaborative projects work online: the shift from online destinations to flows of information generated by a user’s ‘social graph’.
1. THE SOCIAL GRAPH What is a social graph anyway?
the term “social graph” started to become popular in 2007, when Facebook’s mark Zuckerberg began using it to describe the totality of relationships in an online network – how everybody connects to everybody8. But the term is also widely used to refer to an individual’s personal social graph – the network of relationships they form using a particular service. it’s been pointed out that “social network” works just as well to describe this, but unfortunately that phrase has entered common usage as a way of describing the services themselves, rather than the connections formed within them! so in this paper i will be using “social graph” as a shorthand for “personal social graph”. at its simplest, a personal social graph is simply a set of direct connections you’ve made within a network, though particular tools can extend it further to include connections one or two steps removed from you. this social graph is itself unfixed – always changing, often growing, and the attention you allocate within it is unequal. But it’s still a useful term for the interface by which, more and more, we’re experiencing the internet. Where i mean “social graph” in the more total sense, i will indicate that.
Facebook and the social graph
at the moment, talk of “how people are using the web” tends to begin with Facebook. the service’s domination of the social media space – and the growth of that sector overall - is staggering: it claims 400 million accounts, 50% are accessed every day9. Worldwide the time spent on Facebook dwarfs traditional attention hogs like Yahoo! and its audience is approaching that of google10. at the gsma mobile media metrics event in February 2010, metrics firm Comscore presented data suggesting Facebook’s domination of the mobile space will be even more remarkable: the site is serving more than five times as many pages to mobile internet devices as google does. of course it’s important to point out that Facebook’s success doesn’t make it the only service worth paying attention to, particularly not if you’re interested in how people use social media worldwide. Chinese social networks, for instance, are far more important than Facebook in that market and are big enough to be de facto major players on any ranked table of social networks by membership. myspace may be in decline but work in the us suggests its demographics are potentially very distinct from those of Facebook11. But Facebook’s market leading status also makes it a cultural benchmark among social networking sites. the decisions it takes – about privacy, about how to display user updates, or about how brands can use the service – become de facto norms. this is why the raft of changes Facebook has made to its user interface in the last few years are so important. since it opened to a wider public in 2006 Facebook has merged status updates, tags, content sharing and other updates from friends into its “news feed”: streams of content which gave the site a more ‘real-time’ feel12. in 2009 the expanded news feed and “live feed” streams, rather than a user’s profile, became the default means of interaction with Facebook. rather than you being the centre of your Facebook universe, your friends now are. at the time this was widely considered an attempt to imitate the fast-growing twitter, but after initial protests the changes have clearly not harmed Facebook’s growth in any way13. the Facebook update stream makes concrete how Facebook sees its users interacting, not just with its service, but with the wider internet. it crystallises the concept of the “social graph” – the network of connections between friends and friends-of-friends. the social graph not only underpins how Facebook works and how users experience the site, in its total sense it’s one of Facebook’s main “products”: the immense user data sets which make it so valuable for advertisers.
Destination unknown: how the social graph affects our web experience
social graphs are important in this paper because they a vector through which fluid collaborative events – what i’m calling ‘currents’ - form online. But for now i want to highlight a consequence of the shift from a Facebook experience based on profiles to one based on the social graph: CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 4
When you go to Facebook what you’re seeing isn’t a static webpage, but one freshly generated using the personal and social graph data you’ve given the site. Facebook indeed has re-engineered their whole system so that it could do this vastly faster than any comparable service14. since you can access Facebook on the web and it looks and feels like a ‘website’ this seems initially like a merely technical point to make. But it’s actually quite important. For one thing it makes it much easier for the Facebook experience to be portable across platforms – to mobile, for instance. more crucially though it makes a break from the way the web has traditionally operated. For most of its existence the web has been built around destinations – sites you visit. most of these sites have been static and consistent – everyone visiting research-live.com, for example, has seen the same thing. Larger sites have often offered some level of personalisation – you can choose what areas of news you see on bbc.co.uk, for instance – but the core content served to visitors has generally remained the same, however reshuffled. Facebook user profiles (and its fan pages) can also be seen as destinations – even though their entire content is created by the users, they are partially static as far as visitors to the profile are concerned. But the news and live feeds are different – they are dynamic flows of information, rather than static blocks of it. and they are different for every user – no two people have exactly the same social graph, so no two people