digital media – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Gendered Politics of Digital Brand Labor Wed, 18 Mar 2015 14:00:35 +0000 Love Keyboard

This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna. 

Amid the flood of actors, directors, and reporters congregating in Park Springs, Utah, for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival was a cadre of social media influencers that New York Times writer Sheila Marikar designated the “new celebrity crowd.” With thousands—even millions—of social media followers each, these fashion bloggers, YouTube vloggers, and Instagrammers were being wooed by advertisers and publicists at the Sundance gifting suites, where they were furnished with designer clothes, shoes, tech accessories, and more. In exchange, the social media personalities were expected to share photos and reviews of the Sundance swag with their followers, part of a mutual incentive system that increasingly structures digital communication in the so-called “attention economy.”

Although gender was scarcely mentioned in the NYT article, the feminized nature of the system was patently clear: the majority of the social media personalities mentioned were female, a disparity which was highlighted by a comment from a PR rep, “When it comes to the sales, the digital girls are making those. We see higher conversions off those girls than we do with celebrity placement that we might have paid money for” (italics added for emphasis). And save for the male chief executive of a talent agency, three of the four publicists quoted were women. This brings to mind Ann Friedman’s provocation last year about the gendered dimension of the public relations profession, which she said is treated like “a pink ghetto.”

The article also drew attention to the highly gendered discourses of affective or emotional labor, particularly in the context of the promotional “love fest.” Justine Ezarik, more commonly known as iJustine, gushed to Marikar, “I love products, and I love sharing if I love something. Like, you can probably guarantee that it’s going to be posted, especially if I love it.” For retailers and advertisers, an endorsement by a social media influencer like Ezarik enables them to rise above the flood of ubiquitous marketing messages through a seemingly authentic brand promotion.

Social Media NailsWhile the NYT article profiled those faring quite well from their social media promotions, legions of other young women engage in similar brand work—without monetary compensation. Often, these creative aspirants are seduced by the infectious rhetoric of “dream jobs” and “passion projects”; indeed, the notion of doing what you love has become so central to contemporary career narratives that scholar and Jacobin contributor Miya Tokumitsu declared it the “unofficial work mantra of our time.”

My recent International Journal of Cultural Studies article, “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in Digital Culture Industries,” brings gender politics to the fore of discussions about using social media to pursue one’s labor of love. Based on a study of female social media producers, I contend that digital labor scholars must take seriously the meaning-making activities of participants, especially female content creators.

Drawing upon in-depth interviews with eighteen fashion bloggers, beauty vloggers, and DIY stylists—as well as an analysis of social media professionalization resources—I argue that these young women are engaged in “aspirational labor”: a highly gendered form of (mostly) uncompensated work that 1) amateur participants believe has the potential to “pay off” in terms of future economic and social capital; and 2) that keeps female content creators immersed in the public circulation of commodities. Like individuals performing social roles through aspirational consumerism—for instance, purchasing luxury goods to mark oneself as a member of elite social strata—aspirational laborers seek to mark themselves as creative producers who will one day be compensated for their craft—either directly or through employment in the culture industries.

My analysis explores three salient features of aspirational labor: narratives of authenticity and realness; the instrumentality of affective relationships; and entrepreneurial brand devotion. The latter, which describes the “new celebrity” Sundance promotions, reaffirms a cultural history of gendered social sharing surrounding consumer goods. Scholars Crystal Abidin and Eric C. Thompson aptly refer to the presentation of intimacy that takes place at the intersection of femininity and commercialism as “persona intimacy.”

As I show in the article, many individuals try to curry favor with brands by freely publicizing their products and messages; however, the reward system for these aspirants is highly uneven. Only a few of these young women rise above the din to achieve the level of digital stardom associated with internet personalities like Ezarik. The rest, meanwhile, remain suspended in the highly gendered consumption and promotion of branded goods. Despite such unevenness, I argue that aspirational labor does “pay off” in one important way: it has successfully romanticized work at a moment when its conditions and affordances are evermore precarious, time-intensive, underpaid—and decidedly unromantic.

[For the full article, see Brooke Erin Duffy, “The Romance of Work: Gender and Aspirational Labour in the Digital Culture Industries,” forthcoming in International Journal of Cultural Studies. Currently available as an OnlineFirst publication:]


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As Seen on Shark Tank: Tech Entrepreneurship’s Portable Aesthetics Tue, 03 Mar 2015 15:00:02 +0000 Shark TankInternational CES, the massive consumer electronics trade show that takes over Las Vegas convention halls every January, offers a plethora of opportunities to young tech companies looking to expand their business ventures. CES 2015’s offerings included a Google keynote on branding, an Indiegogo panel on crowdfunding, and multiple venues in which to pitch products—including an open casting call for ABC’s Shark Tank, the American iteration of the international Dragon’s Den franchise, which places aspiring entrepreneurs of all stripes in front of a panel of prospective angel investors.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that shortly before its open call at the world’s largest consumer technology show, ABC aired an episode of Shark Tank (Season 6, “Week 4”) that devolved into a debate over what a technology is. The company that prompted the debate, called Reviver, makes a fabric wipe that masks odors when rubbed on clothing. Company founders, brothers Ben and Eric Kusin, of Dallas, Texas, pitched the show dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of jeans and candy colored company t-shirts: in their case, light blue tees with their company name screen-printed across the front in lower case, white, sans serif letters. “I think you’ve got a good product,” entertainment mogul and Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban tells the brothers midway through the segment, “but first, you’re not a technology.” The soundtrack’s stock music swells, then turns ominous. The brothers counter that they’ve spent $150,000 on custom machinery; Cuban insists that machinery does not a technology make. “It’s not a technology!” he repeats as the shot closes in on Ben Kusin’s stunned expression. Dramatic twist achieved, ABC cuts to commercial.

