Archive for August, 2011

From cash to commitment

Amy Tomkins writes:

Tackling climate change requires collective action. Yet inspiring consumers to change their behaviour is tough. Lack of engagement, lack of understanding and a sense of powerlessness can all prevent people from taking steps to reduce their carbon footprints.

So I was interested in the presentation that Hermione Taylor, founder of The DoNation, gave when she came into the London office recently. Her new sponsorship site seeks to replace cash with action and help people inspire their friends to live more sustainably. By harnessing the social and viral nature of sponsorship, The DoNation encourages people to engage with environmental issues and take action to change their behaviour. As her diagrams above show, this changes the traditional sponsorship model and makes the whole transaction more direct and efficient. To sponsor a friend, you have to commit to at least one of a number of Do-Actions, or carbon-saving pledges, instead of giving money. Actions can be small steps, such as reducing the amount of meat you eat each week, or more significant, such as committing to installing solar panels.

By using friends seeking sponsorship as messengers, The DoNation aims to reach people who know they should do more for the environment, but need a nudge to inspire action. Sponsors have to commit to their action for two months, with the hope that it will become an ingrained habit. Early indicators suggest that some longer term behaviour change has been prompted, but time will tell if Hermione’s vision is realised.

Looking to the future, The DoNation raises an interesting challenge – does the key to environmental behaviour change lie in making it personal? Whether it be supporting a friend; saving money through energy efficiency or improving your immediate living environment, providing a personal connection point seems essential if people are going to reappraise their own behaviour and start to live more sustainable.  Governments, companies and third sector organisations need to understand better the personal motivations to being more environmentally aware if they are to help achieve a sustainable global future.

You can visit The DoNation at

19 August 2011 at 4:19 pm Leave a comment

Messengers and memes

We hadn’t planned to return to the subject of social networks so quickly after introducing our latest thinking on the subject here last week, but a week of disorder in England has thrown up big questions about the the relationship between online social networks and real social tensions. It seemed worth coming back to it. – Andrew Curry.

Alex Steer writes: We think of riots as disorderly. We observe the way in which an initial silent protest outside Tottenham police station, seeking answers from the police over the death of Mark Duggan, burst first into focused violence, and  then into crime and looting that was more dispersed, less explicable, less clearly connected to its initial cause. But riots are also a form of social networking activity, an impressive (though intimidating) coordination of individuals, each self-motivated but guided by a set of common practices and ground rules, even in the absence of clearly articulated goals.

Sound familiar? In social networks, ideas are transmitted by memes, not manifestos. The Metropolitan Police made much of its impressive ‘command and control’ structure. But the rioters didn’t need one. Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring (far more coherent, and legitimate, in their orientation), it’s become fashionable to talk about ‘leaderless’ revolutions. While the lack of chains of command has been exaggerated, in both the Arab demonstrations and the London riots, it’s good to see more attention being paid to our ability to ‘organize without organizations‘ (in Clay Shirky’s memorable phrase).

From a technology perspective, the story has been the role that online social networks have played in the coordination of the riots. The media – and perhaps the authorities? – found themselves blindsided by a misunderstanding of how consumer decisions shape their use of online social networks. (We can say with some confidence that these looters were acting as consumers, though not ones bound by the usual laws of market exchange.) When the riots began, and as they spread, it became obvious that they were being coordinated online, as people used their social graphs as a recruitment mechanism to get more people onto the streets – and, in the days that followed, to pre-arrange tactical looting in towns and boroughs. The media’s attention turned immediately to the big, familiar social networks, Facebook and Twitter.

Using our Pivot Points framework, we can describe these as ‘Big Net’, ‘Open Hand’, ‘Turn On’ networks. They are built for scale, openness, and immediacy – as you know if you’ve ever tired of having a thousand ‘friends’, accidentally left compromising pictures visible to the wrong people, or tweeted in anger. They are the perfect tools for commenting on emerging events, as we’ve seen, and even for organizing legal activity, as the mass ‘riot cleanup’ operations of the last few days have shown.