see the same content on Facebook. Facebook.com looks like a destination but it’s really a shell, a platform for dynamic content which spreads via users sharing it. this shift from static to flowing information isn’t confined to Facebook (though with 400 million members, even if it was it would still be a big deal!). But flows of information have been a growing part of the web experience for some time. rss feeds, which turn blogs from a bookmarked destination into a dynamic feed of information, have become a crucial way for web publishers to reach readers. and the user experience of twitter is based around flows of information – updates posted by individuals the user has chosen to follow, another version of the social graph. Venture capitalist John Borthwick, an investor in twitter, explained the shift as follows: “For fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. the metaphors we used… were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). most of these metaphors were static and one way. the stream metaphor is fundamentally different. it’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving. a stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are a part of this flow.”15
Information in the stream
What practical consequences does this have? For people trying to get information distributed there are two obvious effects: access via someone’s social graph is more tightly filtered, and you have far less control over the context your information is placed in and the spin which is put on it as different people pass it on. an example: anna and Bob are both using Facebook, and it’s their main source for updates about a particular topic. anna is friends with 20 people, Bob with 200. You have information about said topic. You either want direct access to anna and Bob’s stream – i.e. for them to be your friend or sign up to your fan page - or you want one of their friends to pass the information on, so it reaches them via their social graph. it seems like your chance of the information reaching anna is lower than your chance of it reaching Bob, because she has fewer friends. But once your information is in her social graph, your share of her attention is likely to be much higher – with only 20 information sources compared to 200. Bob, on the other hand, is probably more influential, but his attention is scarcer. this is what i mean by having little control over your information – even if you can get your information to the right people they may simply miss it, and the better-connected they are the more chance there is of this happening. social media to an extent replicates the dynamics of offline media, where the more influential and powerful someone is, the harder it is to get their attention. there’s better news for information owners, though. Dynamic information flows can actually be very good for individual pieces of static content – they drive traffic to it as people share information. there isn’t enough room in a status update or tweet to give more CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 5
than the bare bones of the story, so Facebook and twitter are excellent sources of links and traffic. the “stream” doesn’t replace the “page” – it compliments it.
A web of social objects
even so the shift has big implications for destination-based sites. the culture of sharing on twitter and Facebook is to share specific content rather than to link to a destination – sharing a blog post rather than the blog, a specific news story rather than the front page. this is a move away from the web as an architecture of interlinked static sites – the kind of architecture a search engine like google has built its business on. google itself, in a sign of the times, is aggressively investing in “social search” capabilities. instead the web is better seen as a collection of social objects. What’s a social object? the idea was developed by sociologists and introduced to social media a few years ago by Jyri engestrom, who founded jaiku.com. engestrom’s theory says in essence that relationships in social networks aren’t built around interpersonal connection so much as connections via social objects. “the term ’social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. this is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ’social network.’ the fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. they’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”16 social objects need not be as important as a job, though: content also works as a social object that brings people together, and as we’ll see impromptu online collaboration events often occur around small-scale social objects. For web destinations the upshot is firstly that they’ve entered the social space themselves: some of the most followed twitter accounts belong to publications like social media site mashable and music site Pitchfork media. But also the nature of their audience changes. in a destination-based web one object is to convert occasional or one-off visitors into regular visitors. this remains an object in a flow-based web but some of the “regular” visitors will in fact be “multiple one-offs”, drawn repeatedly to a destination by individual pieces of content but not necessarily purposely visiting that destination to consume larger amounts of content17. it’s kind of like the concept of the “top-up shop” as opposed to the “main shop” in retail. all of this may seem rather abstract when considering the problems of research communities. But communities, and the research topics they cover, can also be seen as social objects. and communities – at least the kind of stable research communities we’ve been building – are themselves destinations: one logs in, one remains there and joins in various conversations, and then one leaves. so my question is whether web users are building for themselves “destination-free” communities that tap into the power of flowing information? and if so, is there any benefit in researchers following suit?
