Beyond the Online: Social Networks in a Theater Near You

Network by Anne-Bennett Cook Smithson

Since my very first class in CCT, I have been fascinated with social networks. I am always eager to talk about what I am learning, studying, writing about in context of these networks. However, here’s the catch: the response I inevitably get is “Oh, so you study Facebook?” With today’s explosion of social media, electronic social networks are understandably at the forefront of people’s mental association with “networks,” but I always cringe when people pigeonhole such a vast and complex area of scholarship into “Facebook.” From studying the spread of epidemics to taking down terrorist networks to explaining how revolutions start and maintain themselves, social networks are everywhere–and certainly existed in much the same form before Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye.

In one of my classes, we have been discussing J.M. Epstein’s ideas of emergence and agent-based modeling through the lens of social network analysis, to examine how researchers can organically “grow” social phenomena in order to explain it. Epstein’s work raises new ways of finding out and “knowing” and explains some holes in current models of research. I, for one, appreciate the goal of examining how a certain event or thing became the way it is rather that simply studying its current state. For example, it is great to say that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” but Epstein’s seeks to find out how the sum ultimately became the whole by looking at social phenomenon at the micro level to determine how it translates to the macro level.

So, needless to say, I was thrilled for the opportunity to attend University of Maryland’s Center for Complexity in Business Conference, which largely focused on the role of social networks and emergence in business practices. While I attended four “talks,” there was one that especially caught my attention, especially in the context of Epstein’s work.

flickr photo by m4tik

The presentation explored social network effects in the motion picture industry. At first I thought that we would be learning about how many people go to a movie based on what their friends say, but it turns out that it’s much more complicated than that. Apparently, success at the box office is a combination of “appropriate” advertising levels and word of mouth. Who knew?

The researchers found that when a movie is heavily advertised, the increased expectations of viewers can cause them to penalize the movie (through negative word-of-mouth) if it does not measure up to their advertisement-based expectations, resulting in members of their network not going to see the movie.

Conversely, if a movie is not heavily advertised and turns out to be really good, word of mouth is very likely to spread in its favor, since the unadvertised movie likely gave the viewer little expectations before viewing. So where is the “middle ground” for advertising in the motion picture industry? Is there a way to do it “right”?

flickr photo by Chiot's Run

I can’t help but think that this could be a great opportunity to take the research one step further and study micro level interactions to determine how these small interactions become a part of the larger overall public perception of particular movies while they are in the theatres. According to the researchers, no one seems to know, but it doesn’t it seem like a great place to use Epstein’s ideas to “grow” an answer? I say, bring on the fertilizer and watering cans!

Anne Bennett Cook Smithson

Anne-Bennett is a former CCT Graduate Student.