Yesterday I attended the MRS Connected World conference in London, which organiser Marc Brenner promised beforehand would “bring together eclectic thinking from a diverse range of voices; all dedicated to casting light on the new technologies, behaviours and beliefs that are driving relationships between citizens, consumers, brands and causes”. He truly delivered!
The day did not start in a very connected way though thanks to the Tube strike, but the enforced 30 minute stroll to the venue enabled me to take in the glory of Waterloo Bridge, Kingsway and Bloomsbury on a sunny summer’s day (and marvel at the sweaty gridlock of the overcrowded replacement buses).
SOCMINT, SOCIAL GAMING, SOCIAL LEARNING
Once arrived at the venue, after a bit of networking over coffee and croissants we settled down to listen to Carl Miller (@carljackmiller) from the Centre for Analysis of Social Media at Demos give a great talk about social media intelligence, or SOCMINT. He showed that Natural Language Processing is improving to the extent that via analysis of millions of Tweets during a major event they are starting to be able to predict an outcome (one example given was the X Factor results).
The challenges for SOCMINT include the representativeness of the data set (5% of Twitter users are responsible for 75% of content), ethical concerns over the legitimacy/public consent for this data mining. Another is training analysts, regulators and law makers quickly enough in this groundbreaking new discipline – legislation currently dates back to the pre-social media era. But Carl was clear that ‘SOCMINT will be one of the ways we confront terrorism’.
Next, the cyberpsychologist Berni Good (@GoodBerni) treated us to a talk on the world of social gaming, enlightening the audience as to the secrets and psychology that make for addictive and rewarding playing experiences and sharing her views on how the commercial world can learn. Gaming acknowledges competence (leaderboards, access to the next level) in a way that users often don’t get so readily in other areas, and also appeals to the ego – the latter should definitely be a tactic to improve survey engagement.
Mark Earls (@herdmeister) then got us out of our seats with an interactive talk on social learning, on how to ‘borrow with pride’. He opined that we tend to see every problem as a singularity, and try to solve it ourselves, when the quicker and better response would be find out when it has happened before and see how it was resolved. Copy loosely not tightly, look beyond your immediate environment and add your own interpretation or improvement.
This is something that is absolutely relevant to our industry – clients are always asking ‘but how is <insert agency> different?’ Well the answer is that you’re buying me, my interpretation of said methodology, my experience and personality. Usually it’s not the approach that you’re selling, it’s you, which is also why the personal connection is so important in our industry (Procurement departments please note!).
NEW TECHNOLOGY DRIVING SOCIAL CHANGE
The talk I most wanted to hear was from transhumanist David Wood (@dw2), co-founder of Symbian (with whom I felt a loose connection having helped ready Nokia smartphones for market in the late 2000s) but speaking in his role as chair of London Futurists, a group who meet to discuss ‘radical scenarios of the next 3-40 years’.
He waxed scientific on the increasing pace of technological advances and how new technologies are driving significant social change – to the benefit of individuals but also posing threats to society. Referencing growing wealth inequality he declared that future friction will be between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-a-lots’.
How well individuals and families will fare in the ultra-connected tomorrow will partly depend on us intervening to control this torrent: we need smart governance and regulation and we need to attract better people into those disciplines to do that, as so far the regulators have always been two steps behind the innovators.
TWEETING WITH IMPACT
After some more circulating during lunch, we resumed with Confessions of a Professional Tweeter, a talk given by David Levin (@davidlevin123) who runs social content company That Lot with one of my favourite Tweeters – actor, writer, comedian, fool (his words not mine) David Schneider (@davidschneider). David Levin made us laugh telling us how Twitter changed his life and talked us through examples of numerous creative approaches to Tweeting that should transform the impact of your social broadcasts.
His top tips include: Be short. Be human – talk directly to people. Be quick to respond. Be courageous. Visuals are important, and try and be creative with visuals to grab attention, and also use short videos. Quizes are very popular on Twitter (plus you can build in humour). Recurring #hashtags can build a following around a topic – but research the hashtag before you use it to avoid disaster!
We will be trying out some of these techniques with our own @MktingSciences feed over the next few weeks – now that’s what I call Conference ROI…
PHILOSOPHY AND THE UNIVERSE
The final talks were rather more left field…
Chris Lintott (@chrislintott), Professor of Astrophysics at University of Oxford gave a very funny talk about citizen science, namely the Galaxy Zoo crowdsourcing project to help map the universe (it’s a big task but going well) and Zooniverse (which included helping count penguins in Antarctica). The goal is to accelerate understanding of a subject by using thousands of volunteers to record/map/observe.
Critical to raising awareness was getting occasional Queen guitarist Brian May to blog about Galaxy Zoo – Brian had studied astrophysics at Imperial College in the 60s and was returning to finish his PhD. Then, although initially focused on the potential outputs Chris and his team quickly had to understand human psychology in terms of what was motivating volunteers and how to keep them enthused. Key to the success is that contributers don’t see it as work but more a labour of love, giving them a chance to contribute to something bigger and permanent.
Using an Oculus Rift headset and noise cancelling earphones, all he will see, hear or consume for this month is what The Other experiences. Will Mark start to believe this new life as his own? An intriguing experiment which seeks to help answer that old chestnut ‘does our sense of self come from inherent personality or cultural identity’? Pre-experiment, with perhaps a nod to Aristotle, Mark declared his starting position to be that “who we are is a habit”.
I am intrigued as to what the psychological effects will be not only on Mark (who I sat with over lunch – nice fellow, both his parents are psychologists so he has good family back-up) but on The Other (and The Other’s co-habiting girlfriend), after having their lives broadcast 24/7 for a month. Keith Stuart in the Guardian suggests that perhaps this experiment might actually be less mind shifting than some of the role playing VR games that will soon be upon us, given the element of user control in those games…
If you want to visit the lab/studio location where Mark will be for this surreal month go to 133 Bethnal Green Road, London E2. I am hoping he emerges unscathed and am looking forward to hearing about it at next year’s conference – he is already booked to return and tell all.
So a fascinating conference with some direct implications for the research and insights industry, but one which also prompted much deeper thinking on life, the universe and everything!
Richard Snoxell is a Research Director in the Technology & Financial research team at Marketing Sciences Unlimited.
Images: Photos taken by me during conference; the map of Twitter (see graphic itself for sources); Mark Farid during a trial run of Seeing ISubscribe