Facebook - all seeing, all knowing

Last week, some of Crowd DNA squeezed into a lecture hall to hear what Daniel Miller, Professor of Anthropology at UCL, had to say about Facebook.

With over 800 million active users and approximately 80% of its users from outside the US, it’s about time that the social network received attention from academia. As an anthropologist, Miller is interested in the relationships between different groups of people, rather than individuals themselves – so Facebook provides telling insights into how social relationships are developing today.

Based on a year-long study into the daily Facebook habits of Trinidadians (argued to be fast adopters of new technology), and published in “Tales from Facebook”, Miller challenges common assumptions about Facebook.

The social network’s ubiquity is undeniable – it’s a facet of modern life that is used by approximately one in every 13 people in the world. However, we can’t assume that it is being used in the same way by everyone. Though US college students first adopted Facebook, this isn’t to say that it’s the preserve of youth alone. Miller refutes the notion of ‘one true Facebook,’ – as it is adapted in new locations, it is reinvented and becomes particular to each user.That is, if it’s adopted at all.

In the UK, a whopping 43% of the whole population is on Facebook.  However, Facebook penetration in Japan stands at less than 1%, where the social network faces significant obstacles. In a society where anonymity is valued, Facebook’s real name policy is at odds with the cultural tendency to post under pseudonyms, and which Japan-based social networks such as Mixi and Gree allow. 

While social networks are often used as means of expression in Japan, which is free from social constraints, they may be used to recreate the offline world in other societies. This week, Facebook’s policies have angered mothers worldwide, who are staging protests outside Facebook HQs against having their profiles taken down because of breast-feeding images:

"This is discrimination. There's no other way to look at it. We're being treated as pornographers. Breast-feeding moms, especially ones with infants, spend hours a day with their children at their breast. They're not trying to be sexually explicit. This is just part of their everyday lives."

Though Facebook defines itself as a ‘social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and co-workers,’ criticisms leveraged against it cite that it’s a superficial means of communication that is detrimental to ‘real’ face-to-face contact and that can even give you cancer(!). Miller, on the other hand, argues that the social network has a much wider impact. He believes that Facebook has become a ‘site of witnessing,’ an all-seeing, all-knowing medium, where what you see online can be more truthful than the real life representation. People are using the site to balance what is going on in their offline world and, therefore, Facebook can often provide a rounder insight into individuals.  

Though the backlash against Facebook is well underway, what does the future hold for this social network? One of the faster growing demographics of Facebook users is the over 50s, who are using social networks to reconnect with old friends and family. It may also be used increasingly by those that wish to engage with others, but that are unable to due to illness or shyness.

One thing is for sure – there is no ‘authentic’ way to use Facebook and as a result, brands can’t afford to have a ‘one size fits all’ social media strategy. The need to think carefully about the cultural sensitivities and idiosyncrasies of consumers has never been stronger.

BehaviourSocial Mediatrends

Alternate currencies - anarchy or revolution?

It’s quite an unusual concept, to question the value of money as a construct in our everyday world, and to imagine ways of living without it. While alternative currencies have been around since long before money as we know it was created, we’re seeing increased enthusiasm in the developed world not just for substitute currency but also the creation of new currencies.

At Crowd DNA we feel that this renewed interest is in part due to the resourcefulness that economic hardship produces, in part due to internet enabled connectivity and part a new hacking mentality in the west.

When times are tough, money is tight and lack of trust in state control is pervasive, it is natural for people to voice their ideas for how they could ‘do things better’. With networking capability having reached new heights in developed society, the potential for these voices to be heard both locally and globally has sparked new ways of thinking, doing and bending the rules. As anti-establishment ways of thinking are adopted by do-gooders in society, the idea spreads that hacking the system is the optimal solution for living well.

