Here’s what was important this week…
In world news, protests in Ukraine that have been going on for a few months have escalated as the government ramps up its violent response. Just today (overnight for us in the US time zone) a deal was signed between the government and the protestors. Hopefully it will hold. That article (CNN) provides a good overview of the violence, but essentially the protests started as the government aligned itself with Russia, while many citizens wished for more of an EU alignment. Photos (some graphic) of the violence were collected yesterday by In Focus, and the New Yorker is wondering if this protest is the final straw: Will Ukraine Break Apart?Like many of the protests in recent years, the protests have been named somewhat with the square in which they’re occurring. Tahrir, Zucotti, Gezi, and now the Ukrainian protests, combining the word for “square” and the crux of the protests, european integration, to make euromaidan. You can watch four simultaneous live feeds of the park if you like. (The current president of Ukraine also ran for president in 2004 and was “elected” but forced to concede to his opponent after accusations of electoral fraud. One of those protesting the election results also happened to be the sign language interpreter for the state run news channel.)
South America has also been beset by protests lately as well. Brazil has had ongoing protests, and they’ve been intensifying as the World Cup nears. ESPN investigated the protests this past summer in Generation June:
“The protests that took place during the Confederations Cup in June, and that you might see again during the World Cup next year, aren’t against a soccer tournament. They are against the entire structure of a society, against the issue at the core of so many other problems, and this fact alone almost guarantees a swift and violent repression.”
Venezuela has only more recently come into the public eye with anti-government protests, in part sparked by a inadequate government response to the shooting of a beauty queen(revered as celebrities in Venezuela). The BBC has more background on the current situation and about how the protests began.
One way that protests and dissent used to spread, in the years before the internet, was through media like radio, video, and music. A documentary in the making was featured in the NYTimes, focusing on the illicit dubbing of American movies during Ceausescu’s dictatorship in communist Romania. Western influence of any kind was banned and guarded against, but these movies allowed an escapist form of subversion, that gave dreams to oppressed people. Music was another way that dissent could spread, and also provided an escapism for many citizens. I wrote a paper in college about how 2 singer songwriters in Khrushchev’s Soviet Russia gave back the “everyday” experience to the people, after years of idealistic Socialist Realism. A book that got me into this concept is now sadly out of print, but focuses on the impact of a radio station in Serbia that played a crucial part in helping to take down the rule ofMilosevic. I can loan you my copy if you’re interested, or you can use that link to buy one through Amazon.
Radio is severely important in my opinion. After growing up listening to the college radio station in my hometown, and reading that book, I’m convinced that radio is an important, though neglected, transmission medium. (It’s probably no surprise that I was a DJ and worked for mycollege radio station.) The FCC also thinks radio is important, especially the fading medium of AM radio. Nostalgized in the Everclear song AM Radio, the FCC commissioner establishes:
“If you care about diversity, you should care about AM radio. Most minority-owned radio stations are located in the AM band … If you care about localism, you should care about AM radio. Many AM radio stations cover local news, weather, and community events.”
As the article explains, one of the reasons that AM is struggling is because the frequency band that it operates on is rife with interference from common household devices.
In fact, interference and human-generated frequencies are difficult to escape nearly anywhere on earth. The places on earth without any noise are vanishing. Jason Kottke discovered that when Wolfram Alpha calculates how many births and deaths occur per day on earth, it produces a result in Hz, the unit of frequency. Literally, the frequency of humanity. Orion Magazine tweeted about the frequency of urban environments in the US and Europe:
And, conveniently, Randall Munroe published an XKCD comic that compares the frequency of events occurring across the world (not in Hz). It seems that someone gets married just as often as someone registers a domain (or very nearly).
While audio media were very popular in unseating communist dictatorships, they’ve been less popular on the web, rarely if ever achieving the viral status that videos, gifs, and memes have enjoyed. Part of that reason is that there isn’t a definitive source for audio on the web. As Digg puts it in their investigation into Why Audio Never Goes Viral:
“There is no Google Sound, no BuzzFeed for audio, no obvious equivalent of Gangnam Style, Grumpy Cat or Doge. If you define “viral” as popularity achieved through social sharing, and audio as sound other than music, even radio stations’ most viral content isn’t audio — it’s video.”
However, the article does recognize my favorite source for audio on the web, SoundCloud:
“Hoping to make sound as sharable as video, SoundCloud delivers this content via a streaming player instead of a dressed-up file download.”
It has the benefit of giving you something to look at if you choose to, while also being low on processing and memory resources (especially compared to a video) so it is easy to play while doing other things. Of course, audio (and radio) allows the listener to create their own scene, and as a former radio broadcaster remarks in the same article, “What’s so beautiful about radio is you can’t compete with what people are imagining in their heads, right?”
Viral content mill Upworthy shares audio at times, like this recent Storycorps story, but it is shared as audio against a black screen on YouTube–a video-based, not audio-based medium.
And as the Digg article makes clear, most audio content that has gone viral is public radio content, voicemails made public, or portions of podcasts–it’s more rare for audio to be intentionally be produced and shared in short, easily shared and digestible segments.
After reading this piece, NPR experimented with producing audio content with the intent of making it go viral, with moderately successful results. Many of the examples in the Digg piece are examples of public radio excerpts, and spoken words. However, the experiment results highlighted in the NPR piece were almost all sound based–what it sounds like inside a category 5 hurricane, what a volcano’s “primal scream” sounds like.
As Dr Robin James explores in a Cyborgology piece in response to an article on Vice, people want the opportunity to share the sounds around them with others, but the few services that offer the capability aren’t widely used. She concludes with a question, “is this due to the nature of sound and/or photography, or is this due to the nature of social media, as a type of sociality, as a media platform, and as a business model?”
