Monday, December 31, 2007

Loser Chooser

So here they are, the winners of the 2007 Foleys, which recognize the incompetence of government agencies and policy makers in the area of digital rhetoric. (Insert gasps of anticipation here.)
Worst overall web design of a government website

It's ugly. It has terrible navigation. All of the documents are in proprietary formats like Word and Adobe Acrobat. Of course, it's the website of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency whose chairman has helped media conglomeration move forward at every turn and discouraged public comment and sometimes even dissemination of their own reports.

Worst online information access

This year, the prize goes to a government-sponsored website intended for uploading rather than for downloading information. Would-be travelers who found themselves on the Transportation Safety Administration's dreaded "no-fly list" or "watch list" could try to state their cases on the page for the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, where they could fill in online forms with evidence that might confirm their law-abiding identities. Unfortunately, this website for uploading sensitive personal information was itself insecure and looked more like a phishing site run by scammers to a careful Internet reader. At least this, most hated federal agency in recent polling has introduced seasonal themed logos on all its websites.

Worst online social marketing

I'm sure they won't be happy with me for saying this, but The Copyright Alliance would have to be my winner in bad social marketing this year. Tarleton Gillespie has already questioned the ideology in many of the separate campaigns represented by the alliance's "lesson plans" intended to question teachers' and students' confidence in fair use protections for copying digital materials. (Apparently, I am also a bad person for making fun of the expression on the face of their singer-songwriter poster child.)

Worst electronic message to the masses

The State Department's truly terrible blog Dipnote is a particularly misguided effort at using electronic distributed media for public diplomacy purposes, which includes entries like "Christmas in Kabul" that mix the banal with the culturally insensitive. (I couldn't resist mocking it here at Dopenote.)

Worst official PowerPoint presentation

The official PowerPoint assessment of violence in Iraq by General David Petraeus would probably earn the prize in the minds of many this year for its disingenuous data representation, according to Seth Grimes, Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, and others interested in information aesthetics. But I'd give the gold star for PowerPoint abuse this year to the E-nonsense of the 2008 E-gov budgetary report on information technology, which indicates the fundamentally incoherent character of IT policy at the highest federal levels.

Worst government-funded videogame


I'd have to give my vote to Future Force Company Commander, which Sean Lawson points out is strangely unconcerned with either training or recruitment, the ostensible motivations for creating other military games. Lawson argues that it appears to largely justify the services and high-tech gadgets of large-scale government contractor SAIC.

Worst appeal to children

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Ad Council have teamed up to produce several multimedia offerings about cybersafety that are sure to either be ignored or to reinforce the voyeuristic paradigms that they are supposed to be combatting. The ID the Creep game doesn't actually teach anything about critical thinking in online behavior, and the Think Before You Post viral videos are full of sleazy imagery and prurient narratives that sexualize pre-teen girls in the same ways that advertising culture, horror movies, and other spectacles of sexism and ageism already do.

Worst visual rhetoric

The security video that the Transportation Safety Administration posted to defend their side of the story when a disgruntled passenger complained about unreasonable treatment as a result of her child having a sippy cup in security screening actually did the agency more harm than good, since the video of the harried mother down on her knees only reinforced the perception that the agency was humiliating travelers without reason.

Worst call to patriotism

The urban legend that Barack Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance may have been one of the worst online smear campaigns of the 2008 election season thus far.

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Favorite Movie Moment in 2007

For me, the winner for movie magic dialogue has to be the intellectual property dispute in the film American Gangster over distribution of heroin labeled "Magic Blue." When Denzel Washington's character accuses Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character of "trademark infringement," the distributor cannily responds that rights of the seller terminate after first sale.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Getting Lucky Wander Boy

On Christmas Eve, I was handed the book Lucky Wander Boy by friends who knew about my interests in the way that mundane routines and what Michel de Certeau calls "the practices of everyday life" relate to videogames that are conventionally associated in the media with more obviously dramatic depictions of violence or sexuality or transgressive behavior. These constraints on the routines possible in the design of computational media have ideological import as well, and so -- like literary texts -- they can be useful to critics for understanding constructs of gender, race, class, and nationality.

It turns out that much of the Lucky Wander Boy book is about the classic Atari and Intellivision games of the narrator's youth, which are looked at from a pseudo-philosophical perspective. Unfortunately, I didn't find many of D.B. Weiss's insights about the procedural logic of these videogames particularly compelling, and I might guess that Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost's book on A Platform Study of the Atari 2600 will end up being more novel, more theoretically sophisticated, and better argued on that score. Since I live in the hundred square block area in which most of the book's action takes place, I was also unimpressed by its depictions of life in Santa Monica, which has been the subject of a lot of classic Southern California fiction since Raymond Chandler. Instead, I was only annoyed by its thinly veiled references to local boho hangouts like Vidiots and Warszawa.

What I did find compelling about Lucky Wander Boy was the very funny send-up of the discourse practices of a typical new media start-up. The satiric commentary on how electronic communication only multiplies meaningless tasks would fit right into the book Send: The Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home, and the novel skewers the foibles of the Internet design process in ways that would be familiar to anyone who has ever had any contact with one of our local web/game/effects businesses.

In other words, it still might be worth assigning to students to lighten up one of those courses with a Neuromancer/Snow Crash-type reading list, especially if you are tired of assigning something like Galatea 2.2. Or it could work well as cautionary fare for a course about the design of computational media.

(Thanks to Bill Oakley for loan of the book.)

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Queen for a Day

I've long said that British institutions associated with governance do a much better job using social media and video file-sharing sites than their U.S. counterparts, where American policy makers have developed some truly terrible government blogs, websites, and online videos in 2007, which will surely merit some attention in this year's Foley awards here on Virtualpolitik.

Now even the British Royal Family has its own channel on YouTube, The Royal Channel. The site is currently featuring the Queen's Christmas Message, which opens with a much younger queen addressing the populace through the one-to-many medium of black-and-white television. It is interesting to note that embedding has been disabled by the site's manager, so the context of the video can be preserved in the creator's chosen frame.

For more on this story, see "YouTube gets the royal treatment" in today's Los Angeles Times.

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Keep Your Copyright To Yourself



This example of what Henry Jenkins has characterized as the "vaudeville" aspect of YouTube has a distinctive copyright disclaimer at the end, which reads "All material copyright its respective copyright holder." Given the value of imitation and replication to all aspects of our society, as Hillel Schwartz's The Culture of the Copy notes, this expression of anxiety about possible litigation in what would have to be considered a relatively feeble gesture of legalese is particularly ironic if these rapid fire homages depend on sourcing the original.

