Archive for December, 2008

Saturday Links

Thanks again to everyone for their thoughtful suggestions on the graduate course I’ll be teaching in the spring, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom.”  I’m still working through ideas but will incorporate many of your suggestions.  I’m also becoming even more excited about the “Fayetteville Project” idea.  More on that in the next few days, hopefully.  For now, though, a few links:

  • First, from Smashing Magazine, 30 Unforgettable Movie Title Sequences.  As you might imagine, Saul Bass makes a number of appearances.  One notable exception off the top of my head: the opening to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums, a great mix of Alec Baldwin’s storybook narration, the montage of character introductions, and the Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s “Hey Jude.” But like them, I’m a big fan of those stylized ’60s animated sequences (Charade, Psycho, North by Northwest). 
  • Speaking of opening sequences, Sujewa posted the opening nine minutes of his documentary, Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip, on YouTube.  I’m featured in the movie, and here’s my take on the documentary and my experience of watching myself.  Just FYI, I don’t appear in this section of the movie.
  • Patrick Ruffini of techPres has an interesting post on the role of Twitter in mediating the internet, arguing that the microblogging service has become “an outpost that favors the scrappy, authentic outsiders.”  I’m not quite sure I buy the metaphor.  After all, there are relative power hierarchies on Twitter, just like anywhere else, but I also think the focus on popularity may obscure some of the other, more important, aspects of just how Twitter functions within multiple, overlapping internet groupings.
  • J.D. Lasica has a pointer to Mark Glaser’s MediaShift post on alternative business models for newspapers.  The financial crisis of the newspaper industry is well-documented, but at the same time, it’s impossible to dismiss the importance of a vibrant, critical newspaper industry with energetic local reporting.  Glaser covers a number of challenges, classified advertising revenue lost to free services such as Craigslist, and potential alternatives, such as crowdfunding and hyper-localized ads.  As Lasica notes, there are no silver bullets here, but Glaser offers a thoughtful overview of some of the more prominent models.  On a related note, Tama Leaver points out a New York Times article on The Media is Dying, a Twitter feed about the decline of the media industry founded by an anonymous public relations worker.
  • Tama also led me to this list of the ten most pirated movies of 2008. No surprise that the most pirated film involved a certain caped crusader, but that’s also not necessarily evidence that piracy isn’t a problem.  what is surprising: Iron Man, despite being a major youth-oriented blockbuster, didn’t make the top ten.  The Bank Job, a film I barely remember, did.  
  • Finally, Georgia State University media scholar, Alissa Perren, has joined the media studies blogosphere with Media Industries (and Other Stuff).  The blog also mentions a book she co-edited with Jennifer Holt, Media Industries, coming out from Wiley-Blackwell Press.  the collection features articles by Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, Toby Miller, Michelle Hilmes, and Thomas Schatz, among others.   

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Syllabus Scramble

I just found out at the last minute that I will be teaching English 518, “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” a required graduate-level course for students seeking a Masters in education here at Fayetteville State.  I taught the course a couple of years ago (here’s the long-abandoned course blog) and had some success with it, but I’d like to rework the course in a number of ways, so considering this post to be a mix of brainstorming and a request for suggestions.

First, unlike last semester, I’d like to make the course operate much more like a workshop where I am more involved in directing student work in class, whether that is designing wiki pages, writing blog entries, producing podcasts, or whatever.  Quite often, I found that my original plans–introducing key media studies texts separately from the technologies themselves–led to a kind of disconnect.  While my students were willing to engage, I struggled to match theory and practice.  I’m still working on that, but I’m drawing from a number of syllabi, including David Parry’s Networked Knowledge and Digital Rhetoric and Contemporary Politics.  Given the goals of my students, some discussions worked really well.  I found the conversations about Wikipedia (and related discussions about teaching internet research) to be incredibly productive, but again, I’d like to revise things a little.

Second, while many of the students seemed relatively comfortable with blogging, I had a lot of difficulty in getting them to contribute to the course wiki.  At the time, I attributed this to the students’ reluctance to have their work edited by others, but in retrospect, I think that my expectations–asking students to create a course wiki about course readings–were both too vague and too ambitious.  Given that these pages also would have covered material already on Wikipedia, they were also somewhat redundant.  With that in mind, I’m considering having my students produce something along the lines of “Depicting Dinkytown,” instead, but asking students to focus on Fayetteville.  As you can see from entries such as this one focuisng on a Burrito Loco, the wiki format can be used to include written, photographic, and even video texts, and instead of Wikipedia’s objective overview, a localized wiki could allow students to engage in more interpretive work.  Because I found out that I will be teaching this course in just the last day or so, this project is very much in its formative stages, so I’d appreciate any suggestions you might have about how to make it work.

Third, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t used blogging in a couple of years in any of my classes (despite my earlier enthusiasm for them), so I would be curious to hear how my readers are currently using them.  In the past, I have used individual blogs, a single course blog (to which all students contributed), and small-group blogs involving 4-5 students.  The class itself will be relatively small (5-6 students, I’d imagine), so I’m wondering whether having students create personal blogs is warranted.

I’m approaching this course without a lot of experience with secondary education students, so I’m still sifting through ideas about how to translate my interests in digital media into something that current and future teachers might find rewarding.  I’m also operating under the recognition that the teachers themselves may face certain limits–including access to technology and constraints imposed by curricular requirements–in implementing these activities in their own classrooms.  I’ll try to post a tentative syllabus soon, but any suggestions you have would be more than welcome.

Update: When I went to post this entry to Twitter, I remembered that I will likely require my students to use Twitter, something I’ve never done before, so I’d like to hear from my fellow Twitterers: how have you used Twitter with your students in your courses and are there any readings on Twitter that I should teach?

Update 2: I’ll write a longer, separate post later, but I attended some great panels at MLA, including one on Twitter and several others on the digital humanities, so I’m starting to get some ideas.  George’s planned revival of the Teaching Carnival series also seems like a great opportunity, not only to get some ideas but also to get some of my MA students, many of whom are high school teachers, involved.

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The Way We Were (Represented)

Cross-posted at newcritics.

Newsweek, of all places, has a fascinating intellectual exercise in which they ask several of their film and media writers to name one popular culture text that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.”  Obviously, the idea of capturing the zeitgeist of eight often turbulent years with a divided electorate and a fractured media landscape is an impossibility.  No single text can encompass the tragedy of September 11, the war in Iraq, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and collapse, and our news media’s often vacuous response to all of these events.  But the Newsweek writers offer some interesting choices, ones that collectively seem to move toward capturing some sense of Bush-era culture.

To be sure, Bush’s presidency will be remembered, in part, because of the Iraq War and the subsequent revelations that torture was used against a number of suspected terrorists.  To that end, Joshua Alston nominates the SciFi Channel TV series, Battlestar Galactica, arguably one of the best shows of the last decade.  While 24 often played out fantasies of the single, rugged individual hero, Jack Bauer, fighting to protect the American Way of Life, Battlestar offered a subtle exploration of the use of torture (among countless other questions).  In a similar context, Evan Thomas nominates Black Hawk Down, which actually came out just a few months after  9/11, because it seemed to anticipate many of the challenges we would face after the attacks.

But I think that both of these choices omit much about the Bush administration and the cultural texts that came to define it.  While American Idol’s unapologetic patriotism–the show was called Pop Idol when we stole it from the Brits–could have existed at any time in recent history, the show’s minimal interactivity, allowing viewers to call or text in support of their favorite performers, helped to usher in an emergent 2.0 culture.  At the same time, the show was symptomatic of a music industry that was imploding, to put it mildly, in the face of Napster and its imitators (isn’t it odd to think that people were worried about Napster during the early years of the Bush administration?).  And, arguably, as Mark Peyser, argues in choosing American Idol, the show was also symptomatic of that red state-blue state divide that dominated our political landscape for most of the decade, even if the ivide itself was a media construction.

David Ansen nominates Borat because of Sacha Baron Cohen’s unique skill in using the mockumentary form to reveal America’s cultural id. As he points out, Cohen’s naive Kazakh journalist manages to provoke his subjects into quickly removing their veils of political correctness.  The fact that Borat is engaged in a cross-country journey to learn more about the United States–and to meet Baywatch star, Pamela Anderson–makes it easy (too easy, in fact) to read Borat as symptomatic of the Bush era.

While I find elements of Ansen’s argument persuasive, I’m contrarian enough to want to offer another alternative.  One of the things I noticed about the Newsweek list is that it is devoid of any viral videos.  Couldn’t Chris Crocker’s voyeurism-inducing diatribe against the paparazzi, “Leave Britney Alone” (viewed 23 million times on YouTube alone), be the ultimate representation of the Bush Era and its embrace of all things interactive?  While the gossip rags have existed for some time, the fascination with the private lives of celebs has been central to the last decade, a seemingly safe distraction from Bush’s missteps.  Crocker also exploits the confessional form of the YouTube form, at least the old, more televisual form, as well as anyone.

But, at the risk of appearing overly presentist, I’m tempted to argue that the raw videos of an Iraqi reporter throwing his shoes at President Bush may very well be the text that most captures the last eight years.  The video cited here is fairly typical, opening with Bush standing at a lectern next to the Iraqi president.  It’s yet another pseudo-event, a final attempt for the Bush administration to put a positive spin on a war that has lasted nearly six years.  Bush, who apparently has Matrix-like reflexes, manages to duck both shoes, and the journalist stumbles to the ground where he is arrested.  As we have read pretty much everywhere, throwing a shoe at someone, in Arab culture, is just about the worst insult possible, but Bush’s actions, and his response make the gesture seem–at least on one level–seem utterly innefectual.  At first, Bush smiles nervously, obviously uncomfortable with what has just transpired, but he quickly recovers, and by the time order is restored, he jokes that the shoe is a “size 10,” using affable mockery in order to try to defuse any remaining tensions.  In some sense the video seems symptomatic of the inability to truly respond to the actions of the Bush administration that have left a country utterly devastated.  The video captivates me not only because of the powerlessness of the gesture, the insult essentially lost in translation, but also because it seems to capture, in something approaching real time, the Bush Bubble as it forms.

I don’t think that a single text can possibly encompass what it has meant to endure the last eight years of the Bush presidency.  I have strongly considered writing a book about film, TV, and video in the Bush era, in part because I’m fascinated by the high-profile failures of so many “political” films (Redacted, Lions for Lambs, etc).  But also because I think that the Newsweek question is an important one that needs to be asked repeatedly, even if there are no simple answers.

Update: It’s not showing up in my trackbacks, so I’ll go ahead and mention that Gerry Canavan has some great choices, too.  While I’m not a huge fan of The Dark Knight, it seems to capture the disillusionment and malaise of the last eight years as well as anything on the big screen.  Gnarls Barkley is an interesting musical choice, as well.

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Republic Windows and Labor Documentary

Scott McLemee clued me in to the very cool documentaries being produced by the Labor Beat video group.  Specifically, Scoot points to a ten-minute excerpt from their coverage of the successful occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.  As Scott points out, Labor Beat had exclusive access to the occupation unavailable to other filmmakers and broadcasters, making this footage important not only as a pedagogical tool but also as a potentially important document in telling the story of labor in the United States in an era of tremendous economic strain.

The excerpt is part of planned thirty-minute episode about the workers’ occupation of the Republic Windows factory in order to demand the severance they are entitled by law, and the video itself features some good old-fashioned labor politics mixed–as McLemee astutely observes–with more recent practices in Argentina and Brazil that operated under the slogan, “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”  There are other videos as well, including one of a street protest at Bank of America, the bank that refused to extend a payroll loan to Republic.  And while there is much to celebrate here in the Republic Windows story, I’m interested in how the workers explain and theorize their own roles in the production process, reminding us that without the workers, there are no windows and doors, that commodities are produced on the strength of human labor.  What I like most about these documentaries, however, is that the workers are shown as active agents, taking control of their factory, of the streets, of the very economic discourse framing the factory’s closure.

