I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior. One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.
One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. ”Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.
What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)
Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.
I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.
Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.
Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.
We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic film, Innocence of the Muslims.
We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.
- “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
- They were more into video games than reading.
- When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
- We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
- They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
- They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.
So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.
We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations. And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.
We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.
For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that I would be a judge for a short film contest alongside Padma Lakshmi, Michael Pollen, Eric Schlosser, and Alice Waters! We’ll be looking for short films that provide a deeper understanding of the US food system. Here’s the low-down:
“The contest invites aspiring filmmakers, or teams of food changemakers alongside communicators, to create 30-second to four-minute films in one of four styles: documentary, advocacy, experimental, or ‘wildcard.’ Entries must be submitted by 9 p.m. EST on February 3, 2014.”
Made in Rio: what does this phrase conjure for you? Caipirinhas in a steamy club? Live samba music in a gritty city square? Barely-there bikinis? Or gangster violence in hillside favelas (with million dollar views)? There’s a reason VICE calls it the sexiest city in the world, and from my own visit to Rio, I can testify to the exciting and troubling contradictions that define this unique city, which continues to increase its global influence despite its struggles with chronic poverty, corruption and violence.
This is the second in a two-part interview with Ronaldo Lemos and Pedro Augusto, who issued a fascinating report on the growing Rio fashion industry. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese and so I asked Ronaldo and Pedro if they would care to do an interview in English. You can check out Part 1 of our interview here, where we explore the burgeoning fashion scene in Rio and the many contradictions that animate a city that has captured the global imagination.
Johanna: In Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories), you explore some of the contradictory perceptions that people have about Rio: on the one hand it’s a lush, expensive place – a sensual playground for cosmopolitan travelers; on the other hand, it’s a city filled with abject poverty and lawlessness. Do you think that the “brand” Made in Rio will ultimately reflect both of these perceptions?
Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. Rio is a city where contradictions occupy the same physical space. The posh neighborhoods and the favelas are all together. The poor and the rich inhabit the same regions in Rio, unlike other cities. And that is reflected in Rio de Janeiro fashion. The permanent tension between chic and casual is an example of that. And that is precisely what makes Rio a fascinating city. In the past few years, there have been many changes in public policy, attempts to bridge the divides between the city and the favelas. And that has been important too. There is a great deal of optimism, and the fashion in Rio emerges from the mix of rich and poor.
Johanna: Have any designers tried to make “dangerwear” — clothing that reflects a dangerous gangster lifestyle in Rio, like we’ve seen in Los Angeles and other urban areas in the United States?
I love it that I’ve joined a faculty that actually indulges in summer reading. Every year, the Master of Professional Writing faculty at USC are asked what they read during the break and Dinah Lenney sums it all up in a blog. She saw a theme in her own summer list:
Two more off the top of my head: Light Years by James Salter—beautiful and sad. And A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Hopeful, but sad. Say, why do we love sad stories? How is it they actually comfort us? Or do they?
A video that captures the creative possibilities of multi-platform storytelling
It’s been an incredibly busy summer, what with the launch of the Media Impact Project, and a particularly rewarding one, as well. A good chunk of my time this summer was devoted to teaching my class on transmedia storytelling in the Master in Professional Writing Program at USC. I’d taught a mini version of this course once before but this time I scaled it up to a full three-credit course, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
My goal was to create a course that would help prepare professional writers for the challenges and opportunities that new media offers. We reviewed a wide variety of experiments in transmedia narrative and examined some of the more popular tools that writers can use to extend their work across platforms, including blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Spotify and Instagram. By the end of the course, students forged a “story bible,” a detailed plan to turn one of their existing writing projects into an interactive transmedia narrative.
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: