Archive for November, 2011

Memes & Millionaires

Adbuster's Occupy Wall Street "meme" (Courtesy of Adbusters)

The anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters has been a big supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. So much so, that it could be said that they were the first people to truly capitalize on the movement. In fact, it was Adbusters, who came up with the hash-tag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, along with the visual (left) on June 13th, roughly three months before the movement started.

An article in Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “The Branding of the Occupy Movement”, focused on Kalle Lasn, the 69 year-old in charge of Adbusters.

“This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with these memes and to propagate them,” he said, in the article. “That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”

Memes, popular in internet slang, originated from Biologist Richard Dawkins who coined the term in his book The Selfish Gene (it is a portmanteau of the Greek word mimēma, meaning “that which is imitated,” and gene). Online, memes are content that deals with imitation, something that plays off one cultural idea, and spreads through the Internet.

One of the first online memes, "All your base are belong to us" (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The interesting part is how Lasn is using these memes. For the most part, memes are jokey, irreverent media created for the sole purpose of amusement (see right). However, what Lasn is suggesting, is that memes have the potential to serve a political purpose.

Subverting the message of multi-billion dollar corporations, has been Lasn’s goal from the get-go. Adbusters specializes in “subvertising”, which essentially comments on the state of advertising, by parodying current ad campaigns. One of the more well-known examples was a parody of Camel Cigarettes’ “Joe Camel” ads, which derisively featured a cartoon named “Joe Chemo”, as in chemotherapy, usually hooked up to an IV or something similar.

Of course, how successful this current advertising project will be remains to be seen. The “Joe Camel” character was discontinued after 1997, after a popular 10 year run. He became so well-known among children, that in 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Assoociation claimed that “Old Joe Camel cartoon advertisements are far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults.” They linked the cartoon to a rise in Camel’s share of the illegal children’s cigarette market segment, which it claimed increased from 0.5% to 32.8%, which amounted to an estimated $476 million per year. Taking on the richest 1% of Americans, however, might be a larger undertaking.

Nevertheless, Lasn remains undeterred, maintaining that, “if you’re able to come up with a very sexy sounding hash tag like we did for Occupy Wall Street, and you come up with a very magical looking poster that seems to have something very profound about it, these devices push these memes, these meta memes, into the public imagination in a very powerful way.”

An example of Adbusters' "subvertising" (Courtesy of Adbusters)


Yum. Nutritious.


An example of "news nutrition facts" (Courtesy of the Nieman Journalism Lab)

Ethan Zuckerman, director at the MIT Center for Civic Media, is spearheading the weirdest project on the consumption of news that certainly I’ve ever heard of: nutrition labels for news.

As Zuckerman explained back in 2008, “Over the course of a week, it might let you know that you hadn’t encountered any news about Latin America, or remind you that a full 40% of the pages you read had to do with Sarah Palin. It wouldn’t neccesarily prescribe changes in your behavior, simply help you monitor your own consumption in the hopes that you might make changes.”

Zuckerman, knows the Internet well. He is, in fact, one of the first people to become rich off the Internet, through the early Internet startup The site was sold to the Internet company Lycos for $58 million, in 1998.

As for the news “nutrition labels”, it would consist of a plug-in to Firefox that would passively monitor your web-browsing habits, and provide a gage of your viewing habits.

Matt Stempeck, a research assistant on the project, said that the goal of the project was “to strike a balance between the consistent, widely-recognized FDA label and the far more creative, dynamic approaches to visualizing information all over the internet.”

On the Internet, everybody knows you're a dog (Courtesy of the University of North Carolina)

But how can you find and categorize all the Internet content that most news outlets put out, must less judge it?

Zuckerman already has the aid of the Media Cloud, a database he created back in 2008, that cataloged articles from the top 25 U.S. news outlets and posts from the top 1,000 blogs, from the previous four years. The database has roughly 43 million articles (!) amassing hundreds of terabytes’ worth of text.

Zuckerman, however, does have a certain agenda with his plan. Zuckerman claims that the Internet is not utilized to its full potential, as many do not get a global perceptive online, and many netizens suffer from cognitive dissonance (see link below). So while the program does not suggest that someone read or view other content, the goal is to get people to realize and possibly change their consumption habits.

The downside is that your personal browsing habits are available for others’ consumption. Of course, the nature of the Internet now is, seemingly, to share information. However, different people differ on how comfortable they are providing information. Some would even argue that many wouldn’t even see the value is such a technology.

Andrew Phelps, who wrote an article about it for the Nieman Journalism Lab, contextualizes it in a rather acerbic way. “Does everyone want to see a digest of his own news nutrition, let alone look at someone else’s? I bet a lot of us are afraid of what it might say,” he said. “Twenty-one years ago President Bush signed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Many local laws now mandate posting calorie counts in chain restaurants. And America is still pretty fat.”


Killing Lincoln

Bill O’Reilly, author and host of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor”, is no stranger to controversy.

His show, which airs daily on Fox News Channel at 8 P.M. (n.b. primetime), is a lightening rod for critics, like the 2004 documentary Outfoxed, that claims that O’Reilly and his fellow FNC compatriots push, to an extreme degree, a conservative message in their programming. O’Reilly has been criticized for things like name-calling; a 2007 piece from the Wall Street Journal blog the Numbers Guy, compared O’Reilly’s rhetoric, unfavorably, to Father Charles Coughlin. The Indiana University School of Journalism, found in 2007 that in O’Reilly’s editorials, he called either a person or a group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds, on average.

