Archive for social media

Netflix Meets Facebook

One of the quirks of digital movie rentals has been a legal impediment that prevented Netflix from integrating with Facebook and other social media sites. The challenge Netflix faced was a law, the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, but known informally as “Bork’s Law” because it was passed in the wake of Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination process. During the confirmation hearings, the Washington DC City Paper, an alternative weekly, obtained Bork’s movie rental records and published an article about them. Although his movie choices were relatively innocuous, it was rightfully seen as an invasion of privacy, and Bork’s Law was passed as a result. The result of that law was that Netflix was reluctant to create a Facebook app that would automatically post someone’s video rental or viewing activity.

Now, after several years of lobbying, the Senate has passed a bill creating an exception to this privacy loophole. According to Ars Technica the bill clarifies two areas of concern that Netflix faced. First, it makes clear that consent for sharing rental histories can be conducted over the Internet. Previously, this required written consent. Second, consent can be given for up to two years, rather than on a case-by-case basis. So, it’s probably safe to expect that Netflix will have a Facebook app in place relatively soon, opening up the potential that you will be alerted every time one of your friends binge watches an episode of Breaking Bad.

That said, if I remember correctly, the Facebook app would also allow Netflix to individualize accounts even further, especially given the practice of shared accounts. My tastes are obviously quite a bit different than other members of my family, which would mean that if I were to integrate Netflix and Facebook, I’d want to avoid broadcasting what they watched using a household account in my name. People already have a number of mechanisms for social sharing–GetGlue, Miso, etc–and typically volunteer this information when they want to share it. Social media is already the new “water cooler” for talking about TV and movies, so integrating something automatic seems likely to capture only a narrow group of users. In addition, given the continued ambiguities about privacy–expressed in part through the Facebook memes where people ask you to make their status updates private–suggest that many Netflix and Facebook users will opt out of this frictionless form of sharing (there’s actually quite a bit of research that supports this notion).

The bill still hasn’t been signed by President Obama, so there is still a ways to go before it becomes law. It seems like a reasonable update, as long as people are able to protect their privacy, but I think it also opens up the possibility for Netflix to engage in even more individualized forms of media recommendations.

 

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Rethinking the “Meme Election”

I have been turning over some ideas about the move to christen 2012 as the “Meme Election.” To some extent, this desire to revisit the 2012 campaign was driven by an Atlantic article by Megan Garber, which places emphasis on the Obama campaign’s deft ability to navigate various social media, an interpretation grounded in Obama’s own willingness to participate in various election-year memes, as well as the lively Obama Tumblr, which allowed the campaign to use a more playful tone. This playfulness is typified by Obama posing with McKayla Maroney, the “Not Impressed” gymnast from the U.S. Olympic team, whose scowl launched one of the more popular memes of the 2012 election.

Garber’s article seems to take for granted that Obama’s campaign was far more successful at using memes than Mitt Romney’s election team, and there is probably some truth to that, although to some extent at least, Obama’s team built upon an existing community of creative class workers who were more likely to support him than Obama. Many of the more popular memes (as Garber defines them), such as Eastwooding and Binders Full of Women (here’s my response), came from outside the campaign itself, as everyday people sought to participate by demonstrating their cleverness or by sharing the creativity of others, often to make a political point. As my somewhat infrequent blog posts show, I’ve been consistently amused by many of these memes and find them to be a fascinating expression of political culture, one that fits neatly with my enjoyment of (almost) all things snarky and satirical. Popular culture (as Henry Jenkins  reminded us in his discussions of “fan activism“) can be a powerful tool for conveying a political idea.

But I think this focus on image macros and other forms of visual cleverness may contribute to an incomplete depiction of how the 2012 election functioned. First, in the final days before the election–and even in the immediate aftermath–much of the debate was focused on the practice of interpreting polls. During the days leading up to the election, there were (for example) countless attempts to discredit polling expert Nate Silver, whose predictions turned out to be more or less spot on.  There was the “unskewed polls” guy, whose predictions were briefly shared, and certainly conservative fears about Obamacare, gun rights, and Benghazi, among other issues are shared in a viral (or meme-like) fashion. If we take the idea of the meme more broadly to include any “concept” that spreads via the internet, we have to take account for these attempts to circulate ideas, even if many of them are later proven false by fact-checkers (and of course, the critique of fact-checkers itself arguably became a meme). By talking about these issues as “memes,” I’m not ignoring other effects of calculating polling results or other aspects of the campaign, including the use of email and social media to fundraise and target voters (and I would argue that one of the under-reported stories of this year’s election is the intensification of campaigns using “Big Data” to identify and reach out to likely voters). Instead, I think we might benefit from a more nuanced perception of how memes function in the spaces of political and popular culture.

Garber is absolutely right about a number of points. Much of this communication is, as she puts it, “niche [and] networked.” To be sure, I disagree politically with many of my Facebook friends and often encountered image macros that didn’t reflect my political views, but the Obama Tumblr and other social media tools tended to attract participants who shared political views. She also points out the idea that we have reached the era of the “permanent campaign” (if we weren’t there already), one that involves an active, ongoing participatory political culture, one that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific political candidate, even if Obama benefited tremendously from social media. Much of that material will be frustrating, and memes can spread false information almost as quickly as it can spread truthful information. It can be profoundly clever and can dramatically change our perception of public figures (or at least reinforce emergent views of those figures). Perhaps rather than thinking about memes in terms of campaigns, we should understand them as part of an ongoing–often fraught–political conversation.

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“Binders Full of Women:” 2012 and the Image Macro Election

Last night’s debate left us with two or three comments that will endure throughout the election season and beyond, but none will likely have the staying power of Mitt Romney’s remark that when he was seeking out job female applicants his staff brought him “binders full of women.” On one level, it’s easy to read Romney’s remarks as a slip of the tongue, but on another the comment seemed to confirm the viewpoint that Romney is a jerk who is oblivious to women’s needs. In her debate post, Amy Sullivan details the ways in which Romney (“Mitt the Man”) came across as insensitive to women, and the binders comment–which only came out when Romney was trying to avoid answering whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–has provided a shorthand for expressing that sentiment. Within minutes of of the comment (as CBS News reports), there were Twitter feeds (@RomneyBinders had 33,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon) and Tumblr accounts where many of the Romney binders images were posted, suggesting that the comments provoked a fair amount of outrage.

In keeping with the current election-year rhetoric, many of the Romney binders relied upon existing internet memes in order to make their political points, ranging from The Most Interesting Man in the World to a revival of the “texts from Hillary” meme (via That Wren Girl) and even a riff on the Ryan Gosling meme (borrowed from MoveOn’s Facebook page). Many other posts from the Binders Full of Women Tumblr use images of recognizable celebrities in order to mock Romney or tie his comments to misogynistic aspects of contemporary culture. In one image, Romney’s comments are aligned with Hugh Hefner and in another with John Cusack, and in probably my favorite, with the movie Dirty Dancing. Although these posts may not constitute an entirely politically coherent response to Romney’s remarks, they do help to make visible Romney’s lack of concern for a number of women’s issues (including his non-answer on the Lily Ledbetter question). Further, because of the popular culture associations–with TV, film, and other internet memes–many of these political expressions are instantly accessible.

In addition, these images help to reinforce the idea that the 2012 election’s media format is that of the image macro, a picture superimposed with text, usually with humorous intentions. If 2008 was the “YouTube election,” then it might seem odd that static images would make such a comeback, but I think there are a few reasons that this is happening. First, the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook in this election eclipses what was happening in 2008. More people are sharing political information than before, and thanks to Twitter’s associations with micro-celebrity, more people are attempting to create clever responses to debates and other political events in order to achieve (very) temporary fame–a tendency that The Onion beautifully satirtized in a post anticipating the second debate. Second, image macros are more instantly accessible than video mashups, even while using some of the same principles of montage and associative editing that Richard Edwards and I discussed in our article on some of the more popular mashups from 2008, including “Vote Different.” Image macros are fleeting; they can be viewed more easily than videos. Richard and I argued that mashups created meaning through the clash (or meshing) of popular and political culture imagery, and most image macros follow this same logic. More crucially, they have a much lower barrier to entry in terms of their production in that virtually anyone can go to a Meme Generator site, post or (more likely) borrow an image, and then add the necessary text to create their contribution to a meme. Video editing, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment of time on the part of the creator. Thus, rather than taking several hours to painstakingly piece together multiple clips from a movie with a political speech, meme participants can get something posted literally within minutes, shaping the response to a debate even before it has finished.

This might produce some anxiety about critical distance or a fear that we may be relying too much on snap judgements about who “won” a debate. But I would argue that these fleeting political comments actually open up the debates to greater scrutiny than ever before. And the “Romney binder” meme has, in fact, opened up Romney’s record for hiring women, and it turns out that his record isn’t that great. It’s difficult to predict whether a political meme will endure. Eastwooding seems to have faded relatively quickly even though it was able–briefly at least–to integrate itself with older, more established memes. Still, as a moment of crystallizing a political truth, these populist forms offer a fascinating, lightning-quick mode of expression.

Update: Tama Leaver gave a talk at this year’s Internet Research Conference that mentions this post–talk about up-to-the-minute research–and makes a useful distinction between “trolling,” which he defines as disruption for the sake of disruption, and “image macro politics,” which can work as a form of online activism or engagement. But even as I review Tama’s presentation, I find myself wondering whether “meme election” might be better, especially given elements such as the Paul Ryan Gosling Twitter account, which borrows heavily from the logic of “remix politics” but also makes only limited use of images or image macros.

 

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Eastwooding, Or Old Man Yells at Chair

Given my interests in the intersections between politics, humor, popular culture, and social media, I found the responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, ad-libbed campaign performance art at the Republican National Convention to be completely irresistible. In case you missed it, the Hollywood icon (whose movies I admire) gave a 10-minute speech supporting Mitt Romney in which he lectured an empty chair meant to represent current president, Barack Obama, asking “him” questions about why he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises. From a conservative perspective, there’s probably a valid point embedded in the speech–Obama as empty suit or whatever–but the impromptu nature of the talk has made it the subject of widespread mockery on the political web.

To some extent, the mockery derives from the fact that Eastwood’s performance before the RNC departs so radically from his star persona as a tough-talking Dirty Harry-type. Instead, the bit accentuated his age, a perception that was probably reinforced by his slightly disheveled hair and by the fact that he was ad-libbing and often seemed to be searching for the right words. The performance also departed radically from the rest of the RNC, which appeared to be tightly scripted, a perception that is mocked in this Photoshopped image from The Simpsons showing an altered headline in which Abe Simpson “yells at a chair” (the original if I recall says “cloud” instead of chair).

But as Chris Becker documented in an indispensable post on her News for TV Majors site, there were literally hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts that showed up within seconds of Eastwood’s appearance. One of the most notable was the appearance of the Invisible Obama Twitter feed, which was created during Eastwood’s speech and which now has 45,000 followers less than a day after the speech (one of “his” best tweets: “Someone should tell Marco Rubio he’s standing on my foot right now”). Eastwood’s speech also provided an excuse for celebrities to weigh in with both supportive and humorous content, all of it documented by Entertainment Weekly. Among the best remarks was Seth Myers’ “props” to Eastwood for bringing down Twitter. Even the Obama campaign got in on the act with an amusing, if slightly smug, tweet showing Obama seated in the Oval Office, saying “this seat’s taken.”

But one of the more common responses has been the practice of having a picture taken of a person pointing to an empty chair and acting as if the subject is lecturing it–a practice that has quickly become known as “Eastwooding,” although many of them feature pets and even children. Ana Marie Cox has identified this picture as the “original” Eastwooding image, but in any case, the empty chair has now become a key signifier in the political blogosphere, one whose meanings will probably take some time to settle into place (although I think the Abe Simpson image probably tells us the direction this is heading).

Finally, there is another Invisible Obama meme, one that features a photograph of Eastwood gesturing toward the empty chair with a red, white, and blue background. The Meme Generator allows people to enter their own text to create captions that comment on Eastwood or use his performance to make a commentary on politics. On a brief glance at most of the images that have been generated, they are generally anti-Romney or anti-Republican. My favorite so far actually makes reference to another popular meme, the “Most Interesting Man in the World” images that mock or make use of the character from the Dos Equis advertisements. The Meme Generator is especially interesting to me in that it readily invites the participation of others who may have limited coding or video editing skills. It also fascinated in that, like Twitter, it benefits heavily from verbal dexterity, even while participants have the ability to riff of a specific image, creating an incredibly low barrier to participation (although, in an odd sort of way, it doesn’t seem that remote from the longtime New Yorker contests inviting readers to provide captions for its cartoons). Facebook and Twitter users can also share and comment on many of these images without having to create new ones themselves, so that provides another important layer of participation.

I’ve been fascinated by political memes for a long time, in part because they invite citizen participation, but also because they allow untapped political meanings to gain expression, often through coded language associated with popular culture. Most of these Eastwood memes show a fluency with popular culture that invites sharing–they’ve also attracted the attention of George Takei, which never hurts–so it’ll be interesting to see how the Eastwood meme plays out over the next several months.

 

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Streaming Flow

One of the characteristics normally associated with on-demand programming is the idea that it is menu-driven, rather than being driven by the continuity of television channels. Even so, a number of people who use streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu used these services to engage in binge viewing practices, where they would watch several episodes of a show in sequence by clicking through ordered menus. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about this practice, one that points out some of the industry ramifications–most notably the fact that binge viewing cuts into traditional revenue models based on advertising and syndication–but it also touches briefly on how this changes the culture of TV viewing (notably one Netflix executive discourages the use of the term “binge viewing,” suggesting that it makes the practice sound “pathological”). But as these practices have evolved, it is interesting to see Netflix attempt to program binge viewing into their streaming video service using a feature they call “Post-Play.”

The feature, which has been available on the laptop and PS3 versions of Netflix was recently announced on their official blog, and essentially the feature is set up so that the credits are minimized and the following episode will be cued up in another corner of the screen. If the viewer does nothing, the next episode will automatically start. As a result, binge viewing becomes the default option rather than something viewers have to actively create. In a sense, this brings us to a new version of what Raymond Williams referred to as “televisual flow,” in which TV is structured or organized in a way that is deliberately designed to keep us watching (and in Williams’ case, designed to keep us watching the same channel).

But what I find fascinating about the announcement is the reaction to the feature in the comments. Hating Netflix has become kind of an art form, where bloggers, commenters, and others complain about some aspect of Netflix (often in a manner that seems excessive, given the relative novelty of streaming video), but in the comments, you can also begin to see a fairly sophisticated discussion of how on-demand movies and TV shows are contributing to an evolution in viewing practices. Some commenters complain that the feature makes it more difficult to view the credits, while others state that having the new episode start right away disrupts the sensory pleasures of savoring an episode while the credits and music play. Others suggest that the feature should be opt-in so that viewers who want to continue watching an episode don’t have to hit a button to continue watching. Finally, many viewers point out that extra scenes are often embedded deep into the credits so that a viewer may miss an important scene. These comments point to valuable questions about how viewing practices and interfaces are constantly in negotiation in the current moment of media in transition.

