MEG 2012: Some remarks concerning research and innovation in media

My overall impression of the first Media Days in Gothenburg (MEG) is that it was a most welcome event, complete with interesting and fruitful discussions and presentations. Now, a few days after the event, some comments have emerged on blogs and in newspapers. Most of these comments are descriptive and mostly approving. Perhaps it is too early to see really critical discussions, but I am, on the other hand, not sure they will really appear, at all. Judging from the Twitter feed during the event, media people are not openly critical towards each other. Consequently, the amount of ‘criticism’ passed around in terms of analytical discussion of what was said and how, remained very limited during MEG, at least publicly.

Thomas Mattsson, editor-in-chief of Swedish newspaper Expressen, in his blog soon after the event, called for, among other things, a wider presence of commercial media, deeper discussions, more focus on business issues, discussions on failures, and presentations of metrics for different media. I fully agree with him. There was a lot of sales talk, but little with regard to business issues. Following often-repeated phrases on the need for new business models, there were surprisingly few deep business discussions, although the music industry panel was a welcome exception. Generally there were few genuine discussions on stage, people seemed to be talking at each other, rather than to each other.

During one of the last panels Tomas Brunegård, CEO of Swedish media conglomerate Stampen, called for collaborations in the research and innovation areas, both regionally and internationally. Even if the media industry is preoccupied with innovations, there are much more to do, particularly on a larger scale, but also at a more detailed level. It is of course always problematic to discuss possible collaborations between competitors, but still, there are many issues where collaborations might gain everyone (just think of the standardization in micro payment for the success of iTunes or Spotify.) And, there is much more to do in terms of industry-university collaboration in the areas of research and innovation.

There were also ubiquitous references to user generated content and social media, that is, the creativity of audiences and readers. The social media ‘gurus’ presented their sales talks, some interesting cases were displayed, and some research was presented, but not much more. Here the distance between MEG and other industry-academy collaborative conferences was profound, and somewhat embarrassing.

In sum, for me, the interesting perspectives and questions came from participants from the commercial sector of the media industry, although, the superficiality of some of their presentations would have been helped by more genuinely collaborative ambitions. This is partly a result of what for me looks like a mutual disrespect for the others’ knowledge production between media researchers, media executives and users/audiences/customers alike. Let me elaborate on this.

It is already well-known and true that metrics is the currency of the media industry. Therefore we need figures telling and showing sales, market shares, revenues etc. The problem is, which economists have known for a very long time, that even if counting money is often important, it tells us only about ‘what’ and ‘how’, but it tells us little about ‘why’. In times of change no question is as important as ‘why’. Starting to measure new things may solve some of the problem. The risk is then that we end up as Scrooge McDuck counting not only coins, but bills too. So, how do we design investigations that help us answer the why-questions?

Thomas Mattsson gave one lead, Tomas Brunegård, another. As every scientifically trained person know, it is often not only more relevant to falsify than to verify things, but it is also the only possible way to gain new knowledge. Success stories are of course important, but more as encouragement than as ideals. It is difficult to analyze a success. Not only for how to deal with luck and outer causes, but psychologically it is difficult to publicly try and tear down the successful colleague, or competitor. It is easier for otherwise successful people to talk about their failures. It is also more likely that an analysis of a failure will lead to structural and more fundamental aspects of change since it is something that is often already terminated and something with which we more easily can look at from some distance. To see the result of some external researchers working with those who were responsible for the failure will teach us more, than the ordinary success stories.

Collaboration is easier to talk about, than to to perform in real life! Still we need to both perform and talk about it. It should not be all that difficult to strengthen the link between industry-academy research and innovation. Still it seems to be difficult. The industry perspective is easy to understand and easy to defend: commercial organizations pay for research which can be of practical use on an everyday basis. On the one hand they decide which questions to ask and then they own the answers. On the other hand they may not know which questions to ask – that’s why they work with researchers in the first place – and they may not understand the answers. This give researchers too much power but without any responsibility. Research in media in commercial contexts therefore has to be oriented towards consultancy rather than traditional research work. Collaborative work in research and innovation therefore has to include other researchers (ok, I am not without bias here…) than traditional media researchers, at least for the ‘consultancy’ part. But, knowledge production is too important to be left one-sidedly to either the industry or the academy.

Collective intelligence and wisdom of the crowd may have been overly used buzzwords for almost a decade, but there is still much to do ‘in the open’. Ethnographers’ idea of ‘vernacular theory’, that is, theorizations among practitioners and fans, is not only something to exploit for commercial purposes, it is also a source for knowledge and understanding. Likewise, user generated content of course is a way to get new material, subject matter, but also a material which can say a lot about user preferences and their understanding of different content and different platforms.

To sum up, if MEG was more proactive in generating knowledge, not only disseminating and discussing it, it would both open up for more fruitful academy-industry-user collaborations, but also, as a place and an event, be more innovative.

Those were my arguments for ‘why’ and ‘what’, what about ‘how’?

A crucial ingredient in that particular discussion was Thomas Mattsson’s call for more time for each panelist during the MEG-event. Or, in other words, time for people to talk to each other, instead of at one another. My impression was that industry people were better at talking to each other than researchers were. On the other hand, it is necessary to always include someone who is at least socially from the outside. Someone who doesn’t have a personal interest in the particular issue. As I said before, the problem was a lack of both business issues and a serious open-minded critique.

Most importantly, the MEG-workshops should not focus on what has already been done, but on what should be done, and how, and by whom. After that each participant alone or in constellations can continue in open or closed discussions or negotiations.

This requires mutual respect for different practices, methods and theories. This respect is limited today, but it is vital for an innovative media ecology. And there is no reason to talk about multidisciplinarity (or any similar empty buzzword) before we have reached a level of acceptable mutual respect. This is crucial considering the different conditions for innovation that apply in different sectors of the media industry. During MEG, and in the public discussion on media, it seems like everyone relies on small enterprises, ‘the creatives’, the cool gang. At the same time, some research studies argues for the opposite.

In the line of Tomas Brunegård’s argument, large-scale research and innovation projects are vital, and the big companies are obviously major players in such a scenario, but so are the smaller, the academy, and the users. With more well prepared, carefully composed proactive workshops and seminars MEG has the potential to be the best place for innovation and critique in the media field in Scandinavia.

Addendum for readers interested in theory

We need a more speculative approach within the area of media studies, which combine hard facts of what we know with preparations for what we don’t know. Already in 1996 Dutch media theorist Geert Lovink talked about a ‘speculative media theory’ which he defined as ‘the wish to overcome the actual object of our studies and passions”. The current wave of ‘speculative realism’ may be another way to approach this field. In any case, it has to be collaborative and open, critical and business-minded. I shall be coming back to this issue.

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