The Geography of Buzz

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

A couple rings in the New Year at Times Square in New York City, New York, on January 1, 2009

The Geography of Buzz: Art, Culture and the Social Milieu
in Los Angeles and New York
Elizabeth Currid, University of Southern California
and Sarah Williams, Columbia University
51 pages

The Gist:

We little people are led to believe that once a neighborhood, restaurant or trend has crept into our consciousness, it's no longer authentically cool. In this study, Currid and Williams take aim at that adage. Surveying 300,000 snapshots taken by the photo agency Getty Images at more than 6,000 parties, openings and premieres in 2006 and 2007, the authors attempt to map the cultural epicenters of Los Angeles and New York. Their findings are somewhat surprising: The buzziest neighborhoods aren't blossoming ones like the Lower East Side or Los Feliz, but rather the stalwarts on every basic tourist itinerary: Times Square, Broadway, or Rockefeller Center in the Big Apple, and Beverly Hills and Hollywood in L.A. These locales stay on top because of infrastructural advantages (time-tested venues) and name recognition (or what the authors call "place-branding"). They also benefit from the media's imprimatur. Each time the press shows up to Lincoln Center or the Sunset Strip — and hacks gravitate toward people and places their audiences know — they reinforce the location's reputation as a cultural noisemaker.

(See TIME's Pictures of the Week)

The Highlight Reel:

1. On why locales become hot spots—and stay that way: "We believe there is a reinforcing, recursive mechanism that makes particular places the center of social activity, which may be linked to the broader notion of "place in product," whereby particular goods wish to be linked with particular places in order to attain greater value or buzz."

2. On the media's role in determining what's buzz-worthy: "The images of particular places being displayed time and time again through major information channels indirectly sell a certain image of a place ... the recording of mainstream cultural hubs (Times Square, Hollywood) resonates more with a larger market and thus are a safer bet than the unique and infrequent events happening in more localized and unrecognized spots in the city."

3. On the benefits of the Getty data set:
"While this data source is unconventional, we believe that the market-driven quality of the data set is a positive attribute, as it automatically gives us a proxy for measuring the kinds of events that are buzz-worthy on a larger scale ... images of social events are a useful data source to understand the fundamentals of how cultural industries drum up interest in their goods and services."

The Lowdown:

The study's chief limitation is the nature of its data. "By virtue of Getty's motivation as a market-driven business," the authors write, "its database is an accurate measure of what one might call the 'events that matter.'" To be more precise, though, the database generally catalogs glitzy events where shutterbugs can count on preening targets with boldface names. That's great if you work for Page Six or can waltz past the velvet ropes at Les Deux. But the study seems not to hone in on places generating buzz but rather on those whose names already resonate. This distinction is probably mere semantics to a nightclub impresario or budding restaurateur deciding where to situate a new venture. Buzz, the authors find, begets buzz. If you want to be bathed in flashbulbs, set up shop near the paparazzi scrums, and try to bask in the reflected glory.

The Verdict: Skim

Don't Miss TIME's Paparazzi Photo Gallery
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