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Tuesday, Nov 13, 2007

It may be a generational thing, or a my-being-a-Luddite thing, but social networking seems to me to have less to do with being social and more to do with self-marketing. MySpace, when it started, was primarily a place to market your band; it was a means to mounting a commercial website without the HTML knowhow. Once people had personal websites, they could be drawn in with the allure of metrics, the thrill of measuring one’s reach the way a marketer would—how many hits you get, what kind of demographic you are drawing, how successful you are at getting target audiences to interact with your site, what you need to say or how much skin you have to show to attract more attention and things like that. The attention, in this realm, becomes a measurable kind of currency, whereas in the dreary real world, it’s much harder to put a number on it—you can’t really count how often someone looks at you or answers your questions or has a positive thought about the way you have designed yourself.

So social networking is about quantifying the attention we can receive and finding some solace in that; real-world attention is a severely scarce commodity, but online the number of internet users, and the effectiveness of programmed simulacrums, make it seem limitless. It also can invert the sense of scarcity—instead of their not being enough attention out there for us to attract, suddenly it’s the attention that we can give that becomes treasured and scarce, a powerful feeling and one that is continually stoked by marketers in their attempts to flatter us with the attention they pay—“Hey you—yes, you, and only you. I have something I really want to show you. See? See, I knew you would like it. I know you so well!” The internet in general caters to our craving for instant attention—it promises us the precise kind of audience we want at any time, andif that audience proves elusive, it supplies another conduit for the personal attention of last resort, advertising. If one is lonely and looking for recognition, targeted ads are better than nothing, and for the advertisers, nothing could be better than hitting someone when they are down and vulnerable.

It was only a matter of time before social networks became more explicitly about marketing, since they were already about measuring attention and influence and defining oneself as a certain sort of marketing target. This Economist article looks at the recent developments of integrating ads more smoothly with social networking sites, letting advertisers eavesdrop on the conversations among “friends” and interject themselves when it seems appropriate or lucrative. And Facebook itself will take the commercial behavior of its users—buying something, participating in some brand’s Facebook page—and try to spread them across the user’s network as a kind of advertising, mimicking word-of-mouth. It forces you to be a shill, unless you opt out, and it furthers the perception that people shop to be noticed. Shopping may inevitably be a social activity, but social networking sites are trying to make it the cornerstone of friendship. So one can share such momentous decisions as buying shoes online with friends as if were deeply significant personal news and thereby let people get to know you better—since after all, we are what we buy and spending money is the only way we can signify we’re serious about something.

Social-networking technology basically lets brands aspire to be mistaken for actual peers, things people can have relationships with, and it also encourages people not only to see themselves as brands themselves (the metrics component of social networks already encourages this) but also to monetize their personal brand and treat their friend groups as demographics to exploit—as people primarily to market to with word-of-mouth recommendations, or automatically generated web notifications. This would be depressing if the groups on the networks resembled one’s real-life circle of friends (which one presumes is built on trust rather than exploitation). But there may not be enough incentive for people to groom their networks to make them match their real ones, and the colonization of the networks by marketing reduces that incentive further. The article cites Paul Martino, a proprietor of an early social network, who argues that

the interpersonal connections (called the “social graph”) on such networks are also of low quality. Because few people dare to dump former friends or to reject unwanted friend requests from casual acquaintances, “social graphs degenerate to noise in all cases,” he says. If he is right, social-marketing campaigns will descend into visual clutter about the banal doings of increasingly random people, rather than being the next big thing in advertising.

Let’s hope he’s right.

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Tuesday, Nov 13, 2007
by Kim Barker

By Kim Barker

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Abdul Qayyum Khan flipped through the TV stations, past music videos, a bike race, an Indian soap opera and a cooking show. “The same old thing,” he muttered.

Khan, who sells TV and video equipment, missed his news programs and his talk shows, the major form of entertainment in Pakistan.

When besieged President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency Nov. 3, suspending civil liberties and the constitution in Pakistan, one of his first targets was the newly independent media, which he helped create and gave unprecedented freedom. Immediately, the government knocked about 40 independent Pakistani TV stations off the air, which has added to concerns that parliamentary elections set for January may not be free and fair.

“It used to be, we’d stay up until late at night, until 3 a.m., watching talk shows and the news,” Khan said. “Now we go to sleep at 10 p.m.”

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Monday, Nov 12, 2007

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.

After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.

It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.

Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.

Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.

And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.

With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.

As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!

This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   

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Monday, Nov 12, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Every Tuesday PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.

This week: This family rocks! Or rather, this family IS rocks… In a drastic departure from previous episodes, Backpack Picnic takes us to the very center of the Earth. Surely the most harrowing and bewildering adventure yet.

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Monday, Nov 12, 2007

Here, for what its worth, is a Slate article by a researcher who investigated whether the practices of speed daters confirms certain gender stereotypes with regard to dating in general:

With the obvious qualification that we’re talking here about a four-minute version of love and dating, we found that men did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner’s beauty, when choosing, than women did…. By contrast, intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women’s choices as men’s. It isn’t exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter—but only up to a point…. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.
When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don’t mind being outdone on those scores.

But the obvious qualification mentioned—that we are talking about the snap judgments of people willing to be speed daters—would seem to go a long way toward making these findings sort of meaningless. How much insight can one really get into a conversation partner’s intelligence and ambition in four minutes in a bar? You could spend several months actually dating someone and not establish an accurate assessment. And any situations where snap judgments are required are going to intensify the significance of appearances—not merely beauty (which was in this experiment apparently adjudicated by research associates following their own whim) but also the outward signifiers that connote intelligence or ambition or whatever. And this among a populace that is especially attuned to such things, to reading situations immediately rather than allowing for interpersonal nuances to play themselves out and tell their own idiosyncratic story. So of course these rapidly told tales will tell the story that’s readily available as a shared cultural narrative, using gender stereotypes. It seems as though the caveat makes this research into something that merely serves a dubious and ideologically-striated entertainment function, that of reminding would-be daters of the games they are expected to play to help perpetuate the existing regime of gender relations.

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