When cultures collide: LiveJournal, Facebook and the privacy chasm

Frank on Facebook

Frank the LJ Goat, selling out.

So.  A few days ago, the blogging site LiveJournal announced a shiny new feature: the ability to cross-post journal entries and comments directly to Twitter and Facebook.   From the tone of the post, LJ staff were clearly expecting to be showered with gratitude.

For those of you who squander spend time on those other social networks, we’ve just made it easier to stay in touch with your grandparents, forgotten acquaintances, and former bosses on Facebook and Twitter without having to leave the comfort of your LiveJournal home.

At the time of writing, there were 142 pages of comments to this News Update (over 10,000 comments) pretty much unanimously condemning this move.   The Twitter part hasn’t disturbed the users, but the Facebook part has completely exploded in LJ’s corporate, er, face.

The main complaint? Cross-posting creates a huge privacy glitch.  Someone who had Facebook Connect enabled could apparently cross-post a comment to their Facebook, even when commenting on someone else’s locked-down journal.  True, Facebook friends wouldn’t be able to see the whole locked journal entry, but they could read the comment title and then poke around.

The thing is, that while Facebook has persuaded most users to adopt real-life identities, Livejournal is very different.   The vast majority of LJ users have usernames, not real names.   It’s very common to have pictorial avatars and icons, rather than a personal photograph.  Many LJ bloggers lock all or some of their entries, in order to emote more precisely about all manner of subjects from My Chemical Romance to how much grief they are  getting from their distant relatives, their boss and their Facebook friends.

Cleolinda Jones, who maintains a popular blog on LJ, has researched the effect of the cross-posting, and yes, it’s a privacy black hole.  Not because it reveals you immediately, but because anyone with a little talent at triangulation could begin to identify the Facebooker’s LJ friend.

Livejournal, like Bebo, Myspace and other journal-style sites, is losing out to Facebook and Facebook-like practices. It’s not trendy, if it ever was, and a search for stories about this particular user backlash gets one hit on Google News.  (In contrast, the story about World of Warcraft’s attempt to get users to adopt real-life names gets 13.5 million hits and a story in The Economist).

What is particularly telling is that while LJ alerted its users 5 days ago, there has been virtually no management comment, other than a short update to the original news item.

Update: Thank you for taking the time to offer your honest feedback. We understand and appreciate your desire for privacy. We share your concerns. Most of us would not want to publish our LiveJournal usernames or FO (friends-only) comments to Facebook or Twitter either (to the extent we even use them). Please give us a little time to address your concerns. We are listening, and we’ll do our best to respond.

What, said the commenters, is the point of launching a feature which you already know your users will hate? Unless it’s a done deal…

Commenters are beginning to move from earnest argument to vitriol and cat macros.

It’s been five days, now. Five days. Fucking irresponsible. Disgusting. Lazy. Careless. Idiot. Fatcat. Bastards.

One of the interesting things about the user feedback is not only the emphatic rejection of moves which would threaten privacy (and we’re talking about a service that users may pay for) but also the visceral dislike and mistrust of Facebook  culture. Facebook is indeed for the public face – but many users want to keep an alternative service like LiveJournal that preserves an odd semi-public, semi-private internet space. Even if such spaces are going the way of the chatroom.

I’m personally sad about the move.  I’ve been on LJ since 2004, happily yakking about books, film and TV to an assorted collection of geek friends.   I am still hoping that the wilder elements will be thrown out (like the persistent tick-boxes under comments that invite you to cross-post to Facebook and Twitter, which still show up, albeit in grayed-out form, even when Facebook Connect is switched off).

If Facebook is the office, Twitter is the cocktail bar and Livejournal is the cosy pub where you talk to old friends about inconsequential stuff and deep feelings.   I’m fearful of anything which continues to roll out Facebook’s monolithic approach to internet culture: there’s enough of it already. Plenty of room for something different; but I’m not sure the site owners see it that way.

