Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elizabeth Spiers on Digital Mistakes

Q: How do traditional mainstream get digital products wrong?
A: (I gave a talk about this a couple of weeks ago, so from my notes:) They don't understand their audiences because they're not used to using data aggressively.
They view their sites as mere brand extensions and fail to treat them as stand-alone media properties.
They don't understand usability and make their sites pretty but impossible to navigate, and then naively think they'll educate their users to find their content.
They don't understand Web metabolism and produce content that's stale.
They think Web content is inherently inferior when it's merely different, and create inferior Web products as a result then wonder why they're not succeeding.
They fail to monetize their products properly, then underpay talent and wonder why they can't recruit good writers.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Algorithmic Niche Culture is Killing the Romance: Toronto Star Reprint

Books are losing out to the algorithms of love
The mathematics of identifying niche behaviour and interests promises to bring like-minded people together. But it may be tearing society apart
Toronto Star | August 27, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Last month in Slate.com, Mark Oppenheimer wrote about the latest trauma inflicted by the e-book revolution. It wasn’t lower prices turning novelists into ever more wretched paupers or copyright quandaries that make it impossible to share your favourite e-book with friends. No, the problem for Oppenheimer was that e-book readers make it impossible for randy bibliophiles to judge prospective lovers by their collection of book covers.
“As the Kindle and Nook march on, people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view,” writes Oppenheimer. “We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.”
His panic turned out to be premature, however. Two days before Oppenheimer published his lament, alikewise.com launched “a dating site that allows you to find people based on their book tastes.” Sadly, alikewise.com is not an anomaly, as specialty dating services are becoming increasingly common — Apple cult members have Cupidtino.com, indie rock fans visit Tastebuds.fm and followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism have theatlasphere.com. And while such sites should eventually serve to cull their respective populations through vicious inbreeding, they reflect a larger problem — the triumph of algorithmic niche culture.
As Devin Leonard explains in the August issue of Wired, Hunch.com is trying to personalize the Internet by soliciting people’s opinions, beliefs and tastes and then mining the data “for correlations that provide precisely tailored recommendations for each user.” Hunch.com is not alone, with similar services provided by GetGlue.com. The interest in these sites are obvious — there’s big money in artificial serendipity. In September of 2009, Netflix awarded a $1 million prize to a team of statisticians and computer engineers who created movie rental recommendation software that was 10 per cent more accurate.
The problem isn’t that the educated guesses of Netflix or Hunch.com are inaccurate — quite the opposite. But the mathematics behind the niche-ification of everything threatens to destroy the very fabric of democratic society. Or, at the very least, create some very nasty blog postings.

In a May article in The New York Review of Books about the Tea Party movement and the “politics of the libertarian mob,” Mark Lilla refers to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. As Lilla notes, “People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centres on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states.” This, as you can imagine, causes problems for politicians trying to find consensus among an increasingly polarized electorate.
But according to Adam Sternbergh, things are not entirely bleak. In the January 2010 issue of New York magazine, he explained that we are still united by events like Avatar and the launch of the iPad, but the binding mechanism is now pre-announcement buzz and speculation. “Once we experience something en masse — or even as we experience it — we splinter off to our myriad forums to broadcast our personal takes.”
Another reason to avoid complete despair is that even a NASA supercomputer is unable to persuade us to enjoy certain algorithmically generated suggestions. Writing in the New York Times Magazine last October, Rob Walker explained how the Internet radio service Pandora was slicing songs into their atomic parts of enjoyability to better determine listener matches. The problems Pandora has encountered (music fans made irate by suggestions such as Celine Dion or Journey) will be familiar to anyone ever set up on a blind date by friends.
Which highlights the biggest blind spot of the algorithmic niche — its target audience is irrational, unpredictable, contradictory human beings. And not taking this into account appears to be the largest predictive failure of them all. If we can’t trust Pandora to pick a great song, it’s unlikely that alikewise.com can help us locate a soulmate.
As is so often the case, a popular sitcom provides necessary wisdom and perspective. During the first season of Modern Family, a recently remarried Jay explains to his 30-something son Mitchell that opposites not only do, but should, attract. “We’re both with people different from us and that’s gonna create stuff,” notes Jay. “But you want different. Your mom and I were perfect on paper and you know how that ended.”
It’s good advice, although undercut slightly by the episode’s conclusion, wherein Jay’s wife Gloria mistakenly believes her husband is about to marry a life-sized statue of a dog butler named Barkley. Then again, love is also blind. Which means it doesn’t matter if the boy or girl sitting across from you in the subway is reading Stieg Larsson or Gary Shteyngart. As long as they’re cute (and hate Journey) the complex and irrational numbers that comprise the algebra of love will take care of the rest.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Toronto Content Strategy Group Meeting This Thursday

