Archive for May, 2010

Facing off about privacy

Andrew Curry writes:

The current row over Facebook’s successive changes to its privacy settings has several strategic implications for the way that businesses – not just in the digital sector – relate to their customers. In case you’ve missed the story: Facebook has radically reduced the default privacy settings for its users since the autumn of last year, meaning that users are likely to be sharing far more details across the internet than they previously did. (I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, but a visit to gives a sense of the scale of it.)

The reason? Well, the company says that ‘radical transparency‘ is good for you, in a moral sense. Others say that it is part of a long campaign by Facebook (two steps forward, one step back, according to Nick Carr) to set itself up as the owner of its users’ online identity, which is a more lucrative proposition than being a mere social network, even one with several hundred million members.

So what are the implications of this for businesses?

#1: When the mental map which your customer has of your product or service becomes too divergent from their experience of it, the business suffers. (This is what happened when Gerald Ratner described one of his company’s products as ‘crap’). In the case of Facebook, the actual experience is no longer represented by the map. The researcher danah boyd has explained this well:

A while back, I was talking with a teenage girl about her privacy settings and noticed that she had made lots of content available to friends-of-friends. I asked her if she made her content available to her mother. She responded with, “of course not!” I had noticed that she had listed her aunt as a friend of hers and so I surfed with her to her aunt’s page and pointed out that her mother was a friend of her aunt, thus a friend-of-a-friend. She was horrified. It had never dawned on her that her mother might be included in that grouping. Over and over again, I find that people’s mental model of who can see what doesn’t match up with reality.

#2: Privacy isn’t dead, although it is fashionable for digerati to say so. People still expect organisations they do business with to maintain appropriate levels of privacy – and to be able to check these for themselves. We think that this expectation increases as the web becomes more ubiquitous and more portable, and there are more opportunities for breach. At least some users will engage reluctantly because of fear of theft, fraud, or inappropriate social exchanges. In the digital world, companies which take care of their users’ privacy will be less profitable in the short-term, but more sustainable in the long-term.

#3: Facebook is effectively polluting the “commons” represented by the internet – all of the public resources and protocols – through self-interested behaviour. It is possible that other suppliers which also depend on a trusted internet for their business will intervene; Google, its own privacy problems notwithstanding, has done a little of this recently. But usually what happens when public interest goods are polluted by commercial interests is that regulation follows. The cases brought against Facebook under trade and competition law, along with the initial responses from privacy regulators, are harbingers of this.

The cartoon at the top of the post is one of a string of acerbic strips about Facebook at the excellent Joy of Tech, and is used here with thanks. You may enjoy this one as well.

25 May 2010 at 10:20 am Leave a comment

Saving elephants

By Gus Newsam

The Elephant Parade has arrived in London. In the last few days around 250 decorated statues have appeared in the middle of the city, many around City Hall, close to our offices. It’s not the first outing – in previous years elephants have appeared in Belgium and Holland, next year they’ll go to Copenhagen. The point of this large outburst of entertaining public art is to raise money to try to save the Asian elephant from extinction. Every elephant has on it a plaque which invites people to make a donation by mobile phone – text ‘elephant’ to 83118 if you want to contribute.

Gus Newsam is a designer at The Futures Company. These photographs, cc Gus Newsam,  are published here under a Creative Commons licence.

14 May 2010 at 9:54 am 2 comments

The limits to ethical business

Eloise Keightley writes:

Consumers may claim they want ethical brands – but what do they really mean? American evidence suggests that a desire to be ethical does not necessarily correlate with a propensity to buy ethical: Brandweek has reported a survey that found that even among consumers who called themselves “environmentally conscious”, more than half could not name a single green brand. A study at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that while people were likely to buy energy efficient light bulbs from the shops, they tended to opt for less efficient traditional bulbs when shopping online – and this attitude extends to white goods, electronics and domestic cleaning products. There is a classic disconnect here between stated attitudes and actual knowledge or behaviour.

This is partly because of the nebulous way in which “ethicalness” is measured, from the consumer’s point of view. For instance, whilst a vague sense of altruism may drive consumers to make choices they deem ethical, it’s unlikely that the majority fully understand what ethical trademarks denote. There is a recognition that Fair Trade, for example, equates with some sort of ethical standard but consumers often cannot define what that standard is. Consumers also find it hard to distinguish between ethical trademarks and can confuse their policies.

In any case, ethical innovation has historically proven to have a limited shelf life – due as much to legislative progress as shifting consumer values. Only a few years ago, cosmetic brands in particular were falling over themselves to tell consumers that their products were developed without the need for animal testing. These days, few brands bother. Lack of animal testing has become a hygiene factor (mainly due to changes in legislation) and consumers have established new, less standardised and more subjective ethical benchmarks for brands to respond to.

It’s unfortunate that the value of ethical trademarks deflate the more ubiquitous they become. If McDonalds can win awards for its free range eggs, consumers may well wonder about the rigour of free range certification and imagine that ‘free range’ is a tiered or varied notion. Bad press also dilutes the currency of ethical initiatives: the BBC has accused Live Aid of misappropriating the money it raised and there has been a rise in well-publicised literature that calls into question the very nature of humanitarian aid. We have no commonly understood, credible metric for ethics.

Some pioneers of ethical retail have argued that it is not enough to use ethical standards as a USP.  American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, whose business is synonymous with the anti-sweatshop movement, has remarked: “If you want to sell something, ethical or otherwise, appeal to people’s self-interest.” In other words, brands need to marry sound ethical values with products that are inherently desirable if they are to last.

The picture at the top of the post is from Green Mountain Coffee, and is used with thanks.

12 May 2010 at 6:41 pm 1 comment

The long drift from the two party system

Andrew Curry writes:

“I can accept chaos”, said the young Bob Dylan, in one of his typically cryptic sleevenotes. “I’m not sure whether it accepts me”.  For some reason, the line crept into my head while staying up too late last night to watch the election coverage, as seasoned media professionals struggled to make sense of the results unfolding in front of them.

Some of the unpredictability was down to the number of redrawn seats, perhaps with unreliable estimates of how the 2005 vote might have gone; some was an echo of the expenses scandal, influenced by the high number of incumbents stepping down; some down to tactical voting; some was down to the fact that the ‘swingometer’ – designed for two-party contests – is less useful as a measure of change in three- or four-party contests.

But the strong sense of the map was that the further one went from the south-east, the weaker the Cameron effect was, vanishing almost completely as it crossed the border into Scotland. Indeed, one of the most memorable pieces of pre-election commentary, by Ian Jack, described the Conservatives as the party of the ‘Southern Metaphor’, in which Britain is “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous”. Even in a relatively small and affluent country such as Britain, differences of history and geography make its electoral world bumpy, not flat.

As if to further confuse spectators, voting problems in some constituencies seemed symbolic of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose. Before the election, research by nef calculated that voters in the most marginal seats have one hundred times more influence on the outcome than those in the safest seats. Prior to the election, one of the striking features was the number of competing campaigns promoting electoral fairness. Taking a long view, these are each a symptom of the decline of two-party politics since the 1970s. During the campaign, Election 10 published a compelling graph using twenty-five years of Guardian polling data showing the decline in overall support for the two main parties; it fluctuates, certainly, but trends only in one direction.

This in turn reflects a change in the sources of political identity, as Simon Szreter argued in History and Policy:

Whilst a generation ago, individual voters would identify their allegiance with a party’s ideology before enquiring about its policies, this has now been turned on its head. Voters think first about what policies they support and then seek to match this with a political party, often using web-based tools. Yet the electorate is unable to give proper expression to such sophisticated political judgements.

Or, as another historian, Simon Schama, put it on the BBC’s election programme this morning, “the country has not just spoken, it’s holding it’s nose”.

Is this a conservative moment? Judging from some of the models we use in our long-term futures work, looking at 30-year scenarios and beyond, we’d say not. Generational analysis suggests that a ‘crisis’ phase represents a transition from predominantly individualist worldviews to more communitarian ones. Likewise, Carlota Perez’ work on technology change argues that the years after a financial crisis tend to increase the emphasis on social and public wellbeing. In all, this speaks to an underlying political crisis which is unlikely to be resolved quickly.

The photo at the top of this post, of a cake shop window in York, is © Kate Stuart, and is used with thanks. There are more of her pictures on her Flickr photostream.

7 May 2010 at 6:12 pm 1 comment

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The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

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