Posts tagged ‘culture’

TV Party Tonight!

| Gabriel |

A month or so ago bloggingheads had Alyssa Rosenberg and Peter Suderman (mp3 only), my two favorite politically-informed-but-not-hacks culture bloggers. In the course of their conversation they talked about “recapping” culture, which is where a blogger reacts in about 1000 words to each episode of a tv show, usually the day after it airs. I’m sure there were earlier precedents on Usenet forums, but I associate the development of this genre of criticism with Television Without Pity. TWOP recaps are almost Talmudic exegesis that take as long to read as the show itself takes to watch. There are currently many other recaps sites, most notably The Onion’s tv club, and other bloggers do just one or two shows, as Alyssa is currently doing with Breaking Bad and True Blood. It’s a very interesting genre of writing and helps illuminate some theoretical issues with the superstar effect and the demand structure for entertainment.

The superstar effect is of course Sherwin Rosen’s observation that cultural products and cultural workers have a truly ridiculous level of inequality. Rosen first noted that a scope condition is technology for infinite reproducibility and this has held up. However his theoretical mechanism was ordinal selection that was hyper-sensitive to infinitesimmal quality differences and later research has pretty definitively discarded that mechanism. Rather, most everybody now agrees that the superstar effect reflects some kind of cumulative advantage mechanism and the only question is exactly how it works. We know for a fact from Salganik’s music lab work that information cascades are a part of this, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also other cumulative advantage mechanisms at work.

Probably the first article to propose a cumulative advantage mechanism for the superstar effect was Moshe Adler’s “Stardom and Talent.” Adler is often cited as synthesizing network externalities and the superstar effect, that is, people read him as articulating a model of “watercooler entertainment” where entertainment is a mixed coordination game (aka, “battle of the sexes“) consumed mostly or entirely for its utility in providing topics of conversation. When you see people citing Adler they are usually arguing that cultural consumption is a means to an end of socializing. For example, imagine that (like any sane human being) you find watching golf on tv to be incredibly tedious but you force yourself to watch it so that you have something to chit chat about with your boss, who is a big golfer.

This is a compelling model, but it’s not actually the model Adler proposed, in part because he’s coming from a theoretical background that emphasizes demand (i.e., micro-economics) rather than a tradition that emphasizes homophily (i.e., sociology). What Adler actually wrote is that chit chat is a means to cultivating taste in entertainment addiction goods. Adler starts from the premise that many art forms function as addiction goods (aka, acquired tastes). However it is often difficult to consume enough of the art to get you into a place where the addiction good has positive expected value and so we use discourse about the art in order to heighten the addiction and thereby increase the utility of arts consumption. That is, I discuss a tv show with you because it helps me develop my relationship with the tv show, not because it helps me develop my relationship with you. We can see this in a formal setting when people take “[wine / opera / painting] appreciation” classes, where (in price theory terms) the class increases your addiction to the good even more so than simply consuming the good.

Adler’s model seems a bit on the aspy side and, like I said, people often get it backwards when they cite it, perhaps because they are forgetting how weird it is and one’s memory’s reconstructs the article’s argument to be more intuitive. Nonetheless, I think that Adler’s original model is also pretty compelling. Notably, there’s no reason why the causation has to go one way. It could be endogenous or it might even be contingent, with “watercooler” for some types of art and “addiction good” for others.

These are subtly different models and provide theoretical implications that are in theory distinguishable (though may be hard to disentangle in practice). In particular, I’m thinking that we can use Omar Lizardo’s argument about the different types of network ties supported by high culture versus pop culture. Omar argues that since pop culture forms a more universal social lubricant it should be (and in fact is) associated more with weak ties whereas high culture is tricky enough that it requires more strong ties.

If we extrapolate this out, we can interpret it as meaning that the “watercooler” network externality effect (ie, the common misreading of Adler) is a mechanism that supports cumulative advantage for shows that are very accessible and not terribly nuanced. That is, you might watch American Idol in order to have a bunch of 2 minute long conversations with acquaintances and strangers whom you normally come into contact with anyway. An important corollary is that you wouldn’t normally seek out fellow fans of crap but just make sure that you’re sufficiently familiar with crap to hold your own in a conversation with random people.

