Archive for cultural studies

“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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Pushing Mobile

Breaking my blog silence to mention a report on a study that I received via email the other day from Greystripe, which bills itself as the “largest brand-focused mobile advertising network.” The sample size for the survey seems rather small to me, especially compared to the much richer studies conducted by Pew and Nielsen, but I think that part of what attracted my attention was their specific focus on emphasizing the ways in which mobile devices, whether smartphones or iPads, contribute to the practices of movie consumption.

To some extent, I agree with their arguments, although the basis for my agreement is probably at least partially anecdotal. One of the arguments they are trying to push is that mobile users are likely to seek out information–trailers, cast, showtimes–about movies using mobile devices, and there is probably some validity to this argument. Three of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone were Flixster, IMDB, and The Oscars. The first two of these directly offer reviews and showtimes that I could use to find out when and where movies are playing, while The Oscars offers at least some information about nominated films. Their findings seem to confirm that one of the most common “entertainment activities” uses of smartphones is to check movie times or to find a nearby movie theater. They also place emphasis on the fact that mobile apps still function primarily to point us to other screens through advertising and promotion, encouraging users to watch trailers or other video advertising.

But there are places where their framing of mobile seems disingenuous. First, they use data that shows that 44% of respondents saw 1-3 movies per year in theaters and another 25% saw 4-6 per year to conclude that “almost 70%” of respondents watch as many as 6 movies per year, when a more honest way of reading these numbers would have to acknowledge that nearly 85% watched six movies or less in theaters per year (given that only about 16% said they watched more than six). These numbers don’t seem completely consistent with other numbers that I’ve seen, but they hardly paint a rosy picture of mobile users being frequent moviegoers.

They also seek to point out that half of all mobile users claim to decide what to see based on movie ads, but what’s left unstated here is whether these mobile users saw these ads exclusively on mobile devices, and I’m guessing the answer is no. More than half stated that peers were a major influence, and it seems notable that the survey pays little attention to social media as a factor.   Movie reviewers may be relieved to know that, especially for iPad owners, they continue to hold at least some influence, if these survey results are to be believed.

I’m addressing this survey for a couple of reasons: First, I’m becoming a little more attentive to the methodology behind surveys and survey questions, especially as I plan to immerse myself in more of that kind of research. These kinds of surveys–even at the small scale conducted by Greystripe–can provide keen insights, but their questions are too transparently focused on pushing mobile advertising to be believable, especially given the proliferation of screens and sites where we might encounter movie advertising. The Nielsen study cited above shows, in fact, that most people still spend significantly more of their time watching “traditional TV” than staring at tiny, mobile screens. But the survey–and others like it–seem dependent on pushing the idea of an emerging model of mobile spectatorship that seems greatly exaggerated, especially given that many people have a great deal of dissatisfaction with their mobile phones and are often leery of exceeding costly data caps on their phone service. In essence, we need much more rigorous conversations about what it really means to be mobile.

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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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Special Effects at In Media Res

In Media Res is focusing its lens on special effects this week, with a series of clips organized by Bob Rehak, Dan North , and Michael Duffy. I have been invited to contribute a clip, and my post, “Avatar Comes Home: 3D and the Death of DVD,” will appear on Thursday. My post will be looking at the challenges that 20th Century Fox faced in selling the Avatar DVD, given that the movie was marketed as offering an unprecedented 3D theatrical experience. Advertisements for the Avatar DVD also faced the challenge of selling DVDs in an era in which audiences have begun to question the necessity of collecting movies, especially given the new forms of access promised by digital delivery. I’ll save further details for later when my curator’s note goes live, but I recommend checking out all of this week’s clips.

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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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Red State

Kevin Smith’s Red State has gained more attention due to Smith’s creative distribution and exhibition model than for the actual content of the movie. Rather than selling his film at the Sundance Film Festival to the highest bidder, who would then market the film for a big opening week, Smith engaged in a little slacker street theater, selling the film to himself before providing explanation of  how he would self-distribute Red State through a variety of techniques, including road shows and live “event” screenings, as well as more traditional practices such as video-on-demand and DVD offerings. Smith further linked this innovative distribution plan to his own origin story, as one of “Harvey’s Boys,” the mid-1990s generation of film directors who broke through to mainstream success, in part thanks to the marketing savvy of Miramax. As a result, Red State is bringing together a wide range of fascinating threads: the definition of “independent film,” the future of movie distribution, and the role of the distributors and exhibitors in shaping our access to movies. And to some extent, these questions have overshadowed one of Smith’s more engaging films–something I’ll return to later.

