Not Everyday Life
Back in April, I spoke with Siamack Salari — a leading expert in ethnographic research — about his innovative idea to research current everyday life situations during the Covid-19 pandemic, in an attempt to connect people. Only now I thought of sharing it on Medium as well, so here it is….better late than never! I hope you will find value in reading this even if it is shared 5 months after the interview was done.
Siamack spoke to me about this idea that took shape into a website called Not Everyday Life.
MM: Hello Siamack, thank you for agreeing to have this interview with me.
SS: My pleasure.
MM: Before we get into your new idea called Not Everyday Life, which is the reason why we are here, please tell me a little bit about this pandemic situation going on. How it is affecting you personally and your business?
SS: Well we are almost 4 weeks now into this lockdown here in Belgium, and on a very personal level I think the honeymoon period and the novelty is over… suddenly at home with the kids, not having to get up at 6 in the morning to make their breakfast and pack their lunches and get them to the bus stop. Now we can lie in bed until 9:30 and get up and start work and the boys don’t come down till 13:30 in the afternoon and all that kind of stuff. I think we are getting to the point where even if the government says it will finish by June or even if they declare a date when people can come out of their home, I don’t think people will be rushing to come out of their home, I think they will be too scared. It’s going to be “let’s just wait and see”. I know I’m watching tv shows with my wife every evening, we watch Netflix, Netflix is running out, and that said I don’t know what we are going to do, even when watching these Netflix shows you see these people in crowded streets in New York in Manhattan, sort of people coming together in legal offices and stuff, those are the type of shows we are watching, and now I’m finding it quite shocking actually. I’m gasping “Oh my god look at those people in that room all together”, so this whole kind of reality is changing to the point where I’m quite happy to just stay here in our garden and I’m even thinking of building a pool because we are not going away this summer. Mentally I am ok. We’ve instituted these evening calls with friends and we get a bottle of wine, put it on the table and they have their wine, their beers and we just talk until we finish and then sometimes we have another call immediately afterwards, or the kids are hungry and we have to feed them. So, we kind of try to build this thing but I know lots of people who live alone, and it is really hard for them. And then of course there are other people, I have this friend in Cardiff whose best friend is a police officer and he said that all the call outs they had since the lockdown have been domestic violence. So, you can imagine what some people are going through. On a business level, I find myself incredibly lucky that I’m a contractor with Mars. I’ve been contracting for them since a couple of years ago. It’s 3 days weekly but it keeps you above the water line kind of thing, and you know I’m busy and I’m still running projects in different places and there’s absolutely no chance for them coming to an end for any reason, even with the current situation, so we are ok.
MM: Well it sounds like you are coping, and it’s great that you have work at least 3 days a week.
SS: For now. And this is the important point. For now. Don’t think that it’s not in my head, that what if they say tomorrow, we can’t have any contractors anymore in Mars. I just don’t know.
MM: I do like the idea of calling friends with a bottle of wine.
SS: Oh, I tell you that’s what keeps us sane.
MM: I’m a fan of your LinkedIn posts, so are some of my team members and I was wondering if you see any difference between the reactions and the engagement you were getting before the lockdown versus now.
SS: I don’t honestly think it has changed to be completely honest with you. People visiting a platform like LinkedIn is pretty much the same, my topics have changed obviously. They’ve changed from personal stories into personal stories in a lockdown and kind of reporting on conversations that are coming through, but in terms of the type of responses or the comments I’m getting it’s all about the same.
MM: Ok I was wondering if it went up during the lockdown, but it sounds like not. Now about the reason we are here — noteverydaylife.com — maybe you can tell us a little bit about how this idea started, flourished, evolved and where we are now.
SS: Well the big question was “wouldn’t it be interesting to try and understand what people are going through at the moment?”. Lots of people find that topic interesting and I’m sure lots of people are working on it within their own different kinds of studies or whatever they do. I’m not saying I was unique in thinking this question but for me the big question was which habits, attitudes, which trades are going to stick after we emerge from this pandemic. After this Noah’s arc that we are all on at the moment, comes within sight of land and then comes to land, what habits are we going to continue to have, that was the question. What is going to stick? So how am I going to collect all this information, I certainly don’t have the funds to start a huge project. So, what I thought about doing was “Ok what if I ask a friend or a bunch of friends on LinkedIn?”. If I write a report and you write a report, we can see each other’s reports and if somebody else writes a report, we can all see each other’s reports and then it will steadily grow and the incentive to take part and write a report is to see all the other reports. Each report of course being an interview with a participant out there, on the subject for which I will provide topics, a bunch of topics for all of us to explore, so there is some consistency. That was all the thinking that I did. I didn’t really need to think it through because putting it into practice which meant emailing my mates on LinkedIn to see if they would do it or not would be the instant test of whether this thing was going to work. I didn’t do any thought experiments or any complicated evaluations. I started shooting off emails, and everyone who replied said “I am in” and “What a fantastic idea”, because I was also pushing it out on the basis it belongs to all of us it is not mine, it will belong to all of those people who contribute. And after about the 50th message, I thought everybody is saying yes there’s no push back, nobody is saying “I haven’t got time” or “I’m busy”, even though some of them were busy. So I just posted it a few days later on LinkedIn and it just went ballistic. I mean I just watched people messaging, commenting on it and I was replying to every single one saying, here are 3 PDFs I’m going to send you right now if you want to get started and I will then add you to the Google drive where I’m going to put these things into and it went from 20 people who were interested to write reports to approximately 800 people who’ve registered and we are not even 2 weeks in, since I wrote that post. I had to build a website so that I can automate registration.
MM: That’s impressive.
SS: And in the same period, we’ve had 97 reports come in (as of just a few minutes ago when I checked), submitted by around 30 people from all over the world. And these people aren’t just researchers, there are quite a few client sites, whole departments, I’m not going to mention names, but lots of people! Also, we have academics, we’ve got whole departments working on them and across the board, all sorts of individuals. So, we now have to try to organise ourselves. I’ve sorted them out by country, and I shared them out but that’s all I’ve done. We now need to delve into these and pull out the stories and the themes and how we are going to report it and how we can make sure it’s not predictable stuff and have a really unique take on what’s going on. So, there are a lot of questions but I don’t think there’s ever been a time that so many people have come together to contribute to an initiative in the research environment.
MM: And for no pay.
SS: And for no pay, exactly. I’m getting companies for example calling me up saying, “Look Siamack we are going to do this with you and just to let you know all our projects have been cancelled or postponed so if you need admin help, if you need design help, if you need website help, we are all here. We are not getting rid of any employees, we are not sacking anybody; they are all here doing nothing. So, if you need their help, please tell us”. Which is amazing.
MM: Yes indeed. Which are some of the topics that you suggested? You said you started sending out 3 PDFs you created, what were the initial topics, and which one is the most popular?
SS: There are 3 or 4 of them but the most important thing I wanted to keep it as simple as I possibly could. The most important thing that I wanted to catch on, were changes that are taking place, that have taken place since this whole thing blew up. In every way, not just their behaviour but their attitudes, the way they eat, the way they are cooking. The important thing is, these are not the kind of typical interviews, I wanted these to be phone conversations that people are having. Conversations, not an interviewer and an interviewee type dynamic but two people. So, I said to these researchers, “I want the respondent to know what’s going on in your life as much as you know what’s going on in their life”. And the people were saying, “What about the bias? I’m going to bias them.” I said to them, “No you are not”. Also, if you think you have, as a good researcher you will be able to factor that part out and explain it to me. The 2nd one, a very serious one, was news, information, sources, advice, and trust. How is that changing? The 3rd one is, what are these fears that are transmitting, that are potentially percolating to the top? The 4th thing that I wanted them to cover in this one-page report as researchers, was “Now tell me what are your own personal subjective observations of this phone call that you just had?” “What do you think of what you’ve heard?” And I think that’s a really important one to me, because on the one hand we are getting information conveyed to us, but on the other hand it should not just stay up for interpretation. It is just their take on what they thought and what they’ve heard, and this adds texture and colour.
MM: Always the ethnographer Siamack, which you are very well known for.
