News, media & communications

How to get more of the same

Technology, whether you like it or not, is becoming very skilled at giving you more of what you already like. Amazon perfected this long ago, suggesting other similar books you might want. But what if Hollywood could predict a blockbuster by analysing a film script first to see if it meets all blockbuster criteria? This is already happening, care of Vinny Bruzzese, who runs a pricy script evaluation service in Hollywood. For as much as $20,000, he can tell you what works – a guardian superhero, a targeting demon – and what inevitably fails – bowling scenes.

His reports use a combination of statistics, survey results and a meeting with the scriptwriter for creative vision and context. The earlier, the better. For the writer, this can be crushing, or it can provide just the information they need to write a better script. Writers are often horrified by this kind of use of statistics, or any other science, to measure or inhibit creativity. But it could be wiser to spend $20,000 on assessing a potentially expensive film than it is to throw millions of dollars at a dog.

In a similar vein, researchers in London are developing software that can analyse the text in a popular book to help pinpoint the next bestseller. The software looks at elements such as relative frequency of words, whether chapters are written in 1st or 3rd person, in present or past tense. It displays different sections in a tree structure, clustered together where they are similar, and apart when they are not.

Writers can potentially use it to improve their own style or use the style of an author they admire. Or it can be used to track contributions by individual writers to a collaborative project. The Writers Guild of America often has to deal with disputes about writing credits for screenplays and might benefit from such software. Certainly it can be valuable to learn from other writers, but software like this – and script services like Bruzzese’ - can also perpetuate similarity and formula, rather than originality and quirkiness.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 14 September 2013, Find your next book. D Heaven.
International Herald Tribune (US), 7 May 2013, Revealing the blockbuster in a movie script, using statistics. B Barnes.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: .
Trend tags:

Keeping abreast of tabloid habits

The era of the page 3 girl in the British tabloid, The Sun, may be coming to an end. Some might argue, not a moment too soon. Rupert Murdoch introduced this particular habit in 1970, when attitudes to women were decidedly less politically correct than they are today. It was also before the internet, when online pornography started to make page 3 look like a harmless cartoon.

In some ways, the page 3 topless pin-up seems like an anachronism, and it is surprising it has lasted this long. Detractors have always been dismissed as puritanical killjoys or snobbishly patronising (many readers are working class). Female protestors, like Clare Short, a former Labour minister, received short and withering shrift. Senior politicians, even David Cameron, tend to prefer the free market line rather than interfere with what seems harmless, to them at least. Nobody has ever put Cameron’s chest on page 3.

A recent online campaign by Lucy-Anne Holmes, No More Page 3, has garnered 114,000 signatures (though this does not seem many compared to The Sun circulation of over 2 million per day). The campaign does not call for legislation, top shelf positioning or buyer minimum age – it simply asks that page 3 be stopped. This seems reasonable enough, given that it presents an image of women that is both stereotyped and demeaning, and readers of The Sun may be encouraged to think that attitude is OK.

Like any tradition, it may be hard to give up. But this is a postmodern society and a great many traditions have gone to the wall. The great British national dish, for example, is no longer fish and chips but chicken tikka masala. So far, Murdoch has only hinted that the topless girl may be replaced by a “glamorous fashionista”. Given the blurry definition of “glamour”, it could signify a change of direction or simply be semantics.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 17 August 2013, Bagehot: Tits, out.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: The Sun, Rupert Murdoch, page 3, women, No More Page 3, sexism, working class, circulation, raunch, stereotypes, weekend edition, voluntary, topless.
Trend tags:

Get out of my Face-book

Facebook, now nine years old, appears to be shaping the thoughts and feelings of its users. According to research into 82 users, just published in the Public Library of Science, the more people use Facebook, the less satisfied they are with their lives. An earlier study in Germany surveyed 584 users of Facebook, mostly in their 20s, and found they were commonly made unbearably envious by photos and examples of others’ achievements.

A number of investigations seem to confirm that Facebook arouses jealousy, social tension, isolation and depression. This is not to assume that using Facebook causes these emotions, as people who experience them may be more prone to use Facebook to feel better. Unfortunately, they do not. People posting to Facebook like to emphasise what is good or neutral about their lives and leave the negatives out. They say, “look at me”, and make sure they are smiling when somebody looks.

Why does using Facebook have a different effect from socialising face to face? The answer is because people cannot easily pretend in real life: what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG).

If Facebook upsets 20-year-olds, who appear to be more prone to self-consciousness, does that mean people of all ages are also disturbed by it? After all, nobody likes to think that everyone is having a better time than they are. We all suffer to some extent from status anxiety. This begs the question what Facebook could do – if it chose – to brighten up the lives of its more vulnerable users.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 17 August 2013, Get a life!.
Search words: Facebook, Public Library of Science, jealousy, tension, isolation, depression, social media, satisfaction, wellbeing, envy, WYSIWYG.
Trend tags:
Source integrity: *****

The template generation

Following the story above, Get out of my Face-book, parents are justified in being concerned about how their offspring are affected by online life. This is the first generation that has been so thoroughly immersed in it. Some experts, like Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle and Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, have written at length on the kind of life the internet is creating. But do we have to accept it?

Beeban Kidron’s latest documentary, InRealLife, follows the experiences of five British teenagers as they navigate the murky internet waters. She emphasises the film is not designed to be Luddite or oppositional. But she does suggest it’s time to consider, if the internet is society itself, which parts to accept and which areas to reject.

Interestingly, documentaries offer the best investment returns of any genre of films making over $US2 million in America. Michael Moore and Al Gore are proof of that. Better yet, directors of documentaries are more likely to be proportionally female than fiction films, where only 6% are women directors. This is extraordinary. Kidron has already made other documentaries, for example, Sex, Death and the Gods, and believes people crave the opportunity to ponder things seriously. TV and the internet, even the Church, no longer seem to offer this. She says “We want to be immersed, we want to understand … beyond the bleeding obvious”.

It is revealing that none of the big companies contacted by Kidron would speak to her. They were not forced to. Unfortunately, commercialisation of privacy means that most of us are forced to give out our personal information. Kidron calls this one the “template generation”, because they are told how to live. Or as the above story shows, how to feel, if you are not like everybody else seems to be.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 31 August-1 September 2013, What a tangled web we weave, E Wagner.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: .
Trend tags:

Print’s charming

There are plenty of reasons to think that e-books would overtake printed books, and Amazon would come to dominate the publishing world. But that ignores the equal and opposite force that always tends to bring things back into balance: people love printed books. Unlike the music world, where mp3s took over, e-books are not a substitute for printed books. They simply have their place in the bigger world of publishing.

Publishers Association (UK) found total spending on printed and digital books rose 4% to 3.3 billion UK pounds in 2012, and the majority were printed. Sales of e-books rose 134% to 216 million UK pounds, compared to a meteoric 366% rise in 2011.

There are plenty of good reasons why printed books will continue to sell: digital books complement physical ones, especially heavier hardbacks; children’s books are thriving; hardback cookery books are still de rigueur; and reader expectations have become more demanding, for example, they want beautiful book jackets. A Kindle is no match for a beautifully designed book, even if you can take 100 books on holiday.

A YouGov poll of 1877 adults found 32% owned an ereader but only 17% would take it on holiday with them, compared to 32% who would take printed books and 9% who would take both. However, 65% preferred reading a printed book, compared to 17% who preferred an ereader. Curiously, when interviewed, a number of celebrities said they liked printed books because they could write in the margin. This just goes to show that there is more to reading than just reading.

One celebrity author, Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), has recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, and found it is proving to be popular, rewarding and profitable. We suspect celebrity has something to do with it, but anecdotal evidence suggests local bookshops also offer more than just reading – they contribute to community, and there’s still no digital substitute for that.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 2 May 2013, Sales prove digital is still no match for the printed page, C Williams.
The Sunday Times, 21 July 2013, On the eshelf: book fans go back to paper, K Dowling.
The Atlantic, December 2012, The bookstore strikes back. A Patchett.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: print, digital, publishing, e-books, Kindle, paperback, children’s, book jackets, records, Amazon, Luxembourg, EL James.
Trend tags: