internet – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “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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A National Icon Deficit: What the Ghomeshi Scandal Illustrates About the State of CBC Radio One Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:31:53 +0000 QimageGlobe & Mail television critic John Doyle makes some incisive observations about the Ghomeshi scandal in a recent column. He writes that the episode illustrates “how much CBC Radio and its personalities matter. Whether the anti-CBC factions like it or not, CBC Radio personalities become iconic, representative figures. A portion of the public invests heavily in them.” This is the problem that the Ghomeshi situation lays bare: CBC Radio lacks compelling personalities with broad inter-generational and international appeal. Too few of its current personalities have evolved into ‘iconic, representative figures.’ Thus, in the context of the CBC’s myriad recent difficulties, the public downfall of one the few prominent individuals associated with the cherished information radio service has occasioned a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety.

In fact, a closer look reveals the broader problem: once-innovative formats now seem tired as their defining personalities have moved on and the medium has evolved. CBC has long been a leader in the public service information radio genre and its personalities have always been significant part of that. CBC Radio contributed much to the development of the phone-out, information magazine, and audio documentary program formats, but listeners valued its most popular programs primarily for their personalities.

Internal documents reveal that administrators recognized their importance as far back as the ’60s, when the onset of television and FM radio necessitated the renovation of the radio service. Personalities were the anchoring force that unified the disparate elements of the long-form program formats that would come to define the national information service. Longtime morning host Peter Gzowski’s popularity was such that he came to known as “Mr. Canada,” while Barbara Frum’s hard-hitting and irreverent interviewing style defined As It Happens’ most successful period. The host of Frum’s program, Alan ‘Fireside Al’ Maitland, was an avuncular presence for a devoted audience base. In more recent decades, individuals like Shelagh Rogers and Mary Lou Findlay continued the tradition of skillful interviewing and insightful commentary.

But while daily stalwarts like As It Happens (1968-) and Ideas (1965-) march on, their formats have come to seem tired and their most cherished personalities have moved on. Ghomeshi was one of the few contemporary CBC radio personalities with the ability to appeal to a large, inter-generational audience comprised of both the CBC’s established boomer audience and their offspring. After some early hosting gigs for CBC TV and radio, he moved to the afternoon to stabilize things in the wake of the disastrous Freestyle experiment (2005-2007). Q debuted there and enjoyed some success before moving to the crucial national late morning slot vacated by the conclusion of Rogers’ Sounds Like Canada program (2002-2008). In this morning slot, the program has established itself as a premier popular arts and culture program with a broad reach in Canada and internationally (roughly 180 stations carry the program). With the former indie musician Ghomeshi as its anchoring force, the program executed a partial pivot away from higher-brow arts and literature and towards the popular arts (especially indie rock) and culture. It also moved towards more of a modular approach to content production with a mix of shorter and longer features. This positioned the program to do an exemplary job of establishing a digital, on-demand presence through its website and YouTube channel. In its modification of the now-classic magazine program format and its digital endeavors, Ghomeshi’s Q established itself as both a valuable property and a bridge between CBC Radio’s still all-too-present past and its uncertain future.

All of this made Ghomeshi into one of CBC Radio’s few contemporary icons. And now, little more than a week after he delivered an audio essay about the recent events in Ottawa, he has been scrubbed from the CBC’s website and headquarters. As information emerges, the CBC’s decision looks increasingly wise and conscientious. And the show goes on with several capable interim hosts including CBC veteran Brent Bambury. But these are difficult times for the CBC. The television service is reeling from the loss of hockey and the Radio Two recently began to air commercials for the first time in more than three decades. Radio One lumbers on with reduced budgets and many repeats in the schedule.

The Ghomeshi incident lays bare the need for a bigger stable of core radio personalities with broad appeal, further modifications to the long-form magazine format, and more stability within the radio service. The CBC must do more to develop personalities if it is to retain its audience and its influence. They’re out there – or perhaps they’re already inside the building. I suspect that the CBC has an abundance of talented hosts and producers working at its regional outposts who could do a great deal to rejuvenate the broadcaster on a national level. How much more talent is there in the more peripheral parts of the country and the institution? Similarly, how many producers are there in the ranks with innovative program ideas waiting to be developed?

CBC Radio’s history tells us that personalities and formats make one another in a reciprocal manner just as they did with Q. My hope is that Ghomeshi’s departure serves as a wake-up call to CBC Radio to focus more attention on the development of more national radio talent both on the mic and behind the glass. This would position the CBC to play a larger role in shaping radio’s future as it evolves beyond the formats of national public radio’s heyday to meet the challenges posed by the digital convergence era.


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DashCon Discourses: Through a Feminist Lens Wed, 16 Jul 2014 15:05:09 +0000 This past weekend (July 11-13), I attended DashCon, the first con exclusively devoted to Tumblr users (although not affiliated with Tumblr). Because of poor management by a staff that was well-intentioned but inexperienced, young, and lacking in resources, the con suffered a couple of major public calamities, including a desperate mid-con plea for emergency cash on their Tumblr site (which they received) that immediately became the target of contempt and ridicule by primarily non-con attendees on Tumblr and other social media sites.

DashCon logoThe hostility of this rhetoric often conflated the organizers with the attendees, who were primarily female and queer teens, many of whom were local and attending their first con. The largest concentration of this rhetoric is the Dashcon tag and user reblogs spread it quickly; one early Tumblr post – reblogged over 67,000 times – characterized con-goers as “white kids in flower crowns rioting for the anti-sexualization of women in media while holding panels about homoerotic subtext.” Comments on other social media sites like Jezebel swiftly adopted this derisive tone, describing attendees as “dorks who live in their parents’ basement” or “hormonal teenagers who enjoy drama way too much” in contrast to the “mature” fans on Tumblr “who discuss theories.”  Such misinformed and misogynist discourse was accompanied by paternalistic horror about the possible exposure of teenagers to an informational 18+ BDSM panel.

As a counter to this discourse, I want to highlight some of the more productive social and cultural aspects and implications of the con. For attendees, it is a vital safe space for self-expression and community bonding, intellectual engagement, counseling, and social empowerment for attendees. In turn, the implicit discomfort and hostility directed at them reveals how this space threatens social hierarchies regarding, in particular, female sexual pleasure and knowledge, “feminine” cultural production, “mass” tastes, and non-normative sexual/gender identities and practices.

I attended DashCon because I am interested in the way social media sites, particularly Tumblr, and their related cons provide young female and queer fans the opportunity to fulfill social, emotional, and educational needs that more traditional institutions do not. Last year, I participated in a series of articles for Antenna about LeakyCon, an established convention with a similar demographic. The advanced publicity of DashCon indicated a related agenda, with a “social issues” track of panels devoted to overlapping concerns of Tumblr users, including feminist politics and mass media representation, LGBTQA support, social justice concerns, mental health care and, ironically, ways to combat online hate and bullying. I enlisted a couple of con-goers who were also media studies students, and we shared the coverage of various panels and activities (although these observations are mine alone).

DashConPhoto Cosplay

The most visible way DashCon created a safe space for female self-expression was the community’s respectful treatment of its many cosplayers. In cosplay, attendees dress as their favorite media characters, often spending days creating costumes. Because attendees respected the maxim that “cosplay is not consent,” they did not touch or take photos of cosplayers without their explicit permission. Veteran cosplayers often noted with relief how unmolested they felt at DashCon compared to mixed-sex cons where they are often groped.

In addition to cosplaying, the activities of this con followed others of its type, and included games, singalongs, autograph signings, fan art sales, as well as panels. The “social issues” and media analysis panels frequently overlapped in content and politics. Media fans, especially in this demographic, are often already engaged in trying to locate alternatives to dominant ideologies through media texts, and DashCon attendees were eager to analyze the social aspects of media culture. My colleague Paul Booth has called fandom, “the classroom of your life” and it certainly had that role at DashCon, where attendees were able to learn about topics that are still largely not covered in high school or even college classrooms, where gender and queer studies are rarely integrated into the curriculum as a whole.

The panelists, a combination of academics, activists, and/or social media specialists, embraced more radical rather than liberal political positions, drawing on many aspects of queer theory and critical race theory as well as media studies. Media analysis panels emphasized the importance and lack of strong female characters, queer characters, and characters of color, and the discussion leaders were able to personally speak to these issues as well as offer strategies to advocate for more diverse representation. Straight and queer women’s investment in male/male “slash” pairings was addressed in nuanced ways tied to, for example, the lack of equivalent development of female characters.

The panelists crucially tied media production to larger social structures, noting that “people blame the media, but these are institutional problems, social hierarchies that get represented by the media. There is no villain in the tower.” Instead, they emphasized the importance of education, an understanding of historical context and change, and an appreciation of the intersectionality of identity. Panels about contemporary feminism offered both scholarly analysis and an opportunity for young women to share their stories and concerns.

The rape culture panel, for example, began by asserting that instead of telling women how to avoid rape, we as a society should instead be focusing on teaching men and boys not to rape, a message that is prevalent on Tumblr but rarely appears in the mainstream.

All the panelists, while critical of DashCon’s management, have noted how impressed they were – as was I – with the engagement and thoughtful questions of the attendees. They have also tried to debunk misinformation, noting, for examples, the racial as well as gender/queer diversity of panels and attendees, and protesting their misrepresentation and the attacks on them.

This con provided young people with an opportunity to further expand the alternative communities that Tumblr offers them. While its larger problems are disappointing, DashCon’s grassroots project should be appreciated for what it did accomplish despite its organizers and attendees’ lack of social power and resources. Other attendees felt the same. Panelist Brin posted a video of her participation in the LGBTQ&A panel (below) and another con-goer posted that he found its cost was “a small price against my first time truly feeling in a community of people who would love and understand me with almost no effort at all.”


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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.


Google’s Aesthetic Turn: One Simple Beautiful Useful Google Mon, 13 Jan 2014 20:15:00 +0000 As tech blogs circulate lists of not just the most popular apps, nor merely the best, but the most beautiful, stunning, and even “drop dead gorgeous,” it seems an apt time to consider how cultural studies’ concern for aesthetics might inspire more critical engagement with the experiences and artifacts of digital culture.


Everyday life is so awash in explicitly aesthetic appeals (ie, “the most beautiful way to check weather”) that I can instantly imagine an eye-catching infograph that helpfully orders app attributes as values of sensuous desire. We might need to revise Susan Sontag’s famous call for an erotics of art: “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of apps!”

How does the technocultural installation of some “gorgeous” layer between internet users and the cycles of life (e.g., sleep, fertility, seasonal, fiscal) shape the way we come to experience and know the world?  And of course, what is “beautiful” anyway? Who gets to define what it looks and feels like? These are questions of aesthetics, though not in the classical sense of pondering the philosophical problems of beauty and art. Once assumed to correspond with universal human values, perceptions of beauty have since been understood as mediated by taste, class, and racial and gendered cultural hierarchies that govern legitimacy.  Cultural studies expanded the field of what counted as “aesthetic” by turning from high art to the literature and popular culture of the working classes. As Raymond Williams puts it, “Culture is ordinary.” How might we probe what’s at stake in the digital beautification of everyday life? In this post, I examine the ambitious 2011 redesign of top global website, Google (Google+, Google Search, Maps, etc.)

Google’s First Aesthetic: Transparency

Built from the start with users in mind (mantra: “focus on the user and all else will follow”), the early Google Aesthetic presents simplicity, technology, usability, and engineering as a form of transparency. When the stark white Google search was introduced in 1998, it must have seemed positively un-designed compared with the bloated portals of the time. No, Google cut the crap by delivering nothing but fast, relevant search results. For a decade, using Google Search was kind of like using a calculator, which is to say, you just used it and expected it to work. With its famous suite of PageRank algorithms under lock and key, Google balanced its technical opacity with a transparent communication style that emphasized openness, accountability, informality, and playfulness, all of which felt algorithmically generated but human-inflected. This aesthetic of transparency isn’t confined to the giant white home page, of course. We catch another glimpse if we approach material like Matt Cutts’s “How Search Works” as an aesthetic performance as much as an instructional one.