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Crowdfunding Revisited

Taking a quick break from working on revisions to book two to point out some recent discussion of the use of crowdfunding to raise money for independent films. Since the 2008 closure of several major indie distributors, there has been a slow but steady turn toward alternative funding and distribution models, and there seems to be some evidence that prominent indie filmmakers are using crowdfunding techniques.

Writing for the Sundance blog, Elisabeth Holm discusses The Canyons, a collaboration between Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader and novelist Bret Easton Ellis on The Canyons, a drama about a group of power-hungry Hollywood types. Notably, in addition to raising funds through Kickstarter (the team has already raised $148,000-plus with a day of fundraising left), Schrader and Ellis also invited supporters to help cast the movie, using Let It Cast, a kind of open-source casting system that allows actors to post auditions for parts online. But I think that what is striking about The Canyons is the degree to which the film ‘s crowdfunding promotions are tied up in more traditional forms of promotions and tie-ins. Although it is relatively common for indie producers to promise copies of the DVD when the film is completed, it struck me that selling the DVD before the movie comes out functions somewhat like  “foreign pre-sales” might have in the past; that is, it is essentially selling some “rights” to the movie (in one case, broadcast rights, in another, the right to own a copy of the DVD)  before it is finished in order to finance the completion of the movie. This is sort of obvious, but by selling enough copies of the DVD before the film is made–by my count, they pre-sold well over 700 DVDs–they can also demonstrate interest in the film before it is even finished. At the same time, the campaign seems to offer, more than most Kickstarter projects, a ticket to a limited form of access to celebrity. Gifts for larger donations include the opportunity to meet Schrader or Ellis, to get script notes from Schrader, and in one case, Schrader’s set gift from Robert DeNiro on Taxi Driver (an engraved belt buckle). It’s an interesting example of how older forms of independent cinema are now being repackaged through these crowdosurcing models.

Lucas McNelly discusses a similar project featuring a familiar Hollywood actor, Matthew Lillard, who is usually remembered for his role as Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movie or as one of the wise-cracking teens in Scream. Lillard has raised over $128,000 (with a week left, as of today) from over 1,800 backers, suggesting that he has a much broader base of support, even if the donations have been smaller. The movie, Fat Kid Rules the World,  which has already played at South by Southwest, is an adaptation of a novel, providing it with an existing fan community beyond Lillard’s reputation as an actor. There are some creative perks–one donation amount will allow you to have Lillard (as Shaggy) record your outgoing voicemail message–but as McNelly suggests, Lillard’s active attempt to engage with potential fans has been crucial to the campaign’s success. Lillard spent a marathon 3 hour session on Reddit, chatting with fans and allowing them to ask him anything they wished. This is not suggest that one approach is superior, but instead to point out that inside and outside are becoming increasingly blurred when it comes to the use of crowdfunding models.

For something a little more substantial, Geoff King (author of the forthcoming Indie 2.0 and several other books) pointed to a BBC report on crowdfunding and its place in the indie sector, which they framed through a discussion of another successful indie project, Andrew Semans’ Nancy, Please (note: I had the opportunity to review Semans’ poignant and observant short film, All Day Long several years ago, so I can’t wait to see his latest effort). Some data from the BBC piece: over 5,000 films have successfully raised funds on Kickstarter, and as King notes 17 films from this year’s Sundance and 33 from this year’s SXSW were Kickstarter projects. Definitely quite a bit to think about here as indie funding models continue to evolve.

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Digital Delivery Links 5/29

I have a couple of other posts percolating right now, including one that will push against some of my ongoing research on rental kiosks, but for now, here are a few links:

  • In Media Res is hosting a themed week featuring contributions from several members of the Connected Viewing Initiative. Today’s post from Sharon Strover highlights some of the questions I’ve been thinking about in my own research for book two and in my CVI project with Max Dawson, namely questions about what it means to be an “on-demand user” and how social media sites function as an informal “TV Guide.”
  • Ted Hope has a post outlining the ways in which the JOBS Act will affect the practice of crowdfunding that is now commonly used to raise money for independent films.
  • This is a few days old, but Bill Murray’s “tour” of the set of Moonrise Kingdom is a great promotion of Wes Anderson’s latest film and a perfect illustration of how Murray has one of the most fascinating star images in Hollywood today. See also Murray’s willingness to give a group of scruffy film fans a “slomo walk,” rather than signing an autograph. And the notorious (and mostly unverifiable) Bill Murray Stories blog.

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Reinventing Hillary

The “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr exploded on the web several days ago–Rachel Maddow mentioned it on her show several days ago–and I’ve gone back to the site several times when friends mentioned it on Facebook, but I think it’s worth discussing in detail because it seems to illustrate some of the ongoing changes in political parody.

First, like the Downfall Meme, I think the Texts from Hillary meme is extraordinarily flexible. It can be used to riff on any number of current events and celebrity personas. Recent posts have parodied Jon Stewart, Maddow (possibly a shout-out after Maddow praised the site), and Mitt Romney. More crucially, it illustrates how Clinton’s political persona has been redefined after her epic primary battle with Barack Obama during the 2008 election. While Clinton was depicted as out-of-touch and harsh, the meme redefines her as embodying what Benjy Sarlin of TPM calls a new form of “badass cool.” The image of Clinton on a military jet, wearing dark sunglasses, and examining her Blackberry can now be re-read to suggest her political authority, at a moment when Clinton now maintains high popularity with both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps the best illustration of this badass cool is the following text exchange:

What this post also illustrates is the degree to which these political parodies continue to rely upon intertextual references. The 3 AM reference recalls an advertisement in which Clinton attacked Obama’s lack of experience by imagining a 3 AM phone call and asking whether voters trusted Obama to handle the situation. The ad was widely parodied as being too harsh and threatening, but now, it has been reworked to fit within Clinton’s jet-setting, confident style. I’ll be interested to see if (and how) the meme endures because it seems to be a powerful illustration of how political meanings can shift over time. Oh, and because it’s really fun.

Update: FYI, now Clinton is submitting her own contributions to the Texts from Hillary Tumblr. Very cool.

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What Else I’m Reading

Because I haven’t been posting in a while, here are some more things I’ve been following lately. In other news, I somehow completely forgot to mention my ninth anniversary of blogging last month (I started a Blogger blog way back in March 2003)  until I noticed how Atrios was commemorating his tenth (!) anniversary. This gives me about ten or eleven months to come up with a creative way of marking ten years of blogging by March of next year. Suggestions are always welcome. By the way, here’s another bulleted list for your weekend entertainment:

  • A longtime blog friend, Craig Lindsey, will be teaching a course on film criticism and column writing on May 5. The course is open to the public and will be held here in Raleigh.
  • One of the early inspirations for my blogging habit was Robert Greenwald, whose anti-iraq War documentaries showed me how social media could be used to promote political activism. Now he’s back (yet again), this time with a documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed, which is meant to document the poster boys of SuperPACs.
  • The cinetrix has posted another fantastic collection of links, but I’m highlighting this one because I’ll probably borrow at least half of these links when I teach Introduction to Film next fall (scroll down a bit for some terrific Welles and Kubrick links).
  • Hugh Atkin has posted what is, without doubt, the best political remix video of the 2012 election so far: Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?
  • Michael Newman offers a compelling reading of advertisements for TVs, mobile devices, and 3D imagery.
  • For the 10th edition of Film Art, their introductory film textbook, Bordwell and Thompson are linking up with Criterion to create a series of videos for teaching many of the formal techniques of cinematic storytelling. Very cool.
  • Meanwhile Kristin Thompson warns against identifying trends based on a single year of box office numbers.

Hoping to have some more substantial blog posts soon, including reviews from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, scheduled for next week (I believe this will be my fifth or sixth year of attending, another milestone that I find particularly unsettling).

 

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What I’m Reading: Digital Delivery Edition

Thanks to an unusual travel schedule (including trips to London, Dublin, Boston, and Atlanta), I’ve been completely out of the loop for the last month, so many of these stories are relatively old, but hopefully you’ll find some of them to be of interest:

  • There continues to be quite a bit of uncertainty regarding the future of digital delivery. Will Richmond Videonuze in particular calls into question a report from Bloomberg that predicts that streaming movie views will surpass DVD views in 2012. Richmond even speculates that Ultraviolet could be used to spark an increase in DVD sales, while pointing out that DVDs still play a vital  role in the entertainment economy.
  • Similarly, New Tee Vee tries to read the tea leaves regarding Netflix’s decision to purchase the domain dvd.com and decides (without a whole lot of evidence) that it’s much ado about nothing.
  • David Poland offers a number of reminders about the status of digital delivery, observing that Netflix now lacks any significant studio content in its streaming collections and that DVD sales have finally leveled off after declining consistently from 2006 to about 2010 or so. As usual, Poland’s skepticism for “home media hysteria” is a welcome antidote to some of the more utopian and dystopian claims about media use.
  • The Carsey Wolf Center (note: I am currently part of a research project affiliated with their Connected Viewing Initiative) is featuring an interview with Richard Berger, a senior vice president of Global Digital Strategy and Operations at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on the history and aims of Ultraviolet. Particularly informative is Berger’s discussion of how Sony and other studios transitioned from a video-on-demand to an electronic sell-through model. Perhaps not surprisingly, Berger acknowledges that the biggest challenge facing Ultraviolet is the difficulty of fostering the impulse to collect that drove DVD sales for the last fifteen years or so.
  • Some interesting discussion of the role Hulu is playing in fostering the growth of new TV series.
  • Hacktivision points to some research indicating that people are indifferent–at best–to having Netflix viewing histories be shareable on Facebook and presumably other social media sites. Netflix is currently legally prevented from doing this (thanks to Bork’s Law). Although Reed Hastings continues to lobby to make frictionless sharing of viewing histories legal, but like Peter Kafka (linked above), I suspect that most people would prefer that this information not be public.
  • Mark Stewart speculates about the future of streaming video services in New Zealand, including Netflix and Quickflix, with a follow-up on his personal blog.
  • Finally, Anthony Kaufman has an intriguing article and blog post, both of which speculate on the reasons why we have so little information about the data behind VOD sales and rentals, even for indie films.

