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NU Professor Talks Big Data with Media Expert

By Jacob Nelson

The MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises kicked off its first Speaker Series event last week with a discussion about media audiences and big data. Northwestern professor James Webster, who has a new book out that focuses on the effects of a proliferation of media choices in the digital age and is also teaching a course this quarter about media audiences, spoke to a full room in Frances Searle, located on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, with Stacey Lynn Schulman, who is the Executive Vice President of Strategy, Analytics and Research at Katz Media Group.

One of the first questions the two attempted to answer was whether or not the advent of many more media options had empowered media users. “These changes have promoted rhetoric of user empowerment,” Webster said about the increase in media that has resulted from everything from the Internet to an increase in television channels and programming.

“There’s no doubt people have more choice… but with that wealth comes bounded rationality.” Webster explained that people don’t make choices with all of the information necessary to make the best selection. For instance, a person chooses to watch a movie because they believe they will probably like it, when they might actually hate it. As a result, people are increasingly relying on big data-powered metrics, like recommender systems, to motivate their decisions. “Ordinary media users are now just as dependent on metrics as media creators,” Webster said.

An issues that comes up because of this reliance is that these big data aren’t wholly objective. In choosing to highlight some bit of information over another, a media metrics system conveys a point of view that many don’t realize exists. “These metrics are never neutral, they can never be neutral,” Webster said. “Google not only measures popularity, it creates it.” Schulman agreed with Webster’s assessment, and added her industry-specific perspective. She said that media companies are currently struggling to understand how to best use big data to help them reach audiences.

“We are in this moment of crisis… Trying to reconcile what we know with what we don’t know,” Schulman said. Schulman voiced some frustration with the glowing reception that the advent of digital has received by many in her field. Though she was quick to point out the advantages a digital world has provided, she said that “there is an irrational exuberance about the power of digital” and not as much thought about “about how technology is reimagining our humanity.”

“We used to make up and break up in person, now we do so on our cell phones,” she said.

She added that the increase in the importance of popularity metrics has brought the need for affirmation to the forefront for both media producers and consumers.

“There’s this constant need for affirmation that the media needs as well,” she said. “That creates a crisis for how we measure content.”

Webster and Schulman agreed that, even as the list of available media options continues to grow, there will always be a small group of media outlets commanding a majority of attention.

“There’s no evidence that the handful of media that dominate are going away anytime soon,” Webster said.

Schulman agreed, adding that popular culture is a good thing, especially in the face of audience fragmentation.

“Mass media has to survive,” Schulman said. “We need that cultural currency… We have to have a way to connect.”