Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.
The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:
to provide tools on an “open-source” basis, putting socially minded nonprofit groups on a more equal footing with corporate advertisers, who use sophisticated, but expensive, measurements.
As Bill Gates pointed out recently in the Wall Street Journal, accurate measurement is the key to innovation. Without benchmarks, we don’t know where we’re going. Because media is such a pervasive presence in human life, we need reliable systems for measuring its impact. It’s difficult work, as our funders have pointed out, but with the rise of social media networks and the prospects of big data analysis the academy has an unprecedented opportunity to step up and to provide mechanisms for measurement untainted by profit motives.
The entertainment industry is notorious for adjusting its numbers to service an often inscrutable bottom line. And all of us – including everyone who variously produces or consumes media content – have been ill-served by cookie-cutter audience segmentation techniques and panel-based research methods that cannot account for what’s happening in the “long tail” of our global cultural economy. The insidious audience segmentation techniques that valorize age, race, gender and income over every other facet of human identity have contributed to a media system rife with stereotypes about how humans tick. (You can find out more about my thoughts on this in this TED talk.) The awe-inspiring data sets emerging from social media networks offer us the opportunity to understand ourselves, and our engagement with media, in a far more nuanced way.
My vision here? Ultimately, I want media makers to have the resources to make data-driven decisions. Rather than depending on their “gut” and random comments from their kids and colleagues, I want them to grapple with meaningful feedback information that demonstrates how real people have engaged with their work and what effects that interaction has produced.
I also want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audience’s needs, values and taste. For me, it’s an issue of respect. I want our media environment to be respectful and responsive to the needs of global audiences, not just a few prized, but deeply misunderstood, demographic groups.
Looking for a job? The Media Impact Project is hiring! Find out more.
The Lear Center collaborated with viral video wunderkind Joe Sabia on a hard-hitting video about how the War on Terror is depicted on primetime TV. Watching the coverage of the Boston Marathon bomber manhunt, both Joe and I were instantly reminded of our work on this project. Here’s how Joe put it:
From bombings, to week long investigations, to racial profiling, to drawing assumptions, to wanted posters, to gun fights, getaways, to shutting down transportation, to Miranda rights not being read…
I could not stop
This whole thing was like a season out of “24″!
Yesterday, I joined “Project Runway” finalist Korto Momolu on an episode of “The Stream,” an innovative multimedia show on al Jazeera English. The topic? Cultural appropriation. Turns out that Momolu has gotten a lot of heat for incorporating African designs and textiles into her work . . . despite the fact that she’s from Liberia. I was part of the mix in order to clarify some of the ownership rules around cultural remix practices in fashion.
When I talk about copyright and fashion outside of the United States, I often get questions about the dangers of cultural appropriation. Shouldn’t it be illegal for Western fashion designers to steal traditional designs from Native American tribes or to appropriate design features from traditional Ethiopian garb?
My research on fashion and intellectual property has focused on the benefits – both to consumers and to the fashion business – of the lack of ownership of designs. Fashion is actually one of several industries that treat their creative output as a commons – shared resources that can be freely reused, recreated and recombined.
This is often music to the ears of free culture activists, libertarians and lots of people in the digital media industries, who have seen first-hand how difficult (and often counter-productive) it is to enforce copyright protections on creative work that can be copied perfectly with one click.
But for people who are concerned about cultural imperialism, this “free culture” sounds like just another opportunity to take advantage of the little guy. And, of course, that does happen. There’s nothing to stop Karl Lagerfeld from knocking off a Tibetan Buddhist robe. But the key question is: would he want to do that? Would that design resonate for the Chanel customer? And would those customers think it’s appropriate to incorporate a design with those political, cultural and religious connotations into French haute couture?
Just because you can appropriate designs from other cultures doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. Especially in the age of social media, fashion brands and retailers must think twice about the cultural sensitivity of their appropriations before they face a PR firestorm online.
One thing that proponents of cultural protectionism and strict ownership regimes often forget is that once you’re in a position to defend ownership of your own stuff, it also means that everyone else has that right as well. The result? Lots of legal obstacles for cultural exchange. It is more difficult than one might think to determine exactly where a particular clothing design or jewelry design originated. That is one reason that courts in the US have consistently determined that fashion designs should not have copyright protection.
But fashion designers have very powerful intellectual property protection in the form of trademark. And this is where some traditional cultures have played their cards well. It turns out that trying to sell something as a “Navajo” design (as Urban Outfitters recently did) without the permission of the Navajo nation is a big no-no. The federal Indian Arts and Craft Act allowed the tribe to register 10 trademarks covering clothing, footwear and textiles, and they have been aggressively protecting their mark. Trademark protection makes sense here because their brand already has tremendous equity, as a brand manager might put it. “Navajo” has a powerful meaning for people who are familiar with their history. Customers who are inclined to buy something that’s labeled “Navajo” would most likely assume that the tribe was associated with the product. Trademark protection allows customers to be confident in that assumption, while giving the tribe the right to exert control over their products and aesthetics. It’s a win-win situation, and copyright protection plays no part in it.
Like other art forms, fashion is a powerful conduit for cultural diplomacy, translating the aesthetics of one nation or culture to people in far-away places who wouldn’t necessarily have had the occasion to think about that other world. What’s unique about fashion as an aesthetic object is that it’s something you wear: it provides the opportunity for an extremely intimate connection with a foreign perspective and it gives people the opportunity to literally walk in the shoes of another culture. The fact that fashion design elements can be sampled quite freely makes it even more likely that cross-cultural communication can occur … at the very least, in the form of fashion trends.