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 6
SECTION 2: THE MECHANICS OF COLLABORATION Promise, tool, bargain
so to recap: social media is becoming the user interface for the internet, and more and more users are experiencing the net as a series of information flows based around their social graphs. in this context, how might the meaning of “community” alter? as i discussed earlier, our concepts of what communities look like are very much rooted in a static, destination-based web experience. Communities are private spaces – this is a particularly important requirement for research communities. membership is fixed, not necessarily in terms of numbers but in that someone is either in the community or not. those within the community have the same experience of it: the community is a destination that its members explore and maintain. this definition of community seems unlikely to be altered much by changes in the way people use the web. But there’s another way of thinking about communities, as part of a wider universe of collaborative projects between web users. in this sense a community is defined by its purpose and activities as much as by its structure. my thinking here is heavily indebted to web writer and thinker Clay shirky, and specifically his excellent book Here Comes Everybody, which goes into far greater detail on the implications and potential of online collaborative culture. i’m borrowing here his schema for engagement in a collaborative project, which he calls Promise, Tool, Bargain. For people to come together and collaborate on a project, shirky says, you need “a fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain [with the participants]”. the promise is what you want people to do; the tool is the means of them doing it; and the bargain is what they get out of it. successful online communities – research or otherwise - meet these criteria. the promise of a research community is “come and talk about this stuff”. the tool is whichever platform you’re using to do that. the bargain is that your ideas, voice and opinions are being heard by people directly able to act on them.
Participation inequality in collaborative projects
But there is nothing in the Promise, tool, Bargain framework to suggest that the collaborative project has to be enclosed, or that the bargain should require roughly equal participation from everybody. in fact, the collaborative projects detailed in shirky’s book tend to work because the bargain works differently for different participants and allows highly unequal levels of participation. on Wikipedia, for instance, some people who voluntarily edit the site spend a lot of time building and making edits to many different pages. many others, however, only make a single correction to an article in their area of expertise. But the project needs both kinds of participant to function. Participation inequality is a feature of almost all online communities, and indeed of most online tools: every month or so you’ll see a news feature on twitter reporting in shocked tones on how a fraction of its users are responsible for a large proportion of its content18. Within the world of online communities the “90-9-1” rule has become a shorthand for the typical community structure such participation inequality creates. the 1% refers to “heavy contributors”, the 9% to “occasional contributors”, and the 90% to “lurkers” – the invisible dark matter which makes up the bulk of any social tool’s notional membership19. a lot of discussion of participation inequality – particularly in the research environment – tends to focus on how to rebalance this structure in favour of active participants, making more people into the “heavy contributors”. and indeed participation levels are a valuable metric for any community manager. But shirky’s framework offers another way of looking at them. Participation inequality is simply the result of allowing every participant to negotiate their own terms in a flexible participation bargain. and the example of Wikipedia suggests that this can actually be the most efficient way for a collaborative project to work. Participation inequality also makes social-graph driven tools like Facebook and twitter work more efficiently for the users. they allow each user to maintain more contacts than would be the case if high participation were the norm20.
Currents: Liquid communities and collaborative events
so can we use the promise, tool, bargain framework to decipher how “communities” might work in a destination-free net? the promise remains largely the same – “let’s talk about this stuff” – but the tool is likely to be driven by peoples’ social graph. and so the “communities” created by such a tool will mirror the experience of a flow-based internet driven by that social graph. they will CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 7
be liquid communities, sub-flows within the stream of information, constantly forming and dissolving. they will almost certainly be of shorter duration than a static community, requiring less effort to participate in, so their bargain is simpler. it’s probably better, in fact, to think of them as collaborative events rather than as communities at all. What are the characteristics of this kind of event from the perspective of someone analysing it? three properties come to mind. membership would be synonymous with participation – though it might be possible to “lurk” in the sense of observing but not participating, there would be no level of non-involved membership as there often is in static communities. in most cases, anyone who becomes aware of the event’s existence will also be able to participate. interface with the event would be via a user’s social graph, but because the event would cross many participants social graphs’ the default view would not be the ‘complete’ event. in other words, a participant would generally view the event in terms of their friends’ role within the event – though the option to view the whole thing might very well exist. the combination of these two elements – open, participation-based membership and a user experience based on an incomplete view of the event – lead to a third property. hierarchy and narrative within the event would also be fluid and participant-driven. almost certainly the shape of the event and the activity within it could only be fully established after it had run its course – though each participant would have their own experience of it. rather than go on talking about liquid communities, or social-graph-based communities, or collaborative events, i’m going to call these things currents, since they exist in the context of flows of information21. i’ve talked about the properties of currents from an analyst’s perspective – their fluid membership and hierarchy, and the way they’re experienced via the social graph. From a “first person” user perspective though they are much simpler: • urrents happen within a stream of information you’re already accessing – like a Facebook or twitter feed. in that C context they come to you rather than you going to them. • our initial interface with the current is by observing someone else participating in it. so you don’t need a set of Y instructions, you just need to be able to copy and modify – which we can all do22. • ou don’t have to experience the full current to participate. in some cases you might not even be able to! Y
taken together this makes participation in a current a lot easier and simpler than joining a community: a very important consideration for anyone who cares about the user experience.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 8
3. THREE-AND-A-HALF EXAMPLES OF CURRENTS How currents work
the next very important question we need to answer is this: do these currents actually exist? if we think back to the promise, tool, bargain framework, we’d expect to see various tools appearing within social services which formalise the creation of currents. and in fact this is exactly what has happened. this next section of the paper will look at examples of how currents work in the real internet: hashtags on twitter, memes and tagging on Facebook, “reblogs” on a blogging service called tumblr, and activities within online games. each of these shows a different aspect of online currents and gives an idea of their variety. each of them are also quite rudimentary, emerging out of a combination of technology and social practise, and the utility and power of currents are likely to develop enormously over the next few years as people get used to collaborating quickly and informally online. google’s Wave and Buzz tools, for instance, seem to be deliberately created to encourage this kind of behaviour.
