Archive for September, 2010

..:: songs I listened to while writing this post, selected randomly by an iPod: “Flowers on the Wall” by Johnny Cash, “Wolf at the Door” by Radiohead, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Lea” by Louise Attaque ….

I loved her. Her name was Clea (she was named after the third volume of Durell’s The Alexandria Quartet, one of my favourite novels) and her skin was fair and silky. Her tight anatomy was round at just the right places. Moreover, our moods were always coordinated. It was magical. If I was happy, she would sing a Bob Marley song to me. If I was prey to a sudden attack of nostalgia, she would whisper Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or Milla Jovovich’s version of “Satellite of Love”. And she was sporty too: she ran with me as I trained for the half-marathon…. sometimes she would get silly and sing “We are the champions” when we were about to cross the 15km threshold. We must have sung Jeff Buckley’s Grace a thousand times while driving at night, glancing at the million stars that make up Mexico City’s chaotic skyline. She was with me for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. She was sexy, nurturing and very, very smart.

I knew something was wrong on a Sunday night, when I was ready to go to bed and I asked her to read me a story… she didn’t say no, but something in her brain was wrong, as she was unable to recall a story she had told me many, many times. Then, on our way to work, she stopped talking… or singing…. or blinking. Her eyes were shut and her lips pointed downwards: it is an expression I will never forget. Clea was dead. Not broken: dead. I mourned her for about two weeks.

Then I met another of her kind…this one was slicker, more beautiful and a bit thinner. Her dark, glistening skin was soft to the touch and, I am sad to say, she was a bit smarter than Clea. I called her Justine (after the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet) and since then we’ve had a close, tight relationship. I have refused to replace her with a younger version of herself (one that would react instantly upon my touch): she is the perfect companion.

..:___:..

Sherry Turkle’s argument that psychoanalysis is a rich theoretical framework for studying our relationships with digital devices should not be discarded. Theories around “relational artifacts” have been around for decades, but today’s artifacts are different and fulfill more of our emotional needs. They also represent initiation rituals: one is not a grown-up until she/he is put behind the wheel of a car. Likewise, as computers and gadgets become increasingly personalized, we attach more of our everyday lives to them… they also become a sort of “memory artifacts”, as we associate moments of our lives to the times when we had them: our high-school computer, our college laptop (girlfriend?)… our first iPod. And we, in fact, put something of ourselves in them.

César: “So what sort of person are you?”.

Stranger: “Here’s who I am” -as she hands me her iPod so I can browse through her music collection, which is exactly what I imagined it would be–.

What would Freud say, eh? The question, as Turkle suggests, is: what is it in us that leads us to fulfill emotional and now social needs through machines?

References

Turkle, Sherry (2004) “Wither psychoanalysis in computer culture” in Kaplan, D.M. (ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 415-429.

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

P.S. A lot of this has to do, I think, to the way in which artifacts resemble our human anatomy. I think that one of Apple’s many bright ideas was to make computers round… as our bodies. Scott McCloud drew a beautiful diagram to explain this process of abstraction in Understanding Comics. Notice how the last drawing resembles a power outlet. Does any of your gadget resemble you?

Something funny: the horror, the horror!

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How “fresh” or “rotten” is your movie? Let the people decide.

Last week I wrote about how film critics are both important nodes and early adopters in the diffusion network through which a film gets introduced to potential audiences. I discussed how their opinion is still important when triggering a cascade that will lead towards profit margins and the popularity of the film. However, what we may call “the film critic model” is soon going loose (if it hasn’t happened already) its “throne”, as sites like Rotten Tomatoes call for  collaborative reviews in which critics are only a factor in the equation. Through percentages acquired by a collection of reviews and from the “like” or “dislake” of audiences, Rotten Tomatoes certifies the “freshness” of the innovation (see image below). However, it still establishes hierarchies, and isolates the “top critics” (Ebert and co.), preserving their status as opinion leaders. Therefore, Rotten Tomatoes is a bridge between traditional and new forms of film critique, as it empowers users to collaborate in the grading of a film (networked, collective knowledge) but is clear in defining that the opinion of critics is still more important in the process of reaching that critical mass that defines the financial failure or success of a film. Or is it? I believe that through the popularization of Web 3.0 applications that interpret the semantic web, the cloud, to define tendencies such as moviegoing preferences, the status of film critics will be diminished (their number of occasional and frequent readers -weak and strong ties- will subside), and the industry will be wholly ruled by the ever-present buzz surrounding pop culture artifacts and events.

