Reflections on an $1,800 Dissertation
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst


Braun Yale Book

My shoestring budget dissertation project eventually evolved into a book published by a reputable press.

In 2010 I applied for an external grant to fund the field work for my dissertation. I was rejected. I elected to proceed on a shoestring budget[ (( I spent a little over $1,800 to fund my dissertation, which I got through an internal university grant. If I price out the same expenditures today, they come to around $2,500. The internal research grant offered by my graduate school, however, has not changed and still stands at $2,000. ))] and, eight years on from filing said dissertation, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the that experience from different perspectives—first as a Ph.D. candidate, then as a job applicant, a book author,[ (( For those who would judge my advice on the outcome of this project, I will say that the dissertation was subsequently published as a book by a reputable press and received positive reviews. ))] and a faculty member working with grad students.

This seems like a good place to think through what I learned—both from the process of doing dissertation on a tight budget and the contours of inclusion and exclusion that dissertation funding stakes out within the academy. If you find yourself in the same boat I was, here I offer you combination of advice and laments. What I write here will be primarily addressed to folks doing field work in Media Industry Studies, but regardless of your discipline or tradition, feel free to follow, discount, or reject my advice as you see fit. I hope it helps someone down the road.

Rejection

First off, I want to normalize rejection. Advisors and institutions are quick to encourage students to go whaling after big dissertation improvement grants from the NSF or various private foundations. That’s as it should be. You can’t win a sweet award of that sort if you don’t apply. But grants like these are highly competitive and rejection is the most common outcome.

It doesn’t mean your research isn’t worthwhile. It’s entirely possible to get positive reviews across the board and still not get such an award. Quite often the issue is not one of quality, but of fit. There are lots of “penumbral” topics within Media Industry Studies that are essential, but fall at the edges of what the major funding programs are focused on.

Years later, I would find out in conference discussions and email threads among established colleagues that—even for research faculty—studies like my dissertation, which sat at the intersection of Journalism Studies on the one hand and Science and Technology Studies on the other, could be particularly hard cases for which to locate external funding (though I hope things are changing for the better).

Your advisor or committee will hopefully give you insight into such funding trends and help you to put the best face on an application that may lie at the edges of a funding program’s priorities. That said, it pays to think ahead as to what you can do if your proposal is rejected and how you might complete your project on smaller internal university grants or other limited funding sources.

Be Realistic About Your Methods

Folks in Journalism Studies and Media Industry Studies often live at the intersection of media studies and sociology and so we read and talk a lot about ethnographic methods. Folks in mainline sociology grumble about loose use of the term “ethnography,” and often with good reason. For them, an ethnography often involves spending months or years immersing themselves in a community, and it’s a fair point that researchers who spend a few days or weeks someplace probably shouldn’t be billing the resulting paper in similar terms. I won’t belabor this point—reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate time horizon with respect to calling something an ethnography. My take is simply that there’s no reason to invite potential criticism on this front when you don’t have to.

If you’re doing a field work-driven dissertation in the absence of external funding, let’s face it: Unless your field site is next to your university (I’m looking at you Columbia, USC, and Stanford), you’re probably not going to get to spend months, let alone years in the field. Weeks is more like it. And while you might have written your initial grant proposal(s) with the intention of conducting a long-term ethnography, let me say it forcefully here: Field work and ethnography are not one and the same. It’s perfectly fine to go into the field as a qualitative interviewer and not to call yourself an “ethnographer” or your study an “ethnography.”

Former Seattle PI Building

I completed field work at the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building, which was home to an MSNBC.com subsidiary called Newsvine.

In the end, I spent five weeks in the field for my dissertation, during which time I visited two field sites. I wouldn’t have been comfortable calling myself an ethnographer in those circumstances, but the length of time was ideal for intensive interviewing. Yes, I could’ve conducted interviews solely over the phone, but being physically at a field site and taking extensive notes was helpful for all sorts of reasons.

Showing up to the same site every day was an opportunity for the folks I wanted to interview to get comfortable with the prospect of talking with me. It allowed me to pull people aside or strike up conversations during the natural breaks in their work day, and thus to gather many conversations in a short span, as well as more easily conduct follow-ups. Had I tried to do the same interviews remotely, I think I could’ve lost an academic year before I’d played all the email and phone tag necessary to collect the dozens of exchanges I assembled in days during my site visits. And, of course, nothing stopped me from doing the occasional follow-up by phone.

