Quick overview of Research 2010

I attended the MRS Conference in London this week, invited by Ray Poynter to perform (there’s no other word for it!) a five minute piece at Tuesday’s Ideas Rush.   I have not been to this conference for absolutely ages.   Met quite a few people from former lives and it was great to see them (shout-outs to Anna Cliffe,  Yvonne Burr, and Ann Morgan), not mention putting faces to more of the Twitter names.    There was more going on than I could possibly catch, and the parallel sessions meant that I ended up running from one room to another to try to catch things.

There was a mood of high anxiety about online research and social media: a strong sense that things are continuing to change very fast.  Rosie Campbell brought some perspective to the sense of being deluged by text, pointing out the importance of analysing discourse.    John Griffiths gave everyone palpitations all over again by talk of research bots gathering information, and  Ray Poynter put up a chart mapping online methods that I bet will be seen in every meeting room from here to Swindon.

I enjoyed some of the Day 1 novelties: as an Armando Iannucci fan, the interview with him which opened the conference had very little to do with the topic but was a delight.  Stephen Sackur showed us the skill of journalistic interviewing, with a panel that was pretty incisive given SS’s relatively unfamiliarity with the industry.   One panelist commented astutely that ‘there are several industries represented here’, and I think that’s very true.

Day 2’s set-pieces were more disappointing (although Dragon’s Den had some terrific performances).   The cynical forecaster was, well, cynical.  I was impressed to see him down the front afterwards selling copies of his pamphlet for a cool £5 (cash only) to a huddle of interested takers.

What can I say about the panel on cultural evolution?   Well.   Mark Earl’s initial party piece, about errors in transmission of gestures, made for wonderful theatre and had the most genetics in it of all 3 pieces.    We then had a piece about the evolution of objects, and a piece about patterns of adopting new objects…

I had joked to someone that there should be a bleeding-edge paper about the application of genetics to market research, but actually this wasn’t it, and I am going to be forced to write that one myself.   It will definitely include the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, as well as a discussion of founder effects.  Heh.

General thoughts:  although I love online research and think it can be rich and illuminating, I caught myself wondering whether the present climate represents the bubble for online involvement.  Communities seem to represent the best of online methods, giving the opportunity to talk to groups in quite a different way; yet there is a great deal of self-selection going on here, and in the online world, as everywhere else, the most desirable groups may be hard to pin down.   Sometimes it’s faster to pick up the phone.

The Research Magazine team did a brilliant job of interviewing and rapid blogging, and I particularly appreciated the Armando Ianucci interview in terms of the amount of preparation required (although repeat viewing of Malcolm Tucker is always rewarding).

The sessions were quick but a lot of delegate yakked on beyond their slot, leaving no room for questions. So, lots to see but could do more to be interactive.  And in the name of heaven do please give delegates a proper lunch.


Teleclasses and online workshops: the next revolution

In the midst of all the loud talk about the latest trends in social media – like the ongoing obsession with location-based services – it’s interesting to notice a quiet business revolution taking place in other corners of the net.

You may already be aware of services in say, marketing coaching or personal growth, often offered as teleclasses linked to highly successful business blogs.    So, for example, you can sign up for a marketing teleclass with Naomi Dunford of Ittybiz, or go for the rather wonderfully-named Virtual Retreat offered by Jennifer Louden.  I do believe that the teleclass is this year’s successor to the e-book.  Indeed, I would be first in line to buy the Escape From Cubicle Nation work package if I hadn’t already, er, escaped.

On a more affordable scale, there are also lots of online craft classes emerging, often built on the bulletin board software that’s very familiar to researchers and online community managers.   You can learn photography, get into digital scrapbooking, make over your living-room and get organised.   For some time now, you’ve also been able to diet diligently (or not)  with the help of Weight Loss Resources  and the like. 

I’m really fascinated by this second type of class.   I’ve sampled a few, purely in the interests of research *cough*, and the best of them are quite brilliant, typically combining the ongoing experience of a community with the personal approach of a coach.   Acquiring a new skill suddenly becomes rather like going shopping: drop it in your basket, whip out Paypal, and off you go.

From the business side, I’m intrigued by how many will provide a sustainable living for their owners;  from a usability standpoint, I sense that the most successful online workshops are deeply usable and pay a great deal of attention to establishing a trusting, sociable, beautifully designed online space.   These types of classes appear to go much further than, say, online higher education environments where the focus tends to be on accessing materials and functional discussion. 

