The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

The Many Not The Few

With more consumers talking directly to brand owners, Graeme Trayner discusses the implications of open source thinking.

All around us we see signs of a new environment where the boundaries of who creates and who consumes are becoming blurred. Where once the ability to broadcast and publish was the preserve of the rich and powerful, now anyone with a PC, modem or even a mobile phone can become a reporter or commentator.

This shift is radically disrupting how the powerful see 'consumers'. Witness how one of the world's most successful businessmen, Rupert Murdoch, believes the future of his media empire lies in MySpace — a group of interlinked websites created by ordinary people — or how a former US Vice President, Al Gore, is devoting much of his energy to creating a TV station — Current TV — that solely broadcasts consumer-created content.

We can locate this blurring of roles within the wider context of how new technology such as the internet allows people to have direct conversations with businesses and organisations. For the market research industry, this has stark implications. If you can set up a website or blog to commentate on a brand, why do you need a market research firm to act as a mediator between you (the consumer) and the business? Indeed, why does business need to hire a research firm if it can tap into a wealth of consumer conversations online?

The answers to how we cope with this challenge lie in looking at the realm of open source thinking which, though spawned by new technology, is now a mindset with a much wider application. My aim here is to provide an overview of what open source thinking is, how it is changing various sectors and spheres of activity, and how it can impact upon what we do.

Open source thinking

As an idea, open source thinking may at first seem remote and distant from the world of market research. As a concept, it originally comes from Silicon Valley where it was seen as a new approach to computer programming. In contrast to a program where the designers and engineers secretly guard its source code - the recipe of an open source program is open to everyone to add to, revise or edit. The DNA is open to revision.

The rationale behind this approach is that by giving up an element of control, programmers get improved results. Taking its lead from the need to hunt out problems and bugs in programs, the open source mantra is that the greater the number of people who look at something; the more likely you are to spot issues early on: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Open source programmers believe that giving up control is not an issue; rather that openness leads to more creativity and innovation.

In a landmark book on the open source movement, IT thinker Eric Raymond (1999) likens the difference between open source and its binary counterpart closed source development to that between a cathedral and a bazaar. The construction of a cathedral depends on a master architect marshalling proceedings, but a bazaar or market runs off the back of a myriad of dealings, exchanges and conversations. In the world of computing, Windows is the classic 'closed source' program — only Microsoft knows how it’s put together, and only it has the ability to alter the code.

In contrast, Linux — Microsoft's principal rival — is based on an open source model. From its original design by Linus Torvald, the source code of Linux has been open to change, revision and adaptation by anyone. In effect, Torvald and Linux have co-opted the creativity of the many rather than relying on an elite few — a strategy that has enabled Linux to become Microsoft's main challenger.

The real power of open source thinking is that the concept can be applied across many spheres of activity, aside from the narrow confines of software programming. In essence, open source is about everyone having the potential and right to create, and to be recognised for that creativity. From an organisation's view, it is about giving up an element of control in order to achieve better results than the organisation could achieve on its own. Successful open source initiatives are based on 'communities of co- creation' (Cottam and Leadbetter, 2004) that blend the expertise of a sponsoring organisation with that of engaged amateurs.

Beyond computing: open source thinking in practice

Open source thinking is now reaching beyond the domain of IT, and is re-shaping areas as diverse as the media, astronomy, politics and publishing.

Astronomy

Far from being the preserve of a few stargazers in the Mojave dessert, open source thinking has reconfigured astronomy. Worldwide, there are 10,000 professional astronomers, but hundreds of thousands of amateurs who collaborate across the internet.

Media

The media has had to respond to the emergence of co-creation — where people are acting as reporters and viewers, and not just passive consumers. In the UK, we have seen the first signs of this — the BBC received thousands of images from people's mobile phones and digital cameras after 7/7 and the Hemel Hempstead oil explosion.

It is Asia though that leads the way with the 'citizen journalism' phenomenon. In South Korea, the OhMyNews online newspaper is largely written by its own readers — 26,000 citizen reporters contribute 80% of the content.

Politics

Faced with the challenge of increasing mistrust towards politicians, innovative Governments have pioneered the development of deliberative democracy. Reflecting the principles of open source thinking, deliberative democracy is based on givingcitizens the chance to help influence and even create legislation through discussion and debate. This is not superficial marketing, but a process that actively involves people in shaping real policy.

Publishing

The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, operates on an open source basis. Anyone has the right to create, edit and amend an entry, and through voluntary contributions, the site has become a comprehensive resource that rivals traditional paper-bound versions. Wikipedia recently went past the million-entries mark, while a full size Encyclopaedia Britannica has only 120,000 entries (Schiff, 2006).

Branding

In contrast to conventional top-down branding campaigns, the !GuateAmala! campaign to promote the country's self-image has embraced open source thinking. Design templates have been made freely available, enabling people to use the graphics in how whatever way they want to. Blogs and chat rooms have attracted thousands of Guatemalans to debate the country's future (Rawsthorn, 2006).

Open source communities

What then links together the disparate activities of the previous page? What are the defining characteristics of an open source initiative or community? Academics such as Steven Weber (2004) and thinkers such as Charles Leadbetter and Hilary Cottam have pinpointed a series of attributes that link together open initiatives.

A cornerstone

Open source communities have to have something to revolve around — whether it is an original computer code or a set of policy options in a deliberative democracy exercise. A sponsoring organisation needs to kick start discussion and action by providing an initial starting point.

Recognition

The attraction of open source initiatives is that people learn and gain self-actualisation through being part of the community, with many feeling a sense of recognition through their involvement — contributors to OhMyNews or You Tube (a site for amateur videos) do not get paid for their work, but gain a sense of reward from seeing their efforts made public.

Open evaluation

Contributions to a co-creative community tend to be judged by peers, rather than the sponsoring organisation. Witness how eBay sellers are rated by others, rather than Ebay's management or owners; the same applies to Amazon's 'reader ratings'.

From below

Change in an open source initiative comes from 'below' not 'above'. Indeed, the power of open source communities is that innovation comes from the energy and spark of people — whether they are users of a service or engaged observers.

Evolving

Successful co-creative communities evolve and adapt. Wikipedia has prospered as users continually update and post new entries; gaining ongoing feedback from readers and other creators.

Blurred ownership

As Leadbetter and Cottam note, “the founders never completely own the community.” Who owns Wikipedia: the five employees who work there, or the countless contributors?

Learning from open source

So, what's all this got to do with qualitative market research? Well, far-sighted businesses and organisations have picked up on how they can benefit from people contributing ideas and thinking that can help them serve their audiences better. The internet has provided the platform for people to become creators and advisors on behalf of organisations — and this represents a real challenge to the conventional models of market research.

This platform comes about as new technology brings people and information together. Business thinkers C K Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy have written about how the internet has allowed for the emergence of virtual 'thematic communities' that bring together consumers with a specific interest or passion, whether that be for mountain biking, Moleskine notebooks or The Sopranos (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004).

We can locate the emergence of thematic communities within the wider context of open source thinking, as these communities often provide the starting point for spontaneous action on the part of consumers. In the late 1990s, as the popularity of a Lego software product called Mindstorms grew, online communities developed where aficionados posted new ideas on how the software could be used for other construction ideas. Taking this to the next level, Lego fan Markus Noga took the original Mindstorms software, developed a new and improved version, and posted it online for open use. Smartly, Lego now allows 'amateur' programmers to access the original code, to refine and advance it for others.