In contrast, we can use the “addiction goods” model (ie, Adler’s actual argument) to explain consumption of less accessible cultural objects of the sort that might sustain an entire dinner’s worth of conversation. The objects might even be so inscrutable that they are difficult to consume without having an interlocutor to help you make sense of them and so you might either seek out strangers who already consume the object or try to convince a close friend to consume the object as well so you can discuss it together. For instance if you read the first paragraph of this post and said “I don’t know or care about this Alyssa person but I’m going to click the link because I’m hoping somebody can help me understand what’s the deal with Hank’s mineral collection” then that would be an illustration of the addiction good model at work. Now if it’s just people who already consume a show finding each other that’s not cumulative advantage but homophily. However there is cumulative advantage if you start watching a show because your favorite blogger is recapping it or if you read a book to participate in a book club or if you buy your best friend a box set of the first season of Battlestar Galactica so you have someone with whom to discuss the downward spiral of Gaius Baltar. In this sense recapping is a complement to the increasing narrative complexity of popular entertainment and one way to see this is that people tend to recap shows with a serial rather than episodic structure.

August 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm 2 comments

Misc Links

| Gabriel |

  • Useful detailed overview of Lion. The user interface stuff doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the tight integration of version control and “resume.” Also, worth checking if your apps are compatible. (Stata and Lyx are supposed to work fine. TextMate is supposed to run OK with some minor bugs. No word on R. Fink doesn’t work yet). It sounds good but I’m once again sitting it out for a few months until the compatibility bugs get worked out. Also, as with Snow Leopard many of the features won’t really do anything until developers implement them in their applications.
  • I absolutely loved the NPR Planet Money story on the making of Rihanna’s “Man Down.” (Not so fond of the song itself, which reminds me of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” in matching cardigans). If you have any interest at all in production of culture read the blog post and listen to the long form podcast (the ATC version linked from the blog post is the short version).
  • Good explanation of e, which comes up surprisingly often in sociology (logit regression, diffusion models, etc.). I like this a lot as in my own pedagogy I really try to emphasize the intuitive meaning of mathematical concepts rather than just the plug and chug formulae on the one hand or the proofs on the other.
  • People are using “bimbots” to scrape Facebook. And to think that I have ethical misgivings about forging a user-agent string so wget looks like Firefox.

July 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm

A nous, l’ivresse meilleure des chants joyeux!

| Gabriel |

As is well known to most sociologists of culture, there has been a steep decline in consumption of traditional high culture. You can look at data like Survey of Public Participation in the Arts to see a pretty steep decline in taste for classical music and opera, much of which appears to be cohort-based rather than period or age based. Hence a series of NEA reports on the aging arts audience.

Enter the curious fact that even though we increasingly don’t actually listen to classical music or opera, we still admire people who do as is observable in the lab as a fairly substantial halo effect (h/t Robin Hanson). This suggests that in some sense we are leaving money on the table, cultural capital wise. An interesting question is why we don’t take up this cultural arbitrage opportunity?

One answer would be that it’s simply too hard for most people to make themselves like fine art, even if they wanted to in some sort of deliberate calculation. This would parallel the observation that returns to education continue to increase but college and high school graduation rates have stalled as we reach deeper into the talent pool. Whatever the merits for formal education, I have a hard time buying this for music since (a) lots of classical and opera is intrinsically pretty accessible and (b) a few generations ago classical and opera was much more popular, including among people with little formal education. Similarly, a lot of pop music is not intrinsically accessible, in the sense that it is musically complex and behaves as an addiction good / acquired taste.

Another possibility for the “leaving cultural capital on the table” paradox, and one I find far more plausible, is that music serves as a signal of social membership. In this conception expressing interest in classical or opera would strike most people as a stuck-up affectation whereas consuming pop music of the appropriate kind reaffirms solidarity with the sub-group. This is basically the model described in qualitative work on cultural capital and the working class. Failure to adopt a positive stigma would thus parallel the actual adoption of negative stigma. For instance,  Fryer and Levitt’s explanation for distinctively black names is basically that they are costly (and therefore credible) signaling of group solidarity. In the same way, adopting a taste for classical music or opera would be seen in many social circles, including those of many affluent people, as a pretentious affectation that implies disloyalty to the group.

[The title of this post means "for us, we prefer the greater drunkenness of joyful songs." Click through to hear it in context. (the song starts at 3:23). Or buy an earlier recording for a buck.]

June 2, 2011 at 4:37 am

Misc Links

| Gabriel |

  • Anything But Justin Bieber: Symbolic Exclusion and NPR Story Selection Dislikes
  • Glee breaks Elvis Presley’s record. Note that this is more than a little misleading since Glee singles have brief but intense bursts of popularity whereas Elvis (or the Beatles for that matter) had much more sustained popularity.
  • WalMart is pushing CSR on its supply chain. WalMart says that their customers are demanding these practices but I call bullshit on that as CSR is a superior good and WalMart’s niche is down market (though it’s possible that they think CSR is a way to draw in wealthier customers). Rather I think it likely that WalMart knows it has saturated the exurbs and small cities and can only expand by going into big cities, but this ambition is thwarted by a left-wing political coalition. WalMart is never going to get the unions to drop their opposition (here in LA the grocers’ unions have led the fight against WalMart) but several of their recent actions suggest a strategy of peeling off enough of the “food desert” and “sustainability” greens to squeeze through the zoning process. In other words, it’s coercive isomorphism all the way down.

March 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Fashion is danger

| Gabriel |

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I am writing to you both as a constituent and as an expert on creative industries. I want to thank you for your opposition to the IDPPPA (S. 3728) bill that would extend formal (and actionable) intellectual property rights to the fashion industry.

As you know, the Constitution authorizes Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” That is to say, intellectual property rights are meant to correct a market failure of insufficient creativity. The idea that an industry that releases hundreds of creative designs every spring and fall has a shortage of creativity is frankly absurd.

Not only is it implausible to imagine that we would see more fashion in a world with the IDPPPA but to the contrary we should see less. Fashion is currently the only creative realm where one can create freely without worrying about concepts like infringement, clearance, or licensing. IDPPPA would end this and create a world where (much like biochemists or musicians) fashion designers would spend less of their time at the drafting table and more of their time with lawyers. This would both imply a deadweight loss and increase barriers to entry. One need only look at the decline in creativity in hip hop music following Grand Upright and Bridgeport to see how the extension of IP rights to fashion would create gridlock effects that would completely swamp whatever marginal incentive effects IP would provide.

Please have your staff contact me if I can be of any assistance on this issue.

Gabriel Rossman
Assistant Professor
Sociology, UCLA

March 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm 2 comments

Telecommunications has broadcast your message into space!

| Gabriel |

I move a vote of thanks to one and all whose efforts made this possible!

Tomorrow (Saturday 2/12/11) @ 1pm Eastern Time, check your local listings.

[Update: Kathleen Kim is amazing as Madame Mao. Not only does she sing like nobody's business but she totally owns a really creepy character. In Act II when she sings "I am the wife of Mao Zedong/ I speak according to the book" her face is saying "I could have all of you shot." In Act III she is every bit as sexy as she was scary in Act II, reminding us that the wife of a tyrant was also an aging starlet.]