Being in the field also provided tons of useful context for the interviews that drove my dissertation. For example, seeing who sat next to one another or attended which meetings gave a world of context to my sense of my subjects’ interactions that I likely never would’ve have had otherwise. Being in the field can also reveal truths that phone interviews may not. On the phone, a subject may tell you that two divisions within their company always see eye to eye. If you’ve just been privy to a heated exchange in the office, their answer to your same question is likely to be both more honest and more useful.

The point is, you can collect lots of rich data in the field in a condensed time frame without doing a traditional ethnography or setting up a potential confrontation by applying the term in a loose fashion.

Choose Your Field Sites Strategically

Obviously, if you’re dissertating on a budget you’ll have to give some consideration to how expensive different field sites are. But at the end of the day your choice of site(s) has to be methodologically defensible, not just cheap. If you have a local, self-contained field site, this may be an answer to many of your budgetary woes. But if you’re studying a large media organization or sector with offices across the country or the world, you may wish to look into or develop conceptual tools that will help to place the available sites into context.

Phil Howard’s “network ethnography” framework (yes, the term ethnography is in there), furthered by media scholars like Gina Neff, is one example.[ (( Howard, Philip N. “Network Ethnography and the Hypermedia Organization: New Media, New Organizations, New Methods.” New Media & Society 4, no. 4 (2002): 550–74; Neff, Gina. Venture Labor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. ))] For my own dissertation, I developed a conceptual frame I called “tracing” to explore the relationship between my field sites. Importantly, the idea here isn’t to justify or defend the choice of just any field site, but to clearly define the limitations, as well as the benefits of a particular choice of sites. The resulting cost-benefit analysis may make some sites inadvisable as choices under the best of circumstances.

Living on a Budget

NYC hostel

I stayed at the HI NYC Hostel to save money when completing field work.

This advice may seem superfluous for a stereotypical grad student. But here are a few of the things I did to stretch my budget in the field. First, Hostelling International was my best friend. With an HI membership, I was able to stay in expensive cities like Seattle and New York for a fraction of the cost of a single night in a hotel. Hostels also have kitchens stocked with cookware you can use to make your own food and they can point you to the nearest grocery store. If you’re prepared to live for several weeks largely on ham and cheese sandwiches, you can eat for fairly cheap even in high-cost locations. For me, New York was accessible by bus, so I bought food for the start of my trip at my local grocery store and lugged it along to avoid Manhattan prices.

If you’re staying for an extended time in a hostel, be sure to note whether there’s a limit on the number of consecutive nights you can bunk there. You may have to find alternative lodging for a night or two or beseech a local friend to crash on their couch (thank you, Matthew Powers) before you can check back in.

Of course, despite my deep affection for Hostelling International, I readily concede that not everyone will feel comfortable bunking in a room with a dozen strangers. And in retrospect, as a white cis guy, I recognize that my budget dissertation was made simpler by privilege. To save bus fare in Seattle, I walked two and a half miles at odd hours through upscale city neighborhoods to reach my field site without any negative interactions. When I got back to my hostel in the evening, I was able to sit in the common area for hours to organize my field notes without getting harassed by the strangers drinking a couple tables away. I also made these extended solo trips before I had small kids at home—something that would make them an impossibility now.

These things highlight inequities in graduate education that are important to grapple with at the institutional level. It would be easy to point to my experience as a fun adventure that I had on the cheap, but I think it also illustrates that inequities in doctoral research aren’t just about who’s loaded with grant money and who’s not. Inequity also shows up when we consider who is most easily able to make a meager budget work.

Image Credits:
1. Cover of This Program is Brought to you by…, published by Yale University Press in 2015
2. Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building
3. HI NYC Hostel, where I stayed to save money while completing my field work.

Please feel free to comment.




The Devil in the Details: User Tracking Is Hurting More Than Our Privacy, It’s Doing Serious Damage to Public-Interest Media, Too.
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst

With the attention economy in full swing, behavioral targeting—tracking and assembling data about users in the service of online advertising—is giving rise to practices and infrastructures that threaten personal privacy, disrupt civic journalism, and incentivize the spread of disinformation.

As I write this, my social media feeds are consumed by the furor resulting from Jeff Bezos’s open letter accusing The National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, of attempting to extort him over leaked photographs from his affair. While much of the commentary rightly focuses on issues of digitally-enabled blackmail, Slate tech reporter April Glaser simultaneously muses at the irony of a privacy scandal befalling a tech CEO who’s garnered notoriety for “actively building a surveillance state.”

