When Compuserve launched in 1969, the company's earliest forays into online interaction were still two decades away, and the world of social media was utterly unimaginable. But it's no accident that a business that would ultimate serve as one of the formative stages for the social web appeared at the tail end of a decade that not only reshaped market research, but foreshadowed a revolution in how consumers would interact with one another and with big brands.
Much has been written about the debt that the Internet owes to the counterculture of the 1960s, and especially to the political and social culture of Silicon Valley's neighbours in California's Bay Area. But marketers and consumer insight professionals should pay particular attention to the counterculture values and practices that not only shaped the early culture of the Internet, but which continue to influence the technologies, behaviours and expectations we see on social media today.
Here are four crucial dimensions of social media culture that can structure, enable or limit the ways marketers tap social media and online community as a source of consumer insight:
Decentralization of authority
In the conventional model of insight-gathering, the marketing or market research department sets the agenda, defines the sample and asks the questions. That organization-driven paradigm runs counter to the decentralization of authority that characterizes online conversation: "the counterculture's scorn for centralized authority provided the philosophical foundations of not only the leaderless Internet but also the entire personal-computer revolution."
Social media and online community engagement offer a way for marketers to move towards a more decentralized model of insight-gathering, in which topics or questions are inspired by (or directly drawn from) online feedback channels. While the unstructured feedback a brand gets from social media may not provide the detailed or balanced picture that's needed to drive business decision-making, it can be a useful input into a structured research process - especially if marketers are transparent about the value they place on unsolicited feedback, so that a survey or online discussion feels bottom-up instead of top-down.
The sixties-era move towards freedom of information turned into the Internet mantra, "information wants to be free". As John Markoff put it, "the hacker's ethos of sharing information lies at the very heart of the explosive growth of the personal computer"; it's an ethos that has driven social media phenomena ranging from Twitter to Wikileaks. While this ethos can sometimes feel like a hindrance to developing consumer insight (for example, intensifying anxieties about consumers sharing pre-release content or product details), it can also serve as a tremendous asset. It's the sharing culture of the Internet that inspires consumers to share their insights and ideas with companies, and it's the same culture that prompts consumers to voluntarily spread their product kudos and brand enthusiasms online.
The online world's passion for sharing information is bracketed by sixties-derived values around expression and privacy. As Pekka Himanen wrote in The Hacker Ethic, "Freedom of expression and privacy have been important hacker ideals, and the Net developed in accordance with them." While it's obvious how freedom of expression enables the sharing of information online, privacy is just as crucial - and treasured - for its facilitation of online sharing: certain kinds of views or content may be disclosed only when people feel safely anonymous or protected. Understanding the kind of freedom afforded by privacy protection is crucial to enabling meaningful feedback online, since consumers may tell you certain things anonymously, or within a walled garden, that they wouldn't say to your face.
The most fundamental value that sixties counterculture transmitted to the Internet was the value of participatory, democratic decision-making. The idea that people should have a voice in the decisions that affect them increasingly applies not only to government and political institutions, but also to the businesses and brands that affect customers in many aspects of their lives.
If there's one thing that is clear from the torrent of customer complaints and kudos that pours in via Twitter and Facebook, it's that customers expect to be considered or included in the decision-making of the companies they work for or buy from. It's not enough to engage customers in business decision-making, whether through social media channels or an insight community: customers need to see that you are listening to them, so that your brand is associated with the participatory ethos that is now deeply embedded in online (and increasingly offline) culture.
At its best, consumer insight gathering is an extension of this ethos: by helping companies tune into the values and priorities of their customers, it helps businesses offer the products and services that consumers really want. By understanding the deep roots of online participation, and its relationship to other core values the Internet inherited from the sixties counterculture, marketers can understand and anticipate the expectations consumers bring to their online interactions, and align their own online activities with the norms and practices that have a proven track record online.
To learn more about how social has influenced the insight industry, view our interactive infographic on the history of market research or click the image below.