February 11, 2011 at 3:54 pm 2 comments

Why Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos May Succeed Where Kevin Martin Failed (and why we might regret it)

| Gabriel |

OK, so first thing is that those of you who are not telecom nerds should know is that Kevin Martin was the chairman of the FCC during George W. Bush’s second term. His agenda at the FCC was to force multi-system operators (i.e., cable and satellite companies) to provide ala carte pricing. We already have this for premium cable (HBO, Showtime, etc) but not for “basic” cable. The way basic cable television works is that the cable channel charges the carrier a fee for each subscriber, whether or not the subscriber requested or even ever watches the channel. So for instance, before I canceled my cable subscription, about $2 or $3 of my exorbitant cable bill to Time Warner would get passed on to Disney for the privilege of having ESPN, even though I have never watched this channel ever. The reason is that many other people love ESPN and get far more than $3 a month worth of pleasure from viewing it. Disney knows this and tells Time Warner that it’s all or nothing. Long story short, Kevin Martin failed in this agenda and nothing happened with a la carte cable pricing.

A few months ago, Steve Jobs charged up the reality distortion field and unveiled a few products, one of which was eliminating the abomination that was the buttonless iPod Shuffle. The most important “one more thing” reveal though was the new version of the Apple TV. The old Apple TV was basically a stripped down Mac Mini that used the “Front Row” 10-foot user interface to access your iTunes library. It was primarily oriented towards downloading purchased content and storing it on the device’s hard drive. The new Apple TV is basically the same as a Roku in that it emphasizes streaming over local storage.

Both AppleTV and Roku can stream Netflix and each also has an a la carte video service, iTunes rentals and Amazon video-on-demand, respectively. While Netflix is somewhat similar to a traditional cable business model insofar as it’s a monthly subscription fee for “all you can eat,” the two a la carte services represent a decisive break from the cable television business model. Instead of all you can eat, you buy an episode ($1 for 24 hour rental from Apple, $2 for perpetual access from Amazon).

This is a potentially disruptive innovation for the television industry because one of the main ways the industry had practiced price discrimination (and therefore increased both revenues and quantity) was to engage in bundling. A switch to a la carte will probably result in an increase in consumer surplus per unit demanded but a drastic decrease in quantity supplied. (“Consumer surplus” is econ jargon for the subjective experience of a “bargain”).

Suppose that my household values watching True Blood and Mad Men at $5 an episode, Top Chef at $2 an episode, and Mythbusters and Toddlers and Tiaras at 50 cents an episode. Now suppose that my next door neighbors have the exact opposite set of preferences. In both cases there is a total of $13 of demand for television per household per week. If the cable company charges $12.99 per week, both my neighbor and I will write the check, but do so reluctantly as we’re just barely this side of the indifference curve.

Now suppose that someone (say, Apple or Amazon) starts selling shows a la carte. If the price point is 50 cents both my neighbor and I will still watch all five shows. However we’ll only be paying $2.50 a week and will be getting $10.50 in consumer surplus. If the price point is $2, each of us will get three shows and pay $6, for $6 in consumer surplus. If the price point is $4.99 we’ll each buy two shows, pay almost $10, and get two cents of consumer surplus. There is no price point where we both pay $12.99 like we used to. At any one a la carte price point, both my neighbor and I will pay less than we used to, watch the same or less amount of tv, and get the same or higher consumer surplus.

Thus a switch to an a la carte model implies much lower costs to the consumer. Because revenues would fall, so would production by some combination of reduced numbers of shows and reduced production values. Basically, we’re looking at an end to the television renaissance we’ve enjoyed since the late 1990s as people like me decide that we’d rather pay $10 or $20 a month for the few shows we love and do without the rest than pay $50 a month for a bunch of stuff, most of which we don’t even really like.

However desirable the trade-off of less viewing for a much lower price may be, it may prove unsustainable in the long run. I may love Mad Men so much that $2 an episode to stream to my Roku feels like a bargain. However these shows may only be economically viable because there are also some people who have a marginal attachment to the same show and the current business model of cable bundling lets the content producers effectively get several dollars per episode from the cult following and maybe fifty cents an episode from the casual viewers.

For instance, Battlestar Galactica was only just barely profitable and that was achieved by combining high per-viewer revenues from a small numbers of viewers who really got the show (i.e., viewers who loved it for Laura “Airlock” Roslin and Gaius Baltar)  and low per-viewer revenues from a larger number of viewers who just watched once in awhile (i.e., viewers who tuned in to see the spaceships shoot at each other). However contemptible the latter viewers might be, the show wouldn’t have been renewed without them (which might not have been a bad thing given how the show eventually jumped the shark with the whole “final five” business).