Certainly YouTube is also frequently used to "out" those who appropriate the original material of others without attribution, as The Boston Globe has pointed out in coverage of the Rogan-Mencia rivalry between stand-up comics and the LA Times makes clear in reporting on a copyright spat involving Avril Lavigne's pop hit "Girlfriend."

Besides, as Virtualpolitik pal James Kotecki has pointed out, all of the presidential candidates seem to be violating YouTube's copyright policies much more flagrantly.

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Media Glare

Parents who have read parts of the His Dark Materials book series are likely to be disappointed with the movie The Golden Compass, which ends so that the credits roll long before the dark and morally ambiguous conclusion of the book. But it was interesting to note how self-consciously the digital animators inserted manufactured artifacts of traditional optical film-making. For example, during a dramatic fight between supernaturally large talking polar bears, there was a jarring moment of pseudo-lens glare, as thought it had been difficult to film against snow.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Family Reunion

Today's video story in The New York Times , "Perfect Strangers, Genetic Kin," has a somewhat deceptive title in that this "kinship" is constituted by rare genetic mutations from their parents. As computer technology makes it possible to identify extremely rare variations in a person's chromosomal blueprint, distributed computer networks on the Internet also bring geographically remote parents together so they can benefit from some social economies of scale. Sites like the 22q13 Deletion Foundation potential connect families to support groups and nonprofit medical research advocacy organizations, although their "resources" page is currently "under construction." Unlike many websites that are illustrated with images from stock photo banks, these sites are intended to show specific symptoms and humanize real patients with the disorder. More on the Times continuing coverage of this issue is here.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Lady Vanishes

The true commitment to democracy of the current administration is now tested in the wake of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Before she died, she accused the current government in Islamabad of failing to provide security for her campaign stops or to investigate a previous assassination attempt that had killed many bystanders.

When I was a student at Harvard, during her rise to political prominence, she was often discussed in the dining halls, where she had once been a student, as a symbol of hope for women around the world.

Sadly, much of the best coverage of the event today is coming from stock image bank services. This heart-rending first-person account in The New York Times came with a byline from Getty Images. I actually learned about the assassination from a Newscom e-mail hawking "a collection of lightboxes that we hope you find useful" that was compiled by their "editors and researchers" to illustrate this story about political murder. As the announcement explained, "Here you will find not only pictures of Ms. Bhutto, but intriguing images of her family, her history and the political environment in which she worked."

Perhaps I should be grateful to the stock photo banks. An image search on Google with Bhutto's name quickly brings Web surfers to a disputed image of Bhutto from her graduate school days at Oxford, which -- while she was living -- was used by her political opponents to dispute her public image as a good Muslim. Tabloid-style blog entries, such as "Why I Forwarded Benazir's Photo," moralize the smear tactics of her accuser, Muhammad Abd al-Hameed, who advertises himself as "a Muslim, a Pakistani and a media person, in that order." Her defenders on Flickr point out inconsistencies in the clothing choices of the reclining woman in a short skirt depicted and Bhutto's regular fashion choices and argue that what is being disseminated is a Photoshop forgery.

No matter what the sideshow, this killing is not acceptable. And even if the perpetrators were jihadist radicals, strongman tactics that glorify martial law, mass detentions, and the suspension of the rule of law must not be rewarded as a response. This is not what Bhutto would have wanted. Even if you don't wear the label of feminist, readers should notify their elected officials that female challengers cannot be murdered without consequences in nations to which we provide military, economic, and humanitarian aid, even if it is to the advantage of a strategic ally and a fellow nuclear power.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reasonable Doubt

This holiday season the Center for Democracy and Technology has been taking advantage of slow news days and consumer anxiety to get publicity for their latest report, which includes a Music Download Warning List that promises to alert users to companies who might be offering music and entertainment that they are not licensed to distribute. Their online press reads:

Unfortunately, some sites may be happy to take your money, and may leave you with the impression that they are legal sources of a full range of music – including the top performers and music labels – but they are not licensed distributors of at least a substantial quantity of mainstream music. In particular, the sites on our list promote themselves in ways that suggest their music catalog is relatively comprehensive, when in fact they appear to have done nothing to license or otherwise ensure the legality of any downloads from the major music labels. Even where these sites include “legal information” cautioning users against illegal downloading, that information is not sufficiently clear, or prominent, or specific to prevent users from mistakenly perceiving the sites as sources of lawful copies of most mainstream music.

In short, if you are an Internet user in the United States and you pay money to one of these services with the intention of being a lawful online music user, you may get less than you bargained for.

I find myself with a lot of questions about this group and exactly what and more importantly whom they represent. I certainly like words like "democracy" and "technology" as much as the next person, but I don't know quite what to make of their repetition of the word "reasonable" with regard to the merging of hardware and software in certain kinds of architectures of control.
The Center poses as a "consumer" group, and yet it also posts documents like this one that suggest that there should be analog rights management as well.

When I looked at their funding information, I wonder why their most recent information is from a relatively outdated 2004 pie chart and why such a large portion of their funding comes from technology firms who benefit commercially from protections for proprietary systems. The group also seems to have a strong anti-regulatory bent, which can sound good from a free speech advocacy perspective on decency legislation like COPA but not very helpful if the market is left to decide about network neutrality issues in a time of increased media and telecommunications consolidation.

Since Virgil Griffith's Wikiscanner indicates that they are doing a lot of anonymous edits of their own page, they certainly make no secret of the fact that their director parted ways in 1994 from the more clearly civil libertarian Electronic Freedom Foundation.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One Thousand and Counting

I don't know how much of a Christmas present this posting is, but it does have the distinction of being the one thousandth post on Virtualpolitik.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Wish


This being the traditional season of offense and blasphemy, I feel like I shouldn't miss out on the holiday spirit. So here goes with a few words of outright heresy with which to mark the Yuletide this year:

Don't buy Apple iTunes gift cards.

That's right. No matter how hectic your X-mas Eve or how emphatically you hear pleas from young Noah and Britney, moms and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles, older and wiser sisters and brothers should not purchase gift cards that only encourage young people to buy music with DRM, music that has no where to go but planned obsolescence.

Those of us who were early adopters know a little bit about mortality. Three computers, five computers -- it sounds like a lot to begin with. But we, who have taken a few ailing iPods to the Apple store and who have laid a few hard drives to rest, know that having a limited number of downloads represents a relatively short lease on musical life when compared to the half century or century of pleasure that collectors of vinyl experience.

Apple will make millions of dollars on gift cards without your help this year. Here's my advice for what to do instead: go retro; buy vinyl. They are still people making the stuff, and there are lots of happy people to sell the old tunes to you.

I took some pictures at LA's own Record Surplus yesterday to show what all you lovers of cold, hard pseudo-music currency are missing out on.


Now, a holiday story to get all you shoppers in the right mood: when I was a teenager, I had a friend, Alice Burkner, who exchanged Frank Sinatra albums with her family. The way I heard it, that was pretty much it for their Christmas gift exchange. No one-upmanship, no status presents, no bigger gift in a bigger box.

There are apparently a lot of different Frank Sinatra records, with some remarkable album cover art, so there was always plenty of Ol' Blue Eyes to go around underneath the tree. Of course, if they exchanged the same albums, that was okay too.

How I envied Alice Burkner! While the rest of us were swapping soap and candles and ugly sweaters and crystal snowmen and -- eventually -- gift cards, they could enjoy "Songs for Young Lovers" and "Minute Masters" and "No One Cares" and "In the Wee Small Hours" from The Voice.

So this Christmas, you can say, "I Did It My Way," by purchasing music that will last.

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Dogged by the Media

It's another Christmas and time for another terrible Barneycam video from the White House website. This year there is a strange appearance from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair near the end of the holiday footage in which this former world leader expresses empathy with Bush's literal lapdog. The entire thing seems to invite remixing, although I've only seen a few on the web.

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Life of the Party



I checked the offical websites of the other federal agencies, and the TSA seems to be the only one incorporating the wreath into their official seal for the holidays. They may be losing the War on Terror, but at least they are fighting successfully against the War on Christmas.

They don't have much to celebrate this holiday season, since a recent poll shows that, largely thanks to Internet horror stories, the TSA is now vying with the IRS for the title of least-popular federal agency.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Chain Gang

There is a chain letter going around with yellow-ribbon images and several pictures of soldiers interacting with children and animals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the images here, although the image of the soldier with the kitten is notably misssing.

Recipients of the e-mailed letter are urged to sent it to thirteen people in fifteen minutes and are instructed to "hurry." It has apparently been circulating for over a year and has even created some controversy on atheist message boards, where would-be chain links complain about the religiosity of the first image. It's hard to figure out much about the letter's origin, since there are few clues other than a corporate disclaimer from a British food and pet products company.

(Thanks to Maiya Williams Verrone for passing it on to me.)

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DIY Holidays

I think Christmas is all about the crafts and not about the shopping. Lucky for me, Todd Oldham put out a call for the best DIY holiday videos on YouTube, which certainly put me in the holiday mood. Here are some selections from his selections. I liked the CD turbine punch bowl the best.







Happy holidays!

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Rap Trap



It's hard to get more meta than this rap that a Nigerian 419 scammer was apparently tricked into making by someone who was in turn scamming him by pretending to be a record company executive responding to his lottery winnings letter. This site contains more information about 419 scam baiting.

(Thanks to Trebor Scholz for the link.)

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Friday, December 21, 2007

At Least It's Easier to Understand the Lyrics than When Michael Stipe Sings It



This is the new video, set to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," from the YouTube director who also gave us George W. Bush doing a cover of a different ditty: U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

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Language Lesson



Be warned: this frequently downloaded multi-lingual anti-war rap video, "Refuse, Resist, Say No," contains graphic violence from newsreels and photojournalism. As an example of distributed media practices -- in which it's often called "the anarchist music video" -- it's interesting for a number of reasons.

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Greeks Bearing Gifts


The words "educational purposes" seem to be getting a new meaning at the industry-funded Copyright Alliance. Posing as a social marketing group aimed to prevent an abuse of basic human rights, the group is running ads with mournful performers and tag lines like this one: "It seems almost every day some special interest group calls for weaker protection of
copyrights—which threatens her livelihood and much, much more." Of course the lobbying of the MPAA and RIAA against the interests of educators is certainly supported by many special interests contrary to the general public's desire to reuse and remix content for creative, educational, and critical purposes.

Particularly laughable is the claim that independent documentary filmmakers, who currently shell out huge fees for each pop song accidentally playing in the background or splice of a news clip that's necessary for story-telling, are big supporters of the effort. The Documentary Filmmakers' Statement at the Center for Social Media seems to be making a very different argument. (For those who don't like big words and legalese, there's also a Disney version on YouTube.)

As an educator who frequently explains particular aspects of a historical period, philosophical position, or cultural aesthetic with a clip from a movie, what I find most repulsive is the fact, reported in "Copyright Alliance Proposes Wiki to Help Professors Get Permissions for Classroom Use" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that this group wants to create a false sense that there are only a limited number of listed permission-granted films that they would be in charge of listing. Not-for-profit live screenings used directly in the context of teaching such as mine are currently protected by case law involving fair use. Siva Vaidhyanathan has called the bid to roll back precedent under the guise of a user-generated content interface "outrageous."

The group also hosted a one-sided pseudo-academic "symposium, according to Inside Higher Ed.

For a site that claims to put a premium on originality, I thought it was funny to see how much of the content on the site is recycled from others, from the trite "Lesson Plans" from other anti-file-sharing and anti-downloading campaigns to the predictable party line statements in "Documents and Research." I think the latter would only appeal to a student too lazy to go to a paper mill to get some stock "con" position papers on fair use.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grounds for Doubt

My father just received the following urban legend e-mail, which has apparently been circulating since 2004.

Recently Marines in Iraq wrote to Starbucks because they wanted to let them know how much they liked their coffees and to request that they send some of it to the troops there. Starbucks replied, telling the Marines thank you for their support of their business, but that Starbucks does not support the war, nor anyone in it, and that they would not send the troops their brand of coffee.

So as not to offend Starbucks, maybe we should not support them by buying any of their products! I feel we should get this out in the open. I know this war might not be very popular with some folks, but that doesn't mean we don't support the boys on the ground fighting street-to-street and house-to-house.

If you feel the same as I do then pass this along, or you can discard it and no one will never know.

Thanks very much for your support. I know you'll all be there again when I deploy once more.

Semper Fidelis.

Sgt. Howard C. Wright
1st Force Recon Co
1st Plt PLT


When contacted by collectors of Internet folklore, "Sgt. Howard C. Wright" couldn't verify anything to justify his call for a boycott that involved specific military units or representatives of Starbucks who allegedly turned them down. Many websites claim that he subsequently apologized for his rush to judgment.

I'm interested in the fact that the same story was told about Oscar Mayer hot dogs in a similar e-mail. What semiotic substitutions transformed java into wieners?

(Thanks to Sam Losh for the e-mail.)

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We Have Your Daughter

Speaking of 24 and captivity narratives involving young females, it's worth looking at the recent New York-phobic video from Mitt Romney, which will soon be replacing his current run of more obviously "negative" ads during the holiday season.



Strangely, coverage in The New York Times during the period about the case, such as Volunteers Search for Missing Girl, 14, in Party Underworld and Missing Teen-Ager Found in New Jersey, don't mention Romney by name.

