Monthly Archives: March 2009

Earth to NASA: Do NOT Name the Space Shuttle After Stephen Colbert

As Reuter’s reported today, NASA is in a bit of a pickle after they ran a contest to name the new space shuttle.

Supporters of Stephen Colbert (and nerdy pranksters of all stripes, I’d reckon), cast 230,539 write-in votes to name the new shuttle the “Colbert” after Colbert used his show to get the prank going. 230K votes = not bad organizing. NASA supported the name, “Serenity,” which finished a distant second. Peace, Prosperity, Liberty, and Victory all come to mind as equally yawn-inspiring. Serenity ran more than 40,000 votes behind. Um, Serenity is a brand of adult diapers.

But so what? NASA, have the guts to do what you want. Don’t be cowed by a silly online vote.

Does anyone else remember the 1976 write-in contest by Star Trek fans to name the first shuttle “Enterprise.” Then-President Ford interceded on behalf of the Trekkers and made it so. Amazing. Democracy in action. An unelected President casting another deciding vote. Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek stars on hand at the dedication ceremony. Cheers and euphoric spectacle-drenched imaginings all around.

But is this current case democracy, or another successful demonstration of the fan-power of the traditional media? It doesn’t seem all that different from the Star Trek case, to be honest, except that the Star Trek fans were really serious about NASA, technological utopianism, and the bright shiny space-faring future that the space shuttle was supposed to usher in. What does Stephen Colbert stand for? Right-wing political parody? Is that how the New NASA rolls?

Maybe a better exemplar for NASA would be Threadless, the online community t-shirt company. Although Threadless is pretty democratic, and promotes itself as listening to the voice of its community, every so often people organize to promote a t-shirt that is silly, violate Threadless’ rules, or is just way too damn ugly to have that many supporters naturally. Threadless management long ago gave up any slavish adherence to the outcome of their online voting. They use the results as a guide, but they make the final deicsion. The managers, whose careers are decided based on the sales of the shirts. The managers. Period.

NASA has the same option. They’ve already written into the contest rules that the outcome of the contest is non-binding. No duh. So, you mean, maybe they didn’t need to have named the first shuttle Enterprise after all?

NASA, think about the intention of the contest first, rather than simply the outcome.

Nevermind that a Congressman is calling for a “democratic” result that names the multi-billion dollar machine after a TV comic. Well, at least the contest is garnering publicity. With that mission accomplished, NASA now needs to show who’s boss.

So NASA, please, do the right thing. Use your power, use your integrity and name the shuttle properly.

Name it something catchy, something powerful. Maybe after a great astronomer or scientist. Or something high tech and wonderful.

I know, NASA. You can name it the Netnography.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession IV: Green Consumerism

Green Consumption

The third element in my little cogitative experiment that makes the current recession qualitatively different from past recessions is Green Consumerism.

By Green Consumerism I mean to point out that we’re living through a time where, finally, the average global consumer is fully aware of experts’ predictions of impending environmental catastrophe unless we make radical changes soon in our patterns of consumption (i.e., large parts of how we live). This awareness is currently almost unavoidable in North America, Oceania, Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Not only that, but this awareness is starting to have impacts on the real world of consumption in these places.

Now, I’m not talking only about the “shift” to “green products and services.” The move from Hummers to Hybrids. The rise of organic food and homeopathic medicine. The dramatic substitution of recycled toilet paper for softer-than-soft Charmins (hey, if you’re a tree, that’s pretty dramatic). Yes, there are shifts, but can be to higher cost products. So, if I shift all of my food consumption to organic, although that technically would be a shift over to the greener side, it would also move up GDP–organic food is costlier to product and it costs more at the till. That’s not true of all green consumption. But when that happens, it can look like Green Marketing is just another scammy way to shake out a few more shekels from Mrs. Jane Consumer.

I’m focusing more on the kind of awareness that events like Earth Day, and maybe more specifically the Earth Hour event which was huge here in Toronto (we played Scrabble by candlelight in my house, cool…). It’s about an awareness of waste. A careful contemplation of what’s unnecessary. At Burning Man, we encourage each other to think about what we can do without. Earth Hour, and Green Consumerism in its wider sense, does something very similar.

