Archive for technology

Wednesday Links

Taking advantage of the brief break in the middle of my work week to bring you the latest links I’ve been reading and watching:

  • YouTube has made its gallery of videos for the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day open to the public.  YouTubers contributed over 80,000 videos for consideration to be included in the final documentary.  NewTeeVee and Cinematical have all the details.
  • Scott McLemee writes about his decision to bite the bullet and buy an e-book reader.  I’m still resisting buying one, but I think that Scott usefully demonstrates how they might be useful under certain circumstances.
  • Johnathan Zittrain asks whether the “future of the internet” he predicted has come to fruition.  Some interesting thoughts on the state of the “generative internet” as it exists today.
  • Bob Stein has a discussion of James Bridle’s The Iraq War, a compilation of all of the edits to the Wikipedia article on the recent Iraq War.  As a historical document and an attempt to wrestle with how knowledge is constructed in the internet age, this seems like a fascinating project.  This echoes a project I’ve assigned for my first-year composition students several times that asks them to anaylze the changes made to a “controversial” Wikipedia article.  Interesting stuff.
  • Adam Jackson discusses the future of cloud storage for digital media and its implications for consumers, touching on the implications for corporate control over our data and concluding that we’re better off with physical copies (DVDs, etc).
  • On a related note, Mark Hayward discusses the implications of Google’s recent moves regarding net neutrality.
  • And, just for fun, Neo-Lebowski, where Morpheus introduces The Dude to the nature of reality.  Somewhere, I think film geekdom just exploded.

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Monday Links: e-books, Facebook, Hitchcock, and More

Here are some the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about this morning:

  • First, Inside Higher Ed has an interesting discussion of Daytona State College’s plan to convert to a textbook system based entirely around e-books.  There are obviously some benefits here: no more heavy books, cheaper textbook prices, and more profits for publishers.  The campus bookstore would–at least in the short run–appear to be the biggest loser, financially.  I’m still ambivalent about e-book readers, in part because I appreciate the tangibility and permanence of physical books, but this is an interesting experiment, especially given that most students essentially rent their textbooks at a prohibitively high cost.
  • On a related note, Kairos News has been exploring questions about why open-source textbooks appear to be struggling to catch on.  Part of the problem, of course, has been that these open source projects, fairly or not, are perceived as vanity projects.  I can imagine that many tenure committees would look with skepticism at the open-source model, so there is probably a need for some form of institutional change and continued education from open-source advocates.
  • Continuing with the education theme, Catherine at Film Studies for Free (one of the best open-access models out there) provides a pointer to yet another wonderful tool for the Introduction to Film classroom: Majestic Micro Movies’s video primers on film aesthetics.  Catherine cites four videos dealing with topics such as deep focus, shallow focus, tracking, and short-reverse-shot.  They’re witty, fun, and provide some context for why these techniques are often hotly debated.  Their YouTube and Facebook pages are great resources for students and teachers of film.
  • More classroom stuff: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention has concluded that frequent Facebook users are more likely to stay in school and shows that students who have more friends on Facebook are more likely to return for their sophomore years.  Because the study is based on a survey at a single university, Abilene Christian University, I’d like to see the results reproduced elsewhere before I put much stock in them.  Is a public HBCU or regional state university going to be different than a private, religious institution?  A bigger question might be causation versus correlation. Perhaps the networked students are already disposed toward returning to school and Facebook is simply an expression of that.
  • Tama Leaver points to an Economist article on “the future of the internet.”  Like Tama, I appreciate the article’s acknowledgement that the internet seems to be continuing its fragmentation into various “walled gardens,” many of them highly profitable, as well as the discussion of the ongoing attempts to create tiered internet provision (different levels of internet service for different prices), moves that the author characterizes as a virtual “counter-revolution.”
  • The journal Off Screen devotes its most recent issue to internet-based film criticism. Especially noteworthy: Paul Salmon’s “A Film Prof at the Cineplex.”
  • Finally, Christine Becker links to David Carr’s article arguing that there is “too much” TV out there.  A couple of key quotes: “Our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it. The average photograph now gets looked at less than once simply because there is almost zero cost and effort to producing one.”  And perhaps more crucially: “We don’t watch TV anymore as much as it seems to watch us, recommending, recording and dishing up all manner of worthy product.”  Database TV seems to hold out the prospects of unlimited choice, and yet, as Carr suggests, recommendation algorithms, DVRs, and other tools have become more adept at assessing tastes, analyzing us and, in some sense, choosing what we want to watch.

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Tuesday Links

I had no idea that it has been nearly two weeks since I last posted.  At some point, I’d like to get back to a more consistent blogging schedule, but the last few weeks have been dedicated to article revisions, frantic book chapter drafting, and even more frantic syllabus planning.  All good things, but also things that take away from blogging.  For now, here are a few recent links that others might have missed:

  • The New York Times has an interesting article about several indie rock labels that have taken on the role of film distributors.  What seems interesting about the article is the attempt to define screenings as “events,” and screening at non-theatrical venues.  Obviously, many of these practices have been around for a long time–filmmakers have done movie “tours” for ages–but there are some interesting connections here.
  • I think it’s brilliant that Star Wars: Uncut won a creative arts Emmy. Just for fun:  Here’s the trailer.
  • Scott Kirsner has a good overview of the New York Times series on the future of television.  One of Scott’s takeaways is that audiences seem relatively satisfied with the ways they currently access TV (or at least unwilling to change them), choosing to continue paying for cable rather than accessing TV online.  There’s also the requisite push for 3-D TV, with industry types hoping that 3-D TVs will account for half of all sales within five years.
  • Finally, there is also a terrific discussion in the Times of some of the work by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Dan Cohen and others to use the logic of the web to reimagine peer review.

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Indie Films and Digital Distribution

The announcement about Google TV has provoked some discussion about the tool’s potential for making it easier for independent filmmakers to find a wider audience for their films.  Google has promoted this new tool as the ultimate merger between computers and television.  You can use Google’s search tool to find any TV shows or videos (including those on YouTube and other video sharing sites) and watch them on your TV set.  And your TV becomes more like a computer, allowing you to go onto sites such as Facebook (oddly the video emphasizes that you can “update your status”).  But a number of indie filmmakers have begun to ask about the potential implications of Google TV for movie distribution.

Ryan Koo at No Film School has the most optimistic take on this potential, arguing that Google TV “is going to make it a lot easier to get independently-produced content onto the big (home) screen.”  Koo adds that, unlike Apple, Google TV is essentially an “open” platform that will not place restrictions on what content gets pulled from the web to your TV set.  For example, Google TV might provide a boost for the struggling YouTube Rentals program by making it easier to get movies from YouTube to your TV set.  Essentially, Koo concludes that Google TV will be essentially democratizing, though he adds one significant caveat: the problem of search engine optimization.  Although Google’s search algorithms may make it easier to get films to your TV set, it’s not quite as clear whether people will be able to find them.

Ted Hope also emphasizes the potential for Google TV to democratize distribution, while adding the need for continued efforts toward search engine optimization, arguing that “I just wish that people would offer more filters. It’s one thing to be able to find what we are looking for, but we still need to know what it is that we want — particularly if we want to make other work that that which is justified by a huge marketing spend.”  I’ve been trying to think through the “filtering question” for a while–I talked about it at length in this Second Cinema interview last year–and I’m still unsure whether these filters will ever match the diversity of content out there with the diverse interests of a wide range of audiences that might be seeking alternative forms of content.  Some of these challenges seem to be reflected in the somewhat bizarre genre categories found on sites like Netflix (what is a “heartfelt, fighting-the-system documentary?”), not to mention Netflix recommendation algorithms that push us toward some films and away from others.  But I’m a little skeptical about what it means to “solve” these filtering questions.

Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine echoes many of Koo’s arguments while expressing a little more skepticism. Worth noting, Macauley cites an interview with YouTube’s Sarah Pollack, who argues that the YouTube rental program helped to raise the profile of a number of the Sundance films it offered for rent.  Pollack goes on to acknowledge that YouTube will need to work to convince viewers to pay for some of its rental content, especially when YouTube is primarily known as a site offering free videos.  But even here I think the questions about how viewers find or learn about this content remains unclear. Macauley does point out that many of the writers polled at Endgadget expressed concern that Google TV would likely require yet another set-top box until the platform became something that was built into TVs.  And like a number of the people interviewed by Endgagdet, I think there are a number of complications Google will need to address before their approach to revolutionizing TV will take hold.

The LA Times expresses a similar concern, noting that the cost of another set-top box might be prohibitive for budget-conscious web video users, although they also cite Best Buy Chief Executive Brian Dunn who argues that Google TV pushes us even further towards a “platform agnostic” model, in which the source or medium of the content matters less than the ability to access that content easily.

The unstated assumption in all of these arguments is that more choice (available in even more platforms), even if those choices are more expensive, is necessarily what everyone wants.  Given the popularity of services such as Redbox, which offers relatively little choice, I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.  To be sure, I’ve truly appreciated the expansion of choice offered by digital media–living in a town such as Fayetteville, NC was much more bearable thanks to Netflix and VOD–but I’m not sure that everyone is looking for the “deeper cuts” rather than the “top hits.”  But as I’ve suggested in my previous post, many of the questions addressed in the debates over Google TV (and other tools like it) aren’t over what the hardware can do as much as they are about what cinema as a social activity can be.

With that in mind, I am intrigued by discussions such as the one taking place at The Workbook Project right now, where Mike Ambs, responding to a blog post by Ted Hope, has invited filmmakers and audiences to “brainstorm the future of film.”  Ambs has created a fascinating flowchart (to which anyone can contribute) that seeks to define what makes film, and independent film in particular, something of value for all of us.  I’ll be returning to Ambs’s chart in a couple of upcoming posts because the chart raises a number of interesting questions about how independent filmmakers can create cultures of engagement around the movies they make.

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Friday Links

A few of the things I’ve been reading and watching while suffering from Cannes-envy:

  • In a decision that has received almost no attention, the FCC recently ruled in favor of “selectable output control,” which would essentially prevent consumers from copying a pay-per-view program.  The decision opens up the possibility that some movie distributors may move even close to day-and-date releasing patterns, i.e., opening a film in theaters and on cable at (almost) the same time.  But if you’re interested in industry issues, the New York Times’ Michael Cieply has a solid overview of the potential implications and industry reactions to the FCC ruling.
  • In other big industry news, Google is taking over your TV.  Obviously the big selling point is the idea of using Google search to find the programs you want to watch.  In addition, NewTeeVee speculates that Google TV will enable the “microchannel” future where everyone will have his or her choice of content (57 thousand channels and nothing on?).  Of course, you’ll have to buy the appropriate TV or set-top box, so it’ll be interesting to see whether people are that interested.  And of course it means that Google will become even more adept at targeted advertisements based on search and viewing histories.
  • Anne Thompson discusses the reported integration between iTunes and Rotten Tomatoes, the famous movie review aggregation site.  Although a number of commenters at Anne’s site have called this a “bad idea” because of the dubious methods Rotten Tomatoes uses to deem films “fresh” or “rotten,” this assumes people only glance at the aggregate number rather than individual reviews.  More than anything, it seems to signal some of the ways in which reception, promotion, and exhibition practices are all converging.
  • David Poland has an interesting–and convincing–read on the controversies over Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf and about “truth-telling” in the film industry.
  • Also via Poland, one of the coolest TV ads I’ve ever seen, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new Nike ad, “Write the Future,” which plays like a three-minute World Cup-inspired version of Run Lola Run. The full ad captures the ways in which the fortunes of a game, of individual players, and the nations that support them can change within a split second.

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Digital Nation

This semester I’ve been teaching a master’s-level course for teachers called “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” and as usual, teaching the course pushes me to think about how digital tools fit into the pedagogical needs of today’s student population.  With that in mind, I’ve been curious for a while to see the PBS documentary, Digital Nation, directed by Rachel Dretzin, with contributions from Douglas Rushkoff, in part because of the attempt by the filmmakers to extend the conversation about the issues presented in the film to the web.  Like Henry Jenkins, who has posted a negative review of the film (but a positive review of the website), I found myself feeling frustrated at how the documentary framed a number of important questions about digital media literacy, but as an example of a transmedia documentary, I think it’s a fascinating case study, something that media scholars and others can use to powerful effect in their classrooms.

Jenkins raises some significant concerns about the frames through which the documentary engages with digital media.  We are presented at the very beginning of the film with scenes depicted addicted South Korean gamers, some of whom undergo a two-week “Internet Rescue Camp” designed to teach them to withdraw from the internet. Other sequences seem to depict family life as transformed with parents and children glancing at each other over a set of illuminated screens in what Dretzin referred to as her “kitchen experience,” while some students (rather anecdotally) report being able to write an “awesome paragraph” but not being able to focus for the length of an entire paper.  Douglas Rushkoff’s “conversion narrative” isn’t entirely convincing, either, and seems to be somewhat imposed on the film to give it a (somewhat tenuous) narrative arc.  Perhaps a bigger problem is the lack of understanding of what it means to “multitask.”  As Jenkins points out, some forms of multitasking have existed for a long time and often involve combining several mundane activities: watching a sporting event or listening to music or talking on the phone while washing dishes, for example.

As Jenkins and others have commented, however, many of these changes need to be placed in a historical context, and to be fair to the filmmakers, they did include Jenkins’ remark that these debates about distraction and multitasking and information overload have a much longer history dating back at least to the Progressive era.  Yeah, movies and kinetoscopes aren’t iPods or Crackberries, but it’s reductive to suggest that these problems and debates about literacy are entirely new.  More frustrating for me was the tendency to refer to today’s students as “digital natives,” an assumption that was (from what I can recall) never really challenged in the film.  To be sure, students today barely remember a time when Google didn’t exist, and many can navigate using a mouse in ways that surprise many adults, but that dexterity may not correspond to the more complicated forms of information literacy raised by web search and other activities.

In places, I found the documentary relatively helpful, especially in its recognition that real communities form in the virtual worlds of online games and Second Life, and the segment focusing on “Cooking with Bubbe,” an online cooking show featuring an 80-something Jewish grandmother, showed the power of online communities, as well.  The questions that the film raised about military uses of digital media were timely and important, especially the concerns about using done aircraft, in which pilots operating machines in Las Vegas direct airplanes to drop bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I think it’s well worth asking about the moral implications of this kind of war: what does it mean when we can fire missiles or drop bombs 7,000 miles from any real danger and then go home and have dinner with our families or go to a PTA meeting?  It’s an unsettling question, one that the PBS version of the documentary can only begin to cover.

Which is why I think any critique of the film needs to acknowledge the mediating role of the Digital Nation website. Although it is no doubt true that many viewers will only encounter the film via the PBS broadcast, the conversation has spilled out onto the PBS website and beyond, illustrating the potential of transmedia documentary to create engagements with the world that are not always defined by a single perspective.  Viewers, like me, who are concerned about military uses of digital media can follow that path.  Or, we could learn more about one teacher’s use of a Ning to make Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird more accessible.  Jenkins is absolutely right that the supplemental material (a vast archive of deleted scenes, user contributions, viewer comments, and other material) can offer us a valuable lesson in media literacy: What was included in the PBS film? How was it organized? What might that tell us about the biases of the PBS audience?  For that reason, rather than dismissing the PBS documentary, I think it makes more sense to see it as just one component of a much larger work, one that is contradictory, complicated, messy, and often very compelling, much like the digital age in which we are living.

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Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

Just a quick reminder that tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM, I will be giving a revised version of my talk, “Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis” in Fayetteville State’s Continuing Education Building.  If you are a student or faculty member interested in these issues, I’d be delighted for you to drop by.  I gave a much shorter version of this talk at our Mid-Year Conference, but this will allow me to cover quite a bit more material.

It will also allow me to show the legendary Stephen Colbert commentary on “wikiality,” which still holds up incredibly well, three and a half years after it first appeared on the air (hard to believe it was that long ago).  Hope to see some of you there.

Update: I’m also hoping to bounce briefly off of the debates about the Siegenthaler controversy before moving into a more specific discussion about wikis and even Wikipedia can be used productively as teaching tools in the college classroom.

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Reinventing Film Festivals, Year Two

During last year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, I began to take notice of how both festivals were making tentative moves toward serving not merely as showcases for new independent films seeking distribution but as virtual distributors in their own right, providing online or video-on-demand access to selected films playing at their festivals.  The practice was a response to a struggling market for independent films and to the viability of online platforms such as YouTube, while traditional video retailers such as Blockbuster continue to struggle.  Now, in 2010, both festivals seem primed to expand their role as distributors, a change that may have intriguing implications for those of us who follow independent film.

Some of this change can be measured in the Sundance Next program, which highlights a number of ultra-low-budget and DIY films.  But there are a number of other changes worth tracking, including Slamdance’s decision to offer four films on demand via Microsoft’s Zune and Xbox systems.  Robert Redford’s keynote address also helped to define this new direction, highlighting the ability of Sundance to shape online distribution practices, essentially calling them “the future” of independent film.

To some extent, I am a little skeptical about this attempt to redefine Sundance.  Roger Ebert offers an astute reading of the Sundance program and promotional materials as an attempt to rebrand the festival as a “distribution business,” one that has its eyes set well beyond the Park City slopes where the festival is held, although it is important to note that the image of thousands of snow-covered indie film buffs crowding into theaters to catch the latest new discovery remains an important part of the “Sundance brand.”  Karina Longworth is even more explicit in identifying the NEXT sidebar as an attempt for Sundance to reclaim lost indie credibility:

If NEXT is partly a marketing gimmick — an institutional intervention to make it easier for a press corps easily distracted by shiny objects to care about starless films — perhaps it’s fitting that its first incarnation feels less like a revolution than a rebranding.

Karina goes on to criticize the NEXT selections for selecting films that already have a well-established pedigree–including Katie Aselton’s (The Puffy Chair) The Freebie–and that conform to relatively traditional indie film cliches including “sad-eyed boys on twinkly-scored road trips” (among others).

Matt Dentler is a little more optimistic and points to the recent New York Times article reporting on the deal between Sundance and YouTube to offer rentals of a small selection of films shown at the festival.  YouTube’s participation is connected to their emerging “Filmmakers Wanted” program that would allow budding filmmakers to make their content available for rental online.  And given that it’s often difficult for me to attend festivals or to have access to the wide array of independent films available in bigger cities, it’s certainly exciting to have what appears to be more options available than in the recent past.

On the one hand, all of these changes seem to fulfill the promise of “the long tail,” the idea that the web will open up distribution, allowing the independent artist to reach new audiences in unprecedented ways.  YouTube joins Netflix and other sites in building an immense online film library, but like Karina, I find myself feeling skeptical about how these new changes are being framed.  Robert Redford has described NEXT and online distribution as expanding the marketplace of ideas and providing documentaries more leverage for getting their ideas out to the world, and yet access to these films remains uneven in many cases.

Some of these questions have been addressed in a recent Baffler column by Astra Taylor, who challenges the ideologies of consumer and artistic liberation expressed by Chris Anderson (The Long Tail and Free) and others, and I find myself sympathetic to many of her claims about the “unlikely alliance” between “big business evangelists and smash-the-state anarchists,” a relationship that has often made me uneasy when I assess the narratives of freedom expressed in DIY film cultures. Taylor’s article is a sobering read, but it’s well worth examining as the conversations about digital distribution continue to unfold.  I don’t pretend to agree with Taylor across the board, but her voice should be heard in the midst of the digital utopianism that tends to dominate these conversations.

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Wednesday Links

I’m still in the midst of lots of early-semester prep work, but here are a couple of recent articles worth mentioning:

  • YouTube has tentatively joined the movie rental business by making a small number of independent films available on its site.  The rental plan was created in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival.  Available films include The Cove, an award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting.  Although there are already a number of online rental options, this news is more intriguing because it reflects a change in the role of film festivals in offering to distribute some of their content online.
  • Because of the graduate course I’m teaching on Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, I’ve become more interested in discussions of how K-12 students are using technology.  If this New York Times article is to be believed, they are using it ALL THE TIME.  According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, students spend 7.5 hours a day using these tools, often multitasking so that their “real” media technology use approaches 11.5 hours a day.
  • Speaking of media technologies, Nicholas Carr recently put in perspective how much people spend on a monthly basis to keep themselves connected, arguing that many people can spend as much on information subscription and fees as they do on food.

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Technology in the Language Arts Classroom

Here is the syllabus for the most recent version of my graduate course, Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, a course required for the M.A.T. and M.Ed. here at Fayetteville State (I’ll post a link to the course website later).  Teaching (and then reworking) this course has pushed me to think a little more carefully each time I’ve taught it about the needs of K-12 educators, an approach that I hope is somewhat reflected in the most recent version of the course.  Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to learn from others who have taught similar courses or who have created syllabi that touch on similar issues of digital production.  Laura’s syllabus for her Instructional Communications course was especially helpful, as was David Silver’s Digital Media Production syllabus.  With that in mind, here is my syllabus below the fold:

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Wednesday Links: 3D TV, Year in Cinema, Digital Humanities

Here are a few of the items I’ve been watching, reading, and thinking about in recent days:

  • Both James Poniewozik and Nick Bilton discuss the recent announcement that several channels (including ESPN) are planning to offer some 3D programming in the next few months.  Like them, I’m a little skeptical about whether or not there is a huge desire for 3D programming at home, especially if it requires wearing the glasses, and wondering whether programming trends that emphasize cheaply-produced reality TV actually warrant 3D.
  • Via Michael Newman on Twitter, “Cinema 2009,”a  very cool montage by Kees van Dijkhuizen, featuring clips from 342 different films produced in 2009.  Van Dijkhuizen has an eye for rhythmic editing and demonstrates an engaged–even obsessive–love of cinema that makes this little video a pleasure to watch.
  • Scott Kirsner points to a Wall Street Journal article that provides data on customer movie rental and purchase habits in 2009.  Actual theatrical spending increased dramatically, while DVD sales plummeted (DVD rentals stayed about the same).  Online purchases and streams remained a very tiny, but growing, portion of overall spending.
  • David Parry has a thoughtful response to recent discussions of the so-called rise of the digital humanities in light of Brian Croxall’s paper on the state of academic labor.

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Wikipedia Project Revisited

Earlier this semester, I discussed a planned first-year composition assignment that would require students to analyze the construction of a Wikipedia page in order to determine the online encyclopedia’s relevance as a source of information.  In short, the assignment required students to select a Wikipedia entry, to look at the entry’s discussion page and history and to make an argument about whether the site’s openness made it a “better” source than other encyclopedias (or other sources of information).  Students were required to cite (preferably quote) at least three contributions to the discussion page and at least one other secondary source on Wikipedia.  After reading the students’ papers and reflecting on other projects I’ve assigned this semester, I’ve decided that I like the project quite a bit and may try to teach it again, albeit with some minor tweaking.

What worked about the assignment: The assignment helped frame the conversation their papers were entering.  Because the paper assignment was fortuitously timed alongside Robert Mackey’s NYT blog post on “Wikipedia’s reaction”* to Joe Wilson’s outburst against Obama, we had a familiar case study that students could use as a reference point.  Students had heard other instructors warning them against Wikipedia but knew little about the site other than the fact that “anyone” could edit it.  After completing the assignment, many students could talk critically about how they would use a source such as Wikipedia in the future.

On a more subtle level, the assignment provided students with helpful models for incorporating sources in a fairly sophisticated matter.  They could use quotations from Wikipedia to illustrate a point and then turn to authors such as Benkler, Parry, and Mackey as secondary sources commenting about Wikipedia. In that sense, the assignment helped to support our department’s turn toward encouraging “information literacy” approaches that helps students to think critically about sources and to use them in their papers.

What didn’t work: The assignment was initially fairly intimidating for many of my students.  This may not be a negative, but I was a little surprised at their initial resistance to the assignment.  The papers ended up taking an either/or position on Wikipedia (it should/should not be used as a source).  Students still treated Wikipedia as something “out there” that they could use/analyze/look at, not as something that could allow them to participate.  I realize this is a difficult step, even for media studies scholars, but it’s still difficult to convey the significance of the idea that the “anyone” capable of editing a Wikipedia page includes them (or you, for that matter).

In the future, I’d like to find a way of framing the assignment slightly differently so that the range of thesis statements/arguments about Wikipedia are somewhat broader.  That being said, the Wikipedia papers were much stronger than the traditional research paper I assigned as the final assignment of the semester, which may be due to a number of factors (competition with other end-of-semester assignments, a narrower project with more clearly defined parameters, continued problems on my part in teaching how to find and cite sources, etc).  But it’s definitely a project I will use again in future composition classes.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of treating Wikipedia as a singular entity capable of a homogenous, non-contradictory reaction.  If anything, the discussion on how to represent Wilson’s actions display a remarkable lack of consensus.  Still, it is possible to treat Wikipedia “institutionally” to some extent.

