Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Black Twitter, Scandal & Must-Tweet TV

scandal

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 »

The Social Impact of Social Media in India

apogee

One of the more amazing side-effects of having videos on TED.com is that you receive invitations to speak all around the world. For the last two years, the intrepid organizers of the APOGEE conference at the Birla Institute of Tecnology and Science (BITS), one of the premier technical universities in India, had invited me to visit their obscure corner of Rajasthan and speak at their signature annual event. I had been warned that I would probably have a lot of difficulty traveling alone as a white woman in Rajasthan, and so I had to decline their requests until I could line up a male chaperone.  Luckily for me, he materialized last Fall at a conference at MIT – BITS Pilani’s sister university, as it were – and we planned our great Indian adventure together.

When I alerted the BITS Pilani crew to my traveling companion’s bio (John Beck had been the Director of Photography for all of NASA’s Mars missions for the last 18 years), they invited him to speak at the conference as well.

I have long been an admirer of Indian textiles, the incredible classical music and dance, and like most city dwellers, I fight with my friends about who has the best Indian take-out. But I had heard many grisly tales about the filth, the misogyny, the appalling poverty, and the deeply ingrained institutional corruption.

But the overriding reason that I decided to make the journey was because I could not turn down the chance to witness the incredible change that is afoot in India. I was thrilled when the organizers asked me to speak about the social impact of social media in India, a topic that I’ve been following closely for some time.

Even though the Internet penetration rate is extremely low in India, the 17% of Indians online already account for the third largest Internet population in the world. They will move up to number two next year, powered in part by a 91% increase in smart phone ownership by 2016.

And just in case you didn’t know, Indians are really, really social. Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn are flourishing in India, where 25% of all time online is spent on social networks.

Last year, LinkedIn celebrated luring 20 million Indians to their service, making Indians the second largest member base. Google+ has attracted a much higher share of online Indians than it has in the States (78% vs. 44%). I was greeted with loud applause when I displayed data from GlobalWebIndex demonstrating that online Indians are far more likely than online Americans to own and use social media accounts on all the major social media platforms.

Who knows what new platforms will be arriving over the next couple of years, but whatever they are, they will see an increasing share of Indians using them. And traditional media – film, TV, publishing – both in India and all around the world, will never be the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Embracing Blur

JBEmbracingBlur

Z Holly, the former vice provost for innovation at USC and host of the first TEDx ever, sure knows me well. A newcomer to the prestigious TTI/Vanguard Board, Z thought I would be good fit for their next conference on Embracing Blur.

Um, she couldn’t have been more correct. I have long been fascinated by the interplay between representations and reality (my last TEDx talk dealt with this pretty directly). And I’d venture to say that the majority of my work at the Lear Center explores the cultural and commercial ramifications of this blur.

What Z didn’t know was that my dissertation was actually about “betweenness” – something I saw as a key formal and thematic characteristic of avant-garde modernism. Many of my friends and colleagues wondered how a high-theory English PhD ended up in a think tank studying the impact of media, but it all seems quite rational to me: isn’t the key formal and thematic characteristic of 21st century media the blur between representation and reality? What we considered avant-garde in literary Paris at the turn of the 20th century is the (often unacknowledged) cultural dominant of contemporary global pop culture.

And so the description of the TTI/Vanguard program couldn’t have been more appealing to me:

A flood of technologies is washing away traditional boundaries between work and play, companies and governments, war and peace, near and far, virtual and physical, society and the individual. In its wake, a global nervous system is emerging as we connect billions of people with each other and with billions of newly smart objects. This unbounded organism is developing an unsurpassable intelligence, resistant to human control. Where is it taking us? Can we hope to understand it, control it, contain it?

Z had to warn me though – there’s one thing about this conference that is very atypical: every attendee (and there’s over a 100 of them) has a mic and can interrupt you at any point during your presentation.

This wouldn’t be quite so nerve-wracking if you didn’t know that the crowd would be composed of carefully vetted C-level folks from Fortune 100 companies and an engaged board that includes Alan Kay, Eric Haseltine, Gordon Bell, Nicholas Negroponte, and John Perry Barlow (never a guy to sit back and listen to anything he thinks is bullshit). Read the rest of this entry »

Myth Girls & the Art of Making Books

For several years now, I have been on the board of an experimental literary press where we have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep the printed book vibrant and alive. At Les Figues Press, we decided to publish books in unique dimensions and we coupled each author’s work with the visual work of another artist, hoping against hope that the resulting physical object would convince even the most cyber-savvy readers to purchase our special little hunks of pulverized tree.

