Archive for February, 2010

Implications of YouTube’s Rickroll take-down

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

So yesterday, the interwebs were in a brief uproar when it was found that the original Rickrolling video had been taken down for Terms of Use Violation. Google identified the mistake and restored the video, but those handfull of hours during which a major artifact of internet culture was missing revealed some interesting things about our digital media landscape.

It’s not (just) a question of technology

One of the biggest issues brought forth by this takedown (and many other “mistaken” ones likes it, such as Viacom’s “accidental” silencing of racism protest) is that these incidents aren’t just a question of technological oversights. The reveal an industry build on legal and economic structures that refuse to adapt to cultural change. Google’s apology email is full of passive voice — videos are “mistakenly removed” and accounts “mistakenly suspended.” With all the talk of users, flagging systems, it quickly becomes an artful dodging of accountability. It makes it seem like it was a blameless incident, a technological snafu outside anyone’s control.

But it’s important that we don’t mistake “lack of intent” with “lack of culpability.” I don’t really blame Google — their actions are responding to IP policies that equate promoting open source to being a rogue state. As Mike Masnick points out, the problem isn’t that something fell through the cracks of a the tech system in place to identify content violations quickly. The problem is the demands of that kind of speed, the kind of “take down first, ask dodge questions later” attitude that pervades the creative industries.

Technology, and third-parties like Google, are just convenient and blamelessly neutral scapegoats in the real digital divide — the chasm between social use of technologies and industrial control over them.

Takedowns take away more than just content

Another thing that the outcry around the take-down makes us realize is that the video itself is just one part of the cultural artifact. After all, it’s not like we couldn’t still watch a duplicate video on YouTube. But what we lost that was more significant than the video were the comments, the tags, the response links, even the viewcount. The metadata and paratexts that document the significance and development of the cultural phenomenon. The video is just the book cover — the real meat of the story was the record of how people watched it. That was why this particular takedown was so outrageous. What was removed was something infinitely more unique and scarce than some video. What was removed was a rich cultural document that no one should own the IP to.

One man’s culture is another man’s spam

A final interesting aspect is the fact that the takedown wasn’t an IP issue, but a user-flagging issue. Unsurprising, perhaps, because if you’re not in on the joke, a lot of internet memes look pretty much just like spam: incomprehensible and weirdly persistent. What this reveals to us is something that those fighting the high culture/pop culture divide have been reminding us forever: that culture is ultimately wholly subjective and deeply contextual.

Weekly round-up [2/19/10]: Old media memes, new media TV audiences, race + tech, and awesome uses of twitter

Posted in weekly round-up on February 19th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

First, a couple of pieces that looks at “traditional media” concepts in light of new media practices and insights:

  • Over at Harvard’s Berkman Center, there was a recent talk from Jure Leskovec that tracks quotations-as-memes use in news cycles. While I’m more of a qualitative gal myself, I do have to admit a certain amount of geeky quant envy whenever I hear “mathematical model.”
  • C3 2009 white papers are going on official release over at the Convergence Culture Blog. First up is my esteemed colleague Sheila Seles discussing audience models and online video.
  • Pat Hanlon, whom I’ve had the fortune of working with at Thinktopia, has an insightful and galvanizing post about smart product design and innovation as a vital part of branding.
  • Speaking of design, basic web publishing is almost “traditional media” by now too, isn’t it? BBC breaks down its design overhaul in light of how digital publishing has changed, making it more social, accessible, and global.
  • On the media+globalization front, there’s an interesting post by C. Custer that asks if Twitter use in China might not be more dangerous than liberating. I brought up a similar post in a post I wrote for C3 back in early 2008 about how the discourse on Chinese digital censorship has been too tech-focused. Pervasive and deep censorship operates at a much more profound level through social, economic, and political controls — blocking websites is merely a surface symptom.
  • Jace Clayton has posted up excerpts from an interview with himself and Kelefah Sanneh from Bidoun Magazine all about noise music. As he puts it, it’s for anyone who’s ever wondered about “what that distortion pedal has to do with American race relations.”
  • Race-relations related, Alex Williams at ReadWriteWeb reports that Google, Yahoo!, Apple, and Oracle refused to release the gender and ethnicity breakdowns of their employee base, declaring the information a “trade secret.” Either they’re afraid of bad press due to their white male make-up, or they’re stockpiling minority innovators and don’t want all the boys’ club tech companies to know that minorities and women can be good at innovation too.
  • And on the less political, more wonderful side of technological innovation, a simply gorgeous sound visualization project from Jonas Friedemann Heuer.
  • On the media consumption side, I’ve been marathoning Lost, hoping to catch up before the end of the season, since I’m pretty sure there’s no way to remain unspoiled for the finale. Plus, it’ll make Lost fans less annoying.
  • I’ve also gotten hooked on Echobazaar from the folks over at FailBetterGames, a great little indie twitter-integrated social game with wonderfully evocative worldbuilding in a twisted-classic seedy steampunk London underworld, and infuriatingly addictive game-play mechanics. My only complaint is that there’s no way to send direct invites to my twitter followers so that I can recruit more compatriots for my shady dealings.
  • Another great twitter-related amusement: New York Magazine book critic Sam Anderson is tweeting the best sentences he reads everyday. Awesome use of twitter as an on-the-fly curation tool.