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.

That’s why it’s called ‘research’

A wee rant.  I came across this conversation about online communities on Research Live.  There is a discussion of the pros and cons of research-based online communities, branded online communities, and right at the end a commenter who says that all this community talk is ridiculous and simply listening to internet buzz (via networks like) Facebook is the way forward.

Listen, my children. Many many years ago, I was a wee trainee research manager for a company that did a very boring thing.  We made the fragrances that go into washing powders.    We did not think this was at all dull.  We lived and breathed functional fragrance (quite literally, marketing was right next to the factory).  We researched all sorts of things. We did sensory research, perfume trends research, international laundry research*, brand positioning research.

The one thing we couldn’t do is listen in to a general conversation because for the most part the ‘moment’ we were researching was transient and private.

So it is with many products and brands.  For every Facebook and iPod and Easyjet and Carling Black Label, there is a product which is humble or private or low-key or taboo or just not terribly interesting.  It may be everything to its creators, but it doesn’t generate talk.   This does not stop the producers of these things from wanting to find out what people think.

A research community, like a survey or a piece of qualitative research, is a way of lining up your users and asking them to talk about something they may scarcely think about, day to day**.  When it comes down to it, your customers may have vivid experiences and strong opinions which would never see the light of day outside of the direct conversation between researcher and user, or brand and user.

Don’t get me wrong, online metrics are important and of course you should collect them; but in many cases they will be absent, deeply uninformative or even misleading.   Also: (deep breath) not everybody is online; not everybody important to your category is online.    They’re certainly not all on Facebook.    And I’m flailing in frustration now, but really, systematic research is one of the best methods of finding out what people think of your (slightly boring, not-dominating-Twitter) thing.

*Anyone who thinks that it would be impossible to talk about washing powder for very long is sorely, sorely mistaken.

**For example, blank video tape, back in the day.  Try mining that.

The curious case of the game show neuroscientists, or how NOT to research an online community

I’m a fond member of the blogging/social networking site, Livejournal.   Over the last few days, I’ve seen the most incredible shitstorm unfold, over the cack-handed efforts of two rogue academics to research what they were pleased to call ‘the cognitive neuroscience of fanfiction’.


First, a bit of background: Livejournal (one of the original social networks) is a vast and varied set of subcultures, and interconnected blogs, dominated by film, TV, book and gaming fans.    It is more counterculture than culture, really: it tends to be left-wing, creative and anarchic.

One of the many subcultures in the mix is fanfiction writing:  stories that people write using characters from books, film, music and TV.  Fanfic writing is female-dominated, and some of it (but by no means all) is very explicit.   There is fanfic for everything, from Jane Austen through Doctor Who (rewriting the works of Russell T. Davies) to The Mighty Boosh.

Fanfic writers have an odd hobby, but they are a pleasant and literate bunch who are much studied by academics.   In fact, academics (like Henry Jenkins) completely adore this stuff  – it pulls feminism, transgression, social networking and copyright laws all into one place. What’s not to like.

The questionnaire is launched

Anyway, a few days ago a friend forwarded me a link to an online questionnaire that she found intriguing.  It was about fanfiction, it seemed a bit amateur, and what did I think of it?   The link was banner-style, and it looked a lot like the Cosmo-style pop quizzes that are memed all over the place on social networks.   There was a reassuring link to a FAQ page giving the names of the researchers, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, and their academic affiliations at Boston University (the BU links no longer exist).  This page also gave a long explanation of their interests in cognitive neuroscience, and what this had to do with fanfiction…

“We’re deeply interested in broad-based behavioral data that involves romantic or erotic cognition and evinces a clear distinction between men and women. Fan fiction matches this criteria perfectly.”


The researchers had apparently also consulted a couple of well-known bloggers in the areas, and got their guidance and feedback and endorsement.    Apart from the fact that the academics weren’t making the changes suggested, it all seemed fine.

