Media and Persuasion — where have the last 60 years gone?

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 1959, after some 30 years of efforts of communication studies to establish that modern mass media did have terrible deleterious effects on children, could be used for propaganda, manipulated audiences into thinking what they did not want to think, had subliminal effects on audiences, etc. — 30 years, in other words, of  trying to establish the influence of media on supposedly passive audiences, this is what one of the founders of modern communication studies had to say:

this has been called the study of “campaigns”–to sell soap, to reduce prejudice, to induce the enemy to surrender–and this, I think, is what classical mass media research has been about. Even audience research or content analysis, though ostensibly autonomous concerns, my be shown to have been motivated by the problem of short-run effects. The question that best sums up this classical approach, I think, is “What do the media do to people?”

The answer, from study after study, is that the media do less than they had been expected to be able to do.

In the next 60 years or so, we’ve seen media research in audiences veer into more complex studies of the uses of media by audiences, of how communication is a multi-step process, of ethnographic local uses of media cultures, of audience activities — in other words, how media consumption is anything but passive, and how media persuasion is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon — irony, self-reflexivity, media literacy, remediation, all coming into play as audiences, young and old, educated or not, Western or not, meet media texts, flow, and cultures. Clearly, “the media”, still today, “do less than they [are] expected to be able to do.”

And yet, the media are still expected to have tremendous, hidden, magical, witchcraft-like influence on audiences. And I mean not just in the popular press, in the form of regular media panics that shape much of public discourse about media (violence in movies ! Violence in video games! the dangers of virtual reality immersion!). I mean in official, well-funded, very much public research of the kind the Guardian of yesterday reported. As the newspaper reported:

The Californian internet giant [Facebook] has published details of a massive experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and discovered that through a process known as “emotional contagion”, it had the ability to make users feel either more positively or more negatively about things without them knowing it. (my emphasis)

Cue readers’ comments about the “The Manufacture of Consent” and the evil powers of Facebook, and the vulnerability of “people” — by definition others, as said commenter has to be, miraculously, exempt from the manipulatory powers of FB :

I suppose the fact of the matter is that most people are not very self aware if not outright stupid. The problem is knowing this how some people conclude that this fact gives them license to manipulate the thought and emotions of the vulnerable or their own purposes usually commercial but often political. Again the basic problem is it works. People really are that dull and many others have no moral qualms about manipulating them.

Now, to be clear, this story is indeed a story of “manipulation” — but the only manipulation that took place is FB manipulating users’ News Feeds without their consent (not to mention the researchers’ manipulation of users’s FB News Feeds without their express consent, in itself a clear breach of research ethics). And there is clear cause for massive outrage over this, though maybe not surprise, given FB’s history of misusing users’ information.

But manipulation of emotions? “Emotional contagion”? Manipulating users’s emotions “without them knowing it”, especially as this only applies to that “vulnerable” Other who is “outright stupid”, but not me? Others who are unconsciously manipulated, but not me?

Quick check on the original research paper reveals shoddy thinking and dubious scientific basis for the original claim, which is, to quote from the research:

emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness

This the “study” achieves by manipulating the degree of positivity (or negativity) that users can read in the messages posted to their News Feed. Several questions off the bat:

  • how do you define a positive message, or a negative message? Simple: “Posts were determined to be positive or negative if they contained at least one positive or negative word”. Good luck irony, double-entendre, hoaxes, jokes and other formulations of the “I could not agree with you more” kind (is that a positive message? a negative one as it has “not” in it?). 
    • UPDATE 30.6.2014I do not have access to the data-analysis tool used by the researcher, but someone who has makes the point that this “method” is even more of a joke as the tool does not, repeat, does not detect negations! In other words, “I am not happy” is coded as a positive message ! Dear me…
  • how do you make sure that a post with a positive word will result in a positive emotion? What’s a positive emotion, by the way? Tell me forty times that I am smart and this will very likely result in several “negative” emotions: 1/ I will get bored and 2/ I will get suspicious and depressed that I am being insulted to my face.
  • how do you measures what people feel in this “experiment”? Simple: you read the posts they post and…well, you get it. Back to our first 2 objections. How sure are you that a positive message reflects or expresses a positive feeling, whatever that means?

Now, let’s ignore those “minor” complications for a second — though from the very start, confusing emotions with the expression of emotions is a huge problem as it treats media (here the media of words, but also the media of social networks) as transparent — which it never is, especially when it says it is.

