Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for media impact

Post-Trump TV Storytelling

Because of research I’ve done on the relationship between entertainment and politics, I’m often asked how TV storytelling will change after Trump’s election. In our survey research at the Norman Lear Center, we have found over the years that the most popular shows on primetime broadcast TV appeal most to a group we call the “Purples,” 24% of the population that doesn’t fall neatly into Red or Blue ideological buckets. Here’s a quick overview of their unique constellation of political positions:

• Deep anxiety about the economy.

• Deep skepticism about the Iraq War isn’t working.

• Strong enthusiasm for protecting the environment

• Disgust with political leadership

• Deep suspicion of Corporate America and support for regulation

• Strong belief that women and men should share household duties equally

• Strong support for public schools

• Respect for immigrants, who are here “for work, not a handout”

• Mixed feelings about trade protectionism

• Optimism about new technology

• Belief that security is more important than liberties

• Strong belief that freedom is more valuable than equality

• Strong preference for diplomacy over use of force in battles against terrorism

• Strong sense of compassion for the less fortunate

• Ambivalence about the role of religion in public life

• Evenly split on regulation of gun ownership

• Strong support for cutting taxes

A glance at their ideological positions reveals how difficult it is to appeal to them in our current two-party political system. However, primetime TV storytellers appear to have cracked their code and captured their attention: compared to Reds and Blues, the Purples were, by far, the most inclined to enjoy mainstream TV offerings.

But after the surprising election of Trump, several prominent TV producers and creators have admitted publicly that they felt the need to re-evaluate their storytelling — in part, because they didn’t feel like they understood their audience anymore.

In a recent New York Times piece, writers from Madam Secretary, Veep, House of Cards, and Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the many changes they made to their shows post-election. Ironically, they all felt the need to remove plot elements that too closely reflected the current reality, for fear that they would be accused of simply ripping stories from the headlines (remember that stories are written long before they’re shot and aired). The general response among writers on shows that highlight the hypocrisy and corruption of Washington — Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal — was that their melodramatic and ridiculous scenarios were apparently coming true, and they were going to be hard-pressed to concoct the unbelievable storylines that they thought they were churning out before. However, Rhimes, who believes that her core audience is composed of Obama supporters, is reluctant to simply ramp up the outlandish storylines typical of Scandal.  While it was fun to tell “horror stories” about misbehavior in the Beltway while Obama was in office, she feels that her audience might not want those stories anymore:

Our show is basically a horror story. Really. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out . . . But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic. You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere.

Executives in Hollywood are straining to figure out how they can attract Trump voters to their fictional fare, without alienating the rest of the nation, but Rhimes — who is the current queen of primetime — has a slightly different take:

I get really offended at the concept that what came out of the election was that — how do I say this? — impoverished people who are not of color needed more attention. I thought that was kind of crazy, that they might need more television. They have television. It just felt very strange to me. And I thought really, the people who really need to be spoken to are the 50 percent of the population that did not vote at all. Those are the people who need to be more engaged

Our entertainment and politics surveys targeted registered voters, but among that population, the Purple group was the one most likely to admit to not voting. This might suggest that Rhimes is really on to something here. Could primetime fare be optimized for 160 million non-voters? And how might those stories be crafted in order to increase the liklihood of future political engagement . . . such as voting? Whoever cracks that code will not only take over Hollywood but will become the most powerful political force in this divided nation.

The Unintended Consequences of Technology

ieeecover265

An article of mine on the “Technologies of Taste” has just come out in Technology & Society, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). It’s a fascinating special issue exploring the “Unintended Consequences of Technology.” As the guest editor, Ramona Pringle explained it to me that the focus wasn’t on “the dark side” of tech, but rather the complicated nature of our increasingly connected lives.

The call for papers, however, emphasized the danger of not carefully examining our relationship to new technology:

With all great innovation comes responsibility; and with the exponential growth of technology, the window within which we can examine the ethics and consequences of our adoption of new technologies becomes increasingly narrow. Instead of fear mongering, how do we adjust our course, as a society, before it is too late?