There are plenty of advanced technologies here, but the tech layer is mediated through a veneer of “(expert guy)” friendliness: approachable, direct, playful, and above all, crystal clear. From the expansive white space to the affable sketchy wireframes, this Google Aesthetic is presented with such ease that we’re not meant to question this explanation (or indeed, understand this as an aesthetic) at all.  Of course, transparency equally conceals the white dudes’ in casualware who serve as interfaces to certain visions of computing. Ensconced in white space and doodles, Cutts becomes an aesthetic expression of what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls Google’s culture of Aptocracy, a world that rewards merit based on technical competence and quantifiable forms of achievement.


Google’s Aesthetic Turn: The OSbug

Google’s engineering-centric culture had a long reputation for downplaying design in favor of speed and efficiency. Who cares about beauty when your computer is a hulking beige box? But there’s a huge industry surrounding tablets and smart phones, now marketed as aesthetic objects aligned symbolically with gourmet chocolate, fine jewelry or luxury cars. Google was simplicity, technology, usability, engineering… but not beauty.

When Larry Page became Google CEO in April of 2011, he immediately made design Google’s top priority with the mantra: “One simple, beautiful, useful Google” (the “OSbug” for short). For the first time, Google set out to design and engineer a cohesive aesthetic experience that would unify the “look and feel” of the Google universe. It’s worth noting, then, that in the pursuit of “beautiful” interaction, Google designers were drawing inspiration not from the realm of the visual, but from the legacy of “ubiquitous computing” (ubicom) and the aesthetics of invisibility and seamlessness that were a hallmark of that vision.

Designers’ were asked what beauty means to Google and concluded it “involved the idea of simplicity, and deeper than that, of invisibility.”  For ChromeCast users, for example, “the beauty comes from the fact that it delights you and you don’t see it.” This disappearing act represents a downgrading of the primacy of the visual in favor of haptics, feedback, sound, navigational cues, etc., that work to create a cohesive sensation of a unified space (the OSbug). The shift to seamlessness or “invisibility” is not necessarily a bad thing: who wants to feel frustrated by devices and interfaces? But seamless is a double-edged sword. UX designers are thinking carefully about how users are embedded not just in the apps we use, but complex social framework of daily activity.

But it also raises some crucial questions: if we can no longer feel the seams, do we risk becoming so comfortable in our skin that “beautiful”  layers between us and the world begin to seem more and more like common sense? How might different users feel oriented (or disoriented) within information space? What kind of gendered or racial assumptions might “beautiful” interaction uphold or challenge? Whose needs and desires are being optimized by this particular expression of “beauty”?

This is the fifth post in Antenna’s new series The Aesthetic Turn, which examines questions of cultural studies and media aesthetics. If you missed any of the earlier posts in the series, they can be read here. Look out for regular posts in the series (most) every other Wednesday in January and beyond.


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Enough Said? Beasts of the Southern Wild, SharkNado, and Extreme Weather Fri, 26 Jul 2013 13:00:14 +0000 reporter.onscreenIn this short post I’d like to juxtapose an unlikely pair of films in order to push harder at the taken-for-granted mythologies of extreme weather: reading acclaimed 2012 indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild ($1.8 million budget; 16-week shoot) alongside SyFy’s widely-discussed (if hardly acclaimed) July 11 SharkNado ($1 million budget; three-week shoot) produces a unique opportunity to (temporarily) disregard distinctions of taste that would assign them to separate categories, while also calling attention to unexamined assumptions about appropriate affective responses to the recycling of familiar generic clichés in these vastly different texts. Ironically, although the art-house aura of Beasts marks it out for a more educated audience, the consciously trashy SharkNado acknowledges climate change as a cause of extreme weather, couched in a preposterous B-movie context. Yet both movies foster affective responses that allow us to discount the extreme weather that provides their central crises, using the catastrophe as a proving ground for paternal love. Beasts features offensive, retrograde race, gender, and class politics, it has elicited deferential online discussions that rarely voice any critique (although bell hooks and some bloggers call out its flaws). Perhaps its poetic sheen, with lots of lens flares and handheld jiggling, has inoculated the film from political analysis, despite the fact that it portrays poor, rural, African American people speaking minstrel-show English, with lines like “they be talkin’ in codes” explaining how the six-year-old protagonist can hear animals speak. Along with a few drunk, dirty, working-class whites, heroine Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in filth and disarray, yet the film proffers them as an idealized utopian community. Beasts trucks in the recirculation of all-too-familiar clichés about people of color and the working class: closer to nature (“we’s who the earth’s for,” Hushpuppy tells us), working roots and shooting gators (Louisiana—exotic!), fiercely loyal, and explosively violent. Wink’s open-handed slap knocks Hushpuppy to the ground, yet because he later expresses his love for her on his deathbed, many viewers forgive his abusiveness.