Through times of great social and economic struggle we’ve witnessed regression to alternate currencies from communities both urban and remote, developed and not. During the Great Depression in the USA, rabbits tails and wooden discs were traded by businesses; Curitiba in 1970s Brazil saw the government boost the economy and the local community by distributing bus tokens as currency in return for litter clearing. Ithaca Hours is the New York based, oldest alternate currency in the world and very much still in use – one Ithaca hour of time is now worth US $10. Alternate currencies have allowed communities to survive in hard times, but they have usually been considered a short term solution, inferior to wider, state controlled fiscal policies and mint-produced money.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a big grassroots refocus on the idea of currency and playing around with it. We have trading in alternate currencies of time, skills and goods popping up like the Camden Time Bank, The People’s Supermarket, Freecycle, GoodGym, fashion swapshops and The Brixton Pound to name a few. In wildly unpredictable financial markets, people are redefining value skills and knowledge that they can provide and are in need of within communities, whether they be on or offline. They are practising unconventional transacting. We also have people creating new, virtual currencies such as Bitcoins and Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for US dollars.  We look to explore why.


Our society is getting used to a non-conformist ideal. Average Joe and Jane aren’t convinced anymore that slaving to the system is working for them. Having played by the rules, they’re not reaping the rewards. They may have been made redundant, daycare for the kids has been shut down and their high street clothes are falling apart. Our consumerist values have shot us in the foot. People want to find other ways to acquire stuff, whether that be advice or a new garden bench, and they want more real connections to others. Economic Anthropologist Keith Hart calls money ‘an instrument of impersonal relations’; we are now focusing on creating networks of people sharing ideas, skills, time and starting initiatives to make things better, on a much more personal level.

Bartering and exchange isn’t just a way of getting free stuff, and importantly this explains why the rich and the poor are taking part in such initiatives in equal measures. It’s now acceptable to be anti-establishment, to hack the system, to love thyself and they neighbour but not the government or God. The word ‘hacking’ has gone from conjuring pictures of criminals committing fearful activity online, to alluding to playful, clever and creative ways of bending systems, using connectivity to achieve personal and social good. The Guardian newspaper even has a part of its Technology section dedicated to hacking (and we don’t mean the NOTW type).

Sugru, the moldable silicon product that allows you to fix and amend household items, tells us to ‘Hack things better’ in its strapline. It has become iconic in creative communities interested in this idea of living life differently. Their website is all ‘Power to the (handy) people!’ sentiment.This is not about dodgy deals or making do - it’s about making the choice to go against the grain of our ‘given roles’ as consumers by buying less.

Interestingly, this has happened at the same time as the act of handing over cash has become less visible and tangible, as we substitute our coins and notes for contactless payment cards and mobile wallets (here). The idea that financial exchange is becoming more invisible is interesting in light of the popularity of alternative currencies of exchange, where no money at all changes hands. Radical ideas such as Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, whereby ‘participants’ do not buy or sell anything, but barter everything from sun cream to yoga classes are now inspiring the masses. It’s partly about self-sufficiency, and partly about being dependent on others to get by, and this pre-historic model of living is increasingly attractive to modern urbanites.

In trendy groups such as Metrosexuals in New York we’re hearing that upcycling is the new craze, and manipulating normal codes of conduct further, the coolest geeks in Silicon Valley and beyond are creating new currencies altogether using code.  Is money disappearing?

Bitcoins for example, are a ‘peer to peer cryptocurrency’, created by Japanese Satoshi Nakamoto that allow unregulated transactions across the internet, their value is unstable and they have no physical embodiment. They exist outside of any centralised financial authority and are untraceable to a large extent. This means that online transactions using Bitcoins achieve a higher degree on anonymity than any other digital option right now. There are also services which allow you to cash them in for American dollars, in much the same was as Linden dollars, the virtual cash of Second Life. Now, what is created online has very real effects on the economy offline - virtual goods are now worth $3 billion (here). Sometimes, mildly archaic ideas turn into new ways of living – many people now earn their full income from exchanging goods in virtual worlds.

Our desire to create new ways of living without money changing hands could be a stab at making life more meaningful and personal, where lives lead are increasingly insular. It makes sense that we’re looking for more qualitative ways to live life. It could be that disillusioned by modern living, we’re harking back to gift economies from more than 5000 years ago, relying on others to survive and seeing the social rewards, rather than focusing solely on acquisition of money for ourselves.

Now, we need to consider how brands could and should be using that germinating idea of alternative currencies to build consumer engagement.

Brands must adapt to human behavioural change, they cannot always create it. The value of being culturally plugged in to shifting norms can’t be underestimated, especially when it comes to topics such as our conceptualization of currency, value and spending, all three of which are being affected by prevalent sharing, bartering and exchanging behaviours.

A recent ethnographic research project we conducted UK wide with young people revealed that reciprocity is vital for brand affinity. Youth want something in return for their creative input, they adore it when brands barter with them, and don’t treat them like passive recipients. Asking something of people is a widely recognised psychological trick to create the idea of a pre-existing relationship – strangers don’t normally ask you to do them a favour, so when they do you attribute them status closer to ‘friend’ than brand – they’ve flattered you.

People have opened up to the exchange of ideas and goods, and hosting this on a global scale. Brands were second to the scene here, and so should be able to recognise that their role is facilitator and not leader first and foremost. People start these initiatives to go against traditional consumerism and so brands getting involved can seem counter intuitive. However brands can achieve affiliation with such schemes through genuinely and humanely helping to grow these ideas, putting real people on the ground, listening and providing infrastructure. Nokia did this when they created the mobile platform for Freecycle, allowing people to access the site any time from their pockets. It’s about brands being a part of a network which will exist and grow with or without them – full of creative, highly motivated people.

Brands have long been interested in how they can amass social currency. They can now definitely tap into our ‘in vogue’ desire to hack the system, to build communities around helping each other out and celebrate doing things differently. It’s not about forgetting about the bottom line, it’s about thinking more broadly about how to provide consumers with things they need, in more inventive and collaborative ways.



QR Codes

They're not exactly new, but it feels like we’re seeing more and more QR codes now – in print and as part of out-of-home comms. They keep cropping up in conversation in meetings with clients, too, as more in media and marketing experiment with how to deploy them. It therefore felt like a good time to head out and to explore if the public is getting to grips with them...

There’s a general feeling that QR codes are 'the future'. Being able to scan an image that links you to more content, in theory, is what people want. However, there is a great deal of scepticism regarding their effectiveness - most are under the impression that it is as simple as a link to a website or see it as 'just another way of selling'. Not enough are informed of other options such as 'scan to buy' and seem genuinely interested when presented with it. Convenience is also an issue - most are put off by how exclusive it remains to those with smartphones and even smartphone users are put off by the lengths needed to go through to get to the content.

Brands need to push the idea that a QR code is worth more than a link, that it can lead to exclusive content, useful buyer information and easier options to purchase - this may sway the sceptics into trying it out.

QR codes are breaking through into the mainstream in a big way but the idea feels dated when compared to newer hyper-scan technologies such as NFC (Near field Communication) and AR (Augmented Reality). NFC does not require the user to fiddle around scanning a code in and AR is interactive from the go - ultimately, QR will probably be regarded as the pre-cursor to these new ideas, but anyone wishing to get involved should understand this first generation of hyper–scan technology in order to realise how best to serve consumers in the future.

If you’d like to learn more about hyper-scan technology, and how we can help you research it, get in touch: hello@crowdDNA.com

StrategyBehaviourSocial Media

21st century radio

As RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research Limited) reports, radio listener figures are up in the first quarter of 2011. It’s clear that radio still remains competitive – but how long can this last?

Online streaming sites such as Spotify, Last.fm and Grooveshark have become increasingly popular destinations because of ‘on demand’ song and playlist selection. However, the modern radio listener still seeks the personal touch, they still want the personalities, the musical filter and the opportunity to discover music through serendipity.

We hit the streets to find out what the new breed of media consumers want (and expect) from modern day radio brands...

