Elizabeth Currid, assistant professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, presented her paper, “The Geography of Buzz: Art, Culture and the Social Milieu in Los Angeles and New York,” during a research seminar at Lewis Hall on April 15.
The paper, co-authored by Sarah Williams, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, used 300,000 photographs archived by Getty Images between March 2006 and March 2007 to map hot spots of cultural activity, or “buzz.”
The study, which was supported by a grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, aimed to “understand how creative social scenes formed and related to one another.”
It turns out that in the world of art, fashion and popular music, social scenes — and the buzz surrounding them — produce meaningful economic outcomes for both the creative people and their artistic goods.
“So much of the social life of creativity is place specific,” Currid said. “With the study of Getty Images photos documenting arts and entertainment events, we could quantify where these creative social scenes formed, and through geographic statistics, we tested whether there were meaningful links between events and where they’re located. As it turns out, there is nothing random about the geography of buzz in Los Angeles.”
Beverly Hills and the Hollywood portion of the Sunset Strip hosted the majority of buzz-worthy screenings, fashion shows, concerts, and gallery and theatre openings in Los Angeles. The “buzziest” areas in New York were located around Lincoln and Rockefeller centers and along Broadway, between Times Square and SoHo.
“If you look at which places rise to become event enclaves, it’s not just that they’re greater — they’re disproportionately more important to the media,” Currid said. “And they also exhibit spillover effects. You have this disproportionate enclave, and then all of these nodes around it.”
Leo Braudy, University Professor at USC and author of The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, served as commentator for the event. He opened the seminar by raising several questions to which Currid responded.
The first point of discussion was the data set itself, Getty Images photographs, which includes certain cultural events and excludes others.
Currid acknowledged the tension between “commodified culture” and “bohemia.” However, she expressed a belief that the patterns exhibited in the market-driven Getty data set might extend to bohemia, as well as to more entrepreneurial milieus like Silicon Valley.
“What we hope we’re doing with this data set is telling a story that the pattern we have found may be universal, even if the data set is not,” Currid said. “Are we learning something about social agglomeration, and does this data set give us one lens into it?”
She also announced her intention to extend her study to include other years and cities in addition to an entirely different data set — “the paparazzi that are following not just the formal events that count, but the actual celebrity sightings, which we believe probably operate very similarly.”
In all of these spheres, Braudy raised inquiries about the media’s precise role in dictating the geography of buzz.
“I would question when you say media had an unintentional effect on city development and place identity,” Braudy said. “Perhaps that was true in the past, although I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be true now.”
He cited as an example the Academy Awards ceremony’s shift in venue from the Shrine Auditorium to the Kodak Theatre, which is better suited for hosting televised events.
He also suggested that all buzz is not created equal. A motion picture phenomenon like Lord of the Rings and a notorious flop like Gigli both had premieres covered by Getty Images, but only one of them created a lasting impression on audiences.
“Maybe at least a crude distinction might be made between what I would call ‘pump-priming buzz’ – that is when publicists or city governments get together and say, ‘This is going to be a buzz place’ – and buzz that has legs, which is really something that’s connected to the audience and how the audience works,” he said.
In addition, Braudy wondered if a differentiation might be made between career-oriented events and self-enhancing events, such as charity fund-raisers, but Currid cast doubt on the notion that any real separation exists between the two.
After an audience Q&A, SPPD professor Martin Krieger concluded the seminar by suggesting that Currid further clarify how her work might be similar to other studies of industrial structure, entrepreneurship and development.
“I’m perfectly willing for you to say to me, ‘It’s the same story. We manufacture cars, and we talk about insubstantial, reputational things, and perhaps they could be the same,’ ” Krieger said. “And that would be a really interesting discovery.”