A few weeks on from “Data Privacy Day,” the international holiday aimed at promoting better protection for consumers’ data, the Bezos story is just one of many to raise questions about the individual right to privacy in the digital era. It follows closely on the heels of Facebook’s latest scandal—Apple pulled the company’s services from its app store after the revelation Facebook was paying teenagers to install tracking software on their phones—and years after a ProPublica report that Google had quietly abandoned its ban on collecting personally identifiable tracking data on its users. [ (( Particularly when it comes to Facebook, the hits just keep on coming, fast enough that I decided it’d be unwise to try to keep updating this piece during the proofing process. Editorial: Facebook, Zuckerberg’s sins now include preying on teens. (2019, February 5). The Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/02/05/editorial-facebook-2/; Angwin, J. (2016, October 21). Google has quietly dropped ban on personally identifiable web tracking. ProPublica. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking.))] Other recent reporting discusses how location information collected from our phones has found its way into the hands third parties ranging from robocallers to bounty hunters, raising deep concerns about individual privacy, personal safety, and even national security. [ (( Vogt, P.J., Goldman, A., Marchetti, D., and Bennin, P. (Hosts.) (2019, January 31). Robocall: Bang bang [Podcast episode]. Reply All. Retrieved from https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/135-the-robocall-conundrum#episode-player; Cox, Joseph. (2019, February 6). Hundreds of bounty hunters had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data for years. Motherboard. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43z3dn/hundreds-bounty-hunters-att-tmobile-sprint-customer-location-data-years; Valentino-DeVries, J., Singer, N., Keller, M.H., and Krolik, A. (2018, December 10). Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html))]

EverythingMe

A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app, EverythingMe, which was downloaded 20 million times and eventually found to have been co-opted into a multi-million dollar ad fraud scheme. Co-opted apps tracked phone users’ behavior as a template on which to base convincing automated traffic, which could then be used to defraud advertisers by faking ad views. [ ((Silverman, C. (2018, October 23). Apps installed on millions of Android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multimillion-dollar ad fraud scheme. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-a-massive-ad-fraud-scheme-exploited-android-phones-to))] Ad fraud schemes siphon massive amounts of revenue out of the advertising market.

As data privacy (or lack thereof) has begun to take on the dimensions of a crisis, another much-discussed emergency has been unfolding in parallel: the economic collapse of ad-supported digital journalism. Following a series of layoffs at news organizations ranging from TechCrunch to HuffPo to BuzzFeed and Gannett, respected tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times, “it would be a mistake to regard these cuts as the ordinary chop of a long-roiling digital media sea. Instead, they are a devastation. The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.” Two days later, Vice cut 250 more journalism jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce.

This rash of cuts is especially painful, given that “digital-native newsrooms” were only recently celebrated as one of the few areas in American journalism to have added jobs over the course of a decade-long 25 percent decline in employment led by steady layoffs at traditional newspapers. [ (( Grieco, E. (2018, July 30). Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/30/newsroom-employment-dropped-nearly-a-quarter-in-less-than-10-years-with-greatest-decline-at-newspapers))]

These two crucial problems—the erosion of digital privacy and the revenue crisis in American journalism—have tended to be discussed as distinct issues. They are not. [ (( Ryan, J. (2019). The adtech crisis and disinformation [Lecture video]. Vimeo. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/317245633.))] Rather, they spring from a common origin and, to paraphrase Thoreau, in solving them we would do better to strike at the root than to hack at the branches. [ (( Thoreau, H.D. (1910/1854). Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., p.98))]

It is a commonplace that advertising pays for most of the free services we use on the the internet. The viral quotation from Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” sums up much about the direction online business models have taken. And the solution that has been settled upon is programmatic advertising.

Brave

Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave (the company behind a privacy-oriented Web browser) showing some of the sensitive categories that ad tech firms attach to your persona as you browse the web. It’s a selective excerpt of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) “Content Taxonomy v2” list.

Programmatic advertising takes a number of forms, but generally speaking, in the fraction of a second that it takes a webpage or an app to load on your screen, an automated auction is being held for your attention based on tracking data that has been collected about you. The publisher puts up ad space for sale, brands put in competing bids to place an ad in the space, and intermediaries called ad tech firms handle all the transaction details. By the time the content you requested finishes loading, the auction winner’s ad appears on your screen alongside it.

While the most prominent news organizations, like The New York Times or The Economist, may still do a brisk business directly with branded advertisers, a vast number of other news organizations rely far more heavily on programmatic advertising exchanges to sell their inventory, competing not just with other news organizations, but with blogs, web forums, recipe sites, online games, and any other website or app that sells ad space in programmatic exchanges. This dramatically drives down the cost of ads and hence the revenue going to publishers.