My piece explores the role that recommendation systems play in our online pursuits of knowledge and pleasure. How is our personal taste affected by finely-tuned commercial algorithms that are optimized to sell us products and monetize our attention? While Eli Pariser and others have argued that these systems place us in “filter bubbles” that insulate us from new ideas, I argue that companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix have strong commercial incentives to develop recommendation systems that broaden their customers’ horizons rather than limiting them, effectively bursting filter bubbles rather than reinforcing them.

This couldn’t be a more timely argument considering that concerns about filter bubbles have grown exponentially during the last presidential election cycle. What complicates the debate about filter bubbles is that each site — whether it’s primarily an ecommerce, social media, search or content platform — has very different goals in mind and different proprietary algorithms in place to achieve them. I hope this article triggers a more thoughtful conversation when people claim that ideological insularity is the obvious outcome of filtering and recommendation technology.

 

Advancing the Story: The Next Chapter in Media Impact

The Norman Lear Center and the Paley Center for Media held an event on November 2 exploring how technology and storytelling are raising awareness about important social issues. I gave a presentation (which you can watch here) addressing how we can connect the dots between media exposure and social or political action. Summarizing results from the Lear Center’s impact studies of the documentary film Waiting for “Superman,” the narrative feature film Contagion, and the Guardian’s global development news website, I explained how mixed methods research can be used to assess changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior from media exposure (You can read full-length reports here).

The evening started with a very timely panel discussion about how new technologies are informing and invigorating public discourse about social issues. Justin Osofsky, Vice President of Media Partnerships and Online Operations at Facebook, discussed how “humbled” the organization was by the profound impact that Facebook Live video streaming has produced. Wesley Lowery, National Reporter at The Washington Post and author of the forthcoming They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, explained how his fluid use of Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope transformed his journalistic process. Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer of Frontline, weighed in on the expanding use of VR among newsgatherers, and her “Aha!” moment at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Jennifer Preston, Vice President of Journalism at the Knight Foundation, which sponsored this event, joined the panel in a nuanced conversation about the difference between journalistic ethics and online community ethics, which are becoming more deeply interwoven as citizens move to social media platforms for news.

The second panel of the night addressed the impact of storytelling in entertainment, bringing together the grandfather of social issue TV, Norman Lear; Kenya Barris, creator of black-ish; and Gloria Calderon Kellett, Co-Showrunner of the Netflix reboot of Lear’s classic  One Day at a Time. Moderated by Marty Kaplan, the group addressed the critical need for entertaining stories about real people and real problems on screens large and small. Sensitive to the historic lack of diversity on primetime TV, Barris and Kellett discussed the need to dislodge the notion that there’s one monolithic experience for each ethnic group. By injecting their own lived lives into their storytelling, all three writers felt that they could trigger conversations that could lead to social change.

Check out the lively Twitter feed from the event: #mediaimpact 

Talking About the Culture of Technology with Katina Michael

I had a wonderful conversation with Katina Michael, professor of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, and editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. She wanted to have a chat about my forthcoming article on “Technologies of Taste,” which explores the social impact of recommendation engines. But the conversation ranged far beyond that topic, touching on the behavioral biometrics of game play, the privacy implications of Samsung TVs that can listen to your conversations, and the attention economy as a “zero sum game.” Clearly, I may just have to fly to Australia to continue this conversation in person.

 

 

Overcoming “Development Fatigue”

How can we translate awareness into action?

If you’re a regular news consumer in the United States you might get the impression that world is going to hell. Especially when it comes to international news, you’ve probably recoiled from the grizzly headlines and wondered how on earth, in the 21st century, we find ourselves surrounded by such barbarism, poverty, and countless other intractable global ills.

Unless you’re a global development professional, or someone who’s watched one of Hans Roslings’ acerbic TED videos, you probably wouldn’t know about all of the absolutely mind-boggling improvements that have been made to the quality of life for billions of people around the globe.

