Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Kony 2012: The Anatomy of a Viral Video

Kevin Allocca's recent TED talk, Why Videos Go Viral is prescient in the face of the surging popularity of Kony2012, a spectacularly infectious viral video originating from YouTube and Vimeo, asking viewers to join the effort to capture international war criminal, Joseph Kony.  The video was produced by Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Inc. and is a paradigmatic example of the viral media.

Allocca, who works for Google analyzing YouTube videos, identifies three influential factors causing videos to "go viral."  First, there are the tastemakers, (established celebrity voices) who serve as a posteriori gatekeepers of generally available content on media sharing websites like YouTube.  The television program Tosh 1.0 is a good example of this, as his program functions to elevate obscure online videos to viral status, but any tastemaker who shares obscure content has the power to confer status to that content through association.  Second, Allocca discusses how community participation through parody videos further promote and maintain the popularity of the original product.  Lastly, Allocca identifies a vague sense of unexpectedness as a critical feature in viral video proliferation.

The most critical of these influential factors for Kony2012, are the numerous celebrity tastemakers Russell points to, including, Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Ben Affleck, Ryan Seacrest, and Bono, among others.  To a lesser extent, unexpectedness plays a role as well, insofar as Kony and his atrocities are relatively unknown to the average American.  However, the mechanics behind the film's popularity don't end there.  Upon closer analysis, additional devices including narrative context, emotional connection, participation, immediacy, and zeitgeist are also central to the success of the Kony2012 strategy.

The film begins by forging unity among viewers, declaring that "humanity's greatest desire is to belong and connect," and goes on to illustrate this connection through reference to earlier examples of viral videos and familiar social media interfaces.  From here, the film establishes a compelling narrative context through recourse to traditional techniques such as voice-over narration and clever scene transitions.  In this way, the film tells the story of Russell's quest to keep a promise he made to stop Joseph Kony.  Everything that follows is premised upon that narrative context.

Through this narrative, Russell also develops an emotional connection with the audience.  In fact, the first five minutes of the 30 minute documentary are dedicated exclusively to Jason Russell and his toddler son, Gavin.  The first ten minutes (fully 1/3 of the entire piece) are about the human relationships among Russel, his son, and a boy he met in Uganda named Jacob.  By including scenes of his son's birth, home videos, and emotionally stirring interviews, Russell lulls the audience into identification with his mission: the promise he made to Jacob that he would stop Joseph Kony.

Two additional related factors to the film's super-viral status are participation and immediacy. Within the first few minutes of the film, Russell places the viewer in the role of collaborator by saying, "The next twenty-seven minutes are an experiment, but, in order for it to work, you have to pay attention."  By positioning the spectator as a participant in a larger project, Russell calls for the connectedness and collaboration essential for a successful viral video.  By the end of the film, once he has held audience attention long enough to gain credibility, he follows this up by asking viewers to participate by ordering an "action kit" intended to be used in preparation for April 20th, 2012 a day he plans to make the villain of the story, Joseph Kony, (in)famous by plastering his image throughout the nation.  Included in the kit along with other promotional materials are two bracelets with identification numbers so participants can register themselves online as official members of Kony 2012.  This is clearly intended to offer a sense of belonging to participants.

By providing a date for the culmination of this effort, Russell also makes the video urgent and immediate.  He says, "The fight has lead me here, to this movie you're watching."  In an effort to emphasize this immediacy, he foregrounds the immediate present by telling the audience that the film itself will no longer be available after December 31, 2012, thus transforming it into an ephemeral product of the moment, which is the essence of cool, participatory media.  "This year, 2012, is the year we can finally fulfill it," he says.  When introducing the "action kit," he says, "Here it is... ready?"  So, you're either with it or not, on board or have missed the bus.  As if this weren't enough, he also repeatedly foregrounds the running time of the video by revealing the time code reading on the screen.  All possible strategies are aimed at reiterating the urgency and immediacy of the video.

Finally, Kony 2012 is peppered with references that resonate throughout the cultural zeitgeist.  Endorsements from contemporary cultural superstars like Tim Tebow and Mark Zuckerberg are an example of this, but so is the use of the subdued colors of the famous Obama "hope" poster and the interview with  it's creator, Shepard Fairey.  At one point, Russell narrates, "The problem is that 99% of the planet doesn't know who [Joseph Kony] is" - an oblique reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which made 99% an iconic statistic.

