News, media & communications

Escapism in the mainstream media

Until recently, situation comedy was a cornerstone of primetime television. But things are rapidly changing. Shows about spooks, sci-fi, ghosts, the supernatural and the unexplained are popping up all over the place and the trend has left many observers searching for an explanation. Like the rise of documentaries, this trend could be put down to fashion. It’s a cycle and spook shows are having their 15 minutes of fame. But I don’t think so. You can read too much into anything, but I do think this trend has something to do with a desire to escape from reality. The world is becoming too uncertain and scary, so people are trying to avoid real life altogether by escaping into shows (or games) that tap into fantasy in one form or another. Examples of shows helping people to do just this include Supernatural, Moonlight, New Amsterdam, Journeyman and Pushing Daisies. Documentaries take the other road. If the world is changing fast and uncertainty is endemic, the other way of bringing some order, meaning and control to your life is to study what’s going on. This explanation could also explain the increase in sales of non-fiction books. However, there could be another more mundane explanation. The first law of business is that if something works it gets copied. Media is no exception. Therefore the format of successful shows like Heroes will get copied. Nothing spooky about that.
Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 3 June 2007, ‘It’s a kind of magic’, C. Goodwin.
Search words: Escapism, fantasy, sci-fi, ghosts
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The future of film

Here’s a common dilemma. Is it worth getting in your car and driving to the nearest high street or mall to watch a movie when you could stay at home and do much the same thing with a pile of DVDs and a take-away dinner? It would appear that quite a few people are concluding that it’s not. In 1946, 4 billion movie tickets were sold in the US. By 1973 this figure had declined to 864 million, thanks mainly to competition from television, but by 2005 they had gone back up to 1.4 billion sales. The death of cinema has been predicted many times over the years. First, the invention of television was supposed to be the death knell. Then it was the VHS recorder, the DVD and now the Internet. However, the cinema keeps bouncing back. There is little doubt that the ‘home cinema’ experience is getting better every year. Screen size and definition is improving and so is sound quality. Movies-on-demand at home are also challenging movie theatres, but what many of the doomsayers miss is that technology and convenience are only half the story. Movie theatres are undoubtedly under threat and will continue to be in the future, but historically the medium has always reinvented itself to suit the times. According to one observer, movie theatres will develop along the lines of theme park rides (that is, they will become more sensory and immersive) but even this, I think misses the point. The unique thing about going to the movies is the experience of going. You are there with other people and the more that life becomes virtual and even solitary the more important physical group experiences like this will become. There is perhaps also a parallel here with the newspaper industry. Both are under threat from new distribution channels, free content and piracy, but a major issue that’s often ignored is content. If the quality of the product is very good people will buy it. If it isn’t people won’t or they’ll switch to free or very low-cost alternatives. It's much the same thing with attention spans. Sure there's a shift towards shorter media formats, but this doesn't mean people won't watch two hour movies. It just means that it has to be good to capture the attention for that length of time - or to put it another way, people will only watch rubbish if it's short rubbish.Moreover, the movie industry is still obsessed with the 13-17 and 18-24 demographics, neither of which is very big now and will decline even further in the future.
Ref: The Age (Aus), 16 August 2007, ‘The Body Snatchers’, J. Jennings.
Search words: cinema, movies, film
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Web 2.0 dreams and nightmares

I’ve mentioned Andrew Keen’s book ‘The Cult of the Amateur’ before, but it’s worth mentioning again, this time in the context of a conversation between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger (‘Everything is Miscellaneous’) in the Wall Street Journal.
If you’ve not read Keen, his argument is essentially that Web 2.0 means that we are being overwhelmed by information, most of it useless. The almost infinite nature of digital content means that we are losing our ability to watch, read and listen for more than a few moments and this is harming society. Moreover, when almost everyone is a content creator or editor there is no reliable source of information or ‘truth’. Weinburger’s argument is that this is okay. The Internet is not going to harm civilization any more than television did in the past. New ‘trust mechanisms’ are sprouting up to filter this content and anarchy for us. For example, Amazon and eBay both give users useful ways to check whether someone is reliable or not. Indeed, focusing too much on content is misleading. It is the links, not content, that give content its meaning. What both authors do probably agree on is this. Something big is happening and the Internet is more than just another delivery mechanism. From my perspective both authors are partially right, although my gut reaction veers more towards Keen than Weinburger. Even if the problem of too much information is resolved, we are still faced with the issue of how individuals and organizations can make a financial return on something that is meticulously researched and well written when content is instantly copied or lost in a sea of digital drivel. Weinburger doesn’t think this is a problem, Keen thinks it is.
Ref: The Wall Street Journal (US), 18 July 2007, ‘The Good, the Bad, And the Web 2.0’. author?
Search words: web 2.0, UGC, user filtering
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The hypermobility myth

According to telecom industry experts, video telephony was going to be a big hit. It wasn’t. What happened instead was that out of almost nowhere text and instant messaging became huge. So as not to be caught out again in the future, telecoms companies are pouring money into anthropological studies to determine how people use mobile technology and what they might want to do with it next. Some of the results are quite revealing. For example, 60% of men carry their phones in their trouser pockets whereas 61% of women carry their phones in their handbags. As a result women regularly miss calls because they can’t locate their phone before it stops ringing. Another revealing insight is that the average phone user spends 80% of their time communicating with just four people. Moreover, talk of ‘device convergence’ seems to be overstated. Most people use different devices for different purposes and the opportunity for convergence is limited. For example, mobile phones are used for last minute planning and co-ordination whereas email is for administration and data exchange. Similarly texting is for intimacy and immediacy. What is really interesting, perhaps, is that despite low-cost channels like VoIP, most people seem to prefer typing to talking and while there is much talk about work invading our private lives, the opposite appears to be a stronger trend. Indeed, Stefana Broadbent, an anthropologist at Swisscom, Switzerland’s leading telecom operator says that despite the spread of wireless networks most workers have little if any appetite for doing work of any substance or significance outside of the office.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 9 June 2007, ‘Home truths about telecoms’,
Search words: predictions, telecomms, telecoms? mobility, mobile devices
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Customer created books

If an online encyclopedia can be written by hundreds of thousands of people why not a text book? This is precisely what's happening over at Now Pearson Publishing has joined up with MIT's Sloan School of Management and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to create a collaboratively written business book. So what's next – novels and screen plays?Possibly. Simon & Schuster, the US publisher, is using a service called Media Predict to get feedback on what will be hot and what will not. Specifically, the service uses volunteers to predict which books will work and which won’t, which helps the publisher to decide which manuscripts to turn into books. The idea is a mixture of prediction markets, crowd-sourcing and the wisdom of crowds. It is also analogous with ‘fantasy football’ and virtual gambling in that volunteers (or ‘traders’ as they are known) are given virtual cash which they must ‘spend’ on shares in the material that they feel will be a winner. Media Predict hopes to expand the idea to uncover new talent in music and even TV script writing. At the moment Media Predict’s service is free but once the number of voters or traders becomes significant users (clients) will pay a fee.
Ref: The Times (UK), 9 December 2006, ‘Trendsurfing: Wiki books’, D. Rowan. and The Economist (UK), 2 June 2007, ‘
Place your bets’.
Search words: Publishing, books, music, prediction, prediction markets, crowdsourcing
Links: Prediction markets, crowd-sourcing, wiosdom of crowds
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