Unfortunately, the great successes of the Millennium Development Goals, didn’t exactly make front page news. In the financially failing news industry, the international beat is the most expensive to cover, and with the public dead-set against increasing foreign aid and selfishly focused on its own backyard, news outlets don’t have the best incentives to report on boring things like the MDG targets that were met. Little old things like . . .

  • Goal 1: Extreme poverty was reduced from 47% to 14% in developing nations.
  • Goal 2: 91% of kids in the developing world are receiving primary education.
  • Goal 3: The developing regions as a whole achieved the target for gender equality in primary, secondary and tertiary education.
  • Goal 4: The mortality rate for children under five has declined by more than half.
  • Goal 5: There was a 45% decline in maternal mortality.
  • Goal 6: There was a 45% decrease in HIV infections, a 58% drop in the malaria mortality rate, and a 45% drop in the TB mortality rate.
  • Goal 7: 2.6 billion people now have access to better water – this target was achieved five years ahead of schedule.
  • Goal 8: Despite public opinion, we’ve seen a 66% increase in development assistance.

Pleasantly surprised? Perhaps a little more inclined to follow the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals, which just launched in January?

Well, the UN hopes you will be. But, beyond injecting capital into the news industry, how do NGOs, governments and global development activists figure out a way to reach and engage the public? Read the rest of this entry »

Gender & (Anti)Social Media

gamergate

I’m an English PhD and so when I was in grad school, the Modern Languages Association Conference (MLA) was THE annual event to attend – not only to get a teaching job, but to take the pulse of humanities scholarship from around 10,000 specialists in the most obscure sub- sub- sub-niches of academia. Attendance has declined about 40% since those heady days, but, at the 2016 convention last week in Austin, where I gave a talk on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, I still felt that anyone I met was the only person in the world doing the particular kind of work they were doing. Every presentation was like an exotic hybrid flower, a specimen brought to life through years of laborious research and experimentation in the hothouse climes of the academy.

This specialization is both inspiring and tragic as you encounter lonely scholars who have been toiling in their own very narrow silos, hoping that perhaps 10 people will show up to a talk that took them five years to prepare.

It is one of the main reasons that I departed from the typical English PhD path, casting my lot with a web startup and a giant computer games company. But it was a pleasure to return to the esoteric world of MLA, where new media is now something that cannot be ignored. I was especially keen to join the roundtable on Gender & (Anti)Social Media, which focused on recent bouts of social media–based harassment (e.g., Gamergate) but also on the potential for social media to create change for the better through cyber activism and coalition building.

Ever since I gave my TED talk on gender and social media, which was optimistic about the benefits that social media offer to women all around the world, I’ve been keeping an eye peeled for convincing case studies that demonstrate the potential for social media engagement to result in real-world change – things like increased awareness, attitudinal change, civic engagement, and the coup de grâce of civic intervention strategies, policy change.

I wanted to know what evidence we have that activism on social media is not simply self-congratulatory “slacktivism.”

It’s often unclear whether things like Twitter hashtag campaigns accomplish much more than increased awareness (which is nothing to sniff at). A tragic example is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which, despite its high profile supporters, appeared to have absolutely no impact on the situation on the ground.

bringbackourgirls

However, here are three examples that should give us some faith in social media-based efforts to address gender equality:

2015 Saudi Election

girlsofriyadh

I first became aware of how social media was being used by women in Saudi Arabia from a novel I bought in a bookstore in Japan. Girls of Riyadh was a real page-turner, set up as an anonymous epistolary serial, issued on email, that galvanized the attention of the singles scene (male and female) in ultra-traditional Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Because of strict physical gender segregation, social media platforms offer a radical new channel for social interactions between males and females, and Girls of Riyadh paints a portrait of the profound pleasures and dangers to be found there for women who have been effectively locked out of the public sphere.

