Recently in Research Category

More Twitter research gives us an insight

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Last week I blogged about research by Meeyoung Cha, from Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany, and her colleagues that showed on Twitter, the number of followers you have doesn't correlate to the influence you have.

Corroborating that is research from Haewoon Kwak, Changhyun Lee, Hosung Park, and Sue Moon from the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. According to Shiv Singh, in this second piece of research:

The researchers also analyzed the influence of Twitter users and found that there's a discrepancy in the relationship between the number of followers and the popularity of someone's tweets. This basically means that the number of followers is not the only measure of someone's value.

Singh draw out seven points of interest from the research, some of which are interesting and some of which are blindingly obvious to anyone who's spent any time on Twitter:

  1. Twitter users have 4.12 degrees of separation on average
  2. The reTweet is powerful
  3. 75% of reTweets happen within an hour of the original Tweet
  4. Followers != influence
  5. Trending topics are mainly news headlines or 'persistent news'
  6. Only a minority of users have reciprocal relationships, and there are a lot of observers
  7. ReTweets spread quickly

Read the whole post for the Singh's full analysis.

It's good to see researchers digging into the nuts and bolts of social media. As I said about Cha's work, those of us who've been in this area for a while have built up through experience and observation a set of instincts about how things work. We use heuristics to get a sense of how the whole system functions, but like any assumption built from personal experience there are risks that we are wrong. So it's very valuable to have those assumptions tested by research which can then ground us in evidence rather than gut feeling.

Social Media Revolution (Refreshed)

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This original version of this video will be familiar to a lot of people already, but it has recently been reworked with new statistics, so it's worth another look.

Via Euan Semple

How many friends can you make in a week?

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The New Scientist reports some research by Susan Jamison-Powell at Sheffield Hallam University which seems to show that prolific bloggers are more popular, regardless of the quality or tone of their posts.

[She] studied the popularity of 75 bloggers on the site Livejournal.com. She looked at the number of friends each blogger had, the number of posts they made, the total number of words written and the overall tone of the posts. She then asked the bloggers to rate how attractive they found each of their peer's blogs.

She found that the more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating. The tone of their posts - whether they contained mostly positive or negative comments - had no effect.

The BPS goes into a little bit more detail, explaining that the Liverjournalers were invited into a new community and then asked to rate their fellow community members after one week. I'm not sure if this falls within the bounds of Bad Science, but it's certainly not an accurate reflection of how communities build in the real world.

My first problem is that you just can't extrapolate from communities on LiveJournal to blogs in general. LiveJournal has always had a different demographic to, say, bloggers using Typepad or Wordpress. LiveJournal has always had a gender bias towards women, for example: currently it has 62.5% female and 37.5% male, the rest unspecified. And the bulk of users are between 18 and 34 (with an impressive spike at 30), historically much younger than demographics for other tools.

Furthermore, LiveJournal is culturally different to many other blogs and blogging platforms and has traditionally been the meeting place for people who felt that other platforms were too open for them or who felt disenfranchised by mainstream tools and wanted to be with their peers. LiveJournal, for many, was where you could be yourself and enjoy the company of people like you, no matter how weird others thought you were.

LiveJournal isn't a typical blogging community and results from studies on LiveJournal can't be applied to other bloggers.

But furthermore, after only a week of getting to know someone, you have very little information to go on. Those who talk most will almost certainly get higher rankings than those who are quiet simply because they stand out and can easily be remembered. If you are trying to get to know 75 people in just seven days - and you have to ask if that is even possible - you're going to rank the noisier ones higher just because they are the people you've had most exposure to. If you've had very little conversation with someone you are bound to rank them near the bottom simply because they are still strangers and humans tend to be stranger-averse.

How would this study have turned out if they had got to know each other over the course of a month? Or six months? Or a year? You know, real human friendship timescales. And how does the nature of the community change how people react to each other? The study doesn't say what the raison d'être of the community was, and whether these people were gathered around an issue they cared deeply about or were just mooching around online, killing time.

The lesson that this study appears to be teaching is that bloggers should write more, and not worry about quality. Frankly, I call bullshit on the whole thing. The way that we form relationships through blogging is a complex and nuanced process, just like the way that we form friendships offline. We get to know people over time. We decide whether we agree with their points of view, whether we like the way they present themselves, how they interact with others and we build a picture of them that is either attractive or not.

That this study should get headlines in The Telegraph and BusinessWeek shows how poorly social media is still being covered by the mainstream press and how little understanding or critical thinking they do.

We do need a lot more research into the use of social media and particularly its use in the UK. Studies like Jamison-Powell's, however, do not advance the debate in any useful way.

"Users will scroll" says Nielsen

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Jakob Nielsen, once an opponent of scrolling, has now said that users will scroll, but only if there's something worth scrolling to. This totally fits in the "No shit, Sherlock" category, but I suppose it's good to have one's experiences backed up by the evidence.

What's disappointing about Nielsen's column is that he doesn't appear to have taken different types of content and behaviour into account. So there's no sign that he adjusted for interestingness of the content, its relevance to the test subject, or whether the site already prioritised key information at the top of the page. Nor does he say whether he adjusted for content that provokes seeking behaviour or what I shall call here 'absorbed' behaviour, e.g. reading an interesting blog post.

All three of Nielsen's examples are sites where I would expect to see seeking behaviour, i.e. the user glances through the content until they find what they want. If the sites are well designed, then the user should find that information quickly, at the top of the page. It is thus not necessarily surprising that he found participants spent 80.3% of their time above the fold (i.e. the point on your screen where you'd need to scroll to see more), and 19.7% below, and that people's attention flicked down the page until it settled on something interesting.

If Nielsen had used websites that provoke absorbed behaviour, such as well-written blogs or news sites, I would have expected to see a more evenly distributed eye-tracking trace. The third example, a FAQ, is starting to move towards that territory, but FAQs aren't known for being fascinating. If a blog post or news article is interesting, I will read to the bottom without even realising I am scrolling. If it's dull, on the other hand, I'll either give up quite quickly or I'll skip to the end to see if there's anything juicy down there, i.e. the low quality of the content flips me from absorbed behaviour to seeking behaviour as I look for something more interesting.

Overall, I find this research, as presented in this column, rather lacking. You can't just separate out user behaviour from content type and quality because the content has a huge impact on the user's behaviour.

Nevertheless, Nielsen's recommendations are sensible, even if they are also somewhat obvious:

The implications are clear: the material that's the most important for the users' goals or your business goals should be above the fold. Users do look below the fold, but not nearly as much as they look above the fold.

People will look very far down a page if (a) the layout encourages scanning, and (b) the initially viewable information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll.

Finally, while placing the most important stuff on top, don't forget to put a nice morsel at the very bottom.

And for those of you who made it this far, here's your nice morsel (of cute):

Grabbity and Mewton

Report: Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society

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Last year I wrote a report for the Carnegie UK Trust's Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. Called Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, it's now available for download. Although focused primarily on the use of social media by the charitable sector, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in it for business, I think, not least future scenarios that try to imagine what the world might be like in 2025 and pose some questions for organisations about their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Please do take a look and let me know what you think!

Do you have space for incubators?

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Robert Biswas-Diener, who studies the psychology of happiness, writes on CNN.com about the difference between people who procrastinate and those who incubate:

Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.

[...]

In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.

This set them apart from the classic "good students," the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.

I can certainly relate to the concept of the incubator. Whilst I like to have a long run up on important projects, they almost always end up left until the last minute.

This is problematic in a business context, where the slow-and-steady approach is the assumed default. Most project planning, for example, assumes that people will hit intermediary deadlines regularly throughout a project. Yet sometimes, particularly in areas where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet such as in tech, this can be a really bad thing because work done and decisions made early in the project can be out of date by the end of the project, ensuring the final deliverables are themselves obsolete as soon as completed.

I do think that social media can help with this, letting incubators share their thoughts, their incubation process with their team and manager without having to hit artificial deadlines that ultimately have a negative impact on the final result. I did this myself with a big report that I wrote last year. We agreed that I would not provide a "first draft", but would instead put each section up on a wiki for the team to look at as it was completed. That meant that, come the "let's assess your progress" meeting, I didn't have anything much to show, but my final draft was something I was very proud of.

The major issue with that experience was that I was quite happy with the approach, it being one I am used to taking, but the people I was working with did not always seem to wrap their heads around it. Such an approach changes how the project should be managed, with ongoing communications the norm instead of sporadic, milestone-based catch-ups. If managers struggle with this different style, then they are unlikely to get the best out of incubator-type personalities.

Information flow and attention

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danah boyd writes an insightful essay for UX Magazine, Streams of Content, Limited Attention, which examines the change from a broadcast information landscape to a networked one and its implications. She identifies four core issues:

  1. Democratization
  2. Stimulation
  3. Homophily
  4. Power

About democratisation, for example, she says:

Switching from a model of distribution to a model of attention is disruptive, but it is not inherently democratizing. This is a mistake we often make when talking about this shift. We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we're not democratizing attention. Just because we're moving towards a state where anyone has the ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up access to the structures of distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function.

This is a really important essay, full of thought provoking nuggets. I don't really want to boil it down to a soundbite, because this is a complex subject and to give you a two sentence summary would be to do it and danah a disservice. I think, though, this is going to be one of those essays I'm going to have to read and reread until its implications - which are not always obvious - have fully sunken in.

Report: 'Digital Natives': A Myth?

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POLIS, the LSE and London College of Communications' journalism research and policy initiative, recently released a report into the concept of 'digital native', examining whether young people really are imbued with an innate, and by implication superior, understanding of technology.