Indeed, the reality for companies is that limits cannot be set on people-led innovation. The revolution occurring in the entertainment industry is a startling example of the futility of trying to impose boundaries. Paralysed by fears over digital piracy, the entertainment industry has worried and agonised over online distribution can work. In the meantime though, consumers have re-shaped this market through user-led innovations such as the file-sharing network, Napster. Frustrated at the industry's perceived failure to lead, consumer imagination has resulted in new ways for people to listen to music and watch films. As MIT Professor Eric von Hippel argues, “if customers really want something, they won't wait for you anymore” (quoted in Flight 2005).

In a shift that undercuts our traditional role, smart businesses are facilitating their own thematic communities. Take the case of the 'Boeing World Design Team', a site asking for input and ideas as the company develops its new airliners. Around 12,000 aviation enthusiasts have now joined up. The initiative revolves around a highly interactive website, where members can get sneak previews of the plane as it develops, vote on design elements and have direct dialogue with the Boeing team. Note this is not PR, creating an early buzz around something new; instead people are actually contributing to the design process.

Car manufacturers including BMW and Audi, retailers including IKEA and shoe firms such as Converse have also used the principles of open source thinking to tap into consumer creativity (for more examples, visit
www.trendwatching.com/trends/customer-made.htm or www.micropersuasion.com)

The open source manifesto

The challenge then for the qualitative community is to respond to this new environment, and to apply open source thinking to our techniques and approaches. We need to adapt to a world where people want to create as well as consume, and where businesses and consumers can now talk to each other without the need for traditional mediators.

I have outlined below a manifesto for the research community on how we can adapt and better connect with the needs of organisations and people. The list of suggestion is by no means exhaustive, and is intended to provide a starting point for a debate on how research can change.

1: Connect with people as 'lay' strategists

This chance to create is resonating with consumers, as we see with the growth of blogging, social networking sites such as MySpace, and the popularity of sites like YouTube — where people post their own videos and films.

As a result, research should fundamentally seek to connect with people as active creators not passive 'respondents'. Qualitative research can be seen as an opportunity to empower people to come up with their own ideas and thinking, instead of merely asking people to respond to prescribed concepts.

As the existing examples of co-creation and spontaneous innovation show, consumers have the ability to think complex issues, and to demonstrate flair and imagination. Richard Florida's work (2002) on the creative class has shown the growing number of people whose professional lives depend on creativity, and Steven Johnson (2005) has also shown how contemporary media actually improves our cognitive and creative abilities.

We should seek to facilitate as many forums where people can develop new products, design marketing and advertising campaigns, shape public and corporate policy, and provide inspiration for innovation.

2: Demonstrate recognition and naked research

We need to think more carefully about ensuring people feel a sense of recognition and even status from taking part. Part of the success of co-creative communities is that they offer people a visible opportunity to be creative and innovative, and crucially, for that contribution to be recognised.

Aside from doling out the incentives, we need to acknowledge the commitment people make when taking part in research. Why is it not a standard practice after a project to send participants a management summary of the findings, and notes on what has happened or what will happen as a result?

Showing recognition is about making research as visible as possible. Of course, issues around confidentiality often mean discretion is needed. But what makes initiatives such as Boeing World Design a success is their visibility — it is not hidden away in the murky world of viewing facilities and debrief rooms; it is an active form of communication.

3: Involve people in analysis

As part of our efforts to tap into people's creativity, we could seek to involve people in analysis. Analysis and interpretation still represents the 'black box' of research. However, opening up analysis to 'participants' offers us the chance to use and acknowledge people's creativity and contribution.

We could seek to involve people in gaining feedback on our initial thinking on research recommendations. We might consider conducting more re-convened workshops where you run your initial ideas past participants. Beyond this, we could look at setting up online forums where participants can submit comments on our initial work. Mirroring the most successful online communities such as eBay and Slashdot, we can look at how technology can be used to 'rate' the resonance of recommendations.

4: Embrace new technologies

We should also seek to listen to and engage with thematic communities. As part of our research efforts, virtual communities of brand evangelicals or detractors are likely to prove a fruitful participating group for research. Importantly, we cannot seek to build artificial thematic worlds, as if we are creating a new kind of panel. The power and authenticity of virtual communities lie in their self-organisation.