I had the tremendous pleasure of attending TED 2013 and, as always, I felt compelled to figure out the overarching themes of this vastly interdisciplinary conference. The T, E and D stand for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but, as anyone who toils in these fields knows, that kinda covers everything under the sun. You have to wonder, how on earth do the TED curators figure out what fits and what doesn’t?
I wrote a blog about TED 2011 and, rereading it today, I see that much of the same soul searching that was put on display then is still very much at play now. I had argued then that several key talks had addressed the necessity of, on the one hand, recognizing and celebrating your own unique and often imperfect perspective on the world, and accepting the fact that not only are other perspectives out there, but they are probably more valid than you would care to think.
For TED 2013, I saw a similar interest in trying to encourage the audience (and the millions of viewers who will devour these videos online) to want to know what they don’t know. If I had to propose a title, it might be
It’s the Data, Stupid
Big data was an obvious theme throughout the conference, handled well in two talks by co-authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAffee (who also gamely appeared in an intellectual lucha libre-inspired “cage fight” at a nearby bar). Brynjolfsson mentioned the AI winter we’ve long weathered, in which advances that several futurists had expected just didn’t happen. But Brynjolfsson argued that we’re entering a renaissance for artificial intelligence because of the amazing repositories of big data that we now have access to and the powerful tools that are being developed to make sense of them.
Sergey Brin attended the conference and he has long been a proponent of turning academic science on its head: why start from a hypothesis when you can just sort through unfathomable piles of data and see what comes out? It’s the Google-ification of scientific research, and, as you can imagine, that makes a lot of people really nervous.
Why? Because we’re ceding responsibility and thought to computers? Certainly that’s a factor. But it’s also incredibly difficult to devote your life to performing research that may demonstrate that you’ve been wrong – perhaps really wrong – about everything you thought you knew.
Bono came back to the TED stage and made a passionate plea for “factivism” – action based on a clear-eyed view of what the data is telling us, not what stereotypes and “common sense” dictate. Leyla Acaroglu performed this task beautifully, shedding light on the troubling misconceptions we have about how to be proper conservationists and environmentalists (paper or plastic? Guess what? The best choice is PLASTIC).
Bill Gates also attended the conference and, although he didn’t speak on stage, his message – recently delivered in the Wall Street Journal – that accurate measurement is the prerequisite for progress was, for me, the quiet drumbeat behind the entire conference.
Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein gave a perfectly delicious talk on the role that ignorance plays in scientific praxis (he actually teaches a class on it!) and he highlighted something that many people I spoke to at the conference mentioned again and again: the adage from geneticists that “you always get what you screen for.” Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble,” anyone?
After all, how do you make the smarty-pants people who attend TED even smarter? You chastise them to think even better, to move beyond thinking by analogy (as Elon Musk proposed) and convince them that they probably aren’t asking enough questions, and the questions they’re asking are probably so deeply imbued with their own personal biases that they might not be able to hear an answer that doesn’t jibe with their treasured “gut feeling.” And then, after they get all depressed, you tell them they can read TED Fellow Negin Farsad’s hilarious (and f-bomb heavy) summary of the conference. They’ll feel a little better after that.
Monday is sort of a ramp-up day at TED, but this year the highlight for me was Inside TED, a glimpse into the machinations of a unique organization that’s trying to figure out how to spread ideas that are stalled or stuck in some way – perhaps they’re trapped in impenetrable jargon; maybe they’re stuck in a disciplinary silo . . . or a Nairobi slum. Regardless of the impediments, or perhaps due to them, TED aspires to create a media platform for awesome and sexy ideas to propagate.
Despite this expansive mission – based primarily on the notion that exposure and transparency are tools for solving the world’s problems – I think most TEDsters feel like there’s a tantalizing shroud of secrecy and sanctity enveloping the TED organization: exactly how many people work there? And how much money do they make from these hyper-expensive conferences (7,500 bucks a pop)? Who decides which videos are posted and featured?
Well, Inside TED was Chris Anderson’s way of opening up the ledgers and introducing the TED community to the brave (and wacky) souls who make this crazy ship run.
- Revenues? About $45 million last year, with $27 million coming from TED, TED Global, and TED Active. Anderson estimates that there are about 500 core attendees who have spent around $30,000 supporting TED over the years.
- There are 1,400 talks on TED.com, with more than 50 million views per month. Only 200 are from TEDx events (and, so for, there have been 5,000 TEDx events with 8-10 more taking place per day.)
- 25% of their traffic is mobile, and they also distribute their talks through radio and TV channels (they’ve even put TED talks in taxis in Mumbai). Anderson suggested that TED speakers simply multiply their TED.com views by two in order to figure out about how many times their videos have been seen (that puts my two TED.com talks at 2.2 million views. Yowza.)
- Their brilliant open translation project involves 11,000 translators and 35,000 translations in 97 languages. (I was thrilled to hear that the Gates Foundation was a key funder for this. Go Bill!)
When someone asked Anderson about his favorite failure (and he had earlier admitted that the Bono TED Prize challenge to wire Ethiopia was a dire misfire) he ended up talking about their struggle to balance accessibility with substance. In order to get those great, inspiring ideas “unstuck” it’s essential to find a way to translate them to a larger diverse audience. The accusations, from several quarters, that TED “dumbs down” complex ideas were obviously deeply troubling to Anderson. His assertion that substance must always trump style is a challenging standard to be held to, especially for a slick global media platform like TED. And, honestly, to the rest of us bloggers and professors and public intellectuals who must find that precarious balance between accuracy and rigor and the ethical imperative to share important ideas with people who never thought they’d be interested.
If you’re at TED this week, look me up on TED Connect!