Hushpuppy narrates in voiceover the tumultuous period in her life when Wink falls ill and a hurricane floods their rural community, The Bathtub, outside the south Louisiana levees. But the post-Katrina context in Beasts is submerged in the miasma of magical realism, which mystifies the extreme weather events in the film. We see many Bathtub denizens evacuating before the storm, but Hushpuppy and drunk Wink hunker down to ride it out. The threat to the Bathtub is ascribed vaguely to climate change, as Hushpuppy’s teacher explains: “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled” which means “the ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under.” Waters rise, not due to any human causation, but a mystical rupture in the universe. Redeemed father Wink watches approvingly as Hushpuppy faces down prehistoric aurochs, loosed by the melting ice.

Given this mystification of climate change and environmental degradation through noble savage primitivism, the movie is astonishingly popular. The Beasts Facebook page has over 76,000 likes, with posts touting a live performance of the film’s score in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and wishing readers “Happy Earth Day from the Bathtub!” The movie has inspired a Twitter hashtag #BEASTit, mainly used as encouragement in sporting and racing events; its @BeastsTheMovie twitter handle has over 3600 followers. On the official Beasts website, we can read about its four Oscar nominations and see animations of review snippets: A.O. Scott’s “a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” Bryan Alexander’s “spellbinding,” and Manohla Dargis’s “hauntingly beautiful.” Along the sidebar scrolls a procession of tweets, mostly expressing fans’ hyperbolic praise: “this movie has inspired me and changed my life” says jessicamartinez.

flying.sharkUnlike Beasts, nobody sees SharkNado as life-changing. Likewise, it cannot be mistaken for an art film—it positions itself consciously in the tradition of B-movies, in a line of SyFy made-for-basic-cable schlockfests such as SharkTopus and Chupacabra vs. The Alamo. Special effects hearken back to Bride of the Monster’s Bela Lugosi wrestling a plastic octopus, the tornadoes are CGI, with scripting and acting to match—but SharkNado’s genius lies in catering to fans of B-movies (tagline: Enough said.) Such fans (and others, presumably) went online en masse via Twitter during the premiere broadcast, peaking at 5000 #SharkNado tweets per minute, which Twitter ranks among the biggest trend surges in its history. Although video on demand is touted as the wave of the future, the simultaneity of watching a show as it airs along with millions of other viewers remains a strong component of viewer pleasure.

Wil Wheaton’s (@wilw) popular tweet, “I’m not so sure about the science in this movie you guys. #SharkNado,”  encapsulates the sarcastic, Mystery Science 3000 tone of the TweetNado. Unlike the storm in Beasts, which hazily alludes to Katrina, the extreme weather event in SharkNado is never credible. Nevertheless, it ably conforms to weather disaster movie conventions such as shots of bending palm trees and driving rain, and the reconstituted family unit at the end: hero-dad Fin gets back together with his ex-wife after rescuing her and their daughter along with lots of other people (although his ex’s husband is conveniently eaten). We even get the added pleasure of seeing the reporter eaten by a wind-propelled shark. Before she dies, we learn that sharks from the Gulf of Mexico have migrated into the unusually warm Pacific, where Hurricane David is now driving them up the California coast and “experts are saying global warming is the reason for this unprecedented event.”’s knowing nods to the pleasures of bad movies, as well as its many allusions to Jaws and other classics, suggest a target audience of savvy, sophisticated viewers, a group that may overlap with Beasts‘s demographic. But the affect SharkNado generates is less serious, less misty-eyed, and dedicated to the fun of hurling ridicule at a B-movie. With its spoofing tone, SharkNado produces a sharper, more critical mode of viewing than the art film, though it doesn’t pretend to Beasts’s intellectual depths. Both fantastical films employ extreme weather as a backdrop for adventure and heroism, including rejuvenating the father as the patriarch of the family; both the derision heaped on SharkNado and the precious sentimentality of Beasts operate to sideline any engagement with extreme weather beyond a staging ground for cliché.