The Red State screening I attended was in Cary, North Carolina, at a local independent theater, and like a number of other theaters, we watched the film starting at precisely 7 PM EDT. Soon after the credits rolled, the theater projected a password-protected Ustream broadcast from the Beverly Theater (referred to as a Babble-On Podcast), one that invited questions from viewers located in other theaters using the Twitter hash tag #redstatekev (the filmmakers used a similar technique during their worldwide premiere a couple of years ago). Questions sent in by remote viewers were mixed with questions posed by the live studio audience, and Smith would take the questions and riff off of them, often telling anecdotes about the making of the movie. Given Smith’s college tours and his frequent podcasts, the technique worked relatively well, even if it came across as a little self-congratulatory in places, and even if the audio was often muffled. The Twitter stream itself was mostly cluttered with crude jokes, spitballs  from the remote audience, but Smith’s assistants were able to rescue a couple of good questions that would allow him to talk about Michael Parks’ performance as a Fred Phelps-style anti-gay preacher or about his screenwriting process.

As Smith acknowledged in the Q&A, Red State is a film that may potentially challenge viewers, especially given Smith’s creative engagement with genre conventions. The film focuses on a closed-off, but publicity-hungry religious cult called the Five Points Trinity Church led by a charismatic family patriarch, Abin Cooper (Parks), who preaches against homosexuality and promiscuity. It opens with a scene featuring member of the church protesting at a funeral of a local teenager, recalling the images of Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals. Later, we are introduced to three misfit teenagers who meet a woman through an Adult Friend Finder website. When the woman promises to have sex with all three of them simultaneously, they are intrigued and drive out to her trailer, where, of course, the woman (played by Melissa Leo) has other plans, drugging and kidnapping them and delivering them to Cooper’s church, where the congregation engages in a mixture of worship and torture, speaking in a shorthand of Bible verses and references that suggest a shared–and completely closed-off–point of view. The torture scenes seem to prepare us for something like a satirical torture porn film, but just as we are prepared for Red State to follow one genre path, it suddenly–almost defiantly–chooses a different one.

The kidnapping of the boys comes to the attention of a local sheriff who, in turn, contacts an ATF agent, Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), leading to a hostage standoff, in which the ATF agents surround Cooper’s extremely well-armed compound, pulling us even further away from standard horror fare. Here, Keenan is presented as essentially benevolent, but as the shooting escalates, he is forced to balance concern for the hostages with concern for the public relations nightmare that might ensue, especially given past crises, such as the standoff with David Koresh’s Waco cult. As a result, Smith is able to subtly satirize not only the homophobic rants of people like Fred Phelps (and the media culture that provides them a platform) but also the “red state” policies that have loosened gun control laws and increased surveillance through the Patriot Act.

These shifts in tone evoked some of Tarantino’s genre games–especially in films like From Dusk ’til Dawn–but without QT’s self-conscious dialogue (there’s not a Star Wars reference to be heard in the entire film, which shows major restraint on Smith’s part). Smith also defied our expectations with regards to killing off certain characters (and actors), often in gruesomely funny ways, with the result that the film never settles in on a single point of identification. These moments where Smith defies genre expectations seem to have flustered some critics, but given Smith’s larger aims, I’m willing to more or less buy into what he was doing. I’ll admit that I’m probably being a little more generous to the film, in part because Smith created an event in which he sought to connect with his audience and where he truly advocated for his film. The $20 price tag for the Red State event seemed a little steep, especially for remote audiences, but I think it also offered some added value that might not normally be associated with a typical Friday blockbuster opening. As Smith himself noted, he spent several years writing and putting Red State together, and a traditional opening would likely build to a single weekend, with the movie disappearing soon after, but Smith’s self-distribution model allows him to spend a little more time enjoying the reception of his movie. I don’t think that this form of self-distribution will work well for every filmmaker–Smith has spent almost 20 years building up goodwill with his audience–but as a means of harnessing the potential of social media and digital delivery to distribute a certain brand of do-it-yourself filmmaking, it worked pretty well.