So, what does our study measure, then, in terms of what it calls “emotional contagion”? This is worth quoting at length:

When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, the percentage of positive words in people’s status updates decreased by B = −0.1% compared with control […], whereas the percentage of words that were negative increased by B = 0.04% […] . Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percent of words that were negative decreased by B = −0.07% […] and the percentage of words that were positive, conversely, increased by B = 0.06% […].

The results show emotional contagion.

I kid you not. This is research from Cornell University, supported by the National Academy of Science in the US. A variation of, at best, 0.1% is deemed proof of “emotional contagion”. 0.1%. Or about the usual amount of people who “vote” against dictators.

Now, to be fair, the authors did recognise that maybe this result was somewhat insignificant. In conclusion:

Although these data provide, to our knowledge, some of the first experimental evidence to support the controversial claims that emotions can spread throughout a network, the effect sizes from the manipulations are small (as small as d = 0.001). These effects nonetheless matter given that the manipulation of the independent variable (presence of emotion in the News Feed) was minimal whereas the dependent variable (people’s emotional expressions) is difficult to influence given the range of daily experiences that influence mood. More importantly, given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences: For example, the well-documented connection between emotions and physical well-being suggests the importance of these findings for public health

The variation observed is laughably small, but because the network is vast, the effect is potentially big? Wait, the effect is on each individual, therefore it is not, by definition, a network effect. Oh, but wait, there is more: because there is a “connection between emotions and physical well-being”, this is important research for public health? This is how you justify this garbage? Really? Another logical jump unrelated in any way to the study? What other problem responsible for 0.1% of potential public health problem should we spend public money on, tell me?

This is shoddy work, unprincipled, and a money-grabbing initiative with zero scientific basis.

Rhetorics manipulate emotions. It’s often called art, the pleasure of making believe — and, unless you’ve never used FB or any other social network, you have to be aware that a lot of social network activity is about making believe and enjoying the pleasures of the fake — fake identities, exaggerated expressions of feelings, loose sense of “friendship”, on the spur “liking”, etc. — what Martin Barker investigates, in a recent article on online porn, as “the productive possibilities of fantasy”.

But FB cannot make you vote for Dick Cheney or buy a gun “without you knowing it”. Nor can TV, films, video games, bla bla bla. This is the modern form of the age-old dream of humanity of escaping agency and responsibility as exhibited in witch-hunts in medieval days — or, more positively, the age-old desire of humanity of believing in magic, the magic of unmediated communication of self to self. This is the magic — the magic of the agency of art and media —  that should be investigated (not “persuasion”, “manipulation”, and so on), the question that led William Mitchell to write about What Do Pictures Want? (2005):

Why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behaviour will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders? How is it, in other words, that people are able to maintain a “double consciousness” toward images, pictures, and representations, in a  variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naive animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes? (7)

0.1%. This is how much media “does” anything to you. Researchers have known this since, at least, 1959. Audiences have known this, and enjoyed it, for even longer.

The Internet of Things is coming – Philip K. Dick, 1969

February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969):

Back in the kitchen he fished in his various pockets for a dime, and, with it, started up the coffeepot. Sniffing the — to him — very unusual smell, he again consulted his watch, saw that fifteen minutes had passed; he therefore vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob and pulled on the release bolt.

The door refused to open. It said, ‘Five cents, please.’

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. ‘What I pay you ,’ he informed it, ‘is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.’

‘I think otherwise,’ the door said. ‘Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.’

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

‘You discover I’m right,’ the door said. It sounded smug.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

‘I’ll sue you,’ the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, ‘I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.’


The Internet of Things is coming — Woody Allen, 1968

January 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Woody Allen, “Mechanical Objects”, San Francisco, August 1968:

About three years ago I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was home one night. I called a meeting with my posessions. I got everything I owned into the living room. My toaster, my clock, my blender. They never been in the living room before. And I spoke to them. I opened with a joke. And then I said “I know what’s going on, and cut it out!” I have a sun lamp, but as I sit under it, it rains on me. And I spoke to each appliance, I was really articulate. Then I put them back, and I felt good. Two nights later I’m watching my portable television set, and the set begins to jump up and down, and I go up to it. And I always talk before I hit, and I said “I thought we had discussed this, what’s the problem?” And the set kept going up and down, so I hit it, and it felt good hitting it, and I beat the hell out of it. I was really great, I tore off the antenna, and I felt very virile. And two days later I go to my dentist in New York. I had gone to my dentist, but I had a deep cavity, and he’d sent me to a chiropodist. I’m going into a building in mid-town New York, and they have those elevators, and I hear a voice say “Kindly call out your floors, please”, and I say “sixteen” and the doors close and the elevator starts going up to sixteen. And on the way up the ellevator says to me “Are you the guy that hit the televison set?” I felt like an ass, y’know, and it took me up and down fast between floors, and it threw me off in the basement. It yelled out something that was anti-Semitic.”


