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2014 Ev Rogers Award: Duncan Watts on "Social Influence in Markets and Networks (What's So Viral About 'Going Viral'?)"

Duncan Watts, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and winner of the 2014 Ev Rogers Award, presented "Social Influence in Markets and Networks (What's So Viral About 'Going Viral'?)" in the Forum of the USC Annenberg School's new Wallis Annenberg Hall on Thursday, November 20. Watts described the surprising difficulty of empirically identifying social influence, which -- despite the metaphor of "going viral" -- doesn't necessarily spread in anything like the way that infectious diseases do.

The Rogers award honors the late Everett M. Rogers, a professor at the Annenberg School who originated diffusion of innovation theory and introduced the term "early adopters." Presented since 2007 on behalf of USC Annenberg by the Lear Center, the award recognizes outstanding scholars and practitioners whose work has made a fundamental contribution to areas of Rogers's legacy.

Watts' first paper, "Collective Dynamics of 'Small-World' Networks," co-authored with his doctoral advisor Steven Strogatz and published in the journal Nature in 1998, just a year after he got his Cornell Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics, quickly became a blueprint for network science, and it has been cited more than 23,000 times - one of the most-cited papers in any field in the past two decades. As he recounts in his book Six Degrees, his research on the Kevin Bacon Game and connectedness ultimately led him to insights about how influences like diseases, rumors, cultural fads, financial crises and social unrest propagate through a human population.


Is it possible drones might, uh, entertain us in the future? Cirque du Soleil already has the answer. more>>

StarkBrain.jpgCGI (computer-generated imagery) rules in Hollywood, right? Not for everything, it turns out. Several top filmmakers got together with neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to compare notes on where audience members direct their gaze and what sort of tricks directors use to focus and hold onto that attention. Can you guess the two elements in action films for which CGI just doesn't cut it? (Link opens in new window; scroll down for clip of Iron Man 2 with an overlay of eye-tracking software) more>>

Afraid your new infographic-intensive presentation will bore people? What if it were turned into a game? A Dutch company has developed Metrico, which replaces traditional game narrative with infographics. more>>

Mourning Becomes Collective

CrystalTweet.jpgThe tragic passing of actor Robin Williams becomes a case-study in how social media is changing how we grieve. more>>

DigiArt75.jpgMuseum-quality digital art...coming soon to a screen in your home. more>>

A new UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center study reveals a stunning truth about the effect of TV violence on viewers: Americans' fear of crime is statistically related to the level of violence portrayed on primetime TV, and not particularly to real world crime stats. Good job, TV! Now take another look at the Lear Center's research on the primetime war on terror. more>>

Who appear to be the new kings of Twitter, social media strategy and branding? ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, currently terrorizing large swaths of the Middle East. They've even built their own app. Where's the fail whale when you really need him? more>>

The jury is still out on the relationship between violent video games and real world violence ...but that may be about to change. A new study due later this summer finds that areas of teens' brains linked to empathy become muted by violent images when exposed to them over long periods of time. Another study, from Canada's Brock University, found that children who played violent video games for significant lengths of time were not as morally mature as other children their age. more>>

Fashion flip: designers have long been thrilled to get their clothes into movies (think Ralph Lauren and Annie Hall), but now a filmmaker is preparing to market the clothes from his new film directly to customers. Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) hopes viewers of his James Bond spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service will admire the Savile Row look of the suits in the movie enough to pay Gucci-level dollars. more>>

Who can protect Los Angeles from the next big earthquake? How about this woman? And revisit the Lear Center's study about the first Great Shakeout, a mass earthquake drill which has since become an annual event. And just in case, remember it's duck, cover, and hold!

A new UPenn Annenberg Public Policy Center and Pew Research Center study shows that regular viewers of the Colbert Report during the 2012 election were better educated about campaign finance law after the "Citizens United" decision than viewers of traditional news shows. Read it and weep....or laugh.

Care for an artistic interpretation of what climate change might feel like? You're welcome!

More blurring of the line between real life and entertainment: Thai protesters angry at the recent military coup are borrowing a three-fingered salute from the science-fiction hit The Hunger Games to express their resistance. Military leaders are monitoring the movement closely.

What's the relationship between science and telling ourselves stories? Closer than you think. Read this terrific article from Nautilus. about the long, complex link between scientific progress and stories we make up.

OrgChart1955.jpgWe're awash in big data now, even as we try to clearly visualize it graphically. Perhaps a look at old data visulizations can inspire us. Take a look at this absolutely beautiful Erie Railroad organizational chart from 1855. Wow.

Much Ado About Moocs...a short two years after educators and techies embraced Massive Online Open Courses as the gateway to a new golden, egalitarian age of higher education, the cursor seems to be stuck, blinking, on the screen: a new study shows that only half of those who registered for a course ever watched a lecture, and then only 4 percent completed the courses. And a joint San Jose State University-Udacity experiment has failed completely. This NYTimes article explains the reboot.

There's a new tool in the struggle to get action on climate change on everyone's agenda: insurance company actuarial tables. more>>

There's no link between exposure to media violence and actual violent behavior, right? Not so fast. A new meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990 suggests that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for violent behavior, much in the same way that second-hand smoke is a risk factor for cancer. more>>

Did you ever think chocolate could be entertaining, and compellingly so? Watch what some clever Germans have devised. more>>

Fox News seems to have discovered the science behind making people distrust science. A new study explains how. more>>

Do you tweet during television shows? A new study analyzes the interesting connections between Twitter and TV. more>>

Can puffs of air be the next big thing in online entertainment interactivity? Disney Research thinks so and their new tool, Aireal, is pretty dazzling. more>>

Are you still just playing Grand Theft Auto on your Kinect? Take a gander at what a dance company and engineering firm in France have been doing with the gaming device. more>>

Since the NSA leaks were revealed, "meta data" has been all the buzz. Find out what it means and what it looks like here.

If all you've got in your paintbox are pixels, can you still be an artist? The exhibit "Into the Pixel" offers some interesting answers. more>>


Check the Technique: Hip Hop as Methodology


Click the image for a playlist of highlight clips.

Inspired by the publication of Check the Technique V.2, journalist Brian Coleman's second volume of "Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies," this discussion looked at hip hop production practices and the hip hop creative process as both musical techniques and social techniques. What is the history behind the making of some of hip hop's greatest albums and songs? How are tracks made? How can the process of assembling a track be applied to larger social and cultural practices?

Brian Coleman, journalist and author of Check the Technique Vols 1 & 2, and Rakim Told Me: Wax Facts Straight From The Original Artists
Adrian Younge, composer, arranger, producer (Venice Dawn, Souls of Mischief, Ghostface Killah)
Brother J, from legendary Hip Hop crew X Clan
Brian 'B+' Cross, photographer, filmmaker, UCSD professor, and author of It's Not About a Salary, It's About a Reality: Rap, Race, and Resistance in Los Angeles
Oliver Wang, CSULB sociologist, DJ, journalist, and author of Classic Material: The Hip Hop Album Guide
Monalisa Murray, DJ, hip hop record label and promotion veteran

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014
Watch the complete discussion.

Investigating Power and the Future of Truth with Chuck Lewis

Mortally consequential lies by those in power can take months, years or even decades to discover. That means a public deluded about some of the most important issues of the day until it's too late to do anything meaningful about them. What are the implications for journalism and democracy if citizens don't have timely, accurate information?

The Encyclopedia of Journalism called American University Professor Charles Lewis "one of the 30 most notable investigative reporters in the U.S. since World War I." Founder of the Center for Public Integrity, and winner of the PEN USA First Amendment Award for his courage in expanding the reach of investigative journalism, American University professor Charles Lewis is author most recently of 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014
Wallis Annenberg Hall, Room 106 :: USC University Campus

This USC Annenberg Dean's Forum was co-sponsored by the School of Journalism and the Norman Lear Center.

Art, Music and Immigration Reform in 21st Century America

NDLON295.jpgPopular Music Project Director Josh Kun co-moderates this roundtable and musical performance focused on the political and artistic work of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and their collaborations with musicians (La Santa Cecilia, Aloe Blacc, Manu Chao and Ana Tijoux), filmmakers (Alex Rivera), visual artists (Ernesto Yerena, Alfredo 'Albur' Burgos, Cesar Maxit), and their own house band, Los Jornaleros del Norte.

Since the 2006 immigration marches, music and art have played a renewed role in voicing, shaping, and critiquing contemporary debates around immigration reform and activism, a role with a long history in U.S. political and cultural life. Los Angeles is now, as it has always been, a key hub for artistic and musical interventions into these stories and struggles.

This event will begin with a conversation about these issues and will be followed by a live, interactive musical performance by Los Jornaleros del Norte.

· Members of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network
· Filmmaker Alex Rivera
· Musicians Los Jornaleros del Norte
· And special guests TBA
Moderated by Josh Kun (USC) and Alicia Schmidt-Camacho (Yale)

Full info is here. FREE with suggested donation.

Saturday, November 8th :: 8-10pm
Human Resources Los Angeles
410 Cottage Home Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

"Even This I Get to Experience" - Norman Lear's Autobiography Is Out

Our namesake and founding benefactor, Norman Lear, the man who captivated 120 million weekly TV viewers and changed the face of American television, has at last written his memoir. In "Even This I Get to Experience," out today from Penguin Press, Lear recounts how his Depression-era childhood, struggles with his father and his colorful life influenced such characters as Archie Bunker, Maude, George Jefferson and Mary Hartman. As part of the book launch, Norman sat down for an extended interview with Katie Couric of Yahoo News.

The book is already getting rave reviews:

    "Fantastic stories from one of the wisest, most subversive, and most beautiful human beings the comedy world has ever known. Like the man himself, this book is charming, awe-inspiring, and hilarious." - Trey Parker, Co-Creator of South Park

>> Listen to Norman talk about his life on NPR.

Visit to purchase the book or visit us on Facebook to see how to win a free copy.

2014 Sentinel Awards Presented by Hollywood, Health & Society

NBC's hit series "Parenthood," now in its final season, received first place in the Drama category at the 2014 Sentinel Awards, presented by the Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society program.

The gala October event drew some of the top names in the entertainment industry. Producer Jerry Weintraub ("Ocean's Eleven," "Ocean's Twelve," "Behind the Candelabra") accepted the award for "Years of Living Dangerously," for which he served as executive producer. Alex Borstein, who plays Nurse Dawn on HBO's "Getting On," presented the award in the Comedy category, and executive producer and show runner Jason Katims represented "Parenthood." Also accepting awards were Dante Di Loreto, executive producer for "The Normal Heart," and Chris Nee, executive producer and creator of the Disney Junior hit show "Doc McStuffins."

"The Normal Heart" (HBO) won first place for Drama TV Movie with a powerful story about HIV/AIDS activism in the early 1980's. Mark Ruffalo, Jonathan Groff, and Frank De Julio starred in the film based on the original screenplay by Larry Kramer.

In the Climate Change category, "Years of Living Dangerously," Showtime's nine-part documentary television series, won first place for an episode featuring Matt Damon on how rising temperatures are becoming a public health emergency. "Parenthood" won for its storyline about Hank, played by Ray Romano, who learns he may have Asperger's Syndrome. "Doc McStuffins" won in the Children's Programming category for a storyline that stresses the importance of wearing a helmet when riding a bike. "Getting On" took top honors in the Comedy category for it's dark humor in dealing with the healthcare system in an extended care hospital ward.

This year, the Reality category was expanded to include talk shows and documentaries. "Life According to Sam" (HBO) took first place in the category for the topic of progeria, a genetic condition where symptoms resembling aging appear at an early age.

The awards are presented in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Great California Shakeout: Oct. 16, 2014

GreatShakeOut.jpgAre you really ready? It's time again for California's annual statewide earthquake preparedness drill, The Great Shakeout. Read the Lear Center's report on the impact of the first drill in 2008. And don't forget to drop, cover, and hold on!

Dreaming Sin Fronteras

SinFronteras.jpgDreaming Without Borders, a special USC Visions & Voices multimedia event organized by PMP director Josh Kun, tells the stories of undocumented youth through music, visual art and testimony. Adapted and directed by Antonio Mercado, this unique production will feature student actors from USC and Jose Julian (A Better Life) along with "DREAMers" - undocumented students who would benefit from a federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act - from across Los Angeles. With live music by Shawn King (DeVotchKa), Raul Pacheco (Ozomatli), Ceci Bastida (Tijuana NO!) and Stephen Brackett (The Flobots) along with visual designs by activist-artist Favianna Rodriguez, this performance will powerfully communicate the narratives of young people whose lives are deeply and devastatingly defined by international borders and immigration laws.

Thursday, October 16, 2014 :: 7:30-9:00PM
USC Bovard Auditorium
Admission is FREE; Reservation required. Please RSVP here.

Co-sponsored by USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and El Centro Chicano.

What's So Funny About Climate Change?

The Lear Center's Hollywood, Health & Society program, in conjunction with WGA East, helped kick off Climate Week NYC via a unique discussion, with special guest Norman Lear, about the need for and uses of comedy in mobilizing citizen action on climate change. Other panelists included Rory Albanese (Showrunner, The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore; former showrunner, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Chris Albers (Writer, Borgia; writer/producer, Late Night, The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Late Show with David Letterman), Sidney Harris (Cartoonist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal ), Lyn Lear (Environmental activist/producer) and Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication). The conversation was co-moderated by Michael Winship (President, WGAE; senior writer, Moyers & Company ) and Marty Kaplan (Director, The Norman Lear Center).

Sony 'R' US

Marty Kaplan

SonyPic125.jpgThe most shocking thing about the digital disemboweling of Sony Pictures' computer data is that anyone would actually find it shocking.

That goes for everything from the vulnerability of everyone's personal and proprietary data, not just Sony's, to the revelation that a sausage-making industry like the movie and TV business is likely to be run by people who know their way around an abattoir.

If you haven't been following the Sony story, the gist of it is the malicious Nov. 24 public dump of 40 gigabytes of private email, employee evaluations, complaints, salaries, medical records, passwords, social security numbers, movies, scripts, PowerPoint presentations, financial spreadsheets, executive suite gossip, marital confidences, temper tantrums, profanity, flattery, deceit, contempt, obsequiousness, insecurity, bad taste and (in the view of at least some people) evidence of racism, sexism and a host of other indefensible behaviors.

As of this writing, the culprit most widely suspected of breaking into Sony's servers, stealing its intellectual property, violating its trade secrets, invading its employees' privacy and doing their best to humiliate the company and damage its business is the North Korean government, posing as a group calling itself Guardians of Peace. The motive: revenge for The Interview, a Sony Christmas comedy about assassinating North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un. An alternative theory is that the perps are fiendishly talented malware coders with a score to settle with Sony for reasons ranging from its efforts to crack down on piracy to allegations of arrogance and greed. Whoever is responsible, their message to management is that the carnage is far from over.

If you've paid any attention to the files that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden turned over to journalist Glenn Greenwald, you know how invasive and pervasive U.S. government surveillance has become. Whether you believe that such spying is legal and justified by the threat of terrorism, or that it's unconstitutional and corrosive of the very democracy that terrorists threaten, what's inescapable is the scary likelihood that privacy, secrecy and security are technological illusions. There is a ferocious battle going on today between white hat hackers and black hat hackers, and though one or the other of those camps may momentarily outfox the other, the chances that any data -- government, corporate, or personal -- can be reliably protected from prying eyes are close to nil.

How should that make us feel, let alone behave? A few years ago, when the TSA introduced body-scanning technology at airports, there was an uproar about its potential for abuse -- the fear that contractors were casting us as unwitting performers in some kind of pornographic security theater. No, no, came the reassurances. The scans can't be stored. The faces will be pixilated. The genitals will be blurred. Your picture will be seen in a distant room, with no possibility of recording it or connecting your identity to your image. It turns out, of course, that those images provided plenty of entertainment for the staff. As one former TSA agent confessed to Politico, "All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels."

It would not be farfetched to assume a comparable nakedness of our emails and texts, our photos and finances, our locations and contact lists, our browsing and phone calls. There has been much public discussion about what privacy rights we should have online, what terms-of-service transparency a social media, e-commerce or any other site must provide. But I can't help thinking that all the privacy policies in the world won't be able to prevent a determined tyrant, crook, sociopath or teenager from making the Sony data dump a demoralizingly common occurrence. And looming beyond that industrial crime, of course, is a far darker digital terrorism capable of bringing down power grids, financial markets, transportation systems and military defenses -- the "cyber-Pearl Harbor" that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned about two years ago.

Much has been written -- much of it erroneously -- about people's attitudes toward privacy in the digital age. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been misquoted as saying that young people no longer care about the norm of privacy the way previous generations did. What polls actually show is that Americans under 30 are substantially less likely than those over 30 to agree that it's "more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy."

The Sony hack threatens to take the debate between civil liberties and national security, between freedom and privacy, out of our hands. The Guardians of Peace, or whoever these or the next vigilantes are, couldn't care less about social contracts. Their tech prowess alone could engineer a bloodless revolution, the transformation of any society into North Korea, where fear rules communication and no one dares risk an honest idea about anything. It's not that much of a big deal when hackers out producer Scott Rudin for dissing Angelina Jolie as a brat. Yes, it's infuriating when the financial and medical confidentiality of thousands of Sony employees is violated by cyberthugs. But what's most sobering is that the plausible nightmare of having our private words exposed will drive our democratic society to pre-emptive self-censorship, hustling us, without a shot being fired, toward the tyranny of Pyongyang.

Crossposted from the Jewish Journal. Journeys in Film Adds New Partner

Julie Lee
Founder, edtwist

Edtwistlogo150.jpgEntertainment - in the form of motion picture, TV shows, music and games - provides us with a window to a world that transcends our physical boundaries. It allows us to travel through time, geographies and even propels us to outer space. While exaggerated beyond life itself, it can bring us fun escape and through that escape, an opportunity to learn.

As a mother of a curious and inquisitive boy, I now have a heightened consciousness of the power of media. Never before have I sought out to find media that has the power to inform and create positive change rather than...well, not so good media. In a connected world where access to media appears to be unlimited, I find myself searching to identify content that can teach him to think, respect the world and make decisions that lead him and our society towards wisdom and happiness.

edtwist was founded with the goal of helping people contextualize the world's information via community support. Knowledge integration that results from information that is connected with context enables inquisitive minds to find better answers and hence make better decisions. When it came time to identify launch partners for edtwist, Journeys in Film - with their innovative program of using powerful media as the foundation to inspire learners to gain cross-cultural awareness in addition to STEM subjects - was an ideal choice.

edtwist is honored to partner with the Lear Center's Journeys in Film project to enable JiF's programs to live, improve and grow through community engagement. The first phase of this partnership has been launched with 134 multi-media interactive guides. We look forward to working with Journeys in Film to engage the community's contributions for curious students from six to 106.

I invite you to experience Journeys in Film on edtwist for yourself.

The Conscious Uncoupling of Cable TV

Veronica Jauriqui
Veronica Jauriqui is Project Lead at the Lear Center.

It's a good time to be a cord cutter.

First HBO, then CBS announced plans to offer stand-alone streaming services to those without cable subscriptions. It was called a watershed moment for cable TV and sent a strong signal that the mythical a-la-carte model for the industry was a real possibility.

onlineTV.jpgAs most other media industries - from newspapers to music - can attest, the Internet is a disruptive force and will eventually compel you to rethink your business model. And the cable industry was in desperate need of a makeover. Why it didn't happen sooner is the real question. Pay TV subscriptions have been on the decline since 2011, hitting an all-time low of 40 million subscribers in 2013. And according to ComScore, among the coveted 18- to 34-year-olds, 24 percent don't subscribe to cable TV at all.

Cable companies seemed to react by forcing even more channels on their subscribers. In fact, in a May 2014 Nielsen report, as offerings grew, audiences tuned into the same 17-ish channels year after year.

All the while cable companies raised subscription rates, from $90 on average to an estimated $123 by the year 2015 and $200 by 2020. Cable wasn't getting the hint.

Content creators can now be emboldened by the slow but steady progress of low-cost providers-turned-producers like Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and most recently Amazon Prime. You can be part of the cultural conversation and watch Orange is the New Black without being saddled with a cable bill and an unnecessary bundle of unwatched channels.

It is a game changer for television, but not in the way many people hope. As much as we hate the monopolies imposed by cable companies and the forced bundled packages in order to get a few of our favorite channels, cable companies are not going away. CBS announced, for example, that the NFL will not be included in its online offerings. So sports fans are out of luck. Additionally, cable broadband will be in high demand as more and more viewers look for high-speed service. Their monopolies will be dismantled, however, as audiences can choose between cable providers and services provided by telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T.

Who will really suffer will be the content creators for less resource-rich companies who don't have the heft of more popular channels like HBO. The Internet democratized a lot of content, allowing for niche voices to find a place to be seen or heard. But within television programming, those niche stations and independent voices - like those on LOGO or Ovation, consistently ranked as channels with the lowest viewerships - will struggle to find an audience willing to pay for it. Or they'll have to look to alternate modes of distribution to survive.

There is still a lot up in the air, and who survives and much less thrives in this new landscape is yet to be determined. But one thing is for certain, if you look to cable TV in two to five years, you probably won't recognize what you see.


Kate Folb

kate_photo.jpegIn 1967, my mother, who had been raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, in a lifestyle that shielded her from any memory of the Depression; who was educated at a premiere women's college; who for twenty-two years was a doctor's wife; found herself divorced, having to find a job, and raise two young girls alone. She rose to the occasion, and then some.

My sister and I became latch-key kids, walking home from school and spending several hours alone with the TV until our mother returned home from her job at the local YMCA. The characters on the Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best re-runs were my afternoon friends. I can still recite entire episodes and sometimes do at parties.

We lived in rural Indiana, a small town smack in the middle of the Christian Bible Belt, where the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society wafted from the closets of my school friends' homes.

My mom, going against all her good southern upbringing, in her own way, took a stand on civil rights. She was not the indignant protester type. She was a southern lady, well versed in proper entertaining, polite conversation and warm hospitality. But behind her sweet, unassuming, southern smile lurked a pensive, logical, wise mind.

She made a point of meeting and knowing people of all races - perhaps a slight southern guilt tingeing her ambitions. We had black friends, Native American friends, Asian friends, Jewish friends, all who regularly came to visit us at our home - stirring up anxieties and suspicions among our neighbors. My older sister's boyfriend at the time happened to be African American, causing the neighbors across the street to sit on their front porch with shotguns across their laps. "Just in case," they would say to each other. Gossip and controversy spread across town about how we were "N-word lovers." My mother was fired - from the Young Men's Christian Association - my sister was fired from her teaching job at a local dance studio, my elementary schoolmates shunned me.

