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How do you measure media's influence in a networked ecosystem?

Influence is one of the "elements of impact" that we're exploring in this series of blog posts leading up to the Making Your Media Matter conference. How can we best evaluate the role of public media projects in shaping users' understanding of an issue, moving users to action (whether that's seeking further information, voting, or political organizing), or affecting policymaking?

These are by no means new questions. Throughout the 20th century, scholars, journalists and political commentators offered up various and often competing theories about the influence of mass media. Studies of related fields of communication-advertising and PR, propaganda, campaigning, entertainment-shed light on the prospects for media to move people to what critics often characterized as negative forms of action: impulse purchasing, violent revolt, negative self-evaluation and more. Often, audiences themselves were under-theorized-dismissed as a homogeneous and manipulable mass, or sliced and diced into demographic segments thought to react in predictable ways.

But social media has disrupted and complicated previous assumptions about the relationship between media makers, gatekeepers and users, shifting the possibilities for influence. Participation, engagement and dissent have become much more visible, rapid and powerful. As Jay Rosen noted in a post early last year, this doesn't usurp the power of mass media outlets to set agendas and influence users, but it does dilute it:

Today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the "sphere of legitimate debate" as defined by journalists doesn't match up with their own definition. In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the "echo chamber," which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what's really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.


In our forthcoming book, Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media, my coauthor Tracy Van Slyke and I examine these new dynamics of influence through a series of case studies of explicitly progressive media projects. Along the way, we develop a model for understanding the interactions between media makers and four layers of networks--networked users, self-organized networks, institutional networks, and networks of institutions (learn more here). We've developed corresponding visualizations, contained in the slideshow below, for each network layer.

Examining media influence through the lens of these network layers poses new challenges for makers, researchers and analysts seeking to measure impact. Rather than simply measuring the popularity of a program, film or story, it's now necessary to account for how individual and institutional networks are dynamically interacting with a media project. Are they critiquing it, amplifying it, elaborating upon it? Are campaigns and advocacy groups spreading the story or hosting offline viewing parties? Have networks grown up around an outlet or a production, creating a pool of networked users that can be tapped for fundraising, crowdsourcing and more?

A variety of tools and models have cropped up that allow us to examine the dynamics of media moving across and between networks. Henry Jenkins has been working with a set of researchers to examine the flow of "spreadable" media (see this serialized white paper for more details)-a concept that emphasizes the agency of users as opposed to the power of the media object itself, and the importance of the online "gift economy." A range of online tools serve the same function that "clipping services" did for print publications-tracking who is reprinting, citing or reviewing a piece of media. Google Alerts is probably one of the simplest and most commonly used. Companies like Linkfluence have created visual models for assessing the influence of particular outlets within the context of specified networks, such as blogospheres on the right and left. The role of "influencers" in spreading media and setting frames online has also been extolled by both popular authors such as Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and researchers such as the team that wrote Poli-fluentials: The New Political Kingmakers, for the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet-as well as refuted by network analyst Duncan Watts.

For producers of public media 2.0-especially news projects-the question of whether their productions are influential can be a fraught one, because of the pressure to be conventionally objective. But that shouldn't stop them from assessing whether and how their work is picked up and used by various networks, and if it engages users more meaningfully around issues. More research and more discussion is needed to create a framework for assessing influence that will be tailored to tracking whether the goals of public media-to convene, inform, and empower publics-are being met.

Throughout the spring we'll be examining approaches to measuring influence, as well as the other elements of impact we've identified, via a series of "impact summits." Watch this space for further details, and we hope to see you at Making Your Media Matter!