On the ground level, because of changes like this, consumers–i.e., people– are becoming more cautious about conspicuous, mindless, and endlessly-increasing consumption. The average person, the average consumer, is beginning to wake up to the fact that their children are going to inherit a huge pile of garbage and problems rather than the planet full of possibilities that all of our ancestors up to this point were granted.

It’s a sobering thought. And we’re beginning to think it.

And I think it’s beginning, just beginning, to be reflected in shopping malls, and boutiques, and stores. Not only should we buy green, we should make do with less. Much less. Reusable shopping bags and hybrids are just the beginning. Think biking, walking, growing your own food, making your own clothes and music, repairing instead of replacing. Can anyone say ‘Permaculture lite?’ Multiplied across the global economy, what kind of impact would that have?

In the face of recession, some of us are saying “less is good.”

So what impact on the economy we have with these three trends: Globalization, Digitalization, and Green Consumerism? You can probably see where I’m going with this….

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession III: Digitalization

Internet Map with your location clearly marked

In my discussion of the factors making this recession different from past recessions, I’m speculating that Digitalization is changing the nature of consumption and, through it, the marketplace.

Increasingly sophisticated information and communication technology, its mass production and mass diffusion means that we’re moving from a thing-and-place economy to a screen-and-energy economy. Across the globe. Sitting at home on our screens and keyboards changes and often reduces all sorts of consumption.

Anything that involves “the real world” such as restaurants and dining, or travel and tourism, can be expected to suffer. Newspapers die. With them, pulp and paper demand decrease. The music business gets eaten. The demand for plastics and papers that supply it decrease. To paraphrase Karl Marx, everything that was solid, in the digital world, melts into bits. It’s not a case of buggy whips being replaced by cars this time around. In our millennium, it’s things that were paid for and material being replaced by things that are free, digitally transmitted, and immaterial. That’s a big difference from the economic transformations of the past, that often increased “standard of living” by adding industrial complexity, increasing material use, and creating jobs.

Digitalization doesn’t happen to everything. We still need houses to live in and food to eat (but if we’re sitting Matrix-like at our computers living our Second Life, maybe we only need little bachelor pads, bottles of Pepsi, Doritos, and vitamins). But it does happen to media content. Big-time, as we’ve seen. Not just music and motion pictures, but watch what is going to happen with TV networks and YouTube, or Kindle and books. Will the folding of newspapers, and the increasingly tough times for book publishers have an impact on the production of pulp and paper? Wait and see. Or ask someone from Kodak how their sales of 35mm film are holding up.

And there’s another point. Related but different. That is that the increased information flows and organizational abilities of information technology allow consumers to get better deals and to push on retailers and wholesalers in ways that are unprecedented.

All of this translates into decreasing demand for, and increasing downward pressure on prices for, a number of items and services (although certainly not all).

And although technology decreases these different kinds of consumption, it’s also important to note that increasing technology doesn’t lessen our dependence on energy, it hides it. When we drive our cars, we are at least aware of the exhaust fumes pouring out the back. When we use our computers however, we don’t see the huge server farms, the coal-fired or nuclear backed power plants that are cranking out the energy to service them.

Which leads (sort of) to my third point of difference: Greenification.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession II: Globalization

Global financial shifts

These postings are about the current “deep” “recession.” As CNN reported yesterday, “the U.S. economy suffered its largest drop in 26 years during the fourth quarter.The nation’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, fell at an annual rate of 6.3% during the final three months of 2008″ (see original story on CNN.com). Worldwide, similar, and worse, is being repeated. And the pain isn’t likely to end yet.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the first of three critically important factors that make this global recession different from past recessions, Globalization, which I defined loosely as continental shifts in capital flows.