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Saturday Links: Marker, Pop-Up Cinemas, Digital Delivery

We’re starting slowly this morning as we wait for the edges of Hurricane Irene to pass through North Carolina. For those who have asked, we’re experiencing some moderately strong winds and light rains, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for those of you living further up the coast. I’ve been pretty distracted this week with early semester business, but here are a few of the things I’ve been reading and watching over the last few days:

Representing Rebellion: Like many people, I’ve been paying attention to the discussions of the recent protests in London and watching as pundits seek to make sense of the underlying causes that have led to looting and other forms of destruction. Now, Chris Marker (a director I admire quite a bit) has made a short film, Overnight, and posted it to YouTube. It’s a powerful little film that shows several businesses before and after they were damaged during the protests. This before-and-after approach leaves us to imagine ourselves the riots and protests, which are rendered invisible, in much the same way that the protests themselves (and the anger they expressed) continue to be largely ignored by the larger political culture. Thanks to the cinetrix for the link.

Media Mobility: The cinetrix also led me to this very cool article on “Pop-Up Cinemas,” improvised theaters built in pubs, disused gas stations, with impromptu screens sometimes assembled from discarded refrigerators. These improvised screenings aren’t an entirely new concept, of course, but the Guardian article offers a nice overview of how they are becoming a more visible part of an informal movie culture.

Digital Delivery: As usual, media industry journalists have quite a bit to say about the ongoing shift toward digital delivery. Will Richmond makes the point that revenues from digital downloads and purchases remain “anemic.” Others continue to argue that we are migrating away from cable in favor of streaming. Meanwhile, New Tee Vee points out that Netflix’s growth in the United States is likely to slow down soon and that they will have to come up with new services (including their long-planned family accounts) to sustain their momentum. Finally, Focus Features, part of Comcast/NBC/Universal,  has joined a number of other independent companies in creating a video-on-demand distribution platform, Focus World.

On-Time Piracy: As many readers may know, Fox has altered the release window for TV shows on Hulu. Instead of posting TV episodes on the website immediately after they air, Fox now is requiring that Hulu wait eight days before posting an episode. As a result, fans who want to remain caught up with their favorite shows are now increasingly turning to pirate sources to watch those shows. Torrent Freak has some interesting statistics on this shift. Via Tama Leaver.

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It Stinks!

The verdict now seems to be in for Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, and the movie’s poor performance, critically and at the box office, has inspired a number of bad puns (including my own) on its use of Aroma-Scope, the scratch-and-sniff cards that were incorporated into the movie, a la John Waters’ use of Odorama in Polyester. Nikki Finke does point out in her “autopsy” (edit: forgot the link earlier) for Spy Kids that the film played much better to kids than adults, probably because Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino were MIA, while also noting that, despite more screen showing the film in 3D, more people saw the film in 2D. I actually thought the 3D aspects worked OK, but as usual, they weren’t really necessary and wouldn’t be worth paying for, especially for a family of three or four. The higher ticket price may offer yet another explanation for why I saw the film in an empty theater on opening weekend.

The Vulture offers a nice review of the Aroma-Scope aspect and confirms basically what I’d noticed: the production of scents was not up to par. Despite the fact that it would have been easy to manufacture the smells used in the film (bacon, candy, dog farts), very few of them resembled their source in the film and almost all of them were weak and difficult to detect, although that might be attributed to the quality of individual cards.

It’s also worth noting that my reaction to dealing with the card may have been somewhat generational. Rodriguez reports that he incorporated smell into the film because he observed his own kids’ behaviors with games and concluded that they would prefer something more interactive and engaging: “Just watching my own kids with interactive gaming, you ask them to watch a movie, it just feels so passive to them. I thought, this helps bridge the gap. It’s an interactive thing, almost like playing a game while you’re watching the movie.” Rodriguez added that test audiences with children also wanted to have some stinky scents in the film, which makes sense. But given critical and box office reactions, I almost wonder if Spy Kids 4D is guilty of not stinking enough?

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Friday Links: Big Ideas, Amazon, Mobile Consumption

In the spirit of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Week in Review posts (one of which I’ll discuss in more detail below), I’m thinking about doing something similar, a weekly blog post that highlights some of the stories I’ve been following. It probably wouldn’t be that much different than the periodic links posts I’ve been doing for several years, but I’d like to formalize it just a little. I’m anticipating a busy semester–I have some big publication deadlines, some potentially demanding committee work, and all of the usual teaching obligations–so a weekly links roundup might be the best way to stay engaged online. Classes at Fayetteville State started yesterday, and while I’m quite excited about my new crop of students, starting a new semester (especially one where you are moving to a new office) has taken quite a bit of energy.