Hashtags: currents as backchannels
Like much of twitter’s user experience architecture, hashtags were originally invented by twitter users themselves, as a means of tagging content in a medium where tagging content was not formally supported. a hashtag takes the form “#[tag]” where the tag might be a topic, an event, a joke, or any kind of descriptor of a tweet’s subject. For example, the hashtag used by market researchers on twitter is “#mr” to denote tweets which include research-relevant content (see Fig 1). often organisers of a conference will promote a particular hashtag to encourage discussion – the conference this paper is being given at has the “#res10” tag, for instance. other times twitter users simply settle on a particular tag through common usage – #mr beat out #marketresearch over time simply because it took up fewer characters. Fig 1 The “#MR” hashtag – researchers asking questions and promoting content. in this simple form a hashtag works as an aid to searching twitter for relevant content. But it runs slightly deeper from that – using a hashtag on a post is an intentional act, so when someone uses a hashtag they are in effect declaring themselves as part of a community within twitter bounded by that hashtag. this is an example of what i’m calling a “current”. in particular, hashtags for particular events can quickly become unbounded and informal communities for discussing that event. in the case of tV shows, conferences, sporting and other events they can become fascinating backchannels of discussion about that event. take for example the hashtag “#bbcqt”, which is used for twitter discussion of the BBC’s Question time programme. it flowers for an hour or two every week while the show is on and then falls dormant again. a twitter user watching Question time might post a response to what’s happening on the screen with the #bbcqt tag appended. a user will see any posts with the #bbcqt hashtag in them as part of the normal stream of posts they see, and they can use the tag themselves without needing to be aware of how anyone else is using it. But they can also follow the hashtag to be exposed to tweets from a range of others outside their social graph. Within twitter this makes hashtags quite an exciting proposition – they’re breaches in people’s social graphs via which they might be exposed to a much wider range of views and users. But for our purposes what’s interesting about them is that they work as a current – a non-hierarchical, fluid community of interest which users become aware of and interact with through their social graph, though they can access the wider current too. hashtags – unlike some currents – have the enormous advantage of being highly trackable. so it’s possible to reassemble and analyse the spread and development of a hashtag quite easily. For example, blogger gilad Lotan recently created several videos analysing the spread across twitter of a hashtag #cheeringfortheyankeesislike (many hashtags are jokes which invite punchlines) – this particular tag lasted for 9 hours, and attracted 271 different participants as it spread via its users’ social graphs23. other tags – like the “#mr” market research one – are perpetually in use.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 9
Facebook notes and tags: currents as spreadable media
a similar examination of a Facebook posting fad, by Chris Wilson, appeared in slate in February 2009. it tracked the progress of a Facebook ‘meme’ called “25 things about me”, in which Facebook users wrote notes on the sites whose content was exactly as you’d imagine from the title (see Fig 2). the meme spread at least partly by “tagging” other users – on completing your version of the note you would pick a selection of your own Facebook friends you wanted to create their own versions. the slate piece showed how this particular current developed – the way similar pass-it-on memes around 18 or 30 “things” had failed before the “25 things” version took hold tellingly, the slate investigation failed to find the originator of the 25 things meme – an unimportant figure in the wider story. Figure 2. This graph, copyright Slate Magazine 2009, shows the rapid growth and peak of the “25 things” current. this particular mechanic for intentionally spreading content springs from pyramid schemes and chain letters and has become popular on Facebook. it’s interesting in that it’s an example of how a current can work by users actively inviting others to join in. it can spread a content template around the web very quickly but the user experience happens entirely within the confines of one’s own social graph – creating ones own version, and reading and commenting on those of others. unlike with the twitter hashtag there is no centralised version of the current which can be easily accessed, so this is a type of current that behaves more like ‘viral’ content in the way it spreads around. it’s also a type of current where participation is quite ‘flat’ from the user perspective – most people only ‘do a meme’ once so their involvement in the current ends rapidly.