As readers may or may not have noticed in the About Me section of my blog, I now offer content strategy services, along with cultural journalism and editing. (I also make and drink classic cocktails, but that’s less relevant to my professional aspirations).

Anyway, James Houston (@jimmy2bills ) has been kind enough to organize a Toronto Content Strategy Group. We meet the third Thursday of every month.

The next meeting is this Thursday, August 19, 2010 starting at 6pm at the Rivoli, upstairs. I’ve attended the last two meetings, and they’ve been fun and engaging. (Meetup details here).

The idea is to debate and define best practices for the developing discipline of Content Strategy through short, informal presentations and beer-fueled discussions. (We also hope to bring in guest speakers at some point this spring.)

Because there is a lot of overlap between web editors, information architects, copywriters and other content people, the field of CS attracts a diverse bunch, producing lively conversations about the current role and future evolution of the discipline. In short, there is more and more content out there on the web, and producing valuable words that are easily findable is going to be increasingly important over the next five years and beyond.

For those who have heard the term Content Strategy being tossed around, but aren’t 100 percent sure what it’s all about, I recommend the following:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston (Book Review Reprint)

Greedy Little Eyes: Stories of observance
A scavenger of the wistful and generous sort
Toronto Star | August 7, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In a recent article for Slate, Jessica Winter discussed how writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg; The Squid and the Whale) takes great pleasure in populating his films with narcissists and misanthropes.

As if that were not enough, many of these disagreeable characters also have greedy little eyes, since, as Winter argues, “A Baumbach protagonist wears his pretensions like armor, but the pose of detachment is also the stance of the fiction writer or critic (incidentally, Baumbach is the son of both), who benefits from a ruthless facility for treating events and people as potential content to be appropriated or evaluated.”

In her new collection of short stories, Greedy Little Eyes, Billie Livingston, or rather one of her protagonists (a freelance magazine journalist named Lila), makes a similar observation in “Candy From a Stranger’s Mouth.” As Lila studies two adulterous lovers in a restaurant, she notes that “I have been accused, in the past, of sitting back, busily thinking up pithy descriptors that I might later use in an article. To some people this is the behaviour of a scavenger.”

Livingston might be a scavenger, but she does not have a ruthless facility. Her eyes are greedy but her stories are generous and wistful as they borrow and return delicate family secrets without breaking them. While her stories are also filled with narcissists and misanthropes, they are almost always antagonists, trying to ruin or frustrate the ambitions of dependable, reliable, plodding heroines: An unappreciated woman who works as an assistant manager at a music store. A woman stuck running a paper store out of family obligation. A librarian with an overprotective father who’s trying to ruin her marriage. All deserve better.

There are, however, moments of redemption and revenge, such as the arrest of a strange attacker in “Make Yourself Feel Better” and the surreal, gorgeous violence of “Did You Grow Up with Money?”

