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Archive for October, 2011

Perhaps this blog post is coming a bit too late in the news cycle, but I feel as if the general discussion of the topic is important: has Spotify/Facebook’s ideal sharing model failed?

Back during the F8 conference, both companies announced (along with a few other companies) their ideal use of the News Ticker on Facebook – to basically share content in real-time.  It was something that was applauded by many critics and interesting to many tech. and media moguls.  Here was a broad solution to finally create better music discovery other than through the dying radio or other, limited options like Pandora.  Someone could see a friend listening to something and especially if they feel they had similar tastes, could easily click and listen at the same time.  Music would easily spread this way and possibly lead to a bigger music selection and more artists being discovered by people that never would have heard otherwise.

However, two main problems stood in their way.  One was the very presence of the news ticker, an obtrusive, see-all eye into nearly everything your friends were doing.  At least upon some anecdotal evidence, many of my friends expressed disdain at 1) the very fact that the news ticker had to exist alongside the newsfeed and 2) not being able to control what went out on the ticker.  This second point would have big implications on these other tools that would also appear on the news ticker (and eventually, one’s own profile/news feed), the fact that many people did not enjoy seeing their musical listening habits being put up publicly.  Many people took to their Facebook accounts, Spotify blog, and other avenues to voice their disdain.

Indeed, Spotify actually had to address this issue by adding a ‘Private Listening’ mode http://www.bigmouthmedia.com/live/articles/spotify-heeds-complaints-over-facebook-sharing-con.asp/8433/ while other websites gave instructions in how to disable Spotify from being shown on the news ticker at all.

Sure, everyone isn’t the same as there are still some people that use Spotify’s sharing function openly without much care, but it seems as if a privacy line has been crossed.  Many seem perfectly fine posting up their favorite music videos or selections when they opt in themselves through a status update or a Tweet, but a program openly sharing information seems too much in terms of content.  The ideal ease of use has been turned on its head and creates a bit of a conundrum moving forward…what is next for music sharing?  How can artists create a better discovery model?  We still have some ways to go…

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An effective political thriller is a tough proposition to bring forth.  There have been a great number of films since the height of the film industry in the 40s-50s that have really tried to glean into different political attributes from the populist movement to the web of conspiracies.  So a modern-day film surrounding itself with politics really has a lot to prove to both be a distinguishing piece of work while still being a solid film all around.  George Clooney’s The Ides of March has a solid cast and lineup and an air of mystery and focus that makes it tough to dismiss as a bad idea, but the final film isn’t as effective as it could be, thanks to its plodding first half and mystery that is a bit superficial and not so fresh.

The Ides of March follows Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a high-level staffer for political candidate and governor, Mike Morris (George Clooney), and understudy to the senior staffer Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Stephen is both highly idealistic about his candidate and a strong force to contend with.  His life is currently on the upswing, swooning interns like Molly (Evan Rachel Woods) and making friends with journalists (Marisa Tomei).  On the other side is the opposing candidate’s political advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who is trying to figure out a way to match up to Morris.  Soon, Stephen has to contend with a variety of issues from the press, the opposition, and himself as he comes face-to-face with the ugly facts of political campaigning.

The best aspects of Ides of March are centrally in its actors and character arcs.  Clooney has compiled a very strong cast of actors and actresses together under one roof, and its great to see them all play off of each other.  From Clooney himself to a conniving and senile Giamatti to a stingy and hard-nosed Hoffman, indeed, the strong ensemble cast is a great highlight to the film to watch.  Best credits are given to the versatile Gosling who exhibits a very obvious but well-acted character who changes from an idealistic political consultant to a revenge-bitten and tarnished creature.  This point links with the next strength of the film, which is in its character developments.  Each of the characters in the film are varied and at the very least, two-sided and grow in different ways.  Although challenging for the writer, the end result is getting to really feel like these characters are always morphing and having to guess their motives and ambitions until the very end.

Yet for all these positive traits, the film has trouble becoming a film that is memorable and great, mostly due to some of its aesthetic and plot problems.  Pacing is one of Ides of March’s biggest problems.  Especially apparent in the first half, the film has some difficulty setting up all the bigger conflicts to come with such a slow tempo.  Some mysterious elements and the great acting are there to counterbalance these issues, but not enough to dispel such a lethargic feeling.  Then comes the issue of the plot itself.  Whether its due to the presentation or simply the actual content, the revelations that come in the second half along with the general tone give away much of any feeling of surprise or revelatory thoughts.  Instead, the film feels oddly disguised and a little less genuine than it would have like to be perceived, more cartoonish than realistic.  Additionally, the soundtrack itself just adds to this strange feeling of being overladen with its cliches and at least personally, did not feel like it connected well with the core film at all.  It was pompous and patriotic when really, the soundtrack required something more moody and atmospheric.

