July 9, 2013

Big Data and the media

Having been fascinated by data since my mom bought me a book on the best baseball players of 1964 when I was 6, I don't want to be too skeptical of all the Big Data hype. Still, the evidence suggests that Big Data will, in some fields, just make things cruddier. 

Consider higher-end journalistic outlets. Has The Atlantic improved, overall, as it has evolved over the last two decades from the voice of WASP genteel foreboding to a data-driven vehicle for delivering maximum clicks by the all-important female consumer demograpic? Has Slate improved as it has evolved along the same Big Data path? Is National Review better? (To its credit, the New York Times has retained more of its self-respect.)

I probably should try to think of something else to say on this topic before I hit "post," but I've got to feed the beast. The Twittersphere can't wait!

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

maximum clicks by the all-important female consumer demograpic?

Why are female consumers all important?

Well because they spend a lot of the household dollars and are less informed and therefore less discerning and therefore easier to sell to. What I am not sure is also there is a lower impulse control. I think it is, but I haven't thought it through. Steve is a marketing genius and has likely covered this at some point, so maybe he can't point out an article on the female consumer.

vanderleun said...

I think it's the case that the owner, Bradley, super-rich jagoff got his pile from amassing and handing out big data on the health industry. Probably believes in it.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the problem is the economics of it all.

There was a time when prestigious magazines were real players in the battle of ideas. Thus, they hired and retained men of real talent.

But with the rise of the internet, it's headlines and 'buzzfeed' that really matters. Newspapers and magazines have far less money, therefore, many let go of their more expensive veteran writers and replaced them with young hipsters who don't know nuttin' BUT who are trendy and tech-savvy.

Cyril said...

Good point. Even in the past several years the Atlantic has gone from thoughtful centrist magazine staffed by Sullivan / Douthat / McCardle to a bunch of posts headlined: "[Something your Facebook friends are posting about] explained in ONE CHART."

Plus a torrent of gender-role think pieces.

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

I've never known a time when The Atlantic wasn't a forum wherein middle-aged women could muse about whether they've fallen short of the ideals of The Sisterhood, and where Slate was anything other than snarky SWPL navelgazing.

But NR has declined such that I don't feel any less informed if I haven't read it. 20 years ago, I wouldn't have said that. It probably starts with my low impression of Rich Lowry. Aside from his tepid prose, he doesn't seem to have ever been interested in anything other than politics. WFB was a seasoned sailor, had an extensive collection of timepieces, loved cigars (which finally did him in), played the harpsichord, could talk about Bach with authority, and even developed a new system of musical notation. In short, a talented, interesting guy. His successor is basically Alex Keaton.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you amateur! The correct title for this post is "Top 10 things you need to know about Big Data and the media". You also should have set it up as a slideshow to drive pageviews.

A Working Class American said...

I have a theory about the media obsession with the female American: it is a marketing tactic: flatter the female. The homo sapiens female was evolved to be courted. They are not like some animal where the male catches her and mounts her (unfortunately!). No, that Big Brained Baby needs a sheltered environment for a long period of time, so the female has to be choosy. Hence the courtship ritual. And that is what the media-Madison Avenue machine is doing--courting the female. Human females are evolved to be flattered as part of the mating ritual. And that plays into media marketing strategy so as to enhance readership numbers and sales of advertised products.

Ughthak said...

One big problem with big data is the law of large numbers (or depending on what the analyst is looking for, the central limit theorem).

People want to use "averages" from big data to govern their interactions with individuals. Businesses want stuff like "if you watch movies on disc you wish to see ads for pizza delivery." Governments want stuff like "if your blog links to an Al-Jazeera webpage you should be placed on the no-fly list."

Even if such suppositions are "true on the average" they are often wrong in individual cases. Yet big-data operators don't want to deal with individual cases.

Big data produces the "My Tivo Thinks I'm Gay" problem.

Naive big-data enthusiasts want to use big data to deliver "personalization" by washing out the personal. It will never work.

Kaz said...

Are you complaining that stupid people have too much purchasing power?

Benjamin I. Espen said...

Unfortunately, many of the other outlets that have retained their self-respect have also gone out of business. While I do feel that highbrow journalism should attempt to contribute to discussion of ideas, the market seems to have pretty soundly rejected the older model. Is the purpose of a newspaper to ask hard questions, or to make a ton of money for its shareholders?

Of course, that doesn't mean the market is right. The market is pretty good about some things, but intellectual discourse isn't one of them. One of the highbrow magazines that I subscribe to, First Things, keeps itself afloat by bolstering its probably modest ad revenue with donations. So far, it seems to be working fairly well but First Things also measures its circulation in tens of thousands.

sunbeam said...

I don't really pay much attention to the media anymore.

Most of the opinion and analysis pieces I read come from links on various sites I go to.

Some of them come from Slate, some from the Atlantic, etc.

But it is almost irrelevant to me where they originate, I am solely interested in the content of that particular article.

Anonymous said...

Harper's has maintained its course much better. So has The New Yorker. (In comparison to The Atlantic).

JeremiahJohnbalaya said...

Maybe not the right thread, and I'm too burnt to do my theory justice right now, but ... I've been mulling over a theory of the dehumanizing effects of what you might call Big Data on the police and legal system. When all your stops, arrests, license lookups, etc are recorded, counted, weighed and summed, the humanity is removed. I think it has an effect on the police in the way they treat people. And I think it has an effect on the prosecutors who continue to pursue these insane cases like the internet joke/threats. It obviously has some kind of an adverse, dehumanizing effect on bureaucracy generally.

sunbeam said...

JeremiahJohnbalaya said:

"Maybe not the right thread, and I'm too burnt to do my theory justice right now, but ... I've been mulling over a theory of the dehumanizing effects of what you might call Big Data on the police and legal system. When all your stops, arrests, license lookups, etc are recorded, counted, weighed and summed, the humanity is removed. I think it has an effect on the police in the way they treat people. And I think it has an effect on the prosecutors who continue to pursue these insane cases like the internet joke/threats. It obviously has some kind of an adverse, dehumanizing effect on bureaucracy generally."

Yeah, but that is true of just about everything these days.

"I've been mulling over a theory of the dehumanizing effects of what you might call Big Data on the police and legal system."

It doesn't stop with the legal system. We are not humans, we are rational actors (or something). And we are polled, tracked, push polled, marketed to, brainwashed, you name it.

A change in the number of Mexicans, or the percentage of any minority isn't the only difference between the world today and the past.

People tend to focus on one thing. Immigration has been pretty obvious and has made dramatic changes.

But that is not the only thing going on. I think we have a pretty nasty, dehumanizing system.

If we had the same native/immigrant ratio as 1964, we would still have a lot of things I wasn't too fond of going on.

Anonymous said...

I dumped Forbes magazine in 2008 when, prior to the Wall St. collapse, Lehman Bros. implosion, Fed money printing, gold price runup, etc. they were focused on Oprah's empire, the richest women in Hollywood, etc. It was as if Edward R. Murrow was sent to England in 1940 to cover Wimbledon.

David said...

Market primacy leads to a race to the bottom. Maximizing dollars above all else actually works.

George Doehner said...

The rise of the synthetic nerd is ruining the sports commentating rackets. Every time I see a millennial repeating stuff from fan graphs I look him up. Every time I find a liberal arts major. Like fake glasses, being a fake stat geek is all the rage with the over-class types.

The Atlantic was interesting when Michael Kelly ran the place for a few years. Otherwise it is fake nerds repeating conventional pieties. It is like the cast of The Big Bang Theory repeating the catechism.

National Review is a strange case. Rich Lowry is just a toady who got lucky. Has he ever said or written anything interesting? Other than running off the talent, he has done nothing with his life.

alonzo portfolio said...

How many women would you have to interview before you found one who knows who Caitlin Flanagan is?

eh said...

Darwin, did you see The Atlantic when Michael Kelly was the editor, around '02? Good then.

department11 said...

the dehumanizing effects of what you might call Big Data on the police

Has to pale next to the effect of being in an all-powerful union. I've lost count of the times a cop has gleefully dared me to report him for something, shoving his badge number right in my face.

walter condley said...

Speaking of formerly (I guess) reputable magazines, did anyone else find Saturday Review unreadable? What was that thing all about anyway?