Culture

What is truth?: The controversies around Kony2012 and This American Life

Like just about everyone else with an internet connection, I am aware of both the video and the “controversy” surrounding the video Kony2012. I first saw it posted on a friend’s wall with the comment that her 12-year old son had made HER aware of it.

That is how it started: young people sharing it with other young people until it became one of the most viral videos of all time.

Before I even watched the video, however, I felt a combination of emotions because of what my immediate reaction was to learning of its very existence. My very first thought was, “Who is going to try and poke holes in this video?”

We live in a “Prove it!” age where seemingly everything can be faked and there are competing industries of content creators and content disprovers. I’m not sure what makes me more sad: that our willingness to believe what we see has been decimated by those who would prey on our trusting nature, or that there are so many out there who prey on our trusting nature.

Before I was even finished writing this blog post, another “truth” controversy was unearthed, this time by the producers at American Public Media’s This American Life. A recent episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”  was their most downloaded episode ever.  Then it was revealed that the actor had taken a few liberties with the facts, throwing big parts of the story into question.

What these two episodes share is the now common tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. Both the Kony video and the “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” get both stories mostly right, but the liberties taken with some details immediately call into question the whole narrative.

Or do they?

There was a time when it meant something to be a journalist, and there are still legions of ink-stained wretches (can you still say that in a digital age?) who do their damnedest to get it right. But neither Jason Russell nor Mike Daisey are journalists, they’re storytellers. My question is: Can simplifying complicated stories in the service of a larger goal ever be excused? Much of the criticism leveled against both the Kony video and Daisey’s “This American Life” interview had more to do with what screenwriters or authors might term creating a “composite” character. Kony2012 has been accused of, among other things, being oversimplified. Not false, mind you, just oversimplified. Well, as someone once said, complexity is complicated.

Daisey, for his part, recounts an incident where some Chinese Foxconn employees were poisoned due to exposure to a chemical but, in his account, he claimed it happened in one factory in China when it, in fact, happened in a different one. I’m just not sure how this blows up his whole story. With more than a little indignation, Bob Garfield noted in his essay on On the Media, “…facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.”

Fair enough, but a lot of this seems like hair splitting to me. No one can deny that Kony is an evil guy. No one can deny that Apple, and every other electronics manufacturer on planet Earth, exploit lax Chinese labor laws and low prices in order to give us the shiny gadgets we all want. Now, because of Daisey and others, they are trying to clean up their act, the way Nike did 15 years ago. And the whole world knows about Joseph Kony.

But it still gnaws at me, this idea of getting things MOSTLY right in the service of another goal. It’s OK as long as you agree with that larger goal, right? But what if you don’t? And where are the ethics?

Nicholas Kristof wrote an OpEd in the New York Times on March 15. Since getting behind the Times’ paywall is becoming less and less of a trivial matter, here is the takeaway:  Kristof, who has probably seen more of mankind’s atrocities than any living journalist, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to the early Kony backlash.

“It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east.

In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States.

I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video.

“Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out.

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified?

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

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Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome

We have worked with Design Miami/ and Art Basel Miami Beach since 2005, first helping them get introduced to the South Florida market and, in recent years, telling their story of phenomenal growth.

This year, we created a fun time lapse video of the installation of Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome. The video was picked up by the New York Times, and can be seen here:

Design Miami: Back to the Future

The 24-foot, monohex, geodesic Fly’s Eye Dome, patented in 1965 by R. Buckminster Fuller as a futuristic, low-cost shelter, was one of the renowned inventor/architect/environmentalist’s most iconic structures, and one that he wrote would “be highly efficient in its use of energy and materials.”  He envisioned the structure would be used as a beautiful, fully-equipped, air-deliverable dwelling machine that would weigh and cost about as much as an automobile.

Time lapse videos are fun, and this one is particularly cool. Hope you enjoy it.

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The Myth of Online Transparency

A few years ago, an eternity in internet years, there was a lot of chatter about “lifestreaming,” which basically meant providing a non-stop voyeuristic window into the minutiae of your daily life. People could “subscribe” to you and see whatever you were doing. Some folks took it to extremes and even filmed themselves while asleep.

Mercifully, the concept petered out under the weight of its own stupidity, but in some ways it is still with us in the form of twitter, facebook and location-based services. A recent change to facebook enabled users to broadcast the news articles they were reading, the music they were listening to via Spotify and, of course, the places they visited. In my personal facebook stream, I notice that only a few friends are doing this (see how I avoided saying “taking advantage of” just there?) and it got me wondering why.

One of the oft-spouted tenets of social media-dom is the importance of  transparency in all interactions, whether on the personal level or among businesses. For individuals, tending to one’s “personal brand” has become a cottage industry online. But what does that really imply? A brand, as I define it, is what surrounds a sales pitch and differentiates you from the other guy. Companies go to great lengths to define their brands in the minds of consumers using vivid language, imagery and experiences, all in the service of selling you something. Positive attributes are emphasized and negative ones are never even contemplated. Coca Cola might have a tough time squaring the immeasurable enjoyment and life-altering experiences contained inside one of their cans with all that pesky teeth rotting and onset of diabetes.

So, then, the same must be true of one’s personal brand, right? Which, of course, gives the lie to transparency online. Everyone’s streamed online life is full of glamourous trips, sunset photos, magical dinners, songs from obscure Norwegian bands and moments of clarity elucidated in some Paulo Coehlo quote. No arguments with spouses, frustration with the kids’ poor behavior or disappointment at being passed over for that work promotion by the kiss ass who goofs off all day.

We live in a start-up culture where we put on our sales face all the time since we never know who might be watching. Woe to he who slips up and posts the drunken rant. There is no delete button on the internet, as we all know. Those of us who choose to live some portion of our lives online are all selling ourselves to some unknown potential client. All of which, I suppose, reinforces the point I have been making on this blog and in public speaking events since I got into this game: there is about an eye dropper’s amount of difference between our online lives and our offline ones.

I recently asked someone I have never actually met, but “know” on Facebook, (another weird by-product of the internet, but maybe just an updated version of the pen pal) what had motivated her to stream her Spotify selections. She confessed to me that she self-edits and doesn’t share EVERYTHING she’s listening to in her news feed. She leaves out songs that might be seen as offensive or “trashy.” Of course she does. No one will ADMIT to listening to Air Supply. (I have no idea if she does or not, but it was the lamest thing that occurred to me as I write this. Hey, I know what you’re thinking but I don’t listen to Air Supply, either.)

I hear many rail against the TMI culture of the internet using the tired argument that no one really cares about every detail of your life. I might argue that the REAL problem is not too much candor, but not enough.

Would love to hear what you think. Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

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Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?

In the past couple of weeks, two very rich studies focusing on the online behavior of young people have been released. One of them is entitled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” co-authored by four of the leading thinkers on online privacy, access and the roles kids play on the internet.

 

The other is from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and is entitled “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.”

I want to focus a bit more on the first study first, and leave the second study for another blog post. I would urge you to click on both links and peruse each of them, as they are rich in substance and fact.

 

Children under 13 are supposedly protected by COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) a Clinton-era law passed in 1998 meant to keep marketers from targeting or collecting information about kids. The law went into effect in 2000, when the internet was a very different place before the explosion of social networking sites, Skype or even GMail. Not that anyone has probably read them, but all of these services have lengthy terms of service agreements which, among lots of other things, are supposed to prevent kids from signing up for them if they’re under 13.

 

In reality what is happening is the very thing that COPPA was meant to prevent: kids are signing up for facebook and other services in droves, very often with their parents’ consent and, in many cases, their explicit help. Many parents are either unaware of COPPA or, worse yet, think that the 13-year old ban is more of a guideline and not a hard and fast regulation. A typical parental response to helping their kids get around the ban goes something like, “My child is mature enough to handle it.” To a large degree, parents feel that they should be the ones to decide how their kids participate online.

 

Fair enough. But the real takeaway from the report for me was the one I suspect is doing the most long-term damage. When parents help their kids get around these restrictions, they are normalizing lying. As danah boyd, one of the authors of the study, recently revealed on NPR’s On the Media, “I was aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.”

 

Clearly the COPPA mandated requirements are inadequate for today’s online landscape. So, then, what is the solution to keeping kids from being marketed to or otherwise tracked online by advertisers or others? What are some of the consequences to lying either to get online or lying once you’re already there?