The online questionnaire itself (captured here in two parts on an LJ Dr Who site – you may see an generic age warning for content on some LJ pages) was a rather different story. I took a look.  There were  70 questions in all (one per page), starting with some brusque questions about one’s gender, age and ethnicity.   It even asked for your SAT scores.  The questionnaire proceeded to a number of fantastically detailed and rather odd questions dealing with fanfiction reading habits; and then it got heavily intimate, asking (amongst other things), exactly what kinds of sexy stories the respondent read and (deep intake of breath) whether they ever had rape fantasies.

The questionnaire… does not go down well.

The questionnaire was barely up before LJers started complaining about the content.  LJ people love to complain at the best of times, and there was a lot of ground to cover here:

a)      Terrible questionnaire design

b)      Inaccurate, amateurish and homophobic wording

c)      Prurient lines of questioning

d)      No attempt to screen out under-18s

e)      Lack of the usual information on privacy, anonymity and confidentiality

f)       And (my favourite) frequent criticisms of the methodology.  How in the name of heaven the researchers were going to draw any valid conclusions whatsoever about subcortical processing, given their data collection methods?

What the researchers hadn’t bargained for was the thoughtfulness of the response.  Livejournal people are a fairly literate bunch.   Stuff like feminist analysis of television casting decisions is a walk in the park for many of them.   At least some of the people who came across the questionnaire were social researchers, lecturers, feminist academics, and indeed neuroscientists.  They didn’t like what they saw.

Ogi attempts to engage with respondents

The lead researcher opened a journal (now showing a single entry, an apology) for the purposes of answering questions about the research; and in the space of about two days, that journal moved from polite, rather subservient requests for clarification, to a full-on flamewar, as the lead researcher put up his questions for comment. As he engaged, he revealed more and more of his (very strange) thinking (he’s deleted his comments on this thread, but you can work some of them out), and his subjects began to research him in earnest.

Google is your friend (and Wikipedia, and Youtube)

Turns out, Ogi Ogas had forgotten to mention a few things:

  1. He wasn’t actually affiliated with Boston University any more
  2. While they were indeed neuroscientists, their Ph.Ds were on visual processing and artificial intelligence
  3. The lead researcher’s Ph.D was funded by the US Department of Homeland Security
  4. The lead author gained earlier infamy as a successful contestant on the American version of ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’

And, last but not least, there was another teeny fact missing:

The authors had just signed a substantial book deal with Penguin for a popular science book entitled: ‘Rule 34: What Netporn teaches us about the brain.’

(As one commenter put it: ‘What? You think we can’t Google?’)

(NB – the literary agency has changed the book title now, to ‘Rule 34’)

So they asked about these Netporn theories, and then the shit really hit the fan.  It’s hard to follow the logic, but his theory (screencapped here)  drew on data-mining of adult sites aimed at men, and posited that explicit fanfiction for women could be equated with male interest in male-to-female transsexuals  (?!) and that both of these things could be used to model subcortical processing (whatever that is) in male and female  brains.  Or something.

Somewhere around there, people stopped arguing with him and started taking direct action.  The academics started complaining to Boston University, the creatives started creating cat macros, the neuroscientists started writing long introductions to neuroscience and the specialists in gender identity just started screaming.  There were a few more updates, and then Ogi locked his journal.  He issued a few wandering emails, and removed most of his journal (and indeed many of the comments that he’d left elsewhere).  Naturally, the LJers (being used to the ways of flamewars) took screenshots of the more alarming content well in advance.


From beginning to end, Ogi Ogas maintained that he wasn’t doing social research, he was just collecting data.

The day after the shitstorm, someone reported their conversation with the University of Boston’s rearch ethics board: he wasn’t formally affiliated, and he didn’t have ethics board clearance.  His university pages have now disappeared, the questionnaire is down, and at time of writing, he seems to be deleting all his comments elsewhere.