I wrote about this last year and my review of the literature led me to the conclusion that the idea of the 'digital native' was no more than a construction, created primarily it seems to provoke a sense of difference between the generations and, from that, a moral panic around how technology is allegedly affecting younger people.

In the introduction to his report, co-authored with Ranjana Das, Charlie Beckett says:

Myths can be useful ways for societies to tell stories about themselves. They can help us preserve our values and cope with change. So the idea that young people are particularly, even naturally adept at using new media technologies is comforting and perhaps even exciting. Even if older adults find digital devices and processes challenging we can reassure ourselves that the next generation will take to them effortlessly and creatively. I regularly hear from middle aged digital enthusiasts as well as the technophobes how their teenage children can do amazing and/or disturbing things online. They blog, game and network on a variety of platforms, often multi-tasking, producing sophisticated and rich patterns of communication and expression. This is wonderful and quite often true. But as the evidence and analysis of this report shows, it is a myth that this kind of youthful dexterity and literacy is somehow inevitable or ubiquitous. And this matters. As Professor Livingstone says, if we don't understand the reality of young people's use of the Internet, then we won't realize how important it is to them and how vital it is to provide the skills and resources for them to make the myth a reality.

The fact is that young people experience the same opportunities and challenges as everyone else who uses digital technologies. The cultural and social barriers to conventional literacies appear to replicate themselves online. A young person who struggles to read a book will quite likely find online navigation difficult, too. There may be magical things that we can do online, but there is no miraculous power that changes intellectual frogs into digital princes. Those people growing up over the last decade or so may well be more familiar with a world of virtual and networked culture and communications. However, individual youths have not been endowed by some freakish evolutionary process with exceptional technological powers.

Furthering our understanding of how young people use, understand and relate to digital technology is essential to business. Too many times I have heard business people talk about how the 'Facebook Generation will demand social tools', when the anecdotal evidence I have is that the Facebook Generation doesn't much see a need to use social tools in the workplace and would see the use of Facebook by their employers as an invasion of their personal space.

The truth is that all generations show a distribution of technological aptitude, and I'd put money on it being a normal distribution at that. There may be a difference in the width of the central hump of the bell curve, due simply to the increase in opportunity to interact with technology, but there no generation is born with an innate ability to grok tech.

This should ring alarm bells in any business whose HR policy has focused on attracting young employees with the assumption that those people will be better at technology. If you're hoping that the youngsters will save your business from technological decline, you're very much mistaken. Such a policy also ignores the vast pool of older tech-literate people who have grown up with the technology and who understand it in their bones.

Social isn't just online

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The British Psychological Society's Research Digest Blog carries a post about how much better we feel when we get absorbed in a social task than if we do the same task on our own. You've probably heard of 'flow', the feeling of being so absorbed in something that time stands still. Flow "is highly rewarding and usually provokes feelings of joy afterwards", but Charles Walker has discovered that "social flow is associated with more joy than solitary flow - 'that doing it together is better than doing it alone'."

The 'social enterprise' isn't just about using social media to make connections between people via technology, it's also about using that technology to bolster face-to-face relationships. Wouldn't it be great if we could provide people with opportunities to experience social flow on a regular basis as a part of getting their job done!

Report: Edelman's Trust Barometer 2010

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Edelman's yearly Trust Barometer survey results are out, with trust in business, governments and NGOs up, whilst trust in the media continues its three year decline. However:

Although trust in business is up, the rise is tenuous. Globally, nearly 70 percent of informed publics expect business and financial companies will revert to "business as usual" after the recession.

Interestingly, trust in "credentialed experts" is up, compared to a drop in trust in "[people] like me", perhaps because in a recession people become aware that their friends don't have better information than they do. I don't think this necessarily points to a decline in word-of-mouth and would expect this metric to bounce back once we're out of recession. But then, your word-of-mouth is only as good as people's experience of your actual product or service and businesses do need to understand that you if you put lipstick on a pig, people will still see that it's a pig.

Edelman also found that:

A vastly different set of factors - let by trust and transparency - now influences corporate reputation and demands that companies take a multi-dimensional approach to their engagement with stakeholders.

Another good reason to use social media to engage with customers, clients and other stakeholders!

I'm slightly surprised it's taken us this long to see this happen. People are much more aware now that businesses can act deceptively towards them. There are many examples of deception (whether deliberate or through incompetence) and subsequent climb-down that persist in the public consciousness because the story has been so efficiently transmitted via the internet. It's hard not to view business in general with a certain level of mistrust these days.

Businesses that are deliberately transparent, on the other hand, counter this background mistrust by laying their cards on the table and emphasising that they are made up of human beings with whom we can interact, rather than corporate droids who only know how to say their equivalent of Computer Says NO! It is, after all, much harder to mistrust a real person for no reason than a faceless megacorp.

Here, Robert Phillips, UK Ceo for Edelman, talks about how trust pans out in the UK:

As usual, Edelman's report provides us with much food for thought.

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