Sunday was Winter Solstice—the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Clark Strand, writing for The New York Times, has some good points on how important darkness once was, and how much it still is, despite our attempts to nullify it:
I just listened to the last episode of Serial, and… OK.
I was entertained by it, though admittedly I zoned out during portions of certain episodes. All in all, it was a good show.
My lack of enthusiasm at the end is probably shared by a lot of people: It didn’t solve anything or arrive at any conclusions. It didn’t do anything. (Well, almost.) At the end, it’s just: OK, we looked really closely at this one case.
As frustrating as it is for people who listened to the show and hung on every episode, it’s got to be even more frustrating for the people affected by the actual case, who maybe saw this as some glimmer of hope that things would be solved, once and for all. That’s a-whole-nother post, but still.
What I am hugely satisfied by is the format. I want more serialized podcasts—beyond just true-crime stuff—and I think there are a lot of topics that would be valuable to cover:
- Huge events in history, like, say, World War II.
- Complicated or confusing topics, like the Affordable Care Act.
- “Behind-the-scenes” tellings of semi-recent events, like a presidential campaign.
Explanatory journalism, in a sense. I feel like there’s a wider appetite for that. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe what I’m really craving are books-on-tape, and I just haven’t discovered those yet. But it seems like that’s essentially what Serial was, and something about it obviously appealed to a lot of people.
I feel like if you’re really THAT surprised BuzzFeed hired someone from Clickhole you haven’t been paying much attention to either of us. :)— Summer Anne Burton (@summeranne) December 1, 2014
I thought Summer Anne Burton had the best reaction, though, because from the outset, ClickHole has very obviously been a loving parody of BuzzFeed.
What's the distinction? I'm going to be forced to cite an article I read a long time ago that I don't remember the link to (maybe it was Grantland, or The A.V. Club). The difference is the difference between a movie like Spaceballs and a movie like Date Movie. The former parodies Star Wars and science fiction in general, but if you strip away the jokes, it still works as a sci-fi action movie. Mel Brooks knew his source material and loved it. In contrast, Date Movie is basically just a mash of romantic comedy clichés and pop-culture references—it's making fun of the genre, not having fun with it.
Put another way, it's the difference between laughing with someone, and laughing at them.
What makes ClickHole so funny isn't just that it so perfectly captures the BuzzFeed style and tweaks it just enough to make it absurd; it's that it so perfectly captures the kind of stuff we the audience love to click on. When we read ClickHole, we're not just laughing at BuzzFeed; we're laughing at our own behavior.
That makes the two sites a weirdly effective one-two punch. Go to BuzzFeed to read a listicle of stuff you totally do! then head over to ClickHole to laugh about how that listicle is totally the type of thing you get suckered into clicking on!
Point being, what Summer Anne said: These sites are doing very similar things, and it shouldn't be a huge surprise to see them trade talent. Now, what would be interesting would be to see a mainstream media site poach talent from one of these two places.
What George Lucas did with Star Wars is unlike anything almost anyone has done with any other franchise. With less than 10 hours of movie footage, stretched out over seven years, he created a franchise that will last probably at least until our kids have kids, and maybe beyond.
The prequels are almost universally hated—by critics—but I suspect there's a generation of now young adults who love them and can't wait to get more. And I can't help but wonder if maybe that's what George Lucas had in mind all along.
Say what you will about his scriptwriting abilities; he's always been a hell of a marketer. He obviously made the prequels for kids (at least the first two, which is probably why they're so hated). That may have rubbed some of the grown-up nerds the wrong way, but George Lucas clearly understood something they maybe didn't consider: For Star Wars to survive, it needed to endear itself to a new generation.
Sure, the original trilogy is great—who can't appreciate it? But for an 8-year-old, who by the late 90s had probably already seen Jurassic Park and maybe even The Matrix, the original trilogy would've been slow-moving and technologically dated.
Bring on the prequels, with their things-everywhere backgrounds, seizure-inducing lightsaber fights, and goofy characters, and you've got something that appeals to a new era of fans while still (somewhat) pleasing the base that made Star Wars big to begin with. In that sense, making the prequels wasn't unlike running a presidential campaign, with respect to the level of marketing savvy needed to pull it off successfully.
Flash forward to now, and the trailer above: There's no possible way this movie doesn't make an absolute shitload of money. Star Wars is firing on all cylinders, because you've got two things happening simultaneously: (1) Die-hard fans are finally getting the second trilogy they actually always wanted, and (2) The kids who grew up on the prequels and genuinely loved them are getting to see a whole new Star Wars on the big screen.
It's like a meta-Avengers team-up—they're teaming up audiences instead of characters.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this. Maybe George Lucas is just a guy who likes to make movies. (Yes, the prequels made tons of money and told a story he always wanted to tell.) But I think it can be both, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was.
You may remember this guy from last week's Philae landing. He wore this awful shirt, and later apologized (actually apologized) for having done so.
I write mostly about communication here, so I want to share part of what Jesse Thorn had to say about the situation:
The whole post—don't worry, it's short—is well worth your time, so please go check it out.
TIME.com has an interesting post this week on how some girls are using Instagram as a communication backchannel. It's a great read, if one that's likely to freak you out:
It's scary, right?
The reaction I often hear from parents of young kids—usually kids who haven't started using social yet—is that stuff like this is "terrifying" or "effed up." Honestly, I've said that stuff myself.
And seriously: Who wouldn't feel lucky to not have to grow up with this stuff? Think about all the stresses you had at school back in the day: getting bullied; not fitting in; feeling alone. This generation of kids has to deal with all that following them home on social media.
Don't get scared; get educated
The answer for parents isn't to get freaked out, though. Fear is almost always rooted in what we don't know. The best thing you can do for your kids is to get educated.
The best way to do that is to use these social networks that they're on. Yeah, it sounds weird, and honestly kind of a pain in the ass. But there are serious mental health issues at stake here. And these are your kids.
How to learn a social network
I am on a ton of social networks because I need to be for work. It can be everything from fun, to frustrating, to boring, and it's not just as easy as signing up. Here are a few tricks I've used to get the most out of the testing process:
- Find a buddy (or three)—this is the most important thing. Social networks are useless if you aren't socializing, and it can be difficult and awkward to have conversations with people you don't know. If you have someone—maybe another parent—who's riding shotgun with you and using the network at the same time, you'll at least have one person to talk to while you learn all the ins and outs.
- Delete all your other social apps. This is a bit crazy, but it's a good way to focus your attention. If you have iOS, at least, you should be able to delete an app and the re-download it from the cloud for free (if it cost anything in the first place).
- Set aside time to learn it. Way back in the day, my wife was a little resistant to Twitter. She got hooked on it during a week when we were snowed in at our apartment and there wasn't much to do. Since then, I've always thought that was a great strategy: Set aside a time—say, a week—to test out the network, and then schedule time each day during that week when you'll use it. Treat it like homework, and take it seriously.
No guarantees, but...
Even if you do all this, you may not come away with any deep understanding of the network your kids are on. That's OK. A week of dedicated experimentation should at least familiarize you with things like nomenclature and functionality. (By the way, parents, if you ever run into a term you don't understand on a social network, you really should have Urban Dictionary bookmarked.)
The value in that is that you'll be able to converse with your kids about whatever networks they're using without sounding oblivious or insensitive. You may not sound like an authority on the topic, but you'll at least know what you're talking about, which will put you one step closer to being someone they feel like they can talk to.
Yesterday, Instagram rolled out two new features: a revamped Discovery page, and the ability to edit captions. To which my reaction was basically:
It's hard to get excited about any Instagram update when what everyone really wants—multiple logins—still, for some unknown reason, doesn't exist.
But instead of bitching about what Instagram doesn't have, I thought I'd take this as an opportunity to share some of my favorite Instagram hacks. These are little tricks I've picked up over the years that are either not-immediately-obvious, or that simply speed things up and make sharing more convenient.
Here we go:
Save common hashtags in a Notes file
Some of the stuff I post for clients follows a common theme, so I end up using the same hashtags a lot. It's tedious to type in the same 10 hashtags every time, so I just save them to a notes file and copy/paste.