I do also have to point out that as more political ads are being seen by online video audiences, it does seem like the talking heads in these spots loom larger, as if shot closer to the camera. This one doesn't have the grotesque proportions of many others, however, and is shot more like a conventional campaign ad.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

24 1/2

Other than its repulsive politics of fear, I had not really thought much about the show 24 until I wrote a script and edited these parody videos in connection with learning to use Final Cut Pro. One of the things I was struck by, as I manipulated the clips through the software user-interface, was the fact that much of the 24 aesthetic is actually shaped by Final Cut's affordances and constraints and that its visual style may be an example of what Lev Manovich calls "transcoding," since making those superimposed boxes is extremely easy in Final Cut and doesn't even involve outputting content from a digital effects program like After Effects.

Warning: The part one video is actually not very funny, since it's being used for set-up and is a little too close to the plot and characterization of the actual show, which I discovered really does feature an amputated digit a few shows into the first series. But with the writers' strike canceling the season, this is the best that fans can do for new content.

Part One



Part Two



Earlier this year, I had an interesting conversation with one of the early scholars of digital rhetoric, Jay David Bolter, who had some reflections about torture and 24. Peter Rauch has also been doing some interesting work about 24 and depictions of torture in videogames, in which it always functions as a kind of efficacious cheat. Rauch proposes a "serious game" about torture that would show the costs of human rights abuses.

One other digital media fun fact: 24 show runner Howard Gordon once worked with my better half, Mel Horan a.k.a. "Mr. Liz," in making the anti-consumerist webtoon series Garbage Island. No ticking clock or evil terrorists in that show.

Update: these parodies that incorporate pizza delivery and MP3 files of Ashlee Simpson are much funnier.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Raise Your Hand if You Trust the Suits


The big media story today has to be the controversial FCC ruling that will put into motion a fundamental repeal of longstanding prohibitions against cross-media ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same media market. Indeed, the Federal Communications Commission has reversed decades of policy-making in today's 3-2 decision favored by the Bush administration. Then again, I don't know how good their judgment would have to have been to begin with, given that the FCC has the ugliest website of any U.S. federal agency (see above). What about the fact that they are supposed to be mass communications experts?

Certainly groups opposed to media conglomeration, such as freepress.net, are unhappy with today's decision. An allied group, StopBigMedia.com, is asking members of the public to donate their photos to a wall of protest. Yours truly has already posted her picture in order to fit in with the virtual crowd. For more on what's wrong with the FCC from a Virtualpolitik perspective, go here and here.

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Off Air

In "Striking writers in talks to launch Web start-ups," Virtualpolitik friend Joseph Menn reports on the front page of yesterday's Los Angeles Times about the growth of self-financed independent productions for Internet audiences that are staffed by former studio professionals. The article raises a number of questions, of course. 1) Would this violate the "pencils down" policy of the WGA and thus constitute encouragement of so-called "scab labor" policies? and 2) Can the film and television industry really follow the lead of the music business, since the number of people needed to make the actual product is an order of magnitude higher? Certainly, cutting out the middle men makes sense for musicians on either side of a spectrum that runs from a garage band using MySpace to rock stars Radiohead distributing In Rainbows on the Internet with choose-your-own-pricing, but the specialization of labor in Hollywood makes DIY more difficult.

Menn's generally a very good reporter, but as "news" for a new media critic, this story also lacks a certain amount of excitement, given that anyone under fifty in the WGA with half a brain already knows that many-to-many computer networks will almost certainly replace traditional one-to-many broadcasting and that lots of interesting content appears on YouTube every day. If anything, the fact that The LA Times could only find "seven" such ventures indicates that they didn't look under many rocks to write the story, since I could probably find more examples of web shows by pros in development at a typical LA holiday party.

Finally, the fact that the most hilarious guy they could come up with to serve as an exemplar for this new bite-sized television was the co-creator of the Air Bud series was utterly discouraging. I'd rather watch more web savvy content in shows like "The Guild" than be subjected to an inferior product informed by a tired Disney live-action sensibility.

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No More Mr. Nice Guy

Candidates are using online video sharing sites to send holiday greetings to potential voters this year in what have surprisingly become some of the most watched videos on YouTube during a time of year that many are tuning out attack ads.





I just have to get me a red sweater or something.

(Check out this video from Mitt Romney that actually features a Webkinz product placement tie-in, where children are encouraged to use the Internet to "send a friend invite to Mittkinz." If this video weren't also posted on Romney's official YouTube video channel I wouldn't have believed that it was real.)

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Sharing Time

I wrote up some of the lessons I learned from teaching a course on digital rhetoric this quarter over at the mailing list for The Institute for Distributed Creativity.

Thanks to those who've contacted me since about their own teaching experiences with digital media.

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Not in My Back Yard

Driving to Irvine on the 405 freeway near the 73 interchange I frequently see www.relievetraffic.org blinking on an official-looking road sign of the kind usually used for construction notifications, traffic warnings, and alerts about abducted children. I had always assumed that the website advertised was some kind of carpool matching service or a list of tips for how to reduce congestion by telecommuting or not driving at peak hours. Imagine my surprise to discover that the website actually linked to lobbying efforts for the 241 South freeway extension at www.foothillsouth.com against organizations like the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation, which are opposed to expanding freeway construction because of possible environmental impacts. The surfer constituency is directly addressed in videos on the site like "The Truth about Trestles."

In contrast to these Orange County roadside message boards, the leaflets that I often see walking around my neighborhood for thetreesavers.org seem to represent a much more transparent political agenda. Although the treesavers blog has somewhat redundant content, its advocacy clearly aims to preserve a large area planted with ficus trees, by literally "tree hugging" if necessary.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Four-Letter Databases

As I'm starting to read the new book on Database Aesthetics, I've been thinking a lot about Lev Manovich's argument about the end of conventional montage, as the database from which stock material is selected becomes transparent to the audience.

I would argue that there is a lot of content on YouTube that makes databases visible, which is very different from what Henry Jenkins has described as the "vaudeville" ethos of the online video-sharing site that emphasizes live performance of sequential routines. Consider the photo-a-day videos of Noah Kalina or graphic designer Ahree Lee (and their associated parodies and imitations) or the sampling videos of Lasse Gjertsen in films such as Amateur and Daydream. With post-production software each frame of a video potentially becomes a discrete item to be indexed in the larger database that is constituted by the total film.

As YouTube makes clear, not all databases are composed by processes of automation. Some editors still go through and painstakingly find each relevant item by using human discrimination. For example the not-safe-for-work "Scarface in Six" carefully catalogues all the profanity in the film and composes a single movie made up of all of the obscene utterances voiced by the protagonist and his supporting cast. A similar effort is presented in an audio format by Seven Minutes in Deadwood link and the The Number of Fucks in Deadwood website.

Indeed, one of the premises in the recent film Knocked Up is that the protagonists are assembling a database of information about all the nude scenes in movies to enable rapid fast-forwarding to the selected content.

(Thanks to my colleague Mike Heim for the book!)

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Noses against the Window

In "Teleconference a holiday treat for Marine families," an LA Times article describes how the U.C. San Diego supercomputing center is making facilities available to families of those in the armed services based in Camp Pendleton to aid them in communicating with loved ones stationed in Iraq. Having used similar facilities in teaching this year, I know that the experience of telepresence afforded by the technology is surprisingly strong.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Video is Worth a Thousand Words


Anti-Obama critics have been circulating a story via e-mail among Republicans that the candidate does not say the pledge of allegiance. Many of these e-mails include a photograph that seems to show other Democratic presidential hopefuls with their hands over their hearts while Obama stands impassively on the stage beside them. The text to one of them reads:

Senator Barack Obama, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Hillary Clinton and Ruth Harkin stand during the national anthem. Barack Hussein Obama's photo (that's his real name)......the article said he REFUSED TO NOT ONLY PUT HIS HAND ON HIS HEART DURING THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE, BUT REFUSED TO SAY THE PLEDGE.....how in the XXXX can a man like this expect to be our next Commander-in-Chief????


Actually the photograph shows the candidates listening to the National Anthem not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Obama's supporters point out that the full video shows other candidates without their hands on their hearts, and that the convention about "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't as clear, as the authority on Internet legends snopes.com points out.

Ironically, as a baseball fan, I'm far more likely to put my hand to my heart willingly when the National Anthem plays than for the pledge. In contrast, I feel little need to make any display of saying the Pledge of Allegiance, since I resent the insertion of "under God" during the Cold War era, long after this declaration of public loyalty was composed. Saying the Pledge of Allegiance properly may be becoming more similar to what the Lord's Prayer was during the Puritan period, a test of not being outside the circle of social acceptability and a demonstration of not being a witch.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing God and Playing Doctor


GodTube, the Liberty University sponsored website, heavily promotes the campus of the famed late conservative evangelist Reverend Jerry Falwell. Not all of the video content proselytizes, however. Much of the footage also presents gag reels showing send-ups of undergraduate life, with a strong hip-to-be-Christian message.

A variant of the YouTube brand name is also being used by PornoTube, which has vaulted into the top-twenty rankings by offering short, attention-deficit but rich in money shot clips from lucrative pay porn sites under the guise of promotional teaser fare. The big porn sites complain about lax copyright enforcement and the inaction of the otherwise zealous MPAA, which doesn't seem interested in taking the side of the morally challenged adult film industry to protect their pro-family public relations interests. Now Vivid Entertainment is suing PornoTube for copyright infringement.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Talking Back to the Screen

A recent New York Times article, "God and Man on YouTube" makes a useful point about what MIT's Henry Jenkins has called the "vaudeville" character of YouTube. It notes that much-watched virtuoso performances like "The Evolution of Dance" or animal hijinks, which the author calls "dumb shows," rarely garner video responses or even many substantive comments despite huge numbers of views. In contrast, other videos invite participation, such as "Atheist," which is often embedded, responded to with another video, or commented upon.

Indeed, one of my students chose to do her final video essay for my digital rhetoric class as a response to the much-watched and much commented upon "On Profanity." Her video, "Profanity," uses a more structured format of stock images to make a sustained counterargument to this vlogger's high-profile riff about offensive language.

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Fiction Stranger Than Truth

Just a few days ago, I was commenting on the terrible web design of the official website of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which has since added a cretinous ticker of dollars whizzing by in "What the Strike is Costing Writers."

Now Virtualpolitik pal and quiz show virtuoso John Aboud and partner Michael Colton have created a pretty funny parody send-up at amptp.com.

We are heartbroken to report that despite our best efforts, including sending them a muffin basket, making them a mix CD, and standing outside their window with a boombox blasting Peter Gabriel songs, our talks with the WGA have broken down. Quite frankly, we're puzzled as to why this happened. We talked about it all the way home – after we walked into their hotel room, slapped our list of demands on the table and abruptly left the negotiating session – and none of us could figure out what went wrong.

While we're not going to point fingers or assign blame, we do feel justified in saying that they are entirely at fault.


Of couse, some are arguing that the strike could actually be good for the presidential election, since voters will be exposed to fewer attack ads by front runners if they are tuning out of prime time and more news programs substituting for fictional fare if they do keep the TV on. Thus, Internet campaigning may prove to be even more important in the 2008 race. See "Six reasons the Hollywood strike could change the 2008 election" for more.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Last Call

It's that time of year again. We know that the government has its shortcomings as a media-maker, and it's important to find time to recognize its achievements in miscommunication.

I'm asking for nominations for this year's Foley awards to recognize exceptionally bad digital design in taxpayer-funded materials. The categories are (drumroll please):

Worst overall web design of a government website

Worst online information access

Worst online social marketing

Worst visual rhetoric

Worst user interface

Worst technical incompatibility

Worst electronic message to the masses

Worst official PowerPoint presentation

Worst government-funded videogame

Worst abuse of copyright law

Worst appeal to children

Worst call to patriotism

Worst regulation of technology in response to a craven fear

You can see the gallery of last year's winners here.

Don't forget that I'll also be doing my annual video round-up on the year in digital rhetoric to ring in the new year. If you forgot what happened in 2006, you can refresh your memory on this link.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

National Turn Off TV Week - Part Two

National Turn Off TV Week - Part One

Monday, December 10, 2007

Time Lapse



The Information Aesthetics blog shows how the beginning of the film The Kingdom uses information graphics and digital effects to present a particular narrative about the history of modern Saudi Arabia to set the stage for the movie to follow.

There are a lot of other shrunk-down histories of the Middle East on the Internet right now, from the pro-Israel History in a Nutshell PowerPoint to History of the Middle East . . . in a Couple of Minutes from conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Kant Get Elected



I thought this parody of political attack ads using German philosophers was hilarious, but it probably appeals to a very specific audience of 1) political wonks with 2) PhDs with some sort of Critical Theory specialization who 3) watch YouTube all day long. In other words, it is pitched precisely to the niche audience for this blog. I even considered adding the tag, "Critical Theory Inside Jokes" in its honor.

Thanks to Ted Striphas' blog Differences and Repetitions for the link. I've added his excellent blog to the blogroll, as I've been meaning to do for over a year. Striphas credits John Lucaites at No Caption Needed as his source.

Speaking of questions of audience, there is an interesting meditation on "Third Tier Bloggers," which is worth reading. It is mostly about discourses on finance and investment blogs, a galaxy in the blogosphere that I rarely visit, but some of its generalizations are interesting for other rhetorical contexts. (The opening image comes from "5 Terrible Senior Pictures," which has a similar visual aesthetic to the much-emailed seventies JC Penney catalog meme.)

