Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for TV

Deflating the Filter Bubble

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I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.

When someone mentions “media choice” to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.

I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.

I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the danger of “filter bubbles,” which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don’t understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that I found in a major survey research project I conducted on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)

But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance, found that “suggesting the videos most closely related to the one a person is already watching actually drives them away.”

Of course YouTube’s goal is to get you to sit and watch YouTube like you watch TV: to lean back and watch a half hour to an hour of programming, rather than watching for two minutes, getting frustrated trying to find something else worth watching and then going elsewhere. So, in short, it’s in YouTube’s best interest to introduce some calculated serendipity into their recommendations. Read the rest of this entry »

Participant Media’s Impact Index

TPI

The New York Times devoted significant ink this week to The Participant Index (TPI), an effort by Participant Media to quantify and compare the relative social impact of films, TV shows and online video. The article also mentioned the Lear Center’s $4.2 million Media Impact Project: I’m the co-principal investigator on that project and we’ve been consulting with Participant on the development of TPI.

Here’s a little back story: Participant approached the Lear Center because of its academic expertise in measuring the impact of educational messages embedded in entertainment content. Our Hollywood, Health & Society program (for which I wrote the initial grant) has partnered with the CDC for the last 14 years to look at how health story lines in popular TV shows affect viewers’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The survey component of TPI includes a combination of questions that have become standard in entertainment education evaluation: the “transportation scale” identifies the type of emotional involvement that the entertainment content triggered and the outcome questions indicate what real-world actions a subject has taken after exposure to the content. TPI combines these two measures to create a score for each piece of video content in the study. Read the rest of this entry »

Tracking “Culture”

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I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Measuring the Impact of Art

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Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

Black Twitter, Scandal & Must-Tweet TV

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A few years ago I noticed a bunch of hashtags appearing in the “Trending Topics” section of Twitter that I just couldn’t make heads or tails of. Each one I clicked on revealed a sea of black faces and I thought, Oh! This is some kind of in-joke in the African American community. When I could figure out what the tweets were about (and often I couldn’t), they were often really funny, sometimes poking fun at black celebrities or taking white people to task for their ignorance of black culture and the black experience. There were also a lot of provocative topics such as #thingsblackpeopledo, which often played with sensitive racial stereotypes (think watermelon, unemployment, etc.) sometimes inverting them or re-invoking them in clever and surprising ways.

This development was really exciting to me because I believe that one of the huge social and political benefits of social media networks is that diasporic communities – dispersed groups that have shared interests – can cheaply and easily find one another, exchange ideas, build community and work together to accomplish shared goals.

Fast forward to 2013: we had just launched the new Media Impact Project at the Norman Lear Center and I was looking for a way to collaborate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, a group at USC that had been publishing some very interesting research on Twitter. I was thrilled when Kevin Driscoll, a PhD student in the Lab, told me that he was hoping to drum up some interest in researching Black Twitter. We had both noticed that academic researchers hadn’t really grappled with the topic yet, even though the phrase was becoming more common in news media after Black Twitter was given credit for focusing media attention on the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases.

We were also a bit surprised that academics didn’t seem to be responding to studies demonstrating that African Americans were seriously embracing Twitter.  A research team at Northwestern found that black college students were over-represented on Twitter and Pew found that an astounding 28% of African Americans use Twitter with 13% using it on a daily basis. Just to give you some context, only 12% of whites are on Twitter and only 2% of all online adults use Twitter in a typical day.

Whoa. Read the rest of this entry »

How Does Media Move Us?

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I was very honored to speak at the Paley Center’s International Council Summit, an annual event that brings together a who’s who of media heavyweights and impresarios. This year the topic was big data and so the conference opened appropriately enough with Hans Rosling, the infographic genius, who shamed us for our ignorance about the state of the world (you have to see the video.) Eric Schmidt (yes, that Eric Schmidt) closed the proceedings with more quotable stuff than I could tweet (e.g., “The Internet is a huge accomplishment – don’t screw with it!!”) Of course everyone wanted to hear what Nate Silver had to say about his new gig at ESPN, and now you, too, can see every speaker on the program here . . . except me. I gave the luncheon talk at the 21 Club (talk about ambiance!) and so there was no recording.

Here’s what I said:

The Centers for Disease Control found out that over half of Americans believe that the health storylines they see in entertainment programming are accurate and a quarter say that those TV shows are one of their main sources for health information.

Of course we understand the difference between fiction and reality, but we have to be awfully naive to believe that really compelling stories don’t have an effect on us.

For 13 years, we’ve been doing careful academic research at the Norman Lear Center in order to figure out exactly how much of an impact media has on us. We’ve found that a storyline on the TV show Numbers – you know, the one with Rob Morrow – convinced 10% of its viewers to volunteer to donate their organs. An HIV hotline got a record number of callers after a soapie, the Bold & the Beautiful, aired a scene in which a guy tells his girlfriend he’s HIV positive.