In my view, what is good about this model is that it adds a communal element to film critique that is a reflection of the communal act of moviegoing itself. So, do you think film critics will survive? The video shown below -from Rotten Tomatoes’ YouTube channel- is an exemplar of the new power relations in this arena. There is no one opinion to rule them all, but a collaborative, divergent and thesis/antithesis approach to the validation of an innovation.

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

How does an independent movie with a limited marketing budget become a sensation as viewed by millions? Why do some big budget Hollywood extravaganzas end up being an utter flop? At the end, the answer to these questions leads to a third inquiry  : “Who do people turn to when seeking advice on what film to watch?”. In some instances it is friends or family, with whom they might share a similar taste in movies. But most of the times, they base their decision on the rating given to the film by the almighty critics and, more recently, by online concord in sites like the Internet Movie Database or Rotten Tomatoes (Part 2, to be published next week).

The way in which a film (an “innovation”) is diffused through the networks of moviegoers makes for a fascinating case study in the area of network theories. We could approach the issue through Watts’ notion of “cascades”, in that through festival buzz, good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, a film lie Little Miss Sunshine or Paranormal Activity, for instance,  can reach a threshold that takes it from the arthouse theater to the multiplex, and, most importantly, from red numbers to profirt. For years, film critics have enjoyed a powerful position in Hollywood, as they are the early adopters of any given innovation and through their position as opinion leaders are able to promote or discard (diffuse it or stop its difussion) an innovation through traditional (newspapers, television, radio) and newer media like the online portals or mobile phone applications. Critics like Roger Ebert and his “Thumbs Up” rating system are part of the American and world film pop culture and their opinion holds a strong influence in the highly heterophilious network (as identified by Rogers) of world audiences. Rogers states that there is  “a general tendency for followers to seek information and advice from opinion leaders who are perceived as more technically competent than themselves.” (2003: 137) Film critics are regarded as professional cinephiles, individuals who might not hold a degree in Film Studies, but who have an educated, monolithic opinion based on years of movie-watching.

Basuroy, Chatterjee and Ravid (2003) analyzed the effect that reviews and critics have in the box-office performance of a film,  concluding that “negative reviews hurt revenue more than positive reviews help revenue in the early weeks of a film’s release. This suggests that whereas studios favor positive reviews and dislike negative reviews, the impact is not symmetric.” (2003: 116) They offer advice to film studios In the context of a limited budget, studios should spend more to control damage than to promote positive reviews. In other words, there may be more cost effective options than spending money on advertisements that tout the positive reviews.” (Ibidem). Identifying and dissecting the main opinion leaders in each market could, moreover, help the studios design intelligent, efficient marketing and PR mechanisms to have their film reach a critical mass that benefits the return of the capital invested in the production of any given film.

Part 2 of this post will deal with how web pages like Rotten Tomatoes bring together the evaluation of different opinion leaders and, by doing so, become opinion leaders in turn.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