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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.


What Are You Missing? Jan 20-Feb 2 Sun, 03 Feb 2013 16:01:24 +0000 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. The big news in Hollywood last week that caught many by surprise: Kevin Tsujihara was named CEO of Warner Bros. The studio is hopeful he’ll bring stability, but especially digital distribution savvy. Also shooting for stability is MGM, which is reworking its credit line to free up more money, while 20th Century Fox also cut a new financing deal. Unrelated bonus link: a Nielsen demographic study of movie audiences.

2. Fruitvale was a big winner at Sundance, which Variety critics thought was a successful, if commercially inclined, festival this year. Also of note was the equal gender balance of directors in competition, a first for the festival. This is representative of a higher percentage of female directors active in independent cinema than Hollywood studio filmmaking, according to research shared at Sundance by USC researchers.

3. There are still some Blockbuster stores left to shutter, and sadly, 3,000 jobs will be lost in this latest round of closings. Stores are also closing in the UK. Dish is still backing the Blockbuster brand, though, with a new On Demand redesign coming. But iTunes rules the online On Demand world right now, while discs fight to maintain home video sale prominence.

4. The music industry is having trouble making streaming royalties worth it to musicians. Too bad they can’t all enjoy a Super Bowl sales bump from being a halftime performer or make $8 million in ad deals like “Gangham Style” (though you have to watch out for sound-alikes) or have fans who are big pirates.

5. The company that supplied my very first video game console one lovely Christmas morning way back when has filed for bankruptcy, though apparently Atari hasn’t been what it used to be for awhile now, and it will even sell the iconic logo. Some other gaming bummers: THQ is being dissolved, Disney is closing a game studio and laying off fifty people while shifting to a focus on mobile and social gaming, and weak Wii U sales and 3DS piracy are hurting Nintendo.

6. Despite those bummers, the video game industry’s many challenges, and EA posting a recent loss, EA executives are optimistic about the future of console gaming. There’s a new Xbox coming with more processing power, and we’ll soon hear more about a new Playstation, though some think Sony should just move on from that platform’s legacy.

7. Samsung is warning that major smartphone growth is over, but maybe the company’s just bitter that Apple has surpassed it as top US phone vendor. The iPhone is declining in Asia, though, and Apple is losing tablet ground globally to Samsung and others. Apple’s still doing good work with tax loopholes, though. And at least it’s not BlackBerry.

8. France is having none of your English-language “hashtag” business on Twitter. For the French, “mot-dièse” will be the word for # on Twitter. (Mot-dièse means “sharp word,” though a sharp symbol leans the other way than the hashtag symbol, but hey, quoi que). France is also demanding that Twitter identify users who tweet with racist and anti-Semitic hasht…er, mots-dièse. Back in the US, Twitter’s dealing with a porn problem on the new Vine platform and is trying to censor porny hashtags. I doubt the French would respect that. #prudes 

9. GIFs are on the decline?!


10. Some of the finer News for TV Majors posts from the past few weeks: Soap Contract Conflicts, Glee’s Song Theft, Super Bowl Ad Issue, Netflix Strategies, More on Netflix, 30 Rock Reflections, Spoiling Super Bowl Ads, CNN Changes, TWC & Dodgers, Aereo Update, The Following Criticism, Pilots Updates.


Programming note: Because I recently took on some new time-consuming duties, like Associate Online Editor for Cinema Journal, I’ve regretfully had to step away from WAYM for the time being. But don’t fear: WAYM will still be here! Eric Hoyt’s media industries course will be taking over for the rest of the semester on the regular bi-weekly schedule, and I can’t wait to see what they can do with it. (Sage advice: When in need of a good link, Lionsgate and porn are always there for you.) See you later!