For organizing rioting or looting, though, Big Net/Open Hand/Turn On networks are a disaster. You want them to be ‘Turn On’ networks, of course – they have to work in real time – but scale and openness are perilous if you want to avoid the attention of the police. It took the rioters less time than the media to figure this out. In our framework, the opposite of ‘Big Net’ is ‘Tight Knit’ – smaller-scale, more intimate networks which revolve around connections with a few close friends. The opposite of ‘Open Hand’ is ‘Closed Fist’, where privacy and secrecy are paramount.

Under the radar of mainstream attention, BBM has seen a huge growth in popularity among teenagers and young adults. In part this is because it’s free; in part, because its PIN authentication system, and RIM’s strong pro-privacy stance in other countries, give a reasonable guarantee of secrecy. We know that intimacy and secrecy are of interest to British teenagers, especially poor ones on the fringes of hyper-localised gang cultures, so it’s no surprise that the perfect Tight Knit/Closed Fist/Turn On network was already in their hands – private group texting and instant messaging smartphone apps, and especially BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

When we focus on the obvious, we can miss a lot. The Pivot Points framework is designed to test our assumptions about what the shape – or shapes –  of the social networks of the future. By concentrating on the types of networks they knew, journalists misunderstood how London’s, and England’s, disorder was spreading.

12 August 2011 at 1:57 pm 1 comment

My Millennial generation

Lawrence Wykes writes: The idea of the generational cohort as a unit of social research and analysis goes back to the definition of the ‘boomers’ – America’s immediate port-war generation, now clipping to retirement. Since then we’ve had waves of new cohorts, from Gen X, to Gen Y, to the latest addition, Millennials. Millennials (the people, not the label) were born in the late ’80s, or so, approaching adolescence or adulthood by the turn of the century.

But the question of whether the Millennials are a coherent cohort is still open – the data has never quite added up. And our recent analysis, based on our Global Monitor data, suggests that as a group the Millennials are a fragmented cohort, refracted by technology.

In fact, we found four different groups (although more may have been lurking in the data) and these already suggest a more fruitful way of thinking about this generation.

  • Striders have been relatively unscathed by the recent economic downturn; they are marching forth with enthusiasm, and keen for success and all the material frills they perceive will come along with it.
  • Steppers have been hit hard by the downturn, which has left them price conscious and feeling negative about their future. They are cautious, considered, and want to make the most of what they’ve got.
  • Satellites are optimistic about the future and know how to use the resources available to them, especially technology (they are tech-mad), to get what they want.
  • Spirits are poster children for the Millennials generation; they are socially conscious and interested in things happening at a global and local level.

So if Millennials are fragmented and so easily segmented by their differing technology use and attitudes, why do they look like a generation to researchers?

I think Millennials look like a generation because there is a social-technology breakpoint between their cohort and all previous generations. Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with modern technology proper – and this is manifested in the fluid way they use technology to construct their identities and manage their environments.

But, in terms of social analysis, defining a group by technology – rather than their underlying attitudes and values – has problems. Technology evolves and changes, and it seems unlikely that the Millennial generation will grow older while remaining as inventive with technology as they have been in their young adult lives. And the next generation – however they get labelled – may well turn out to be just as creative with technology as we were

More usefully, though, this does open up a promising research question: do the different uses of technology by these different Millennial groups reflect differences in underlying values and attitudes? In other words, will these groups remain distinct as they get older? It seems possible – but so far, we just don’t know.

11 August 2011 at 8:09 am 2 comments

The future of social networks #5

Andrew Curry and Andy Stubbings write: The Shell Oil futures guru Pierre Wack described his work as being about “the gentle art of reperceiving”, and the type of work that Alex Steer has laid out in his four blog posts this week on the future of social networks is about changing perceptions by improving anticiption. We can’t know the future, but we can improve our understanding of the present and our ability to respond to change. Better anticipation, in short, increases both the depth and the breadth of vision.