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Watch Out for the People Who Work in Bookstores

I wonder if I've ever seen Samina Malik. I've certainly bought books at at least one W.H. Smith at Heathrow Airport, where she worked. According to "'Lyrical Terrorist' Samima Malik Guilty," she has now been found guilty of terrorist offenses for which part of the evidence against her included "a series of poems on websites across the internet about killing non-believers, pursuing martyrdom and raising children to be holy fighters."

I'm uneasy about claims that art always can be read in terms of intention, imitation, and approval rather than seeing creative works as a potentially more complex forms of representation that can certainly be used to invite critique or ironization. For example, when I read about children being disciplined by school authorities for poems they write, I think about how I -- who have an M.F.A. in creative writing -- could have been labeled disturbed if I grew up in this new educational time. It is interesting that poetry-writing by campus shooters is now considered to be as much a supposed tell-tale sign as their indulgence in violent videogame play. Perhaps game theory critics who point to the similarities between poetry and videogames are right.

Malik, who went by the Internet handle, "Lyrical Terrorist," argued in court that her online persona was shaped by the norms of Internet dating much more than it was shaped by the rhetorical conventions of global jihad.

On a website called Hi-5, similar to social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, Malik listed her interests as: "Helping the mujahideen [holy fighters] in any way which I can... I am well known as lyrical terrorist."

Under favourite TV shows, it said: "Watching videos by my Muslim brothers in Iraq, yep the beheading ones, watching video messages by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri [his deputy] and other videos which show massacres of the kaffirs."

Malik claimed she was only writing poetry for "fame and recognition" and to show off to men she hoped to marry.

Of course, this being the Internet, her poems are already being parodied. See Jihad Watch for an example.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Procedurality

I've been thinking a lot about procedurality lately, and an incident today showed the relevance of these theoretical speculations in the world of lived experience as well.

First, some background: I live in a house that is between two hospitals on the east-west axis, between two churches on the north-south axis, and around the corner from a funeral home. As a result, it's a neighborhood in which property is not only slightly more affordable in pricey Santa Monica but also one in which elderly people are often seen wandering around on the sidewalks lost. The disoriented senior citizen problem has become particularly noticeable since one of the hospitals has been undergoing construction and has closed down its reception area, along with its main entrance.

Today, I led a man back to his wife's hospital room. She was 91, and he was 88. He had gone outside to smoke, since the rules of the hospital dictated that visitors smoke far from the building and its ventilation systems, but he couldn't find his way back to the right structure after he had finished his cigarette. To make matters worse he was apparently experiencing some side effects from the medication he was taking, which only contributed to his confusion and inability to navigate. By the time he encountered me on my morning walk, he was blocks from the hospital after an hour going in circles or in the wrong direction. Since I was one of the few people not wearing an iPod or talking into a cell phone, he approached me for help, albeit hesitantly.

What astonished me was that it soon became clear that merely leading him back to the front door of the hospital wouldn't be enough to get him back to where he wanted to go, since his journey would still involve negotiating a maze of corridors and blocked off construction areas. None of the half-dozen or so people on the hospital staff milling around the entrance seemed able to help: the security guard had to stay by the door and couldn't walk us far enough into the building to make his directions clear, and a quintet of wheelchair pushers told me they would only respond to instructions from the nurses' stations on the floors above. Eventually I got him back to the right place.

As I walked back onto the street, I thought about the fact that hospitals were highly procedural places. There were rules for everything from the moment a patient is signed in on a sheet on a clipboard to the moment that he or she is wheeled out the door. In some ways, I understand these kinds of environments; the university I work at has its own systems of seemingly Byzantine regulations and multiple decision trees. If Johnny fails Course X, then he can't take Course Y and must take Course Z. Yet, when people don't fit neatly into an if-then statement, what are they supposed to do?

If anything, the procedural character of our society is becoming more obvious. Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig identifies four forces of regulation in his book Code 2.0: the law, the market, social norms, and architectures of control. Anxieties about litigation, cost-cutting and downsizing in response to globalization, the constraints of Web 2.0 forms of sociality, and zealous protectionism of private property of all kinds -- including intellectual property -- only intensifies this focus on articulating procedures and then monitoring compliance with them.

In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost argues that we can never really get outside procedurality, just as we can never get outside of ideology. When a company seems to be making an exception to the rules for a dissatisfied customer, stakeholders there are only following another procedure, which is designed to foster business and limit bad PR. Bogost is known for being fascinated with the procedures involved in shopping, travel, and public safety, as games he has created, such as lXtreme Xmas Shopping, Airport Security, and Food Import Folly show.

Recently, when Mark Marino came to my digital rhetoric class, he talked about his interest in "breaking" systems, which Noah Wardrip-Fruin has described as the best way to figure out how they work. One of Marino's joys in playing with the ELIZA system created by Joseph Weizenbaum, he said, was trying to input data into the simulation that would "cause it to say silly things." Marino admitted, however, that he would also try to "break" the system when dealing with a customer service representative at a call center, by finding the words that would disrupt the script that the person was reading back to him. He talked about the moral ambiguities involved when you are "breaking a person" not "breaking a system."

So what would be the programmatic solution that would correct the procedures that are causing old people to be out wandering in the street? City workers could just paint lines on the sidewalks in different colors with arrows, as they often do inside hospitals themselves to help visitors find high traffic destinations in times of crisis. St. John's Hospital could be one color, and Santa Monica Hospital could be another. That wouldn't do much for property values, but at least the neighborhood would be more colorful.

Or -- in the absence of minders and security cameras -- perhaps more elderly people should carry cell phones, preferably with GPS orienting gear, so they can reach a doctor, nurse, or loved one whenever they stray.

Yet, that seems a little cold to me. The gentleman I walked to his destination is not the only injured or lost person that I've escorted since I've lived here when I saw a need, and I tend to think that part of being civic-minded is helping those who need help, if for no other reason than we are all going to get old one day.

The man kept commenting on how surprising it was that in this day and age I was willing to go out of my way for a stranger, even though good deeds of this kind take remarkably little time and aren't particularly noble if you are just programmed to do them. He kept saying that I was behaving just as a boy scout would. He told me that the Boy Scouts of America was an organization with which he had apparently been affiliated with for forty years. I had, in fact, been a girl scout and now had kids in scouting, but isn't that also its own kind of pre-configured procedurality in that there are clearly defined paths to success and badges to earn and rules to follow?

My solution would just be to rebuild the reception area staffed with volunteers and restore the procedure that had been in place for decades. Until then then those who fall off the decision tree will keep showing up in my neighborhood.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Unsubscription Drive


Through the website of Unsubscribe-me.org, Amnesty International UK is using a common metaphor from the digital practices of everyday life -- the unsubscribe command -- to invite participation in activism on behalf of human rights.