While much of Livingston’s material is relevant and contemporary (an affair revealed by Facebook snooping; Robert Pickton’s pig farm) a few stories feel dusty, such as a fictional retelling of Vancouver performance artist Rick Gibson’s unsuccessful attempt to drop a 25-kg block of concrete onto a rat named Sniffy in 1990. This might be personal bias, but as an ex-Vancouverite who survived the wackadoodle reign of Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm (1986-1991), I feel that no fiction should ever try and compete with the off-kilter reality of that era.

Then again, the little eyes of book reviewers are often jaded. Never satisfied, always making further demands from the authors they are asked to evaluate. Livingston offers many memorable sentences: “The man on the ground struggles with the vagueness of a nature-show cheetah just shot with tranquilizer.” “To my ears the words had a liquid quality, as if they’d been left out in the rain.” “Something in him looked refurbished to me.”

But her default prose style is dependable and unflashy, just like her heroines. I don’t wish to sound greedy (or worse, display a ruthless facility for evaluation), but this collection could use at least another dozen sparkly moments of wordplay. Such prosaic lives certainly deserve to be sprinkled with a bit more magic of the ordinary.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Exposed! Philip Carr-Gomm's A Brief History of Nakedness

Picture and a thousand words: Philip Carr-Gomm's A Brief History of Nakedness 
Toronto Star | August 8, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Reaktion Books

It’s safe to say that Philip Carr-Gomm is the rare man of letters who would admit to reading Playboy for the centrefolds, rather than the articles. His new book, A Brief History of Nakedness, is exactly what it sounds like, complete with numerous photographs such as the one seen above. But rather than providing flimsy justifications for his ogling, the book instead offers a sustained mediation on the spiritual, cultural and political implications of being naked in public.

The 50 peaceful women seen here are part of Baring Witness, a group of Iraq war protesters who posed nude in West Marin County, California, in November of 2002. As Carr-Gomm argues, “Nakedness makes a human being particularly vulnerable but in certain circumstances strangely powerful, which is why it has become so popular as a vehicle for political protest.” According to Carr-Gomm, by disrobing, protestors demonstrate that they are both fearless and have nothing to hide.

At least, that’s the ideal situation. Sometimes the political intentions of being in the buff can get lost, as happened during the recent expressions of G20 activism. “There’s a naked guy at Queen and Peter,” @one_more_night tweeted. “I think he’s protesting clothes.”

For a cold, northern country, there’s a surprising amount of clothing animosity in Canada. (Our country’s first nudist club formed in 1918, while it took until 1929 for the United States to be able to say the same.) In his book, Carr-Gomm mentions the Toronto-based Naked News (“the program with nothing to hide”), Montreal-born artist Cosimo Cavallaro (who, in 2005, created a chocolate sculpture of a nude Christ entitled Sweet Jesus) and the World Naked Bike Ride (created in 2004 by Vancouver’s Conrad Schmidt).

And, of course, the Doukhobors. A radical sect of Ukrainian Christians, the Doukhobors (which translates into “spirit wrestlers”) were considered heretics by the Orthodox Church and generally irritated the Russian government. So in 1899 the Doukhobors were encouraged to move their troublemaking to Canada, where they were promised 65 hectares of free land, a bracing climate, equitable laws, peace and prosperity. More than a third of the population (nearly 8,000) said yes, but by 1903 they were unhappy, and an extremist faction called the Sons of Freedom emerged, inspired by the Quakers and Leo Tolstoy. As Carr-Gomm notes, the Sons of Freedom “decided to mount a sustained campaign of protest against the government, whom they believed had reneged on their promises regarding land rights and were enforcing compulsory education in government schools.”

In May of 1903 over 45 Doukhobors protested by marching naked, were charged with “nudism” and sentenced to jail. Naked skirmishes between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors continued into the 1970s.

The Doukhobors were a rare instance of a religious sect demanding political reform through nudity. But there are plenty of historical examples that demonstrate the more purely spiritual aspects of nudity. And given that Carr-Gomm is the author of six different books with the word “druid” in the title (including In the Grove of the Druids and The Druid Way), it’s unsurprising that the spirituality of being in the buff captured his attention.

