prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Archive for January, 2011

Social Media Revolution: The Whole World is Watching

Posted by prof e on January 29, 2011

It would be an overstatement to say that recent anti-government protests in Muslim countries have been caused by social media. It would NOT be an overstatement to say that social media has played a very important role in both coordinating protest activities and giving new meaning to the slogan, “the whole world is watching.” The largely peaceful transfer of power in Tunisia that began just weeks ago has been a remarkable event and the current protests in Egypt opposing long-term president Hosni Mubarak are nothing short of miraculous. The Green Revolution in Iran, aka the Twitter Revolution, is another example of the critical role that social media has played in enabling a largely youthful underclass as they’ve challenged autocratic rulers and oppressive regimes.

I’m not a political scientist, but this is what I’ve been able to learn about the current uprising in Egypt from several news accounts that I’ve read. The political unrest is rooted in sluggish economic conditions that have resulted in high unemployment for a growing demographic of young, often well-trained, citizens. Evidence of political corruption has added fuel to the fire as protesters, emboldened by what they observed in Tunisia, have called for the end of the 30-year rule by Mubarak. Protesters have been clashing with police who have been deploying water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in response. Just yesterday Mubarak called out the army, but may have been surprise by the results. According to reports, members of the army have been joining with protesters calling for the president to resign. But Egypt is a strong ally of the US, and that makes it complicated for our diplomatic corps. While the US supports peaceful democratic transition, it is also gravely concerned about the potential of loosing one of its strongest allies in the region.

Egypt’s response to the protests has been surprisingly heavy-handed. The government shut down internet and cell phone services on Friday in an attempt to disrupt the protesters’ activities, effectively disconnecting 80 million people from the outside world. According to some reports cell phone service was restored a day later, and dial-up internet numbers are being circulated. “The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it”, a quote from 1993 attributed to John Gilmore, captures the challenge of trying to restrict a system that was built to be bomb-proof. Iranians, Tunisians and Egyptians have found, or are finding, ways around information blockades, with proxy servers and other less technical means for maintaining connection to the outside world.

The role of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media is being debated, and will continue to be debated long after these revolutions have passed. But one thing is certain; social media is a game-changer, and powerful institutions, be they governments, businesses or social movements, can either learn how to use social media to their benefit or they will have to learn to live with the consequences.


  • NPR has published a guide to using Twitter to follow the on-going events in Egypt…you can find it here.
  • Al Jazeera, a Muslim news organization, maintains a blog of on-going events here.

Posted in interactive media, journalism, new media, social media | 9 Comments »

Skins Skating on Thin Ice

Posted by prof e on January 26, 2011

I hesitated to write about the new MTV series Skins, a remake of a BBC series by the same name. By pushing the envelope MTV knew that it would generate plenty of buzz–and contributing to that buzz, even in a very small way, makes me an accomplice in their marketing scheme.  I’m going ahead with this post because I believe that the debate over Skins is one that must be joined if you’re going to engage modern popular culture and the role of media in shaping that culture. Recent accusations that the program may actually cross the line into child pornography is another reason why this is not just another Jersey Shore. Several of the actors on Skins are as young as 15 and that raises serious questions about the appropriateness of the acts they’re portraying on the small screen.

Skins premiered on MTV to strong ratings (3.26 million viewers 18-49) but fell to less than half this in its second episode. The premiere was likely boosted by two things: 1) people checking out the show to see what all the fuss was about and, 2) a new episode of Jersey Shore as a lead-in. Jersey Shore has been a ratings powerhouse and last week’s special episode (featuring the much publicized arrest of Snooki) drew 7.7 million viewers.

Despite the TV-MA ratings, Nielsen estimates that more than one-third of the Skins premiere audience were under the age of 18. That shouldn’t be surprising since MTV has claimed to own the teen demographic for some time.

Now, on to the controversy. David Carr, writing in the New York Times, makes an interesting point when he observed that Skins does not exist in a vacuum. While critics argue that these kinds of media portrayals are glamorized depictions far from reality, there’s also a bit of truth to MTV’s claim that much of the behavior we see in shows like Skins happens with or without media depictions. According to Carr,

Now that MTV is back on its heels, you will hear arguments that “Skins” merely describes the world that we already live in. There’s something to that. MTV didn’t invent “friends with benefits,” oral sex as the new kiss or stripper chic as a teenage fashion aspiration.

“Skins” is nothing new, only a corporate effort to clone a provocative drama that will make MTV less dependent on reality shows and add to the bottom line. True, MTV is not alone. Abercrombie & Fitch built a brand out of writhing, half-naked teenagers, as Calvin Klein once did.

But the critics of Skins also have justification to claim that media depictions of bad behavior are educational lessons, especially for young viewers. Once again Carr explains the difference between Jersey Shore and Skins in this regard.

Even in the most scripted reality programming, the waterfall of poor personal choices is interrupted by comeuppance. People get painful hangovers, the heartbreaks are real if overly dramatic and the cast members have to live with their decisions.

Not so on “Skins,” where a girl who overdoses and is rushed to the hospital wakes up to laughter when the stolen S.U.V. taking her there slams to a halt. Teenagers show children how to roll blunts, bottles of vodka are traded on merry go-rounds, and youngsters shrug off being molested and threatened by a drug dealer. And when the driver of the stolen S.U.V. gets distracted and half a dozen adolescents go rolling into a river, the car is lost but everyone bobs to the surface with a smile at the wonder of it all.