So what do the six social media Pivot Points (here and here), and the tensions they represent for users, tell us about the future of social networks?

The Future of Facebook

Looking first at Facebook, it says that the model at the heart of Facebook (One for All-Big Net-TurnOn-Open Hand) may not persist. Alternative futures, for example, include a version in which ‘One for Each’ emerges as more valuable and its Connect system becomes its biggest asset, the ‘invisible social layer’ which connects other web and mobile properties, a valuable utility, without maintaining a huge public presence itself. A less promising future sees Facebook losing out as users start to value privacy and specificity more online (Tight Knit-Closed Fist-One for Each), and drift away, leaving the social network as a legacy “first generation” social network. Somewhere in between these is a future in which Facebook is less of a warehouse, and more a series of rooms, in which the tensions between One for All and One for Each are more finely balanced. In this model, it becomes a series of smaller tighter circles, but with ease of movement between them. But of course, this is also the space into which Google+ has pushed itself into with its ‘Circles” model.

Innovation spaces

Interrogating the Pivot Points, combining them in ways which stretch thinking, also starts to throw up some interesting innovation spaces.  To pick up a few here:

  • Big Net‘ and ‘Closed Fist‘  don’t appear, on the face of it, to be good fellow travellers. One is ubiquitous, the other about strong privacy concerns. But this is a potential future in which value accrues to the institutions which can guarantee security of digital identification; it may be a ‘’, which gives access to public services which also confirming one’s online identity to third parties who are concerned about anonymous behaviour online. And it might also be the gateway through which we manage our personal ‘official’ data, or volunteer, or alert public services to repairs or improvement.
  • Play‘ and ‘Turn On‘ obviously describes the world of immersive online multi-player games, but what if we add ‘Challenge‘ to that instead of ‘Confirm”? It becomes the safe space of the Fool or the Jokester, the place where one can challenge current assumptions without spurring revolution or retribution. Think of it as the ‘Carnival Incubator’, a space where communities of interest can engage with diversity or difference to innovate.
  • And working through these in a short internal session at The Futures Company, we also saw an emerging world of ‘Hive Mind’, in which shared tags created created new associations between things and people, in which Delicious met location. Imagine a travel guide that reassembles itself in a thousand different ways, and has a hundred curators.

One strong possibility emerges from this overview: that marketers may look back at this early development stage of the social network with nostalgia, even amazement. It is not at all clear that the current dominant model, which emphasises mass engagement and openness, will persist at its current scale. In most of the futures which emerge from our thinking about the pivot points, marketers have to work harder, and smarter, to reach people who are more resistant to marketing.

Andrew Curry and Andy Stubbings lead The Futures Company’s thought leadership team on the future of media and technology. They are currently working on a report on ‘Technology 2020’. The earlier posts in this series on the future of social networking start here. The cartoon at the top of this post is by Jenna Cotton, was published by the Canadian University Press Newswire, and is used with thanks.

5 August 2011 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

The future of social media #4

#4: Pivot Points – pervasiveness, utility, and worldview

Alex Steer writes: Yesterday I wrote about how different consumer decisions about scale, privacy and specificity create very different outcomes for social networking. Today I’m going to explore the other three Pivot Points.

Pervasiveness – Turn On or Tune Out?

Social networking has been driven by people’s enthusiasm for connectivity – yet many increasingly find themselves at risk of information overload. So will we want to be permanently connected to our networks, or to dip in and out as it suits us?

In a Turn On future, consumers will want to be “always on” in their networks, receiving updates and information in real time – a possibility made easier by the global mobile and smartphone boom. Buzzwords are real-time, context-specific and multiplatform, and marketers will be expected to feed the desire for constant novelty with content and deals designed to be acted on fast.

