Archive for December, 2010

Survey Request

I’ve been working through some ideas about Netflix, Hulu Plus, and the iPhone for an article I am writing, and in order to unpack some of my arguments, I’ve decided to get some feedback from people who are using the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps.  If you are interested in participating, I have created a short survey on Survey Monkey and would very much welcome your responses and reflections.  The survey is available here.

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Santa Inception

Somebody gave that Christmas Coke commercial featuring Santa Claus playing with a snow globe an Inception re-edit. As Amanda Dobbins at The Vulture points out, this might explain how Santa is able to travel across the entire globe on Christmas Eve.  Pretty funny, although the shots of the snow globe make me think we need a Citizen Kane re-edit, too.

Hope everyone has a happy holiday.

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Eating Delicious

I’ve got some major writing deadlines coming up, but in case you haven’t heard, it appears that the social bookmarking site del.icio.us will soon be shut down.  Yahoo has announced that it will layoff the entire team that runs the site, in part (I guess) because it wasn’t generating enough revenue for them.  This will likely lead to a mass scrambling to export del.icio.us bookmarks to one of the many other social bookmarking sites out there on the web.  If you need some assistance with that process (as I will), Lifehacker has a useful blog post explaining how to export your links to another service (right now, I’m leaning toward Diigo).

Although the Guardian blog post cited above is correct in suggesting that the del.icio.us interface wasn’t perfect, I have become pretty dependent upon the site for storing and organizing links for many of my research projects, including my book, a process I’ve continued to use in the preliminary stages of my second book. In fact, I probably should have tipped my cap to the site in the acknowledgements of my book.  And I had become accustomed to sitting down with a cup of coffee (or two) and sifting through my RSS feed (Google Reader) to find blog posts and articles of interest that I would then bookmark on del.icio.us and then write about on my blog.  The process helped me to think through the links, to see patterns, and (in most cases) to compile several responses to a news story before blogging about it myself.  I could then go back to my del.icio.us later to find those carefully organized (unlike pretty much everything else in my office) links and turn that material into a more linear argument.

There are obviously some alternatives here.  One can hope that Yahoo will either sell off del.icio.us or  allow it to go open source, but those choices don’t seem likely, if the Guardian post is correct. And although Yahoo is implying that del.icio.us is not a “strength” of the company, it’s one of the few unique offerings that Yahoo seems to have.  There are plenty of email services out there, many other search engines that are stronger, other ways of accessing information such as movie times, and there are plenty of other websites out there that have equally annoying advertisements.  So I don’t really get this choice.  But it is a reminder that one shouldn’t take even the best online services for granted.

But the closure of del.icio.us, if or when it happens, is a powerful reminder that these web tools that we use to organize our research or social communication are not necessarily permanent.  Although the concept of social bookmarking will certainly continue, it’s important to be aware of how specific tools and services can change or even disappear.

Update: Several articles are now reporting that Yahoo plans to sell, rather than shut down, Delicious.  But their recent actions have me at least mildly concerned about all of the bookmarks I have compiled, so I will still be backing things up with Diigo.

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Wednesday Links

The last nine days have been a blur of grading, birthday celebrations, Prius buying, and travel to Charlotte (twice), where two of my family’s preferred sports teams, the Falcons and Celtics, beat up on local squads.  Driving the Prius has, itself, proven to be a fascinating experience (hoping to blog about that soon), but for now, here are some film and media links while I hide out in an uncomfortably loud Starbucks, coincidentally just a few short blocks from Tryon Street in Charlotte:

  • Hoping to have more to say about the “Filmography 2010” video, a compilation of clips from over 200 films released in 2010, all compiled into a coherent narrative, but for now, check out the comments from Scott Eric Kaufman.
  • Another cool video: someone has used split-screen to depict the events and different dream levels of Inception in real time.
  • MediaCommons’s In Media Res archive has a week of posts dedicated to analyzing film spectatorship.  Of special interest is a recent post by Sarah Sinwell on cell phone cinema.
  • I think there is a tendency to overstate the degree to which Netflix is shaping the film and TV industry.  But there are some interesting changes worth following including Netflix’s recent expansion of content available in Canada, the agreement to stream recent ABC and Disney TV shows, and their ongoing conflicts with Comcast.  Still, Wilson Rothman anticipates a future in which the Red Envelope is marginalized once studios get a handle on video-on-demand models.
  • I was also intrigued to learn that some rental DVDs are now being stripped of special features.  I’d been thinking about the degree to which streaming DVDs makes it less likely that we will watch special features, but now many rental DVDs (including the new Scott Pilgrim DVD) are being distributed without them, presumably as an incentive to get special features fans to buy the DVD.
  • Also worth checking out: The Avengers Assemble! online series, which depicts members of the Avengers comic series tackling real-world problems like the health care debate and the BP oil spill.  I like the handheld camera and the low-fi aesthetic.
  • I’m also fascinated by the ongoing discussions of Flix on Stix, a kind of competitor for Redbox, which allows people to download movie rentals on their thumb drives.  The movies can be rented in a few minutes, and renters can purchase a viewing window of 1-12 days (for anywhere between $1-4), depending on how long they think they will want to have access.
  • A very cool text for those of us interested in media history: a memoir/review essay on the changing role of the projectionist.  As the article illustrates, digital cinema is just one part of a longer evolution in the duties performed by projectionists.
  • A good LA Times article on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series.  Although there may be a slightly cynical side to this (ESPN seeking to rebrand), it has also provided access to some pretty powerful and thoughtful documentaries about the sports world.