The evidence is everywhere. Foreign investors own 45% of U.S. Treasuries, with Asian investors alone holding more than 30%. U.S. stocks made up 69% of the world market capitalization in 1970; today they make up 42%. And Western Europeans and North Americans are increasingly hiring programmers and designers from Asia and Eastern Europe. These include hiring “virtual personal assistants” on other continents to screen phone calls, pay bills, and even handle customers. One example is that the website Pasadenanow.com hired two India-based reporters last year. Their assignment? To cover Pasadena city council meetings that are broadcast over the Web. Information tech and globalization obviously are intertwined in different ways such as these, although I discuss them separately for the sake of intelligibility. I’ll deal with infotech in my next post. So let’s turn to globalization.

Continental shifts in capital flows acknowledges that a lot of the productive labor has shifted to Asia, in particular, China and India (Thomas Freidman’s The World is Flat book has publicized this well-known trend). These major flows of capital — not only monetary, but human capital, the kind that creates innovations and brands, and even social capital — have been shifting radically for well over a decade with relatively little corresponding reaction at the level of markets and currency. If that’s true, then the shifts we have already seen might be moderate compared to the ones to come.

In other words, if North American car companies can’t build cars that global consumers want to drive and buy, then propping them up artificially only means that they’re going to come down harder when they do, eventually, fall. The United States and much of Western Europe is dependent upon a number of industries that are being similarly propped up. The market is beginning to reflect that. And, even as companies in these countries survive but find themselves with growing liabilities, they’re going to be spending much more of their capital servicing their increasing their debt rather than making investments in brands and innovation that will pay off into the future. If currency rates continue to decline, those foreign debts become harder and harder to service, for governments as well as companies.

On the ground level of consumers and consumption these shifts in capital manifest as unemployment and general belt-tightening. People lose their jobs in the Rust Belt, the support services that serve them fold, housing prices drop, tourism recedes, and so on. Government artificially stoking spending only works if the spending can be directed into areas that are going to create lasting jobs and redistribute capital away from its current configuration — the configuration that is at least partially causing these shifts.

That’s trend #1. Trend #2 is Informationalization, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

Deep Thinking about Deep Recession

financial_crisis1.jpg

Heaven forbid I should use the dreaded D-word, and by that I mean Depression. No, instead I’ll use another D-word: Deep.

Now, I’m no economist, but I am frequently mistaken for one at parties. At several points in my life I’ve thought about becoming an economist, and I’ve taken numerous courses in economics. But I am a cultural scholar through and through. Not an economist.

So with those caveats firmly anchored into place, I’m going to skate out onto some tempting thin ice. In this blog, I usually talk about a lot of micro-concerns that are of general interest to only a few. But today I’m going to offer some general comments about what’s going on in the world in with and happening for the last six months with our economy. I have been wanting to do this for quite a while, but have been holding myself back because, hey, it’s a brand and technology marketing blog and not a general-purpose, heavy-duty blog. Well, today maybe it’s going to try to be.

I have been reading about the global “deep” recession, as it’s being called now: increasing unemployment, home losses, financial crises, fiscal stimulus, and the impending bankruptcies of major corporations particularly in the important automotive sectors of North America, but spreading everywhere. Reading about all of this, there are some thoughts I haven’t seen expressed. I’m not claiming that these are the deepest thoughts (or even unique ones-I just haven’t come across them). But I do think that we need some different thinking about the situation that we’re in. It’s deep thinking that I’m calling for here. Innovative thinking. Novel thinking about the new situation that we face.

Let me back up. At this stage of life I’m in, with a child entering teen years, I’m gaining a new appreciation for the wisdom that age can bring. If we remember our past, that gives us insights that simply aren’t there if we are experiencing something for the first time. I’ve seen several of these recessions so far, I’ve lived through a number of them. I came out with my MBA into the job market smack in the middle of one of them. I know what they feel like.

To me, this deep recession feels different from past recessions. Over the last few months, I’ve been asking myself why that is. I think I now have a short answer. Of course all of the factors that have been mentioned such as subprime lending, mortgage and housing crises, and the interconnection of the global economy on the financial level, are all very important. But we’ve seen those stories already. We’ve heard those explanations ad infinitum. I’m going to raise some different specters.