Shark Tank plays by the reality TV rulebook: editors cut hour-long sessions into scenes lasting minutes, splice in reaction shots out of sequence, and post-zoom wide shots into close-up for dramatic effect. Ben Kusin’s slack-jawed stare, broadcast as his response to Cuban’s pronouncement, may well have come from a different moment in the shoot. Yet the tension cultivated by the TV show comes as much from the producers’ editing suite as from the judges’ ability to fast-track products and fund fledgling companies. In tech industry parlance, Shark Tank’s objective is monetization, not innovation; the argument between Cuban and the Kusins stems less from disagreement over the nature of a technology than over its association with market value. After the commercial break, Eric Kusin defends Reviver’s technological status based on its multiple applications. “We just started thinking of ourselves as a technology because the manufacturers are telling us what this can do,” he explains, and begins ticking potential features off on his fingers—but Cuban cuts him off immediately, at “mosquito repellent,” noting that talcum powder also has a lot of uses. To Cuban, it seems, technology means digital, or at least electronic, whereas to the Kusins, technology means machinic and scalable.

ReviverDespite their quarrel over the ontological status of odor masking wipes, however, Cuban and the Kusins alike define technology as a means of accruing venture capital. For the Kusins, both the uniqueness of their formula and its potential for further applications, which they see as technological properties, indicate the desirability of their product to prospective investors. Although Cuban rejects the Kusins’ assertion that the wipes are technological, he perceives the brothers’ insistence on calling themselves a tech company as a reuse for acquiring funding—from their father, founder of the video game corporation GameStop, from whom they received a two million dollar investment to start their venture. (“You only call it a technology because that allows you to go to dad and say, dear dad, we have a technology!”) Cuban may or may not be correct that the elder Mr. Kusin restricts his interest in his children to their interest in the tech sector, but entrepreneurial calculation undoubtedly led the brothers to adopt the language and aesthetics of Silicon Valley. Describing their “freshness revolution” while dressed in t-shirts that Reviver (which, like Twitter, Tumblr, and Uber follows a tech industry naming trend), the brothers emulate celebrated CEOs of the digital economy: usually, like the Kusins, young white men in jeans and t-shirts (Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick are exemplars), whose products promise to revolutionize something. Contra Cuban, it seems to me that the Kusins frame their product as a technology in the hopes that doing so will attract investors other than their father; they look like hundreds of aspiring tech entrepreneurs roaming the exhibition halls at CES.

Self-presentation is always part of pitching prospective funders. When the pitch is broadcast on national TV, performance plays an even larger role. Shark Tank contestants frequently dress according to a theme, and it’s easy to imagine introducing a similar product with entirely different stylistics. Another set of contestants, pitching a product that freshens clothing, might put on, say, aprons or athletic wear—especially if those contestants are women. Interestingly, the Kusin brothers avoid feminine associations with cleaning or clothing, distance bolstered by coding their product as a tool of technology rather than domesticity.

Shark Tank castPartnership offers the Kusins receive from Shark Tank judges at the end of the segment underscore the domestic and technological duality of their product: one from Robert Herjavec, who made his fortune in the IT industry, and another from Lori Greiner, of the QVC home shopping network. That the brothers opt to partner with QVC, drawn in part to the exposure afforded by the TV network, suggests how the entrepreneurial aesthetics of digital technology transcend industrial sectors.

The Kusins’ dispute with Cuban gets no further attention. Their post-pitch interview, a confessional clip that Shark Tank usually devotes to rehashing contestants’ perceived slights at the hands of judges, focuses on Barbara Corcoran, founder of Corcoran real estate. Upon learning that their father has already given them two million dollars, Corcoran declines Reviver on the grounds that she doesn’t invest in rich kids. “We’re not rich!” Ben Kusin tells the camera after the segment, “That’s an unfair characterization of how they made it out to be, because of our father’s success.” Blindness to privilege isn’t restricted to Silicon Valley either.


Of Algorithms and Audiences Mon, 24 Nov 2014 15:00:23 +0000 Arclight LogoAfter attending two very different conferences over the course of a week to talk about the same digital research project, I found myself in the old awkward position of “desperately seeking the audience”—of computational tools and digital methods for media studies research.

At the end of October, I traveled to the 2014 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) International Conference on Big Data in Washington, DC (slides and paper available here). The second conference, Film and History, was a bit closer to home, both literally—the conference hotel was five miles from my house—and in terms of the disciplinary concerns of researchers. At both, I was presenting material based on research developed from work on Project Arclight, the winner of National Endowment for the Humanities’s Digging into Data Round Three grant funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Much of our current work with Arclight focuses on the creation of an online application that will enable researchers to track terms and trends throughout a corpus of 2 million pages of digitized film and broadcasting trade journals, magazines, and books. Yet we hope that the project will serve as a broader catalyst for building connections between media studies and digital humanities efforts.

At the first conference, between sessions and over meals, I spoke with several researchers struggling with issues of tool adoption. After a full day of presentations describing innovative and powerful new tools built from the collaborations of dozens of scholars across disciplines, the question remained: how to generate excitement about these projects that could incite scholars and students to use them? And, for those presenters coming from a computer sciences background, is this really what discipline-area scholars want from digital tools?

Topic Model Word Cloud for Modern Screen

Topic model in MODERN SCREEN indicating the prominence of fashion in the magazine.

Film and History was instructive. At a special event workshop on historical methods shared with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, my fellow Arclight team members and I presented a brief introduction to digital analytics. It became clear that—at least for those in the room—the barriers to adoption weren’t a lack of interest, but a lack of familiarity with some of the major precepts and possibilities of digital work. For those suspicious of humanities inquiry bound to binaristic or quantitative frames, we were able to describe the many ongoing conversations in digital humanities regarding measures of uncertainty, the inevitability and impact of human intervention in computational processes, and the consequences of adapting tools designed for other scientific and business purposes for humanities work. For those unfamiliar with the field’s current key methods, such as topic modeling, we used software demonstrations to showcase their capabilities and limitations. As a follow-up to attendee questions, Eric Hoyt created a tutorial on topic modeling for media history using the Media History Digital Library corpus, which he posted on the Arclight website. The workshop also enabled us to hear what scholars hoped digital tools might accomplish and guided our attention to capabilities we might incorporate in our own tool development work. While the workshop model seems to function well on a small scale, allowing us to respond to the individual concerns of those already somewhat interested in computational methods, how we might broaden the appeal of such workshops remains to be seen.

There are a number of reasons why this expansion is urgent, a few of which I’ll mention here. First, and most importantly, conversations in digital humanities have been invaluable for demonstrating the extent to which all of our work—whether we consider ourselves to be using computational methods or not—is constituted by digital technologies. Representations recently published an excellent forum on full text search—what we might consider a rather banal, quotidian tool—and the consequences of not understanding the politics of search algorithms. (Ted Underwood’s “Theorizing Research Practices we Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago” is particularly insightful in its discussion of how digital technologies are structural to academic research and have been for some time.) Second, as media scholars begin to use computational methods to serve their existing research agendas, the peer review process will be in need of people who can critically assess the quality and contributions of technological methods. Third, computational analytics, digital collaboration strategies, and the online distribution of scholarly work could provide useful additions to graduate methods courses, enabling future scholars to put these methods in conversation with existing scholarly practices in new and useful ways.

For our part, we’re hoping that the Arclight website will become a useful resource for those interested in the pairing of digital methods and media studies, but we’d also like to find other avenues to make our work appealing and accessible. While this might take the form of more conference workshops, Skype seminars, and classroom visits, we’d be interested in hearing any suggestions or questions you might have in the comments below.


“Hope” for Net Neutrality? Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:36 +0000 On Monday, one more voice was added to the millions that have already urged the FCC to protect net neutrality (the standard that all users and uses of the internet should receive equal treatment from network operators like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T). This comment was particularly notable, though: it came from President Obama.

Obama’s statement calling on the FCC to implement the strongest possible net neutrality regulations in its Open Internet policy proceeding is significant for many reasons: how unusual it is for a sitting president to dive so deep into the weeds of communications regulation, the influence it can have on the policy the FCC actually adopts, and (amazingly) just how right on the President is in his plan. Obama’s net neutrality statement is also especially important, though, for what it signals about the politics of media policy: a legitimate social movement is pushing for fairness and equality in internet access by engaging in historically corporate-dominated policymaking processes and strategically “boring” regulatory discourses to successfully bring undoubtedly arcane yet crucially political media policy issues to the front and center of the national political stage. Simply put, the President wouldn’t jump this far into this fight with powerful phone and cable corporations and their allies in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress (and perhaps even the FCC Chairman he appointed) if it weren’t for wide public pressure to act boldly on net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency that doesn’t have to answer to the President, so it remains to be seen if any of this is enough to shift the Commission’s current direction in Open Internet rule-making— right now toward a (likely untenable) attempt at compromise through a “hybrid approach”— but at the least it is heartening to see such prominent attention to obscure issues like paid prioritization (known as internet “fast lanes”) and Title II reclassification (somewhat misleadingly being called “utility regulation”).

15003287537_b16bdc6d26_zIn Obama’s statement, he surprised nearly everyone by laying out in unambiguous terms an Open Internet policy plan that would deliver pretty much exactly what most net neutrality advocates (myself included) have seen as what has been needed all along: a clear-cut set of rules against blocking and discrimination that apply to both wired and wireless broadband providers and prohibit paid prioritization “fast lane” deals with online content providers, all based in a “common carriage” regulatory framework with legal authority from Title II of the Communications Act. (Yes, this is the super nerdy, but now increasingly central, terrain on which this battle is being fought!) This is a stronger set of rules than those proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this past spring and the rules that were previously adopted by the FCC in 2010 but struck down in court in January. As I explained in a post here in the aftermath of that case, the reason why the 2010 rules failed in court (and in enforcement) is that they were not implemented with appropriate legal authority to regulate openness and equal access and if the FCC wants to move forward with meaningful and sustainable net neutrality policy, it has to reclassify broadband. What the Commission needs to do— as called for by advocates for strong net neutrality, now including the President— is to implement Open Internet rules through Title II, where the Commission has authority to regulate essential infrastructure for two-way communications (which internet access clearly is).

This traction in the political debate around net neutrality comes as a result of a popular movement that has seen nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding (a record-breaking total, of which up to 99% were in favor of net neutrality), protests and demonstrations both online (like the Internet Slowdown Day) and offline (like occupations of the FCC building and even Chairman Wheeler’s driveway), and John Oliver’s tour-de-force explanation and call to action. All of the public participation in the process (just like the President’s) may not even count for much to the FCC, but it has worked to shift the discursive terrain of the issue and, therefore, the range of possible policy action. Chairman Wheeler has backed away from his initial weak proposal and is now hinting toward wireless broadband regulations and at least partial reclassification.

Right now, though, the FCC is stalling while it decides what to do and its next move will come no sooner than 2015. For passing strong Open Internet protections, Wheeler has the votes at the Commission (with two pro-net-neutrality Democratic commissioners to make a majority with him) and now political support from President, but he may be waiting for more backup from the bigger tech industry players like Google and Facebook, which have been conspicuously quiet in this round of the fight. Strong public pressure will continue to be key to keep up this progress toward meaningful net neutrality policy.


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AT&T’s Branded Entertainment, Present and Past Mon, 07 Jul 2014 13:30:36 +0000 AT&T’s teen reality program, @summerbreak, is back for a second season. It’s not on TV and if you’re not subscribing to its Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or YouTube feeds, or if you’re not already following key social media “influencers” who are “seeding”  material about the summer adventures of a group of Southern Californian teens, you may not have heard of it. AT&T is not concerned about audience members who are over the age of 25. Teens are the targeted audience; why “waste” program exposure on older audiences?

@summerbreak Instagram

Rather than interrupt the program with commercials extolling AT&T’s mobile phone services, @summerbreak simply integrates mobile phone usage into its scenes. The teen performers talk, text, photograph, and take selfies. They use video, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and so on. Not only do they model ideal device usage, they also comment on each other’s usage: “You’re such a social media diva!” exclaims one teen to another who is tweeting their shopping expedition.

All this stands in stark contrast to AT&T’s past branded entertainment programs. From 1940 to 1958 on radio, from 1959 to 1968 on television, The Bell Telephone Hour offered classical music and musical theater performances. AT&T’s film Rehearsal (ca. 1947) simulates the program’s rehearsal process for a live radio performance of excerpts from operas such as Don Giovanni by the Bell Telephone Orchestra and guest singers. As the conductor stops and instructs the orchestra and the director in the control booth prompts the announcers, the film shows the hard work that goes into successful performances of highbrow culture.

However, despite the radical differences in style, content, and substance in AT&T’s branded entertainment past and present, @summerbreak and The Bell Telephone Hour share some goals.

In the past, advertisers assumed that media like radio had direct and powerful effects. They used radio to educate consumers either about products or about a corporation itself, assuming a powerful tool like radio should be used for the public good. In sponsoring programs of classical music, opera, and legitimate theater (instead of popular music, say), some radio advertisers hoped to instill gratitude in audiences and to polish an image of themselves as models of good taste, beneficent patrons, and technological innovators.

Rehearsal Bell Telephone HourIn the middle of the Rehearsal (at about 15:50) an announcer explains how AT&T has improved on long distance communication through a short history, beginning with bonfires on hilltops, proceeding to audion tubes and radio relays, and culminating in a couple’s earnest long distance phone call. Cultural uplift and technological progress dovetail so beautifully we may forget about the corporation’s monopoly profits.

Today, advertisers like AT&T have come to doubt the power of a direct pitch; they believe instead in associational messages and images. AT&T, no longer a paternalistic monopolist, is now only one of many companies competing in emerging media, and its success with youth markets will most likely shape its future. Brands like AT&T no longer use advertising as a business form of “education,” which might alienate their teenage audience. Instead, they seek to integrate their brand messages smoothly and subtly into youth culture.

Nonetheless, @summerbreak arguably retains the overall educational goal of The Bell Telephone Hour: by featuring attractive Southern Californian teens modeling mobile service usage, the program implicitly educates viewers on current cool teen behaviors, lingos, and social media trends. And it retains the goal of association with aspirational culture—not highbrow music but cool teen behavior. AT&T hopes its teen audience feels validated by the representations of cool teens doing cool things with their phones. By reminding teens that AT&T knows teens are cool, AT&T can hope teens will reciprocate the validation and believe AT&T is cool too.


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On Radio: Live Music Festivals as Satellite Radio’s Premium Content? Tue, 10 Jun 2014 13:59:04 +0000 govball-9Subscription satellite radio is certainly not the most local form of radio. The majority of programming is produced in digital radio broadcasting facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C. and satellites are not entities that we encounter in our communities (let alone in our atmosphere). But as a subscriber and listener of Sirius XM, I am hearing the ways in which satellite radio has increasingly been offering musical programming and listening experiences that amplify aspects of radio’s past.

