News, media & communications

Instagram – where art meets technology

One of the most famous Instagrammers is Kim Kardashian West, with 37.1 million followers. Meanwhile, Instagram’s co-founder and CEO, Kevin Systrom, is probably less well known than his boss, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. But he’s got the hype: Instagram, he says, is the “history”, even “the visual pulse” of the world.

It’s hard to argue with the statistics. There are 300 million monthly users actively logging on, two thirds of them every day. Most spend 21 minutes daily, flicking through photos. It’s a giant photo album. But it’s much more than that to Facebook, which bought Instagram in 2012 for $US1 billion. Facebook is a “giant engine for serving ads”, says Systrom, and it wants revenue. Facebook spent $US22 billion buying What’sApp after Instagram, which is still cheaper than Uber, recently valued at $US51 billion.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then millions of pictures must be worth a billion dollars to Facebook in its family of apps. But will this change the nature of Instagram?

Originally, people were attracted to it because of its dearth of rules, its lack of control. Instagram was better than other photo apps because people could follow each other without them following – or friending – them back. It also said photos, once considered so private, could go public. Plus, Instagram appeals to a generation that likes to look at itself, whenever possible.

Is it just lifestyle porn? Systrom argues self-portraits existed long before the smartphone, but that is stretching the truth a bit. Certainly a few artists did portraits of themselves, but it wasn’t common. But the issue here, surely, is the focus on the self. Giles Coren, writing in the Times recently, pointed out that exurberent selfies are made possible by the ease and ubiquity of photographic images, but the whole idea is to elicit only envy. They scream "Look at me (and my lifestyle) everyone!". There is some justice though. More people died taking selfies last year than were eaten by sharks. Natural selection in action.

Social media still has a lot further to go, with more video, wearable technologies and virtual reality waiting. Instagram appears to be making money faster than any other social network, thanks to Facebook, and is becoming a big, stable company. All this, just from showing people your holiday snaps (with flattering filters).

Ref: Financial Times Magazine, 27-28 June 2015, ‘Instagram unfiltered’ by H Kuchler. See also, The Times 26 September 2015, 'Death is too good for the selfie narcissists' by G. Coran.
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Search words: Instagram, Facebook, What’sApp, social media, wearables, virtual reality, revenue, apps, friending, history, pictures, connections, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, photos, Uber.
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Why all pop music might be starting to sound the same

If you go to a concert, the chances are you love hearing a song you recognise and you switch off a bit when you hear the new songs. This is human. We love something familiar because it takes less effort to process and it can even be comforting when we’re anxious (say, the parking meter is running out).

In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council analysed over 464,000 popular recordings around the world from 1955-2010 and noticed there was less variety than in any preceding decade. Basically, songs were becoming bland, loud and predictable and (if you are a musician) “with the same few chord progressions”. So what’s going on?

The top 1% of bands and solo artists now earn 77% of the revenue from recorded music. So clearly, everyone is listening to the same music and somebody wants you to.

Next Big Sound, a music analytics company, tracks Spotify listens, Instagram mentions and other traces in social media to create a list of likely stars. Its search tool, Find, sells for a sizeable 6-figure annual subscription. The company found Facebook likes are unreliable indicators; what works is radio exposure, then hits on a band’s Wikipedia page.

Shazam wrote an algorithm that could create a unique acoustic fingerprint for any song so, when people heard that song, they could identify it on Shazam. After being downloaded 500 million times, and identifying 30 million songs, Shazam had quite a dataset of what songs people like and where they live. Using an interactive map, it could identify exactly where and when a song started to be popular.

Over time, it has ceased to matter what music the radio DJ chooses, but what the wisdom of crowds wants to listen to. Hip-hop and country has steadily become more popular than old-fashioned rock, perhaps because of changing demographics.

Unsurprisingly, people love hearing something today that sounds like something they liked yesterday. Not only that, people who see songs ranked highly are more likely to listen to those, which is why Today’s (Top) Hits is still the most popular playlist on Spotify/Pandora.

Far from expanding our choices, it seems the internet has funnelled us all in the same direction. Are there any other examples of this?

Ref: The Atlantic, December 2014, ‘The Shazam effect’, by D Thompson.
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Search words: Shazam, songs, downloads, music, Spotify, ‘wisdom of crowds’, Republic Records, New Big Sound, Find, social media, radio, Wikipedia, Portable People Meters, HitPredictor, rankings, hip-hop, country, hits, pop, media.
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Typing on screens is a language revolution

Text messages were originally invented so that operators could test the early mobile phone networks. Now there are about 20 billion text messages circumnavigating the globe very day (and 30 billion WhatsApp messages), each with their own special meaning for sender and receiver. What it means for our language is an evolution in how much we can say in so few words.

Typing on screens is a dominant force in the way language is changing. Just as some words are being weakened or cheapened, others have hidden complexity. One author, Tom Chatfield, carefully considers the meanings behind OMG, LOL (or lol), ROFL or ROFLMAO and says they reflect a lot more than they appear.

When people write LOL, for example, it does not mean they are laughing out loud necessarily. LOL acknowledges they are in an emotional conversation with you and making up for the fact you cannot see their face or hear their voice. It also shows they are members of your tribe and they recognise your wit.

The language of text messages has found its way into the culture, just as any language would. A popular dance music band calls itself LMFAO (laughing my f--- ass off) and a UK Indie band calls itself ‘Alt J’, the shortcut on an Apple keyboard that finds the symbol for its name.