Looking to the future, radio needs to adapt into the online space - advanced audience interaction, having a say in what gets played, online profiles reflecting listening habits, and better integration with social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

This does not mean sacrificing what makes radio great, just fine-tuning some already popular services to reach out further to the online generation.


BehaviourMusicSocial Media

Contemporary Nostalgia

Nostalgia is nothing new. For time immemorial, we’ve chosen to distract ourselves and look for comfort in sights, sounds and ideas from the past. This is as familiar to people as it is to brands – some call it revivalism, some ‘retro’, often treading a fine line with heritage and tradition. But at Crowd DNA we’ve noticed a particular trend for nostalgia among young people and, given their tender age, this is mostly focused on the recent past of the 90s.

In underground youth culture there are good examples of how nostalgia resonates through movements and fashions. The London dance music scene is recycling sounds and ideas popular in the 90s – jungle and garage have rebranded themselves under the ‘future’ umbrella with very few changes to the sound itself. Voicemail ‘hotlines’ giving directions to warehouse parties, though never fading out entirely, have also shown a resurgence. There has been a slow but steady rise in ‘anti-Facebook’ promotion and flyers have become more popular again even though cheaper/free alternatives are available – people are after the personal touch.

Nostalgia is influencing purchasing too. According to Billboard, vinyl album sales are up 55 per cent in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. Yahoo reported a 210 per cent year-on-year increase in searches of the phrase ‘blank cassette tapes’ and a 110 per cent rise in users seeking ‘music cassette tapes’.

Young people are the creators at the forefront of this nostalgia revolution. They are taking on the role of the tastemakers and innovators by making their own productions - collaborating with promoters, digital label owners/publishers and pushing their product in the form of their very own micro-brand.It has enabled them to promote their own version of nostalgia without the need for major brands/labels.

So what are the driving forces of today’s nostalgia and why is it so popular among UK youth? We’re living in uncertain times – the recession, the riots, unemployment – in many respects young people feel these more keenly than most. In our latest phase of research for Channel 4’s UK Tribes, we found that young people are feeling real fear that they won’t be able to find a job, let alone develop a fulfilling career. Nostalgia provides a welcome distraction.

But it’s not just today’s challenging times. Young people are actively creating nostalgia because little is really tangibly owned – films, music, photos etc are now digital. This makes them especially keen ‘memory makers’ who love to document everything.

Looking to the past also provides a steadying anchor. In our hyper-accelerated culture there’s a sense that trends are shifting too quickly, with music for example, obscure genres pop up on an almost a daily basis. In a recent study with influencers, we learnt that trends too often get confused with fads and that brands are too quick to jump on this ‘fad bandwagon’, sacrificing integrity for a quick buck – which is detrimental to a brand’s image in the long term. Looking to the past removes the uncertainty and unsettled feeling that myriad passing fads create.

So how do brands fit in? Clothing brands like Fred Perry have built a brand out of heritage and retro flavour and Nike is renowned for re-releasing classic trainers to its fan-boy collector market. The film industry often plays on this concept to profiteer from a successful brand – either ‘re-mastering’ classics or releasing CGI laden pre-/sequels (a few spring to mind). The gaming industry thrives off it too, with re-releases of popular retro games on an almost daily basis to accommodate the new mobile platforms.

However, times are changing and the brands are not in control as they once were - an individual working in his bedroom has taken on the role of the innovator, undermining some of the power that brands and labels have over trends. These innovators are successful as they recognise nostalgia thrives because it is selective – we don our rose-tinted spectacles and pick and choose the elements from the past that make us happy and comfort us. Not everything was good back in the day, but we curate the best bits and mix them up with today’s. Savvier brands will recognise and assist with this curation.


