How Connecting the Dots Leads to a Better Understanding of the Dynamics Between Content and Culture
Data without a specific context can be overwhelming. And while it can provide you with a raw sense of something, you need to know what you’re looking for to get a better understanding of what you’re really seeing.
This is why the team behind Viacom’s Fan Theory project wanted to tell the story about the relationship between content and culture using data visualization. The team looked at thematic trends from content over a 50-year span and mapped it against a cultural timeline to explore this relationship. Viacom partnered with Polygraph (an incubator for visually-driven storytelling) to create the visual tool so that people can engage with and uncover insights on how culture influences content and how content influences culture.
Intrigued, V connected with Viacom’s Director of Global Consumer Insights, Patty Chung, and Polygraph’s Matt Daniels, to better understand how they approached this exploration, and more importantly, what these findings can tell us about fans and the stories they connect with.
V by Viacom: Data seems to be a huge passion for each of you. What’s the attraction and why do you think it’s important?
Matt Daniels: Data happens to be one way to get at something complicated and explain how it works. For example, debating climate change is really hard—you can easily end up talking in circles. But data can really help lend clarity to complexity… an objective lens to make sense of the world.
Patty Chung: Data creates a lot of opportunities for discovery and new ways of learning about our audiences. There’s so much that’s captured today on just about every single thing. In the case of Fan Theory, it provided a way to look at audiences through a niche and macro lens, and in a generationally agnostic way.
V: You both seem especially intrigued with data in the context of its intersection with entertainment, pop culture, and social commentary. What is it about this area that appeals to you?
PC: Data visualization around a topic you’re passionate about is sort of like a form of fandom to me. You have the ability to create a deep dive into the subject matter and tell a really interesting story that can have many different angles and pathways that users can explore like a subreddit.
MD: I just do what interests me, intrinsically. If a certain topic is keeping me up at night, I’ll work on it as a project.
V: Matt, when it came to Fan Theory, how did you begin to contextualize the project based on the ask?
MD: The Viacom team came to us with three ideas around how fans intersect with TV and film. We found the data very interesting and tried to come up with the most interactive, explorable tools that would let anyone investigate what interests them most.
V: Patty, how did you approach the Intersection of Stories & Culture concept?
PC: The cultural question or theory we developed seems obvious in some ways, but it’s actually pretty complicated to address. Does culture influence content? Does content influence culture? Can you quantify that? Many of the themes we address are topics academics study for years and years—and recognizing that, we really consider this an exploration.
We collaborated with our Audience Science team (data scientists, digital strategists and creative technologists whose mission is to support Viacom’s brands with decision making through advanced analytics) to tackle this concept, and we identified several themes we thought would be interesting to study over a 50-year span. We mapped the occurrence of each of those themes (within the top films and TV shows) over a timeline of events to see what the relationship would be like. Does it ebb and flow with any pattern? Will we see a correlation to culture and events?
V: What were the biggest surprises you both discovered while working through this project together?
MD: We were able to see a very macro view of TV and film through the lens of crowd-sourced tags, such as the growth of certain tropes or the effect of an event on culture.
PC: It’s not necessarily a surprise, but something that was fascinating to see was when a theme had a high occurrence and then there was a law that changed that relates to that theme. For example, the Defense of Marriage Act took effect in 1996. Following that, the LGBT stories increased in content and remained higher than normal until same-sex marriage was declared legal in 2015. We mention this on the site, but Viacom’s research also validates this point—in a study done with Viacom and Logo, we found that positive portrayals of the LGBT community on TV and film can change attitudes about the LGBT community for the better.
V: But what do you think this work really points to when it comes to fans and fandom as a whole?
PC: One thing that really stood out about this project is that the stories that really drive a connection with audiences are the ones that are unrelentingly unapologetic and honest about who and what they represent.
As Fan Theory reveals, the relationship between audiences and content is complex. There are a lot of factors to consider in how that connection is built and why. Do our attitudes and belief systems have a significant influence on what we watch? Do the people in our social circles play a role? Is culture a connective thread? If we look at the data, it’s yes, all of the above.
To explore 50 years of culture across film and TV, check out Fan Theory: The Intersection of Stories and Culture.