Archive for politics

“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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Blog Silence

I’ve been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar work for the last month or so, which means I haven’t had a lot of extra time for blogging. Add to that my recent trip to England and Ireland, which Andrea and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m somewhat shocked to see the semester (and the academic year) quickly slipping away. But I just wanted to drop in quickly to say that I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts soon, including one on the Stop Kony phenomenon. As Nicholas Kristof explains, Stop Kony, a short YouTube documentary is one of the most watched videos in the history of that website. It has been viewed 79 million times in less than a month and has inspired widespread forms of activism. And yet, as a number of people have pointed out, the movement has been widely criticized. I’m still in the process of formulating a response to the video(and all of the framing materials that have accompanied it), but as a case study in viral distribution it is well worth investigating.

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MoveOn House Parties, Documentary, Political Activism

One day after hosting a half dozen neighbors for a screening of Charles Ferguson’s powerful documentary, Inside Job, I’m still reflecting on the experience and what it says about the role of documentary in contributing to forms of political activism. These questions matter to me for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that, like millions of others, I see an economic system marked by increasing instability and inequality and want to see a more just, balanced system. But I am also trying to make sense of the role of MoveOn and other online groups in using documentaries as organizing tools, both in some of my recent scholarship and in a course that I am teaching. After hosting the MoveOn screening and listening to (and participating in) the incredibly informed post-movie discussion, I continue to find myself evolving on the relationship between documentary and activism.

Upon watching Inside Job for a second time, I found myself reacting a little differently than I did when I first saw the movie about a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began to, well, occupy public spaces and news media attention. If you care about your money, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of betrayal or outrage at the behavior of the large banking, loan, and insurance firms that created elaborate financial schemes to line the pockets of a small number of very wealthy people. This mirrors Ferguson’s own outrage, particularly when Frederic Mishkin bumbles through a half-hearted defense of the lack of financial regulation. But, much like last time, I found that the movie ended without offering any clear alternatives for political action. It’s clear, from the movie’s pointed critique of Obama’s economic appointments (which include Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, among others), that Ferguson is skeptical about the power of voting alone to enact political change, a position that now seems even more deeply entrenched after the Citizens United decision. Inside Job still has an oddly sterile feel to me, given that it operates almost entirely within the sites of power. We hear from critics of deregulation, including Eliot Spitzer, but rarely do we see the actual effects of sub-prime mortgages (other than some stock footage of houses with for-sale signs out front). This may or may not increase our levels of outrage, but it makes it difficult to identify a single point of identification within the film. That being said, Ferguson’s film hammers home its arguments with tremendous authority, using visuals well to track changes in our economic system. Seeing bankers and regulatory officials squirming in their seats also offers a form of enjoyment.

But after Ferguson’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech, in which he reminded us that not a single financial executive had gone to jail for his or her responsibility in the financial meltdown, the film seemed to disappear. For that reason alone, I was glad that MoveOn picked it up as a part of its house party series. It’s worth noting that the current home video ecosystem likely contributes to that. The documentary was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and through Sony’s Home Entertainment division, and (because of that?) it is currently unavailable for streaming on Netflix. None of the Blockbuster Video stores in the area had the movie available for rental. And when I called one local video store to ask for Inside Job, the clerk stepped briefly away from the phone, came back and gruffly asked, “do you want the adult version?” The movie was also unavailable through Redbox kiosks, which ultimately meant that we had to purchase a copy for our house party. I don’t think this is a specific “conspiracy,” just that our current distribution model provides much greater potential for independent and low-budget films to “disappear” from public consciousness and even easy (or at least inexpensive) access. As a result, even hosting a screening now seems like a valuable contribution to the wider political discussion.

But of course it’s worth asking about how to translate Inside Job’s outrage into meaningful political action (whatever that might look like). There is a degree to which everyone in the room was already not only predisposed to agree with Ferguson’s arguments but also prepared to anticipate many of them, with some of our guests calling out terms before the narrator (Matt Damon) could say them. Although this might seem like a version of “preaching to the choir,” I think it’s much more complex than that. The narrative behind the banking crisis is incredibly complicated, and even if we grant the fact that most MoveOn viewers already agree with many of Ferguson’s positions, putting them together into a coherent narrative is helpful. More crucially, it provides house party attendees with something tangible to structure our deliberations about both localized and national forms of political action. In fact, the credits were barely rolling when the first guest spoke up to create an argument for how to put an end to economic injustices depicted in the film.

And this is where I think some of our most crucial questions about documentary, online media, and activism come into play. Our reception of Inside Job was framed not only by our unique house party situation but also by the framing materials that accompanied the event. MoveOn sent out several emails and promoted the film on its website. For hosts, they provided us with a short script and fliers that would guide attendees into specific forms of action. There is a long history of this sort of political organizing, so it’s hardly new, but in some ways I found the responses to be relatively tepid, given the politics of most MoveOn members. Most notably, they encouraged attendees to “Move Your Money,” something most of us had already done. A more promising activity was the MoveOn Council idea, which would leverage the energy of localized teams to enact change on both the local and national levels. It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact a house party screening has in its immediate aftermath. There was no moment of crystallization when a light shined down from the progressive heavens and convinced me that we had (or that we would) make a difference, whatever that might mean. That being said, I think the critique of consumerism in this particular house party event runs much deeper than some of MoveOn’s most trenchant critics might suggest. Micah White, rather famously, attacked MoveOn for turning activist energy into a muted form he called “clicktivism.” These house party forums are not necessarily going to produce identical results across the board. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to walk away from a house party event and to feel some degree of cynicism and powerlessness about the possibility of effecting change, especially when MoveOn only offers relatively loose structures for directing forms of activist response. And yet, I would be reluctant to embrace a more top-down model. We need room for the critical thought of the thousands of people who attended screenings and know their local communities and the actions that are possible within them.

There are no easy answers when it comes to documentary activism. But I am energized by the fact that the house party model could help to revive the outrage, energy, and passion of Ferguson’s Inside Job, allowing it to gain new life in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the We are the 99% movements.

 

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Hosting the 99%

Andrea and I are hosting a screening of Charles Ferguson’s scathing, Oscar-wining documentary, Inside Job, on Sunday, February 12, at 6 PM, as part of their movie party series. I’ve never hosted a MoveOn screening before–although I have attended several house party screenings in the past–so I’ve been intrigued by how excited I am by getting involved in this way. I’ll be interested to see if my reaction to the film changes on a second viewing, given that I felt slightly overwhelmed by Ferguson’s arguments when I watched Inside Job the first time. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation about the relationship between corporate deregulation and the “We are the 99%” movement. If you live in or near southern Wake County, you can find out more information about our screening here, but if not, perhaps you can seek out a screening in your own neighborhood. There are several hundred planned for this weekend across the U.S.

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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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Week in Review: No Time to Write Edition

Here are some of the topics and issues I’ve been thinking about over the last few days (weeks, in some cases) while I’ve been away:

  • Jeffrey P. Jones, a media studies scholar at Old Dominion University, has a good historical overview of political humor in today’s Washington Post. I think there is a tendency to ignore some of the historical precedents for Colbert, Stewart, and all of the web-based political satire, but Jeffrey makes some useful connections here. Also, if you’re in the DC area, I hear the print edition has some illustrations that go along with the text.
  • I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about this later, but I’ve just been assigned a senior seminar for spring semester, and I am thinking about reviving my “Documenting Injustice” theme from back in 2007, when I last taught that course. I’ll probably start with some of the same texts (Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc), but I’m hoping to build toward more contemporary practices, especially the distributed efforts to document Occupy Wall Street (including Twitter streams and other ephemera), as well as the use of animation and other platforms to create “documentary” narratives, such as Waltz with Bashir. The course is for English majors, so I’m trying to balance film and written media carefully (books, stories, etc), as well as my students’ limited book budgets.
  • I’m also teaching our graduate level course, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, and may do a little crowdsourcing soon to get ideas for updating that course. I learned, for example, that some local teachers are using Glogster for student projects, but if there are other similar resources out there, I’d love to hear about them.
  • Some of the early reviews are out of UltraViolet, the new digital locker service supported by most of the major studios, and New Tee Vee is reporting that they are mostly negative. Given the company’s ultra-high-profile launch and the fact that it often takes users a while to figure out how to incorporate a new technology into their media routines, I think some complaints are inevitable. As Home Media Magazine asserts, consumers will likely have to be “educated” (or persuaded) to see the long-term benefits of the service. Of course, I’m not convinced that Ultraviolet is answering a specific consumer necessity, given that we no longer need to own copies of movies (physical or cloud-stored) anymore. Still very interested to see how this plays out.

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IMR Interactive Documentary Week

In Media Res, the video curation project sponsored by MediaCommons, is focusing on a theme this week that I find especially fascinating: interactive documentaries. Given that I recently published an essay on this topic in Jump Cut, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” I am excited to see some of the new work being done with documentary and interactivity. One fascinating example of the shifting grounds of interactive documentary: Kathleen M. Ryan’s discussion of “augmented reality” as a means of building more immersive documentary experiences. Also fascinating (and closer to some of the arguments I make in my essay) was Jennifer Proctor’s call for a “slow internet,” one that would encourage using the web for building narratives that require sustained attention over time. Be sure to check out all of this week’s In Media Res posts and join in some of the lively conversations that are taking place.

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Tuesday Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching over the last couple of days:

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“Reading Dante” and Video Games

I don’t have time to give this case the attention it deserves, but I’m more than a little intrigued by the results of the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, in which the Supreme Court declared a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors unconstitutional. The ruling was a little unusual in that Justice Antonin Scalia joined the typically liberal Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, while Justices Breyer and Thomas were the dissenting votes.

I think the case will provide quite a bit of fodder for media studies and free speech scholars, especially given the nature of the rulings (this Daily Kos posting offers a solid overview of the different statements written by the justices). Notably, Scalia compares playing violent video games to “reading Dante,” and while he insists that it is indisputable that literature is ore “intellectually edifying” than playing a video game, Scalia points out that there is no “constitutional” difference. He goes on to argue that protecting children is not enough of a concern to enact a new set of “content-based regulation.” There is some speculation, that Scalia is supporting free speech here to provide cover for his ruling on Citizens United, but I’m not sure if that’s a fully justified critique.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, takes the defense of children to fascinating extremes, arguing that

The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that “the freedom of speech,” as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech)  without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.

Thomas grounds this argument in the idea that the founders believed that parents had absolute authority over their children. Breyer’s dissent is actually more interesting, grounding itself in social science research that discusses the potential harm of violent video games (I’m not sure I agree, but at least there is some justification). There is quite a bit more here that I can’t cover in detail now, but I am always fascinated when the Supreme Court justices play the role of media scholars.

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Monday Links

Here’s what I read or watched over my second cup of coffee this morning:

  • Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, not content to release his latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise in 3D, is going into the fourth dimension….with what he calls “Aromascope.” Basically, moviegoers will be provided with a series of numbered scratch-and-sniff cards that correspond with specific scenes in the movie. Of course, incorporating scent with movies isn’t entirely new, with Smell-O-Vision dating back to 1960 and John Waters using Odorama for Polyester. The Los Angeles Times has a brief interview with Rodriguez in which he tries to argue that Aromascope will enhance the moviegoing experience.
  • TV set-top boxes are huge energy hogs, according to the New York Times, mostly because many of these boxes are powered on 24/7, even when people aren’t watching.
  • The streaming rental service Zediva continues to test the limits of copyright law. Citing the First Sale Doctrine, Zediva has argued that once they purchase a copy of a DVD, they have the right to rent it out, in their case, renting it via streaming video. The First Sale Doctrine is what permits rental services such as Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox to rent physical copies of a DVD or video, but streaming quite obviously blurs this line, given that Zediva’s customers never actually take physical possession of the video being “rented.” Will be interesting to see how this case plays out.
  • Something to keep an eye on: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been added to the board of directors for Facebook.
  • With Hulu up for sale, there has been quite a bit of discussion about potential changes to the service. New Tee Vee (citing the LA Times) reports that Hulu may soon be expected to verify that users of the free service are cable subscribers before they can watch recent episodes of current TV shows. David Poland suspects that Hulu will be a difficult sell. Amanda Natividad offers a useful timeline of the history of Hulu.

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Sunday Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading over my post-rapture Sunday morning cup of coffee:

  • Via Chris Becker, a link to a Nielsen study that traces how tablet devices are being used in conjunction with television consumption.
  • Chris is also writing about her media experiences in London. In one of her first reports, she discusses differences between U.S. and British television scheduling. One notable feature: she reflects on her own consumption of American season finales and notes that British TV–which tends to follow a year-round schedule–doesn’t have a similar intensive month of season finales.
  • David Poland discusses the weekly box office totals, specifically looking at unexpectedly low numbers for the most recent Pirates movie. I try not to obsess too much over box office totals, but Poland’s speculation that 3-D (in particular the 3-D ticket prices) may actually be having a negative effect on movie attendance is worth considering.
  • Here is some indication of how Dish TV will be their purchase of Blockbuster Video: they are offering a free three-month subscription to Blockbuster’s DVD by mail service as an enticement to subscribe to Dish’s satellite service.
  • Stacey Higginbotham traces out some of the contradictions embodied in the advertisements for mobile devices offering high-definition service and the bandwidth required to actually deliver true HD. As she explains it, “The physics of the spectrum don’t support it, and from an economic perspective, the current pricing plans offered for cellular data make it expensive for consumers. Since I don’t see that pricing going down anytime soon, I’m puzzled.” The article offers some helpful links to resources on the technological and political issues shaping mobile video.
  • Higginbotham’s complaints echo an earlier lament from Jeff Belk regarding a number of Verizon ads that are promising faster mobile video. But given my recent obsession with promotional discourse, I’m linking to this one, mostly because of the Verizon ad that seems to directly evoke the old idea of the Radio Boys, the technological hobbyists who built their own radio sets in the 1920s (see Alison Powell for a quick overview of the concept).
  • Also from Nielsen, a quick overview of online video consumption broken down by ethnicity. As New Tee Vee points out, African Americans and Hispanics watch far more video online than white viewers (and as they also note we should be reluctant to use this demographic data to come to any conclusions that would reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes). Still, Nielsen’s New Digital American Family Report seems to offer quite a bit of information that will be interesting to media scholars and others interested in U.S. media consumption habits.
  • Tech President has a discussion of a North Carolina bill that would limit the ability of community broadband services to compete with media conglomerates such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Lawrence Lessig is urging people to contact Governor Bev Perdue (D) and to encourage her to veto the bill. I’ve put Perdue’s contact information below. If you live in North Carolina, please consider sending a message that you support community broadband
  • Finally, it’s subscription only (free registration for temporary access), but this New Scientist article on the use of “text mining” to predict future events is a little unsettling. As the article puts it: “We are all part of a vast market research project, whether we like it or not.”

North Carolina friends, please call Governor Bev Perdue at (800) 662-7952 or send her an email at governor.office@nc.gov. Ask her to veto the bill that would kill community broadband networks.

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Wednesday Links

Grades are in. Conferences are done. Summer is pretty much officially here. Here are some links to stories I’ve been following:

  • There has been quite a bit of discussion of the news that Netflix has passed BitTorrent as the website that takes up the most bandwidth on the Internet. NewTeeVee uses the news to speculate whether this means that Hollywood has “won” its battle against movies being distributed on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, a question that seems to gloss some of the larger questions about Netflix’s heavy investments in streaming content. Both NewTeeVee and the Washington Post emphasize the fact that cable companies are threatening to charge Internet users based on how much data they consume, rather than using flat monthly fees. Also worth noting: NewTeeVee points out that the explosive growth of Netflix in Canada has forced the company to lower the quality of its video streams to account for the somewhat more restrictive bandwidth costs there.
  • The IFC blog has an interesting discussion of how digital projection will affect art house and independent theaters, speculating that the high cost of conversion–approximately $60,000 per screen–could make it difficult for many independent theaters to survive. This is something I saw as a concern when I wrote Reinventing Cinema, and it appears that the challenges are becoming even more complex, especially given that many independent filmmakers are producing movies solely on digital, without any existing film print. The article also points to Anthony Kaufman’s discussion of how indie and art house theaters often thrive by building communities around the cinema–he cites the example of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and Florida’s Enzian Theater. Also worth noting: Roger Ebert’s Newsweek column, which discusses the decline of communal screenings of “quality cinema” (which deserves a longer blog post).
  • Ebert’s comments make Robert Altman’s cynical Hollywood satire, The Player, seem all the more prescient. I love teaching the film, and show the opening sequence often as a powerful example of how long takes can be used. Now Jim Emerson has an extended reading of that shot, complete with a reminder that the fictional studio’s slogan, “Movies: Now More than Ever” is a reference to Nixon’s 1972 presidential slogan and Altman’s citation of that slogan in his 1975 film, Nashville.
  • I’m still hoping to do some work on the role of online video in the 2012 presidential campaign, and so I’m intrigued by the YouTube Town Hall, where politicians can post two side-by-side videos presenting competing positions on a specific issue, and users can then vote on which position they prefer. Winning videos would then be posted to the Town Hall Leader Board (via TechPres).
  • Sone news about a couple of creative cowdsourced and crowdfunded movies. First, the Australian film, The Tunnel was released. The film was funded by selling each frame of the film for $1 to raise the $135,000 budget. Like some other crowdfunded films, The Tunnel will be released via BitTorrent, illustrating that not all peer-to-peer distribution entails piracy. The film will also get a limited theatrical release and Paramount Australia and Transmission Films will conduct a DVD release.  Salon also has an update on Iron Sky, the Finnish space Nazi parody, noting that filmmakers have announced an April 2012 theatrical premiere.