On the face of it, this is simply an extreme example of shoddy and unethical  research which will reflect badly on anyone who tries to do research online, especially within a community or subculture.   Anyone who approaches that particular community in the future is going to encounter deep suspicion.

It goes further, though.  One of the very odd features of the whole story is that Ogi Ogas and his colleague took a lot of care to approach prominent people. He got a great deal of help from some of them (he also got a magnificent brush-off from one, but that’s another story*).   All of those people are writing to explain that he seemed genuine, and they trusted him.   They offered the same critique of the questions that anyone would.  He seemed to listen, but went ahead with his own version.  This is either arrogance or sociopathy.

One of the people he approached has written to apologise for being taken in, and to reprint some of their correspondence.  She warns him that his attempts to research this particular community are probably dead in the water.   In his reply to her, he’s chirpy.

‘Eventually we’re going to go through this all over again with the far right. It will be interesting to see who throws the meaner punch.’

And I’m left thinking: is this the ultimate troll?

The book is due out in 2010.

*My favourite part of these people’s very lengthy smackdown is the grand postmodern refusal:

‘And so we decline to be interviewed by you; we decline to be the objects of your fascination; we decline to be naturalized; we decline to allow our political project to be cited in support of the very discourses we are trying to question.’

ETA: When respondents bite back

I actually hesitated in writing this up, because I was worried that mainstream researchers will see this as a distant kerfuffle in an unlikely subculture.   But I agree strongly with the writer at the Rough Theory blog (see below), who suggests that Ogas may fail to take valid community criticisms seriously, because he has so thoroughly Othered them as respondents.  In other words, ‘they’re so weird, we don’t have to be careful with them.’

The second general learning point for anyone thinking of attempting a controversial online questionnaire, is how quickly things go viral.  Ogas was terribly happy about the response rate (reliability and validity were not a concern); that same speed of process led, very rapidly, to critique, opprobrium, and direct action.   Before you engage?  Do us all a favour and go on that Methodology course.

Some other quick links:

Rough Theory’s roundup

Unfunny Business’s summary of the whole mess

Feminist SF

Jonquil’s thoughts on respondents who bite back

Hitting the wall: inevitable Twitter navel-gazing

The Wall, by _spoon_

Image: The Wall, by _spoon_, via Flickr

I think I’ve hit a bit of a wall with Twitter.  The excitement of all the initial exploration and discovery has been overtaken by some feelings of hmmm, how can I put it?  Weary drudgery. Overload.  Disconnection.

I do recognise this flat phase from other networking – eventually after a bit of wild expansion, you need to regroup and consolidate.  I got really excited at uncovering new people and new blogs via Twitter;  then I went a bit mad adding new people and finally, I got to the stage of being unable to keep up, or remember who this person was.

On the whole, I’m loving Twitter, but it’s such an odd window on the world.

Four things that struck me this week:

  • the excitement and the frustration of online networking

Sometimes you hit a good 140 character ‘conversation’ and you think: dang, this chat would be far better carried out over coffee, or a drink, or even something extremely 2003 like Instant Messenger.   The Twitter chat can be great, at times, but it’s also so frustrating and narrow.  You people on the internet, you’re different in real life.  I know that.  I’d like to see that. I’d like to see YOU.

  • the niche nature of online networks

Few social networks, even the high profile ones, truly capture an audience.   There are so many relevant and interesting people who aren’t there.

In the case of Twitter, perhaps it’s maybe likely that everyone in an intense geekspace is present; but outside of that group, online networks are a partial representation of the whole.    Of course, that doesn’t matter:  we talk to the people who are here; but when we generalise beyond ourselves, we need to remember all the other folk who are too busy or too uninterested to get involved.

  • the sheer VOLUME of virtual landfill (blogfill?)

I think it was the NME (someone will correct me) who coined the term ‘indie landfill’  for a certain kind of indie act that would get 6 months of fame if they were lucky.    With Twitter, I click blindly on posts.  Some blogs are lovely, some are dire, some are OK.


Freshnetworks have a well-written, interesting, pithy post up every single bloody day.   I’m still musing on Tuesday and they’ve bounced on to Thursday.

I can’t keep up.


  • We  are weirder than we realise

So. I tweet, I read, I blog, I comment.   When I come across an interesting blog that I’d like to read regularly, I add it to my Netvibes page (my RSS reader).   In the research I did last year amongst young managers, something like 9 per cent had used an RSS feed.    Now, I know fine well that I am not up there with the technogeeks.  Still, I have a Netvibes page.  THIS ACTUALLY MAKES ME QUITE UNUSUAL.  Add in my demographic details and it makes me an actual freak, but we won’t go there.

There’s a moral here somewhere.   Get out more, maybe (note to self).  This is nice, but it’s not the world; and for the most part, it’s not your customers’ world either.

How do you stop yourselves from being overwhelmed?

Participation? Not without eyeshadow.

One of my favourite things about the internet is what might broadly be termed ‘participatory media’: in other words, people creating things and putting them on the Net.   I’ve been exploring the new-to-me world of videoblogging, and as a family we have already got started, by filming our new pet gerbil, doing a bit of editing, and uploading the whole thing to Youtube.  Yes! We rock.

The first stages of making short video is relatively straightforward, if cumbersome: you make your film, you transfer it to your computer, edit it and then post it to your Youtube account.  This takes 10 seconds to say and approximately 2 days to actually do, because in the meantime, you have had to figure out video editing software, figure out the idiosyncrasies of your cheap camcorder, locate all the missing codec, etecetera etcera. Still, we did it and it was fun.

On the back of this home movie success, I had the bright idea that I might get started in video blogging, or at least keeping a video diary to post here.  I do love video diaries.   I especially love the little amateur shows, like those on 43 folders.  Like mash-ups and home-made video, they prove that you don’t always have to be slick or have expensive technology in order to start a conversation or have an influence.

In the interests of getting started, I registered for Seesmic, the brand-new videoblogging site started by the charismatic Loic Lemeur.  Invites, I soon found, were like Wonka tickets.  Still, the company had to expand past the specially-invited core group and so eventually I got my invite and signed up in great excitement…

 …only to find that actually there are a number of somewhat obvious drawbacks to spontaneous video blogging, and I don’t just mean getting the webcam to stick in one place.  I mean fundamental problems.  Some of these are pure usability troubles, and some are more profound blocks to participation.

When you follow a video conversation on Seesmic, you click on a picture with a title, and the video launches, with its snippet of the ongoing conversation.  If you don’t know the people, you’re forced to select who to read on the basis of a) how interesting the title is to you; and b) whether there is anything about their appearance that makes them stand out.

You would not believe how many techy-looking guys in baseball caps put their mumbling videos on Seesmic.  I ended up clicking on people who just looked different, like the platinum blonde girl with the pink lip gloss. 

I also couldn’t join in, despite the remarkable ease of contributing a video post.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  I could see that talking into my webcam at 11 at night was going to raise awkward questions.  Worse, I’d have to totally rethink my office decor.  In all, I reckoned I would need most of the following things to be in place before I could go any further:

  • An attractive, artistic backdrop behind my head, ideally showcasing a creative and rather minimalist office rather than the stationery cupboard behind my head
  • Contact lenses
  • A new haircut
  • A touch of make-up
  • Hell, a makeover from Debenhams
  • Voice lessons or preferably full-on media training, to prevent that rabbit-in-the-spotlight look and mumbled delivery of the inexperienced videoblogger
  • A completely empty house, so that kids and husband do not wander in halfway to ask whether I’m rehearsing a presentation
  • Personal security, for when I get popular and am stalked by crazed fans
  • No shame whatsoever

I will work on the backdrop first.