Affect, Effect, and Context: more thoughts on Google’s superbowl ad

Posted in C3 blog, advertising on February 12th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

Much has been said about Google’s Parisian Love superbowl ad in the last week, much of it ranging from positive to gushing adoration. I was no exception, discussing the way google demonstrated its understanding of the culture of seeking. My last post focused on the content of the ad, which was lovely, but content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A quotation from Ian Schafer, and my consequent discussion with him on twitter, inspired me to write a follow-up that looks at the ad in context.

affective effects, effective affects

Google’s Parisian Love inspired a lot of amorous reciprocation from people who’ve devoted a significant chunk of their intellectual energies to thinking about advertising and made a dent on twitter, but it didn’t make it into Nielsen’s most liked or most recalled ads. Part of it was the Q3 placement, of course. Almost all of the highest Nielsen-ranked spots ran during the first and last quarters of the game — presumably when more people were tuned in to the action. But nevertheless, the question remains: Google spot was certainly affecting, but was it effective?

“An online film that became an ad”

Google’s ad feels out of place amongst the raucous humor and tone of not only the other big ads, but the superbowl in general. But here I think Google again goes deeper than the surface presentation, beyond what a big sporting event looks like to what it means, it’s place in our culture(s). Major sporting events, particularly those on a national scale, bank heavily on the idea of disparate atomized individuals coming together in shared sentiment, much like the death of a celebrity. They also play strongly to feelings of community, connectivity, nostalgia, and legacy. In that light, Google’s ad seems to match the emotional appeals of the event, if not its tone and presentation.

Its disparity in presentation is also consistent with Google’s brand, which leans heavily on a certain iconoclasm, the myth of a rag-tag team of innovators that consistently proves to the world that big doesn’t mean bad. In this sense, the biggest danger to Google’s brand is its own success. Google new Buzz sought to collect all our current social media tendencies under one google-sponsored ad-driven roof and triggered a privacy controversy and user backlash, they just bought Aardvark, memorably acquired YouTube and some other smaller services a while back, and just got into hot water for shutting down music blogs. The more prominent and pervasive Google’s services get, the more difficult it becomes to fend of the mumblings of big-brotherism, of being just another mega-corporation consolidating its power, however benevolent its origins. That’s why Google’s Superbowl ad had to be “ineffective” in advertising-response terms. Superbowl advertising is a beacon of corporate, profit-driven consumerism and Google’s challenge has always been proving to us that it’s based in different values.

But perhaps most importantly, as Faris Yakob’s great analysis explains, in a lot of ways, the Superbowl spot wasn’t an advertisement for its search product at all. It was a demonstration to potential advertisers, according to Andrew Frank, that it “is not afraid of TV” and can integrate the internet with traditional broadcast media. Parisian Love wasn’t a commercial — it was just another one of Google’s series of online videos. That Parisian Love ran on TV, during the Superbowl, was the advertisement. In other words, Google’s ad didn’t suit its context. The context was the advertisement.

Modern Love: what Google’s Superbowl ad teaches us about understanding culture

Posted in C3 blog, advertising on February 9th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – 1 Comment

Image by Carolita Johnson, demonstrating the difference between recognizing a trend and understanding its deeper significance

Google made good on all the teasing tweets and ran its first superbowl ad on Sunday night, to the praise of advertising and marketing professionals and all those who fall under Alterian’s Social Engagement Index. I was preoccupied with making sure the make-shift stadium seating in my loft wasn’t in danger of collapsing to catch it during the game, but the next morning I watched it on YouTube. Then I watched it again.