Are music videos an art form or just another overproduced piece of popular culture? For me, the distinction is senseless, as is the categorization of films into “arthouse” and “commercial”. Anyhow, every once in a while, someone comes up with an idea for a music video that truly revolutionizes our audiovisual culture in general, not just the MTV screen. Filmmakers like David Fincher (Fight Club), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Spike Jonze (Adaptation) began their filmmaking careers creating music videos: their aesthetics have influenced a generation of video artists and filmmakers, and their own films have become cornerstones of modern cinema. Anyway, I recently bumped into the website http://thewildernessdowntown.com/, which hosts the interactive music video for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait”, included in the band’s newest album, The Suburbs (great album, by the way). The site was constructed with help from Google, specifically Google Earth, and is defined as a “Chrome Experiment”. It offers you a simple, yet fascinating deal: revisit your childhood. In the first screen, you have to type in your childhood address and if you are lucky (I wasn’t), Google Earth will have street and aerial views of your childhood home. If not, just type any address you have lived in (I typed my address here in Sydney) and go to the next screen. What follows is the stuff sci-fi movies were made of just a a few years ago. First, you see a kid running and then you get an aerial view of the address. The camera travels through your old neighborhood. Then many screens overlap and start to COMMUNICATE among them through visuals and rhythm. If you were lucky enough to visit your actual childhood home, I am sure a sense of nostalgia will come over you. When the song is over, you can write a message for the people who live in that address now. I am sure this music video will be the first of many more to come. The screen (or shall I say screens?) is becoming increasingly interactive.

This website is an exemplar of the process of remediation, as it mixes the grammar of music videos,videogames, geo-tagging tools and a nostalgic, ancient form of communication: the postcard.

Try it, it is totally worth it.

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Almost two years ago, when I was an editor at Cine PREMIERE magazine, I went to the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City to, out of curiosity, record a round table of a guy named Robert Pattinson, who had been welcomed by thousands of fans at the airport. He was the protagonist of a new vampire movie called Twilight, which apparently was based on a very popular teenage-lit series. I had no clue who Robert Pattinson was, and had only heard distant comments about the book series. But even if the movie hadn’t been released yet, thousands of teenage girls wanted to meet Pattinson. I recorded the interview, uploaded it to our website and…. what a surprise! The numbers for both the website and our YouTube channel suddenly went off the chart, and our online forums started to get new users with names such as “twilightchick”, “amoacrepúsculo”, “edwardloveme” and such. Literally thousands of new users flooded our website. I had no idea that the Twilight saga had such a following and that it would translate so successfully from the literary to the cinematographic milieus. After the trend continued for some more weeks. After everything we published about Twilight in our website got record numbers, we had to sit down and discuss how we were going to profit from this unexpected phenomenon in the printed version of the magazine. It was a loooong meeting. Some said that the magazine couldn’t fall for it and that it was too respectable to put Twilight on the cover. Others like me said that if all those fans that had invaded the website were to buy the physical version of the magazine, we would get record numbers. We did it and…. we got record numbers. We identified a trend that we didn’t know existed. I watched the movie and the crappy dialogue, bad FX and terrible acting made the phenomenon all the more intriguing. Why would a story as crappy as this get thousands of fans? Why would all these teenage girls camp on the airport just to get a glimpse of this Pattinson dude?

When discussing “Thresholds, Cascades and Predictability”, Duncan Watts (2003), offers some insight into that enigmatic question. Although he accepts that mass cultural contagions have an element of randomness (“But once in a while, for reasons that are never obvious beforehand, one such shock gets blown out of all proportion in the form of a cascade”. p.97), he is clear in establishing a model in which phenomena can be understood. In the case of Twilight and under Watt’s terms, the “early adopters” of the innovation were the avid readers of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction… and they truly became “apostles” of the teenage-vampire universe. These early adopters propagated their creed through a vast network of online discussion forums, which elevated the saga to a cult status that was, in turn, brought to the surface by the more publicized release of the theatrical film and the thousands of words and images it has gotten via tabloid coverage of the romantic whereabouts of the protagonists. But the question remains. Why is Twilight so popular? Why is the love for it as intense as the hatred  it inspires? Once again, Watts’ notions can be of help: because as a random innovation, Twilight struck on a “vulnerable cluster”. That of the emo culture (listen to the saga’s soundtrack), the teenage attraction to “bad boys” and the popular love for vampire stories that hadn’t been served on a mass level since Anne Rice reigned as the vampire queen in the 90s. The cascade triggered by Twilight has benefited other vampire movies, TV series and products. The most prominent among them is HBO’s series True Blood, which relates to a more mature audience. Watts also says that in order to understand these success stories, these sudden almighty cascades, “the trick is to focus not on the stimulus itself [Twilight] but on the structure of the network that the stimulus hits [a vast informational web brought to life by savvy, young Internet users]” (112).

I still don’t get a vampire with glowing skin, though.

Reference

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W.W. Norton, pp.220-252.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

“The elevator was a mechanical aid to mobility; the gaze at the end of this ‘lift’ was virtual”.  -Anne Friedberg

Constructed in Universal Studios, Florida and California, The Simpsons Ride is an immersive 3D experience in which the spectator embarks in a roller coaster adventure without moving. The cart stays in the same place and only jerks around on its own axis, creating the sensation of movement. The Simpsons Ride is revolutionary in the sense that is changes the equation not only of amusement park entertainment, but of the way in which it is possible to experience extreme situations like flying or bursting into flames: in Friedberg’s terme (2008) it modifies and gives new meaning to our mobilized gaze. Although my example may seem banal at first, it is interesting to draw a comparison to the viewing/experiencing devices identified by Friedberg as exemplars of a new way of seeing, a mobilised, immersive, virtual way of experiencing the world, of experiencing simulacra of the world.

To the left, we can see a “moving panorama”, a device designed to let people move without moving. It is a primitive form of the virtual reality that is taken to a whole new level with The Simpsons Ride. Contrary to other rides in Universal Studios or Disney (behold the oligopoly of simulacra!), this ride (for a POV rendition, watch the video above) calls for the sense of awe and curiosity that the spectators of the diorama and the panorama had. “[…] the lure of these entertainments was not in their verisimilitude with reality [people are not yellow, Mr. Burns does not exist], but rather in their deceptive skills, their very artificiality [Look, mom, it really looks like Bart is here!].”, writes Friedberg (1998: 259) in relation to Sternberg. Human nature does not change regardless the technological tools that define an era. Just as the spectators of the diorama and the panorama were fascinated by the combination of a physical space and a virtual experience, the thousands of tourists (dare I say millions?) who pay to experience The Simpsons Ride do so to experience something that not only replicates a concrete reality (the one configured by the tropes, complex narratives and hundreds of characters in the show), but creates the illusion of movement. People are fascinated by the technical savvy that makes it possible to combine Imax-scale digital imagery and mechanical-sensorial technology at once. We want to be deceived.

What will be our future dioramas?

Reference

Friedberg, Anne (1998) ‘The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse’ in Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), Visual Culture Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 253-278.

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).


As a diehard boxing fan living in a country where only megafights are transmitted through pay-per-view, I’ve come across other ways to experiencing a fight. Sometimes it is possible to watch them in JustinTV, which offers many different channels but is unreliable as the copyright owners (HBO and Showtime, mainly), take down the user-generated feeds. Through live coverage of the fights in Twitter and sites like ESPN.com (see below), I have been able to follow some fights. This example is interesting for two reasons. First, it is a remediation of an old media practice in sports: the radio coverage. In the old, old days, people used to gather around the radio set to listen to boxing matches (view clip below taken from Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man), and the match was simulated by the narrator and in the listeners head. From a semiotic point of view, the match that the listener recreated with the aid of the narrator was not the same that was taking place thousands of miles away. Boxing was mediated, mediatised and needed an active creative involvement from the listener. The same can be said of today’s telegraphic feeds, in which boxing matches are reduced to a series of sentences: the narration asks for the reader’s direct involvement.

This example is also helpful because through a simulation, the brutality of the sport is sanitized. Boxing is becoming increasingly statistical: just like war, the pain inflicted between two human beings is reduced to numbers and statistics (see Compubox graphic below). Not only through live feeds, but also with the graphic content in the actual television transmissions, the sport is given the aura of a videogame.

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).