I see three critically important factors that make this global recession different from past recessions. Those three things are:

  1. Globalization: Continental shifts in capital flows
  2. Digitization: The impact of information and communication technology diffusion on consumption
  3. Green Consumerism: Serious, widespread, planetary-scale environmental concerns finding their way into consumers’ everyday purchases

In the spirit of keeping these postings fairly short and readable, I’ll explain these three elements in the next three blog postings. I see them not so much as purely economic issues, but cultural ones, even ideological ones. Those are things that I do understand pretty well. After that, I will talk a little bit about what we can do and how I think we can begin to prompt some of the deep thinking that we so desperately need right now.

As you might be able to tell, I’m starting on some big research projects that I hope are going to be able to inform our understanding of some of these issues, spur new ideas and new solutions, and to help to implement them for positive and sustainable change.

Stay tuned.

The Netnography Debates, Part III: Jerry’s Turn

I have to say it. It’s an old expression, and maybe it hasn’t carried. But Jerry Lombardi is a gentleman and a scholar.

When I write these blog postings, particularly the headlines, I try to be a little bit provocative, to polarize things a bit, to keep it interesting for everyone. This isn’t necessarily good science, but a blog entry isn’t a journal article, and after almost 2 years of doing this, I’ve found a type of voice I’m comfortable with.

So after Pablo Sanchez Kohn flagged the anthro-design entry for me, it triggered some thinking that had been percolating for a while, and that I had written about in my book recently, and had started to think about clarifying on Wikipedia (more on this in my next entry). So I cooked up my posting with a little bit of pugnacious pepper added in. To add a little bit of spice. I assumed that Jerry Lombardi’s comment was well meaning, but maybe a bit offhand. He had entered it in reply to a list (or listserv) and almost certainly hadn’t expected it to drift into the blogosphere and become spotlighted as controversial.

So I was sort of expecting Jerry would eventually reply. And he did. I thought he might be a bit reactive and angry at my comment being taken out of context and spotlighted (I probably would have been). And he wasn’t. I’m delighted that his response is so, well, gentlemanly and scholarly.

I don’t really like the way comments are hidden in this WordPress layout, so I’ll follow past convention in pulling them out and using them as my entry here to get them wider leadership. Eventually, I’m going to get this blog set up the way I like it. And that will include comments automatically appearing on the page, given equal weight to my own entries.

So here is Jerry’s posting:

A friend alerted me that a comment I made in another venue – to the effect that the term “netnography” is meaningless – was cited in the 22 Feb posting on that topic. Permit me to explain:

I had aimed my barb at the neologism, the label, not the research practice itself. I should be the last person in the world to deny the value of netnography, since I owe my Ph.D. to it: a large portion of the dissertation research I conducted between 1995 and 1997 in Brazil took place entirely online among groups that had constituted themselves as virtual communities, and in which the nature of the online realm was itself a major topic of interaction. The standards I applied to the work, and the way I experienced it, were consistent with Rob’s description of what makes this kind of research different – and I’m glad he (you) has specified the nature of the practice more systematically than anyone else so far.

Still, there are two reasons I might resist, if not reject, the neologism.

(1) At the time of that first netnographic research of mine, anthropologists were struggling to come to terms with something I took for granted: if there’s no such thing as unmediated interaction, then there’s a sense in which face-to-face talk and online life are just different registers of the same thing. Being the same thing essentially, I didn’t see a need to invent a new term for the methods and theories employed to capture and analyze the data. But I’m a lumper and not a splitter, so that reflects nothing more than my personal predisposition.

(2) I also wrote my “meaningless” comment with the peculiarities of the business world in mind. Think of the short lifespan that such words and their associated practices have: at the risk of sounding cynical, I’m afraid that the snappier a neologism sounds, the less likely it may be to stick around long enough to become an accepted – AND understood – part of the toolkit. I’ve been using netnography in conjunction with other approaches for business clients for several years and am very happy to not portray it to them as anything particularly worth naming, in the hope that by lying low it will enjoy some staying power. Maybe I need a Robert Kozinets guest lecture appearance for some of my clients.

Anyway, that is the context in which I opined that the word “netnography” is meaningless: to me personally (without making any claim about its meaningfulness for anyone else), and as a label that is unfortunately prone to rapid transformation into the word of the month.

I am enjoying the postings on this subject and am surprised that it hasn’t generated more comments.

- Jerry Lombardi (posted as comment on brandthroposophy, March 5, 2009)

The core of Jerry’s argument is nicely packaged and summarized in the way he has organized his comments. If I can paraphrase, and interpret a little bit, I would sum them up in these two ideas:

(1) All social interactions are mediated in different ways, therefore face-to-face talk and online interaction are intimately related; and ethnography is ethnography, we don’t need something different to designate what we already have as a flexible, constantly-altered, dynamic, and adaptable technique.

(2) When you coin these neologisms, they make the practice seem trendy and superficial. They become abused. They also become transformed and stretched far beyond their original meaning.

These are two excellent and very valid points, and I’m grateful for the way Jerry has brought them out into the light. Number two is new to me as such; point number one I’ve been contesting pretty much since I began doing this work. Let me provide my own orientation to them.

First point. Yes, all social actions are mediated. But the argument here is that, when the mediation is different enough, it requires different guidelines. I agree that a larger parts of the ethnographic approach still pertain to the study of online or virtual communities. This isn’t a new method per se. But the question is how different is computer-mediated communication and social interaction from its face-to-face variant. We are charting new waters here.

By being systematic about it, I’ve tried not to jump to the “revolutionary” conclusion. In many ways, telephone and letters are just as much about “technological mediation” as online communities. But we have procedures (specialized procedures, I might add) in place for dealing with these sorts of interactions and communications in ethnographic work.

So, if the mediation is important, and manifests consistently, and if the alteration and adaptation of ethnography in this new ‘environment’ or through this form of mediation can also be consistent and would benefit from being consistent, then it seems justified to have a new set of standards that applies to the relevant aspects of ethnographic procedures in this novel context.

When I think about something like research ethics, it become absolutely clear to me that these are not “just different registers of the same thing” but something new and different, that is like face-to-face in some ways but radically different and new in other ways. The old guidelines just don’t work. Although there are other possibilities for why it is happening, the fact that we are getting so much literature in this domain, and so many different names and terms for it, suggests to me that a similar conclusion is being reached by many of the people who are studying these phenomena.

Second point is exactly right.

It’s very interesting to me to see the ‘slippage’ of the term netnography in my field of marketing and consumer research already. Jean Baudrillard and others have taught us that this tendency of signifiers to float free of their moorings is a tendency of language itself, not just a matter of netnography’s trendy status and its spreading activation of different interpretations.

In fact, I’m currently working on a research project with Daiane Scaraboto to chart these differences and catalog them. And then there’s the world of business, where netnography as a term is being used for a lot of different purposes, many of them related to data mining and content analysis, which are not participative or particularly ethnographic techniques at all. Some, like Hyve.com, are using the term in a way closer to how I have written about it. Some appeartto have trademarked the terms, or terms using the term, something I have steadfastly refused to do (it’s like trademarking the term interview, sheesh, give me a break!). The netnography.com URL has been taken and is filled with meaningless techno-job filler.

But all of this simply points to the need for more active education about what the term netnography means. More information out there about what netnography is and what it can do is the way to tighten the boundaries of the word, to add in the right associations, to draw attention back to the roots of the term and the technique it has been founded on. Otherwise, without a few guiding terms that have meaning and rigorous development behind them, we have a cacophony of different terms signifying very little to anyone beyond the researchers advocating them as methods-of-the-day.

So, although I agree completely with Jerry that this has happened and will happen, I see this as a necessarily and worthwhile challenge, rather than seething to avoid. And if point 1 is correct, and we as a field will benefits from specific procedures and particular quality standards, then the work of clarification and education motivated by #2 is good, worthy, and fulfilling work indeed.

And doing this work is what these blog entries have been about so far. Thank you, Jerry, for that very thoughtful response. I hope we have a chance to meet in person some time soon and continue the discussion face-to-face.