Names Have Power

Why is it that Walmart can lose a hyphen and the world press updates within days, but more than 20 years later, no one can spell “Kyiv”? Russian cities that lost the names of Soviet leaders went back to their original spellings a la Leningrad/Petersburg. Why can’t journalists show Ukraine just this tiny bit of respect after 20+ years? Why do they force Ukraine to be under Russia’s linguistic thumb?

A Qualitative World

When I think about quantitative analytics, I think of The Matrix. In The Matrix, the world most people experience is purely a computer construct, one of ones and zeros spelling out a universe in binary. Keanu Reeves’ Neo is offered the choice between the red pill and the blue pill, the choice of living in an all digital reality where everything can be analyzed and shaped or an analog world where things can vary. In that first movie, everything is changed by his awakening, perhaps even the universe itself.

In quantitative analysis, it’s all about the numbers. Sampling size is key, but after a population reaches a certain size, there’s little chance of having the result change, so why bother asking, right? The first time an alarm was raised for me was as an undergrad sitting in a media class learning about the Neilsen ratings system. While there were more than 300 million people in the United States, they sampled a few hundred. Those few hundred told networks how much money they could make and what programming to pursue. Why? Because to sample any more than that would be a waste.

Skip to the mid-2000s. Neilsen switches to people meters from diaries and suddenly shows and networks watched by city dwellers and minorities suddenly drops overnight. The diary system had TV viewers write what they watched in increments over an hour. They were supposed to note if they changed the channel, when and if they stayed with the new program. People meters automated that data collecting. They were initially introduced in New York City and from the first day, programming featuring minorities plummeted in the ratings. It was serious enough that lawmakers took notice.

How could that happen? New York City has eight million people. They were replacing 400 diaries. Did they give people meters to the same people who had diaries? Where the people being replaced competent? How did they choose new families? As a purely “opt in” system, did they enroll people via letter or telephone call? If it was telephone, was it landline or mobile? To whittle 300 million people to a few hundred, you have to cut a lot of corners and make many broad generalizations.

Today advertisers and networks are learning much more about how people relate to television. They know we engage separate media simultaneously. We post on Facebook and Twitter while we watch. That alone has moved networks out of a purely quantitative understanding of their programming. Now you can see the next day how your program reached its audience by a simple hashtag search. This is a good thing. I do agree that individual focus groups in many different areas is an expensive proposition, perhaps prohibitively expensive even. But these new technologies help us understand much more.

Other technologies are coming. Would a modern teenager download an app for their Google Glass that measured how long they looked at the outfits worn my actors on the latest MTV program? Would you do the same for shows you watch? What if you were paid an Amazon gift card for your efforts? The improved data would be incredibly valuable. The payoff to you would be tiny depending on how much data you were willing to share.

I think we are on the cusp of things changing. Facebook has been losing young people lately. I could see them revitalized if they shared their ad revenue with the people whose friends they are ad bombing. If you were 16 with hundreds of friends, would you take $50 a month for giving Facebook extra access to your followers? I think the first company to offer this will not only gain access to a treasure trove of marketing data, but create a new, fairer, more qualitative world for advertising.

The Nature of Television

The evolution of the media is not the most exciting thing. We figured out how to paint on caves sharing information about the animals we encountered and how we killed them. This was the first bulletin board. Later we figured out how to make these things mobile. Hammurabi had the law etched onto columns that were distributed around his empire. Since we figured out ink earlier, it took a bit longer, but we came up with various forms of paper to go with it. Once we hand ink and paper, the next big thing was the printing press. Folks from Eurocentric cultures know Gutenberg as the creator. Once we had that, we had everything pretty much in hand until the telegraph allowed us to transmit information electronically. Marconi is credited with making it wireless, although my love of Nikola Tesla forces me to say that’s a bit of bullshit. The wireless paved the way for radio. Radio gained picture to become television. Then the internet blew everything up.

Each media has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some are more local, others are more intimate. The strength of television was the simple ability to show you what was happening instead of just describing it. In the beginning, there was a lot of experimentation while people learned how tv could work. Stage plays were reenacted to poor effect initially. People learned comedy worked much better on television than radio because, well, you couldn’t do Buster Keaton with no sound. Over time the rules of television were codified. The rogue experimental factions settled down. Ideas were borrowed from film, but where film morphed into a venue for seeing large expanses on a wide screen, television settled into telling more intimate stories and the day’s news.

There is still experimentation on television, but you don’t see much of it anymore. Most of the world plays the same programs people in North America see because the United States dominates entertainment creation and distribution globally. (Since Hollywood was built on the backs of Jews forced out of Europe because of racism and discrimination, I wonder what the USA and the southern coast of California would be like if Europe had been more welcoming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) There is a huge amount of money made, so much so that there is little incentive to change. Hence where the problems of capitalism come into play.

It’s little wonder that a wealthy, more socialist country is redefining television in their borders. It isn’t that the programs have more viewers than The Big Bang Theory. It’s that some smart people there looked at their culture and decided that, yes, a show about wood stacking can be popular here. The success of that program led to others. Right now we are in the midst of a nine hour knitting marathon being broadcast live. It’s being simulcast, so take a few minutes and watch. You might even find it as fascinating as I do.

It isn’t that I think we need more knitting or wood stacking shows. It’s that I want to see more experimentation in the medium. When I first began college, I was amazed to find out that the BBC showed sheep dog competitions on television. I wanted to see it because I wanted a chance to taste that culture in a way that eating bangers and mash can’t convey. Thanks Norway for sharing what makes you you. Please continue sharing. Please continue to use television as a dynamic medium.

There’s embed code on their site, so I am giving it a go:

31 Nights of Horror: An Epilogue

I’ve been doing 31 Nights of Horror for years. It’s a tradition stretching back nearly a decade now. Initially my brother and friends were who got my picks for the month. Later, the picks spread to Facebook. Now they’ve come to the web populace at large via this website.

Many people don’t like horror films. There are some people who don’t like the images they present or the stories they tell. They don’t like movies trying to scare them. These feelings and thoughts are entirely valid.

That said, many people have never seen really good horror pictures because the market has always been diluted with lowest common denominator dreck aimed at teenagers. The formula was distilled in the 70s and codified in the 80s. While these films might be shocking to the uninitiated, they aren’t really horror movies.

Real horror movies can appear in any genre. They are movies that make you feel the cold air in the darkened theater. They raise the hair on the back of your neck. They push you into uneasy emotional territory. The important thing is that they make you feel. The feelings they tap into are just as powerful as those touched by romances or dramas.

The emotion of being afraid is something we feel immediately upon entering this world. It comes from the loud sounds and bright lights that had previously been muted inside our mother’s wombs. It continues as we learn what is known and unknown. We know what’s in the light because we can see and touch it. What lingers in the dark? Wild animals who hunt nocturnally. That primal fear is mixed in our heads with everything else to form new horrors…horrors you are forced to watch in the theater of the mind. Watching, reading and listening to scary things is a way to inoculate ourselves. They allow us to temper our fears the same way your taste is tempered by spicy foods.

Remember this Halloween that scary things are out there. The only real protection is to face your fears one at a time. The easiest way is to return to the primal idea of the collective and shared risk. Go see a scary movie with friends or as part of the crowd at a movie theater. Your fear is reduced because you aren’t alone. This is the idea behind 31 Nights of Horror: Shared risk and enjoyment. In the age of so called “social media” what could be more appropriate?

from Brian