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TEDWomen 2010

Johanna Blakley: Social media and the end of gender

December 8, 2010

Media and advertising companies still use the same old demographics to understand audiences, but they're becoming increasingly harder to track online, says media researcher Johanna Blakley. As social media outgrows traditional media, and women users outnumber men, Blakley explains what changes are in store for the future of media.

Johanna Blakley - Media maven
Johanna Blakley studies the impact of mass media and entertainment on our world. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm going to make an argument today
00:15
that may seem a little bit crazy:
00:17
social media and the end of gender.
00:20
Let me connect the dots.
00:23
I'm going to argue today
00:26
that the social media applications
00:28
that we all know and love, or love to hate,
00:30
are actually going to help free us
00:33
from some of the absurd assumptions
00:35
that we have as a society about gender.
00:37
I think that social media
00:40
is actually going to help us dismantle
00:42
some of the silly and demeaning stereotypes
00:44
that we see in media and advertising
00:47
about gender.
00:50
If you hadn't noticed,
00:52
our media climate generally provides
00:54
a very distorted mirror
00:56
of our lives and of our gender,
00:58
and I think that's going to change.
01:00
Now most media companies --
01:02
television, radio, publishing, games, you name it --
01:04
they use very rigid segmentation methods
01:07
in order to understand their audiences.
01:10
It's old-school demographics.
01:12
They come up with these very restrictive labels to define us.
01:14
Now the crazy thing
01:19
is that media companies believe
01:21
that if you fall within a certain demographic category
01:23
then you are predictable in certain ways --
01:26
you have certain taste,
01:28
that you like certain things.
01:30
And so the bizarre result of this
01:32
is that most of our popular culture
01:34
is actually based on these presumptions
01:36
about our demographics.
01:38
Age demographics:
01:41
the 18 to 49 demo
01:43
has had a huge impact
01:45
on all mass media programming in this country
01:47
since the 1960s,
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when the baby boomers were still young.
01:51
Now they've aged out of that demographic,
01:54
but it's still the case
01:57
that powerful ratings companies like Nielson
01:59
don't even take into account
02:01
viewers of television shows over age 54.
02:03
In our media environment,
02:06
it's as if they don't even exist.
02:08
Now, if you watch "Mad Men," like I do --
02:10
it's a popular TV show in the States --
02:12
Dr. Faye Miller does something called psychographics,
02:15
which first came about in the 1960s,
02:18
where you create these complex psychological profiles
02:21
of consumers.
02:23
But psychographics really haven't had a huge impact on the media business.
02:25
It's really just been basic demographics.
02:28
So I'm at the Norman Lear Center at USC,
02:32
and we've done a lot of research over the last seven, eight years
02:35
on demographics
02:38
and how they affect media and entertainment
02:40
in this country and abroad.
02:42
And in the last three years,
02:44
we've been looking specifically at social media to see what has changed,
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and we've discovered some very interesting things.
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All the people who participate in social media networks
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belong to the same old demographic categories
02:55
that media companies and advertisers
02:58
have used in order to understand them.
03:00
But those categories mean even less now
03:02
than they did before,
03:05
because with online networking tools,
03:07
it's much easier for us
03:09
to escape some of our demographic boxes.
03:11
We're able to connect with people quite freely
03:13
and to redefine ourselves online.
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And we can lie about our age online, too, pretty easily.
03:18
We can also connect with people
03:22
based on our very specific interests.
03:25
We don't need a media company
03:27
to help do this for us.
03:29
So the traditional media companies, of course,
03:31
are paying very close attention to these online communities.
03:34
They know this is the mass audience of the future;
03:37
they need to figure it out.
03:40
But they're having a hard time doing it
03:42
because they're still trying to use demographics in order to understand them,
03:44
because that's how ad rates are still determined.
03:47
When they're monitoring your clickstream --
03:50
and you know they are --
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they have a really hard time
03:54
figuring out your age, your gender and your income.
03:56
They can make some educated guesses.
03:58
But they get a lot more information
04:00
about what you do online,
04:02
what you like, what interests you.
04:04
That's easier for them to find out than who you are.
04:06
And even though that's still sort of creepy,
04:09
there is an upside
04:12
to having your taste monitored.
04:14
Suddenly our taste is being respected
04:17
in a way that it hasn't been before.
04:19
It had been presumed before.
