Sunday, May 27, 2007

Heffernan on YouTube

Today's New York Times has an article about YouTube (The Many Tribes of YouTube) (free registration required) by Virginia Heffernan. The focus of the article was around the YouTube function Video Response.

Really the only authentic response to a YouTube video is another YouTube video — the so-called “video response.”

YouTube appeared in February 2005, when it was modestly billed as a site on which people could swap personal videos. Since then, however, its video-response feature, which essentially allows users to converse through video, has managed to convene partisans of almost every field of human endeavor, creating video clusters that begin with an opening video, and snowball as fans and detractors are moved to respond with videos of their own. In answer to a lousy, stammering video, say, a real YouTuber doesn’t just comment, “You idiot — I could do that blindfolded!” He blindfolds himself, gets out his video-capable Canon PowerShot and uploads the results.

I think that is an accurate assessment of the YouTube culture. (DISCLOSURE: One of the main reasons that I've been neglecting this blog of late is that I've become hopelessly addicted to YouTube. You can find my channel here. It has become my atheist platform. I am considering starting a new channel where I talk about my favorite science related news headlines--much like my original intent when I started this blog.) The video response feature is at the heart of the growing YouTube community. It allows users to interact with each other in ways that were just not available two or three years ago. I've become a big fan of the feature and I try to take full advantage of it. There are some users who make almost exclusively video response videos. Many users rate the success of their particular videos based on how many video responses they get. And some videos specifically ask for video responses. My personal favorites are the Blasphemy Challenge (more on this one later) and the Ok Go dance contest (which didn't even get a metion in the Heffernan piece--I guess it doesn't help that the contest is long over).

In her article, Heffernan goes on to profile five different examples of popular video response "tribes." One of them is the blasphemy challenge. Once again, someone in the media gets it wrong and needs a good pwning. Let's look at what she wrote.

Individual religious testimony abounds on YouTube, as do sermons from miscellaneous (and sometimes extinct) religious institutions, but these are posted to fire up discussion, not to lay down any laws. Versions of the last sermon of the prophet Muhammad are posted — one runs “Star Wars”-style with the words receding into outer space — as are Christian sermons on sexual purity and Palestinian sermons that contain anti-Semitic slurs.

Viewers are urged to discuss them, and they do. Curiously, the religious group that makes the most imaginative and despotic use of YouTube are atheists.

I have a couple of problems with that last sentence.
  1. ATHEISTS AREN'T A RELIGIOUS GROUP!!! Atheism isn't a religion. An atheist is simply someone who doesn't believe in the existence of any gods. That's it!
  2. I'm completely baffled by her use of the word "despotic." Did she just throw it in there because it sound ominous? My dictionary defines "despotic" as of, pertaining to, or of the nature of a despot or despotism; autocratic; arbitrary; tyrannical. WTF? How does that word describe the YouTube atheists?

She goes on.

The Rational Response Squad, a furtive organization devoted to curing theism, has challenged YouTubers to post videos of themselves denying the existence of the Holy Spirit and thereby — in the group’s reading of Mark 3:29 — damn themselves for eternity.

More than 1,200 people have posted blasphemy videos as of this writing. In each one, a single person speaks the line, “I deny the Holy Spirit.” Sometimes he or she adds more: a name, a speech, a further denial of Easter Bunny-like entities.

That's about right. My only little complaint here is that she's implying that the RRS came up with that interpretation of Mark 3:29. I've talked about this before, so I will just mention that that particular reading of Mark (and Luke and Matthew who repeat it) is one of the most common interpretations being taught to children in churches and Xian schools accross the country in order to scare them into belief.

Some blasphemers are jaunty, some are insolent, some are scary, some are nervous. But all of them (young and old, mostly English-speakers, but with a range of accents and ethnicities) seem to believe they are making a statement of some gravitas — issuing a reproof to doctrine, possibly risking their salvation.

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!! The YouTube blasphemers DON'T believe that there's ANY gravitas in their statement. Did she completely miss the point of listing the Easter bunny alongside of the holy spirit? (Yes, obviously) It's the believers who think that these statement carry some gravitas. The whole point is to throw it back in their faces by effectively saying "this is just a silly statement about a silly imaginary being from a silly religion." No one thinks that they're riking their salvation because there's no such thing as eternal salvation! If I were to make a video of myself walking under a ladder, it would be to show that there's nothing to be afraid of, NOT because I believed that there might be consequenses for that action. AAARRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!!

Anyway, I might as well show how she finished the section on blasphemy.

On the face of each participant is both a wonderful purity of purpose — the mandate is so simple, the one-line script so unforgettable — and a clear vulnerability.

Will anyone regret taking the so-called Blasphemy Challenge? If so, can they retract their videos?

Assuming (and I'm not quite sure why I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt here) that that last sentence was made tongue-in-cheek, I don't have any complaints about that. In fact, I think it's a cute way to end the section.

Hooray for UMASS grads!

Two days ago, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst gave Andrew Card at honorary degree during their graduation ceremonies. Watch the video below to see how the faculty and graduates reacted to this "honor." It's awesome!

I can't really understand why the University would choose someone like Card for this in the first place. I can only guess that there remains a chasmic disconnect between the inhabitants of the "ivory tower" and the sentiments of the masses. Perhaps this incident will gve them a jolt of reality.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sunday, May 13, 2007

How the internet is changing the popular music scene

This week's New York Times Magazine has an article by Clive Thompson titled Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog. The article is about how the internet is changing the way musical artists sell and promote themselves.

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply. This is not merely an illusion of intimacy. Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cellphone concert video on YouTube.

So musicians dive into the fray — posting confessional notes on their blogs, reading their fans’ comments and carefully replying. They check their personal pages on MySpace, that virtual metropolis where unknown bands and comedians and writers can achieve global renown in a matter of days, if not hours, carried along by rolling cascades of popularity. Band members often post a daily MySpace “bulletin” — a memo to their audience explaining what they’re doing right at that moment — and then spend hours more approving “friend requests” from teenagers who want to be put on the artist’s sprawling list of online colleagues. (Indeed, the arms race for “friends” is so intense that some artists illicitly employ software robots that generate hundreds of fake online comrades, artificially boosting their numbers.)

A-list stars are made by multimillion dollar marketing campaigns; the B-listers need to build their network from the ground up. This has kind of always been the case. What the internet has done is change the nature of the network. This new breed of stars is able to, at once, get more personal with their fans while expanding the size and geographical distribution of that fan base.

Of course, the featured artist in the article was none other than Jonathan Coulton.

Click on the above picture to see Jonathan Coulton explain Code Monkey (drawing by Len)

I've blogged about Jonathan before (being a fan) so here it goes again (that reference will become clear soon enough). JoCo has managed to build up such a grassroots network, and much of its success is not due to anything he did or planned himself.

Coulton’s fans are also his promotion department, an army of thousands who proselytize for his work worldwide. More than 50 fans have created music videos using his music and posted them on YouTube; at a recent gig, half of the audience members I spoke to had originally come across his music via one of these fan-made videos. When he performs, he upends the traditional logic of touring. Normally, a new Brooklyn-based artist like him would trek around the Northeast in grim circles, visiting and revisiting cities like Boston and New York and Chicago in order to slowly build an audience — playing for 3 people the first time, then 10, then (if he got lucky) 50. But Coulton realized he could simply poll his existing online audience members, find out where they lived and stage a tactical strike on any town with more than 100 fans, the point at which he’d be likely to make $1,000 for a concert. It is a flash-mob approach to touring: he parachutes into out-of-the-way towns like Ardmore, Pa., where he recently played to a sold-out club of 140.

Let me just say that I'm one of those fans that Clive spoke to at the Ardmore concert, and indeed my first exposure to JoCo was through a Spiff video. (Although when I went to JoCo's website for the first time and started listening to all the music, I realized that I had heard Mandelbrot Set before but didn't know who sang it.) I really like the idea that many of these fan created videos have sort of become the "default official videos" for those songs--cool!

Speaking of cool homemade videos, the article also talks about the band Ok Go which is actually signed to a major record label (along with all the marketing machinery that comes with it) but became in instant internet sensation by employing some of these same tactics.

This confluence of forces has produced a curious inflection point: for rock musicians, being a bit of a nerd now helps you become successful. When I spoke with Damian Kulash, the lead singer for the band OK Go, he discoursed like a professor on the six-degrees-of-separation theory, talking at one point about “rhizomatic networks.” (You can Google it.) Kulash has put his networking expertise to good use: last year, OK Go displayed a canny understanding of online dynamics when it posted on YouTube a low-budget homemade video that showed the band members dancing on treadmills to their song “Here It Goes Again.” The video quickly became one of the site’s all-time biggest hits. It led to the band’s live treadmill performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which in turn led to a Grammy Award for best video.

Just in case you haven't seen the video yet (perhaps you've been living in a cave but somehow managed to find this insignificant blog), I've embedded it below. Quick note: Damian Kulash is the tall skinny guy with the red pants. The one you see lip-syncing the lead vocals is the band's bass player (and childhood friend of Kulash) Tim. Not only do these guys rock, they have a sense of humor. Awesome!

Happy Mother's Day!

Raise your hand if you know the history of Mother's Day. Until a couple of days ago, I didn't. Then I heard about Mother's Day for Peace and that the holiday was originally founded as part of the anti-war movement.

In the United States, Mother's Day was originally suggested by poet and social activist Julia Ward Howe. In 1870, after witnessing the carnage of the American Civil War and the start of the Franco-Prussian War, she wrote the original Mother's Day Proclamation calling upon the women of the world to unite for peace. This "Mother's Day Proclamation" would plant the seed for what would eventually become a national holiday.

After writing the proclamation, Howe had it translated into many languages and spent the next two years of her life distributing it and speaking to women leaders all over the world. In her book Reminiscences, Howe wrote, "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?" She devoted much of the next two years to this cause, and began holding annual "Mother's Day" gatherings in Boston, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

In 1907, thirty-seven years after the proclamation was written, women's rights activist Anna Jarvis began campaigning for the establishment of a nationally observed Mother¹s Day holiday. And in 1914, four years after Howe's death, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother's Day as a national holiday.

How come I never heard that before? That's just way too cool! It is superior by several orders of magnitude to the sappy Hallmark holiday it has become. Anyhoo, Mother's Day for Peace has teamed up with No More Victims for a truly special "return to the roots" Mother's Day.

Follow the links above for more information.

And now I leave you with the Mother's Day proclamation being read by some prominent mothers. Happy Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Battle of the Surfaces

Nadal the Spanish clay king has triumphed over Federer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (10) in Mallorca today.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

First of May