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Rethinking “Stop Kony”

A few weeks ago, I expressed some fascination with the Stop Kony phenomenon. My reaction was oddly timed in that Jason Russell, the “star” of the first video was detained while I was composing my blog post, but it was impossible to deny that the original video had made what appeared to be a profound impact on an international youth culture using a combination of social media tools, celebrity “attention philanthropy (to use danah boyd’s phrase),” and a persuasive narrative structure. At the time, my post was torn between addressing the political simplifications within the video and the colonialist and evangelical ideologies. Unlike the Alternet article I cited, I didn’t see the video as a means of promoting evangelical Christianity. Instead, I saw it as multiplying the powers of social media with the (widely under-discussed) communication networks of Christianity.  But the power of the original video was, without doubt, short-circuited by the circumstances of Russell’s detention, which allowed media commentators to place both Russell and the Invisible Children organization under greater scrutiny.

Still, I think it is worth unpacking how and why the original “Stop Kony” video worked and to see how the organization has responded to these complaints while maintaining their appeal to an international youth culture that might be responsive to using participatory media in order to support some form of service or activism. Boyd offers one of the more compelling maps of how the Stop Kony phenomenon circulated, pointing out how existing religious networks played such a vital role in circulating the video. Henry Jenkins and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik also point out that the video should not be reduced to simplistic accusations of “Slakctivism,” in which youth are depicted as participating in “one-click” activism. Although many people no doubt simply “shared” or “liked” the video on Facebook, thousands of others have mobilized for the day of action on April 20, and one of the reasons is that Invisible Children provides a structured format through which youth feel as if they can make a difference. Jenkins and Kligler-Vilenchik (like boyd) are also quick to point out that Invisible Children has been active for a decade, building these networks and fostering a climate in which a single video can make a significant impact.

These questions re-emerged for me when, yesterday, one of my students alerted me to the fact that there is a new video from Invisible Children, Kony 2012: Beyond Famous. Unlike the previous Stop Kony video, this one has had a slightly slower roll-out, reaching just over 750,000 viewers in its first two days, but it is notable in at least three respects. First, Jason Russell is almost invisible here. As a result, although we see things through the narrative point of view of Ben Keesey, the video is careful to expand its POV to place emphasis on local Ugandan activists who are campaigning for Kony’s arrest. Finally, it also offers a much broader picture of Kony’s activity, pointing out that he is now currently involved in three other neighboring countries, while acknowledging that Kony is not currently active in Uganda. This approach offers a somewhat more effective image of the conflict, which shows Ugandans themselves to be involved in the process. It’s also worth noting that Invisible Children sought to emphasize the multi-ethnic and cross-class alliances of groups involved in the Stop Kony movement. As I’ve suggested, I think it’s way too easy to categorize this as a movement that merely plays on the naivete of celebrities and youth. We should follow the practices of Invisible Children closely in order to understand how social media is affecting the way we communicate and the ways in which activism is being defined.

Update: Here are some more comments by Henry Jenkins, linking the Stop Kony phenomenon to his concept of “spreadable media.”

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“Stop Kony” and the Viral Politics of Visibility

For a variety of reasons, I feel like the last person on the planet (or at least on Facebook) to have learned about the Stop Kony phenomenon. I had just landed in England on March 3, when the video launched, and by the time I was back in the United States ten days later, the video had been viewed an astounding 78 million times, making it one of the most viewed videos in YouTube’s history. But although the video has generated almost unprecedented attention, I’ve been watching the reception of it with a great deal of ambivalence, in part because it reveals some of the potential risks of the power of social media. But despite these risks, I think that critics who dismiss the video outright also miss out on what the Stop Kony phenomenon actually means about a nascent desire to be involved, active, and potentially, transformative.

Stop Kony, if you haven’t heard, is a 30-minute video that seeks to mobilize young social media users in an awareness campaign to get the United States government to take action to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s military group has brutalized villagers in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, and southern Sudan, deploying child soldiers who have, in some cases, been instructed to kill their parents. Kony has been operating in this region for years and has, as the video asserts, benefitted from being “invisible” to the rest of the world due to a lack of interest in the (U.S.?) news media and due to the fact that Kony doesn’t really threaten American interests (the video seems to have no particular concern about whether or how non-U.S. activists should get involved).  The video, directed by Jason Russell, is up-front about its desire to affect and reach out to policy makers and to affect public opinion, gleefully acknowledging its efforts to leverage the stardom of people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna to promote intervention in Uganda.