Of course romances in Saudi Arabia are blossoming on Facebook, but we can also see that political campaigns are triggering unprecedented conversations between men and women. Just last month, women were allowed for the first time to vote and run for political office – which meant that candidates needed to reach voters of all genders. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest Twitter penetration rates in the world and so it’s not surprising that women voters used Twitter to testify to their participation in the public sphere. In the picture below, this Saudi woman took her children with her to the poll so that they could see first-hand that she had the power to vote.

saudivoter

I’d argue that much of the activity on social media platforms is driven by a desire to testify – to one’s beliefs, interests, affiliations, desires, achievements . . . the list goes on and on. Twitter, in particular, is positioned as a kind of digital public sphere, where participants who do not often have access to physical public places, can test their voice before a global audience and respond to the call of communities that they may never have known existed.

#DelhiGangRape

DelhiProtests

Delhi protests-India Raped, says one young woman’s sign” by Nilroy (Nilanjana Roy). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

 

I went to India last year to give a talk on the social impact of social media in India. I was absolutely blown away by the adoption rates among women, and the near constant use of platforms like WhatsApp among the college students I got to know. There are currently 70 million WhatsApp users per month in India, and India has the fastest rate of growth in Internet access in the world. According to a UN Women’s report on cyber violence and gender, Indians also have a greater optimism about using the Internet for freedom of expression – compared to the French, Canadians, Americans, Spaniards, and Germans.

The infamous #DelhiGangRape had already happened in 2012, and people had already seen the political impact of the story’s dissemination on social media. Not only were massive protests coordinated, but rape reports proceeded to double and anti-rape legislation was passed that criminalized stalking, included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for gang rape and required the creation of six new fast-track courts created solely for rape prosecutions. Experts on the ground emphasize that this is just the beginning of the process, but making an open secret the subject of public conversation is a very important step toward broader social change.

And the ramifications go beyond gender rights. According to the Nieman Lab at Harvard, the protests were a “watershed” moment for the use of social media in news gathering and reporting in India.

Cosby

cosby

Is it true, as this headline from vocativ asserts, that Cosby was brought to his knees by social media? If you’ll recall, it was a YouTube video of a bit by the comedian Hannibal Buress that renewed interested in the long-forgotten accusations. Often the most powerful campaigns on social media are either triggered by mainstream media reporting, or amplified by it. In this case,  the very low-quality video of Buress’ rant only caught fire when it was posted by Philadelphia magazine.

 

Cosby made the mistake of ignoring the firestorm. In fact, he seemed so confident that no one would pursue these allegations again that he invited his fans to generate memes about him on Twitter: The result was a user-generated public relations disaster for Cosby, and a huge victory for his accusers.

cosbymeme

All of this public interest evidenced on social media platforms led to serious investigative news reporting. The New York magazine’s cover story, which featured pictures of 35 of his accusers, along with an empty chair, ended up triggering another unplanned, user-generated social media campaign. #TheEmptyChair signaled tweets from people who had been raped, but did not come forward publicly.

nymagemptychair

There are many more examples to explore, such as the #NoMorePage3 campaign which convinced the Sun to eliminate its regular topless babe spread. But it’s definitely the exception and not the rule to find a social media campaign that plays a key role in triggering obvious real-world action and shifts in the status-quo. As with all media, social media platforms provide the opportunity to put an issue on the public agenda: translating growing awareness, however, into a massive protest or policy change, is still quite rare.

When it comes to gender equality, it’s clear that an epic battle is being fought in the digital public sphere: some are using new media platforms to punish and chastise women; others are using it to empower them. But what encourages me is the fact that there’s a battle being fought at all. And I think it’s telling that in a 17-country survey, 85% of women said the Internet provides them with more freedom. If you happen to be one of those people who poo-poos the revolutionary potential of social media, I would suggest you contemplate just how transformative these communication technologies can be in the hands of people who have been shamed, bullied or otherwise discouraged from participation in any kind of public dialogue. For them, registering their existence, let alone their political opinions, can be a revolutionary act.

Mobilizing News

ONAMIP

The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.

As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting. Read the rest of this entry »