Anyone who gets their news online knows data journalists are trying to change cultural criticism. Browse around today and you can see Vox.com explaining the “7 things Kindle highlights tell us about readers,” or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight supposedly proving boy bands are awful, or Slate‘s explanation of why readers’ opinions of a book drop after it wins a prize. But we’re still waiting for a transformative voice, the equivalent of Billy Bean outsmarting Major League Baseball’s system in 2002 or Nate Silver embarrassing career election prognosticators in 2012.
Experts agree the game changer for cultural criticism is coming, but it’s not here yet. “I think the whole thing is just getting underway,” says Dante Chinni, the director of the American Communities Project, which tackled the Duck Dynasty controversy by mapping which parts of the country watched the show. Much of the cultural data that we have today comes piecemeal from platforms. An e-reader will share bits of information on their users’ habits. Netflix every now and then offers a glimpse into who watches what where. But until intellectual property owners start to share their data on the songs, books, and characters we love, we’ll just be analyzing one corner of the culture at a time. Enter, like a hero responding to a signal in the sky, Marvel Entertainment.
Early this year, Marvel launched a groundbreaking API–or application programming interface–which, as its name suggests, is coding that allows applications to “talk to” and work with other applications, like how Twitter can communicate with TweetDeck and iPhones. Marvel put a large chunk of their archival history, which Disney paid $4 billion to own, in the hands of anyone with even a little coding knowledge.
“This is fundamental to Marvel,” says Peter Olson, VP of web development at Marvel Entertainment. “We’ve always been involved in conversations with fans. We’re just keeping the conversation going in the digital realm.” Olson and others at Marvel admit the program bears a little “throw against the wall and see what sticks” element. “There aren’t many who are doing quite what we’ve done,” says Olson. “Marvel experiments a lot. In terms of opening up access, it’s new ground.”
The company that owns the X-Men and the Avengers is dumping all of this data in the lap of fanboys–arguably the most voracious and prolific critics on the web. (A typical B-list Marvel character like Moon Knight has a Wikipedia page that’s about as long and in-depth as, say, John Hancock’s.) They’re aggressive critics, looking at an art form that has an endless number of data points to analyze: writers, artists, sales, and characters spread across thousands of issues.
Other art forms aren’t as well equipped for data-infused criticism. “Art historians already have trouble writing about digital art forms because their usual descriptors don’t work anymore,” says author and media theorist Dr. Charlotte Frost. But Marvel’s exactly the type of company that can flourish where traditional art history has stumbled. “Companies like Marvel are built by fans, so why not acknowledge that?” she says.
Okay, but why would this trend spread to other publishers and IP owners? Because Marvel fans are already using its API as a viral marketing starter kit. Adobe developer/fanboy Raymond Camden used Marvel’s API to create a page that selects a random cover from a random year. “It then switches out every 30 seconds. If I had a ‘buy now’-type link–and this should actually be possible to add to my application–I’d probably impulse buy quite a bit,” he says. Another developer used Camden’s code to build an Android app that puts Marvel Comic covers onto your lock screen. Yet another API user took his love of the character Deadpool (and knowledge of the red-and-black-clad assassin’s love of tacos) and simply began mashing up covers of Deadpool comics with taco recipes.
Olson likens the API to the fan engagement you see in settings like San Diego Comic-Con. “We’ve always supported and engaged, say, the cosplay community,” says Olson. Those men in tights in San Diego helped nurture the genre until it was at the center of America’s popular culture. Here’s hoping the guys building Android apps and taco mashups point the way toward an understanding bigger than comics.