So I contantly keep my eyes peeled for efforts to revitalize interest in the printed book. My most recent encounter with an inspiring innovation was in Medellin, Colombia, where the intrepid forces behind Proyecto Liquido – a group that explores the overlapping territory in fiction, art, science and technology – had transformed an online short story published 18 years ago into a surprisingly layered tactile experience.

With a black rubberized cover (not unlike the one on my iPad), Kij Johnson’s Chicas Miticas (Myth Girls) feels more like a machine than a book.  Everything inside is dual: from the bilingual translation (Spanish and English) to the double-sided format (the book is basically composed of two pamphlets facing one another). While one side is devoted to a disturbing tale about the terrible cost of freedom, the opposite renders the story into sleek, hyper-polished illustrations by Oscar Gonzalez, one of the five collaborators who transformed Johnson’s story into this unique material object.

If the book were simply illustrated, and bound in this surprising way, it would have been arresting enough. But three pages into the lushly animated version of this stark tale, you finally see a depiction of the main character, but only from behind, and rendered on vellum, so that you can see her ghost-like presence in two inhuman vistas, extended by a trifold. A few pages further in, you reach the material heart of the work, where lush illustrations bleed into layered vellum inserts and – I kid you not – a ripped quilted jacket is sewn directly onto the page. Read the rest of this entry »

How Does Media Move Us?

Paley

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.

Artifical Intelligence, Gender & the Uncanny Valley

Spike Jonze’s new film Her has sparked some fascinating conversations about artificial intelligence, gender and how we might traverse the uncanny valley we experience when real worlds and virtual worlds overlap.

Liat Clark from Wired contacted me for a great piece about AI virtual assistants and he asked me why it was that Hollywood usually depicts friendly AI as female and threatening AI as male. I think that, even though we may be more aware of gender stereotypes and how limiting and self-destructive they can be, it doesn’t mean that we don’t invoke them in the stories that we tell about ourselves. We humans are caught in some very deep cultural grooves: we still tend to associate a helpful, nurturing creature with feminine characteristics and an aggressive and destructive force with male characteristics. To reverse that association would only result in reinvoking it: everyone would notice that it was “backwards.” In that respect, storytellers cannot help but invoke the tropes that define us – particularly when they’re weaving tales about artificial versions of ourselves.

Clark was also interested in why Hollywood tropes about love and romance always seem a bit retro, lagging behind the current zeitgeist. I think that the representations that define our popular culture are profoundly disconnected from reality and are more likely to reflect a marketer’s hunch about what a particular demographic craves rather than what real living people actually want. One reason I’m so excited about the prospects for social media is that it gives marketers and media companies better information than they’ve ever had before about what animates us, what preoccupies us, and what we care to share (this is the topic of one of my TED talks). I think marketers, advertisers, programmers and creators of entertainment content will need to respond to increasing pressure to supply what audiences actually want – rather than producing hackneyed stories based on primitive stereotypes.

Clark turned out to be much more skeptical than I was about just how far we can go with AI. As my friends well know, I am borderline obsessed with the possibilities of the singularity, and so I’m convinced that we’ll be able to make life-like versions of ourselves in my lifetime. For better or worse, I believe that we’ll make AI that conforms to our current notions of perfection, whatever those happen to be at the time. I also think we will undoubtedly change our definition of perfection the moment we think we’ve achieved it. We’re sort of predictable that way.

The broader question may be why we are so obsessed with humanizing technology in the first place. There’s a great scene in Prometheus in which the robot Michael (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) puts on some protective head gear which is entirely unnecessary for him. When a human asks him why he bothers, he says it’s because humans are far more comfortable with creatures that act and look like them. Bingo. Yes, we quite capable of empathy, but we are also deeply self-involved creatures, hard-wired for self-preservation, and anthropomorphism is a crutch we’ve been using for millennia.  Our virtual assistants and the robots we engineer will no doubt reflect our knee-jerk discomfort with anything elementally different from ourselves.

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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