10 tips for productive online conversations

I’ve been trying to have online conversations for a while now, in different spheres of my life, and here are my top 10 tips for running online forums and groups.  There may be more along later, but these are the ones that occur to me first.

1. Aim for an intimate public conversation

Conversational style is a hard thing to get right.  Personally, I feel that online discussion should be fairly close to natural conversation.  In other words, as an online facilitator (just as offline), you’ll get the best out of other people by being relaxed, genuine and curious.    My best examples of interviewers who do this brilliantly come from Radio 1: just listen to daytime DJs like Edith Bowman or Jo Whiley talk to their audience.  

Who does it badly? News interviewers, especially from the Today programme on Radio 4, manage to be narrow, aggressive and hectoring.  Double glazing salesmen and telephone interviewers, they all want to lead you in a direction that you’re not keen to go…

2. Get the relevant background from people

I often see people acting as if the internet was a scarce resource.  The whole point of having an online forum, say, as opposed to a questionnaire, is so that you can have a broadband conversation, not a narrowband, bounded conversation of the sort that resembles a questionnaire.  Anyway: find out what you need to know about your audience’s lives, work, habits, attitudes…it doesn’t need to be general, it can be very, very specific, but get that background.  It will serve you very well later.  You don’t ask, you won’t get.

3. Ask for stories

Where you can, ask for a whole story, not just the simple answer to a simple question.  Ask your audience to tell you something: their image of Brand X, their first experience of getting a bank account, their favourite night out…whatever.  You may need to give your own examples to get people going, but stories are rich.

4. If you have lots of questions, bundle them into conversations

I see people trying to string out the separate parts of their conversations like beads on a wire.  So, in discussing whether people would like to keep an elephant as a pet, the discussion gets split into attitudes to elephants, ease of housetraining elephants, cost of elephants, propensity to buy an elephant, when quite frankly it would save quite a lot of trouble to simply ask what people think about having an elephant as a pet.   And then follow up with some good questions, to make doubly sure that it is the elephant volume and cost of food that is really turning everyone off, and not the elephant poo.

However, you can quite cheerfully talk about elephants as pets, and then, say, about the religion symbolism of elephants.  Separate conversations.

5. Build trust

Trust is built in various ways.  It’s important to be open, to use everyday language rather than marketing language. If you can be very open about your agenda, then do so.  Share your own attitudes and opinions, if you can.

Trust also builds over time.  In planning conversations, make sure you move from simple and unthreatening questions about habits and experience, to more personal or more demanding ones.  And make sure you listen and respond.   You can’t just go for the jugular – people have to feel comfortable about the conversation or they won’t play.

6. Ask about feelings

One of the oddest difficulties I see is that people who are trained in very rational ways of thinking can struggle with the personal and emotional dimensions of an issue.   So, for example, in discussing the car I drive, a rationally-minded questioner would find out that it has many positive attributes, such as its size, acceleration and build quality.  A better researcher might also dig out the fact that I find it very dull.  (A therapist would uncover the complex reasons why I drive a Honda rather than an Audi, but we’ll leave it there).  

Asking about feelings can be as simple as saying, ‘So how do you feel about X?’   People will tell you.

7. Use projective approaches to ask tricky questions

Unless you want to be a salesman, asking ‘Would you buy this? How much would you pay?’ sounds over-personal and pushy.  In the online environment, it can feel a bit like spam.  You still can ask it, just in a more roundabout way: ‘Do you think other teachers/accountants/forklift truck drivers will be interested in this?  How much do you think they’ll be willing to pay?’

But, I hear you cry, you haven’t asked about them.  *pats you on the head*  Really, 9 times out of 10, they will assume that Other People feel exactly like them.  They project, in other words.  You can always check.  ‘How do you yourself feel?’  It will mostly be the same thing.

8. Use natural language

I used to share an office with a woman who worked in advertising, and on Mondays I’d ask her how the weekend went, and she’d typically say, ‘Well, I went out on Friday and had 5 premium lagers.’  

