Guilty Pleasures

May 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm (celebrities, politics, theory, web 2.0)

Guilty pleasures abound in the recent news that Paris Hilton will be having some quality time to herself. In the cult of celebrity we have created for ourselves, it is not simply enough to bask in the stars twinkling light, as the previously well-planned publicity machine of Hollywood would have us do. Now, when celebrity can be as simple as a YouTube video, we take pleasure in the judgment and even hatred we feel toward no-so-deserved ‘stars’. We have created a commodity in stardom, and the media take advantage of that—we read stories about Paris Hilton because we hate her, not because we admire her; and they profit from fueling that hatred. Though at this point, I’m not sure which behavior is worse—reading the juicy details of her ignorance or the fact that her behavior lends itself to such publicity. I guess that’s where the “guilty” part comes in.

Scandal sells nowadays, but, as opposed to the way it used to be treated, (one may recall Ingrid Bergman’s messy affair and her actual exile from the U.S.) we relish in it—waiting for our young starlets to tumble into rehab once again, wondering who will be next to drive drunk, vomit on themselves, or sell a sex tape. I think that more than the scandal, we value our moral superiority over these people.

Mine started simply enough—every so often I’d find a slideshow of terribly dressed celebrities and revel in the fact that though their outfits cost more than my car, and also despite the fact that they had armies of stylists, they still managed to leave the house and be photographed looking like they’d had a nasty tumble down Everest before they reached the red carpet. However, my obsession began to grow—and I now find myself overly concerned with what Nicole Richie is (or rather, isn’t) eating. We like to think we have better sense than them—we value this feeling—so, in a way, Paris Hilton is our fault. She has made herself a caricature for our amusement, and we sit back and think to ourselves, ‘dance, monkey, dance!’

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Barbie 2.0

May 1, 2007 at 6:26 pm (politics, theory, web 2.0)

Mattel announced recently that they will be launching a new product that will allow young girls to connect to a web portal, BarbieGirls.com, a site that will combine a myspace-type community where (according to an article on MSN) girls can “create a character they can name, dress and customize by skin tone, hairstyle and expression [and] shop for clothes and furniture in a virtual mall, using “B-bucks” earned by playing games and watching product promotion videos” It’s Barbie 2.0.

The goal, Mattel says, is to capture girls 6-11 years old, who tend to think that the dolls are too childish for them. This seems to conflict with the space that Barbie has occupied for so long: marketing the idea of being ‘grown up’ to young girls. When girls are young, it generally seems that we are being trained for the future, rather than our current existence. We have an instinct to play with baby dolls and be mothers, and we emulate the fashionable (and recently, career-oriented) Barbie.

However, Barbie is often criticized for creating a false ideal that no young girl can live up to—it’s cited that were she a real person, she would need to be “7 feet 2 inches tall, weigh 115-130 pounds, have 30 to 36 inch hips, an 18 to 23 inch waist and a 38 to 48 inch bust”. But lately, we have to ask ourselves whether Barbie is really that bad compared to other franchises, such as the Bratz dolls, who at their best seem to be either gold diggers or prostitutes. Ah, the joys of post-feminism.

The Barbie doll brings up the age-old nature vs. nurture argument—do we play with Barbie because it’s in our nature as women to desire beauty and fashion, or is it because of Barbie that we are stereotyped this way? I take refuge in a book I once read, called Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession that captures what many young girls do with Barbie: annihilate her. My Barbies were painted, decapitated, mutilated, burned and buried. I don’t know if this was a reaction against Barbie, or what she seems to now represent, but it still comforts me to think of her tufts of golden plastic hair scattered on the brown shag carpet.

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The Joys of Procrastination

April 26, 2007 at 11:37 pm (stuff, web 2.0)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Jorge Cham, author of the grad student comic “Piled Higher and Deeper,” at the University of Arizona. Cham gave a great talk about procrastination, something I’ve been doing a lot lately. To procrastinate, he argues, is not necessarily a bad thing (separate from its close cousin, laziness)—you’re simply deferring a task, but still thinking about doing it; whereas laziness is simply a complete lack of desire to do anything. When we procrastinate, we let our minds wander from the tasks at hand, we can end up being even more creative, removing the mental blocks that occur when we concentrate too long on something. If you have the opportunity to see Cham speak, I highly recommend it—especially if you are or ever were a grad student–he really, really understands.

Procrastination is actually going to end up saving me a lot of time—the other day I was wandering around my del.icio.us bookmarks (I was supposed to be cleaning, but the computer was so enticing…) and I found one I had saved a while back: todoist. This seems to me like one of those fantastic applications developed by a software engineer while work was being avoided; procrastination brings us the most wonderful things.

Today at work when I needed to find a way to organize my (entire) life, todoist popped right back into my head again. You can create projects, add tasks, assign due dates, create color-coding and, best of all, there is a satisfying check box for when you complete something. It works like my brain, but with a bit more clarity—and you can access it from anywhere. With this tool, I can see myself becoming exponentially more productive than I am now…leaving me with oodles of valuable procrastination time. Life is good.

I was in humanities.  This is true.

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Juicy Joost

March 25, 2007 at 8:52 pm (stuff, web 2.0)

There’s been a lot of buzz about Joost lately, the new software from the creators of Kazaa and Skype, which allows users to watch television over the internet. My first thought was, “yeah…and?” It seems counterintuitive to take a technology as old as television and simply give it a new form. But it does seem to have a few added bells and whistles—rewind and pause (though with television’s instinctive paranoia against pirating, “record” is not a likely feature)—it also includes a ratings system and chat windows, so you can discuss programs as they happen. Joost will be presented in a channel format, rather than the click-to-play per program or clip like most of the video currently on the internet. And, spurned by YouTube, Viacom has signed up to broadcast its programs on Joost (any relation to the lawsuit, I wonder?).

Joost is P2P, so it will make its money through advertising, again, much like traditional television, and this may really be the advancement that Joost can provide. Current television ratings are a generally agreed-upon falsehood. Advertising dollars are based on Nielsen ratings, meaning that what 1% of the population watches determines how much television networks can charge for airtime. This is why there are such things as sweeps—the periods when viewers are creating diaries that detail one week of their personal viewing—so they often save the exciting plot twists and guest stars for February, May, July and November. If internet television becomes the norm, it will give programmers even more opportunity to track viewer patterns through fuzzy logic, much like Amazon.com does. Not only will the content providers know what you are watching, but they’ll know how long you are watching it, when you are watching it, how you choose to rate it, whether you chat during it, and then they can take that information to create personalized recommendations, for content and products. So, even though the ads will be select and shorter, they may be more effective.

I can’t imagine that Joost will be around for very long before the advertising starts to become imposing. Given that television is an established technology, and content will need to come from the traditional television networks, the technologies will likely share the space for a while to come.

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Network Execs: Stuart Smalley can help you

March 22, 2007 at 9:59 pm (politics, web 2.0)

So, it seems that while Viacom has decided that to get its piece of the pie it has to sue YouTube, NBC and Fox have taken a slightly different route to make money off of the technology, by attempting to make their own YouTube, which will include full-length episodes of their programs, and some user-created content—how they will deal with the copyright troubles isn’t yet clear (though I have a mental image of hundreds of desk-chained interns developing carpal tunnel as they review each video late into the night).

I think what NBC and Fox fail to realize is that their behemoth size is not an advantage in this case. Google expanded from a search engine to an empire (a googlesphere, if you will) in the blink of an eye. The aging media companies simply can’t compete with that kind of speed, especially as they will no doubt stop to consider each legal ramification possible with every step they take…and that way of thinking is not the way things are anymore. Kind of like when your parents want to be cool, and fail miserably (or, how you try to be cool to your nieces and nephews and fail miserably). It really comes down to acceptance, which is why I think the major media corporations should have a bit of grief counseling 101:

 

Denial – This isn’t happening! It’s more popular than our shows!

Anger – You can’t do this to us! We’ve been doing this for years! We’ll sue!

Bargaining – Seriously, just deal with us—give us a little piece of the pie, and there won’t be any problems…

Depression – It’s over. We can’t compete. All we’ve got left is American Idol.

Acceptance – Hey, it’s ok—let’s just keep on truckin’—after all, we’ve still got American Idol!

 

It’s OK mass media—just keep repeating: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”

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To Twitter or not to Twitter?

March 21, 2007 at 10:44 pm (places, politics, web 2.0)

I can’t decide whether Twitter is the next big thing or the next of the latest and greatest Web 2.0 technologies to bite the proverbial dust. It seems like the natural progression of blogging—a universal blog that everyone can contribute to. But, there’s not necessarily the same amount of thought put into contributing. It’s more like a non-synchronous chat. It reminds me of the game telephone (you start with “President Bush should rethink his foreign policy” and end up with “Messing with tusking shook peering fusion peas”). Is it a conversation? Not really—more like pining something on a bulleting board. But why pin something when you have nothing to say, necessarily?

Then again, it can be entertaining—much in the way reality television is—predictable, but still like watching a car wreck; everyone else is slowing down to look, why not me? It gives us concourse to the world, and, unlike a lot of mainstream media, gives us others we can directly identify with. After all, if we are looking at Twitter, we have been drawn in by the spectacle of it, and reading it, you can see people just like yourself, or who remind you of your own experiences. This comment reminded me of my time at UT Austin (if you’ve spent time in Texas, you’ll understand). Vicarious nostalgia. On the other hand, it can also confirm your schema of the world—someone from San Fran who likes Bikram yoga and chai lattes for example. Nothing wrong with it, just nice to reflect on. And let us not forget the advantage of the virtual-being-there; I couldn’t be at SXSW (more Austin nostalgia), but I knew what was happening there, moment to moment, because of Twitterers.

I suppose it could go either way at this point. Blogging takes a lot of dedication, but Twitter has random charm—I offer no predictions. Except that I don’t think John Edwards will be elected—just a hunch.

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Sinbad is not dead either.

March 16, 2007 at 10:11 pm (celebrities, theory, web 2.0)

The web allows for some remarkable meta-experiences—today, several people experienced a happy bout of ‘hey-remember-that-guy-now-he’s-dead!’ forwarding when they discovered that comedian Sinbad had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately, Sinbad was not dead—he, or rather, his biography, was the victim of a prank on wikipedia.

The wording used to describe this act (by wikipedia spokesperson Sandra Ordonez) was “vandalized”—which got me thinking—can you really vandalize that which is truly not there? In proper Web 2.0 fashion, wikipedia is one part of a constantly shifting database, growing, changing, inhabited by a variety of people; the web is a society, complete with criminals. And like it or not, we entered into a social contract with the web, giving it assumed power.

But is our Rousseau-like democratization of media helping or harming us? In this case, it spurred the spread of misinformation—after all, are we more likely to trust a news article from cnn.com or from wikipedia? As I’ve said before, this democratization can be helpful—you can communicate with people you would have never had the opportunity meet before, enabling an impossible-to-measure exchange of ideas. But this exchange requires trust, and faith that those who are doing as you do (contributing) will follow the Golden Rule.

Just a reflection on how those very old systems of power still remain—but somehow I don’t think that overthrowing the web is an option. Like most systems, it requires a certain amount of blind faith and skepticism.

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Jean Baudrillard is not dead

March 10, 2007 at 10:27 pm (places, theory, web 2.0)

In my attempt to bring you the latest and greatest of this new technology, I bring you Sidestep–a search engine that allows you to search search engines (how Web 2.0 is that?). My husband and I are trying to go to Vegas in the summer (Fremont Street and $1 blackjack, here I come!) and Sidestep actually searches all of the other travel sites to find the best deal. Very cool.

We’re thinking of staying at the Luxor–what better example of Vegas opulence is there? Once of the seven wonders of the world, shrunk down and lit up. The ancient Egyptians would have done it if they’d had the electricity.

The Luxor--the hyperreal

Which brings me of course to Jean Baudrillard, who died just recently. Baudrillard was big on hyperreality, a concept that at its very basic core was about the overwhelming existence of communication channels–we have so much contact that we can no longer distinguish reality from fantasy. So, the pyramid to us may represent prosperity, the glory of man over nature, eternal life–but in reality it’s just a stack of bricks. It’s the meaning that we place with these symbols that becomes reality for us, despite the fact that the meaning is not real. The creators of the Luxor are trying to invoke these thoughts of grandeur, and draw us to its beacon.

The simulacrum of the pyramid would have pleased Baudrillard, I think, should he have believed that pleasure was pleasure. I don’t know if he ever went to Vegas, but he probably would have liked it.

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