How academia fell for the data hype

Author: Ruth Garland, University of Hertfordshire
July 2018

The data imaginary plays to our fears of being left behind in a speedy world, of lacking a competitive edge, of being out of touch, of not matching up. The data imaginary blends together promises with fears of what we might become. A life without data is left unimaginable, and a life with data is glossy, shiny, and full of hope”. Dave Beer, sociologist, University of York. July 4 2018.


In mid-2016, at the point where I was finishing writing up my PhD, my supervisor advised me that to succeed in academia I needed to establish my position on digital media. Ideally, I needed to find a research project that had a digital theme. I was paying close attention to academic job adverts at the time and noticed that most expected a focus on digital media. Since all media are now to some extent digital, as media scholars it is clear that this is something we cannot ignore, but do we really have to prove our digital credentials to succeed as media scholars? I want to argue in this essay, as I did in my presentation to Brestolon last year that this is not only beside the point, but damaging to the way we think about our field.

As a PR specialist of many years standing, I am fully aware of how hype operates, and I can see it all around me. Students believe that to appeal to employers in the media and creative industries they need to demonstrate that they have the practical skills to deploy digital tools. Actually, most, although not all, already have these in abundance. What they actually need is critical and analytical skills and the ability to adapt to media change. Similarly, to ensure their income streams, university media departments run courses that they think students want. They believe that by branding their courses as ‘digital’ they will achieve this.

This is not to say that the social, cultural and political changes associated with the rapid move to digital are not worthy of study. They clearly are, and if examined in depth, they are fascinating. It doesn’t mean though that studies relating to literature, television, radio and film are out of date or irrelevant. Similarly, concepts such as framing, news values, agenda setting, media logic, mediatization and promotional cultures are possibly even more relevant now than they were in the early 2000s. As far as I know, established media academics were not defined or limited by particular media technologies, so why do emerging scholars have to be? You don’t need to be a digital specialist to think about our digitally mediated worlds. Examining how we live today with (digital) media does not mean abandoning fields of study such as historical institutionalism, political campaigning and propaganda; discourse, representation and semiotics; or television, celebrity and fandom.

Take advertising. Like PR this has moved centre stage since even day-to-day personal communication that would once have taken place by phone or letter, is now digitally mediated by commercially branded interests. Yet despite this increasing penetration of commercial logic into daily life, the study of promotional arts such as advertising and public relations are accepted only reluctantly into traditional halls of learning and deemed inferior to such areas as film studies, journalism or political communications. In all the discussion about ‘digital’ or ‘algorithmic culture’, the overwhelmingly promotional and profit-driven nature of social media is too rarely seen as fundamentali. I teach the advertising module at the University of Hertfordshire and find it fascinating to consider the changes in advertising practice at every level that are brought about by media change. The digital dimension is present throughout but it doesn’t mean that I’m teaching digital advertising. Incidentally, many of the claims for social media advertising and promotion made by data management companies and advertising agencies are overstated; they are in the selling business and it is too early to say which sales messages actually reach people. This applies in the political field too.

What strikes me about the quote from sociologist Dave Beer that opens this essay, is how his depiction of the data imaginary could be applied to the dominant representation today of media and communications as an academic discipline. This representation is itself driven by a competitive learning environment that is dependent on metrics. If we can’t demonstrate our digital credentials we risk being “left behind in a speedy world, of lacking a competitive edge, of being out of touch, of not matching up”. I fear that in this dash for digital we are losing our interest in our main objects of study – human beings, including ourselves.

Take this recent experience. I was waiting for some footage to load from the flooded Thai cave that showed the emaciated boys being helped by the smiling doctor divers. One boy wears what looks like a Manchester United shirt. Before the scene emerges, an ad for Lipton tea appears, showing healthy young people frolicking and picnicking in green fields by a lake. The juxtaposition was crass and offensive and, I’m sure, ultimately counterproductive, leading to that familiar ‘creepy feeling’ when you know something is not quite right. The ‘grammar’ of TV advertising took years, even decades, to evolve to the point when it appeared natural, and where there was some accountability for what was placed in the public domain. These are the social, psychological and political questions that should concern us as media scholars, and you don’t need to be a digital expert to ask them.

So what is my position on digital media? I’m excited and confused about the theoretical and empirical challenges it brings, and, as a political communication specialist I’m most interested in the political implications, but I don’t really have a worked-out position beyond scepticism. I strongly resist having to demonstrate (or hype-up) my digital credentials but it’s something that I need to keep thinking about and I am grateful to Brestolon for providing a non-judgmental forum that makes this possible.

PS: As the newest member of the teaching team at UH I was given the task of running an ill-defined course called Social Media. It scared me as I rarely use social media, and what could I teach them? As a sceptic, and possibly also a social media-phobe, I raised lots of questions about the assumptions behind our understandings of social media. To my huge surprise, the students loved the course. By the way, the official datafied feedback was useless but that’s another story.

i Hepp and Couldry’s The Mediatized Construction of Reality (2017) is one exception to this.

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