Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death of polling?

An interesting post on politicalwire caught my attention earlier this week, getting me thinking about crowds and audiences again, but in a slightly different stratum. This isn’t about the activity of the crowd or controlling it, but rather coming to know it. I present the quote here in its entirety because it’s just that interesting to me.

Phone polling depends on a set of assumptions: "You're at home; you have a phone; your phone has a hard-coded area code and exchange which means I know where you are; ... you're waiting for your phone to ring; when it rings you'll answer it; it's OK for me to interrupt you; you're happy to talk to me; whatever you're doing is less important than talking to me; and I won't take no for an answer -- I'm going to keep calling back until you talk to me."

However, the reality is much different: "In fact, you don't have a home phone; your number can ring anywhere in the world; you're not waiting for your phone to ring; nobody calls you on the phone anyway they text you or IM you; when your phone rings you don't answer it -- your time is precious, you have competing interests, you resent calls from strangers, you're on one or more do-not-call lists, and 20 minutes [the length of many pollsters' interviews] is an eternity."

In the article linked from PW the speaker, pollster Jay Leve, also defends the use of automated phone polls, which I could devote a lot of time to discussing another time. What I’m more concerned with is what Leve implies about the impact of cell phones on social geography. My mind immediately went to a piece from my audience studies class in the spring, Relocating the site of the audience by Martin Allor. Allor (1988) talks about the audience member as “an autonomous unit separable from systems of singification” and at the same time “a faceless member of a class of people” (218).

Allor isn’t talking about the “site” of the audience in a geographical sense but the wordplay here is fun. Like Allor, Leve is constructing the audience as a commodity to his client; they represent informational power in a political campaign. He is thinking of them as unpaid labor; taking up twenty minutes of their time for them to do the work of organizing that information; except the audience doesn’t even get the illusory pleasure of seeing their labor as leisure, as when they’re watching television. Finally, Leve points out the flaw of modern polling in one big assumption, thinking that the audience is at home.

Here again is the wordplay of “site.” As Allor says, the audience “exists nowehere; it inhabits no real space” (228). How true. Allor says the “place of the audience is multiple” in the sense of being defined by gender or labor or decoding; but the place of the audience is also multiple in the sense of geography. Leve also said that during the 2008 election his firm was getting about 24% of the 18 to 24 year old respondents they should have been. The cell phone has given this audience a locational fluidity that makes it impossible for the pollsters to follow; the poll respondent is no longer confined to domestic spaces.

Where Roger Silverstone (1991), for example, talked about domestic media allowing for the dispersal of the family throughout the household, complicating the ratings process for programmers, cell phones allow for a geographic dispersal that even further complicates the process of solidifying a picture of what they’re thinking. Leve concludes that for polling in 2009 "it's over...this is the end. Something else has got to come along." The double articulation of audiences, audiences consuming and being consumed is a little harder to accomplish. They’re still everywhere consuming, but pinning them down, at least in the realm of political polling, is a trickier process. Yet, polls are still being consumed in the political realm; the audience is still looking at and potentially being swayed by polls (“I want to vote for a winner”), but the pollsters can’t quite get to the audience, to formulate an accurate polled image (if such a thing was possible to begin with). Is it going too far to say the political pollster is living in a reverse Panopticon at the moment? Or shall we just default to Raymond Williams (1961) and say “There are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses” (20).

Allor, Martin. “Relocating the site of the audience.” Critical Studies in mass communication, 5(1988): 217-233.

Silverstone, Roger. From audiences to consumers: The household and the consumption of communication and information technologies.” European Journal of Communication, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1991): 135-154.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and society. London: Random House, 1961.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health care crowds

Talk of the crowd is all the rage these days. The word rage here is convenient for me, given that the word describes much of the imagery of the crowd currently being discussed. There are crowds at tea parties, with their subtle and sometimes overt racism; there are crowds at congressional town hall meetings, with their vague and seemingly, amazingly, misinformed anger over health care reform; the crowds that talk to pollsters that are harder to define and thus slowly eroding the credibility of those pollsters (more on that in a later post); shouting; throwing punches; and in all of the talk about these crowds we find a movement toward making the act of gathering problematic in itself.

One image keeps recurring in my mind, that of Kathleen Sebelius attempting to address an audience with Arlen Specter in Philadelphia recently. The key moment comes at about one minute into this video:

She doesn’t seem to understand the nature of the crowd she’s dealing with. As she throws her hands up in frustration, as if to say, “why won’t you listen to reason” she misses the point that the crowd is not there to have a reasonable discussion. It is there to yell. And herein lies the problem for me; the ideological challenge with which I am faced. Can I continue to hold on to the assumption that crowds/audiences, not to mention individuals, can be reasoned with?

I use the term crowd rather than audience because it is a better description. The people who are shouting at members of congress about health care appear to be “barking mad” for lack of a better phrase. I say this not because they have an opinion counter to my own, but because they literally, at points, look like they’re barking rather than speaking; and look mad, crazy-mad not angry-mad.

And here I reach the depressing point. Is the act of gathering in and of itself now damaged? Will pro-health care reform gatherings now be presented in a similar light by media? These “barking-mad crowds” are coming under scrutiny for the organizations behind them, calling into question the act of organization vis-à-vis astroturfing. Will all organization now be tarred as astroturfing?

All of this misses an important point; if the crowd is “inauthentic,” they are not necessarily there to debate the issue of health care, but rather to act as a communication jam; to stop the flow of communication between representatives and constituents who want to interact. Thus, what is presented by actants (the crowd) as authentic outrage and anger as a political act of participation is instead a political act of interruption, at least as it is described here: “If the event were a shouting match, the mob won. [Rep.] Kagen tried talking about the health-care bill, but the roaring chants deafened his attempts.” This textual description is reinforced by video shown on Rachel Maddow.

The word “mob” is becoming more common these days. I’m afraid it might be an accurate description. I don’t recall protests of the left ever substance-less anger. Maybe that’s because I am of the left and I am blinded by my own beliefs here; I think I’m more fair-minded than that, but who knows. We’ll see how today’s forum with Arlen Specter goes.