Reblogging on tumblr: currents as conversations
the web service tumblr is a cross between a blogging service and a social network. users create blogs – called “tumblrs” – and the service lets them post different types of content (pictures, video, text, chats) to those blogs very easily. the blogs are static destinations. But the user interface for tumblr doesn’t work like that – it’s dynamic, based around which other tumblrs the user is “following”. instead of viewing individual blogs, you see a scrolling “dashboard” with all the blogs you follow presented in a unified format, their content broken up into a chronological flow, like a Facebook live feed. Within the tumblr dashboard a user can interact with someone else’s content in two ways: they can “like” it, a tick of approval which works like a Facebook ‘liking’ or ‘favouriting’ a video on Youtube. or they can “reblog” it. When you reblog an item, it appears on your tumblr credited to the person you reblogged it from, but you have room to edit, reply to or add to it (see figures 3 and 4). Fig 3. Reblogging on Tumblr. This list of who is “liking” a post and who is “reblogging” it from who gives a kind of helicopter view of a current.It would be possible to reassemble a threaded conversation from this, but importantly the users are not experiencing it as a unified thread. reblogging is what creates currents of communication within tumblr. the most popular or controversial content is reblogged hundreds or thousands of times – sometimes unaltered but often with a lot of commentary and argument taking place around it. these are conversations, but the user experiences them only in a fragmentary fashion – seeing as default only the parts of the conversation conducted by bloggers within their social graph, like 2D slices of a 3D shape. each piece of content also has a “notes” section where you can see who has liked or reblogged it, and this can be a way to follow the wider current, but it’s difficult and unwieldy. Fig 4. The original blog post that began this conversation on tumblr has now been reblogged or “liked” 120 times – the tumblr design gives you the option to check this, and to dig back into the hierarchy of the discussion. Currents in tumblr are horrendously difficult to follow from the outside. But within the tool users adapt quickly and find them quite intuitive. the system makes it easy for pockets of connected users to pursue particular ideas that might spin off from a main thread of content, creating “breakout groups” within a discussion. in the conversation in figure CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 10
4, a conversation about the pop group Vampire Weekend has spun into a conversation about the cultural meanings of the word “balaclava” vs “ski mask” in america and ireland, without in any way disrupting or distracting from the main current. it’s also worth pointing out that the reblog system on tumblr means that new features and use cases for the service tend to spread by users copying one another, rather than by any kind of centralised announcement system – this is the case for most social-graph based services, which often eschew press-releases and advertising and simply announce new developments quietly on staff blogs, in the knowledge that interested users will pass them on.
Multi-user games: designing currents?
my final example of how currents work online is more speculative, and is prompted by a partial offline precedent. in the late 80s and early 90s role-playing gamers in australia (initially, though the format spread worldwide) began playing what were known as “freeform” games: essentially, collective live improvisations, often over several days and taking place in several linked locations. these freeforms might involve 40 or 50 people and would generally involve a broad scenario designed by the organisers and a series of characters given to the individual players. For example, in “snowed inn”, a freeform run during the late 80s at York university, players took the roles of medieval travellers stuck in an inn during a winter storm24. the crucial point about these games is this: no one player was able to experience the ‘full’ game. they experienced a complete personal narrative, and partial narratives of the people they interacted with according to the level of that interaction. But the “total” narrative of the game could only be reassembled after it had finished. in other words this was a game based around an artificial social graph. Freeform games have a parallel in the user experience of massively multi-player online games like World of Warcraft (WoW). here also, the individual player experiences only a small proportion of the ‘total’ narrative of the game, a proportion determined partly by who he associates and allies with. nick gadsby has written about the use of quests and guilds in World of Warcraft as a way of forming and motivating communities25, and it seems to me that episodes of group play in such games may operate in ways similar to currents of communication in the wider web. one important thing about these kind of currents is that they’re designed. strictly, this makes them only half-currents by my definition since the user’s participation won’t be based on what they’ve seen another user doing. short-term, user-driven collaborative projects don’t have to be spontaneous but can be planned for and prompted, which is one reason several researchers are looking into the interface of market research and game design.
