Friday, April 15, 2005

What does it mean for user research, for design, for consumer industry generally, for social scientists, and indeed, for "users" themselves, when "users" appear to be collecting data about themselves? For instance, here and here. Both appear to be the products of conventional user research: "what's in your bag" studies are very common. But what I mean by the initial question is this: is this the same kind of data that commercial user research produces? is it "useful" in the same way? The first is an epistemological (or at least, a methodological) question: about the status of these kinds of sites as knowledge. The second is, I'd say, a political question: how are these, or any user research studies used? To what ends?

Companies like this might disagree, but I think that people collecting data on themselves and on their worlds—as in the links above, blogs, Flickr accounts generally, art like this—is fundmentally different. Which is to say, I think they are politically different. But that doesn't mean Flickr sites, for instance, can't and won't be used as user research, or that they shouldn't be; in fact, it is just this openness of ends, the fact that the data collected could be used by anyone for any purposes, which creates the fundamental difference I mention above.

p.s. Since being alerted by Rick to a claim going around that Flickr users who tag their photos with brand names are "brand evangelists" I've been looking at a lot of these "brand images" on Flickr (e.g. look at the Wal-mart tag on Flickr).

If Flickr users are "brand evangelists" then James Agee and Walker Evans were poverty evangelists and Susan Sontag was a torture and AIDS evangelist and Durkheim was a suicide evangelist and Foucault was a prison and madness evangelist and Andrea Dworkin (RIP) was a sex evangelist.

Evangelists have one interest, often dissembled in the appearance of their day to day evangelist practices. This is not what's going on in Flickr, even though some of the individual activities might be described as evangelistic (I'm sure, for instance, that there are a lot of microsoft and red stripe and wal-mart white collar employees who tag photos with their company's brands). For one, this takes no account of the collective activities and effects of Flickr, of all the photos there, all the tags, the groups, and therefore, this account misses the incalcuably diverse effects which Flickr potentialises, the incalcuably diverse interests it potentially serves.