Related articles and further reading

How brands use nostalgia to comfort us

Nostalgia and 70s-90s dance music reissues

Ori Schwarz, ‘Good Young Nostalgia. Camera phones and technologies of self among Israeli youths’

Simon Reynolds ‘Retromania’ – examining the retro industry



Online-Only Fashion Retailers

As Jane Norman fell into administration last June, observers speculated which high street fashion brand would be next.  In recent years, we have been inundated with news stories reflecting the dire state of the high street.  New research from the British Retail Consortium reveals that a tenth of shops stand empty, where high streets across the UK are experiencing significant reductions in footfall. The decline has been attributed to falling consumer confidence, high inflation coupled with minimal pay increases and the general, all-round climate of uncertainty.   

Yet, during the very same period some online-only fashion retailers (OOFRs) have posted incredible results.  ASOS, for example, saw its international sales jump by 160% in the first quarter, while sales at Net-A-Porter in 2010 were up 60% on the previous year.  Could it be that consumers have just changed the way that they shop? 

In a recent report, we analysed seven OOFRs in particular: Net-A-Porter.com, ASOS, ShopStyle, Arcadia’s Style 369, FarFetch.com, eBay and Etsy.  We looked at each retailer’s strengths, recent innovations, (purchasing through Google enabled TVs come to mind), as well as potential challenges on the horizon.

We can confidently say that the future of fashion retail is by no means dead – it’s perhaps just not how you envisioned it.

Exciting times ahead for the OOFR landscape… Take a look at our work here.

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BehaviourSocial MediaStrategyFashionRetail

Impact DNA - A new campaign effectiveness tool from Crowd DNA

As campaigns become increasingly complex, taking in more media channels and connecting with audiences in new ways, it becomes even more difficult to measure the success.

At Crowd DNA we have tested over 75 campaigns and brand partnerships across TV, online, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines and events over the last couple of years. In addition to standard effectiveness measures like awareness, comprehension, loyalty and participation, we have developed Impact DNA to test campaigns in a more comparable and actionable way.

Impact DNA’s combination of normative measures allows for the tracking and comparison of campaigns, or brand partnerships, regardless of media mix or sector.

Impact DNA uses six easy to understand, but highly powerful measures to assess the success of campaigns. It utilises tried and tested measures alongside innovative metrics that take into account online and offline performance.

The results are presented as a single-page PDF using the Impact DNA performance dashboard, as well as in a full debrief document, making the results easy to access, share and act upon.

For more information on using Impact DNA, or about any of our other work, please contact Paul Allen

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EffectivenessStrategyword of mouthBehaviour


Last week social media was the primary tool for rioters, police, public and traditional media. It was credited with driving rioter and ‘civilian’ action, media coverage, government responses and ensuing brand involvement. But now that the dust is settling, how have social media and brands faired in the riot aftermath?

With 37% of all British youth on the private, untraceable, encrypted BlackBerry BBM network (Ofcom 2011), a handful of widely reported messages quickly attributed the brand as the rioters’ weapon of choice. With 60% of young people in the UK ‘highly addicted’ to their Smartphone (Ofcom 2011), BBM’s free instant messaging is one of the most popular tools to stay in touch and features hugely in Crowd DNA’s research with young people – not just among rioters. However the ‘corruption’ of BBM has caused a major shift in the public’s brand perception, with negative Twitter mentions rocketing from 16% to 24% over the riots (BrandWatch).

As Tottenham MP David Lammy pressured for the shut down of the entire BBM network at the height of the riots, hackers simultaneously threatened to release employee details from Research In Motion – the maker of BlackBerry devices – if they did so. The reach and influence of social media has been made painfully clear by BlackBerry’s adulteration by rioters. David Cameron has called for extended police powers when social media is used to incite violence, disorder and criminality and Theresa May will meet with Facebook, Twitter and Research In Motion in the coming weeks to discuss social media safety (The Guardian).

As BBM became synonymous with rioters, Twitter took on the mantle of ‘voice of the people’ by facilitating immediate public, police and media responses. Real time, first hand reporting from ‘civilians’ democratised riot knowledge, preceding traditional media coverage and facilitating mass public response to key issues.

Civilian-lead campaigns such as #Riotcleanup and #Riotwombles saw the online become offline as hundreds gathered to sweep the streets, and within hours civilian researchers were mapping the riots using online tools – laying the riot sites over the social deprivation index and against real-time twitter feeds to create up-to-the-minute mapping. Civilian policing became public as Twitter shared news of the Turkish communities defending the streets of Dalston, civilian journalists shared video content on Youtube and thousands who tweeted, posted, blogged and commented online.

The HM Government e-petition ‘Convicted London rioters should lose all benefits’ has seen the biggest public engagement in policymaking to date, with social-media-enabled link sharing leading to over 200,000 signatures – nearly 500% more than any other e-petition to date and twice the number needed to be considered in the House of Commons.

Police were quick to use civilian ‘detectives’ to identify rioters; with the Met’s Flickr site ‘Giving Photos From Operation Withern’, ‘Catch-A-Looter’ and ‘Zavilla: Identify UK Rioters’ all using social media to enable public identification. Social media is not a new resource for policing - the Greater Manchester Police were nominated for three ‘Golden Twits’ back in 2010, for tweeting every 999 call they received in real time in 24 hours, posting 3200 tweets across 3 twitter accounts. Social media helped to align police and public interests, give police a human voice and promote transparency – a significant issue in a society still reeling from expenses and phone hacking scandals and shocked by the lack of police presence in some affected areas.

Traditional media also relied on social media for up-to-the-minute information, with the BBC website merging traditional and social media coverage by offering live TV news alongside a live feed from tweeting journalists, official statements, press updates and public commentary; and broadsheets and magazines turned to Twitter to appeal to civilians to post from ‘in the action’. However traditional media sources have not been usurped by the civilian voice – they were very active on social media themselves, with journalists offering trustworthy tweets that cut through the wealth of rumour from unfounded sources.

Aside from BlackBerry, sportswear brands and retailers such as Adidas, Nike and Footlocker were also pervasive across all riot imagery – emblazoned on the trakkies or hoodies of the rioters themselves as they searched for the coveted loot of Nike Air Max and Sony TVs. The rioters’ focus on luxury sportswear and expensive technology drove right wing distain, claiming that rioters were ‘greedy not needy’ and that brands endorsed ‘boorish behaviour’ (Daily Mail) through celebrity endorsements such as Snoop Dogg for Adidas. Despite Levi’s pulling their ‘Legacy’ advert that features rioting, they have still received significant criticism for endorsing violence and being in bad taste despite never being aired in the UK.

Some brands took the opportunity to gain positive press and public acclaim by offering support to high profile riot victims. Ashraf Haziq (the exchange student mugged on camera during the riots) was given a replacement PSP from Sony along with games from Namco Bandai. Brands also engaged in civilian campaigns to public acclaim, with London ad agency BBH raising over £35,000 in less than 5 days for 89-year-old Tottenham barber Aaron Biber, EasyJet flying home over 60 MPs and Sainsbury’s handing out water to #Riotcleanup helpers. However Old El Paso must be the most unlikely brand to jump on the riot bandwagon, with their Facebook update –

“In these trying times I think we could all benefit from a bit of comfort food, and there are few things more tasty and reassuring than baked enchiladas, full of spicy chicken and topped with lots of bubbling cheese”

So what have we learnt from the riots? First and above all – social media makes the public powerful. It helped facilitate the riots and stop them, it democratised news reporting and comment and it gave the public the opportunity to work in partnership with and beyond the bounds of government, policing and traditional media. Social media united and mobilised public voice, gave it a political mandate but yet the most trusted sources were still traditional media operating in the social media space. Clearly there is still a clear challenge in how you cut through the din in the social media space; it’s a noisy environment, but, as those seeking credible information during the riots learnt, not all of the noise is reliable or trustworthy

For now, social and traditional media are complementary mediums that enrich and integrate the social experience and information sharing.

And as for brands faring badly from riot affiliations or cashing in on riot hype… as Ice T said, ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game’.

Social Mediaword of mouthYouthCommunityBehaviour