Although "unsubscribe" is usually associated with the contemporary quest for privacy and solitude, which can be achieved only through a reduction in the daily and hourly barrage of information that comes across a given user's computer screen, this initiative isn't about filtering out listserv postings, updates from members of social networks and online groups, news feeds, etc. Instead participants are "unsubscribing" from cooperation with government policies that tacitly and sometimes explicitly propagate torture in the name of the Global War on Terror.

The Unsubscribe campaign uses email and social media to encourage others to spread the message and build online communities that support human rights activism. As Armando Alves notes on Osocio, "With a subscription process that feels like a regular social network service, you’re invited to write your views on the subject and share it to your friends." Alves points out the irony that "most petitions ask you to sign up," but Amnesty International is asking citizens to take their names off. There is a beautiful, dynamically-generated animation of all the names that have been posted here.

Today's revelations on the front pages of U.S. national newspapers show that the CIA destroyed videotapes that documented interrogation sessions that used potentially unlawful or inhumane techniques. Unfortunately, most Americans may be more likely to join social networking sites for their pets, such as those described in "Hey Spot, You've Got Mail," than they may be to join a potentially entangling social network for their fellow human beings.

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Math Lessons

Striking WGA writers have produced a number of parody videos purporting to be from the management side of the collective bargaining process, such as the one below. A common motif is the screwy math lesson that plays with the cultural cliché that people who are good with language wouldn't be good with numbers.



It turns out that there aren't any real YouTube videos on the AMPTP official site, although they do have an annoying ghostly news feed that fades in and out. In fact, it was so annoying that I went to view the page source for the HTML code and discovered that the script had come from a genuinely good web development site, Dynamic Drive, which solicits user-generated content and explains the embedding process and how scripts work remarkably well.

So, thanks to the AMPTP, after wondering if it has really been worth it to go to my weekly evening ActionScript class for the past year, today I can feel pleasure and amazement at being finally able to understand exactly how web pages like this work and to be unafraid of words like "constructor" and "instance." Even as the strike wears on, I suppose my own math lessons are going pretty well.

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Big, Bad Words

As soon as I found out about the Blog Readability Test, I felt compelled to check out the vocabulary level of all the blogs that I write for. Apparently the free culture, open source, and critical information studies blog Sivacracy is written at a straightforward "high school" level of diction, and Julia and Ellen Lupton's Design Your Life, to which I am only an occasional contributor, is pitched to be understood by even a "junior high" audience. The new social marketing blog Osocio is apparently somewhat more erudite, despite all the pictures and YouTube videos, since it registers at a "college (undergraduate)" level. And what about this blog, you may ask? Apparently, there's been too much critical theory and art talk during the past week, because it registers above the "graduate school" level at "genius." So any reader who is reading this right now should feel flattered that he or she is apparently so well-educated.

cash advance

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Crashing the Helicopter

Readers know that one of my gripes with the mainstream media's coverage of Internet practices is that newspapers and television tend to report kids+computers+crime stories in ways that essentially blame the bad behavior in the central narrative on access to distributed networks and digital tools. For example, in the summer of 2006, even the august New York Times wrote several multi-part stories about teens who allegedly had been led astray into life in the demi-monde by either their programming skills or their acquisition of consumer electronics.

Naturally, teenagers are perfectly capable of getting themselves into lots of trouble without a computer login. For starters, I often think that parents underestimate the mischief that ingenious young people could get themselves into in the past through the traditional medium of print.

Last month, a piece in the St. Charles Journal, "A real person, a real death" provided a number of tantalizing details about the suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier last year after she was jilted by her virtual boyfriend, "Josh Evans," who turned out to be the creation of vengeful mother-daughter neighbors with a faked MySpace account who had felt that Megan had snubbed her former friends in her quest for popularity.

In addition to grabbing headlines in print in several media markets and being reported in The New York Times, the various accounts of the "MySpace Suicide" also construct the kind of story that gets a lot of coverage in the huge parenting blogosphere. As the local story shows, it also brings out a certain amount of vigilante commenting and calls for "street justice" that is enabled when readers publish added personal information about the accused. For example, the input from the anonymous "Justice4Megan" here and here includes private data about home telephone numbers, the schools and graduation dates of the meddling mother, and the professional clients of the accomplice father's business.

Police reports document that there has been continued vandalism and bad blood between the neighboring families in the year since the teen took her own life. At a more abstract level of justice, the logic of those who condemn the parties who created the false profile can be used to shape policy issues in ways that could curtail essential freedoms for online speech, as even the well-intentioned champions of Suzy's Law potentially do when dealing with much more explicit verbal incitement to suicide directed at the mentally ill.

So, in some ways it was refreshing to read "Helicopter Parenting Turns Deadly," which recently appeared in The New York Times collection of associated blogs, because it focused on the social over-investment of what could be called "smother mothers" rather than advocacy for keeping children on the other side of the digital divide or creating new rules controlling online conduct that are intended to promote online civility and safety but risk licensing repressive policing of both the public and private spheres. Rather than accept that this was a story about the need for more regulation of online bullying and harassment and legislation against "poisonous online communications," author Judith Warner sees it as a cautionary tale about "the disturbing degree to which today’s parents – and mothers in particular – frequently lose themselves when they get caught up in trying to smooth out, or steamroll over, the social challenges faced by their children."

I think she's right that "parents of teenagers are not supposed to act like teenagers," but she also makes a number of assumptions about what motivates parents to indulge in MySpace role-playing that preserve an ideology that mothers are necessarily maternal in their online lives. She argues that it is a misplaced tendency toward "feeling our children’s pain" or "shaping their world to offer them the greatest possible degree of happiness" rather than a desire to indulge in fantasy or escape the realities of middle age and middle-class existence. There was another case that also turned deadly, in which a mother impersonated her seventeen-year-old daughter through online communication that was reported in Wired in "An IM Infatuation Turned to Romance. Then the Truth Came Out." The mothers in each of these identity-switching stories constructed elaborate fictions with heightened dramatic conflicts that make the explosive human relationships represented in electronic literary works like Façade look relatively tame by comparison.

This is not to say that I think that parents and children should always represent themselves honestly online. When it comes to intergenerational use of computers, I think that there are valuable lessons to be learned about dissimulation, particularly when marketers have set an actual dollar value on personal data in the age of mathematical theories of communication that quantifies each bit of resolved uncertainty. Nonetheless, the point is to create fake identities that serve social good rather than do harm to vulnerable individuals with fragile real-life egos. Alice Neugier, Malaise Etoile, Mathews Mooresque, and any of the other alternative personae that I have used to visit political and commercial sites anonymously over the years would never cause anyone to take their own life or the lives of others.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Twenty-First-Century English Majors

Although we'll have a project critique during finals week, today was the last formal meeting of the current digital rhetoric course that I've been teaching this quarter.