For one, I’m intrigued by the persistence of place, of musical “hotspots,” within the satellite radio universe. This carries on a long tradition of radio connecting listeners to musical and cultural centers. One notable and recent example of this was Sirius XM’s multichannel coverage of the fourth annual Governors Ball, which took place over three days in on Randall’s Island in New York City this past weekend.

“We’re excited that people across the U.S. will be able to experience the diversity and depth of the lineup on multiple channels across Sirius XM,” explained Yoni Reisman from Founders Entertainment, the company that produces the festival. A number of “marquee performances” were played over the weekend on channels including The Heat (Janelle Monae, Outkast), Outlaw Country (Neko Case), The Joint (Damian Marley), Hip-Hop Nation (Childish Gambino), BPM (Skrillex, Disclosure) and Sirius XM U (Damon Albarn). Performances were broadcast live and replays were scheduled throughout the weekend.


Listening from a kitchen in Toronto, Ontario, I could hear the noise of the crowd building as Janelle Monae’s set began with Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, known commonly as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When festival-goers heard Monae introduce “Cold War” with a speech about discrimination, so too did Sirius XM subscribers.

Satellite radio is delivered to a private, personal space. Often within an automobile but also to laptops or smartphones for those who pay the added monthly fee of $4 for online access. Many listeners are connected to the internet and, thus, satellite radio fits nicely with Michele Hilmes’s characteristic of radio today as “soundwork,” in which, radio must now be understood as “the entire complex of sound-based digital media that enters our experience through a variety of technologies and forms.” As satellite radio becomes more mobile through the ability to listen via smart phones and laptops, programming extends into online spaces and listeners are presented with new visual platforms for interacting with DJs and content. Satellite radio moves with the listener and local boundaries are practically nonexistent. But even as Sirius XM operates on a transnational scale, beyond radio’s former borders, an essence of radio’s pre-digital identity is increasingly prominent in the satellite radio universe, that of providing a shared cultural experience.


Between satellite channels and mobile, individual listening practices, is the persistence of place and the transmission of musical performance sites. The Governors Ball broadcast constructs a radio experience that enables listeners to engage from a distance through new media, continuing the tradition of radio bringing music from centers to private spaces – from the home, the car, and now a mobile space within which one is bound to a smartphone or laptop.

However, we also hear how privatized spaces and experiences are transmitted, especially as music festivals are critiqued as focusing too heavily on branded experiences. Another important critique to raise in this instance is one of exclusivity. Festivals sell out, they cost a lot of money, and often require travel time and expenses. In a preview of the weekend’s musical offerings, Sirius XM explained that “the exclusive broadcast, showcasing a diverse line-up, will include Jack White’s performance, which comes days before the release of his anticipated second solo album, Lazaretto.” While satellite radio overcomes these obstacles to some extent, it also requires a subscription fee. Accessibility is limited, but as subscription television becomes increasingly watched and revered, premium content delivered by subscription radio is not a surprising development.

Given that music festivals are becoming a larger component of the music industries and a greater source of income and promotion, I am certainly interested to hear how satellite radio continues to transmit the sounds of live musical performances.


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Liking Facebook Mon, 05 May 2014 13:34:24 +0000 FacebookLikeThere is no dearth of complaining about Facebook’s dark side. I won’t rehearse all the criticisms already running through your mind, or filling up this Wikipedia entry. To pick up on one current concern, last week Facebook unveiled new anonymity protection in third-party apps, which sounds nice except that you still won’t ever be anonymous to Facebook while sharing whatever you might feel secure sharing anonymously with other companies. This is merely one moment of tension between Facebook’s ambitions and its user’s needs and rights. Next week, next month, or next year there will be another and another. So let’s stipulate that in some important ways, Facebook (though not only Facebook) threatens us by exploiting our data. Conceding this, I want to affirm how much I like Facebook, and want to praise some of the network’s benefits. It’s mainly because I get something good from Facebook that I wish it would do better.

So what’s good is, first of all, that Facebook connects us meaningfully to one another. It allows for people to keep in touch even when they are no longer seeing each other face to face. It gives us ways of overcoming isolation and loneliness. It gives shy people an outlet that might be more comfortable than communication in person. Its asynchronicity makes it possible to be in touch without being synced on one schedule. All this in a world where people live far from friends and family and have too little time for leisure.

Facebook is gratifying to the active, sharing user who gets positive feedback even from minor notes about everyday life. Like Twitter and many other forms of social media, one of basic functions of the network is to reassert our identity and existence. One subtext and function of many messages is, here I am speaking, this is me. When someone clicks “like” they are affirming you, recognizing you, giving you a wink or pat on the arm. The thumbs up like button icon is a token of the body, and clicking on it is a gesture of affection. There is no question we experience the gratification of likes and comments affectively. We know, as well, that like doesn’t mean you like it. I don’t like it that my friend’s mother is sick, that my friend’s pet died, that my friend is recovering from addiction in a rehab facility. But I am touching my friends when I click like and they are touched.

Facebook is also a creative endeavor. Its ordinary uses are writing, photography, video, and sharing links. Facebook users are vernacular artists making and sharing objects of meaning for their community. Of course much of what one finds in the news feed is ordinary and banal. It can be obnoxious or trivial. Some of it is more pictures of babies or exclamations over a football team’s loss or win than you like to see. But this is life in all of its mystery and boredom and frustration and glory. And it is only against the backdrop of life’s quotidian rhythms that the dramatic Facebook status updates have their impact. Births and deaths, triumphant PhD dissertation defenses and new jobs, collective upheavals over elections and disasters, make Facebook into a magnet for our attention and feeling. Facebook’s literary, visual, and affective impacts are expressions of the traumas and pleasures of life, making them not just into documents of reality but artefacts in communal rites of passage.

Like everyone else, I have misgivings about investing too much of myself in this web space which, ultimately, will serve corporate interests ahead of the people’s. I care about privacy, about the unforgiving permanence of online culture, about context collapse when everyone from your whole life span converge at once in your social networks. I’m also annoyed by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which chooses for me to see some items and not others. Perhaps the social web would have been better if we had all just gotten our own blogs and RSS readers. We can’t do it over, though. One reason Facebook is succeeding as a mass medium and blogs and RSS readers didn’t is that users found Facebook easier and more secure. They felt comfortable in its environment. Now the people are on Facebook, and if you want to be with them online, that is where you go. You can, theoretically, opt out. You can refuse social media, or can be a Twitter snob. You can lament that as soon as Facebook let in users outside of the early college-only restrictions, it lost its mojo. Probably true. But it gained something aside from the scale that leads to economic success. It became society, and you can’t really opt out of that.

As with many new technologies, the identity of an ideal user is central to the cultural status and widely shared meanings that define the object. When the ideal Facebook user was young and upscale (Harvard, then college), Facebook had cachet. Now that your mom, your aunts and uncles, your grammar school teachers and parents’ friends are liking your status and leaving comments, it’s not so cool any more. But note my choice of “you” in these characterizations. Who is this imaginary person? The assumption is that a normative user is young, and that older folks are marked as different if not unwelcome. The age and gender connotations of Facebook’s waning cool are hardly surprising. Fashions of all kinds tend to rise up from youth culture, while the kids move on when their elders catch wind of emerging trends. But if Facebook is to endure as a social hub of value, a force for community and sociability, we will need to think of it inclusively and not be tempted to put it down it on the basis of a distaste associated with technologies used by moms and aunts. We need to see it in a more egalitarian fashion, and recognize the value in this.

What’s good about Facebook, finally, is that it gives us, all of us, a place to give and receive of ourselves, and that we have taken it up in this way. (A network with better architecture and policies will not ultimately be better if the people don’t take it up). My wish for social media’s future is that we will keep on extracting this value from Facebook, or something like it, without the dark side of the digital overcoming us.

Michael Z. Newman is on Facebook and Twitter.


Rethinking Media Distribution Wed, 20 Nov 2013 15:00:21 +0000 Tryon pic

The news that the subscription service Netflix now has more total subscribers than premium cable channel HBO further confirms that media industries are changing rapidly, especially when it comes to the practices of movie and TV distribution. Beyond altering the economics of media distribution, subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu have introduced a whole new vocabulary for both media consumers and industry professionals alike. Activities such as binge watching and “Netflix adultery” were unimaginable just a few short years ago, while more traditional practices—such as the weekly trip to the video store—have practically disappeared. With those changes in mind, Jeff Ulin, a media distribution expert who has worked at Lucasfilm, Paramount, and Universal, has substantially revised his 2009 book, The Business of Media Distribution, for the era of digital delivery, providing a fascinating and engaging road map for both media scholars and industry professionals.

The new edition of the book starts by spelling out how studios and networks manage media properties in order to create value—through managing intellectual property rights, for example—before tracing several different modes of distribution: theatrical, home video, television, and internet. The final sections of the book focus on aspects such as marketing and promotion, especially as those practices have been transformed by the emergence of social media tools. Ulin also reiterates one of the key observations discussed in his first book: the idea that studios are best understood as “financing and distributing machines” that seek to maximize value, in large part by managing the distribution “windows” when movies or TV shows are available through a specific platform. Ulin emphasizes the process by which studios carefully balance when movies are available theatrically, through VOD platforms, on DVD, and eventually through subscription services such as Netflix, in order to maximize the value of a given text.

In his map of the film distribution landscape, Ulin traces several of the key factors that drove the adoption of digital projectors, most notably the role of 3D in serving as a means for justifying surcharges to consumers. But another major factor identified by Ulin is the role of China as a major marketplace for Hollywood theatrical films. Specifically, Ulin points out that the U.S. government negotiated a deal to raise the limit on the number of international films screened annually in China from 20 to 34, with the stipulation that the additional movies be screened in 3D. While Ulin is less explicit on this matter, the clear implication is that China’s theatrical market will likely shape the choices studios make when it comes to picking projects for the foreseeable future.