Moreover, these transactions are often focused tightly around reaching particular consumers to the near exclusion of editorial context. To give one example, all of us have experienced “retargeted” advertising—view a suitcase on a retailer’s website and ads for the same piece of luggage follow you across the web for days or weeks.

As Malthouse, Maslowska, and Franks put it, programmatic advertising separates “the value of the content product from the audience product.” [ (( Malthouse, E.C., Maslowska, E., and Franks, J. (2018). The role of big data in programmatic TV advertising. In V. Cauberghe, L. Hudders, and M. Eisend (Eds.), Advances in Advertising Research IX . (pp. 29–42). Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer. p. 32.))] Couldry and Turow argue that for traditionally ad-supported news organizations, continuing to chase down advertising revenue in this new environment is thoroughly corrupting. [ (( Couldry, N. and Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm. International Journal of Communication, 8, 1710–1726.))] As advertisers begin pursuing users with particular behavioral profiles, while paying less and less attention to the actual publications they’re visiting, publishers can no longer rely as they once did on the quality of their work. Rather, they must increasingly play the role of data brokers, participating in user surveillance and producing increasingly personalized and/or shopper-friendly content that bins visitors neatly into behavioral profiles that will better draw the bids of advertisers—advertisers that now, at least in comparison to days past, pay scant attention to the name on a site’s masthead.

In the days of contextual advertising, ads for suitcases might best be placed in travel magazines. Under the user-tracking paradigm, not only do brands no longer need to rely on particular publications to reach the consumers they’ve identified as desirable, there is now a perverse incentive to place ads on the least reputable sites, since these are the locations where users’ attention can be bought most cheaply. This has led to a boom in clickbait-driven webpages, selling cheap ad space against vapid or plagiarized content focused around miracle diets and strange cosmetic trends. During the 2016 U.S. election, “fake news” did particularly well as a variant of clickbait and thus became a profit-center for scammers.

Originally from The Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article titled, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” that, according to an expose in The Washington Post, was viewed by 6 million people and generated $22,000 in programmatic advertising revenue. Moreover, at the height of this influx of traffic, the web domain where the hoax was posted was appraised for a six-figure sum. [ (( Shane, S. (2017, January 18). From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html.))]

I don’t use the term “scammers” loosely here—Jessica Eklund and I recently published a study in which we examined disfunction in the programmatic advertising industry. [ (( Braun, J.A. and Eklund, J.L. (2019) Fake news, real money: Ad tech platforms, profit-driven hoaxes, and the business of journalism. Digital Journalism, 7(1), 1–21.))] Industry executives explained that many hoax news sites were fronts for outright fraud, ginning up page views with bots and click workers and selling them to advertisers for a profit. Legitimate visitors to these sites were welcome, of course, but often their main value was confusing fraud-detection mechanisms by pushing down the ratio of automated to human traffic.

In short, it might be fair to expect news organizations to endure stiffer competition from new corners—not simply blogs or Craigslist, but gaming apps and recipe sites. However, in the current market, legitimate journalism is competing for ad dollars with sites engaged in aggressive fraud, sometimes with the assistance of ad tech companies themselves. Along with related enterprises like fake traffic generation, these siphon billions of dollars out of the advertising market annually [ (( Fulgoni, G. (2016). Fraud in digital advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 56(2): 122–125.))], contributing to the larger problem of market failure [ (( Pickard, V. (2015). America’s battle for media democracy. New York: Cambridge.))] in contemporary journalism.

To review, then, the massive system of commercial surveillance we see online not only impacts us in terms of privacy, safety, and security, it has dramatically increased the amount of information pollution [ (( Wardle, C., and Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information disorder. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PREMS-162317-GBR-2018-Report-de%CC%81sinformation-1.pdf))] in the public sphere, gutting news budgets—and hence newsrooms—by driving down the amount paid for ads, turning trusted news organizations into data brokers that produce less civically valuable content, dramatically incentivizing the creation of clickbait and outright disinformation, and kindling remarkable volumes of fraudulent activity that simultaneously fleeces advertisers and diverts hefty amounts of money away from public-interest media.