The expression “for the lulz” is an interesting one, describing the fact someone does it just for the fun of it. But this usage is usually ironic, for example, “I killed him for the lulz”, and the more serious the act, the greater the lulz. The word, ‘lulz’ is known as ‘eye dialect’ because it is aimed at the eye rather than the ear.

In some ways, language has had to become tighter, rather than looser, because it is so easy to misunderstand a few words. As Chatfield says, one letter can “carry an amazing burden of significance”. (We remember one poor chap who went through purgatory because his text said “you’re pretty much the perfect girlfriend”.) He claims some young people outsource the writing of crucial texts or spend ages finding 140 characters that sound perfect but spontaneous.

All our text messages, or Twitter comments, or any other kind of screen communication, blur the boundary between public and private. Perhaps there is no privacy anymore. But people have to be very careful what they make public because there is often a serious gulf between their own private self, and the image they project on to the world’s screens.

While it is possible to project oceans of meaning into one text word, we can still communicate much, much more with just one look.

Ref: New Scientist, 6 April 2013, ‘OMG – it’s the textual revolution’ by T Chatfield.
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Search words: screens, public private, language, OMG, LOL, conversation, typing, digital native, ROFL, meaning, text message, ‘for the lulz’, ‘eye dialect’, performance.
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Cartoons are us

The power of a word, or even one letter (see story, above) is often matched beautifully by a simple cartoon. It was Punch magazine that coined the term “cartoon” but in fact, cartoons predated newspapers in the form of caricatures or illustrations of early modern Europe.

Newspapers helped bring them to a wider audience, but then syndication tended to make them too bland. More than 60% of cartoonists’ jobs at US papers have been lost since 1980. Now cartoonists go online with their craft, in many cases with millions of hits and, in other cases, being beaten up and even killed for it.

Web comic, Zach Weiner, says most cartoonists update daily or every other day as if they were in a newspaper. But they are more experimental, in content and form. Fred Gallagher, writer of Megatokyo, has created a cartoon in beautiful Japanese manga-style that only true fans can follow.

Web cartoonists are usually under 30, well educated and geeky – they joke about topics many non-geeks might not find funny, such as statistics or computer code.

Do cartoonists make money? Mr Inman’s The Oatmeal had around 7 million unique visitors per month and made half a million US dollars in 2011. Matt Bors won a Pullizer price for his brilliant cartooning and is currently editor of The Nib, a successful site for cartoons, comics and non-fiction within Medium. Not all cartoonists are quite so lucky.

Sabir Nazar, Pakistan’s most well-known cartoonist and political commentator, upset extremists so much his driver was murdered and his newspaper regularly attacked. Ali Farzat, prominent Syrian cartoonist, had his hands broken by pro-Bashar Assad thugs in 2011.

Finally, the four Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who lost their lives in the French terrorist attack, know how dangerous cartooning can be. A picture paints a thousand words, not necessarily the ones that others want to hear, or even the ones others think they hear. Humour is a funny thing.

Ref: The Economist, 18 November 2014, ‘Paperless cartoons’, anon. Also 22 December 2012, ‘Triumph of the nerds’ Anon.
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Search words: cartoons, cartoonist, newspaper, Punch, merchandise, web comic, Megatokyo, geek, Mr Inman Oatmeal, China, Kuang Kuang, Ali Farzat, Bill Watterson, Sabir Nazar, Matt Bors, The Nib.
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Writers, artists and others give us 2024

Wired magazine asked a few writers, artists and others to look 10 years ahead and showcased their tongue-in-cheek ideas in a Retro Special: Whole sentences on real paper!

You might think 10 years is not that long. But Margaret Atwood thinks her entire neural network has now been encoded into the DNA of an immortal Planaria worm inside a jar in the Main NSA surveillance Black Room. She says pot and hemp have been legalised, demand for carbon fuels has dropped because seniors have chosen to live on inside jars, and the planet is in recovery at last.

Russell Davies has Team Happiness associates knocking on your door to see how happy you are. Your 30-day targets are steps, protein, savings, friend encounters and gratitude (among others) and you have failed, unfortunately, on 30-day metrics like sit-ups, lifetime learning and dental care. He also predicts World War IV but luckily, not likely to impact on house prices.

Now that we have reached ‘peak pizza delivery’ (materialist stuff), Alain de Botton says we need to start attending to the higher things: need for love, functioning relationships etc. Corporations finally realised they could make money branding emotional intelligence and relationship counselling. ExxonMobile has been outcapitalised by a company helping people with their anxieties about death. It’s called ‘psychological capitalism’ and coming to a place near you.

Tim Harford says flexible pricing went too far. By 2017, you were in the supermarket with goggles on and shop prices were changing every few seconds in front of your eyes. Then in 2020, a new IPO, Slivr, gave tasks to temp workers in 6-minute intervals depending on the highest bid and prompted massive price gouging and ‘slazumping’ (walking out of the job). So now prices and wages more or less stand still.

For the nostalgic, Alexander Grunsteidl predicts a Disney Global Resort in India, where you can walk down a 20th century London high street with a printed replica of a British Airways ticket (airlines are extinct because of virtual reality) and visit an Oxford Street wedding shop. In here are real mirrors, stool and hooks, long before body-metric avatars, social network recommendations and instant customisation. There’s even an advertising workspace with office desk, Aeron chair and monitor.

Did people really ‘go’ to work once?!

Ref: Wired (UK), July 2014, ‘The future as it happened’ by M Atwood et al.
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Search words: ‘psychological capitalism’, relationships, flexible pricing, nostalgia, Disney, virtual reality, airlines, materialism, happiness, surveillance, neural neworks, death, hemp, pot, carbon fuels.
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