MSN UK's “naked” experiment: E-shop or die!

Using a behavioral study as a ruse for e-commerce promotion, MSN turns four volunteers into online hunters and gatherers.

Topics: Microsoft,

“Our four volunteers have no clothes and only the Internet and a credit card to survive the next hundred hours.” So opens the Microsoft Network UK’s “naked in a room with the Internet” special. Scientific behavioral study or shameless marketing ploy? You decide.

According to the BBC, MSN has tucked its four subjects into separate rooms at a secret London youth hostel, from which they’re being forced to surf — or die. “How can they feed, clothe and entertain themselves, communicate with friends and family?” MSN asks. (If you’re worried about their ability to survive under such dire conditions, you might be relieved to know that volunteer Martin Kennedy “has completed an Internet training course.”)

The site claims that this project is part of an academic study — “conducted in conjunction with Helen Petrie of the University of Hertfordshire.” But what will Petrie study? Rather than discovering novel uses of the Internet or measuring the effect of enforced e-commerce, this project will only test the responsiveness of mail order companies and delivery services: Can the Royal Mail get those knickers to the naked lady before her next webcam appearance?

MSN visitors can view the participants, chat with them or share advice — say, a nearby fish-and-chips shop that will take online orders. Of course, if this were a rigorous study, the results would have to be ruled invalid — after all, these naked Net stars are hardly having a representative experience. How many of us start life with no clothes and a Net-connected computer?

The ruse is not even particularly novel. After all, it was last year that Village Voice columnist Austin Bunn locked himself in his Brooklyn Heights apartment and tried to live on what the Internet could deliver. (He was reduced to pizza and porn.) And is currently shelling out $500 a week to three lucky college students to prove that, yes, you really can buy things online. They post their weekly expenditures — groceries, clothes and lots of gifts — in what amounts to free advertising for the e-retailers they visit. (So far they have spent as much as $6,500 apiece on stuff like toilet decals and wiggling hula girls, while a new business sprang to life to provide one of the students with a place to buy her groceries online.)

Unlike MSN, these projects don’t claim to be behavioral studies — they’re simply demonstrations that, yes, you can buy stuff online. That’s something MSN UK is determined to keep proving. The site states, “ plans to repeat the study next year to see how online shopping and other everyday usage of the Internet changes over the next 12 months.”

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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