One recent survey indicated that a sizable majority of the American public already sees the collection of their data in the service of targeted advertising as unethical. [ (( RSA. (2019). RSA data privacy & security survey [Report]. Bedford, MA: Author.))] I imagine they might feel even more strongly about the issue were it more commonly linked with dramatic declines in the health of public-interest media. As we witness the introduction of digital privacy policy conversations and frameworks, whether the GDPR in Europe or bills proposed in individual states here in the U.S., it’s time to begin examining commercial surveillance not just as a privacy issue, but as a notable threat to our media institutions and public discourse.

Image Credits:

1. With the attention economy in full swing…
2. A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app…
3. Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave…
4. Originally from the Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article….




Mass Reach After Mass Media
Josh Braun / University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abraham Bradley Jr.'s map of the early U.S. postal network

Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network

Writing in 1829 about the newly completed U.S. postal network, William Ellery Channing marveled, “When a few leaders have agreed on an object, an impulse may be given in a month to the whole country. Whole States may be deluged with tracts and other publications, and a voice like that of many waters, be called forth from immense and widely separated multitudes. Here is a great new power brought to bear on society, and it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.” [ ((Quoted in John, 1995, p. 185. ))]

As Richard John [ (( John, Richard. (1995). Spreading the news: The American postal system from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] notes in his history of the postal service, the United States’ first national distribution network was transformative for the manner in which it enabled—and at times compelled—the country’s inhabitants to think of themselves as belonging to a common public. This is what Kristy Hess [ (( Hess, Kristy. (1995). Tertius tactics: “Mediated social capital” as a resource of power for traditional commercial news media. Communication Theory, 23(2), 112–130.))] calls the “bonding function” of media and, while the underlying technologies may have changed since the nineteenth century, the tenet that media infrastructures and distribution networks are central to the formation and maintenance of publics is still being proven out in the work of scholars like Yong-Chan Kim and Sandra Ball-Rokeach [ (( Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16(2), 173–197. ))] who highlight the manner in which people who share a broadcast radius or newspaper circulation footprint appear more likely to think of themselves as members of a common public with shared concerns and civic responsibilities.

Historian and social theorist Michael Warner [ (( Warner, Michael. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books. ))] developed the notion of “reflexive circulation” to refer to this phenomenon—the way in which media distribution underpins many of the social imaginaries on which societies depend. Put simply, our mediated public discourse has historically relied on the notion that when we publish an item in a newspaper or air it in a broadcast that we are speaking to the same assembled audience over time. Stable distribution networks allow us the conceit that a town or a nation or a social movement deliberates as a single, inclusive body.

Of course, this notion has always been something of a fantasy. Throughout their history the news media, for example, have always left out particular groups. This is true not just of the perspectives they offer—though egregious omissions have been well documented by media sociologists from Gaye Tuchman [ (( Tuchman, Gaye. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.))] to Sue Robinson [ (( Robinson, Sue. (2018). Networked news, racial divides: How power and privilege shape progressive communities. New York: Cambridge University Press.))]—but of the networks of distribution on which they depend. John, for example, notes the many ways in which women were effectively barred from post offices in the 19th century, when these were the community hubs in which newspapers were read and discussed. C. Edwin Baker [ (( Baker, Edwin. (2002). Media, markets, and democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] describes in detail the many ways in which commercial media systems have traditionally limited access by the poor.

 Television set from 1948

Television set from 1948, the presidential election year when both the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions in Philadelphia so as to be within the broadcast area of the nascent TV market.

Warner’s reflexive circulation, in other words, allows participants to imagine an inclusive public discourse, even as it leaves many groups out of the conversation. And sociologists like Jen Shradie (forthcoming) [ (( Shradie, Jen. (2006). The Revolution that Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] have begun to document how, while the contours of exclusion may be different in the age of digital media (or in some cases very similar), they are still very much with us. Likewise, though the business logics of media have long included some degree of market segmentation in forms such as interest-based magazines and cable channels, Zeynep Tufekci [ (( Tufecki, Zeynep. (2018, January 16). “It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech.” Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/.))] sounds the alarm that the gulf between our sense of belonging to a common mediated public and the actual logics of our media system has grown wider than ever before.

“Online speech is no longer public in any traditional sense,” Tufekci writes. “Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously. But in reality, posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen by screen. Today’s phantom public sphere has been fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries. Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in—but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back. Behind everyone’s backs.”