My mother would say to me, "My goal is to help raise a generation of people who are not blemished by racial prejudice. Imagine how the world will be without this nonsense."

In 1971, when I was thirteen, my uncle raved about a new TV show called All in the Family, which featured a lovable curmudgeon named Archie Bunker. "Why is everyone yelling?" I asked one evening, as my uncle roared with laughter. "Why is that guy so mad?" "This," said my uncle - another ardent civil rights advocate - "is going to change everything. Norman Lear is a genius."

Flash forward to 1998. My husband and I took our two children on a winter vacation. After a day of skiing and playing in the snow, my kids and some of their friends, (ages ranging from 5 - 10) flopped on the couch and turned on the TV to behold a rerun of - you guessed it - All in the Family. It was an episode in which Lionel, the Bunker's black neighbor, angry with his parents, asks to sleep on Archie's living room couch. As Gloria and Meathead arrange the sheets and pillow, Archie makes awkward, frustrated faces into the camera. I remembered this episode and how my uncle had laughed and laughed. The children watched for a moment and then looked up at me declaring, "This is dumb. Why is he acting so weird just because Lionel wants to sleep on his couch?"

Thanks to Norman Lear, that generation my mother referred to is beginning to emerge.

Telling Stories and Measuring Impact

Johanna Blakley

ScienceEngage295.jpgWhen I attended the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement workshop last fall, I was truly inspired by all the talent, technology and pure chutzpa being funneled into creative efforts to engage broader audiences in science. I'm based at the Norman Lear Center, a think tank at the University of Southern California which is devoted to understanding how the power of media, entertainment and storytelling can be used to educate citizens and elevate civic discourse. And so, of course, I love the idea of using rap music, comic books, stand-up comedy - anything that'll grab and hold attention - to get people hooked on science.

And I love it not only because I think it's fun. I also know it works.

Our research has demonstrated again and again that great storytelling is an incredibly effective way to educate broad audiences about things they thought were boring. That's one reason that we've partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for over a decade to improve the accuracy of health information in entertainment TV programming: it turns out, a majority of Americans already believe that information is accurate and a quarter say that entertainment TV shows are a primary source for health information for them.

Obviously, great storytelling not only reflects the world, it helps shape it.

A crucial part of our work with the CDC involves evaluating how audiences receive a health storyline; whether they learned something from it; if their attitudes shifted, and the ultimate coup de grace, if they made a healthy behavior change in their lives. (You can see lots of the results of our research here.)

So when I attended the workshop at MIT, I came armed with one crucial question: How has all this burgeoning creativity in science communication affected audiences? It was clear from the outset of the workshop that we did not have adequate research in place to answer this question, but there was a strong appetite to do so (many of these people are scientists after all!). In the summary report from the workshop, I was thrilled to see that our conveners recognize the need for a research agenda that includes empirical research. I hope that some of those resources are devoted specifically to analyzing the impact of science engagement efforts on high-priority target audiences. Ultimately, we need to know what types of cultural content are most effective at doing things like

  • Increasing knowledge about scientific topics and issues
  • Inciting informed conversations and debates about science
  • Increasing interest in pursuing careers in scientific fields

Potentially, a handful of carefully selected case studies could help answer some of these questions and provide us with some much-needed benchmarks for future research. It would be terrific if at least one of those case studies included the collection of engagement metrics from a digital platform, combined with a targeted survey instrument like the one we use to evaluate the impact of documentary and feature films. This research method would enable us to find out quite a lot about patterns of online engagement and how they're related to knowledge, interest levels and behavior change in a target audience.

In order for this initiative to succeed, and to attract the funding that will fuel it, I believe we need to answer hard questions like this. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this incredibly clever and committed group of people will not only tackle this challenge but figure out what works pretty darn quick.

Deflating the Filter Bubble

Johanna Blakley

filterbubble295.jpgI 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 the Lear Center found in a major survey research project 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,

Continue reading "Deflating the Filter Bubble" »

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