Their story resonates with a number of news stories, both local to me here in North Carolina and nationwide.  As Henry mentions at Crooked Timber, the workers at the Smithfield plant down the road won the right to unionize after over a decade of fighting.  Meanwhile, the fighting over the bailout of the automobile industry seems to be linked to a fight over the role of organized labor, at least in the auto industry.  Meanwhile, Marc Bousquet, in the context of linking to five key pieces of legislation made to support workers’ rights, points to a humorous Batgirl parody video promoting the Lily Ledbetter Act, which would guarantee equal pay for men and women for equal work.  More than anything, I’m interested in the role of Labor Beat in documenting one small narrative within these labor struggles and in offering us, perhaps, a new language and new tactics for engaging in those struggles.

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Favorites Lists

Cross-posted at newcritics.

With the end of the calendar year fast approaching and end of semester grading neatly stacked on my coffee table, I’ve been finding myself thinking about the annual rite of listing favorite texts from the previous year: best movies, favorite TV shows, coolest videos, whatever.  This practice is far from new.  The Golden Globes just named their nominees (you can find them if you’re really curious, or at least more curious than I am), and soon we’ll all be arguing about who got snubbed at the Oscars.  But it’s difficult for me not to feel as if this practice has gained a new energy in the age of blogging, as we see more people participating in naming favorites and publicly declaring and defending popular culture tastes.

I’ll unveil my own–hopefully idiosyncratic–list of favorites in a few weeks, after I’ve had a few days to catch up on movies that I missed, whether due to the somewhat solitary (and often obsessive) practice of completing work on my first book (implying, somewhat hopefully, that there will be more books to follow), or due to the fact that many of the movies I’ve wanted to see haven’t made it to Fayetteville.  Visiting my parents in Atlanta is also an opportunity to catch up on a few movies I haven’t yet seen.  And, in fact, living in Fayetteville, after living in Atlanta and DC for several years, has only served to remind me how subjective these lists can be, how much they are dependent upon the locations of their writers.

With that in mind, I’d like to point to a few of my favorite lists of favorites from 2008 that I’ve enjoyed most, so far, this year.  Drew Morton has a great series of lists posted to Dr. Mabuse, listing favorite films, TV shows, comics, and music.  Some interesting choices, although I haven’t been able to see many of the films he names.  I mention Drew’s list, in part, because he lists The Dark Knight as a favorite film in 2008, a choice that highlights the tension between professional critics and what Jim Emerson identifies as a popular backlash among TDK fans who have been asserting that pro film critics will render thesmelves increasingly “irrelevant” if they don’t recognize the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s film (and, no, I don’t think Drew is part of that backlash).  As Emerson points out, there is something far too insistent about the need among (some) TDK fans to see it acclaimed as the Best Film Ever by film critics, to have their tastes affirmed by the very critics they tarnish as irrelevant (one example of this comes from Josh Tyler at Cinema Blend).  But the battle over TDK, which likely won’t be on my list of media faves, fascinates me because of the degree to which investments in popular culture run deep.  Favorites matter.  We find solidarity with others who share similar tastes.

One of my favorite lists, again so far, is Catherine Grant’s list of favorite film and moving image blogs from 2008 (and not just because I made the cut–skim down to the letter “T”), but because Catherine has provided me with even more film and media reading material to enjoy and learn from. It’s hard to argue with any of her choices–the competition at “C” and “S” is far too fierce to single out just one blog–and Catherine backs up many of her choices with a nice mix of humor and commentary (and we’ll have to work on getting newcritics on the list next year).

Finally, the list that inspired me to write these reflections was Michael Newman’s list at Zigzigger.  What I really enjoy about Michael’s list is his thoughtful explanation of his favorites (his list from last year inspired me to approach listmaking in a new way).  The list becomes a form of media criticism, analyzing for example, Rachel Maddow’s ability to expose the artifice of cable news fakery while still bringing her own insights about political news.  Or the subtle message of The Visitor, a film I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t appreciate when I first saw it, in part because of what Michael describes as its “bizarre” depcition of academia.

In a sense, this post is a partial answer to Michael’s question about why “we feel the need to memorialize a year before it has ended.”  In part, I think it’s about shaping and sharing taste, about saying to others, in the present and future, this is what mattered to me.  It’s about collecting and about conferring a narrative onto the past year (even when our lists are devoid of commentary).  In fact, many of Michael’s favorites, Rachel Maddow and FiveThirtyEight.com, will be on my own list, in part because they helped me to make sense of and, in some cases, enjoy a stressful roller-coaster of a year.