Google’s Parisian Love is everything that people have been saying: remarkable in potency of its message and the simplicity of its delivery, startlingly efficient in conveying a multitude of themes and features, and narratively delightful. But it is also a beautifully concise argument for the need to understand culture — and not just trends and technologies — in advertising.

Trends are surface patterns that can be viewed from a distance. Culture is the all the reasons underneath them, the complex structures and formations on the ocean floor shaped from countless years of symbolic debris and sediment that dictate which way the waves go. Identifying trends is just the first (and crucial) step towards understanding culture.

Humanizing technology, technologizing humanity

The trends/culture distinction is most clearly illustrated when we place Google’s Parisian Love series alongside Bing’s “Cure for Search Overload” campaign, which the Google ad also functions as a response to. Bing’s ads demonstrate their ability to identify habits of digitized world — the tendency towards free-association clicking, those rabbit-hole link excursions that leave us knowing more about walruses than we ever thought possible (or desirable) — by framing it as a problem that its service provides a solution to. Google’s ad shows us not how to salvage our lives from technology, but how technology is a part of it. In contrast to Bing, Google’s ad demonstrates how its search guidance and decision tools were so deeply integrated and intuitive that we barely noticed it was there, letting us put our concerns and desires at the forefront.

The two search engines’ ads reveal opposing angles of approach. Bing’s approach is strangely didactic, and not a little condescending — it presents us a service that can stop us from doing something (finding too much potentially irrelevant information), that can save us from our own feeble tendencies. Google’s approach is conspirational, showing it what it can help make happen instead of what it can stop from happening, implicating itself as complicit in our desires while also tapping into the cultural symbol of what the web has historically has represented: openness, possibility, limitless potential and access. So, while Bing identified a set of behavioral trends and promised to help us find things, Google showed us that it understands why we look.

Cultures of accumulation and classification

Google’s Parisian Love also conjured up for me three famous French writers and cultural critics: Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, and Roland Barthes. Proust transformed searching as an act of desire and recovery, Perec showed us how evocatively life is documented in lists and classifications of the things we accumulate, and Barthes made us recognize that it is the seemingly everyday, taken-for-granted habits and pleasures that reveal the most about our cultural mythologies and our human selves. Google’s ad demonstrates all three principles.

The potent little story at the heart of Parisian Love isn’t particularly remarkable in itself. What is remarkable is the materials of the telling: a love story, yes, but as documented through a search history. It touches upon a long-held cultural conviction that our daily debris, if properly recorded and curated, tells a story fascinating about us. Consider the rise of epistolary novels, Perec’s list of beds he’s slept in, the countless art installations featuring every X-type of object that the artist has consumed over a year. This is a conviction that’s only risen in recent years as we have the means of accumulating and displaying more and more haphazard data about ourselves — we’ve all given thought to what stories our twitter feeds, delicious tags, and facebook profile interests might tell about us accumulated over time.

In that same way, Googles ad reminds us that our searches are not only about finding what we need — they are a document of our desires and lives. The nostalgic overtones aren’t just incidental appeals to sentiment — they do the serious work of assuring us that in an age of so-called information overload, we are still producing artifacts of data that are intimate and revealing. At the forefront is a story about romance, but underneath is a story about our culture’s love affair with the stories the accumulated by-products of our daily lives can tell. Google proposes not only that its search is useful, but meaningful.

The message from google to its users is so simple and clear: we’ve always understood one another.

Weekly round-up [02/05/10]: Tech and global development, online video, crowdsourcing and collaboration

Posted in weekly round-up on February 5th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

So coming off the Luce days, a few things about internet + the world at large:

  • The Open Net Initiative has released it’s annual review of filtering, surveillence, and info warfare. What’s particularly interesting to me as I glanced through it is how different regions filtered content. Some focused on content type (e.g. pornography), while others blocked sites due to certain events or types of sites (social networks, forums, twitter).
  • An interesting piece by Byron Acohido suggesting the possibility that the Chinese government wasn’t behind the google attack isn’t definitive but does point out how quickly public discourse was to assign blame and depict China as a monolithic entity.
  • Also very interesting is the summary of who’s writing about ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) for development by Ivan Sigal at Global Voices. Especially provocative are the observations regarding the challenges of reconciling development experts and ICT solutions and implementation.
  • Speaking of groups typically overlooked by new media guru types — it turns out that blogging is on the rise amongst older adults.
  • And speaking of neat stats and charts, a couple of pieces by Ashkan Karbasfrooshan in TechCrunch discusses the state of online video puts the emphasis on context in online video consumption.
  • These read nicely next my CMS/C3 colleague Sheila Seles’ piece on why Apple hasn’t revolutionized TV (yet).