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Avatar, World-Building, and Revolutionizing Cinema

In recent weeks, I’ve become casually interested in the hype surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar, a $500 million, special-effects laden, 3-D epic that serves as Cameron’s first feature-length narrative film since 1998’s Titanic.  It’s easy to forget that when Titanic came out, there was concern that the film would sink Cameron’s career and, potentially, a major studio.  But since then, Cameron has assumed a powerful position in the pantheon of blockbuster auteurs, alongside of Spielberg, Jackson, and Lucas (I’d include the Wachowskis here, but they need something besides the Matrix films to really qualify).  As the Avatar buzz begins to build, I’ve become fascinated by the ways in which the film is being positioned as the latest effects spectacle to simultaneously offer us a glimpse of a new world, one populated by an alien race with a distinct language and music, and a new way of seeing the world, one made possible by new cameras and more powerful computing power for rendering lifelike characters.

My thoughts on the promotion of Avatar began to crystalize when I read a recent profile of Cameron in this month’s Wired.  As usual, the article places emphasis on Cameron as a techno-auteur, someone who is equally adventurous in developing and testing new technologies as he is in taking storytelling risks.  In my book, I have a brief discussion of Cameron’s involvement in urging theaters to adopt the digital projectors that would be equipped to display 3-D films, a goal that the article ties directly to 3-D’s (thus far unrealized) potential to provide greater realism.

But I found it even more compelling that Joshua Davis’s profile also places emphasis on Cameron’s exhaustive efforts to create a convincing, coherent world for the Na’vi, the alien race depicted in the film.  We learn, for example, that Cameron recruited USC professor of linguistics, Paul R. Frommer, to create a new language for the Na’vi, discussing details such as whether modifiers would precede nouns, and training actors to speak the language phonetically (more on the language-creation here and in this even more thorough LA Times article).   Cameron also hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to create a taxonomy of the plant life found on the planet where the Na’vi lived, as well as experts in astrophysics, musicology, and archaeology, to help imagine the world he’d created.  And while much of this content may not appear directly in the film, it will show up in the Pandorapedia, a book-length encyclopedia, part of which will be available online, but which has also been linked to the video game.

To some extent, these practices aren’t entirely new.  Fans have been learning Klingon since the 1960s.  Lucas and others collaborated in creating a vast textual universe inhabited by the Star Wars characters, and the Wachowksis create such an elaborate world for the Matrix characters that the final film was virtually incoherent for many casual observers (but much clearer for ardent fans).  Video games are also nothing new, but given the comments in this review from North Jersey.com, I’m curious to check out how the game engages with questions of narrative identification, given that you can play as either a human soldier or a Na’vi.

And yet, as the Wired title promises, Avatar is being positioned as the latest film that “could change film forever.”  On the one hand, it’s easy to dimiss such claims as so much marketing hype (or perhaps the utopian longings of the technogeek).  But I’m also fascinated by the language of transformation that seems to permeate so much of the pomotional materials, whether that is tied to a change in how stories are told visually or to a revitalization of a struggling film industry, as we see John Horn and Claudia Eller’s L.A. Times Cameron profile.  Here, Cameron is a prophet, capable of moving (digital) mountains, and potentially, providing us with a new cinematic language for visuallizing them.  Thus we find that Jon Lewis’s proclamation in the late 1990s that we have reached the “end of cinema as we know it” becomes both the status quo and continued hope for Hollywood filmmaking.

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Saturday Links

Now that my computer seems to be back up to speed, I’m hoping to blog on a regular basis again.  I’ve got a couple of posts brewing including a discussion of a graduate seminar I’ve been asked to teach, a version of my Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom course I’ve done twice before.  I was unhappy with how the previous version turned out, so as usual I’ll be soliciting advice, crowdsourcing, and trying to rethink how the course might work best.  I’m also still thinking about a “decadism” post as I contemplate all of the decade-in-film posts that are circulating in film blogs these days.  I think they’re a fascinating form of popular (film) history, but I still need to process those thoughts for a while.  For now, here is a list of some of the things I’ve been reading and watching this weekend:

  • The Film Doctor pointed out a couple of must-watch videos the other day: Matt Zoller Seitz’s insightful documentary short about Bill Melendez, the director of dozens of Charlie Brown specials.  As Seitz observes, Melendez’s eye for visual storytelling is often underestimated, and his influence on contemporary filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, is well worth noting.  Also of interest, Mario Balducci’s “The Knife,” a completely surreal reimagination of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
  • Via The House Next Door, a sharp video essay on “Video Games & The Tentpole Film.”  One of my biggest regrets with my book is that I spent little time thinking about video games (other than as part of a larger marketing chain within a larger entertainment franchise), but this essay makes a compelling case for the ways that video games are fining new and innovative ways of proucing suspense and horror that are more compelling than their cinematic counterparts.
  • Via Tama Leaver, what appears to be an incredibly useful research report on contemporary practices of movie engagement, Moviegoers 2010, a report that starts with the observation that studios and other entertainment professionals know little about current audience behaviors.  One quick factoid from their blog: most “moviegoers” now spend slightly more time online than watching TV.  Such categories are, of course, rather blurry given that many people now watch TV via Hulu and other online portals.
  • Bad Lit has a pointer to the Sundance NEXT lineup, a connection of ostensibly “low- and no-budget” films that will play at this year’s festival. On a quick skim, I recognize one name, Linas Phillips who made the quirky autobiographical documentary, Walking to Werner, which I saw at Silverocs a few years ago and quite liked.  But, as usual, the list provokes big questions about what counts as “independent” and what role Sundnace seems to be playing in fostering the work of aspiring filmmakers.  On a relate note, AJ Schnack compiles a list of this year’s Sundance documentary competition films.
  • Bad Lit also points to a new documentary that I’m curious to see: Guest of Cindy Sherman, a documentary by Paul H-O, a New York public access TV host who was briefly romantically involved with visual artist Cindy Sherman, famous for her Untitled Film Stills, in which Sherman photographed herself in a variety of poses of different female characters.  The trailer suggests that the film will meditate on what counts as art, how art mediates and engages with identy and celebrity, all things I find fascinating.

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Wikipedia Discussion Project

At the request of several of my Twitter followers, here is an overview of the Wikipedia assignment I recently gave my students.  The assignment is designed for first-year composition students and essentially asks them to take a specific Wikipedia entry about a controversial figure or subject–I’ll include the full text of the assignment below the fold–and to analyze the discussion page for the entry on that subject to see if Wikipedia “worked.”  I very consciously left what that meant relatively open, so that students could take any number of positions on the site’s policies and procedures, inviting them to question whether the site should present controversies neutrally or objectively or, in some cases, whether the site is truly free from bias.

At first, students were skeptical.  Most of them were warned not to use Wikipedia as a source.  One even described the debate as a “dead issue.”  But rather than lecture them on the perils of encyclopedia use, I hoped to complicate their notions of collective authorship  (what Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum call commons-based peer production) and its implications for creating and sharing knowledge.  I introduced the assignment by asking students to read and respond to a set of articles that take a variety of positions on Wikipedia and, in some cases, ask students to edit or author entries themselves.  These articles included:

The latter article, which focused on Joe Wilson’s notorious shout of “you lie!” during Obama’s health-care address was especially successful, both because of it being a recent event and because many of my students are black and were sensitive to Wilson’s racial politics.  Mackey’s blog entry not only showed how to cite discussion pages but also how to process wide-ranging discussions and debates.It could also allow them to see–very quickly–the politics of authorship, the implications of depicting Wilson in a certain way based on past behaviors and comments (a quick glance at the Wikipedia debate about Obama’s citizenship clinched the deal).

There are, as @wiki_nihiltres reminded me,a significant number of projects like this that have been anthologized on Wikipedia.  The entry that lists current projects helpfully lists guidelines for doing edits to wiki entries and a number of suggested projects, but because I wanted to complete the assignment relatively quickly (2-3 weeks), I felt that the meta-analysis would better suit my needs for the class.  And so far, after seeing the thesis statements today, I think the project is working.  Popular topics have included Michael Vick and same-sex marriage, but other students have shown that entries on current figures such as Britney Spears over-emphasize the gossip surrounding her personal life, often at the expense of a focus on her career.  One of the more sophisticated analyses will look at the entry for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, arguing that the entry fails to conform to Wikipedia’s stated objectivity standards, drawing from a very rich discussion page to support his point.  But, in general, students have reached a variety of conclusions about Wikipedia’s potential as a new model of authorship, which is precisely what I was hoping to see.

I’ll try to post a follow-up in a few weeks, but students are clearly mulling over the architecture of Wikipedia and coming to a wide range of conclusions about it.  One student reminded us, for example, that you could easily compare archived pages under the history tab.  Others were attentive to the various framing devices on many talk pages that called for civil discussion.  But after this assignment, they should, at a minimum, have a better sense of how and why Wikipedia works the way that it does.

The full text of the assignment is below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

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