Todd Cunningham, a former MTV/Viacom executive, was announced as the new director of the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project on Thursday.
The Media Impact Project, a collaboration by the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is designed to measure the amount of social impact media has on audiences.
The project, part of a new trend to use social media to measure the popularity and cultural influence of media, has already received $3.25 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. On Thursday, Nielsen launched its first ever Twitter TV ratings, which measure the number of tweets about a television show, and the number of users who read tweets on a TV show.
“We were able to see the impact, in that [shows that] got the most membership, which had been, in the past, considered the most popular, are not the ones that are the most tweeted about,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re actively redefining what popular means.”
According to Nielsen, Scandal was the most popular show on Twitter this week.
“As a culture, we’re mystified by the fact that Scandal has so many followers,” Cunningham said. “The writer of the show [Shonda Rimes] is writing for that very activity, so she’s further down the path [to using new media] than many other organizations are.”
MIP, however, does more than identify trends in pop culture. Though the number of Facebook likes and Twitter retweets could indicate something is a popular topic, it might not accurately represent the medium’s influence regarding social movements or changes.
“The goal is to try to come up with methods to assess the impact of how media can be used to impact people and change their activities and decisions in their lives,” Director of the Center or Human Behavioral Informatics at the USC Information Sciences Institute Carl Kesselman said.
The project was initiated through research done by Managing Director and Director of Research at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center Johanna Blakely.
“[She studied] ways that observing media would cause people to take action,” Kesselman said. “We’re particularly interested in how media produces follow-up action.”
Certain forms of media might trigger behavioral shifts in audiences.
“[People might say] ‘I saw a movie so I signed a petition,’ or ‘I read a newspaper article now I buy organic food,’” Kesselman said. “There’s a lot of interest in what role [media] plays.”
According to Cunningham, the project is an attempt to determine what in the media causes people to join together for a cause.
“I think that we will try to tackle what are the motivations for people to actually socialize with one another around content and to rally around one another to actually act in ways that they hadn’t done before,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re also trying to understand what the expectations of those interactions are.”
Media has historically played a role in aiding social movements.
“There’s been a lot of interest around the use of Twitter in the Arab Spring, and the influence that that had in rallying people around making social or governmental change in that case,” Kesselman said.
One significant aspect of the project involves the collaboration of the Viterbi and Annenberg schools.
“[At] Annenberg, they’re obviously the experts in digital media and communication, [as well as] the producers of content and assessing impact of content. What Viterbi brings to the table [expertise] in how we manage and manipulate large scale sorts of data, out of which we’re trying to extract knowledge about impact or observe impact,” Kesselman said. “It’s what [Dean] Yannis Yortsos called ‘engineering plus.’”
On the engineering end, the project aims to find new ways to measure impact. Currently, methods are feedback-based.
“It’s hard to assess, and quite often done by asking people, or taking surveys. You actually go ask people what they saw, what they were exposed to, how they felt before and after and if they did something different after,” Kesselman said.
Kesselman said that USC’s environment makes it a perfect host for the project.
“This is the kind of project that USC is very uniquely positioned to do, just because of strength we have in all the various departments, the focus on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarship,” he said. “[The environment] allows for people who are studying engineering and communications to sit down and work together.”
The project will try to help journalism and media organizations better understand how to utilize media for change, Cunningham said.
In terms of popular culture, students said they are increasingly being influenced by media. Martha Daniel, a freshman majoring in print and digital journalism, admitted to being affected by her Twitter feed.
“Occasionally, I’ll tweet about a show,” she said. “I follow a lot of my favorite actors and actresses on Twitter and a lot of times they retweet things they find interesting, and I’ll check it out.”
Daniel, however, is skeptical about the extent of change certain media can bring about.
“I don’t think a TV show could spark something like the Arab Spring or the demonstrations in Egypt,” she said.
Though not all forms of media have the same capacity to spark this sort of change, pop culture in general can initiate talk about deep-seated issues. Cindy Kim, a freshman majoring in biology, recently witnessed this in reactions she saw on social media regarding Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines.”
“His performance with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs caused a big reaction. The way Miley acted on stage combined with the lyrics implied that she was being dominated [by Thicke] with her body language, suggesting subordinate sexual positions,” Kim said.
Kim feels whether or not media sparks social change, society is nevertheless affected.
“Adolescents are constantly surrounded by advertising and television,” she said. “Even though we may not share popular opinions, we’re still influenced, whether positively or negatively. We automatically have a reaction.”
Isabella Sayyah contributed to this report.