Finally, a couple of pieces contemplating crowd-sourcing:

  • BBH labs asks where the agency ends and the crowd begin in terms of creative and strategic development. This topic is one that touches on a lot of conversations I’ve been having recently, not the least of which is a fan labor/virtual sharecropping discussion that’s been occurring on and off on the ROFLcon organizing list.
  • Through the comments on the BBH piece, I came upon the work of Daren Brabham, including his short piece in Flow about crowdsourced advertising.
  • Related to the issues of crowdsourcing and co-creation, Harvard’s Radio Berkman posted up a talk on the Failing Fantasy of Intellectual Property
  • And to balance out the Cambridge set, MIT’s CMS Colloquium podcast tackles old/new media and “re-fashioning” with speakers Wayne Marshall and Joel Burges. Listen for the ultimate “hmmmmm” line: “how do we theorize time?”

New Media, Old Culture: meeting the Luce Foundation selection board

Posted in media on February 5th, 2010 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

I wasn’t able to get a blog post up earlier this week because I spent Tuesday and Wednesday with the Henry Luce Foundation’s fellowship selection board (and Thursday catching up on all the sleep I didn’t get Monday and Tuesday night). But I wanted to get something up so a handful of scattered, poorly articulated thoughts ahead:

Recursive Thinking

It was a refreshing break in perspective from the marketing/advertising/media/consumer culture world. The selectors were astonishingly accomplished individuals who hand strong hands in international politics, policy, development, finance, and so forth.

The questions I was asked over the course of two days were provocative and unlike any that I’ve dealt with from corporations or colleagues. After all, here were people who knew tremendous amounts about culture, media, politics and the world at large, but not about what I knew about. And it made me realize how insular our world can become, how easy it is to find ourselves shaping discourse exclusively with those working from a shared set of assumptions, and how much that might potentially hinder new thinking.

It seems reasonable to want to step back from the building recursion of conversations and interrogate some of the fundamental assumptions. Not just popular opinions that have been taken as fact but ideas so deeply a part of the very structure of thinking around new media that they’ve become naturalized. One of the questions I was asked is that if I were consulting with a company that wanted to bring a new product to Asia, what would be my most crucial and fundamental piece of advice? I gave a number of examples and talked around it a bit, but the core of my answer was simply this: that thing that you think you most know, the most absolute conviction you have — let go of it. If you can’t make room for your own ignorance, you can’t begin to rectify it.

So what’s the most fundamental, unquestioned assumption about new media? What immediately came to mind was first that new media is new and more to the point, that it’s what’s changed that strive to understand if we are to anticipate what’s to come. As a long-standing CMS tenant, there is as much continuity in media (and media use) as there is rupture. There is, it seems, as much to be learned from looking at what hasn’t changed, the habits and behaviors and desires that have endured across technological development are what can point us how technological change will be adopted and adapted. For instance, we think of fanservice — media producers following conversations about their properties online and then changing scripts in response — as relatively new, afforded by online forums and blogging. But fanservice has been the very foundation of the monolithic Northeast Asian idol industry since the 1960s, and before that, Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead due to fan response. And looking at what remains the same can give us insight into what has changed: after all, the re-emergence of fan service in broadcast media can be attributed to the fact that we’ve come back to a point in which media production technologies and consumer technologies are matched in speed.

Another problematic assumption we’ve come to rely on is that the new is desirable. There’s such a focus in industry now on early adopters and the “bleeding edge” (and honestly, did no one think that metaphor through? You have to cut before you bleed, so the bleeding edge is actually just a bit behind the cutting edge) that there’s a tendency to assume a “wired” group who “gets it” and everyone else and that it’s the former that’s engaged and informed. Too often the assumption is that not everyone has adopted a technology simply because they’re behind and will sooner or later catch up and fall in line. But this perceived lagging group includes people like those that I met with on Tuesday and Wednesday who no doubt wield greater influence in the affairs of the world than any social media guru can ever dream of. Why aren’t we thinking more about their media use (or lack thereof)? Why aren’t we giving deeper consideration to how they use these tools, which tools they consider valuable, and how they might reshape the way these tools are used when they do decide to join in? In focusing to narrowly on new media culture, do we run the risk of dismissing culture at large?