Whether it’s smoking or seatbelts, or Fonzie getting a library card, we know that attitudes and behaviors can shift in response to imagery on popular television.

When we asked Americans whether they had ever taken some kind of action based on entertainment programming they’d seen, 65% of respondents admitted that they had. And those actions ranged from seeking more information about the issue to making a donation to a charity (13% owned up to that).

Is it a matter of monkey see, monkey do? Nah. Humans are more complicated than that, and so are the stories we tell each other.

The people in this room know how much is at stake. Imagine if we actually knew what role media was playing in our lives? What would happen if we could accurately measure how media moves us? And what exactly it moves us to do?

Just think back to a song, a TV show, a comic book character, a movie or a book that really shifted your perspective, that set you on a new path, that made you think about yourself and the world in different way.

We’ve certainly seen stories literally save lives. A radio soap opera in Tanzania was so effective at lowering HIV rates in provinces that received the broadcast compared to those that did not, that they had to discontinue the experiment and broadcast the show to the entire country for ethical reasons.

Usually we don’t have the luxury of creating such a large and diverse control group in order to scientifically measure the impact of media. You see similar issues in the field of education, where it’s taken entirely too long, in my mind, for educational initiatives to be adequately vetted through the use of control groups.

What if we applied the scientific rigor of the pharmaceutical industry to TV programming? What if we treated media as if it were a drug: which delivery systems would prove most potent and for whom? What types of content would prove life-changing?

At the Norman Lear Center, we recently developed a pragmatic new survey methodology for measuring the impact of media. The key is addressing the self-selection bias problem. Only certain people seek out certain kinds of media based on their personal taste and access. Our new tool accounts for that bias by calculating each and every survey respondent’s propensity to have seen that piece of media. After that likelihood has been determined, we compare very similar people who were exposed to that media and those who were not. Then we determine whether exposure to that piece of media is correlated with shifts in knowledge, attitudes or behavior.

When we used this methodology on the documentary film Food, Inc., we found significant differences between our control group and those who had watched the film, who were eating healthier food, were more knowledgeable about food safety issues, and who were shopping at farmers markets more frequently than very similar people who had not seen the film. (Here’s my TEDx talk about this research.)

These days we’re more awash than ever in data about how we humans are using and consuming media. For the Food, Inc. study, it was cheap and easy for us to gather 20,000 respondents through digital platforms.

But, as you also know, virtually no one agrees on how to measure media usage, engagement, and most importantly, impact. And the stakes seem higher than ever as we witness the development of ever more intimate and immersive technologies which make that bleed line between screen time (mediated reality) and real time thinner and thinner.

Why hasn’t measuring the impact of media been a priority for us? Well one powerful reason is liability. Who wants to be on the hook for having had some kind of negative impact on people? We’ve seen these accusations play out before with kids and violent video games or heavy metal music. Unless the news is good news, the media industry doesn’t necessarily want to know.

Another problem is that there are far too many incentives built into the media business to use measurement to game the system. The media industries are, by and large, for-profit industries. If you can come up with a custom audience measurement metric that makes your company more money, then you will receive strong encouragement to continue to use that metric – even if it doesn’t do a good job of actually monitoring who encountered your media and what kind of impact it had on them. The truth has been beside the point.

There are powerful incentives to keep your methods opaque – to come up with a black box algorithm that makes it impossible for others to check your work by attempting to repeat your results. This is why many media companies subscribe to multiple social media monitoring services, all of whom use different methods and generate different results that can be cherry picked by their clients.

So we remain adrift in a sea of unverifiable data points, making it virtually impossible for scholars and researchers to find out the truth about who engages in what media and to what end. As you can imagine, foundations that fund media initiatives have been very frustrated with their inability to get accurate, empirically solid, repeatable measurements of the impact of the media they have produced. Many have concluded that it’s simply too difficult and too expensive to do; that we’ll never have numbers we can compare, and, after all, isn’t it impossible to measure shifts in hearts in minds?

This year, we entered into a partnership with the Gates and the Knight Foundations to create a global hub for media impact research at the Lear Center. Our goal is to assist all media makers to do a better job accounting for how people engage with their media and assessing the consequences of that engagement.

We’re expanding the amount and types of research that we do at USC, and we are committed to collecting and sharing best practices from all around the world, from all sectors, academic, governmental, industry. From luminaries like you.

This new initiative is called the Media Impact Project and it brings together scholars across the disciplinary spectrum to develop and share freely the best possible tools and practices. Echoing Nate Silver’s comment this morning, I hope you’ll join us in making media analytics a non-fiction business.

The Politics of Personal Taste

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.

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