Social Media and the End of Age, Race, and Gender


During the 2007-2008 television season, Grey's Anatomy, the emotional hospital procedural on ABC in which characters have nicknames like McDreamy and McSteamy, charged advertisers $419,000 for a thirty-second commercial spot. CSI, that tired crime scene drama with spin-offs centered on cities from coast to coast, was only able to pull in $248,000. And it had about five million more viewers every week. Why? Because everybody who watches CSI is old. And old people don't buy anything.

Old people are worthless. At least they are to big media companies with similarly big advertising budgets. The 18-49 demographic is the one that is most important. These are the people with disposable income. Consider Glee, the runaway FOX hit in which actors (some closer to thirty than to twenty) portray high school characters that like to sing and dance in between classes -- and sometimes during, too. An annual survey from Advertising Age found that the show charges $272,694 for a commercial spot. NCIS: LA, which has the same number of viewers? $154,670.

Depending on which box you fit into, which show you watch, advertisers think they know something about you and your habits. They think they know which products you're going to go buy and when you're going to go buy them. They think they know just about everything.

They do know some things, it's true. They're not spending their money frivolously, throwing it at random shows and hoping it will stick. Current spending habits are based on decades of careful research, much of it led by Nielsen, the audience measurement system developed by Nielsen Media Research, a market analysis firm founded in the 1920s, long before there was a television in every home. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks, though, that model is in the process of being turned on its head. Social media is taking the "old-school demographics," as Johanna Blakley calls them -- race, gender, age -- out of the equation and taking your interests into consideration.

Blakley, the deputy director at the Norman Lear Center, a nonpartisan research and public policy center that studies the political, social, cultural and economic impact of entertainment on the world, gave a speech last week at the TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C., entitled "Social Media and the End of Gender." Blakley's talk was greeted with less skepticism than it seems she was anticipating. And that's because those of us who use the social media tools she talked about know intuitively that things are changing even if nobody has spelled it out for us yet. But what are the consequences of that change?

"Social media will help us to move past the stereotypes we associate with gender," Blakley opened. "It allows us to escape our demographics." When companies monitor your clickstream -- where and when you click on a Web browser or while using another software application; believe me, they're doing it -- it's hard for them to predict your age, race or gender. "When you look online at the way people aggregate and organize, it's not around age," Blakley said. "It's around interests."

Give this a quick test. Visit your Facebook page. Click on your age. First you'll have to look around to find where it's been moved. With the new design that rolled out last week, it's harder to find this bit of information than ever before. Then you'll realize that you've been tricked: You can't click on it. But there's plenty on your profile that you can click on: your place of work; your favorite sports teams, movies, television shows; the people that inspire you. And when you do click on these things you'll be taken to a page where you can find the 23,920 other people on Facebook that list Dickey's Deliverance as one of their favorite books of all time.

I went to the first fan page that pops up when you search for NCIS: LA and, while Facebook, which is growing in every area, but is still dominated by younger users, can't yet provide the perfect sample, the first person associated with the page a young girl named Nikki. She likes NCIS: LA and anime. She likes Harry Potter books and James Van Allen, the American space scientist named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1960.

Nikki has a diverse set of interests. Most of us do. And as advertisers learn that and develop new ways to measure it, it will mean a radical shift in how television shows -- and newspapers and websites and other products that rely for their revenue largely on advertising dollars -- are funded. How will these media change?

Women dominate social networking technologies, Blakley stated while showing a slide of how, across the board, more women use these services more than men. "Does this mean that women will dominate the media?" she asked. Are we going to start seeing television shows with all female characters and more movies that center around female protagonists? Will every showing at the local movie theater be a chick flick? No, Blakley insisted. Women will be the ones "who are responsible for driving a stake through the heart of cheesy genre movies," she said. Because they're the ones that are using Twitter, where it's easy to view all messages by subject using hashtags and impossible to view only tweets from middle-aged white guys in Palm Springs. They're the ones, right now, that get it.

Image: Johanna Blakley speaks during Session 6: Crescendo, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010, at TEDWomen, Washington, DC. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED.