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by Rob Horning

29 Oct 2008

In BusinessWeek, Heather Green reported on Google’s attempts to design an algorithm for ranking people as well as web pages. So ranked, people can then leverage their internet influence to attract ad dollars to their social networking profiles.

The new technology could track not just how many friends you have on Facebook but how many friends your friends have. Well-connected chums make you particularly influential. The tracking system also would follow how frequently people post things on each other’s sites. It could even rate how successful somebody is in getting friends to read a news story or watch a video clip, according to people familiar with the patent filing. “[Google] search displays Web pages with the highest influence—it makes complete sense for them to extend this to online communities and people,” says Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR).

If you are good at getting your friends to watch YouTube videos or follow links or look at photos, then you become worthy of sponsorship by advertisers. This makes explicit the way in which sociality online is a competitive sport, less about conviviality but power. And there’s nothing like money to sharpen how we define ourselves on the internet, where our “presence” is far more throughly commercialized and monetized than it ever could be in the real world. A more catholic ranking scheme imposed by Google would most likely intensify that evolution, rendering voluntary, unmonitored reciprocity a quaint archaism. Why recommend anything to anyone without a finder’s fee?

But there’s a catch to the whole friends-for-money scheme: as it stands, Google will get your sponsorship money, while you get, if anything, the permission to use social networking services for free.

Using today’s standard advertising methods, a company such as Nike (NKE) would pay Google to place a display ad on a fan’s page or show a “sponsored link” when somebody searches for basketball-related news. With influence-tracking, Google could follow this group of fans’ shared interests more closely, see which other fan communities they interact with, and—most important—learn which members get the most attention when they update profiles or post pictures.
The added information would let Nike both sharpen and expand its targeting while allowing Google to charge a premium for its ad services.

This reminds me of Nicholas Carr’s assessment of Web 2.0 technologies—or “digital sharecropping” as he calls it:

Web 2.0’s economic system has turned out to be, in effect if not intent, a system of exploitation rather than a system of emancipation. By putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, Web 2.0 provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very, very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very, very few.

So if Google has its way, amateur influencers of the future will have to content themselves with being paid in sheer prestige alone, like those BzzAgents who shill for advertisers for free (or for the comfort of having a commercial alibi for talking to people).

by Lara Killian

29 Oct 2008

Yesterday I finished reading a lavishly illustrated hardcover copy of Clive Barker’s fantastical Abarat (2002), and by complete coincidence I also stumbled across a paperback version. Same purple cover, same text, completely different book.

image

It’s lucky I encountered the hardcover first, or I wouldn’t have given this series another glance. The paperback looked so sad and lacking when compared to the fully colored artistic renderings of the strange people and island settings of the magical world of the Abarat. Not only is Barker a great storyteller, making the weird and wonderful both appealing and appalling, he is a gifted artist as well. Nearly every second or third page, the original version has one of his color-saturated depictions of the characters and locales of the Abarat.

Granted, the hardcover is one of the heaviest volumes I’ve ever struggled to hold up while reading at night. The paper is clearly specially selected to properly hold up to the full color printing process. The Abarat first editions must have been prohibitively expensive to produce. Seeing the fruits of Barker’s vibrant imagination in full color is worth the expense.

A website devoted to the series (ultimately to extend to five books) gives a taste of the amazing 300+ oil paintings Barker originally spent four years producing as part of the process in defining this alternate universe. Believe it or not, it all starts in a place called Chickentown, USA. Everything gets much better from there.

by Bill Gibron

29 Oct 2008

What does it take to make a movie in 2008? A huge budget underwritten by a major Tinsel Town conglomerate? A nonstop parade of union-loyal crewmembers each striving to bring their contract-mandated best to the project while surreptitiously preparing for their next paying gig? A bevy of A-list actors who moderate onset professionalism and skilled performance with just a dash of limelight laziness? A high concept script? A director who isn’t drunk on his own ego (or an everpresent bottle of Vat 69)? Whatever it takes, Lloyd Kaufman didn’t have any of it a few years back. Hoping to bring his beloved indie shingle Troma back from the proposed post-millennial dead, he called upon his most reliable employment pool, and offered them a chance to do something very rare - work on a major motion picture release.

Thus last year’s sensational Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Created by Gabe Friedman, Daniel Bova, and Kaufman himself, this fright flick farce built on fast food and freak side showboating rejuvenated the lame duck label that, at one time, boasted the biggest roster of cult icons this side of a John Waters’ Dreamland reunion. With rave reviews coming from all manner of outlets - including oddball love letters from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and The Guardian - it should have been a massive Saw-sized hit. Instead, Kaufman claims conspiracy, stating flat out that theaters would not book his film because of his outsider stance and its “Unrated” status. Luckily, as with most criminally overlooked efforts, the digital format is here to save the day.

Our sordid saga begins when Arbie and Wendy, two horny high school graduates, have sex in a local cemetery. They are interrupted by the restless spirits of a disgraced Native American tribe, and afterwards, vow to remain close even as life pulls them apart. Fast forward a few months and the American Chicken Bunker, run by recovering KKK member General Roy Lee, has set up a restaurant right on top of the Indian’s burial base camp. Even worse, the company’s noted livestock atrocities have members of C.L.A.M. (College Lesbians Against Mega-Conglomerates) up in arms. While Denny and the rest of the staff – Carl Jr., Humus, and Paco Bell – try to keep things under control for the grand opening, Arbie learns that Wendy has gone girl, hooking up with angry activist Micki. Joining the General’s team in hopes of winning back his babe, our hero comes face to beak with a collection of undead fouls, and the reanimated resolve of some pretty pissed off pullets.

If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ - and it most certainly is - then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s insane shoot for Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured by the roving camera of Andy Deemer and Jason Foulke. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.

Almost all the problems revolve around the all-volunteer crew and amateur cast ‘hired’ by Kaufman as a cost cutting measure. Living in an abandoned church and filming in a rundown McDonalds, everyone begins with high hopes. And when a few of the F/X fail to work, everyone is determined to hunker down and make things right. But soon, Poultrygeist as a production starts to go askew - very askew. No-names turn despots, and Kaufman’s consistently cranky personality explodes. Soon, threats are being leveled, insults are being hurled, and nerves are systematically frayed, folded, and mutilated. By the last day of shooting, so little of the previous good humor exists that people seem satisfied just to see something - anything - happen. 

It’s a telling reflection of the final film, one of the best things to ever come out of the New York nuthouse. Kaufman can call ‘fowl’ all he wants (or claim as he does on the commentary that many of the mistakes were fixed in post), but Poultrygeist is a great geek film made by and meant for film geeks. It’s a love letter to the genre by individuals who make macabre their entire life. It’s so blood and bodily fluid splattered brilliant that the freebie filmmaking assistants should be complimented, not cursed. Sure, as the alternate narrative track insists, more went wrong than right, but sometimes, a couple of thousand f*ck-ups can lead to something truly remarkable.

Elsewhere, the DVD argues for Kaufman’s often unglued approach to material. There is a deleted song for the character Humus that definitely should have been left in the film, and several of the Troma titan’s self-proclaimed “film lessons” often come across as stand-up comedy routines. This is not meant as a criticism. Instead, it’s offered to support the supposition that art often comes from the most messed up of minds and motives. The concept of creating a Toxic Avenger like epic with a group of individuals surviving on naiveté, guts, and far too many stale cheese sandwiches may seem like a pie in the sky suggestion. But if Poultrygeist can make it work (albeit in a rather painful manner) why can’t other independent filmmakers?

