Databites are Data & Society’s weekly lunch conversations focused on unresolved questions and timely topics of interest to our community.
Caitlin Petre on The Social Life of Big Data: Exploring the Production and Consumption of Reader Metrics in Online Journalism:
A defining characteristic of journalism’s transition to the digital age is the ability to track and quantify audiences’ responses to online news content in real time. Some argue this data is a long-overdue democratizing force in journalism, while others worry that metrics pose a grave threat to the profession’s integrity. Both sides in this debate tend to assume that audience-tracking technologies are a force external to the media field whose effect will be transformative. Drawing on fieldwork at Chartbeat, Gawker Media, and the New York Times, my research challenges this assumption by showing how the creation, interpretation, and use of metrics are highly conditioned by social and organizational factors. While the analytics dashboard is generally portrayed as a tool of rationalization in newsrooms – that is, as a technology that systematically quantifies the performance of content in order to maximize traffic and advertising revenue – I demonstrate that the dashboard is designed to have powerful social and emotional dimensions that sometimes take precedence over its rational ones. I also find that in newsrooms, existing organizational power structures largely determine how metrics are accessed, interpreted, and used. In showing how the production and consumption of metrics are inherently social processes, this research provides analytical tools to better understand the impact of performance data in a range of professional fields.