04:21
So when you look online at the way people aggregate,
04:24
they don't aggregate
04:27
around age, gender and income.
04:29
They aggregate around the things they love,
04:31
the things that they like,
04:33
and if you think about it, shared interests and values
04:35
are a far more powerful aggregator of human beings
04:37
than demographic categories.
04:40
I'd much rather know
04:42
whether you like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
04:44
rather than how old you are.
04:47
That would tell me something more substantial about you.
04:49
Now there's something else that we've discovered about social media
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that's actually quite surprising.
04:55
It turns out that women
04:57
are really driving the social media revolution.
04:59
If you look at the statistics --
05:03
these are worldwide statistics --
05:05
in every single age category,
05:07
women actually outnumber men
05:10
in their use of social networking technologies.
05:12
And then if you look at the amount of time
05:16
that they spend on these sites,
05:18
they truly dominate the social media space,
05:20
which is a space that's having a huge impact
05:23
on old media.
05:26
The question is: what sort of impact
05:28
is this going to have on our culture,
05:30
and what's it going to mean for women?
05:33
If the case is that social media
05:35
is dominating old media
05:37
and women are dominating social media,
05:39
then does that mean that women
05:42
are going to take over global media?
05:44
Are we suddenly going to see
05:46
a lot more female characters in cartoons
05:48
and in games and on TV shows?
05:50
Will the next big-budget blockbuster movies
05:53
actually be chick flicks?
05:57
Could this be possible,
06:00
that suddenly our media landscape
06:02
will become a feminist landscape?
06:04
Well, I actually don't think that's going to be the case.
06:08
I think that media companies are going to hire a lot more women,
06:11
because they realize this is important for their business,
06:14
and I think that women
06:16
are also going to continue to dominate
06:18
the social media sphere.
06:20
But I think women are actually going to be -- ironically enough --
06:22
responsible for driving a stake through the heart
06:25
of cheesy genre categories
06:28
like the "chick flick"
06:32
and all these other genre categories
06:34
that presume that certain demographic groups
06:36
like certain things --
06:39
that Hispanics like certain things,
06:41
that young people like certain things.
06:43
This is far too simplistic.
06:45
The future entertainment media that we're going to see
06:47
is going to be very data-driven,
06:50
and it's going to be based on the information
06:52
that we ascertain from taste communities online,
06:54
where women are really driving the action.
06:57
So you may be asking, well why is it important
07:00
that I know what entertains people?
07:03
Why should I know this?
07:05
Of course, old media companies and advertisers
07:07
need to know this.
07:09
But my argument is that,
07:11
if you want to understand the global village,
07:13
it's probably a good idea that you figure out
07:15
what they're passionate about, what amuses them,
07:17
what they choose to do in their free time.
07:20
This is a very important thing to know about people.
07:23
I've spent most of my professional life
07:26
researching media and entertainment
07:29
and its impact on people's lives.
07:31
And I do it not just because it's fun --
07:33
though actually, it is really fun --
07:36
but also because
07:38
our research has shown over and over again
07:40
that entertainment and play
07:42
have a huge impact on people's lives --
07:44
for instance, on their political beliefs
07:47
and on their health.
07:49
And so, if you have any interest in understanding the world,
07:51
looking at how people amuse themselves
07:54
is a really good way to start.
07:56
So imagine a media atmosphere
07:59
that isn't dominated by lame stereotypes
08:02
about gender
08:05
and other demographic characteristics.
08:07
Can you even imagine what that looks like?
08:09
I can't wait to find out what it looks like.
08:11
Thank you so much.
08:13
(Applause)
08:15

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Johanna Blakley - Media maven
Johanna Blakley studies the impact of mass media and entertainment on our world.

Why you should listen

As the Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center (a media-focused think tank at the University of Southern California) Johanna Blakley spends much of her time exploring how our entertainment interacts with our political, commercial and social habits. She is especially interested in the surprising impact of intellectual property rights on innovation, organizing conferences around the lack of creative ownership in fashion as well as technology and the ownership of creative content.

Blakley has worked across a huge variety of media platforms -- producing for the web on a large scale, conducting gaming research, coordinating events for film festivals and executing consumer research on entertainment and politics. Drawing on this vast body of experience, she also lectures at USC and helped develop their masters program in Public Diplomacy.

The original video is available on TED.com
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