Thinking about Big Ideas: With that in mind, I’ll start by highlighting some of the other responses to Neal Gabler’s recent NYT column, in which he argued that social media is contributing to the waning of Big Ideas. as the Nieman Journalism Lab pointed out, there were a number of insightful responses to Gabler, and one of the strongest came from Megan Garber who argues that Gabler’s concept of Big Ideas is complicit with a more traditional idea of Big Media. But I think her more crucial point is that Gabler overlooks a number of Big Ideas that have been taken for granted or naturalized into our daily lives, such as Google and Wikipedia (whether we like these changes or not, there is little doubt that our concepts of information, research, and knowledge have been utterly transformed by these resources). Related: Wikipedia is also an example of the practices of crowdsourcing that complicate the notions of individual authors stumbling upon Big Ideas through “eureka” moments. Instead, many of our transformative ideas are the result of collective activity. Also god on Gabler: Stephen Baker and Mike Masnick.

Digital Delivery News: There has been some discussion of the Amazon has announced that they now have more streaming titles available than Netflix (over 100,000, in fact), which is, of course, a notable achievement. New Tee Vee warns that we shouldn’t get caught up in mere numbers, given that having a large number of titles is no guarantee of quality. However, it is a clear indication that multiple digital delivery systems (Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Mubi) will likely be able to coexist for some time. Matt Burns, however, argues that Amazon may be positioned to challenge Netflix’s “dominance” when it comes to digital delivery.

Curating Audiences: New Tee Vee also discusses some of the ways in which Facebook may begin to function as a means for the media industries to track TV and movie viewing habits more effectively. As online advertising becomes increasingly viable, the ability to “curate audiences,” to find and target precisely who is watching a specific show, will become increasingly important. With that in mind, New Tee Vee alerts us to the launch of Nielsen’s Online Campaign Ratings, which can match individualized demographic data with online ad viewing.

Curating Audiences II: Also worth noting: Briabe Mobile has done some interesting research tracking the ways in which Hispanic audiences use mobile media to engage with movies. Their research seems to confirm some recent research by Pew that suggests that Hispanic and African-American groups tend to be particularly active users of mobile technologies.

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What’s the Big Idea?

Neal Gabler has a column in today’s New York Times arguing that our contemporary culture is bereft of “big ideas.” Our evening talk shows are dominated by pundits rather than thinkers; our news magazines lack essays by public intellectuals; and our ability to process ideas has been weakened by the glut of information that has become our daily norm. Gabler develops this thesis out from his reading of an Atlantic article about “Big Ideas” that seemingly substitutes observations for genuine Big Ideas, and while I might share his skepticism about the article, I’m reluctant to accept many of his arguments about whether “we” have a dearth of thinking, much less how we’ve goten to this point.

Gabler eventually gets around to the chief villain in this story, and as you might guess, it’s social media, Twitter and Facebook in particular. Gabler suggests that these sites entrench a culture of narcissism and a focus on gathering information, on knowing things rather than thinking about things. And for the most part, Gabler seems to imply, we are obsessed with gossip and trivia, caught up in knowing about the personal lives of others (whether they are friend, acquaintances or celebrities). He comments at one point that “We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information.”

Although he skirts carefully around making an argument based in the logic of technological determinism, Twitter, with its 140-character soundbites, seems to reduce the possibility of intellectual conversation to the point that we get vacuous discussions of what we’re having for lunch. Even if we meet “strangers” via these sites, this is not the same as expanding one’s intellectual horizons. However, like many people who criticize the use of social media, Gabler seems unfamiliar with the ebbs and flows of how Twitter and Facebook conversations function. Yes, I may have mentioned the omelette I made yesterday with homemade tomatillo salsa on Facebook, but I also link to blog posts, articles, videos, and other forms of discussion that extend well beyond 140 characters. In essence, Gabler is reinforcing what might be called the Soundbite Fallacy, the idea that the shortened individual posts on Twitter inevitably reduce our ability to think and engage, that the form of Twitter determines the communication, when in fact the hyperlink and the response  (the @otherTwitteruser) are, in fact, integral parts of the way we communicate within social media (I made a version of this argument several years ago for AlterNet).  Although Facebook and Twitter are often treated as sites that pull us in, links, photos, and threaded conversations may also direct us outward to read elsewhere.

