I Am A Data Creative

October 16, 2015

imgresYesterday, I gave a presentation at the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association’s (MIMA) annual conference, MIMA Summit, in the “Data” track of the conference. Here’s an excerpt from my talk:

Last year, I made a big career change, moving from being a professor who researched and taught – roughly – social media and culture to an agency hack who advises clients on what to make of social media and culture. When I decided that I wanted to leave academia, I reached out to all my friends and asked for their guidance and their connections. One of them made a couple of introductions in which he introduced me as “part PR person, part data scientist.”

Amazingly, I was more taken aback by the “data scientist” part than the “PR person” part.

Granted, I have a Ph.D. in mass communication, which is a field in which most research is empirical, quantitative social science – often looking at masses of data, plugging relevant pieces of it into SPSS, and pulling out insightful statistics that either prove or disprove a hypothesis.

It’s admirable and important work. It’s science. I never got into it, though. I always was more interested in stories about culture. How do certain people use Twitter to articulate identity? How do they perform gender on Instagram? And how do you look at the huge mass of data generated every second of every day by social media and make meaning of it?

What I have come to realize is that I’m not a data scientist.

I’m a data creative.

No, I don’t “get creative” with the data in the same way that a crooked accountant “gets creative” with the books.

It’s more like Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” – a wacky creative scientist. Instead of making connections on how to creatively power a flux capacitor, I make connections across all the data.

Being a data creative is realizing that social data is not intended simply to monitored and counting mentions, impressions, expressions and engagements ad nauseam.

Being a data creative is understanding how to fall back on your own pop-cultural knowledge and liberal-arts education to come up with ways of searching and organizing data.

Being a data creative is recognizing the most interesting, relevant stories within the ways people use social data – from their conversations, to their emojis, to their hashtags and beyond.

Being a data creative is not only recognizing social influence by social following. It’s recognizing how to connect real-world, real-life, off-line “stuff” with people who have social following.

These are good things, sure, but I actually believe that in order to tell the most relevant stories and gain the most actionable insights, you need to be a data creative.

In my MIMA talk, I go on from here to describe some case studies and pieces of research that describe how to find the best stories and most actionable insights in social data. Ultimately, my big takeaways from this talk are these:

Be a data creative. Make connections among data.

Use qualitative content analysis to get a more detailed picture.

Ask big open research questions before you dive in. Don’t get stuck on existing problems or tactical issues.

Look everywhere for the stories – even in the outlier data.

For a complete version of the presentation and other speakers’ presentations, visit http://www.mimasummit.org/.