But what makes “Stop Kony” so troubling is the video’s underlying narrative structure, which seems to have more to do with celebrating the possibilities of viral activism than it does with genuinely educating the social mediasphere about Kony’s criminal activity and what should be done to stop him. In fact, the video opens with the oft-quoted statistic that there are 750 million people on Facebook and then goes on to attribute the uprisings in Iran and Egypt to social media, a somewhat dubious claim (although media journalist Sharon Waxman accepts it uncritically), before suggesting that an “older generation” is “very concerned” about losing control to a younger social media collective. From there, Russell, who narrates the video, describes and depicts the birth and childhood of his son, using his own (white, middle class) child’s innocence as a stand-in for that of a Ugandan child’s. Only about 4-5 minutes into a 30-minute video are we introduced to Jacob, a survivor of Kony’s attacks, but Russell’s promise to help Jacob, we are told isn’t about the Ugandans, but it’s “about you,” about the ability of social media activists to change the world. Russell imposes some artificial forms of urgency here, telling viewers that “time is running out” and that the movie will “expire” (be taken down? it’s not clear) on December 31, 2012. Russell underscores this activist public by showing cheering, mostly middle class crowds of young adults and teens.

From here, the video offers only the most basic overview of Kony’s tactics and activities, noting only in passing that Kony is no longer active in Uganda, while also establishing the (somewhat tenuous) thesis that if we “all” knew about Kony, then the U.S. government (again, no mention is made of non-U.S. governments, although the International Criminal Court is briefly cited) would be forced to act. In response, Russell suggests, using an interview with Shepherd Fairey, that social media allows us to “redefine propaganda,” so that people who feel powerless can make an impact. The desired actions fall into this new form of social media activism: users can sign a pledge and post their support on social media platforms, which they, in turn, are able to track. They are encouraged to donate to Tri, a non-profit involved in the anti-Kony efforts, and donors receive the “action kit” that allows them to create posters that will be disseminated all over every major city on April 20, 2012, an action that now seems redundant given the attention the cause has already received.

It’s worth noting–as Waxman observes–that the video clearly targets younger users of social media. The messaging seems designed to reach college students and teenagers and appeals to and through social media expertise. Similarly, Nicholas Kristof argues that although the video has a number of distortions and inaccuracies, it serves an educational purpose, making viewers more aware of Kony’s crimes, while adding that we “shouldn’t let nuance get in the way of action.” That being said, these simplifications and distortions reinforce a patronizing view of international politics, one that is based in colonialist discourses of a “white man’s burden” (or what the LA Times aptly describes as the “White Industrial Savior Complex”) regarding Africa. A related complaint has been that Invisible Children has an underlying (and mostly unstated) goal of promoting evangelical Christianity, a claim related by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson. That being said, Wilson’s primary bit of evidence was a talk that Russell gave at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, encouraging the Baptist student body to get more involved in the fight against Kony, so rather than viewing the video as a deliberate attempt to proselytize, I would argue that the video appropriates the evangelical language of reaching out and converting others, language that fits rather neatly into some of the more utopian accounts of using social media to effect change.

The video’s inflated sense of self-importance becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that Russell so prominently features himself and his son as the moral centers by which we view Kony and the conflict in Uganda (a position that has become even more compromised given that as I was writing this entry a report surfaced that Russell was arrested in San Diego for a variety of crimes including public indecency, drunkenness, and vandalizing cars). The focus on Russell and on a network of middle-class social media users proved especially puzzling to the Ugandan people who were supposed to benefit from Stop Kony’s campaign of networked visibility. In an Al Jazeera report linked by Xeni Jardin, we learn that Ugandans were puzzled by the video’s emphasis on Russell and by the calls to create t-shirts bearing Kony’s image, even while the video states that its intended purpose is to make Kony “famous” in order to see him captured. Ugandans complained that the video depicts events from nearly a decade ago, out of context, and some felt it was a cynical attempt to raise money. The outdoor screening was eventually stopped when viewers began throwing rocks, and future showings of the film in Uganda were postponed.

But the biggest concern I have about the video is one that was articulated by Engage Media, which observes that the Stop Kony rhetoric frames activism in ways that are cause for concern. The Twitter hashtag #stopatnothing is most significant here. This kind of viral social media activism can often lead to some of the same forms of uncritical acceptance that we have seen in other media, and in some cases, it potentially amplifies some potentially violent rhetoric. Engage is also attentive to the fact that the videomakers should have taken into account the local groups who were affected by Kony, providing them with the tools and the platform to share their message with the world (assuming that is what they want). Russell–and others, including Nicholas Kristof, who should know better–make a number of assumptions about the desires of a potentially disparate group of people, with Kristof concluding his op-ed with the phrase “If I were a Congolese villager…”  Which, of course, reduces a diverse grouping into a homogeneous whole.

So, yes, I am disturbed by the Stop Kony phenomenon, and in fact, as I wrote, I found myself becoming even less sympathetic with the tactics Russell is using, even if I recognize that Kony is a cruel individual. I don’t like that the video positions me as an impediment to justice when I ask for more nuance and subtlety and question the video’s uncritical embrace of the Ugandan military. And, yes, I am skeptical about Russell’s self-importance. But despite the video’s numerous flaws, I still find myself trying to make sense of how the video is using and mobilizing the good intentions of an international and socially-networked youth culture to try to make a difference in the wider world. To be sure, condemning a child-killing mass murderer in Africa is a relatively easy target, and the project’s militant rhetoric (#stopatnothing) is concerning, but the questions about empowerment, activism, and collectivity should not be easily or quickly dismissed.

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Accessing the Cinematic Cloud

In case you missed it elsewhere, I have a new post on the Antenna Blog, “Accessing the Cinematic Cloud,” which responds to John August’s comparison of digital movie delivery with ATMs. August draws some interesting connections between early problems with ATMs and similar problems that confront consumers of digital cinema. My main response is to raise some questions about how these issues will be resolved and whether these new formats will really fulfill the promises of access, choice, and diversity. I’d very much enjoy hearing your thoughts.

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Catching Up

With Andrea out of town for the weekend, I’ve spent much of my time attending and participating in Duke University’s Marxism and New Media Conference. While my own work seemingly places much more emphasis on the category “new media” than “Marxist,” I deeply enjoyed and benefitted from testing the limits of current conversations in media studies about the practices of production, and in my own essay on social check-in services, about the creation of value in an attention economy. I’m not going to try to read today’s links completely through the lens of the conference, but I think it has sharpened my thinking on a couple of key points:

  • One quick bit of news: Star Wars Uncut, a fan film I discussed in the edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens, has been released on YouTube in a director’s cut, one that includes more seamless video and sound editing. I discussed SWU as a paradigmatic example of a crowdsourced adaptation and still remain fascinated by it, though I have to admit that I still have some fondness for the original patchwork version that was auto-generated based on people’s votes.
  • Speaking of fan responses, I’ve been interested in the Vertigo meme, in which fans, responding to Kim Novak’s complaints about the use of the Vertigo theme in The Artist (which she referred to as a “violation”),  have been adding the music to a wide range of other texts. For one of the more thoughtful discussions of this project check out Jason Mittell’s discussion of how he Vertigoed The Wire and Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s announcement of the contest at Press Play.  Scroll down for one of my favorite examples, in which The Big Lebowski gets the Vertigo treatment. Moments like these renew my faith in remix culture.
  • This story is a few days old, but given my focus on digital cinema, I think it’s worth noting that Eastman Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • I’m intrigued by the discussion of this screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which the pre-show advertising automatically turned on during the movie, leading to overlapping images showing Ben Kingsley talking over ads warning us to silence our cell phones, animated candy bars, and other advertising ephemera. It’s a bizarre mashup and a horrifying depiction of the automation of theatrical projection in the era of digital cinema.
  • On a related note, Anthony Kaufman discusses some of the challenges for indie and art house theaters in the era of digital projection.
  • Worth noting, many of the videos I’ve mentioned today would be at risk of being pulled (and their websites would also be threatened with legal action) if SOPA and/or PIPA had been passed. Henry Jenkins links to a detailed discussion of some of the creative activism that has been inspired by the anti-SOPA movement. On a related note, New Tee Vee has an article that explores some of the possible motivations for piracy, specifically the lack of available premium content via digital platforms.
  • Curiously, given this complaint, however Janko Roettgers, also of New Tee Vee, argues that we are in a “golden age of content.” Roettgers uses the announcement that  both Hulu and Netfix are producing original series (rather than merely serving as a portal to access content produced by others) to argue that we have far more choices for watching than ever before. Videonuze also has a discussion of “online originals.”
  • On a related note, Aymar Jean Christian has announced the launch of a new academic blog dedicated to the study of the future of video and television, Hacktivision.
  • This has been around for a while, but via the cinetrix, I just learned about the promo video for a planned adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1986.
  • Joe Swanberg has a new film out called Marriage Material. Richard Brody reviews the film favorably and notes that it will be available to watch online for free for two weeks.

The Big V from Will Woolf on Vimeo.

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Mitt the Ripper

So far, the 2012 Republican primaries have offered a dispiriting display candidates who seem ill-prepared to run a political campaign (Perry’s brain lapses, candidates failing to get on the Virginia ballot), much less a country, even while those same candidates are sustained by the so-called SuperPACs that allow them to raise virtually unlimited funds. It’s dismaying to watch, for sure, which gives me an even greater appreciation for the work that Steven Colbert has been doing in satirizing the excesses of this process, in part through his own SuperPAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as well as his appearance on a Sunday morning talk show, in which Colbert–in character–continued to play coy with his exploratory plans to run for President in South Carolina.

Part of Colbert’s political theater has involved handing over the reigns of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart, his Comedy Central fake news colleague, with the two of them almost giddily displaying the absurdity of the idea that campaigns and SuperPACs are not coordinated. Now Colbert is using gaps in campaign finance law that allow him to broadcast advertisements in the days leading up to a presidential primary. The result is Colbert’s “Mitt the Ripper” ad in which Colbert simultaneously mocks campaign financing, Romney’s corporatism, and attack ads themselves, effectively turning Romney’s comments that “corporations are people” on its head.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Super PAC Ad – Attack In B Minor For Strings
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

It’s worth noting that anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry has been exploiting the same loophole, airing an advertisement that depicts aborted fetuses as he wages a non-serious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. I’m not entirely sure what the solution is when it comes to producing more democratic elections, but few people have been more effective than Colbert at diagnosing the problems.

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