Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for TED

I’ve Been Upworthied!


I just found out my talk on fashion and copyright was deemed Upworthy. As you probably know, Upworthy is a crafty outfit that goes to great lengths to increase viewership of video content that serves some kind of socially progressive purpose. Part of their process includes generating multiple potential headlines and photos, and testing the different combinations on different platforms to see which combos attract the most views.

Of course it’s fascinating to me to see what they decided worked best for my video:


I must say, it never occurred to me that my argument was something “hippies” would love, but there ya go!

I’ve been following Upworthy’s progress for the last two and half years, and I was especially excited to hear about how they are developing new metrics for assessing how people are engaging with the media they’re promoting. Uniques? Nah. Time on site? Nope! Their latest focus? Attention Minutes, which they define here:

Attention Minutes measures everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing to a user’s mouse movements to which browser tab is currently open — all to determine whether the user is still engaged. The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or have moved on to the next thing.

At the Norman Lear Center, where I’m managing director, we have been studying the “Attention Economy” for several years, and now with our Media Impact Project, we have the opportunity to develop tools that accurately measure human attention. Needless to say, there’s a great deal of debate about how this might be done and so we invited several experts in the field — including Daniel Mintz from Upworthy — to debate the topic on our new website, The Fray. Launched with a skeptical piece by Richard Tofel from ProPublica, we solicited responses from ChartBeat, LunaMetrics, the Financial Times, and Columbia University.

This is not a debate that’s going to be settled any time soon, but I sure hope I find out whether my little video turns out to be must-see-TV for hippies.



Fashion & Originality on the TED Radio Hour


Guy Raz interviewed me about the culture of copying in the fashion industry in what he called “maybe our best show ever.” During the TED Radio Hour, we discussed the cult of originality and the fashion industry’s constant creative incursions into the archives of fashion. The show also includes Steven Johnson on where ideas come from; Mark Ronson on sampling in the music industry and Kirby Ferguson on the ubiquity of remixing. Check it out and let me know what you think!

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.

Women of Silicon Valley


Since last fall, I’ve been working with Cognizant on their Women Empowered initiative, which has created a community for female executives interested in increasing workforce diversity — in particular, attracting, developing and promoting female employees. It has been gratifying work, yoking together research that I’ve done over the years about women and social media with Cognizant’s effort to increase the number of women in leadership positions in IT.

Although women are the key drivers of the social media revolution (you can check out my TED talk about this), several studies have indicated that women are reluctant to use their social networks – online or offline – to promote themselves professionally.

Read the rest of this entry »

TED 2013: It’s the Data, Stupid


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.

Inside TED: A Rare Glimpse Behind the Curtain

TED2013Monday 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.

Some highlights:

  • 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, 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 views by two in order to figure out about how many times their videos have been seen (that puts my two 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!