Our guest speaker was Mark Marino, who walked students through a range of his e-literature works and collaborative efforts, which he had organized as Diigo bookmarks.

Other guests have included Jonathan Alexander, David Familian, Joshua Fouts, James Kotecki, Peter Krapp, Julia Lupton, and Nedra Weinreich. In connection with their coursework, students also attended talks by Nick Montfort, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Tom Boellstorff, Ian Bogost, and Virgil Griffith.

Despite the fact that I invited a range of speakers in connection with the umbrella topic of "digital rhetoric," I found that privileging a certain amount of literary analysis and creative writing made sense, given that the audience for the course was composed of English majors who were graduating seniors. Although they eventually became able bloggers and video essayists, the "adaptation" assignments that played to their strengths as book-lovers had much less steep learning curves and efficiently illustrated points from the media theory that they were reading about hypertext writing or game design by exploiting their pre-existing knowledge of literary studies. For example, I asked them to translate a poem into an electronic hypertext and a book-length work of literature into a game, which turned out to be surprisingly successful prompts for composition.

I try not to foist political engagement on my students, even though my own objects of study reflect my personal interests in state rhetoric and activist protest. Although my approach is typified by a recent article in media/culture on "Artificial Intelligence: Media Illiteracy and the SonicJihad Debacle in Congress," which was reviewed for mainstream audiences by Gameology, Kotaku, and Game Politics, I find myself teaching a lot more canonical e-lit to my students, so that they can bring the tools that they use with twentieth-century literature (periods, schools, genres, methodologies, etc.) to the twenty-first.

Thus, Marino was a natural choice for our closing session for a group of students who say that they now wish they could take more courses that study digital texts. He opened by appealing to their interests and asking where they might want to go with an English degree. Among the answers were "novel-writing," "law school," "advertising," "journalism," "teaching," "government service," and "business school," although at least two students were interested in graduate study in a digital media degree program. He put forth what they found to be a persuasive claim that English majors were particularly well-suited to interpret code in ways that even programmers could not, because they could see what code says as well as what it does.

Marino argued that the same interfaces that are used to "purchase tickets" or "buy books" could be repurposed for literary applications. He introduced students to the website for the Electronic Literature Organization, which he described as a kind of hospitable and welcoming "guild," and the portal for Critical Code Studies. He also showed only a small amount of the decade of material developed at his brainchild Bunk Magazine, which he argued used digital media much more creatively than commercial mainstream humor publications like The Onion, whose lack of interactivity Marino compared to showing pictures that you've taken of your television screen.

He described his enthusiasm for using any new technology to write a story, whether "Excel, PowerPoint, or Twitter." He pointed to Bunk's recent iPod stories issue as an example of his explorations of form and function. With Jeremy Douglass, he has been working on the concept of "Benchmark Fiction" and adaptations of the classic short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" The tale of the man facing the uncertainties behind the two doors was retold with a chatbot, staged as a Google Fight, etc. He also showed a Borges story told through Diigo virtual sticky notes, "Marginalia in the Library of Babel." He also explained how a desire to break systems -- including customer service phone trees with live human beings -- had shaped a lot of his critical sensibility.

From a Virtualpolitik standpoint, I was particularly interested in his project with the actual code of a terrorist surveillance project in which he had to learn LISP and the relevant database structures in order to understand how -- as a cultural artifact -- it expresses the "logic of a culture" about matters of national security.

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Totem Poll

The theories of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, are relevant yet again this holiday season as totemism takes over in the Internet promotions for this winter's family movies. Readers may remember that I thought that last summer's blockbusters invited Heideggerian interpretations. In contrast, the current crop of vacation flicks seems to suggest that Structuralism may be flourishing at the moment in the box office.

Witness how the websites for Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Golden Compass urge potential viewers to identify with a specific group of animal counterparts. The Alvin movie spurs participation in the franchise, by having visitors record their voices and then have them "munked." (Click to play.)



In the case of The Golden Compass, site users fill out an entire personality test, which is used for the purpose of identifying their "daemon" or spiritual familiar. It's a strategy also used in the procedural rhetoric of Internet dating sites or online recruitment by the military and the CIA.




Lévi-Strauss contended that totemism as it was supposedly practiced by "savages" closely identified with the natural realm did not really exist, as it had been described by his predecessors. Much like the concept of hysteria that had emerged in psychology contemporaneously, Lévi-Strauss wrote that "once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation." "Totemism" for Lévi-Strauss could be recognized as a form of metaphorical thought in which the metaphorical construct depended not on organic similarities but rather on systematic differences. Thus nature serves as a metaphor for culture.

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So Many Blogs, So Little Time

Today's "Around the Web" from Inside Higher Ed has some very kind words for this blog from Siva Vaidhyanathan and Scott Eric Kaufman. The column includes recommendations for some of my favorite academic weblogs, many of which you'll see in the blogroll to the right.

Speaking of writing for the Web, Osocio, the international blog about Social Advertising and Non-Profit Campaigns is now officially launched. I've joined a team led by Marc van Gurp that includes Armando Alves, Serge Fenenko, Dan Matutina, Gillo Cutrupi of Total Tactics, and Noah Scalin of Another Limited Rebellion.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Trying Not to Be Cute

Speaking of conferences, I feel that I have to say something about the weirdest conference call from the ACM I've gotten all year, the Workshop on Designing Cute Interactive Media. I've taken enough Japanese to be familiar with the concept of "kawaii," but I'm not sure that I'm ready to produce a real philosophical meditation on the subject.

Let's see: "The Sublime, The Beautiful, and The Cute." Maybe there could be a grand theory of cuteness that rises to the level of Burke, Kant, or Schopenhauer. The call reads as follows:

Cuteness has an effective design philosophy that can be used in many areas to make emotionally engaging user interactive systems, as well as evaluate existing systems. Cuteness can also be included as an engineering design framework that can assist designers and engineers when creating engaging interactive systems that motivate the user in a happy, positive manner.


In contrast, I write about government discourses and the work of social activists on the World Wide Web. I often feel that the foisting of cuteness on the public in children's websites is often counterproductive for information literacy. Parodies, hoaxes, remixes, and mashups maybe might grab my scholarly attention, but not cuteness per se.

This workshop will be held in conjunction with the SIG-CHI conference on Designing Interactive Media in South Africa.

Update: Since posting, I have discovered cuteoverload.com, which is actually a remarkably compelling website. Link via the blog of Felicia Day, writer and star of the web show The Guild.

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