Druids performed certain rituals naked, or as they called it, sky-clad. Not that the druids had a monopoly on weirdness. As Carr-Gomm notes in a section about folk-magic: “English customs included sweeping a room naked on Midwinter night to then dream of your future husband, entering a lake or river naked at midnight to discover his face revealed on the surface of the water, and undressing at a crossroads on St. George’s night.” (Presumably, if none of these tactics worked, then your future husband was just not that into you.)

But even some Christians have adopted the pioneering work of Adam and Eve and embraced “naturism.” As Carr-Gomm points out, there are Christian Nudist Convocations along with provocatively titled books such as The Naked Christian: What God Sees When He Looks Right Through Me.

Given the general level of permissiveness toward being starkers, even a family newspaper like the Star can publish the Baring Witness women seen here without having to worry about angry mobs rioting outside 1 Yonge St. (Although the paper would go bankrupt if it was forced to pay $550,000 per nipple, which is the fine that CBS received from the Federal Communications Commission for the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction.) Spencer Tunick has built a career out of his photographs of multitudes of naked people posing in public places. And neither Puppetry of the Penis nor the Canadian version of the television show How To Look Good Naked generated much outrage.

To be shocking now requires “supernakedness,” which is how one reviewer described performance artist Annie Sprinkle’s show A Public Cervix Announcement. (The curious should use their imagination to figure out what supernakedness might entail. Or, failing that, consult Google.) As if to acknowledge that the coyness of the traditional nudie calendar is no longer effective or eye-catching, Eizo, a German medical imaging company, released an x-ray pin-up calendar in June. Each month a woman is posed provocatively, but the only thing visible is skeletal structure and high heels. Truly revealing, but not very sexy.

As Carr-Gomm notes, it seems impossible to believe that back in 1945, the BBC’s guide for comedy writers warned against using the word “naked” as a punchline. Today this prudishness is history. At the very least, it allowed humorist David Sedaris to joke about spending a week at nudist trailer park in his 1997 essay collection Naked. “I’ve noticed that when forced to go into town, the costumed nudists appear ornery and uncomfortable, like cats stuffed into little outfits for the sake of a wacky photograph,” he writes. “They claw at their buttons and zippers, their eyes wild and desperate.”

Which is to say that not every nudist has a political agenda. The Baring Witness women might want peace through nudity, but many others go naked only for peace of mind.


(Tstar link).

Friday, August 06, 2010

Buster Keaton + Digital Antiquing + Isaiah Mustafa = Trend Piece

The transformations of that Old Spice dude are the real deal
The rousing success of those Old Spice commercials confirms our innate distrust of digital manipulation
Toronto Star | July 30, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

In a delightful collision between creaking analogue and shiny digital, Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. was recently released in Blu-ray format. If this silent comedy from 1928 sounds unfamiliar (or worse, irrelevant), I’m confident that everyone is familiar with at least five seconds of it. Near the end of the film, as Keaton is buffeted by a wind storm, he manages to pause in front of a two-storey house. A moment later, the fa├žade tilts forward and topples, with Keaton spared only because an open window frame corresponds with the spot he’s standing in.

According to the documentary A Hard Act to Follow, the stunt involved 1,000 pounds of wood crashing down around Keaton, making it the ne plus ultra of cinematic verisimilitude. More 80 years later, technology has now allowed us to move so far away from the actual that summer filmgoers willingly embraced the absolute fakeness of a CGI tank (attached to three CGI parachutes) battling two CGI planes in The A-Team.

The good news for those with “reality hunger,” as author David Shields dubbed it in a recent book, is that the backlash has arrived — although, in typically post-modern fashion, it’s a complicated form of revolt. Consumed columnist Rob Walker recently wrote about various options for “digitally antiquing” that add a layer of imperfection to digital sound, film and photographs. As Walker notes, “The unifying theme is the link between the flawed and the interesting. A boringly perfect digital picture of a flower makes no impression. But an equally boring one marred by (digitally recreated) light leaks, exposure mistakes and focus inconsistencies presses the aesthetic button that suggests deeper meaning.”

Walker is not the only person to locate our fatigue with binary manipulation, or at the very least its unyielding precision. In June, anthropologist Grant McCracken wrote about low fidelity culture on his blog CultureBy.com: “In a world of post-mechanical perfection, we love the actual, the manual and the mechanical. It grounds us.” The desire for a touch of humanizing imperfection helps explain the otherwise impossible-to-articulate charm of unevengoogle.com, which is the famous search engine, but, you know, slightly crooked.

Without the excess of digital effects over the last decade, it’s doubtful we’d have much nostalgia for the way things once looked and sounded. The successful reboot of the James Bond franchise courtesy of Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace was due in large part to the fact that these films avoided the garish CGI of 2002’s Die Another Die. That film, if you recall, featured Timothy Dalton glacier surfing through a computer-rendered backdrop so horrid that even Max Headroom called it cheesy. Casino Royale, meanwhile, contains a mesmerizing 10-minute sequence featuring Daniel Craig chasing a bad guy through a construction site. You can’t get much more lo-fi than that. (As if to solidify his commitment to realism, Craig accidentally sliced the tip off one of his fingers during the filming of Quantum).

The death of manipulation leads inevitably to the recent Old Spice commercials. Despite a slick social media strategy and a smart viral campaign, the television ads pay homage to the decidedly unmodern, over-elaborate contraptions of Rube Goldberg. During a recent appearance on Attack of the Show, ex-NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa explained the secrets behind his second TV commercial for Old Spice (a.k.a. “swan dive”). The commercial was done in one take (not unlike many OK Go videos, another example of contemporary Rube Goldberg-ism) and necessitated a hidden wire and harness. (Buster Keaton would not be amused.) However, Mustafa refused to explain how the final trick (which involved donning a pair of jeans in a hot tub moments before it collapsed) was accomplished.

This was refreshing, because for the first time in a long time, the answer to the question — How Did They Do That? — wasn’t CGI. Instead, it was creative ingenuity applied against the constraints of the physical realm. This makes the line “I’m on a horse” (from the first Old Spice commercial) not only a punch line, but a reminder that Mustafa is really, actually, sitting on a living, breathing horse.

The return of the real has arrived just in time. In a July 12 interview with German photographer Julian Faulhaber for The Morning News, Nozlee Samadzadeh noted that Faulhaber’s images of parking garages and supermarkets under construction look unreal. “What does it mean to say that reality looks Photoshopped?” asks Samadzadeh.

It means it’s time to make Photoshop look more like reality.

(Tstar link).

Taryn Simon Essay Reprint: Photographs That Make the Invisible Visible

Taryn Simon's photographs of contraband were featured last week in the New York Times Magazine, giving me the perfect excuse to reprint an essay I wrote about her book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar for the Toronto Star.

Taryn Simon is a photographer with the instincts of a journalist who strives to make the invisible visible
Ryan Bigge | Toronto Star | September 30, 2007

In March of 2007 I went on a long-weekend art crawl in New York, organized by Ryerson's School of Image Arts. Partway through my cultural bender, on the fifth floor of the Whitney, I discovered an easy-to-overlook mezzanine, analogous to floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich. There, inside a small, windowless gallery, was a series of photographs by Taryn Simon entitled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.

The bunker-like atmosphere was a perfect compliment to the surreptitious nature of the subject matter, which included a huge pallet of uncut $100 bills from the U.S. Treasury, and the locker room in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island.