In closing, Kony 2012 can serve as a tactical case in point for creating viral media.  Unlike much of the content which receives disproportionate attention, it was designed for the specific purpose of going viral and it employed tastemakers, community participation, unexpectedness, narrative context, immediacy, and zeitgeist in order to achieve success.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Interface is Disappearing

There are a series of short videos posted on the BBC's Click: The World of Technology Across the BBC highlighting advancements in eye-tracking, eye-control, neurotechnology (electroencephalogram) and gesture recognition hardware/software.  But you probably already have experience with interface technologies like smartphone touch-screens, voice simulation/recognition, Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect.

The interfaces we use to interact with media are diminishing and disappearing. Motion detectors, eye-tracking systems, and brain-computer interaction (BCI) enable users to interact directly with content. Just as the remote control has changed the way we watch television, these technologies are destined to change how we interact with all forms of media and to make the distinction between media and our own minds less clear.

The long-term effects are twofold.  First, in the absence of a physical interface, we become less conscious of the difference between mediated and non-mediated experiences.  Thus, as augmented reality is copiously pasted upon the physical world, it begins to appear completely malleable and subject to human will.  Second, the extent of individual human agency will be contingent upon success in managing the interface and the plasticity of boundaries between the individual and the technology.

The implications of the second long-term effect coincide with what has been referred to by Kurzweil as the Singularity: the point at which humans merge with technology.  Some will be better adept and more comfortable with this than others.  If you like to rely on intuition, are skeptical about technology, and prefer face-to-face interaction, you're probably not looking forward to this union.  Therefore, those among us who are best suited for success in the future are those who are the least human.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Google Goggles

National Public Radio and the New York Times, among other sources, have been reporting on the forthcoming "Google Goggles" that are purportedly being designed at the Google X labs in Mountain View, CA.  The goggles would offer their wearer an augmented reality display capable of providing information relevant to any particular context in a way similar to how news channels provide viewers with a graphic layer of time, weather, market updates, breaking news, etc. over the live-action shot.

The concept of augmented reality goggles isn't unique or new.  Two other developers are also working on similar designs, and contact lenses with similar functionality have been discussed in the past.  If we include science fiction, the idea is actually quite old indeed.  So the reason this story has captured my attention is not its novelty, but the reflection that is provoked when we consider that it will be a reality.

The consequences of the Google Goggles are similar to what my collaborators I have described previously as an "intercept scenario" simulation (Jones, Lombard & Jasak, 2012).  In such a simulation, the brain and body are separated so that all nerve impulses are intercepted and fed into a mainframe computer in a style similar to that of the The Matrix (1999).  The goggles are only different insofar as they intercept perception outside of the body.  Permitting the physical world to be framed and interpreted by streams of information flowing before your eyes, effectively changes the bedrock of reality as surely as any simulation.  So why waste processing power building a complete simulation when you can control the way people interpret their existing reality through dependence on external tools of interpretation?

Some will see this prediction as alarmist, pointing out that if you don't want the glasses you don't have to buy them and that you can always take them off.  I would respond through recourse to the example of ordinary glasses used for vision correction.  Those of us who wear glasses know how different and disorienting the world is when we remove them.  Imagine glasses that not only aid your perception, but your cognition as well.  Indeed, at some point, removing these glasses may be like removing a part of yourself.  Though... it would be a part of yourself that wasn't really yours to begin with.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Cyborg's Dilemma... Again.

"The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg" is an article by Carina Chocano which recently appeared in the New York Times magazine addressing the growing anxiety that many people face concerning what appears to be universal digitization.  In 1997, Frank Biocca first described the cyborg's dilemma in these terms:
The more natural the interface the more 'human' it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind.  The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface.  Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become 'unnatural,' the more we become cyborgs.
At the TED conference in 2010, Amber Case seized on this theme with her talk, "We're All Cyborgs Now," noting the capacity for digital storage devices to augment memory, cognition and consciousness.  Aside from this, much has been written in the field of Embodied Cognition on the subject of cognitive offloading and how it suggests that the boundaries of our minds may not coincide with the boundaries of our physical brains.

Chocano brings a humanistic perspective to the subject, noting the important role that physical objects have played in establishing context and meaning in her life.  She is leery of the transformation, reduction, and compression of everything into "data" and the increasing dependence most of us have on the volumes of digital information at our fingertips.  Chocano, thus describes her "cyborg's dilemma" in the following way:
We're collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.
Throughout the article, Chocano seems self-critical and conscious of her own reluctance to immediately embrace the digital future, but the reasons for her concern are not without basis.  Her suspicion that access to information is not the same thing as knowledge is supported at length by the work of Nicholas Carr ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and The Shallows).  Related to this concern, though perhaps more sinister, is the standardization and accessibility facilitated by digital technology.  In a completely standardized digital world, we don't own our own knowledge.  Our life histories, buying habits, social networks, intellectual labor - indeed our very identities - are swallowed by and subordinated to the metaprograms that beckon us to join, share and participate in this new culture even as we relinquish our control over it.