But the strength of Ulin’s book is his thorough explanation of the changes in the home video marketplace, especially as online video sources are poised to upset DVD rental and sales. As Ulin points out, the conflicts between physical or bricks-and-mortar retailers and online sources including Amazon are often more complex than they appear, especially given incentives such as using DVDs as “loss-leaders” to draw shoppers into big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target. More crucially, however, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and Hulu and transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) retailers such as Amazon and iTunes have upset traditional revenue streams and the distribution windows that were designed to provide various platforms (theaters, pay cable, basic cable) with periods of exclusivity that allowed studios and exhibitors to protect the value of the movie being distributed. These conflicts have played out in the ongoing debates over day-and-date distribution, especially for independent and low-budget movies, or shorter theatrical windows for studio films. But they also inform how TV shows circulate, especially when the interests of production companies and SVOD services such as Netflix compete with the interests of cable TV channels such as TNT and FX that are currently negotiating to extend their “broadcast window” to encompass the most recent season of a show, rather than just the five most recent episodes. Such battles are likely to persist in our current on-demand culture

One of the challenges that faces any book that focuses on the media distribution landscape is that it changes so rapidly. As I was reading Ulin’s book, Blockbuster Video announced that it would be closing its last 300 stores, resulting in the loss of over 3.000 jobs and leaving Redbox as, perhaps, the primary option for DVD rental for most US consumers. However, Ulin’s book remains relevant, in large part because he offers several key principles to describe the ongoing evolution of the media industries. With that in mind, we can read all of the recent changes—Netflix’s competition with HBO, Blockbuster’s closure of its U.S. stores, and China’s emergence as a crucial theatrical market—as part of a larger system in which studios and other media institutions use windows in order to generate and retain value for the films and television shows they distribute, no matter how we access them.


What Are You Missing? May 26 – June 9 Sun, 09 Jun 2013 18:36:15 +0000 the_purgeTen (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently.

1. Low-budget horror film The Purge is expected to come away with a $35 million opening weekend, more than ten times the film’s production budget of $3 million. The Purge grossed $17 million on Friday and was #1 at the box office this weekend. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing opened strong as well, grossing more than any limited release since The Place Beyond the Pines.  Much Ado About Nothing is one of several recent films, including Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, shot in black-and-white.

2. News reports this week have revealed that the U.S.’s National Security Agency has been data mining from major internet and social media companies, in addition to monitoring Verizon phone records of U.S. citizens. So far, nine media companies are alleged to have cooperated in the PRISM program: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple. Many have denied having any knowledge of PRISM .

3. AT&T joins DirecTV, Time Warner Cable, Guggenheim Partners, Yahoo and a handful of other entities as potential bidders for ownership of Hulu. Reports suggest that AT&T may join with former News Corp. head Peter Chernin’s Chernin Group to purchase the company together. Bids for Hulu have reportedly ranged from $500 million to $1 billion depending on stipulations regarding content deals with the present owners of the company, Disney/ABC and News Corp.

4google_glass. A company named MiKandi produced the first pornographic app designed for Google Glass. Google responded by banning pornographic apps, defined by the company as “Glassware content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts or sexually explicit material.” On a related note, fearing that the head-mounted display technology would enable cheating and card-counting, New Jersey casinos have banned the use of Google Glass. Somewhat ironically, use of Google Glass was also restricted from a recent Google shareholders meeting.

5. A new study by the Council for Research Excellence and financed by Nielsen reveals that online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu provide the majority of mobile television consumption on smartphones and tablets. Netflix and Hulu accounted for 64% of TV watched on smartphones and 54% on tablets, while broadcast and cable network’s websites or online applications accounted for only 26% of mobile TV watching.

6. On June 6th, American film actress Esther Williams passed away at the age of 91 in Beverly Hills. Williams was a competitive swimmer who became a MGM contract star in the 1940s. According to The New York Times, Williams was one of the top 10 box-office Hollywood stars in 1949 and 1950. Her films at MGM often involved spectacular swimming sequences, many choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

7. At Cannes, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adele – chapitre 1 & 2) won the Palme D’Or by a unanimous vote from a jury headed by Steven Spielberg. Though critics have generally responded favorably to the film, some prominent voices have criticized the film’s graphic sex scenes for reproducing, or being constructed according to, a hetero-normative male gaze. Manohla Dargis and Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, have both voiced opposition to the film’s sexual representation of the lesbian couple.

game_of_thrones8. The penultimate episode of season 3 of Game of Thrones, “Rains of Castamere,” shocked fans and resulted in a flurry of press about the episode’s graphic violence. Popular news outlets weighed in on the episode as one of the most violent in TV history. Author George Martin explained his reasoning behind writing the “Red Wedding” chapter in interviews.

9. Amazon Studios announced that they would produce five original series available exclusively on Amazon Prime. These include, ‘Alpha House,’ a political satire created by Garry Trudeau, starring John Goodman, and ‘Betas,’ a comedy about “young entrepreneurs attempting to make it big in techland.”

10. In Netflix-related news, the trailer for Netflix’s newest original series, ‘Orange is the New Black,’ is now available online. The series, which is about a bourgeois Brooklyn woman’s stint in a female prison, will debut on July 11 with all 13 episodes available to stream. Netflix also recently did not renew their licensing agreement with Viacom, leaving Netflix subscribers bereft of kid-friendly programs like ‘Dora the Explorer’ and ‘Spongebob Squarepants.’  In response, Amazon struck a licensing deal with Viacom for Prime Instant Video. In addition to the kid-friendly fare, Amazon also plans to make available other Viacom titles like ‘Workaholics’ and MTV’s ‘Awkward’ on Instant.