The Ides of March has those trappings that could create a really memorable, great film, but in the end, the film ends up more as a passable good political drama.  The film is made up of a strong ensemble from Hoffman to Gosling with a film that doesn’t hold back its punches in terms of plot twists and underhanded political dealings, but the film falls short of really being an impactful and engrossing film.  Whether that is to blame on the plodding first half or the overly pompous and distracting music is tough to completely pinpoint, but Ides of March only has great, initial ideas rather than executing them well enough.  That isn’t to discredit the positive attributes of Clooney’s latest but to simply denote that there is much room for improvement.  All of these elements are encompassed under the foreboding theme of the pessimistic overview of the political system.  Whatever side of the fence you may be on, ‘Ides of March’ should be complimented for making some interesting criticisms and thematic overlays of political idealism and the American system that create a much more engaging film than it could have been.   

Director: George Clooney
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Rated: R

The Wie muses: *** out of ******

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I actually started thinking of this blog post a while back when Facebook enacted its last changes when they synced smart phone users through the Facebook app and (unknown to most of the users) added a ton of phone numbers onto their friend list for their respective Facebook friends to find.   As regular Facebook users are used to, there was a fairly uniform negative response to this action.  Now, of course, the changes are reoccurring and the same unanimous negativity has come up again with the host of new Facebook changes taking place with the News Feed, Ticker, and Timeline.  This blog post isn’t exactly regarding the legality of the issues that Facebook is slowly facing or exactly about the business itself.  It’s about Facebook’s personality and the effects it has on a user-centric world.  I believe that although Facebook is one of the more forward-thinking and widespread websites out there, the website still lacks discipline and finesse, and because of its faulty communication practices and lack of user empathy, it is going to face a slow and steady uprising of user protest that may one day be enough to overwhelm the social media giant.

The Issue of Trust in a User-Generated World
One issue that Facebook is having is that there is an inherent distrust from the users concerning Facebook and their next moves.  The American Consumer Satisfaction Index labeled consumer trustworthiness of Facebook as abysmally low (Fast Compnay).  Users will regularly see their friends (or themselves) posting on the change in a usually negative way.  Why is this?  True, many Internet users are more distrusting online due to malware and other attempts at online trickery, and there is always the concept of the mob mentality as people flock to the popular opinion, but why is Facebook one of the lowest trusted brands online (Sepharimgroup)?  In my opinion, users may likely fall into the camp of preemptive fear; a fear that either the digital literacy they learned of one format could change into something enormously different or a constant thought that Facebook will exploit the user whenever possible.  A legitimate reason could be that people are afraid of change.   However, increasingly, Facebook’s changes are not leading into acceptance and enjoyment.  Instead, users resent the change as they are forced to use it, and any mediation period in between is disrupted by another drastic change, another bad piece of PR, or another widespread problem.  Users were surveyed by Poll Position and five times as many users hated the changes (AlltheFacebook).

The Issue of the Lack of Two-Way Communication
So why does this type of thought process happen?  As stated, one reason is that change happens too rapidly for Facebook’s users.  As Zuckerberg has supposedly told his employees; companies were ‘stupid for listening to their customers,’ (Gawker).  He places innovation higher than user satisfaction and believes his drive for change to try and better the UI and coding will continue to grow the community.  However, a worse problem is in the two-way communication Facebook has with its users.

The few times Facebook actually attempted to console their audience was in their first few changes when Zuckerberg himself had to recant the speed of his first major community change and start a blog post due to the company’s surprise at the audience reaction (Facebook).  However, soon, it was apparent that this would be one of the last times direct communication with the entire audience would be implemented.  Many future updates would come in sporadically with only a moment’s notice from their blog and a few other tech blogs if people were following.  Slowly, Facebook then implemented small text boxes that would note which items were new and try to help the user through the changes after they had already been made.

There are two apparent problems with this type of communication method.  One is the lack of any user-directed communication.  Zuckerberg’s direct post to the entire community, when they accessed their Facebook, was one of the only times the company had taken any approach to communicate their messaging and changes to the audience, even if it was in response to the changes happening (Facebook).  The lack of direct communication, whether through an informative email, message, or direct force, is that the day-to-day user becomes confused and frustrated that such a change was not apparent.  Second, there was no sense of user input; a lack of having the users feel that the company is listening to its users.  In an age where so much of a company is based on how they listen to their users, many Facebook users may be feeling that they have no direct control and no say in the proceedings of the company.  Therefore, there is more disdain for what happens on Facebook.  Yes, other companies like Youtube and others make changes without the notification of their users.  Yes, users/consumers are not meant to completely control the whim and will of any company (and some argue further that since the service is free, we have little to complain).  However, these points do not mean that it is an appropriate practice that makes these changes any better, especially the way Facebook has controlled their communication.