Mixed reality, spectating, location-based gaming

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Try this: Stine Ejsing-Duun (Aalborg University)’s blog at Pervasive Games on location-based gaming, Alison Oddey and Christine White’s edited collection of essays, Modes of Spectating (2009) that looks at the many ways modern audiences are engaged in dialogue and communication with media (Lawrence Raw from Baskent University has a short informative summary of the book), and Steve Benford and Gabriella Gannachi’s  Performing Mixed Realitya review of  “the hybrid space, between real and virtual” where theatrical performances, digitally-enhanced, are happening today…

— and then try telling me this is not an exciting time for audiencing/reception studies we’re going through. These are the tools that now allow us to look, archaeologically, into past reception practices in all sorts of media (film, television, radio, etc.) that once were “new”.

Visit a museum today

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

The last May 2012 issue of Participations, the Journal of Audience and Reception Studies jointly edited by Martin Baker (Aberystwyth University, UK) and Sue Turnbull (University of Wollongong, Australia), had an interesting line-up on children’s engagements with various media today, from the topical (Facebook) to the more left-field–  though to most parents probably just as pressing — issue of bringing kids to museums or theatres (a review of Matthew Reason’s The Young Audience: Exploring and enhancing children’s experiences of theatre). The core of the issue is audiencing today: understanding audiences to a variety of media. As evidence that audiencing is a a phenomenon worth studying across media, I was particularly attracted by the contribution of Katya Johanson and Hilary Glow (Deakin University, Australia): ‘It’s not enough for the work of art to be great’: Children and Young People as Museum Visitors.

The article offers a discussion of three museums and their efforts to engage young people into their visit to the museum, and finds that both immersive and dialogue-centered approaches work best. not just because they allow immediate engagement with works displayed in the museum, but also because they create a cultural platform from which museums may be visited later as the children grow into adults. There is notably a very clear discussion of the hopes and perils of interactivity in museum displays  — as a big fan of immersive practices in museums I find myself of two minds on the question of whether or not it helps children interact with art as art (see the figures showing the kids largely involved with interactive panels, much less with looking at art objects in a Beaubourg study quoted p.32). At the same time this experiment from Melbourne Museum sounds not just fun, but great learning experience:

when we had the Dinosaurs from China exhibition we had, not as an add- on anywhere else but as part of the exhibition, built an area for families where they could do the palaeontological dig, they could dress up as palaeontologists, there were rubbings, there were things they could do which were a lot more hands-on, because the rest of the exhibition was stuff that had been brought from China and it was very precious, and there was no way anybody was going to handle it, but we were able to get casts and all sorts of things. And the innovative thing was, I think, putting it in the exhibition so they can be experiencing the things that were behind glass, and then going to the next area and finding something they can have their hands on, or be listening to.’ (Griffith interview, June 2009). [quoted p.35]

Immersion then, understood not just as “role-playing” (the Children’s Gallery at the Melbourne Museum) but also as “heightening emotional learning and ‘self-actualisation’ by using the museum’s collections to encourage thinking about philosophical issues and their physical manifestation, such as love and sex” (the Children’s Museum at the National Museum of the Arts in Copenhagen and the Musée d’Orsay Ranc’Art program in Paris), allows to inscribe museum-going as “engagement”, engagement with adults (finding meaning in participation), engagement with culture (finding meaning in culture). All in all a good read, if like me you’ve been taking kids to museums and somewhat disappointed by their lack of intellectual engagement with exhibits that remain distant, adult concerns.