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Thursday Links

Taking a break from grading finals to take a quick tour of the film blogosphere:

  • Jon Swift is greeting the news that Andrew Brietbart will be starting a conservative movie blog, Big Hollywood, with his usual degree of panache and wit, suggesting that Brietbart’s blog is yet another reminder of “the triumph of derrièrism,” a critical approach marked by “judging movies by whether your buttocks moves in the seat while watching them.”  Swift’s concept received rave reviews from the folks at Variety after his (satirical) take on the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, and now he finds a number of “practitioners,” including Roger Ebert, who refrained from acknowledging that he’d skipped out on a movie after only eight minutes until the very end of the review. But Swift finds some of the most effective derrièrists in the conservative blogosphere, including Jason Apuzzo, who didn’t even need to see WALL-E to warn against its use of liberal indoctrination.
  • Billie cites the CNN report that Polaroid will stop making instant film, ceasing production in early 2009 (although teh film should be available for a few months afterwards).  I have vivid memories of watching as a Polarod photo developed, seemingly magically, capturing and preserving a small slice of time.  In addition to the CNN report, there is a website, SavePolaroid, devoted to reasons why Polaroid’s instant film should be preserved, with reasons including the product’s unique square aspect ratio and its ability to support “imperfect” memories.
  • There’s an interview at FilminFocus with Cathy Woolard, former president of the Atlanta City Council, about the upcoming Focus Features film, Milk.  I mention the interview in part because Woolard was always one of my favorite politicians when I was living and working in Atlanta–she fought harder than just about anyone I knew for more mass transit in an obnoxoiusly car-oriented city–and because I took some time out to see Rob Epstein’s documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, in preparation for seeing Gus Van Sant’s version of Harvey Milk’s story, and I highly recommend it as a nice overview of the challenges Milk faced as an openly gay elected official.
  • Finally, Derek Kompare has probably the best analysis I’ve seen of NBC’s decision to give Jay Leno the 10-11 PM time slot five nights a week in order to cut costs and keep Leno, who remains incredibly popular (for reasons that utterly defy me), at the network. He also points out that the biggest losers are the creative people who were working on those five hours of programs that will now be cut.  Audiences looking for entertaining prime time programming aren’t far behind.

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I.O.U.S.A.: Byte-Sized

Thanks to a busy schedule, I didn’t get a chance to watch I.O.U.S.A. when it played in nearby Cary, NC, last month, but I finally did find some time today to sit down and watch an abbreviated, 30-minute version of the film, available on YouTube (among several other video sharing sites).  The video, like the documentary itself, I’m assuming, is a sobering reminder of how we got into this financial mess and carries with it a bracing call for new leadership ready to tackle the problems of our budget and trade deficit, not to mention our personl debts.  From what I can tell, most, if not all, of the content of the video was produced before the full measure of the financial crisis emerged in early October with the collapse–and subsequent bailout–of a number of banking and insurance giants, giving I.O.U.S.A. a slightly prophetic tone (or, perhaps, dated, I’m not sure which), although like many documentaries, such as The Corporation and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, it left me feeling somewhat powerless to change the country’s snowballing debt.

According to many of the reviews, the longer version of the film follows the narrative of a road-trip, following Bob Bixby and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker as they try to raise public awareness of the increasing national debt and its implications for U.S. citizens.  This structure served Davis Guggenheim well in documenting Al Gore’s campaign against global warming in An Inconvenient Truth, so I’m not in a position to judge how it works here (although Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post review seems skeptical).  But the shorter version of the film generally dispenses with that structure, offering instead what amounts to an extended PowerPoint presentation on the history of the nation’s use of deficit spending, usually to finnce wars, and the ebb and flow of our debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product.  The film throws out some incomprehensibly astronomical and alarming numbers, suggesting that within a few decades, we will find outrselves in the hole by $53 trillion dollars.

Intermixed with these dire warnings are interviews with economists and entrepreneurs, incluing Warren Buffet and Paul O’Neill, both of whom warn against the growing budget deficit.  At the same time, the shortened version of the film offers a relatively even-handed portrait of the spending and taxation practices that have placed us in this position.  The shorter version of the film offers few, if any, solutions for this crisis, which makes it a little frustrating to watch.  My immediate reaction is to fall into quiet resignation.  If I make the movie sound a bit like a bitter pill, it probably is.  There are some moments of levity: For one, a Saturay Night Live skit featuring Amy Poehler and Steve Martin being tutored by Chris Parnell on a revolutionary momeny-management program: “Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford.”  In other cases, they interview “average” Americans about their knowledge of the national debt, segments that I typically find somewhat annoying in that they often verge on mockery, while reinforcing the perception of Americans as oblivious to what’s happening financially.

Still, despite some ambivalence, I’m glad that I saw at least the 30-minute segment.  Given the film’s topicality and timeliness, I’m guessing that the shortened version may in fact serve as a relatively successful advertisement for the film.  The website does provide space where you can take action by sending an email to your members of Congress, but given the rapid evolution of this crisis, it might make sense to have something more fluid here.

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CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World

For the last year or so, I have been a (relatively infrequent) participant at newcritics, a blog founded by Tom Watson, where bloggers of all types can join in conversations about middlebrow culture.  Topics range from liveblogging episodes of Mad Men to debates about the Sopranos finale to sustained conversations about the Oscar nominees for best film in 1967, a series inspired by Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution.  The blog has been an alternative community for me over the last couple of years, so I was delighted to read Tom’s new book, CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World, which focuses on the role of new media technologies in reshaping how people engage with social causes.  In the book, Tom, a journalist and consultant, writes authoritatively about a wide range of web practices ranging from the seemingly banal “Cause” application on Facebook to the use of microloans to finance small overseas businesses, the Barack Obama campaign’s innovative use of Web 2.0 technologies, and even the more immediate, spontaneous uses of blogging software and Twitter to keep people informed during a crisis.

Tom brands all of these practices under the label “CauseWired,” and his enthusiasm for these kinds of practices is evident for the outset.  He acknowleges this point in the book’s introduction, explaining that he does not believe “there is a good, impersonal, purely journalistic or academic way to cover this movement; you have to plunge in directly to understand it” (xxvi).  And, typically, Tom’s excitement about the potentials of online social activism leads to rewarding interviews with some of the key players in the movement.  Especially strong, in my opinion, was Tom’s discussion of Kiva.org, the micro-lending site that, accoring to Kiva’s website, allows “individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.”  Tom also illustrates the potential of what he calls “flash causes,” those relatively sudden events that spur individuals into action using the tools at hand.  Specifically, he focuses Nate Ritter’s use of Twitter to update readers on the California wildfires during the summer of 2007.

In all cases, Tom identifies individuals or groups who make use of available technologies in order to promote a social or political cause, and while he wisely resists turning CauseWired into a modified how-to book, his book can serve as a guide for thinking about how to use digital media to support or participate in a cause.  In addition, while Tom is, no doubt, a proponent of online activism, he is, by no means, naive about the limitations of these online activities.  He admits, for example, that the Facebook Causes application has not always resulted in the financial support that organizers of various causes would like to see.  If my experience is any indication, I will often “join” or endorse causes simply because friends have joined and I feel some pressure to show solidarity with the politics.  But as Tom is quick to point out, even this desire for “social validation” can reap benefits in unexpected ways (37).

Further, as the Facebook example illustrates, Tom points out that the “CauseWired” practices are especially attractive to a new generation of activists who are just now coming of age.  Drawing from Hais and Winograd’s insightful Millennial Makeover, Tom traces out how teens and young adults are adapting their use of technology to their support for certain social causes.  Here, Tom draws from his own experiences with his teenage daughter and their shared participation in certain causes.