SS: Well the bottom line is, with ethnography it is always about what it is like to be these people and what it is like to be in their shoes right now. That is what I am trying to get at.
MM: My next question is, how many ways are there for someone to contribute? I noticed on your website, that there are two types. Someone can be a contributor or an interviewee. Can you explain the difference and how these two contribute?
SS: A contributor is somebody who goes out and interviews people, conducts the research. An interviewee is somebody, who is willing to be the subject for the research.
MM: Do you connect them?
SS: Yes I do, because I’ve got quite a few people now volunteering to be interviewed and I’ve also got researchers saying as soon as I find somebody to interview I’ll do them, and you for example, I search and I say I’ve already got 5 people in your country.
MM: Oh, ok my initial thought when I was looking at this was that the contributor has to find their own interviewee, but you are providing these.
SS: I’m collecting them, people are volunteering themselves so yes, I don’t want them sitting there doing nothing.
SS: Can I also add there’s another way that I’m collecting information, and this might gradually turn into something more interesting. People are sharing email conversations they’ve had with friends and family with their permission obviously. So, we are getting really naturalistic kind of exchanges between people that have happened over this period, just a kind of illustration of what is going on. I’m hoping to get more of those come in. As we go to the next wave, what I shared with you — the 4 topics — will change. Each wave we will potentially have new topics, we’ll want to delve deeper into things and again as the ethnographer in me will say, “What are the real questions we need to be asking?”. There are always predictable questions which I’ve already mentioned to you but what are the real ones?
MM: You started this as an experiment, it was an idea, you shared it with some friends you said why not, and then it progressed into having an initiative with its own website. Where do you see this going and does your aspiration of this thing that you started, does it change as you go along, and you see the reactions? Do you have a target in mind? Who do you want to reach and whatever you can tell me about the future of this?
SS: To begin with, it was like an inclusive club, not an exclusive club, so you get in and you can access everything else. So, send us something and you can view a whole lot of other data just like your own and you can do anything you want with it as long as you mention us, as the source. And we keep growing it and we keep adding and more people will come in and the more it grows the more people will want to be part of it. We have a bunch of committee meetings now, with few people who are super interested to help steer this thing along. I can’t do all the analysis on my own, so I need help with that. It is a ship that we are building as we are sailing so there’s no clear idea. One of the contributors came up to me and said, “You know what Siamack, what you are coming up with, is a fantastic resource for knowing how to manage a pandemic in the future for the government” and I just thought, “Wow, really?”. She said “Absolutely, we can put stuff out there to help everyone, from social workers, police, healthcare, government departments to understand” and remember this is a global thing. This is one of the conversations we need to have, is who would this help? That is one thing. And then we want to think about who we want to push it out to. And the truth is, I don’t really know. I didn’t think that far ahead. I just thought it would help individual companies to access a wide pool of information. So, this takes me to a whole other place, when this pandemic is over, when we are back to whatever normal is, what will we do with a platform like this? Will we continue, will we find other topics for people who will want to continue to contribute? If for example you are doing a project on fast food, imagine if you can send a couple of reports in and then just do a search of all the fast food kind of content that’s in this vast pool of data. I don’t know what the depth of understanding will be, but certainly you’d have a vast amount of materials at your fingertips for free, at no cost. I don’t know, there are so many unknowns to this but what I do know is that we’ve got a huge pool of information that’s growing rapidly, content growing rapidly, and it’s probably worth asking me this question again in a few weeks’ time. The guidance principles are that, this is never going to be for profit, we will never make money out of this, it belongs to all of us, even though I gave it the first push, there is no way I want to be at the helm of this thing because I haven’t got the time for it. I am already behind with my day job because of this, and I think I need to share the workload and have other people involved.
MM: I think this is admirable. It is heart-warming to see the altruism in this but also, I see altruism more and more these days which is great as it reminds us of our humanity. I like the quid pro quo idea that you had, if you contribute you can get access to this, it is wonderful. Congratulations. Siamack, thank you so much for your time, this has been very fruitful at least for me and I will make sure I will become a contributor as well and share it with my team as well.
SS: Fantastic, thank you so much, thank you for your time.
Originally published at https://www.digital-mr.com.