June 13, 2011

The Perfect People Meter: My Beautiful Fantasy About Understanding Audience in the Digital Age

Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, delivered this keynote address to the Advertising Research Foundation’s audience research conference on June 13, 2011.

It is an honor for me and for Pew Internet to be invited here today. One of the great parts of my job is the experience of getting a cold call – or in this case a cold email – from someone like Rachael Feigenbaum inviting me to a session like this. 

It’s humbling to be in the same room with many of the people and organizations who have taught me so much in my current post and during the many years I was in the news business. I need to be candid and tell you that Pew Internet regularly “borrows” from the powerful research that is done by people here. So, I want to start by saying thanks for teaching us so much and letting us practice a little intellectual property thievery. In today’s phrasing that might be considered “remixed research.”

We at Pew Internet have been exploring the world of digital technology since early 2000. And in the ensuing decade, we have watched and measured three revolutions – first, the internet/broadband revolution, then the mobile revolution, and third, the social networking revolution.

The digital world continues to evolve still and we are just beginning to watch and understand another large-scale change as the “internet of things” is coming into being … and the environment itself – the rooms we inhabit, the cars we drive, the appliances we use, the things we wear – all those things are becoming connected and data-rich nodes of digital media.

The guesses about the extent of this are staggering: There are about 7-8 billion connected things now…. 20 billion by 2015 (Intel)…. 50 billion by 2020 (Ericcson) …. The Economist magazine even recently cited without skepticism a prediction of a trillion connected devices in the foreseeable future.

Cisco has predicted that by 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes – that’s more than 44.55 million versions of the Libraries of Congress.

Each of these revolutions has changed the character of the media ecology and given us new methods of investigating users – or as one of my many teachers, NYU’s Jay Rosen, has called them … “the people formerly known as the audience” – because the majority of them now are quite avid media producers as well as consumers …. and their experiences of media are shaped and reshaped by their participation, not by their passivity. 

The reason I completely agree with what David Marans  (from the ARF) said this morning: that this is the platinum age for research is that this new media environment and the exaflood of data to come can bring us a lot closer to understanding people in the ways that David Brooks described in his earlier keynote. Among other things, we are moving from the age of assessing people by their traits towards an age of understanding their behaviors in contexts.

We received new survey data a few days ago and I’ll share those findings to update you on the state of the three revolutions.

Revolution 1 –internet broadband. Some 78% of American adults now use internet and 93% of Americans teens do. Further, 61% have broadband at home. As we watched the evolution in the last decade from the dial-up environment to the broadband environment we saw increases in every metric that matters about internet use. People spent more time online. They logged on more frequently. Their roster of online activities expanded.  They watch vastly more video. And they reported greater levels of pleasure and satisfaction with their online experiences.

The most dramatic change was that broadband users became content creators. At Pew Internet now we see that about two-thirds of adults and three-quarter of teens have created some kind of content for the online world. This isn’t necessarily profound stuff (though in some cases it decidedly is profound). But they are sharing their stories, their thoughts, their reactions, their ratings and rankings, their photos and their videos in the online commons. It is a radical change from the pre-internet days, when media creation was almost the sole province of a modest number of media firms – newspapers, publishers, broadcasters, movie makers, and radio conglomerates.

The impact of Revolution 1 – the internet and broadband revolution — is that it democratized media making. Everybody and every organization (for-profit and non-profit, public and private sector) could be a “media node.” That meant they had new methods of reaching out, interacting and building audiences. In addition, this new environment gave people the tools to voice their views about the media they consumed and the firms they encountered. In their participation with others, especially companies, they became more avid stakeholders of companies and organizations and a goodly portion of them became more emboldened to be critics of companies and organizations.

Furthermore, this spread of “publishing” and “broadcasting” via the internet led to proliferation of niches and communities – literally countless numbers of them. And it made it “ridiculously easy,” as my friend Clay Shirky argues, for people to build communities. About a fifth of internet users have told us over the years that if they go hunting for groups and communities online that are tied to something that matters to them AND CAN’T FIND exactly what they want, then they try to build it themselves.

And this increasing “social” activity around media led to increased engagement with big, industrial media. All those fan clubs and remixers have new ways now to embrace their fan-ness and spread the word AND be creative in their own right.