Leading the charge against Skins is Parents Television Council, a conservative media watchdog group, or, as their website puts it, “A non-partisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment.” PTC called Skins, “the most dangerous program ever” for children and their website includes an interactive feature that allows visitors to fire off a letter of disapproval to sponsors. And that tactic appears to be working.

MTV has seen important advertisers back away from Skins for fear of associating their brand with content that goes beyond edgy. Taco Bell (you know, the company using meat filling that is–surprise–significantly less than 100% beef), Gillette, Wrigley, Foot Locker, L’Oreal , Schick, and Subway have pulled spots. The movie studios and assorted products targeting the Skins demographic remained on the air in episode two. One of the spots on Monday night was for stretch mark cream. One commentator joked that it might have been a direct response ad! Oh, and you might not be surprised to learn that one of the advertisers of this week’s episode was the video game Dead Space 2 (see post below).

What do you think? Does the lifestyle presented by Skins and similar programs resonate with your personal experience? Are parents making too much of a fuss about something that will likely self-destruct on its own? Or is there something here that demands a response…something that, if left unchecked, will lead to even more dangerous behavior by even more adolescents?

Posted in advertising, media effects, media industry, tv | 40 Comments »

Your Mom’s Gonna Hate This

Posted by prof e on January 21, 2011

Electronic Arts has taken an edgy and controversial approach to marketing Dead Space 2, a videogame described as a, “third-person horror survival game in which players must battle an alien infestation” by “strategically dismembering” necromorphs. In a viral marketing campaign, [see clip below], 200 “moms” were invited to participate in “market research” that turned out to be a way to collect their on-camera reactions to some of the most horrific scenes from Dead Space 2.  Here’s the clip:

In case you missed it, the VO said, “A mom’s disapproval has always been an accurate barometer of what is cool.” But wait, this video game is rated M the by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), meaning it is to be sold only to buyers age 17 or older. Last time I checked that crowd wasn’t overly concerned about what their moms liked or didn’t like. Is it possible that EA is actually marketing a game rated “M” to kids younger than those allowed to buy it? This marketing campaign is going to give more ammunition to critics of video game violence: people like Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, who, according to Wired magazine, was quoted as saying that “the videogame industry’s self-regulatory efforts around the marketing of violent video games to minors are still ‘far from perfect.’”

There’s another issue here that centers on ethics of research. According to the video, “over 200 moms were recruited to participate in market research, only this wasn’t market research.” Obviously the moms were asked to sign a release form that gives EA’s market researchers permission to use the video from the hidden cameras, but the breach of standard research ethics is obvious and appalling. Beyond that, the moms may have legal recourse based on the emotional and psychological distress that they may have experienced in the process. I’m sure EA has a large legal team, but they may be well advised to “lawyer up” in order to defend this controversial example of ambush marketing.

Posted in 1st amendment, advertising, interactive media, media effects, media industry, new media, research | 29 Comments »

What was the big media story of 2010?

Posted by prof e on January 12, 2011

According to Mark Glaser at PBS’s Media Shift website, 2010 was full of big stories about the media. Glaser lists his top 10 and tacks on a few honorable mentions as well. You may or may not agree with the author that WikiLeaks deserves the top slot, or that Facebook and the Apple iPad come in second and third. What I’d like to know is–what story, about the media, that broke in 2010, was the most significant to you, and why? Remember, this is not about just any significant story that the media covered, (e.g. the BP oil spill, the rescue of Chilean miners or passage of health care legislation), but rather a story about the media industry itself. Use the comment link below to tell us what you think was the top media story of 2010, and why it deserves that honor.

Posted in Uncategorized | 116 Comments »

Questioning Motives

Posted by prof e on January 10, 2011

It’s still much too early to figure out what motivated Jared Lee Loughner to shoot 19 people, killing six, on Saturday…but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating. News pundits, reporters and commentators have lined up to offer their opinion of what was behind the tragic and atrocious act. On the ride home today I listened as a radio reporter speculated that political rhetoric, amplified by the media, was to blame for the shooting.

Perhaps what has been most disconcerting has been the eagerness of some to score political points by ascribing motives to Loughner that fit their personal political views. Yes Representative Gabrielle Giffords is a Democrat from a Republican district, and yes she had previously been the recipient of heated rhetoric from those who opposed her policies. But too many in the media (both mainstream and online) are trying to link the actions of a madman to social movements and political activism which may or may not be responsible.

Even the local sheriff, Clarence W. Dupnik, weighed in just hours after the shooting with his opinion linking the tragedy to “vitriolic political rhetoric.” Others suggested that talk of “second amendment remedies” and maps with cross-hairs used to target political races across the country, including Giffords’ district, were to blame. There MAY BE a connection between heated political rhetoric and the actions of Loughner, but it is too soon to try to connect the dots when one of the dots is clearly not dealing with a full deck.

Please don’t mistake my objection to those placing blame for anything less than complete repudiation of Loughner and his heinous act. Blame should–and will–come to rest on Loughner, and anyone or anything that contributed to his decision to use deadly violence. I’m simply saying that to make pronouncements about causal relationships so soon after such a shocking event says more about the motives of the speaker than it does about the motives of those under the microscope.

UPDATE: According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.) is working on a bill to make it a federal crime to use “language or symbols” that could be interpreted as inciting violence against a member of Congress.

UPDATE 2: I just came across a thoughtful commentary from Jon Stewart’s show last evening that addresses this very issue. Stewart said, “you know we live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations, and I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine, and by the way that is coming from someone who truly hates our political environment.” Read and/or watch more here.

Posted in 1st amendment, journalism, media effects, media industry, politics | 4 Comments »