In the book’s conclusion, Tom acknowledges some of the potential limits of this new form of online activism.  In fact, many of the traits that make online activism so powerful also have the potential to derail some of its urgency.  Tom cites Andrea Batista Schlesinger, of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, who worries that one-click activism may lead to a consumer-oriented approach that stands in the way of true, committed activism (189).  At the same time, Tom notes, the sheer volume of information about potential causes threatens to produce a kind of mental paralysis as people become increasingly inundated with messages inviting them to get involved.  I’ll admit that I would have liked to see more of this skepticism addressed up-front, especially given some of my own questions about one-click activism and the role it might serve in fostering passive responses to real social problems.  Also, because of how broadly he defines the concept of a cause, it’s virtually impossible to dispute the basic principle of social activism, but I found myself constantly coming up against the broader question of how much these causes can do to alleviate the genuine problems of economic inequality in the first place, especially as the banking industry continues to accumulate billions of dollars in bailout money.

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Bailout Humor

After coming across a couple of examples on the web, I’m starting to become intrigued by comedic responses to the bailout.  I’m sure there are hundreds of these videos an comedy segments available, but for now, here a couple:

  • Jon Stewart’s “Autoerotic Explanation,” in which the Daily Show host points out the absurdity of Congress bailing out the financial industry at nearly a trillion dollars while being unwilling to provide a more modest $25 billion in funding for the auto industry.
  • Financial Crisis: The Musical,” a Parody & Sons YouTube video about the bailout performed to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” It’s about two months old, but it’s still pretty relevant today, despite the repeated references to McCain’s claim that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” (via Atrios, or NotAtrios as the case may be).

Although the latter video was made before the election, it certainly depicts the ways in which political video will remain a useful tool even in the short break between this election and 2010.  If you have any favorite web videos about the economic meltdown, please feel free to drop them in the comments.

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Political Video: The Aftermath

After every election, there is an inevitable, and invariably oversimplified, period of reckoning where politicians, pundits, and other political observers attempt to make sense of  What Just Happened.  Too often, there is a tendency to assume that the victorious party, in the case the Democrats, did everything right, while the other party’s strategies were completely flawed, and given the high visibility of web video during the 2008 election, one of the narratives that has emerged is that Democrats and their supporters understood the power of web video much better than their opponents.  In this context, I think this recent post by Clay Shirky on BoingBoing, in which he highlights an example of a successful and widely circulated pro-McCain video, is especially important.

There are a number of valuable points that Shirky raises here.  First, the “Dear Mr. Obama” video is pretty powerful in its simplicity, even while it might seem cheaply manipulative to anti-war viewers.  In the video, an Iraq War vet irectly addresses the camera and talks about the sacrifices he has made while adding that Obama’s reference to the war as a “mistake” cheapens that sacrifice.  An American flag stands nearby, on the edge of the frame, seemingly out of context for some viewers, given that the video is shot at the edge of a forest.    The video ends with the vet walking away from the camera, his artificial leg becoming visible as he moves out of frame, the sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” welling up in the background.  These codes may seem trite for some viewers, but for others, they are, in fact, deeply meaningful.

Second, although the video has been viewed well over 13 million times on YouTube alone, I’ll admit that I was relatively unfamiliar with it, even while I have been paying careful attention to the use of web video during the campaign.  Shirky is right to emphasize the role of “homophilious forwarding” in shaping how the video circulates and how it is received.  People share videos with others who have similar interests and tastes.  That’s one of the reasons why the will.i.am video (among others) was so successful.  People who shared musical and popular culture tatses embraced the affect of the video, while others were left out.  This was dramatized powerfully for me this fall when I showed the will.i.am video in class and one of my non-traditional students–a factory worker who came to campus directly from his night shift job at a Firestone plant–had an almost visceral negative reaction to it, with the video serving to solidify his support for the more explicitly pragmatic Hillary Clinton.  But the more crucial point made by Shirky is that the video succeeded in circulating among conservative groups who generally embraced it while being virtually ignored by Democrats (this is anecdotal, but I don’t recall seeing the video mentioned on the liberal blogs I read way too obsessively over the last year).