Revolution 2 is the mobile revolution. In our most recent survey, 83% of adults said they own cell phones and for the first time in our readings more than half of them (51%) use them to access the internet. In addition, 56% own laptops; a little under a tenth own tablets and 75% of those device owners connect wirelessly and “on the go.”

So altogether, 59% of American adults access the internet wirelessly – that is, they tell us they use at least one mobile device in their lives to access the internet.

The impact of the second revolution is also profound. Media consumption and media-production are now an anytime, anywhere, any device proposition. In addition, media can be created by anyone at any time. Among other things that means people are in charge of their own playlists and media experiences. Media experiences now are not as much about mass events for mass audiences as they are about personalized experiences and media production.

In addition, media in “real time” is increasingly the reality for on-the-go mobile connectors. And the relevance of location is reasserting itself as a factor in communication. In earlier days of technology time and place weren’t as meaningful. Now, 6% of internet users use location check-in services and 9% allow location awareness from social media.

Revolution 3 is the social networking revolution on technology. For generations social networks have mattered more and more as social structures. The digital revolution has put that on steroids. These days, half of Americans use social networking websites – or nearly two-thirds of internet users.  As the population of those sites evolved, the average age of adult SNS user in two years has gone from age 33 to age 38. Moreover SNS have become a more female dominated space. 56% of adult SNS users are women.

The advent of SNS has brought the formerly subsurface world of people’s daily activities, gossip, hopes, dreams, aspirations, complaints, and concerns to the surface to be witnessed and evaluated. Simply put, we can now watch what people are saying and doing in far greater detail and comprehensiveness than ever before. The advent of this pervasive awareness of day-to-day comings and goings among our friends has changed our capacity for audience assessment by allowing a pretty thorough peek into the interior lives of social media users.

The other big change is that expertise and influence have shifting to social networks. This movement is part of a long trend as people’s core social structures have shifted from tight-knit groups to more loose-knit networks.

Social networks are increasingly used in three ways as coping mechanisms as people navigate a world rich with media and in which the idea of “information overload” is a constant meme. Networks are more important as:

Sentries – as filters for the information that is interesting and important to know. People depend in new ways on their networks to tip them off to news of all kinds.

Evaluators  — when people encounter new information or something that doesn’t map with their world view, they often now turn to their social networks to help them evaluate 1) the accuracy of the information; and 2) the weight that information should be credited. Is this a Richter 10 event that should change my view of everything? Or a pop-gun burp that doesn’t matter at all. Their networks will help them assign weight to the new thing they’ve learned.

Forums for action/chances to appeal to an audience – in the era of social media when anyone can be a broadcaster or publisher social networks now also provide the audience for content creators creations. People have a sense that those who “friend” them or “follow” them are an audience to be entertained, enlightened, or mobilized.

All this has been accompanied by a big shift in trust away from big institutions – I think only the military as an institution has gained ground in public trust in the last generation — and traditional media gatekeepers to more subtle influencers in social networks.  Trust building is negotiable, fluid, transactional, and sometimes fleeting. And it is done in the context of more intimate audiences and networks.

In this environment, organizations can become active participants in personal networks – or “nodes” in networks, if you will. But they do so only by giving up their previous perches as distant and un-disturbable centers of expertise, and by entering into conversations with their stakeholders and users.


All three revolutions have changed people’s experiences with media and engagement with media. They have also restructured the very notion of what an audience is.

That has gotten me to fantasizing about what a perfect people meter would be for this new ecology. What would it capture and what would that tell you? My perfect people meter would integrate insights in 5 domains into a data dashboard.

1)     Attention zone on people meter – This would be a huge refinement of time-use material from the past. This gauge in would give readouts about people’s different attention zones AND media zones at different points in their days

           Streaming – passive – Continuous partial attention

           Streaming – activity – check in – snacking (Angry Birds)    

            Immersive – passive (entertain me)

           Immersive – active – deep dive (get out of the way!)       

            Participatory – personal – helping my social world

           Participatory – professional – helping my work world

2) Intention zone on people meter – Much of this is wholly new information that we didn’t have in the pre-internet, pre-mobile, pre-social networks era. For my money, the best thinking on this has been done by John Battelle, co-originator of the Web 2.0 idea and a top conceptualizer of how new data layers are surfacing users’ intentions.[1] He speaks about 7 databases of intentions and actions:  

Purchase Data: We not only have data about who buys what; we also now have information about who *almost* buys what (abandoned carts), *when* they buy, in what context, and so on.