This is not normal language.  People buy Twixes, not ‘in-hand countlines’.  So, examine your language.  Is it normal? Would your mum know what you’re on about? (assuming she doesn’t work in marketing).  If not, drop the jargon.

9. Allow negative as well as positive opinions

People can be terribly polite online, up until the point where they become incredibly, amazingly, breathtakingly rude.  If your group is sponsored in some way and you want honesty, you have to strive for that all the way through, in authentic questions and everyday language.   Otherwise, you’ll get very bland views.

10.  Arrange time for closure and feedback

And finally: as with real-world discussions, people don’t like to be thrown into the street the minute the conversation is over, they like time to chat, swap opinions and maybe business cards, and generally talk about their experience.  Make sure you use this time, either to follow up and get some feedback, or simply to let people  comment about things that are not yet covered.

 Phew.  Those are my first 10.  There are lots more.  In the meantime, listen to great radio and TV interviewers, and work out what they do.  The kinds of questions they ask ask their subjects or their audiences will serve you well.

Can researchers engage?

Ray Poynter has an interesting item on what he calls Insight 2.0 – the implications of participatory culture (OK, Web 2.0) for clients.   One implication is the short-circuiting of formal research and research management by decision-making departments who are keen to listen to their customers more closely (possibly, without the filter of those pesky researchers).

In parallel, I’m not always sure that researchers allow themselves to do that listening.   We’re often too busy thinking about validity and sample sizes to respond properly to an individual customer; like many marketers, we may also be too busy with day-to-day work to spend much time understanding the participatory side of the Web.  We may find it hard to respond in the spontaneous way that some web users expect.  This will change as a generation who have grown up with technology bring it into their work as well as their leisure, but right now it feels as though there is a language disconnect.

One difficulty which all the discussion of Web 2.0 does not address is that organisations and researchers often want to talk about topics that do not particularly interest their users.  

Anyone who’s moderated a group knows the pain of making a group talk about a design detail which the client company has been arguing over for weeks, but which the end user doesn’t really notice or indeed care about.  Equally, there are whole product areas, especially in financial services, where the interaction is absolutely minimal or even avoided.

The excitement about customer participation also doesn’t address those aspects where user awareness verges on the subliminal.  I’m thinking here about the response to colours and branding, where it is possible to research views in a careful way but simply listening to customer feedback won’t necessarily help.  On the other hand, maybe those areas need a little bit of creative thinking: encouraging users to create a visual scrapbook, perhaps?

Adding Web 2.0 widgets

I’ve been writing a personal blog for several years, and now seems like a good time to extend that approach to my consultancy work. 

In the last couple of projects I’ve been involved with, there has been much talk of researching users’ attitudes to Web 2.0 style add-ons.   This is proving tricky, for several reasons.

  1. Some sites that worry about Web 2.0 should really be focusing on getting the core services right.  If people can’t do the main thing that they came to do, no amount of ability to add their own review is going to help that.
  2. Participation remains a niche interest.  There are certainly many more people doing it than ever there were before, but probing interest in Web 2.0 functions tends to result in one of those consumer conversations about how it’s probably really interesting for weirdoes and geeks, but the present respondent has a life, thank you very much.
  3. This goes double for people interviewed in their work roles, where reading a blog is right down there next to watching Hollyoaks as a deeply suspicious way for a grown person to occupy their time.

On the other hand, if you introduce something that solves the users’ problems, woos the casual browser and feels great, then you’re onto something. 

Personally, I think Amazon are the leaders when it comes to user participation.  They know that only a small proportion of people will write the well-expressed product reviews or amusing book lists, but they know that lots and lots of people will read them, and find them helpful. 

The thing that does this on your site may not be very obvious.   You may not need user-generated content at all: but thinking through the ways that someone might want to customise your site should help you work out just what sorts of functions, if any, are worth spending time on.