Last week, #SelfieOlympics trended on Twitter, as Olympic medalists, other Olympians, and Sochi spectators began sharing selfies: photos of themselves taken by their smart phones and uploaded to the web. While selfies by that name have been around for many years, starting with the self-portraits that MySpace users posted to their accounts, selfies have never been more popular. In fact, selfie was the word of the year in 2013, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

People trust their cameras.

And people trust the people that they send the photos they take with those cameras. And they forget, in the heat of the moment, that – once digital – such photographs can travel around the world in an instant, and be seen by the world in a day.

The unfortunate rise of revenge porn, when former lovers publish the photos they were sent, shows how much this trust can be misplaced.

Yet, despite horror stories, people still take photographs of themselves doing all manner of activities. From the prurient to the pedestrian.

Enter market researchers.

Mobile ethnography can be something as intimate as asking women to photograph how they place pads on their panties, as Field Agent facilitated for P&G. In fact, Field Agent collected 8,000 such photographs. Traditional techniques, like in-person ethnography, would never have gotten that close.

Mobile ethnography can be as prosaic as asking people to take photos of where they are when they are watching the Super Bowl, and what they are drinking.


Mobile ethnography can be all that and a bag of chips. Fresh Intelligence Research ran two separate exercises, one where shoppers took photos of Tostitos and its competitors as the products were displayed where they shopped, and another where consumers photographed how they prepared and ate tortilla chips.

A synonym for mobile ethnography is self-ethnography. It implies a level of introspection that is often missing from such photos.

But the good news is, that – in an era when consumers don’t trust the government, don’t trust corporations, don’t trust the Internet – they still trust their cameras. Implicitly, they trust us to use what we learn from their cameras for the best.

Let’s hope that when the research industry takes that selfie, we’re deserving of the trust placed in us.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.