Tune Out futures, though, see consumers looking for ways to step back and manage the flow of information and complexity – good news for networks like Flickr or YouTube that function more like a library than an updates service. At this end of the axis, marketing activity needs to be opt-in, durable, asynchronous and polite – designed to be enjoyed wherever, but also whenever.

Utility – Plug or Play?

As we have said, social interactions online can range from the serious to the frivolous. But will consumers see social networks more as a useful resource or more as a form of entertainment?

In Plug futures, consumers look for networks that let them access information, opinion and tools without demanding too much attention. Application, utility and embedded socialization are our buzzwords, and brands which provide lean, useful branded tools will thrive.

In Play futures, though, entertainment is the name of the game. Consumers see networks as places to spend time accessing interesting and immersive content. Think interaction and fun – content creators seek to reward time, attention and sharing with sheer entertainment value, and don’t just push marketing messages.

Worldview – Confirm or Challenge?

Are social recommendation features and personalization a way to access the most relevant and interesting experiences – or are they trapping us inside a self-reinforcing ‘filter bubble’? Will we want social networks to confirm or challenge our worldview?

In Confirm futures, consumers want news, opinion and content filtered and curated by their social connections. Here, marketers make it easy and rewarding for consumers to share content, and target offers based on online habits and relationships.

In contrast, in Challenge futures, marketers provide exposure to new experiences and divergent points of view. Buzzwords are novelty, debate and surprise, and brands will thrive by standing out from the crowd, challenging, stimulating and offering genuine novelty and serendipity.

Using the Pivot Points today

These six Pivot Points are signposts, not predictions – by knowing the directions of people’s behaviour and preferences, we can quickly identify, and prepare for, different possible outcomes. They also offer present opportunities. They can be used to make better business and marketing decisions by tracking target consumers’ attitudes and values, and making sense of changing habits online. The Futures Company is already working with clients to show how to understand, measure and seize those opportunities. We hope that the Pivot Points provide a way to navigate an unstable landscape, and take control of an uncertain future.

This is the last of four posts on the future of social networking by Alex Steer. To read the earlier posts, click here. The image at the top of this post is from the New Medici website, and is used with thanks.

4 August 2011 at 8:04 am 1 comment

The future of social networks #3

#3: Pivot Points – scale, privacy, and specificity

Alex Steer writes: I blogged yesterday about the ‘Four Cs’ of social networking – the constants that underpin people’s desire to interact online. Yet the future of social networking will be determined by how they choose to interact, and this changes far more unpredictably. We can’t know the outcome of those decisions – and they’ll vary, anyway, for different people at different times and in different places – we can identify the shape their decisions and behaviours will take. To do this, we have identified six critical uncertainties that will shape the future of online social networking. We call these the Pivot Points – scale, privacy, specificity, pervasiveness, utility and worldview. In this post I am going to explore the first three of these.

Scale – Big Net or Tight Knit?

We know that people around the world value the openness and connectedness of an increasingly global society – but at the same time they can feel daunted by its complexity and variety. So will they want the scale benefits of large networks, or the intimacy benefits of small ones?

A Big Net future would be good news for Facebook or Twitter in their current form, as consumers seek out big social networks, with large numbers of relatively superficial connections. Buzzwords in this future might be sharing, crowdsourcing, and entertainment; brands can connect by creating content with broad mainstream appeal, designed to be shared widely.

In a Tight Knit future, though, consumers would seek small social networks, close and meaningful connections, with content tailored to specific groups and interests. Buzzwords like curation, collaboration and community do well, and small and intimate networks thrive.

Privacy – Closed Fist or Open Hand?

The reconfiguration of ideas and expectations around privacy in a highly-networked world is likely to be a flashpoint for businesses and brands in developed markets in the next few years, but even in those markets behaviour and attitudes are out of sync – and in emerging markets the dynamics of privacy are very different. So which will people value most – safeguards on private data, or the easy transfer of personalization across sites?