The Issue of the Audience
These arguments start to fall under the responsibility that Facebook has set out for itself.   No more is it the company that simply connected old high school buddies that separated during the move college.  The demographics have widely expanded both locally and globally to worldwide participants and people of all ages.  Zuckerberg himself understands his audience is growing in many different directions (Mashable), yet that type of accountability is only seen in design and coding; not in communication and messaging.  Are your parents going to understand what in the world is going on with the next changes?  Is your younger sister or brother comprehending all the Facebook news changes?  The problem is simple: the communication isn’t there to convey these messages to a variety of different demographics.

The Issue of Choice
In addition, Facebook doesn’t give the user any choice in the matter.  This choice is most likely to keep the experience uniform for all its users and not cause pains in having to create cross-platform capabilities.  Interestingly, though, Facebook did at one point give choice and a grace period for users to switch over from an older version of Facebook to the next but seems to have deserted this tactic with its rasher approach.  However, the issue of choice becomes immensely important when regarding the demographics and global reach that Facebook has amassed for itself (800 million users).  28 million alone in the US are over the age of 45 and continues to grow (Kenburbary).  A choice of at least some amount of freedom gives users at least a tiny sense of empowerment that could do much to help boost some trust within the brand.  Google, for instance, has been practicing this method with their updates in Gmail and Google Docs series.

Counter-Arguments
Of course, there are many counter-arguments to creating these approaches.  I will just address two that coincide with one another and is important to discuss in this topic.  As stated before, Zuckerberg believes that innovation is much more important that user satisfaction.  One reason for this is from precedent and interest.  Past online giants have quickly fallen due to how fast technology evolves.  Xanga to Myspace are just a few examples of the speed at which massive online empires easily topple down.  Facebook stays in the news and minds for a multitude of reasons; one being the controversial and quick changes it implements.

The second reason Zuckerberg and crew keep changing Facebook is because of the Innovator’s Dilemma.  This dilemma is that companies that grow in size and stature are unable to enact disruptive changes (Christensen); a common and huge fallacy for many big companies that has reoccurred for many years.  Facebook tries to not fall into the trap by continuing to build and innovate hastily to cultivate change itself rather than have users spur the change themselves.
Yet on top of all this is the one aspect keeping Facebook afloat: the user.  There is only so much attention that can be given to so many entities that something must eventually give.  Facebook’s strategy is to be everywhere and be ubiquitous with all that you do so that it is impossible to not give any attention to it.  What happens, however, when one cog stops working?  What happens when users stop ‘like’-ing and uploading onto Facebook?  What happens when a new, better news aggregate appears?  How important will brand loyalty be for Facebook’s users?

Conclusion
Perhaps this blog entry was too negative in its outlook of Facebook and yes, it lacks the qualitative data to really make a solid claim on the clear answers of why users are reacting to the changes as they are.  However, online transparency is such an important aspect of a digital era really controlled by the user.  Even more so, this tactic is not only directed at Facebook but all online entities.  Digital companies need to better communicate their actions and prepare their audience with clear and sound messaging whether its through a direct message, email, video, or other way.  Companies need to make sure their communication teams are prepared with properly communicating their digital literacy upon their users because their most avid consumer may not be the technology junkie or the in-the-know college student.

In this sense, companies such as Facebook need to understand who the user is better, how they can assist the user, and how to improve on it the next time rather than giving up on the concept of digital education entirely.  There is a social responsibility that comes into play as a digital company gets more and more avidly used that unfortunately, simply ignoring the problem and really lackadaisically implementing such communication will only result in brand dilution, which in the worst case scenario will have the user on the verge of leaving the website for something else.  You can’t appease everyone; and as the oldest of old financial books state, just appeasing the top 20% is all that’s necessary for some profit.  However, when a company communicates with their users; at the very least, users will respond and can positively impact the brand in the long run.

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Sources:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2042573/Facebook-privacy-row-Social-network-giant-admits-bugs.html

http://www.fastcompany.com/1672161/facebook-customer-satisfaction-survey-low-score

http://www.linkedin.com/share?viewLink=&sid=s602307925&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.allfacebook.com%2Ffacebook-haters-2011-09&urlhash=tWLP&pk=member-home&pp=4&poster=24277585&uid=5523092426232705024&trk=NUS_UNIU_SHARE-title

http://gawker.com/5177341/even-facebook-employees-hate-the-redesign

http://www.sepharimgroup.com/2011/08/09/facebook-is-the-least-trusted-brand/

https://www.facebook.com/blog.php?post=2208562130

http://mashable.com/2011/09/23/facebook-timeline-youth-communication/

http://www.kenburbary.com/2011/03/facebook-demographics-revisited-2011-statistics-2/

Christensen, Clayton.  (2003). The Innovator’s Dilemma. Harvard Paperbacks.