A week ago, my girlfrined brought home a long-overdue VHS/DVD transfer machine.  She bought it to preserve old home movies, but I will likely use it to transfer some of my considerable collection of obscure cinema.  When I was in high school and college, I used to collect strange foreign and experimental films at local video stores and through the mail.  I remember the experience fondly, as each little box represented a different trip through someone else's subconscious mind.  Stripped of their plastic housing and cardboard dressing, they will undoubtedly be easier to store, but they also will have lost the aura that drew me in from the start.  They will be part of a network of data and every pixel will be accounted for, assigned a number, and any hint of mystery will be utterly gone.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Obsolete Classroom?

In a recent item from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nick DeSantis reports on the plans of Stanford Professor, Sebastian Thrun, to break away from his tenured position and create his own institution: "Udacity" (presumably a clever union of the words "University" and "Audacity").  Thrun apparently believes that the traditional classroom is outdated and should be abandoned for a multi-mediated digital platform where collaboration and group learning replace lectures and note-taking.

The initial response that anyone might have to this is positive.  If new media can help people learn better and faster by appealing to a diverse set of learning styles and unleashing the power of cooperation, why shouldn't it be used.  I fully agree that it should.  The problem comes when we examine the common false-choice fallacy that is frequently associated with new technologies and the cornucopia of remedies promised by those who are their cheerleaders.  In this case, the fact that teaching an exclusively online course doesn't increase, but decreases, the number of communication modalities available is omitted. All of the tools at the disposal of the online instructor are also available to the classroom instructor, plus one: the gold standard of face to face communication.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Smartphones and The Cyborg's Dilemma

In this month's issue of Fast Company, there's an article by Adam Bluestein titled, "As Smartphones Get Smarter, You May Get Healthier: How mHealth Can Bring Cheaper Health Care To All."  M-Health stands for "mobile health," a new trend in helath care technology which takes advantage of the smartphone platform to make expensive medical devices available around the world and on the go for only a fraction of the cost of convensional health care machinary.  For example, Bluestein's article features engineer Ramesh Raskar whose smartphone-based autorefractor takes advantage of the existing display technology to make an ordinarily cost-prohibitive instrument available in poor nations.  The technology cleverly takes advantage of an already existing economy of scale in smartphones.  In addition to Raskar's autorefractor, mobile ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, microscopes, and other applications build off of the display technology, wireless communication, and power supplies of existing smartphone technology.  See Bluestein's diagram below for the full range of innovations:

Amid all of this incredible innovation, there is one line in Bluestein's article that some may find unsettling.  It's a quote from the Chief Innovation Officer at Humana: "It's like a the human body has developed a new organ."  As I considered this, I was reminded of Frank Biocca's famous paper, "The Cyborg's Dilemma," which is described as a sort of paradox in human-machine relations: "The more natural the interface the more 'human' it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind.  The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface.  Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become 'unnatural,' the more we become cyborgs."

Of course, the prospect of becoming a cyborg is significantly less disturbing when one considers the alternative plan.  Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that this is another critical example of how the intimate connection we have with our tools is in the process of transforming us.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Developing a Professional Identity Through Social Media

A recent article for The Washington Post (1/21) titled  Teachers take to Twitter to improve craft and commiserate discusses the use of Twitter as a tool in sharing lesson plans and classroom challenges among educators.  The author, Emma Brown, writes that [teachers are] "using Twitter to improve their craft by reaching beyond the boundaries of their schools to connect with colleagues across the country and around the world."  And she is not alone in lauding the benefits of social media as a teaching aid.  Some college and university faculty have shunned the learning management software giant, Blackboard, in favor of open source software like WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, and LinkedIn (e.g. Prof. Hacker 3/18/10).

This illustrates a common byproduct of the "speed-up" of information flow facilitated through the Internet.  When individuals join together through a digital collective and exchange information at an accelerated rate, a new dynamic of group identity begins to emerge.  Through social media, all professions have the potential to form self-governing emergent systems which ensure professional integrity, recommend best practices, address collective labor concerns, and evolve through the infinite flux of technological evolution.  The professionalization of social media is evident in the new profession of "social media management" and the increasing importance placed on having a social media presence by corporations, large organizations, and the public relations firms that represent them.

This phenomenon illustrates the development of a collective identity as it is facilitate through the web.  It is a drastically scaled down version of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's notion of the "Noosphere," Michael Chorost's "World Wide Mind," or the Monism Scenario of simulation detailed in our recent paper (Tele)Presence and Simulation.  The idea is that individual identity is replaced by collective identity through the rapidly accelerated scale of information exchange instantiated by social media.