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Trend trackers

Updated Wednesday 1st July 2009

The programme Trend Trackers from Digital Nation followed three researchers who document current trends and attempt to understand their implications for the future.

Montage of shots from Trend Trackers Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Lesley, an Insight Director for ‘FutureBrand’, is looking at changing patterns in male grooming where men are spending more time and money on how they look and feel than ever before.

Alex, a Brand Consultant for ‘Informer Brand Development’, is looking at how ‘gamers’ meet and play other ‘gamers’ living all over the world through their Internet connected computer.

Barbie is the Director of NOP Family, a research organisation which looks at various trends involving children, in particular children and their use of ICTs.

The information each of these researchers gathers will be sold to well-known global companies, national businesses and organisations from soft drink companies to government departments. This information will be used to develop new products and projects which engage with their customers and meet their needs.

Researchers such as Lesley, Alex and Barbie use a variety of techniques to help them in their research. They conduct one-to-one interviews, discussions with small groups and undertake nationwide surveys. They also visit galleries, shops, certain streets and markets, cafés and bars, and look at magazines, websites and other media to observe new trends as they happen.

People like Lesley, Alex and Barbie have the kind of jobs that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. The research they conduct and the results of their research may well have an almost immediate impact. Their interest in the explosion of culture, the World Wide Web and the use of new ICTs suggests that, for these researchers at least, the Information Society is here. But is it really? After all, most people still get up and go out to work, and spend their social time with people who live in the same areas that they do. So, maybe it’s not a case of ‘all change’, but how can we tell..?

The TV programme Trend Trackers introduces three cultural researchers, each working for companies interested in contemporary change and future trends. These researchers are not all social scientists, but they use many of the same kinds of techniques that social scientists use when they research contemporary society and culture. Moreover, they ask similar questions and try to find out about some of the same things social scientists are keen to explore: contemporary cultures, new media and how people use ICTs in their everyday lives.

So, how do trend trackers find out about today’s Brave New World? The simple answer is ‘they conduct research’. What this means in practice is that they use a whole series of techniques, or methods, to help them identify certain patterns of behaviour, to help them notice when changes occur, and to get a good sense of what activities, objects or cultural changes mean to the people they research.

When Barbie and her team held interviews with a focus group of schoolboys, not only did they find out that these boys used their mobile phones extensively, but that they felt more confident flirting using text messaging than talking face-to-face. What this might suggest is that there is a link between new technology and changes in social behaviour. Of course, this is anecdotal ‘evidence’ at this stage, there is much more research that could be done to find out the extent to which boys are better at text-flirting than face-to-face-flirting and, indeed, whether it has as much effect!

Of course, whilst a single focus group may raise interesting issues, it would be foolish to come to any conclusions without wider research. Companies such as NOP (National Opinion Polls), which is well-known for producing large scale research, would often work with a number of focus groups with, for example, boys and girls from a range of ages and social backgrounds.

This would often be backed up by other methods, such as individual survey questionnaires carried out in people’s homes or even a national ‘clip-board’ survey conducted on the street. By sampling a large number of people and using a variety of research methods the degree of certainty in the results produced can be greatly increased.

Alex took a different approach to his research on gaming and game culture. While he also makes use of the focus group method, he supplements the information in these sessions with ad hoc chats with people in their gaming environment. Going to places where people engage in their everyday activities to not only observe their behaviour and ask questions about what they are doing, but also join in, is similar to what social scientists call ‘participant observation’. Conducting participant observation gives researchers a chance to ‘feel’ what it is like to be a member of a particular group, or to experience first-hand the pleasures or pains of a particular activity.

Of course, each of these researchers is investigating social and cultural change: what is happening today and what might happen tomorrow. Interestingly, what they have identified in their research, whether they are looking at men’s grooming products, gaming or children’s use of ICTs, is a series of wider cultural, social, economic and technological patterns.

These researchers used phrases such as ‘cultural acceleration’, ‘time/space compression’ and ‘the global village’. For many social scientists, these are just exciting buzz words. But for others these words describe some of the features of what has come to be known as the 'Information Society'.

The idea of the Information Society is that contemporary culture, economics and politics are in a process of dramatic change, the most important of which is the increased availability and value of information. In part, that change has come about in tandem with technological changes. The availability of email, for instance, has enabled some people to communicate very quickly with others in many places around the world. The Internet has created the possibility for new leisure pursuits and new economic opportunities.

Mobile phones have engendered a ‘texting culture’ that itself has meant the development of a new language dialect. And satellite technology, digitisation, and the mass availability of images, in both ‘new media’ forms and in old ones, such as newspapers and magazines, have seemingly favoured a speeding up of exchange of cultures and cultural change (especially in the fashion industries).

On the evidence presented by the Trend Trackers, we might well assert that, “Yes, we are living in an Information Society and that we are subject to vast changes that affect our work, leisure and even our most intimate relationships.”

But according to many social scientists, looking at new ICTs doesn’t give us the whole picture. Most people in most parts of the world, still work in offices and shops and, to a lesser extent, on farms or in other food production; they still socialise face-to-face with small to medium sized groups who are close to where they live; in most parts of the world they live in dwellings that have changed remarkably little in past decades.

If we look beyond the bounds of Western Europe, the US and other parts of the Pacific Rim, we might be excused for thinking that the Information Society is merely an exaggerated claim.

Yet, even in areas where the nearest telephone is a day’s walk away, satellite technology may well have made TV available. In many relatively remote destinations, at least the ones popular with tourists, the rise of the Internet cafés has been nothing less than astonishing. Indeed, while it would be unwise to overestimate the rate of change, or to assume that changes are uniform across continents or cultures, it seems that there really is something interesting going on.

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