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Forget Zuckerberg

Because I’ve been distracted by other things (grading, writing articles, travel), I missed Neal Gabler’s recent op-ed on “The Zuckerberg Revolution” until now.  Although it is a little more sophisticated in its media analysis, Gabler’s article is consistent with a number of other articles lamenting the effect of social media on how we communicate.  Gabler wrote the article specifically in response to the announcement that Zuckerberg has produced a communication tool, Facebook Messaging, meant to combine the utility of email with the brevity and immediacy of social media tools. Zuckerberg has pithily described the tool as a “social inbox” and, like a number of recent communication tools, promoted it as a transformative new way of communicating.  For the most part, it feels like Zuckerberg’s announcement has been greeted with a virtual shrug.  And yet, the perception that our communication tools continue to change us, typically in ways that are harmful, persists for Gabler.  Although I’m often lured in by arguments about media change, I think Gabler’s arguments tend to simplify more complex changes taking place within our communication practices.

First, Gabler participates in the current trend of mythologizing Mark Zuckerberg, a tendency expressed most vividly in Sorkin and Fincher’s The Social Network but also by author Zadie Smith, who sees the invention of Facebook as a generation-defining moment.  In virtually all cases, Zuckerberg’s hastily authored bit of code is depicted as fostering banal, narcissistic chatter devoid of deeper meaning.  At the same time, this is portrayed as a communication revolution.  As Tama Leaver points out in a recent post, the final shot of The Social Network, which depicts a fictionalized Zuckerberg compulsively refreshing his browser window to check the response to a friend request, ominously seems to imply that we have all become Zuckerbergs, reinforced by titles stating that “Facebook has 500 million users in 207 countries. It’s currently valued at 25 billion dollars.”  To be sure, any tool that can boast half a billion users is significant; however, we risk obscuring quite a bit when we impose all of the changes associated with social media onto a single communication artifact such as Facebook, especially when an apparently narcissistic Zuckerberg is so easy to vilify.  Although it’s tempting to regard Zuckerberg as an archetype for what Zadie Smith calls “Generation Why,” it keeps us from seeing some of the more subtle ways in which social media may be shaping communication (while at the same time being shaped by contemporary social needs and desires).

Gabler also offers a fairly reductive assessment of the processes of media change.  His discussion of Facebook messaging compares social media with the print revolution fostered by (though not solely caused) by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.  Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, Gabler argues that “print’s uniformity, its immutability, its rigidity, its logic led to a number of social transformations, among which were the rise of rationalism and of the scientific method.  In facilitating reason, print also facilitated complex ideas.”  He goes on to suggest, building upon arguments by Neil Postman, that TV helped to diminish this project of scientific rationalism by confronting us with “the onslaught of the visual.”  Although Facebook arguably takes us back to typography–most Facebook messages are printed on screens after all–their brevity and informality prevent the kind of thought that Gabler sees as productive.  Thus, Gabler concludes ominously, “we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death.”