4. CURRENTS AND MARKET RESEARCH Uses of collaborative currents
With each of these examples of currents, what we’re seeing is an existing form of online collaboration altered by the user’s interface being their social graph. hashtags are a social graph version of a chatroom; tagged Facebook notes a social graph version of an open question; tumblr reblogs a social graph version of a comments thread; and multi-user games a social graph version of a more linear game. Currents exist, and they’re an important part in how people use and experience the web. so we should also start thinking about how they might be used in market research. What do online research techniques look like through a social graph lens? the existence of collaborative currents has implications for both the main strands of social media research as it’s currently practised – for “listening” to consumer social media activity and for building research communities. For listening, understanding how currents work is a crucial part of the toolkit, since they can provide a rich and vital layer of context on top of the large-scale analysis of content. Currents are often predictable – hashtags for particular events and tV shows for instance. Detecting and reassembling these flows of information will help researchers understand the emergent properties of consumer opinion: how particular ideas about a brand or product form and change as they move across a network.
Currents Within Communities
For research communities the issues are different. Communities are collections of conversations, and in mroCs the social graphs within a community are generally latent: people aren’t usually expected to “friend” others, though informal social networks and hierarchies of attention will naturally develop within any community. CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 11
in my opinion currents offer us newer ways to make communities work at a larger scale than the small mroC. if the research environments we build are more like networks – created around people’s social graphs – then individual tasks and questions within those communities can work like currents within a wider research environment. this would have several advantages. We would be designing a community which took participation inequality into account, so less effort need be expended in managing the research environment in an attempt to artificially raise participation rates. i would hypothesise that the rapidly forming and dissolving nature of currents makes them particularly good for quick discussion of small problems: if so, then this is another potential advantage of research which uses them. Because the research experience would be dynamic and determined by participants’ social graphs – not every participant sees the same information - it would be easier to observe parallel discussions and flows of information. unlike subgroups or cells within a survey these would be self-organising so we would have the advantage of analysing conversations and opinions within a realistic social environment. We could see how exposure to particular posts or pieces of information within a current affected participants; attitudes – creating a kind of social equivalent of web optimisation’s “a/B testing”. how would we build such a thing? some researchers – anthony hamelle of Linkfluence, for instance – have already begun to propose using the social graph as a driver of sampling26, and this kind of technique would be critical for creating a loose, large, current-driven research environment. the largest barrier, after all, to building such an environment is that it’s very difficult to impose social graphs on people: they tend to have their own networks already, which grow quite slowly. this is another reason why multiuser game design, which must place newcomers in a designed environment and involve them in a network quickly, is an area many researchers are looking into. smaller research companies like Brainjuicer and Verve are already moving to a model where a loose ‘community’ allows small groups to quickly form around specific tasks. it’s as likely, however, that this is the kind of research that can best be done within an existing social network, and will be one direction that research using Facebook, twitter, and other services moves in.
