Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pure data yet unquantifiable?

I know we're not supposed to delve too deeply into the structure or validity of these readings, but I have to say that I was extremely frustrated by Manovich's work. Not because of his arguments - which make perfect sense - but because of his use of the English language. Of the chapters we were asked to read, I had to read at least half the sentences two, three or even four times in order to have some vague idea what Manovich was talking about. The whole book was filled with extraneous words, misused words, bad grammar, etc. There are too many instances to mention here, but needless to say I found most of the text extremely frustrating. Did anyone else find themselves questioning whether an English-speaking editor ever glimpsed at this book??

Now that my beef with the author's grammar is out of the way, let's get on to the actual reading.

As so eloquently noted by Wikipedia, Manovich uses his 2001 book, The Language of New Media, to argue that there are five general principles underlying new media. These principles include:

  • Numerical representation: new media objects exist as data
  • Modularity: the different elements of new media exist independently
  • Automation: new media objects can be created and modified automatically
  • Variability: new media objects exist in multiple versions
  • Transcoding: a new media object can be converted into another format
I am particularly interested in his argument that new media objects are nothing more than data. He supports his argument by stating that
"All new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations. This fact has two key consequences:
1. A new media object can be described formally (mathematically)...
2. A new media object is subject to algorithmic manipulation... we can automatically remove "noise" from a photograph,... In short, media becomes programmable." (27)
What strikes me about this is that if new media is nothing more than data and can be described mathematically, why is it that we have yet to come up with any good, solid way to quantify the successes of social media - arguably the newest form of new media?

As a member of the social media team at UT Southwestern Medical Center, I am constantly asked by colleagues and higher-ups how we can quantify whether any of our Tweets, FB posts and/or YouTube videos are driving traffic to our clinics and hospitals. My explanation that there's really no good way to do that has sufficed for now, but it's only a matter of time before that excuse runs its course. At this time, the best way to calculate the impact of our efforts is to ask every single patient who walks through the doors whether they came to UT Southwestern because of a tweet. Obviously, this is nothing short of impossible. Even if we were to use our electronic medical records system to track the response, it would still be incredibly challenging to garner enough response to make the effort worthwhile.

Luckily for my team, we're not the only ones facing this challenge. Public relations groups and companies worldwide are struggling to explain to clients that while investing in social media is a smart move, it's not necessarily one that's easily quantified in terms of success. Yes, it's possible to generate reports on traffic for particular Web sites and you can also gauge success by tracking the number of followers (Twitter), fans or friends (YouTube and Facebook) a particular company/group/cause enlists. However, trying to determine whether someone bought Huggies over Pampers because they saw a positive tweet is impossible without communicating directly with that particular consumer. So, here you have a medium that's supposedly pure data but whose results aren't quantifiable - at least in terms of social media.

A recent AdAge article touched on this discrepancy as the writer tried to explain how the advertising/public relations industry is trying to navigate the challenges posed in part by social media.

In this article, Tim Marklein, exec VP- measurement and strategy at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick, said that "getting clients to understand the benefits of engagement over impressions is the biggest challenge agencies have."
"The beauty of engagement is that it's a deeper level of involvement with a brand than you had in the eyeball or impressions world," Mr. Marklein said in the same article. "People were comfortable knowing the value The Wall Street Journal had for whatever vertical they are in. But with the number of blogs out there and traditional media putting more emphasis on web properties, marketers are unsettled on the traditional things they believed in but now know they need new approaches to figure this out."
Another expert quoted in the article, Allyson Hugley, VP-insight creation at Publicis Groupe's MS&L Worldwide, said that the "rise of digital and social media has caused everyone to rethink their approach to measurement."

"We had to fine-tune our approach to measurement not as something that happens at the end of the discussion but from the beginning and throughout the process," Ms. Hugley said in the AdAge article.

Though social media isn't addressed in Manovich's book, I do wonder how he would explain this conundrum or whether he would simply call it irrelevant. After all, social media in itself clearly meets Manovich's definition of new media. My question is whether the manifestation of social media also meets his definition and can be quantified.

7 comments:

EMChartreuse said...

This weeks reading wasn't as hard for me as others where I felt like they were writing in another language.

Social media is just another way to advertise. Is there a way to determine if a billboard increased business? Apart from surveys, no.

John Kay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Goes To School said...

Although the results of Social Media advertising may not be quantifiable, it is very much data. Most social media sights are nothing but interactive databases. One can access profiles or watch uploaded movies, but these are all in the end, just stored data.

Manovich's first language is clearly not English, and although he did get the message across, I agree that it was not as clear as it could have been.

James said...

I've kinda grown to accept that these writers are going to each going to either make up words or completely ignore accepted rules of grammar. Seems somehow par for the course that writers discussing media and communication would have significant problems effectively communicating their ideas...

As an ad manager, I can definitely understand to some extent the complications with quantifying hits. I mean, with coupons it's really easy, but even just with standard advertising without polling customers it becomes hard to determine, and with each new tool to spread the word it becomes difficult to tell what is drawing in the most customers.

Amy Pickup said...

It's weird to me that you found this hard to read - i think it was one of my most enjoyed readings yet. Maybe it's his background in CS that alternates the layout he chose? So - you'll have to pardon me too.
Either way, I definitely think there is a way to quantify how successful a Twitter account is, but that the important message that Manovich may have even tried to convey is that its not just the Twitter or FB accounts you have but the overall web-presence that is important. If the web is seen as a database, ALL the information within should have some sort of influence and it is this mass of information (and the level of interactivity) that makes an online campaign successful. Having an online presence has become necessary to merely exist. And that participation is key - like most things in life, people only want to work on (or with) the things they already know and feel vested in.

annisleung said...

I found this week's reading was a lot easier than last few weeks'. I guess my English (as my second language) was even worse than his, so I could understand him okay.

I like John Kay's idea of giving out free stuff to know whether the patients receive message from social media sites than asking every single patient who walks through the door if he/she got the tweets from Twitter. You can put different discount codes for different social media sites, for example, "Facebook UTSMC" or "Twitter UTSMC".

John Kay said...

I was interested in the content, but reading it was a negative “hypermediated” experience because the writing brought attention to itself rather than to the subject. I learned that we are not to narrate. Instead of saying, “Now I am going to show…” We can just say it.

It sounds like the UTSWMC folk are looking at the use of social media as advertising. If they were mailing letters or postcards, they could write, “Bring this card into the clinic and receive free parking.” Translate that tactic to social media. “Mention the code FACEBOOK and receive….” With direct mail, a t