In a Closed Fist future the data toybox is shut. Networks and marketers are required to respect personal data boundaries, and store only the data they need, for as long as they need it, and with the clear permission of users. Privacy, control and safeguarding are the watchwords.

But in an Open Hand future seamless, multi-platform convenience is king, and data is used smartly to deliver custom offers and add value through targeting. Networks and marketers would recognize their online users as soon as they log in, and tailor offerings based on data – no annoying tick-boxes or manual configuration required.

Specificity – One For All or One For Each?

The last few years have been dominated by the big networks, acting as one-stop shops for their users. But this is only one possible way of maximizing the simplicity of our online interactions – another is to be far more granular. So will we expect single networks to facilitate all our social connections, or will we divide our time between several?

In a One for All future, ‘umbrella’ networks – the Facebooks and Renrens – do well; the buzzwords are multifunctional, multimedia, multipurpose. Brands need to provide a range of ways for consumers to interact with them within the big networks – from video content to competitions, social gaming to customer service.

But in a One for Each future, consumers will expect to use many, tightly-defined networks for different parts of their online lives: think compartments, specificity, functionality. Brands have to respect users’ “digital partitions”, and be in all the right channels, without ever forcing customers to link up their separate social streams to access content or services.

In the fourth post in this series, I introduce the three remaining Pivot Points – pervasiveness, utility and worldview – and some implications for businesses and marketers. Click through to posts one and two. The t-shirt design at the top of this post is by Jazzmo, and it is used with thanks.

3 August 2011 at 8:04 am 1 comment

The future of social networks #2

#2: The social life of social networks

Alex Steer writes: To understand some of the ways in which online social networking may change as it evolves, we also need to understand what will remain constant. This has been difficult, because much of the development of social networking over the past decade – and much of the media commentary and advice to businesses, brands, and marketers – has been led by technology and has privileged novelty. Over the past few years, the hot topics in social networking have included photo and video sharing, in-network apps and games, mobile social networks, social commerce, geo-location, barcode scanning, and of course real-time search. It can seem like a never-ending game of catch-up.

But interactions between people are a constant, and they can be captured simply through “Four Cs”. People use online channels to communicate (stay in touch), to create/curate (originate and pass on content with their stamp of approval), to collaborate (work towards shared objectives), and to consult (give and receive information, advice and opinion). These four activities are the heart of the user value in the online space. And by way of a brief diversion, this model also makes it easier to see some of the social origins of social networking in older platforms and systems such as email, Usenet, instant messaging and blogging.

Social networks are social phenomena, after all, and much of the best work on their dynamics has been done by anthropologists and sociologists, not technologists or marketers. As social entities, networks are understood as clusters of shared relationships and interactions between individuals. These interactions can be brief or persistent, light-hearted or serious, and so on. Our social interactions are not lined up like dominoes – I know you, and you know Jim, and he knows Kim, and she knows Tim – but tend to be mutual and interconnected. Whenever several of your friends forward you the same email, you’ve been hit by a network effect.

This is why networks are powerful social forces: they transmit and reinforce ideas. Social scientists sometimes use the word meme to describe these ideas transmitted through social networks. Anything from a religious or political belief to a running joke can be considered a meme. Though there’s been a tendency to ascribe the success of ideas in networks to the influence of certain highly-connected individuals (the “influencer theory” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point), research by sociologists including Duncan Watts of Yahoo! suggests that there are no specific influencers, and that a trend can start anywhere. Ideas spread because they are worth spreading, and they spread through social networks.

So there are some constants to why people choose to interact online. What changes more rapidly is how they choose to interact. In the next two posts we outline the six Pivot Points – today’s interaction decisions that will shape the future of online social networking.

This is the second of four posts this week by Alex Steer, introducing our latest analysis of the future of social networks. Post number three will run tomorrow.  The first post can be found here.

2 August 2011 at 9:08 am Leave a 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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