The return of the question
an important point made by Clay shirky in Here Comes Everybody is that the web has been particularly hard on bundles of information: the social graph is a ruthless disaggregator. the survey – and the closed community - are bundles of information as surely as the newspaper or the CD are. these are two formats the internet era has not been kind to so far. it’s possible that the best reason for keeping an eye on currents as a research tool is that the closed communities we’re building now will simply cease to engage participants who have become used to quicker, more fluid and personalised ways of collaborating. Ways which, as we’ve seen, offer them a far simpler user experience than an online community does. so research via the social graph will surely be highly modular, operating on the level of the single question or topic rather than the wider survey or longer discussion. this ties in well with other directions in research – the pressing need for shorter tasks that fit mobile users, and the distaste of information gatekeepers like Linkedin for longer surveys27. as i confessed in my introduction, these are for the most part speculative thoughts. they spring, however, out of real, observed changes in internet users’ experience of the net as it moves towards a dynamic interface that is both completely personalised but utterly socially driven. these are changes that create opportunities for researchers as well as challenges. online communities offered us opportunities to empower participants and explore topics in more depth. online listening offers us the opportunity to uncover the questions we didn’t know existed. research using the dynamic social-graph-based internet will enrich both of these, and may also liberate the basic unit of market research – the individual question – by turning it into a social object around which collaborative currents can form.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 12
5. BIBLIOGRAPHY AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Barber, tamara. The Forrester Wave: Full Service Mrket Research Online Community Vendors, Q4 2009 (Forrester, 2009). Bentley, alex and earls, mark. Forget influentials, herd-like copying is how brands spread. (admap, october 2008) Borthwick, John. Distribution…Now (blog post, 2009: http://www.borthwick.com/weblog/2009/05/13/699/ ) boyd, danah. taken out of context: american teen sociality in networked publics (Dissertation, 2008 – available online: http://www. danah.org/papers/takenoutofContext.pdf ) Comley, Pete. Online research communities: a user guide. (iJmr, Vol 50 issue 5) earls, mark. Herd: The Hidden Truth About Who We Are (2nd edition, Wiley 2009) earls, mark and Kearon, John. From Me- To We-Research (esomar, 2009) engestrom, Jyri. Why some social network services work and others don’t (blog post, 2005: http://www.zengestrom.com/ blog/2005/04/why-some-social-network-services-work-and-others-dont-or-the-case-for-object-centered-sociality.html ) ewing, tom. Confessions Of A Moderator: How Online Communities Fail (mrs, 2008) gadsby, nick. The Enemy Within: Deconstructing the myth of communities and constructing the social product (mrs, 2009) hamelle, anthony. social graph theories. (esomar, 2008) Lotan, gilad. Seeing A Twitter #Hashtag Spread (Blog post, 2010: http://tinyurl.com/y86n6zx ) Lux, Cecile and meyassed, Doron. The Future Of Community Based Research (mrs research methods Conference, 2009) Petersen, Charles. In The World Of Facebook (nY review of Books, 25th February 2010) rilstone, andrew (ed.), Aslan Magazine 10-13 and supplements (independently Produced, 1988-1990) shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody (2nd edition, Penguin, 2009) Wilson, Chris. Charles Darwin Tagged You In A Note On Facebook. (slate, 11th February 2009) thanks also to mark earls, John griffiths, Katie harris, Frank Kogan, alison macleod and my colleagues at Kantar operations for the conversations and feedback which shaped this paper.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 13
1 ray’s book is detailed in his blog: http://thefutureplace.typepad.com 2 Lux and meyassed, 2009 3 Barber, 2009 4 ibid. 5 ewing, 2008 6 Comley,2008. 7 earls and Kearon, 2008, for example. 8 there’s a good discussion of the issues surrounding this usage here: http://tinyurl.com/3xpwcm 9 the 400 million figure is Facebook’s own: http://tinyurl.com/yd9ukck as is the 50% claim: http://tinyurl.com/yclopdp 10 source: nielsen 11 boyd, 2008 12 Petersen, 2010 13 During the time this paper was written Facebook’s interface has changed again, with more prominent attention given to the areas of the service – friend groups and privacy settings – that allow a user to tailor and edit their social graph. But the news and live feeds are still central. 14 some details on this here: http://tinyurl.com/nfusqn 15 Borthwick, 2009 16 engestrom, 2005 17 see Borthwick, 2009 for some visualisation of this. 18 this harvard Business review study is typical: http://tinyurl.com/yadrhmc 19 it even has its own website! http://www.90-9-1.com/ 20 this is partly a function of absolute participation and partly a function of individual participation inequality when it comes to reciprocal engagement, as in this Facebook user data: http://tinyurl.com/an2528 21 a similar metaphor is used by Bentley and earls, 2008. 22 as discussed in earls, 2009. 23 Lotan, 2010. 24 Freeforms and suchlike are discussed in the out of print aslan zine. one player offers a personal history here: http://nnbtv.org.uk/ games/history.html25 gadsby, 2009 26 hammelle, 2008 27 a distaste expressed in a live interview with Linkedin’s sean Bruich at the esomar online research conference 2009, conducted by tom h C anderson. Bruich explained that Linkedin keeps a close control over survey content on its site precisely because it distrusts researchers and their predeliction for long, complex survey tasks.
CULTURES OF COLLABORATION 14
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.