Most of the teleclasses and online workshops that I’ve seen so far have been based in the USA.  Perhaps the British are a bit more cautious about this sort of thing; perhaps they’re out there, and I just don’t know about them.    From my experience of taking part, I sense that many of the other participants are genuine digital natives, comfortable with chatting online and uploading works-in-progress.   These are small-scale, often very female businesses.  It looks like they’re working well.

I’m intrigued.  The online workshop really seems to me like a small-scale example of discontinous innovation, opening up a market that simply wasn’t there before.  I’m also quite excited:  right now I can think of a couple of coaching workshops that I’d like to write, straight off the bat. 

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

63% of poll results are entirely made up

The Home Office published a report last week, entitled ‘Sexualisation of Young People.’ It was trailed on the radio, along with some of its radical recommendations, which include relegating ‘lad’s mags’ like Nuts to the top shelf.  It’s an entirely worthy subject, and as the mother of a young teenage boy and a preteen girl, I was pretty interested in what it had to say.

The report author, Linda Papadopoulis, states firmly in the introduction that:

This is not an opinion piece, the evidence and arguments presented within this document are not based on conjecture but on empirical data from peer reviewed journals, and evidence from professionals and clinicians.

Unfortunately, as I read through, I became increasingly distracted by the type of evidence being presented in the report.   Because I am a huge geek, I started going back to a few of the sources being mentioned, to see whether they were really saying what the report author claims they were saying.  

And right now?  I don’t really trust the report.  

Here are some of the things that make my spidey-sense tingle:

 1. Vagueness about method

There are references to focus groups, but no detailed information.  The main evidence gathered appears to be that provided by the organisations and pressure groups consulted, together with desk research. 

2. Imprecise use of opinion poll evidence

‘A recent YouGov survey found that 27 per cent of boys are accessing pornography every week,with 5 per cent viewing it every day.’

Which YouGov study? How old were the boys? How do you define pornography? (I’m not being deliberately critical – in a discussion of sexualisation, there is a huge difference in meaning if the boys are 16 compared to 10)

‘Almost half of children aged 8-17…’

Why is an 8 year old being lumped in with a 17 year old?  This makes me suspect that the sample is not big enough to support a more detailed breakdown.  I also want to know more about the methodology of a study that gathers this information from teenagers and children.

3. Uncritical use of ‘voodoo polls’


Surveys have found for instance that a high proportion of young women in the UK aspire to work as ‘glamour models’ or lap-dancers.


Do they indeed? That’s appalling.  The reference here is ‘Deeley, 2008.’  This tracks to an article in the Times, citing a web survey conducted by an internet TV company called Lab TV.  63% of 1,000 girls questioned by Lab TV apparently thought Jordan was a good role model.  I say ‘apparently’ because that’s as far back as I can track this one – unless Lab TV is the one belonging to the (American) National Defense Education Programme. Which I doubt.  Still, I bet it was a great sample!

Mind you, it’s really not the same question, is it?  Thinking someone is a good role model isn’t quite the same as wanting to grow up to be that person.

4. Drawing on US evidence in a UK report

In the US, the number of magazines targeting the teen market rose from five to 19 between 1990 and 2000.

And the point would be? In an argument about inappropriate sexualisation in UK culture, the state of the US market is not obviously relevant.

5. Argument from dramatic, unsubstantiated examples

Padded bras, thongs and high heeled shoes are marketed and sold to children as young as eight.

I do think that girls’ clothes are often inappropriate,  but as mother of an 8-year girl, I can’t say I’ve ever spotted these examples.  Princess sandals may count as high heels. I know the point that the writers are trying to make but I would rather see it done with more everyday examples.

6. Straight-out confusion


Before the mainstreaming of internet access, it was asserted that the average of first exposure to pornography was 11 for males.  However, research suggest that this age is now much lower.


There are two references quoted to support this statement.  The first one is a 1985 reference – the pre-internet one.  The second one is ‘Greenfield, 2004.’   I Googled this paper, which is actually evidence presented to a US government committee.  It in turn references various studies which tried to estimate the age when adults first remembered coming across explicit sexual material.  It doesn’t support the ‘much younger’ argument in any way that’s obvious to me.

As I said, this is a subject that’s close to my heart, as a parent who is constantly trying to negotiate these issues in an internet-enabled world.  My first reading of this report, though, is that it is indeed mostly opinion.  That’s a disappointment.  Opinion is very important in this area, but I think the shakiness of some of the references quoted really does the subject a disservice.