That is to say, television may not be economically viable when priced on an a la carte basis and this could lead to a decline in volume and possibly quality of original programming. This will probably involve a slow decline but could be catastrophic. The most likely scenario for a catastrophic collapse is if the studios forecast that a la carte means declining revenue and try to pare back their cost structure in anticipation. This would probably lead to a militant slate getting elected at both WGA and SAG and an even worse strike / soft strike than we had on the last contract cycle.

November 1, 2010 at 5:26 am 42 comments

Newsola

| Gabriel |

Traditional news organizations have a long-standing ethical code (but no legal restriction) against paying their sources. On the other hand, exclusives with sources can be valuable, especially when those sources can tell us about something cool like sex and/or murder involving celebrities (or at least attractive white girls aged 15-30) rather than some boring shit about Congress or whatshisface from that place where they don’t like us.

The Atlantic has a very interesting story about Larry Garrison, a freelance news producer whose job it is to square the circle between the value being offered and the refusal to pay. Mr. Garrison’s basic business model is to quickly identify people who have been thrust into the news, offer to (for lack of a better term) represent them, and then withhold their appearance from news outlets that refuse to take Garrison on as a segment producer. Mr. Garrison mostly gets paid for being a segment producer and his sources either get kickbacks for these producing fees or more often he gets them book deals and/or arranges for them to license various artifacts and footage to the news outlet (the rule against paying sources for testimony allows a loophole for buying photographs, etc, from them and in practice there’s a lot of implicit bundling).

This whole set of business arrangements is similar to payola in two respects, one of which is articulated in Coase and the other described in Dannen.

First, the Coase point is that while payola is often conceived of as a bribe to corrupt the broadcaster it can just as easily be conceived of as a payment for a valuable input and hence a payola prohibition is a monopsonistic cartel: the purchasers of an input conspire to fix a low price. Specifically, record labels refuse to pay anything for publicity and news organizations refuse to pay for sources. This cartel can be informal (as it is with news and as it was with music trade group agreements in 1917 and 1986) or formal (as with the payola law of 1960). Either way, it’s vulnerable to cheating.

Second, the point illustrated in Dannen is that when cheating occurs, the requirements of plausible deniability and/or etiquette will promote the emergence of brokers who can extract rents for their trouble. In the case of news that would be Mr. Garrison and in the case of pop music in the late 1970s and early 1980s that would be a cartel of sketchy radio consultants affiliated with the mafia.