But what I was really struck by was how current scholarship on museum-going echoes very closely 1920s wisdom about film-going [which would make all kinds of senses, especially as cinemas are building themselves as entry to knowledge for popular culture in the ’20s] — notably the sense that a “successful” visit to the museum has to do with working on the processes of interaction (making sure immersion/interaction can take place) rather than on the content of the exhibit:

Their [Raajppot N., Koh K., Jackson A., 2010] study of museum visitors gave rise to ten domains of museum evaluation by audiences, some of which relate specifically to service quality, such as ‘courtesy’ or the politeness, willingness or generosity provided by museum employees. Others, however, relate to the quality of the audience experience, including Pleasure, ‘definsed as the joy one feels when viewing beautiful or aesthetically pleasing objects that add value to the museum experience’; Relaxation or the relief of stress as visitors to the museum ‘get away from the usual demands of life’; Learning, including challenge or the satisfaction of curiosity and a sense of discovery; Entertainment or the enjoyment of  a social outing; Solitude, as many visitors seek to get away from others and to ‘internalize and meditate on the visit’; Self-actualisation or a way for individuals to seek solace and secure images of the self; and Aesthetics, or the appreciation of beauty and good taste (58-59).

You could be excused for thinking that the authors here have lifted these 10 points from standard theatre management manuals of the ’20s, whether Harold Franklin’s Motion Picture Theater Management (1927) or E.W. Sargent and J.F. Barry’s Building Theater Patronage (also 1927), which insist on exactly the same points: the politeness of the ushers, the need for unobtrusive service so “the well-behaved patron [may[ make use of the theatre undictated”  (Franklin p.40) (read: may appropriate the space as his own, may find some space to ‘internalize’ his or her experience, the need for relaxation as an “escape from daily drudgery” (Sargent and Barry, 183), for glamour and beauty in the buildings — but glamour that does not intimidate as “self-expression [of the audience] should be stimulated” (Sargent and Barry 169). In other words, the quality of the immersion, not of the film…

Here’s another line of research then (building on Alison Griffiths Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View, 2008): film-going as museum-going — as active immersion in the virtuality of knowledge, as active modelisation of the world.

a new online film journal

July 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Frames is a new open access online film journal published by the University of St Andrews, with a rich first issue that cuts straight to the core and exemplifies the promise to deal with cutting-edge, unexplored areas of film studies, and explores the impact of new media on film studies. Welcome to the world, Frames !

(h/t Film Studies for Free)

Yesterday the Future, or, The Great Conference Mash-Up

June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s october 14, 2012 in Northern Italy, and you’re waking up (late, after a week of being up early to catch the 1st film show at 9 in the morning), wondering how you’re going to fill your day with excitement now that Pordenone ’12 has just finished. Look no further: pack your bags and move down to Turin, where the 13th International View Conference is about to start (oct. 16-19), on “the creative power of technology” — and what a panel of guests await ! From Skywalker Prod. sound designer Gary Rydstrom, to Madagascar‘s Eric Darnell or Halo‘s Josh Holmes, this promises to be quite an event where high-tech meets Hollywood storytelling in the flesh, so to speak.

A very tempting line-up indeed, if, like me, you’re navigating back and forth from New Media today to back in time when film was new media. Try the combo ! 🙂

Image <——- ?? ——->Image

Distraction, shifting

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have social media displaced TV as the realm of the distracted gaze ? Jason Jacobs, in an intersting piece at CST, thinks so:

Television (…) seems more and more to reward our concentration rather than corrupting it.  But one of the problems with viewing it on hybrid devices like laptops, phones and tablets is that their connectedness tends to encourage proximity to the fleeting slices of immediacy that Facebook, Twitter, email etc offer. No doubt it is partially true to some extent that television helped socialise us in the forms of attention that social media now encourages as well. But if what you want to do is appreciate the achievement of the television that you admire, the best way to watch television  (especially long form episodic television drama), is continuously –  one after the after –  and without the distraction and interruption of the new videot media.

Large-screen technologies and Tivo-like pause-and-rewind capabilities now offer (nay, demand!) TV viewers the possibility of an engaged gaze that Jacobs finds as engrossing (if not more) than what the movie experience of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia now offers.

Why, I wonder, the quest for concentration? Haven’t we systematically been missing the point of the multi sensory, highly distracted, inter-connected (both textually and socially) pleasure that media has been offering popular audiences since the end of the 19th century? By projecting notions of literary concentration (continuous reading of a coherent text, the coherency of which has become even more central to its enjoyment) onto media enjoyment, are we not, generation after generation, missing the fact that even enjoying a film in a theater has always been a highly distracted, multi-level, splintering experience ?

I’m not sure that alienation, in other words, is key to the description of media experience — whether that’s film in the 1910s, TV in the 1970s, or new media today.

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