I’m not sure how much I agree with her, and I’d proposition that the lack of adoption in audio social media is attention. As the Digg article points out, most audio content (such as radio, and I’d extend that to podcasts and audiobooks) is consumed while doing something else (most often driving). Your car doesn’t facilitate sharing, but too, we aren’t consuming audio when there are other options enticing our attention–like easily skimmable text, or video that manages to capture at least 2 senses (visual and auditory) and can attempt to reduce distraction that way. The virality of audio, and its prospects as the content on a social media service, is not only hurt by what’s available to share (or how it’s shared) but ultimately hurt by the distracted nature of web users. NPR’s experiment is promising, however, and with enough quality content, those distracted users may be convinced to listen to a minute or two of quality audio.
When it comes to social media, formatting aside, messaging dominates. As Ben Thompson describes, “While the home telephone enabled real-time communication, and the web passive communication, messaging enables constant communication. Conversations are never ending, and friends come and go at a pace dictated not by physicality, but rather by attention.” One reason that messaging is so important for companies is that it allows them to latch on to part of that attention and use it to sell you something. Email is one of the dominant methods of that still, but they’re easier to delete without reading. Messages between friends, however, accompanied by ads for your favorite clothing store, would be harder to avoid. One messaging app, WhatsApp, doesn’t use advertising.
And as many of you may know, Facebook bought WhatsApp for 19 billion dollars in a combination of cash and stock. If you’re like me and didn’t know anything about WhatsApp before this week, The app offers “basic messaging” and in addition, “WhatsApp users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages.” They also have recently introduced voice messaging. Xeni Jardin explores many of the potential reasons for the purchase in her piece for Boing Boing, but they center around both the large number of monthly active users (450 million), and the app’s popularity internationally.
However, visual messaging apps are also popular messaging apps. Snapchat one of the larger(and is remaining independent), but more are trying to compete. One of these new competitors, Pop, explains the purpose behind their app:
“Much of our visual history now exists online. Pop makes this media accessible as short clips for anyone to use to express themselves. Social media has largely been about sharing what you see—taking a photo of what’s in front of you. By making it easy to combine your own recordings with any media on the web, Pop makes it possible to share what you see and how you feel about it.”
Using visual social media in general has become ordinary, with Pinterest and Instagram, among other sites and apps, dominating visual social media. The NYTimes featured this trend last summer in a blog post. As a photographer realizes, there is a definite appeal to sharing visual experiences, and it makes him rethink his own camera usage while on a 6 day hike in Japan:
“smartphones further squish the full spectrum of photographic storytelling: capture, edit, collate, share, and respond. I saw more and shot more, and returned from the forest with a record of both the small details—light and texture and snippets of life—and the conversations that floated around them on my social networks.”
As he realizes, “the data quality of stand-alone cameras, no matter how vast their bounty of pixels, seems strangely impoverished. They no longer capture the whole picture.”
While mobile becomes more popular, tablets are suffering. Re/code declares it outright: “our love affair with the tablet is over.” Their reasoning is simple:
“As phone apps improved in terms of quality and speed, users abandoned their tablets for the device in their pocket that could access the Web anywhere and anytime from Wi-Fi or cellular connections.”
However, Ben Thompson realizes that tablets have benefits compared to the traditional desktop computer, because “A Mac or PC is a superior experience for traditional computing activities, at least according to traditional measurements like speed or efficiency, but an iPad is simpler and more approachable, and it does other things as well.”
Robert McGinley Myers finds that a smartphone allows him to do so many things at once that he often finds himself overwhelmed. As he elaborates:
“I could use it to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, my RSS reader, my Instapaper queue, Flipboard, Tumblr, Instagram. I could also add an item to my todo list, write a journal entry, write a blog post, take a picture, listen to a podcast, read a book. And just as the device can be many things, so it reminds me that I can be many things: an employee, a teacher, a spouse, a friend, a family member, a reader, a photographer, a writer. I can feel it pulsing with obligations in my pocket. I sometimes find myself flipping through apps, and potential identities, the way I used to flip through TV channels.”
Christopher Butler agrees that smartphones are capable of a lot, and calls it “the first successful synthesis of three previously distinct machines: the telephone, the television, and the personal computer.”
This week’s music is a bit off the wall: The singer from Soft Cell singing along with a cover of Tainted Love…as performed by floppy disk drives.
For those of you that want to escape the technology that flooded the last part of this newsletter (and those of you that didn’t), here is Kalle Mattson performing An American Dream.
Thanks for reading!
A lot of what I find on the web I’ve discovered through excellent blogs like Boing Boing and Kottke.org, both of whom I linked to in this newsletter. Another one of my favorite blogs is Futility Closet, full of great odds and ends that he discovers in his own research. If you have a favorite blog, I’d love to hear about it! I sometimes find that I’m drowning in the tech sector news.
I also want to point out that I don’t use WhatsApp, Pop, and only started using Snapchat last weekend. I forget that I have Instagram on my phone, and forget that I have a Pinterest account. I traffic mainly in links rather than visuals, words more than pictures. But that’s just what I prefer. Clearly, a lot of people are different, and there are always some things better said with a picture. I’ll have more on photography and the power of visual images in a future newsletter. WhatsApp does seem like a practical app, however (I use something somewhat similar called Kakaotalk)(emoji are my greatest use of visual messaging), and especially given the worldwide popularity of the app (450 million active users) it says a lot about the ways that people are using the internet to communicate, but also to subvert restrictive telecommunications providers, limiting minutes and text message amounts, these messaging apps use data and/or wi-fi to accomplish the same tasks, only with more features.