That being said, I’m not sure that this video in particular will serve as the “template” for Republican web videos in 2010, as Shirky predicts.  He is likely correct in concluding that the Repblicans will gain a few seats in 2010.  With Democrats holding huge majorities in both the House and Senate, chances are high that Republicans will cut into that advantage, if past precedent is any indicator.  And while the Iraq War may be off the table in 2010, the video’s use of personal sincerity and and its use of patriotic tropes will continue to be effective, although my guess is that the narratives of 2010 will revolve primarily around economic issues (note the already existing groundwork depicting Obama as a socialist).  But I think the most successful videos were the ones that broke through the clutter, at least to some extent, by appealing to the cable news broadcasters’ obsessions with controversy (ObamaGirl, for example, although I think it’s wrong to se ObamaGirl as a sincere pro-Obama video) and celebrity (the will.iam videos).  Even while these videos may have provoked negative responses among conservatives, they were able to escape the enclosed blog circles where most videos do their work into the wider public spaces of cable and network news.

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Plain Us

I’ve been meaning to mention Amir Motlagh’s lushly shot short film, Plain Us, for several months now, but with the film now being made available on Vimeo, now is a good time to give it a quick review.  Plain Us opens with Cyrus playing a gig with his indie rock band (playing music from Amir’s own postpunk band, Shanks and the Dreamers).  We soon learn, via an encounter with one of Cy’s high school acquaintances, that he’s playing in his hometown.  However, instead of celebrating the band’s performance  at the club, Cy quietly disappears, stopping off at a convenience store to buy drinks and a small children’s toy–a plastic unicorn, a virtual afterthought for the six-year old daughter he left behind with his girl friend, Brook.

While the dialogue is sometimes a little stilted, Plain Us offers a quiet meditation on the challenges of coming home and a subtle depiction of Cy’s offhand gestures that suggest he hasn’t really shown a lot of attention to his family.  Much like minimalist fiction, Motlagh’s film tells us a lot through fleeting conversations and offhnad gestures.  Unable to find anything to wrap the plastic toy at the convenience store, Cy takes the advice of the store’s clerk and buys some aluminum foil, which only highlights the shabbiness of the gift.  At the same time, Plain Us is elegantly shot, something that may not be as apparent on a computer screen, but it is a feature that makes Motlagh’s film stand out from most other DIY films I’ve seen. Plain Us runs for about 24 minutes and can be viewed on Vimeo.

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Wednesday Night Links

Friday is the last day of class for fall semester not counting final exams, but thanks to a prodigious frenzy of reading and commenting on student papers yesterday, I’m more or less caught up on my grading, at least for a day or so, so I just wanted to point to a few links and things:

  • First, you’ve probably noticed by now that YouTube has gone widescreen, chnging their aspect ratio from the more televisual 4:3 to the more cinematic 16:9.  Film in Focus mentioned this story a few days ago, but because of Thanksgiving travels, I’m only now getting around to reading it.  Charles Trippy has a creative video commenting on YouTube’s new dimensions.  I’m intrigued by this decision for a couple of reasons.  First, it makes business sense.  It gives YouTube more room to compete with other video sites such as Hulu.  But I’m also intrigued by the idea that the cinematic model is being privileged here, with TV once again being defined as the “bad object” in comparison with film.  But the new aspect ratio also seems to deny, or reject, the broadcast model associated with YouTube’s original self-definition.  Again, I’m not saying that the shift to widescreen is bad, but I am intrigued by the degree to which the new aspect ratio is based on certain (arbitrary) aesthetic standards.
  • Speaking of YouTube, the inevitable YouTube documentary, I Want My Three Minutes Back, is now being promoted and circulated at film festivals.  The trailer, available at Spout.com, highlights many of the astounding statistics, including the detail that ten hours of video footage is loaded to YouTube every minute, but again, sheer numbers are less interesting than the YouTube ideology that is being promoted in the trailer, one that treats YouTube as a community while ignoring how that community is constructed and how it is based on certain (relatively traditional) notions of stardom and discovery.
  • I saw Hugh McGuire’s Huffington Post article on why academics should blog a few days ago, but it has been circulating among my del.icio.us friends recently, so I figured I’d mention it here.  Obviously, I’m essentially in agreement with McGuire on the basics.  Blogs can help academics improve our writing and expand our audience (among other things), but it’s interesting to have a reading of academic writing from an “outsider” perspective.
  • Speaking of academic blogging, Kairos recently announced their Call for Awards, which includes the John Lovas Memorial Weblog Award, an award for “an outstanding blog devoted largely to academic pursuits.”

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