I’m not terribly inclined to defend Mark Zuckerberg.  Although I am a frequent Facebook user, I recognize the site’s limitations, especially when it comes to privacy (Tama is attentive to these points as well).  But I think Gabler obscures quite a bit when he suggests that Facebook status updates can be reduced to telling “tens of millions of people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show.”  First, it implies that Facebook has a broadcast capacity that it really doesn’t have.  Most Facebook users (or Twitter users, for that matter) don’t have tens of millions of friends or followers; they are speaking to a much smaller circle of friends or family members.  Second, it obscures the ways in which these sites work to build ambient intimacy with others.  We know more about our friends, family, and colleagues because of these short bytes of communication, knowledge that can help us to make sense of our daily lives or the world around us (I made a similar argument in an article on Twitter a couple of years ago).  Facebook and Twitter don’t exist in isolation. They point to other things. We link, we cite, we discuss.  Maybe some of that chatter remains at the level of a conversation at the local bar, but we don’t communicate solely in the tiny nuggets that Gabler has characterized as revolutionary.  People may tweet about their lunch, but they blog, make (or watch) videos, and write (or read) in other formats, too.  I’ve learned much about current trends in communication through my Twitter feed, where colleagues and friends link to articles.  Although discussion may start on Twitter, it often spills over into blog posts, articles, conference papers, and even books.  And the fact that we are talking about other media–whether TV shows or movies or even books–also seems to matter more than Gabler acknowledges.  One recent meme asked Facebook users to list their favorite authors, and I’d imagine that few authors made anyone’s list based on a few tweets.

To some extent, Gabler seems to have bought into Facebook’s marketing hype to the point of treating this moment as “Zuckerberg’s Revolution.”  Although such hype is powerful–and may even shape the way we communicate–I’m not convinced that Facebook Messages will do anything that is especially new, even if it might be slightly pernicious in its attempts to weave Facebook use even more deeply into our daily lives, potentially adding more users and drawing in even more advertising revenue. But rather than giving all of the power to the technologies themselves–moving us into the realm of technological determinism–why not look at the ways in which our communication tools are contributing to new forms of thinking in far more subtle ways?

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Love and Other Drugs

Until checking its Wikipedia entry, I had no idea that Love and Other Drugs (IMDB) was based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy, who, like the Jamie Randall character in the film (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), worked as a pharmaceutical rep.  That detail provides a slightly clearer motivation for setting the film in the 1990s, an aspect of the film I found fascinating (and will return to momentarily).  I haven’t read the book, but it seems that its primary purpose was to blow the whistle on some of the more unsavory practices of the pharmaceutical industry.  Although there are a number of scenes that satirize Big Phrama, the film seems less assured when it so earnestly depicts the romance between Jamie and Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) primarily as a means for Jamie to enter belatedly into adulthood.  Although Maggie is also depicted as vulnerable, the story seems in places to use Maggie’s diseased body as a means for allowing Jamie to discover his better self (he and his brother, who made millions off of  medical software, are both depicted as overgrown children).

The romance plot does have some nice moments.  Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Courage Under Fire) has good storytelling chops.  The film uses Maggie’s artwork, including a video project where she and Jamie record their bedroom conversations, relatively well in order to explore the emotional vulnerabilities of the characters, but it was often difficult to see the characters as anything other than types: the haunted artist and the overgrown (but sensitive) playboy.

Instead, I found myself focusing on the treatment of the 1990s boom era.  Nearly a decade after Clinton’s presidency ended, it’s becoming increasingly possible to view “the nineties” as a distinct historical era, with its booming economy, based in part on the exploding dotcom and pharmaceutical industries.  Jamie’s brother is a software millionaire, and Jamie hands out favors–umbrellas, pens, even to the point of arranging sexual trysts–to doctors in order to entice them to prescribe his drugs rather than his competitors’.  Although Jamie recites the benefits of Pfizer drugs–fewer side effects, better results–it’s clear that he doesn’t really believe his own pitch and doesn’t especially care.  Jamie’s career is given a boost when he lands the opportunity to sell Viagra (it’s almost impossible to write a sentence about Viagra without at least one bad pun), and the film treats Viagra as a symbol of the excessiveness of 90s culture.  At the same time, aspects of that excess, including the wild parties that are fueled by the drugs and drug company profits, are enticing and energizing, with the result that the nineties become the object of ambivalent nostalgia for the film (this is expressed musically as well through the use of The Spin Doctors, among others).

The depictions of the pharmaceutical industry–and its cynical emphasis on profits over care–did resonate with some of the current debates about health care.  Although the pharmaceutical reps, driven by the drug companies themselves, are probably the chief “villains” in this equation, the doctors (including Dr. Knight, played by Hank Azaria) are usually depicted as complicit in the system itself.  I don’t have time to track it down now, but at least one review compared Love and Other Drugs to the similarly topical Up in the Air (my review) and that comparison seems about right, although I liked the latter film quite a bit more.  Both movies map aspects of romantic drama onto workplace settings that engage with, or at least anticipate, our troubled economic times.  Although Love and Other Drugs primarily tracks Jamie’s transition into an adult capable of unselfishly loving and supporting Maggie, it is also engaged with topical issues in a relatively thoughtful way.

Update: Another film that has this topical vibe is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network.  For a sharp analysis of the film, check out Tama Leaver’s recent column at FlowTV.

