Taylor Swift: Bellwether for the socially acceptable
Taylor Swift is an interesting cultural phenomenon and, as the chart above shows, one who is taking up ever increasing media space.
There’s the music, the outfits, the charming use of red lipstick, and there’s the data. Swift is an intriguing figure in the brave new world of data-driven analysis. We had an intuition about her. We observed in Swift a tendency to move with the trends with the accuracy of a highly efficient probabilistic forecasting machine. And yet, unlike musical icons of old, this isn’t so much because she sets the trend by flouting convention and cultural norms both ahead of, and in order to influence, the rest of us. Instead Swift seems to join the wave of a trend just before it crests, so that she rides it smoothly like a professional surfer, in a matching crop-top and shorts.
This apparent mastery seemed worth investigating, so Jo and I spent a bit of time with various data sources, notably Nexis and Google Search and crunched some numbers to determine how successfully Swift rides the trends.
Given restrictions on time, resource and the free availability of data, there are definite flaws in the numbers (you can look at our methodology and full panoply of charts here), but the trends themselves are sufficiently clear that the inaccuracies shouldn’t skew the picture too much. That is to say, here and there the numbers may be a bit wrong and they’re certainly incomplete, but the overall curve should be sound.
Ours isn’t a pure piece of statistical correlation run through a massive dataset (see the aforementioned restrictions). Instead we tracked a couple of key trends with which Swift has been recently associated, a few famous faces who also meet in the Venn diagram of her social media feeds, and a couple of other thematic issues as tests. You can see some of the results below:
Two things seem pretty clear:
- Swift’s curve rises with her causes (both issues and people)
- She only makes a direct mention once a cause is in the ascendant
The data shows that a cause must hit a certain threshold of popular acceptance before it enters Swift’s orbit. This data isn’t going to tell us why that should be, but it may perhaps give us some indications about Swift’s use of the Internet. Our research might indicate that Swift is connected enough online to get on a trend a little ahead of time, but too distant from grassroots popular movements to be in at the start of anything. Hers may be largely data-driven trend-hopping rather dissimilar to, say, Madonna’s adoption of the Harlem ball culture through personal introduction to an underground scene and direct experience of it.
Even once on board, Swift is a wary supporter rather than a champion. Her ‘feminist awakening’ doesn’t appear to any great extent in the data from her direct social media, although it is evident in the Nexis data that shows an increasing number of mentions coupling her name with our search terms ‘anywhere in the text’. Exactly the same applies to the search terms for ‘transgender’ and ‘LGBT’. The rising lines are undeniable, but Swift’s advocacy is of the more muted sort and barely appears in the social media data.
Her friendships are intriguing from this perspective too, with the more successful of her peers – by our criteria – getting more frequent direct mentions. This is particularly obvious with Ed Sheeran.
Mentions breed mentions, by the looks of it. Of course that may just be a feature of social media (virality), and Swift’s Twitter feed is in any event generally modest, neutral and controlled in the same way as the rest of her content distribution. That said, the Nexis data tracks in much the same way.
So if we invested in a SwiftTracker or a TaylorWatch, what data would it draw onand what would it tell us?
A fully operational SwiftTracker would tap the data from established news sources and would eschew social media which, counter-intuitively, but in keeping with her trend conservatism, proved to be a less useful gauge of Swiftian trend direction than the major sources (perhaps offering a partial explanation for the 341 returns for ‘Taylor Swift AND bland’ in our Nexis searches?). We’d bank on SwiftTracker giving pretty sturdy forecasts on trends that are sufficiently established to stick around, but haven’t yet reached their peak. Swift bets are safe bets, but they’re still indicating a potential win with a modest margin.
The big question then, is what might the SwiftTracker be predicting for the next quarter?
- Firstly: a whole lot more Swift. The bar graph below shows the number of Swift headlines for each year and an average monthly rate of headlines for the year. The rate for 2015 is almost certainly an underestimate since the average rate doesn’t show the monthly rise. If the numbers continue along this course, 2015 is going to be more Swiftian than any previous year. Swift headline rates are also plotted below against a couple of other headliners, by way of comparison. Note that in the first quarter of 2015, Swift has caught up with that infamous breaker of the Internet Kim Kardashian.
- Secondly: at some stage this year a more openly and directly supportive Swift statement about transgender or LGBT issues. So far Swift has played it fairly safe on this issue with some philanthropic and educational support and a lyric in her song New York, New York. As the trend continues in the ascendant though, you could probably safely bank on something more overt than a song lyric in the next 3-6 months.
- Thirdly and finally: James Bay. The British singer is on the ascendant in any event, as any good Swift promotee should be, but you can probably expect a few soft focus photographs on the Swift Instagram feed and no doubt some hanging out in suitably scenic spots. Wearing hats.
So there you have it: Taylor Swift is an excellent trend machine who (probably) draws efficiently on online data to help form her public opinions. In this sense she is a perfect 21st century celebrity. She learns from the data and is able to stay magnificently in sync with a very broad fanbase by doing so. This is likely to see her far outlasting more flighty celebrities of the Kardashian ilk whose relationship with fame is not based on reflecting the views of the world, but on challenging them. It’s much harder to keep doing that well since flouting inevitably turns off as much as it turns on. Swift’s human embodiment of trend-tracking is infinitely less risky. That said, I think we’d all hope that Taylor is a little less safe in private.
If anyone would like to bankroll SwiftTracker as a useful shortcut for gauging socially established trends, with an informative weekly newsletter and range of merchandise, they should absolutely get in touch.