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The Interpretive Ambiguity of Cultural Metrics

Mon, May 29, 11:00 to 12:15, Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Floor: 3, Aqua 309


This paper argues that, relative to other fields in which metrics have been influential (from professional baseball to political campaigning), metrics in fields of cultural production are characterized by a high degree of interpretive ambiguity, because practitioners are trying to optimize for several ends at once. This multiplicity, if not outright incompatibility, of goals makes it difficult to determine what metrics mean and how to use them.

Drawing on an ethnographic study of analytics in the news industry, I examine the drivers and consequences of metrics’ interpretive ambiguity at three organizations: Chartbeat (a leading news analytics company), Gawker Media, and the New York Times. I argue that producers of analytics tools are materially incentivized to build interpretive ambiguity into their platforms, which journalists in turn seek to use to their professional advantage. The paper concludes by discussing the implications of interpretive ambiguity for the study of metrics in cultural life.


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