It’s not just our personal posts and correspondence that get delivered (or not) in this mercurial fashion. As folks like Jenkins, Ford, and Green [ (( Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press. ))] have noted, legacy media industries are also learning to live in this environment. The “conversation economy” described by “Web 2.0” enthusiasts has evolved into an “attention economy” in which media industries have become adept at leveraging people’s online sharing activities to promote their products. We’ve seen the development not only of editorial and brand management strategies, but of content management systems, recommendation algorithms, playlist managers, and other technologies aimed at rapidly repackaging and repurposing editorial output for different niche audiences and social media channels, attempting to replace the broadcast tower with the capacity to tap into thousands of individual conversations and overlapping gossip networks.

As Matthew Hindman [ (( Hindman, Matthew. (2013). Journalism ethics and digital audience data. In P. J. Boczkowski and C. W. Anderson (Eds.), Remaking the news: Essays on the future of journalism scholarship in the digital age. (pp. 177–194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] notes, it’s possible to imagine a world in which this level of attentiveness to the wants of audiences serves democratic goals, allowing creators to better identify and serve the public interest. But—as Hindman also points out—that isn’t the world we live in right now. Instead, just as in previous commercial media systems, the emerging digital economy is one in which the interests and conversations of some groups are identified and prioritized as more lucrative than those of others. The result can be a jarring one, wherein the most profitable niche audiences are served up more of what they apparently enjoy and others are offered tone-deaf results in the name of customization.

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Witness, for instance, the recent revelation that Netflix has been showing users of color promotional images for its content that feature black actors, despite the fact that these actors have only minor roles in the films being advertised. [ (( Iqbal, N. (2018, October 20). Film fans see red over Netflix ‘targeted’ posters for black viewers. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/oct/20/netflix-film-black-viewers-personalised-marketing-target. ))] Safiya Umoji Noble’s [ (( Umoji Noble, Safiya. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))] critiques of Google Search’s historical results for “black girls”—results uncritically responsive to the SEO efforts of the porn industry—provide another example, wherein the response to an individual’s query assumes the most profitable audience (male porn consumers, apparently) at the expense, on multiple levels, of other groups. Meanwhile, in journalism, scholars like Couldry and Turow [ (( Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication,. 8, 1710–1726. ))] argue that the online advertising industry’s push for fine-scale consumer differentiation will prod news organizations even further down the road of content personalization and destroy the potential for the news media to serve as common points of reference in democratic discourse.

Most scholars agree that these misalignments—between valuations of audience attention that serve the public interest and ones that cut against it—have to do with the commercial and ad-driven logics that dominate our media ecosystem. And so, unsurprisingly, the correctives they offer are policy-based. Noble argues that we need consumer protection policies in place to mitigate the representational harms caused by commercial search engines and other online platforms. Victor Pickard [ (( Pickard, Victor (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] makes the case that we should alter government regulations to make it simpler for news organizations to transition to non-profit or low-profit status, and tax the corporations—ISPs, Google, Facebook, etc.—that currently profit most off the the changes that have decimated newsrooms to pay for more media in the public interest. Couldry and Turow suggest we need regulations to limit the extensive collection and use of data in the service of online advertising, so as to buffer the resulting pressures toward hyper-personalization of editorial content currently being experienced by news organizations. And Nicole S. Cohen [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication.))] argues that more unionization within digital newsrooms will give journalists the power to push back themselves on editorial policies myopically focused on producing more, and more profitable, clicks.

In many cases, these scholars say that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of such outcomes, however, is the tendency of publics to accept the media ecosystem they see as given, rather than as the artificial outcome of policy frameworks that facilitate particular market logics and valuations of audiences. How do you get people excited about tax reforms [ (( Pickard, V. (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform.. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))]? How do you get them to understand the commercial logics governing Google Search results that they have come to trust implicitly [ (( Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))]? How about the link between data privacy law [ ((Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication, 1710–1726. ))] or unionization [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication. ))] and public-interest journalism?

If mobilizing citizens around policy questions like these seems tricky, more scholarship on these topics can’t possibly hurt. The Warnerian conceit that our media infrastructures and distribution networks create an inclusive public is a powerful and necessary one. But it needs to be more than just a conceit. As the media industries continue to adapt to what Newsvine founder and former Twitter VP Mike Davidson has called, “the massive decentralization of conversation” [ (( Braun, J. A. (2015). This program is brought to you by: Distributing television news online. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.166. ))], attempting to compensate for the collapse of traditional modes of delivery by tapping into the word-of-mouth marketing and distribution afforded by millions of individuals’ social networks, scholars need to continue to ask critical questions about how media companies are going about this and how our sociality is being commodified. To echo Channing’s thoughts on an earlier system of distribution, “it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.”

Image Credits:
1. Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network
2. Television set from 1948
3. Example of targeted marketing from Netflix