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Pushing the (Red) Envelope

It has been an eventful week for the various players in the digital cinema industry, in particular Netflix.  Although there continues to be quite a bit of turmoil, Netflix has continued to buy the rights to stream films, especially from independent film distributors, suggesting that they still streaming as a major component of their business.  This CNET article, for example, offers a quick overview of the licensing agreement between Netflix and the independent film distributor, FilmDistrict.  The article touts Netflix as a means of providing consumers with “an inexpensive, simple, and legal way to access movies,” even suggesting that legal streams provide a viable alternative to piracy.

Still, the financial model remains unclear.  Netflix recently raised their monthly subscription rates for people who continue to receive discs in the mail (as I do), and there is still some debate about whether studios stand to benefit more by working with cable TV providers because subscription TV may actually pay more initially.  The same CNET article notes that there is some evidence that Netflix is contributing to the process of pulling consumers away from cable (i.e., “cord cutting“), although there is some debate about whether cord cutting is as significant as some have suggested.  David Carr offers one version of this narrative characterizing it as a “rivalry,” one that presents a dilemma for Hollywood studios.  Carr’s numbers do potentially underscore the idea that cable deals are more lucrative than online deals, pointing out that, to stream Disney and Sony movies, “Netflix pays about 15 cents a month for each subscriber, much less than the $4 to $5 a month that cable and satellite owners pay for access to Starz.”

Like David Poland, I am somewhat skeptical of this attempt to paint Netflix as an industry threat, however.  As Poland points out, Netflix is paying a large sum of change for the rights to stream movies and TV shows (or send them out on DVD), most of which are not the newest releases.  Poland also makes the argument that Netflix’s success as a rental service had little effect on DVD sales. I’m not quite sure I fully buy Poland’s argument here.  I’d agree that the DVD bubble had begun to burst a long time ago; however, I do think that Netflix helps contribute to the idea of movie consumption as an essentially disposable activity.  Because most DVDs are theoretically available within a few clicks (and possibly a somewhat slower mail truck), the urge to collect has diminished considerably.  Especially in a recession economy, I think that most film consumers are willing to wait through the so-called retail window and watch the movie later when it reaches Netflix or Redbox.  I also like how Poland parses Netflix’s business model, which he describes as an “everything everywhere” model rather than a model focused on the most recent movies, and Poland offers some pretty good data to back that up.

But one of the biggest concerns–and one that extends well beyond Netflix to anyone concerned with an open internet–is the issue of net neutrality.  Level 3, the company that helps Netflix deliver streaming movies, has complained that Comcast is charging them additional fees, essentially a “toll” on the delivery of certain kinds of data.  Although Comcast has argued that this practice doesn’t violate principles of net neutrality, the decision to charge additional fees on video delivery would likely complicate the inexpensive delivery of streaming video that is so crucial to Netflix.  Caught up in this conflict as well is Comcast’s planned acquisition of NBC Universal.  As the Times article cited above notes, Comcast could stream NBC shows more quickly than programs produced by their rivals unless the government intervenes.

It’s worth noting that Netflix is responsible for something like 20% of all download traffic, leading the Times’ Brian Stelter (again, cited above) to characterize them as a “de facto competitor” for Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable television and internet service providers.  Although Netflix had (as of the other day) declined comment on this specific case, New Tee Vee provides some good context, noting that the video rental service has expressed concern in the past about companies like Comcast and Time Warner that are network operators who also produce content.  As Wired notes, the FCC’s December 1 announcement of new net neutrality rules was met with disappointment, especially from consumer groups (and Marvin Ammori offers some good reasons to be skeptical, noting in particular that the new policies would exempt wireless internet access from net neutrality rules; see also, Josh Silver’s comments).  Long story short, I think that net neutrality rules (or the lack of rules or lack of enforcement) could hinder some of Netflix’s current practices.

Ultimately, I think it Poland is probably right to express some skepticism about the long-term future of Netflix (a point echoed by Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes).  I’ll let you revisit his arguments about why Netflix’s power and long-term potential in the industry is overstated, but I think he’s probably right that the technological barriers for competitors are minimal, allowing studios to create their own streaming service.  I’d originally planned this as a links post, so I’m still putting together my overall sense of where things are going with digital or streaming distribution, especially given the ongoing conflict between Comcast and Level 3.

Update: Some good news on Net Neutrality.  Michael Copps, one of the Democratic-leaning FCC committee members has strongly hinted that he will not support the watered-down version of net neutrality currently being proposed.  Copps’ support is probably necessary, so this may give supporters of an open internet a little more leverage in their fight.

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