Of course, the answer is obvious - few in the post-modern motion picture world have the kind of dedicated demo that Kaufman and company possess. For over 35 years, they’ve delivered the slapstick splatter that directors like Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez have built their entire career upon. Luckily, instead of its swansong, Poultrygeist suggests that Troma is just getting back into the ball game. As this amazing DVD set illustrates (and it’s a limited edition offering, folks, so get while the getting’s good), you don’t need Hollywood’s overinflated sense of self - and mega-multi-millions - to crank out something significant. All you really need is the voice of the people, and Poultrygeist has that in offal-accented spades.

by Ryan Smith

28 Oct 2008

Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.

Image courtesy of gamepolitics.com.

Barack Obama has often lectured kids and their parents to “put the video games away” on the campaign trail, but if people insist on playing the stupid things, they might as well vote for him. That’s the message many are getting from the news that the Democratic presidential candidate has taken out ads in 18 games for the Xbox 360 that will feature on virtual billboards and other in-game signage. The games include EA titles like Burnout Paradise, Madden 09, NHL 09, Skate, NFL on Tour, Nascar 09 and Need for Speed Carbon. Of course, the ads will only be seen by gamers in the all-important swing states playing online (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin).

Evidently, both the Obama and McCain camps were approached by online advertising company Massive, but McCain’s campaign passed on the opportunity to put his message out into the virtual world—perhaps wisely considering the huge advantage Obama has in the 18 to 34-year-old demographic (though perhaps McCain maybe should have at least considered ads in a Republican-friendly NASCAR game). According to a poll of 100,000 Xbox Live users that asked gamers to select their nominee for president, 43 percent chose Obama, 31 percent went McCain and the rest were undecided or for a third-party candidate.

So maybe it’s not a bad move for Obama to ask Xbox Live users to hold off on another game of Madden long enough to get off their couch and vote for him—he certainly has the money to spare.

Image courtesy of destructoid.com.

Image courtesy of destructoid.com.

This does however beg the question of whether this convergence of politics and games is a good thing. Some gamers say they don’t like the idea of these types of real world invasions into their fantasy realms. But in reality, advertisements have been creeping into games for years now (anyone remember Marlboro ads in Sega racing games in the 80’s?). Does it really matter if it’s a giant corporation trying to sell us a product or a presidential candidate trying to grab our vote? An ad is an ad.

Also, I think an in-game billboard with Barack Obama telling you to vote seen while you’re speeding down a highway in Burnout is pretty inoffensive. If, however, Master Chief’s face got replaced by Obama’s when you turned on Halo 3—well, that’s a different story.

by Jason Gross

28 Oct 2008

That’s what this Silicon Alley Insider article is wondering about the new service, mtvmusic.com, and how it’ll fair in the Net world.  As even our grandparents know by now, MTV’s heyday is in the past tense, though it’s by no means toast now.  As the SAI article points out, YouTube offers a lot of the same material that the new MTV service does (though they do have some exclusives) so what exactly is gonna peel away millions of YT users to an older name brand?  Nostalgia?  Probably not for the most part, especially if they’re already used to YT as a video destination.  Plus, part of the fun of YT isn’t just the music stuff there but also all the historical stuff and the bloopers, jokes and ridiculous home movies there, which MTV would be hard pressed to compete against, even with their flood of reality shows.

And it’s not as if the channel isn’t trying but as a wise industry-watching friend pointed out, too many of the Net projects seem to evaporate too easily- remember Urge? I give ‘em credit for trying and as I said, it’s far from over for them but it’s touch for relatively older name-brand to get a hold in the video game which they once dominated after a destination like YouTube has taken over that ground.  Of course, the day will come when YT itself will be an ol’ brand and struggling to catch up to the next online video destination.  Then again, after Google spent $1.5 billion dollars on YT two years ago, they still have yet to figure out a way to milk some serious profit out of the site much less make back their investment.  It’s a tough business and though YT’s the head dog now, they ain’t exactly on firm ground.

UPDATE: Wanna see how another site can actually compete with YouTube effectively?  Check out this USA Today article about Hulu’s success.

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