O’Reilly found himself in another minor controversy, when his 10th book, Killing Lincoln, was removed from sale at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, after a study, conducted by Rae Emerson, the deputy superintendent, recommended that the book not be sold at Ford Theatre’s bookstore, due to erroneous errors within the book. A minor rift, considering that the book was sold in its gift shop in the ground-floor lobby.

O’Reilly, however, probably benefited more from the publicity than Ford’s Theater. On his show the next day, O’Reilly raised Cain about his book, ending by saying that, “Our enemies are full of rage at that success. We also know the media lies at will these days with little accountability.” Note the strong language he uses here: Our, enemies, and the phrase “the media lies at will these days.”

Since we are learning to be journalists, and know the effort put behind producing news, and maintaining a reputation, surely at least that last statement should make you cringe.

Hold up, I imagine you complain, but O’Reilly is a pundit.

Yes, that’s true, and I’m glad I imagined that you complained. However, he’s a pundit with a master’s in broadcast journalism (from Boston University), and influence, he was watched by over 3 million people last week, according to Nielsen. We have to remember that pundits can play a big role play in our political system, since, like Father Coughlin, he holds a large and influenceable audience.

So what, I imagine you complain again, this has been going on for years, it’s old news.

That is also true. Yet, he is not any less influential, and his ratings are just as high. And his influence and ratings net him a lot of money. In 2010, Newsweek made a list of the most affluent “political figures”, ranking them according to their estimated 2010 salaries. O’Reilly came is fourth, making an estimated $20 million. (If you were wondering, the three who made more than him were Rush Limbaugh ($58.7 million), Glenn Beck ($33 million), and Sean Hannity ($22 million.)

Now, as 2012 is approaching, it only figures to get worse, with a Congress seemingly at a stalemate, and as partisan as ever. If you noticed, the 2007 year in particular, was a time where a lot of vitriol came from O’Reilly. It is not perhaps a coincidence, that it was also just before the previous presidential election. And it is this kind of rhetoric from a streamlined conservative base that has the potential to kill Obama at the polls.

This was featured on O'Reilly's show back in 2007 (Courtesy of the Huffington Post)

Lowering Cain

Sharon Bialek, Cain's accuser, left, with Gloria Allred, her attorney (Courtesy of Enewstrend)

Recently, Herman Cain, GOP primary candidate, has come under fire for allegedly engaging in sexual misconduct with several women; a charge that can potentially derail the Cain campaign.

The first woman to come out with allegations was Sharon Bialek, a woman who allegedly had asked for a job from Cain, and subsequently became the target of sexual advances from Cain.

A study undertaken by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism compared the overall press coverage that Cain received last week, to previous coverage on him. The study divided the coverage into three categories: positive, negative and neutral. For the last week measured, October 31st to November 6th, the study found that 39% of the statements about Cain were negative, versus 26% positive (only 36% were neutral).

However, the negative coverage of Cain this week is not an anomaly. This last week, was the third straight week were Cain had received more negative coverage in the media.

Herman Cain's Flavor of the Week (Courtesy of BuzzFeed)

The trend started on the week of October 17-23, after Cain released his “9-9-9” tax plan, and rose in the polls, leading to increased scrutiny from the media.

As for the allegations against Cain, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Cain, who according to a USA Today/Gallup poll, is tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in the primary, at 21% (Undecided voters also polled at 21%).

On a side note, the findings in the report from Pew, were found using software from a social media research company, Crimson Hexagon. According to Pew, the company “combines traditional content analysis methods with computer algorithmic coding,” to get the numbers you see above. But more important than the method, is how the company is using its alogorithms. They, along with social media company Mass Relevance, recently announced a partnership with Twitter, to repurpose Tweets for commercial use.

This, of course, has several implications for the social media user. Companies, now, are essentially able to access the content of every twitter user, and are able to misappropriate and disseminate the information they receive, regardless of whether or not a social media user consents or not. The second, and probably more interesting, aspect is that it gives weight to personal opinion in the public forum. Literally, anybody can tweet anything and have it be used by big corporations, like CNN (see above link), and will most likely, in the future, be featured in T.V. shows and Jumbotrons, in an attempt to influence you, the consumer.

Imagine that.

The Tiziano Project

When’s the last time you heard news from Iraqi Kurdistan?


The autonomous Kurdish region is a very turbulent area, an contentious buffer between Turkey and Iraq. Relations are tense between the Turkish and the Kurds. A 2007 bombing along the border left 6 Turkish soldiers dead. Turkey reciprocated later that year, by bombing parts of northern Iraq in an attempt to attack the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish organization, who Turkey believed was behind the bombing.

Yet, despite this inherent conflict, the conflict in the region goes by unnoticed, and the area is not generally talked about in the media (unless Herman Cain was really referring to Kurdistan, when talking about “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan“).

Now, as the pet project of  the Tiziano Project, they are trying to shed a light on this oft-negleced part of the world.

The Tiziano Project, led by executive director Jon Vidar, is slowly expanding. The group’s most recent project, Tiziano 360, trained 12 locals in Iraq in journalism, and had them produce a website that “documents the life, culture, and news in present day Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Now, they have the help of a $200,000 Knight News Challenge grant, they have the possibility of expanding even further.

Yet, the idea of the project remains the same: to use journalism to affect change locally. They just value the unorthodoxy of this new kind of journalism, and see that it has a certain potential.

“There’s three types of content producers now,” Vidar said to the Nieman Journalism Lab. “The professional journalist; the citizen producer — the everyday guy uploading to YouTube; and then there’s the intermediate. They’re not professional journalists, but active commentators, people who use in an in-depth way. We want to elevate the people who are taking cellphone video and posting it to YouTube — elevate them to the next level.”