Phones Coming to a Theater Near You? Thu, 23 May 2013 13:00:52 +0000 Antenna Post Photo

Last week, Kevin Williamson, a columnist for National Review, had a new experience: He was thrown out of a theater – probably with more delicacy and ceremony than when he threw another patron’s phone across the room. According to Williamson, a young woman had already ignored requests from Williamson’s date and the management to refrain from using her phone during the performance. Having had enough after his own request was curtly refused, he “deftly snatch[ed] the phone out of her hand and toss[ed] it across the room, where it would do no more damage.” On goes the war against cell phone use in theaters…

Though unfamiliar with the battles being fought for the spectatorial soul of live theatre, I am acquainted with analogous debates and calls to arms over movie theater etiquette. One of the most visible defenders of cinemagoing decorum has been Tim League, co-founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. During a panel at the 2012 CinemaCon, for example, influential figures like Regal Entertainment Group CEO Amy Miles and IMAX President Greg Foster expressed tentative interest in the possibility of loosening bans on cell phone use during select screenings as a concession to youth viewers. League responded that ceding ground was the wrong approach. “It’s our job to understand that this is a sacred space and we have to teach manners.” Such rhetoric, which elevates theatrical exhibition beyond its commodity status and into the realm of the sublime or spiritual, is quite common. Like churches, cathedrals, temples, and so forth, movie theaters function as spaces of congregation for collective activity. Prohibitions against cell phone use concern the maintenance of that collectivity – i.e., the teaching of manners – a hard-won prize if the variety of “No Texting / No TalkingPSAs is any indication.

One must ask, though, if common assumptions about audience collectivity are synonymous with the most basic intentions behind these trailers. Consider this commentary from the movie news and review website Screen Rant:

“Theatergoing is a communal experience that, in its purest form, is made better by the other people who share in the experience. We laugh more during a comedy film, surrounded by other people who are similarly entertained, than we would alone in our apartment. We knowingly enter into this social contract when attending public screenings – expecting that sharing in the experience with other people is worth any inconvenience we might face as a result of ignoring our phones for two hours.”

Judging by the expectations of cinemagoing evident in this excerpt and elsewhere, it would be easy to assume that the crimes of inconsiderate audience members amount to an unwillingness to participate in the affective community created by common attentiveness to a movie. Such jeremiads regularly decry the apparent inability of mobile users to disconnect from the outside world and embrace immersion, in which case these reprimands double as laments: “If you’d only put away your phone, you’d experience what I/we experience.” In fact, though, what these arguments denounce is interference. The glow of miniature screens and the beeps of incoming text messages are not, in and of themselves, problematic; rather, it is their ability to render others’ affective and intellectual experiences discontinuous that causes concern. The social contract supposedly implicit in attending a theatrical screening does not require that we contribute to others’ viewing experiences; it asks that we not detract from them.

The photo leading this post, then, strikes me as an inaccurate representation of the problem at hand for exhibitors and patrons, though I have seen it accompany several blogs and articles about the place of phones in theaters. What it depicts are not viewers frustrated with other patrons’ thoughtless behavior; rather, we see twelve audience members blissfully immersed in their own business, ignorant of both the movie screen and those around them. With one or two adjustments, it sketches the basic goal of “No Texting / No Talking” PSAs: a situation in which viewers do not interfere with the attentiveness of others (ideally, to the film).

Tim League’s CinemaCon comments – especially the line, “Over my dead body will I introduce texting into the movie theater” – thus seem short-sighted. To reiterate, the problem with personal devices is not their presence, as League and others suggest, but their lack of integration into the viewing experience. When these technologies contribute to spectatorial practices – as is the case with HeckleVision – perhaps calls for the eviction of phones from theaters will quiet, at least under some circumstances. Already, the mainstream exhibition industry is looking for ways to incorporate personal devices into the practices of cinemagoing. Apps like MoviePal, Movie Night Out, and RunPee help smartphone users plan their trips to the theater. Cinemark’s branded app, featuring CineMode, and Sprint’s “Dream” campaign use coupons and personalized videos, respectively, to reward smartphone owners for not using their devices during shows. In each of these cases, though, viewing itself remains a personal, analog activity. In 2010, Best Buy’s Movie Mode app took tentative steps toward assimilating mobile devices into spectatorial practice with its Minionator function, which translated the gibberish spoken by Gru’s Minions during the end credits. The most ambitious experiment to date, however, seems to be App (2013), a Dutch thriller designed to utilize smartphones as second screens. At select moments during the film, an associated app notifies theatergoers of additional, narratively salient content accessible through their phones.

Whether cinema storytellers will pursue experiments like these in the future remains to be seen, and it is still less clear that such integration can become standard of the theater experience. However, both App and Despicable Me point to a basic, easily overlooked facet of theatrical exhibition: rather than pre-existing as an abstract set of rules – a social contract signed with the purchase of a ticket – the practices of cinema spectatorship are enacted anew by each congregated audience. As new conditions arise and standardize, both audiences and the industry adapt in kind. Moreover, these adaptations not only represent new possibilities of practice, they reflect new and legitimate, if contentious, expectations of practice.


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