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Films love a good battle whether it is between two warring countries to a sports underdog story rising from the bottom.  Similarly, some of the greatest battles films that have been showcased have been within the human body whether it is a battle of the mind to the battle of sight.  50/50 isn’t a unique film in that respect; essentially being about a young man’s battle with cancer.  However, 50/50 is its own beast in many respects.  Yes, there are some superfluous characters and plot directions that doesn’t always pace well, but there is no denying that the heart of the message and the excellent characters make for a memorable ride through one man’s journey with cancer.

50/50 follows Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a radio journalist who learns he has a rare tumor growing in his spine.  Soon after he learns of his situation, Adam must face not only the impending predicament of his situation,  in which he needs to deal with constant chemotherapy and doctor visits, but also the reality of having to tell his friends and family, from his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) to his girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Howard); all the while dealing with his therapist Katherine (Anna Kendrick).  The film follows Adam’s struggles and life lessons over the course of his cancer treatment and impending surgery and questions what it means to live and die at such a young age.

The biggest issues Director Levine and crew seem to run into are pacing the fairly day-to-day proceedings into a cohesive narrative and having trouble with some of the film’s characterizations and events.  Pacing is tough to nail down in a film that doesn’t necessarily have a carrot that the audience or the characters are trying to catch or discover.  Instead, 50/50 really relies upon its main character and his interactions with other central friends and family to keep the film moving.  Unfortunately, there are times when some of these scenes don’t really work to keep that pace moving, especially in its transitions.  Levine likes to put in a lot of musical interludes intertwined with a slow motion, dialogue-less sequence which works in some cases but doesn’t in others.  A scene in which Levitt and Rogen are breaking apart a painting, for instance, feels unnecessary since the impact of the scene was already well played in the prior confrontation.  Another issue concerns some unnecessary elements amongst the actual plot.  As general as this complaint may be, it felt noticeable that several very different elements never totally flowed well with the film.  One, for example, is the issue of Adam’s girlfriend, Rachel, who never felt as wholly constructed as the other characters.  The reason for her role in the film is very apparent, but her character is one of several elements that felt more padded in and never better explored.  That lack of surprise and discovery is something that does pervade the whole film due to it’s more laid back and hammy tone at times, which unfortunately in my opinion, detracts a bit from the core messaging, and when Levine does try to push upon the audience something that should have been surprising, it comes up flat.

Yet amidst these issues is some great acting, well-thought out characters, and a superbly written script to really create a strong, overall film.  To be honest, to talk about all these parts disparately is tough since they are so interwoven together.  However, the first thought that comes to mind is how strong the main characters are and how genuine the script comes off.  The writing here is sharp and focused, really honing in on Adam and his colleagues from Kyle to Katherine.  The script pries into them and creates some good emotional roundness.  The way the film slowly explores Adam’s life from his job to his personal life to his therapy build upon each revisit, and the plot isn’t afraid to take time and literally sit down and hear a story or a conversation from these characters.  In the end, it makes many of the main characters feel more than just parts of a human being and gives the ability for the audience to empathize, especially with Adam, whose characters really grows in fascinating ways throughout the course of the film.  These characters are helped by the fact that the cast really help to create some great, memorable people.  Rogen and Kendrick both really grow into their roles which may seem off-kilter at first but become, as they always do in their other films, fully fledged and realized people.  The best acting, however, comes from Gordon-Levitt.  Adam is a very introverted and brooding type of character who is likable but interestingly flawed who is tested throughout the duration of the film and has his flaws seep out ever so little.  Even smaller nuances like the constant nail-biting or sullen eyes really help deliver a great, overall being along with the connections that form between everyone.

These bonds and all of these elements contribute to a strong third act that really sells the ideas and the thoughts about the core of the film – a young man’s struggle with death.  All of the revelations and humor and drama finally reach to a great emotional point that really makes the film work.  It’s heart-aching; it’s emotional; and it’s beautiful all at once.  For me, it all seemed to symbolize that idea of life tending to work in a circle, yet that starting point in the circle is not always the same.  Watch for the scene that literally is emulated from the beginning of the film in terms of its cinematography and positioning, but is filmed in an entirely different mood and atmosphere that is immediately noticeable.  This scene really sums up the accomplishment of Levine and company in making the audience care for what is going on which in itself is an enormous feat.

50/50 is a really well-intentioned film that showcases a heartfelt journey on the hardships of cancer.  There are a few pacing issues within the plot that along with some corny and throwaway items within that will prevent some from completely engaging with the on-screen story archs.  However, 50/50 is elevated thanks to both its strong main characters that are well-rounded and acted to really create an empathetic bond with, and the writing that lets the characters breathe enough to bring about a strong conclusion.  All in all, the film is a gamble in many ways, being so dependent on its core characters, but ended up being such a success to make the whole battle worthwhile.  

Director: Jonathan Levine
Rated: R
Running Time: 99 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of ****

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