There were other problems as well. The article seemed to offer a universalized account of our current “Information Age:” He never quite stipulates whether he is referring to U.S. culture or not, although most of his examples draw from American culture or media, even if he occasionally makes reference to world events (such as the rioting in England, which has, in fact been the subject of quite a bit of thoughtful discussion). Talk shows outside the U.S. are often quite a bit different, and usage rates of Twitter and Facebook vary by age, gender, class, and race. There likely is a decline in the kind of reading culture that Gabler describes, but I think it’s worth following how Kindles, Nooks, Ipads, and other tools feed into different forms of reading in ways that might complicate some of Gabler’s arguments.

I don’t entirely disagree with his thesis about social media potentially reinforcing narcissism, but I don’t think it has to function that way. And while there may no longer be a central art critic or economist who can galvanize debate within an entire field, that may be a product of a more egalitarian intellectual community, one in which writers operating outside of more centralized locations are in a position to see their ideas flourish. I think it’s possible that this fragmentation may contribute to the problems that Gabler is trying to diagnose, in that we tend to place ourselves in intellectual silos (Cass Sunstein talks about the role of social media in creating echo chambers), where a large segment of the population no longer accepts the validity of scientific research, but that’s far from universal. I didn’t mean to address Gabler’s arguments in such detail, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that the content of social media’s forms is far more complicated than Gabler allows. Yes, I might tell you what I had for lunch today, but I may also collaborate with you on assembling new ideas about teaching, about communication, or about anything else.

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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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Tuesday Links: Hulu, Arcade Fire, UltraViolet

More digital delivery news stories as I slowly settle back in to book writing mode:

  • While I don’t always (or, maybe, ever) agree with the political views over at Big Hollywood, John Nolte is asking some of the right questions about UltraViolet, the new digital distribution initiative put together by the major studios. One assertion he gets wrong, sort of, is the idea that Hollywood isn’t making “good” movies anymore, but that’s kind of beside the point here. Nolte is responding to a recent article by Brent Lang in The Wrap discussing UltraViolet’s upcoming launch, which raises the even more crucial point that Apple, which controls 60% of the digital download market still hasn’t signed on with UltraViolet.
  • New Tee Vee reports that Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze’s short film, Scenes from the Suburbs, which was set to premiere this week on Mubi.com, has been geo-blocked in the United States, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The short film was intended to serve as a promotion for a limited edition copy of the Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs. One reviewer who caught the film before it was geo-blocked came away impressed, and the trailer itself looks engaging, but the band’s manager chose to make the film unavailable until the August 4 release of the album/DVD.
  • On a related note, Jason Mittell discusses his attempts to plan how he will continue to consume American media, even while spending a year in Germany.
  • New Tee Vee also discusses MoviePass, which would allow people to pay up to $50 a month to see an unlimited number of movies in theaters. A second pass for $30 a month would allow people to see up to four movies per month. Given that many frequent moviegoers are teens who tend to plan spontaneously, I’m a little skeptical about this idea. Also, unless you’re seeing 3D movies exclusively, you’d probably have to see five or six movies a month to make the $50 pass worthwhile, something that seems like a stretch for anyone other than a theater employee or a movie critic.
  • New Blockbuster President Michael Kelly tries to make the case that physical media, such as DVDs, continue to have advantages over digital delivery and kiosk services such as Redbox. Oddest moment: Kelly emphasizes that you can watch DVDs in your car.
  • Peter Kafka explores some of the changes Hulu may make in the near future.
  • Finally (via The Valve), just for fun, Nina Paley’s anti-plagiarism video, “The Attribution Song.”

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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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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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“Make Any Room Your TV Room”

This weekend I will be attending MIT’s 7th Media in Transition conference. This year’s theme, “Unstable Platforms,” fits my current research interests almost perfectly, and I’m looking forward to hearing a number of smart presentations. My talk is titled, “‘Make any Room Your TV Room:’ Media Mobility, Digital Delivery, and Family Harmony,” and is available for you to read on the conference’s website. The paper–and my talk in general–develops some of my current research on “platform mobility,” the ability for video content to move video content seamlessly between multiple platforms. In particular, I’m interested in how advertisements and interfaces for tools like the Time Warner iPad app promote those technologies using images of both family harmony and individualized consumption.

If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s a very cool conference, so check it out. If not, the conference website has posted many of the participants’ papers online for your reading pleasure. Thanks to Catherine Grant of Film Studies for Free for posting links to several of the participants’ papers.

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