Search Data: The original database of intentions – query data (as Battelle says, “what I want”) path from query data, and many more search signals.

Social Data: Who’s your friend and personal tastes data.  (Battelle describes it as “Who I am”)

Interest Data: This is data that describes what Battelle and others generally called “the interest graph” – declarations of what people are interested in. It’s related to content, but it’s not just content consumption. It includes active production of interest data points – like tweets, status updates, and checkins.

Location Data: This is data about where people are and information about how often they are there, what apps they use when they are there, and who else is there and when.

Content Data: Knowing patterns of content consumption is a powerful signal. This is data about who reads/watches what, when, and in what patterns.

Wildcard, Miscellaneous Data: Applications use data, email traffic, time-use material known by carriers, individual server side data that companies have.

All of these fall under the broad category of intentions an each deserves its own screen on my fantasy people meter probably with the title “Battelle-grid.”

3)     After the attention and intention zones on my people meter, I would place a technology psychographic dial. There are rich ways to supplement the demographic and lifestyle information that has long been the currency of audience measurement work.

At Pew Internet we have found that people’s relationship to media and technology is often shaped by their general feelings about the affordances of technology…. 

a.      One dimension of that is their attitude about the role of technology in their lives. Some are enthralled by opportunities and the new adventures that new media introduces to their lives….. Others are appalled by the extra burdens …. Often, these feelings are tied to particular circumstances, so on any given day they might have moments of being thrilled and moments of being grumpy.

b.      Another psychographic dimension would involve a measure of users’ openness to more information and it would do so at several levels. My meter would assess a person’s openness to more information about what she is currently experiencing – augmented reality, deep dive.

This part of the meter would also register the user’s openness to new information on entirely new subjects. We’ve always known that people value media experiences for several reasons. Of course, the topmost attraction is the relevance of information they provide …. We’re getting better and better about understanding and delivering that.

But we’re less good at noticing people’s enchantment with those serendipitous encounters with information that they never knew they cared about until someone provided it to them. This is a big part of the media story that is little understood and can be tested pretty easily in experiments.

4)     The next zone on the meter would give readings on conversations around media: My people meter would continue to give readouts about how people react AFTER their media experiences … A hallmark of the new digital ecology is that the conversations started by media often never end among those whom the media has touched … and this feature of my people meter would recognize that and assign meaning to the ongoing chatter…. This is the way influence takes shape in the new media world, so I’d watch that one closely.

5)     Stalk-o-meter dial (later updated by audience member, whom I now cannot find, on Twitter to “stalk alarm”). This would be an audio-rigged dial that would ring a loud alarm when anybody with messaging has worn out their welcome or crossed a boundary by signaling “I know a tremendous amount about you.”

Americans give confusing signals about privacy and identity. They assign a high value to privacy at the level of a value and a right. But their behavior suggests that the vast majority are willing to bargain over personal information and make it available if the “price” is right – in convenience, efficiency, and, of course, in savings.

I am one of many analysts who have over-predicted the public pushback against companies that gather too much personal information and offer too little information about how it is used.

But I continue to see in our data that Americans want limits because they fundamentally don’t like being tracked and profiled. They worry they can be manipulated into doing things they would prefer not to do or misunderstood in ways that will hurt them as they are trying to get jobs, lines of credit, insurance and other goods.

So my stalk-o-meter would sound a loud “ay-ooo-gah” when tech-user anxieties spike and advertising profiling cuts too close to the core.

Most of all, my new people meter would recognize that the relationship between the measurers and the measured has changed in the digital age.

The adventure of audience measurement now that it feels a lot LESS like a square dance – where the cadences and steps are structured and dictated by all-powerful “callers” (read here: the gatekeepers in media companies) – and MORE like a jazz interpretive dance where movements and the study of the movements are fluid, shifting, dependent on the mood and circumstances of the moment, and highly improvisational.

The image I have in my head here is Jules Feiffer’s wonderful  “Dance to Spring” cartoon strip that I enjoyed for decades in the Village Voice.

We all have the tools now to capture a lot of that context and fluidity and then interpret it in ways that make the world more understandable.

The word audience comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “to hear.” The great thing about this moment is that now those of us who measure what people do can hear them in new ways. They’re not just listening to and reacting to the media that is offered to them. They are co-creating a new media ecosystem that gives us all a chance to understand in fresh ways what they are saying.

It’s a platinum age indeed!

Thank you