The image seen here was also part of the exhibit, and is included in Simon's new book of the same name. At first glance, the drab, flesh-coloured walls and harsh neon lighting of this hallway are banal, even repellent, the sort of tableau that should have remained hidden. The only nice thing to say is that the bland walls make the zing and pop of Thomas Downing's two paintings that much more dramatic. (Downing was a member of an influential 1960s movement of painters known as the Washington Colour School.)

But there is obviously more going on here, or this would be a picture with only 250 words. What you can't see is the accompanying caption, which explains that this is part of the original headquarters building of the CIA, located in Langley, Va. It turns out that spooks like art.

Simon points out in her caption that the CIA invested heavily in cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, including actively promoting abstract expressionism. As Simon writes, "It is speculated that some of the CIA's involvement in the arts was designed to counter Soviet Communism by helping to popularize what it considered pro-American thought and aesthetic sensibilities."

Good teachers are said to make the invisible visible. That is, they find ways of converting abstract concepts into concrete examples so that the light bulb in our head switches on. Simon also makes the invisible visible, but in a more literal manner.

Other images from Hidden include a hibernating black bear, a flask of live HIV, the headquarters of the KKK, a cage on death row, a jury simulation room, and a contraband table at JFK airport filled with 48 hours worth of confiscated foodstuff (including, but not limited to, African cane rats and jackfruit seeds).

Like the mezzanine gallery in the Whitney, the cover of Hidden reinforces the theme of secrecy. Made to resemble a bound Ph.D. dissertation, the book features its title stamped with thin, gold-foil lettering, and the plain grey and black cloth cover offers no hints as to the images sequestered inside.

Although the locations and items in Simon's book are furtive and clandestine, her style of documentation is anything but. As Salman Rushdie writes in the book's introduction, "Simon's is not the customary aesthetic of reportage - the shaky hand-held camera, the grainy monochrome film of the 'real.'"

Instead, her images are "suffused with light, captured with a bright, hyper-realist, high-definition clarity that gives a kind of star status to these hidden worlds." Her captions, meanwhile, are detached, dry journalese. Still, Simon is not a dour tour guide. Her book includes some visual puns, like a Braille edition of Playboy, the only version of the magazine that finally makes true the claim "I only read it for the articles."

At the same time, Simon is not afraid to visit uncomfortable places, such as the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a 6.5-hectare plot filled with 75 dead bodies (legally obtained) that are used to determine decomposition patterns.

As this hallway photograph would suggest, the images in Hidden require a two-part viewing process. An initial impression is formed through viewing the image, followed by a reappraisal after reading the caption. Unlike many artists, Simon tends to generate shock and surprise through textual revelations rather than through her subject matter. Even the Forensic Anthropology photograph is not lurid or true-crime but almost painterly in composition, taken from a discrete distance, and concealing as much as it shows.

It is only after the viewer has digested both image and caption that the formal aspects of the photograph can be appreciated. Simon's work demonstrates that the 1,000 words contained inside a photograph sometimes require an equal number of explanatory words before the image can make its content seen and heard.

While Simon captures her targets from the viewpoint of an artist, the project required her to think like an investigative journalist. Simon worked methodically to gain access over the four years the project required, with some shoots requiring a year of negotiation. As Rushdie writes, "Her powers of persuasion are at least the equal of her camera skills." Thanks to her patience, we have been granted a backstage pass into alternate worlds, infrastructures and subcultures, all of which were selected by Simon at random.

Rushdie believes that these people, places and things constitute a "phantom world," and professes a mixture of envy and gratitude for being allowed to glimpse them. Given the power and importance of this phantom world, Rushdie calls into question the supremacy of the visible world. Perhaps the real arc of our lives is being plotted in the art-lined corridors of the CIA, rather than in legislatures, town halls and boardrooms.

"Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light," Rushdie argues. "It is in the unseen darkness that unsavoury things huddle and grow.” Hidden and unfamiliar, our collective secrets, like photographs, can only be exposed through the judicious application of light.