 

boyd further notes that “…a huge number of kids actually say they’re from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.” It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but one that, I think,  has far-reaching implications.

 

What do you think of all this? Have you helped your kids circumvent any ToS agreements like the ones on Facebook, GMail or Skype? Is it really no big deal? Please leave a comment in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

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Can online video survive?

The comparisons between traditional TV and online video never stop. Some common comparisons are:

 

Online will disrupt and eventually kill TV.

 

TV will never die because of viewer habits, the user experience and their entrenched business model.

 

Blah blah blah…on it goes. Who cares? Not the point of this post.

 

 It seems to me that a major handicap for the long term financial viability of online video is that shows cannot easily be syndicated.

 

What is syndication? In a nutshell, it is where the real money is in TV. As a general rule, when a half-hour show produces 100 episodes, roughly 5 seasons, it can then be sold into syndication and shown off-network.

 

For example, Seinfeld aired as a first run show on NBC. Now it airs off network on hundreds of local stations around the country. That’s an example of syndication. But Seinfeld was always popular and made a lot of people associated with it extremely rich. A better example of the money-making power of syndication success might be a show like Star Trek, which only aired for 3 seasons in the mid-1960s and was not all that popular at the time. Nearly 50 years later, however, we’re still following the same bold voyages of the starship Enterprise.

 

Star Trek might be the original example of the “long tail.”

 

All this occurred to me when I read about the demise of “Diggnation.” Online video is often about immediacy and is often unscripted. (I am generalizing to make a larger point.) Online video shows also seldom adhere to a strict 30-minute length. Yet at its peak in around 2006, Diggnation was arguably the most popular show online and as of this writing, they have produced over 300 episodes. (They will cease production in December 2011.)

 

So, what happens to all that inventory? Who is going to go back and watch an episode from 2007 speculating on the launch of this new device called an iPhone? From a business standpoint, these episodes have no more value than a CNN half hour about a snowstorm in Tennessee in 1987. Archival? Sure. Revenue generating? Nope.

 

When I think about the long term viability and the business model for online video, this strikes me as a major issue that needs to be sorted out. If the “real” money in television is in syndication, where will it come from in online video? I don’t have the answer, but I also don’t really hear the question being asked.

 

What do you think? Is this an insurmountable block for online video producers and other content creators?

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Facebook, Foursquare, Groupon and… Joni Mitchell???

In the world of social networking, Facebook continues to be the dominant player, but two things happened rather quietly last week that show that the media coverage surrounding online is remarkably similar to the hysterical media that covers politics.

The advent of 24-hour television news has created a gaping maw that must be filled. Whether it gets filled by accurate information is not always a primary consideration. The competition for attention, and ratings, is vicious and the press that covers online and social media trends is no different. The clamor to be first can sometimes trump the responsibility to be right or, in this case, trump any inclination for trend analysis.

 

So, what am I talking about? About a year ago, Facebook went head-to-head with foursquare in the location-based  “check-in” space. The media spin was that foursquare, the scrappy start-up, would be eaten alive by the Facebook monster, especially considering fb had a gargantuan user base of 600 million subscribers. Funny thing- it didn’t happen that way. Facebook has scrapped the “Check in” feed from its mobile apps and interface.

 

Man bites dog.

 

Groupon, and other daily deals services that continue to pollute the Internet, was also in the crosshairs of the Facebook assassin when they rolled out “Facebook Deals” a little over four months ago in a few select cities. The media take was the same, and so was the outcome. “After testing Deals for four months, we’ve decided to end our Deals product in the coming weeks,” quoth the unnamed Facebook spokesperson.

 

Not exactly steamrolling the competition.

 

I have seen similar media hyperventilating over Google Plus in recent weeks, with the obligatory “Facebook killer” headlines all over the place. I am willing to bet that if you asked 100 non-tech people what Google Plus is, 99 of them would stare back at you blankly.

 

This post is not to critique facebook’s marketing choices or whether Google Plus will make Facebook look like Friendster in a few months (but their marketing sucks and Google Plus won’t). No, my real point is to counsel temperance when every shiny new things comes along. The online world is fueled by innovation and there are winners and losers, but it takes some time to shake out.

 

I’m reminded of the lyrics to “Black Crow” by Joni Mitchell:

 ”Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing

Just like that black crow flying in a blue sky.”

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