Complementing this, we can incorporate new ways of communication such as blogs into our research approaches. The pioneering work by Nick Watkins and Dr Miriam Comber (2006) on how GfKNOP used blogs to research how people buy mortgages is a brilliant example of we can mesh new ways of communicating with the hunt for insight (see also Anjali Puri, 2006). In particular, we could experiment with wikis — a website which allows users to add and edit content collaboratively — in our research projects, and indeed as a way of sharing industry-wide expertise.

5: Show the 'hidden wiring'

As part of this, we could also seek to change the way we talk about what we do and how we do it. Let's start with language — in the same way that saying 'respondent' is now a bit of a no-no, let's get rid of all the words reminiscient of a Victorian battlefield, no more 'fieldwork' and no more 'debriefs'. In addition, collaborative approaches such as workshops that bring together clients and participants in one room must become the mainstream, not the exception.

Changing our approach is about showing a bit more of the 'hidden wiring' when it comes to what we do. Company blogs are an effective way for research companies to show a more personal perspective. Firms such as Microsoft and General Motors have set up blogs to show a more human, and personal face — blogs that are written by senior leadership figures.

Microsoft's blog was inspired by a belief in how 'Channel 9' communications can overcome mistrust and detachment — a reference to how on United Airlines, pilots communicate over 'Channel 9', and listening to this calming chatter can help nervous passengers overcome anxiety. Our industry needs to seek its own 'Channel 9', in a bid to lose our detached and mysterious image.

Towards an open source future

For an industry that has traditionally been a mediator between organisations and people, this blurring of boundaries between creators and consumers poses a major challenge to what we do and how we operate.

In their ground-breaking book, The Support Economy, Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxim (2002) argue that for businesses to succeed, they must meet people's need for their identity to be recognised, their voices to be heard and for respect to be given. As we move forward, we should constantly seek out ways to meet these needs, and harness people's imagination and creativity to the greater good. The challenge now for researchers is to apply the principles of open source thinking to what we do and how we do it.

References

Cottam, H., Leadbetter, C., (2004), Red Paper 01: Health:
Co-Creating Services, Design Council, 2004: London

Flight, G., (2005), 'Companies Tap Into Consumer Passion',
Business 2.0, October

Florida, R., (2002), The Rise of the Creative Class,
Basic Books: New York

Himanen, P., (2001), The Hacker Ethic, Random House:
New York

Johnson, S., (2005), Everything Bad is Good for You,
Allen Lane: London

Prahalad, C.K., Ramaswamy, V., (2004), The Future of
Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers,
Harvard Business School Press: Boston

Puri, A., (2006), The Web of Insights! The Art and Practice
of Webnography, MRS Conference: London

Rawsthorn, A., (2006), 'A visual campaign for change in
Guatemala', The International Herald Tribune,
11 September 2006

Raymond, E. S., (1999), The Cathedral and The Bazaar:
Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental
Revolutionary, O'Reilly Media: Sebastopol, CA

Schiff, S., (2006), 'Know It All — Can Wikipedia Conquer
Expertise?', The New Yorker, 31 July 2006

Watkins, N., Comber, Dr M., (2006), Pilgrim's Progress?
How the Consumer Makes Complex Decisions,
MRS Conference: London

Weber, S., (2004), The Success of Open Source,
Harvard University Press: Cambridge

Zuboff, S., Maxmin, J., (2002), The Support Economy:
Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next
Episode of Capitalism, Penguin: London

Suggested further reading

Gillmor, D., (2004), We The Media: Grassroots Journalism
By the People, For the People, O'Reilly Media: Sebastopol, CA

Lessig, L., (2001), The Future of Ideas, Random House:
New York

Surowiecki, J., (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds,
Little, Brown: London

Von Hippel, E., (2005), Democratizing Innovation,
MIT Press: Cambridge

 

Graeme Trayner
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006