Update: via @KelliMarshall, a Tech Crunch article on Netflix’s bandwidth numbers. The TechCrunch article has some amazing graphic depictions of how “peak period” internet traffic is divided. Well worth a look if you’re interested in the changing media landscape.

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Working Class Hero

I’ve been interested in Christopher Dodd’s attempts to establish a voice as the new leader of the MPAA. One of the themes that seems to be coming up quite a bit is the idea that, despite the red carpet and other forms of glamor, Hollywood is also a site of (blue-collar) labor.  It’s a theme in his comments about piracy from ComicCon a few weeks ago when he sought to define piracy as a crime against labor:

[Piracy] also affects all the names in the closing credits and so many more –middle class folks, working hard behind the scenes to provide for their families, saving for college and retirement. And since movies and TV shows are now being made in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, movie theft harms middle class families and small businesses all across the country.   Those who steal movies and TV shows, or who knowingly support those who do, don’t see the faces of the camera assistant, seamstresses, electricians, construction workers, drivers, and small business owners and their employees who are among the thousands essential to movie making.

More recently, Dodd has deepened this message in a speech he delivered a few days ago, in which he explained that Hollywood needs to market itself better as an institution, comments that echoed his ComicCon speech, again characterizing Hollywood as a “a blue-collar industry,” while adding that if you commit piracy, “you’re stealing from the middle-class people whose families rely on this industry to make ends meet and build a better future for themselves.”  There have been attempts to connect piracy to a crime against labor in the past, but it seems like an explicit approach for Dodd here. And, quite obviously, there is some truth to Dodd’s arguments, in that the movie industry is supported by a wide range of blue-collar and white-collar work that typically isn’t visible on-screen, although Dodd is (most likely) much more concerned about protecting the industry’s financial bottom line.

After attending a panel on piracy (mostly about video piracy) at this year’s MIT conference, including Jinying Li’s excellent discussion of piracy as an alternative public sphere in China, I’ve become more attuned to these sorts of debates, and Li’s talk in particular, raised some questions about the role of China’s movie quota system in driving the distribution of many American films underground there. John Caldwell’s Production Culture is also a key text in thinking about depictions of labor in Hollywood, as well, but I think it will be interesting to see how Dodd uses the idea of below-the-line labor in order to craft his message about Hollywood.

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Time Travel Theory of History

I’m rushing to post this before I catch a plane to the Media in Transition conference, but I just learned about Mike Huckabee’s new “Learn Our History” animated series via TPM, and I can’t resist a quick post (hopefully I’ll be able to edit this later). The series features a group of plucky teenagers who travel through time to learn about history as it “really” happened. The website’s FAQs emphasize that our history books teach students to “blame America first” and that (as a result), history is no longer fun.

As you might imagine, Ronald Reagan plays a key role, and the kids travel to hear an animated Reagan repeat several of his most famous soundbites (“government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem”), with the kids nodding in agreement. But the videos themselves seem so earnest and unambiguous that they almost seem like self-parodies, as if one of Stephen Colbert’s writers was moonlighting for Fox News. Take a look:

There are two other videos that TPM spotted, and all three are worth a quick look. One narrates the history of World War II in two minutes and celebrated America coming together to defeat the godless Nazis. Two odd notes here: one is that we hear Reagan invoking God at the beginning of one video and then hear Hitler doing the same thing in the very next video. Second is the “you go girl” girl-powerism cited by one of the female teenagers when she spots a Rosie the Riveter poster. The other is a more detailed version of the Reagan video, complete with rioting inner city criminals (mostly black, of course).

I get the impulse here, and there is a long history of complaints about history being “too liberal,” but I find the mode of communicating this history here incredibly odd. By being so transparently conservative, it’s reductive to the point of self-parody, and the attempt to make the teens hip (does anyone still say “you go girl” without some degree of irony?) is equally off-key. Now it’s time for someone with editing skills to make the remix.

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