August 27, 2010 at 11:56 am

Misc Links

| Gabriel |

  • There’s a very interesting discussion at AdAge comparing buzz metrics (basically, data mining blogs and Twitter) to traditional surveys. Although the context is market research, this is an issue that potentially has a lot of relevance for basic research and so I recommend it even to people who don’t particularly care about advertising. The epistemological issue is basically the old validity versus generalizability debate. Surveys are more representative of the general consumer but they suffer from extremely low salience and so answers are so riddled with question wording effects and that sort of thing as to be almost meaningless. On the other hand buzz metrics are meaningful but not representative (what kind of person tweets about laundry bleach?). The practical issue is that buzz metrics are cheaper and faster than surveys.
  • I listened to the bhtv between Fodor and Sober and I really don’t get Fodor’s argument about natural selection. He seems to think that the co-occurence of traits is some kind of devastating problem for biology when in fact biologists have well-articulated theories (i.e., “hitchhiking,” “spandrels,” and the “selection for vs. selection of” distinction) for understanding exactly these issues and as implied by the charge “hyper-adaptionist” there’s already an understanding with the field that these make natural selection a little more complicated than it otherwise might be. However the internal critics who raise these issues (e.g., the late Stephen Jay Gould) wouldn’t come anywhere close to claiming that these issues are an anomaly that challenges the paradigm.
  • As a related philosophy of science issue, Phil @ Gelman’s blog has some thoughts on (purposeful or inadvertent) data massaging to fit the model. He takes it as a Bayesian math issue, but I think you can agree with him on Quinean/Kuhnian philosophical grounds.
  • The essay “Why is there no Jewish Narnia?” has been much discussed lately (e.g., Douthat). The essay basically argues that this is because modern Judaism simply is not a mythic religion. The interesting thing though is that it once was, as can be seen clearly in various Babylonian cognates (eg, the parts of Genesis and Exodus from the J source and the 41st chapter of the book of Job). However, as the essay argues, the mythic aspects were driven out by the rabbinic tradition. Myself, I would go further than that and say that the disenchantment really began with P, though I agree that the rabbinate finished it off, as evidenced by the persistence of myth well through the composition of “Daniel” in the 2nd c. BCE. This reminds me of the conclusion to The Sacred Canopy, where Berger basically says disenchantment has been a long-term trend ever since animism gave way to distinct pagan gods and especially with monotheism.
  • Of course the animism -> paganism ->henotheism -> monotheism -> atheism thing isn’t cleanly monotonic as we sometimes see with pagan survivalism. The first episode of the new season of Breaking Bad cold opens with a couple of narcos praying at a shrine to La Santa Muerte. In a great NYer piece on narco culture, one of the worshippers says “Yes, it was true that the Catholic Church disapproved of her ‘Little Skinny One,’ she said. ‘But have you noticed how empty their churches are?’” Maybe Rodney Stark should write his next book on the market theory of religion using Mexican Satanism as a case study of a new market entrant that more effectively pandered to met the needs of worshippers than the incumbent Catholic church, what with its stodgy rules against murder. (This isn’t a critique of Stark. Since he’s fond of Chesterton’s aphorism that when people don’t believe in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything, I think he’d argue that the popularity of the Santa Muerte cult is the product of a lack of competition among decent religions).
  • The Red Letter feature length deconstructions of the Star Wars prequels are why we have the fair use doctrine. They make dense and creative use of irony, especially with the brilliant contrasts between the narrative and the visual collage. Probably the funniest two segments are the first segment of the Episode I critique when he talks about the poor character development and the fifth segment of the Episode II critique when he plays dating coach for Anakin.

April 8, 2010 at 5:14 am 2 comments

Ratings game

| Gabriel |

David Waguespack and Olav Sorenson have an interesting new paper on Hollywood (their earlier Hollywood paper is here) that contributes to the literature on categorization, rankings, and sensemaking that increasingly seems to be the dominant theme in econ soc. The new paper is about MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG13, R, NC17) and finds that, controlling for the salacious of the content, the big studios get more lenient ratings than small studios. The exact mechanism through which this occurs is hard to nail down but it occurs even on the initial submission so it’s not just that studios continuously edit down and resubmit the movie until they get a PG13 (which is what I would have expected). Thus the finding is similar to some of the extant literature on how private or quasi-private ranking systems can have similar effects to government mandates but adds the theoretical twist that rankings can function as a barrier to entry. This kind of thing has been suspected by the industry itself, and in fact I heard the findings discussed on “The Business” in the car and was planning to google the paper only to find that Olav had emailed me a copy while I was in transit.

Aside from the theoretical/substantive interest, there are two methods points worth noting. First, their raw data on salaciousness is a set of three Likert scales: sex, violence, and cussing. The natural thing to do would have been to just treat these as three continuous variables or even sum them to a single index. Of course this would be making the assumption that effects are additive, linear, and the intervals on the scale are consistent. They avoided this problem by creating a massive dummy set of all combinations of the three scores. Perhaps overkill, but pretty hard to second guess (unless you’re worried about over-fitting, but they present the parametric models too and everything is consistent). Second, to allow for replication, Olav’s website has a zip with their code and data (the unique salaciousness data, not the IMDB data that is available elsewhere). This is important because as several studies have shown, “available on request” is usually a myth.

March 22, 2010 at 4:27 am

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