Tag your location to see who else has posted there
This is really handy if you're a retail or on-site-entertainment business and you want to see who's posting about you. Here's what you do: Next time you post a photo from your location, tag your location, and then click on it once you post your photo:
Once you do, you get this page—boom, instant content to interact with:
Use Iconosquare to optimize your sharing
Lastly, if you're using Instagram for anything other than casual use, take advantage of the awesome (free!) tools that Iconosquare (formerly Statigram) offers. The feature set is pretty ridiculous, and too robust to mention in full here, but here are some of the coolest things you can see:
- Your most-liked, and most-commented-on photos of all time.
- When you post, and when your followers tend to interact.
- Your most-popular filteres.
- The tags you use vs. the most-popular tags on Instagram.
One last thing
I'd love to see what you're sharing. Follow me or @ mention my username—@paulbalcerak—in your best stuff.
When I saw Neil deGrasse Tyson a while back, he spoke at length about Earthrise and its cultural impact. It's unremarkable to anyone born after the late 1950s, probably, but the ripples it caused were far-reaching. This was the first time humanity saw itself as it really was: among the cosmos. That one image emphatically punctuated the facts that we are so alone, we are so small, and we are so fragile.
In the years immediately after Earthrise was published widely, the following things happened:
- The EPA was formed.
- Earth Day was founded.
- We banned lead.
- The Clean Water Act was passed.
Images are powerful. They can change our perspective. They can inspire us to act where we may otherwise do nothing.
With that in mind, ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw a truly awful photo from America's wars in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or any American war later than, say, the 1970s?
The Atlantic published one just recently, taken by photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke during the Gulf War, which is nearly 30 years old. The photo, taken near the end of the war, shows a badly burned Iraqi soldier, climbing from the wreckage of some sort of vehicle, shortly before he died. Here it is:
This photo is horrifying. That you're seeing it now, nearly 30 years after the Gulf War, is no accident: No one would publish it.
What if it had been published? It was taken near the end of the war. Things were winding down at that point anyway. A single photo wouldn't have changed anything.
People in the United States see their wars through an extremely sanitized lens. We see rockets launching off battleships, troops riding in trucks, aircraft taking off at sea. Occasionally, we may see a gunfight, which is shot at such a range that if anything gruesome were to happen, it would certainly be out of focus or frame.
That's awful, because we live in a country where wars are sold. It's necessary for politicians to convince the American public (or at least a large swath of it) that a war is necessary. Americans give their implicit approval through job-approval ratings, elections, and so on.
What we're getting further and further away from is a true understanding of what war is. It isn't what we see on TV. The death we dole out isn't laser-guided, fast-and-quick. It's stuff like what's in that terrible photo above. And it's not just the other side that gets it. Horrible, horrible things happen to our own people, and for those who survive it, it comes home with them and lasts a lifetime.
I don't say all this as someone who has seen war and knows it; I say it as someone who's frustrated with the glossed-over presentation of war by our mainstream media (or perhaps, by the process that keeps that media from sharing a truer picture of what's happening). It's not an argument against war; it's a plea for a clearer understanding of what war is.
Because this is the thing: Maybe if we saw the actual results of laser-guided bombs, and armor-piercing bullets, and IED's, we'd think twice. Maybe the next time we stood at the precipice of some drawn-out engagement with little hope of a decisive "win," we'd demand that our leaders look for another way. (I'm not naïve—there's not always another way.)
Earthrise—this beautiful, stunning portrait of everything we've ever known—inspired a generation to create better things. Maybe the reverse is possible, too. Maybe if we were a little more exposed to the ugly side of what we do, we be less apt to do it in the first place.
In closing, here's something to consider about Jarecke's photo:
I don't know if I'm late to the game on this particular tactic, but I thought it was damn smart. If you can't tell what's going on from the screen grab: Mollie Ruiz-Hopper did an OOTD post and tagged all her pieces with the stores/designers they came from (note: the tags will only appear on the mobile app).
You could easily extrapolate this to posts outside the fashion industry:
- Food: Tag the sources of all your ingredients.
- Sports/fitness: Tag your gear.
- Cars: Tag everything from where you got your rims to who tinted your windows.
This is my favorite type of social thing—something ridiculously simple, used in a novel way, that plays off an existing feature in an entirely new way.
This week was all about getting stuff done, and taking some time for myself when I could. Here's some of the stuff I did along the way.
My Best Tweets
Vox’s new plan for email newsletters sounds like it’ll work http://t.co/OBCGo125UH Basically Twitter for email.— Paul Balcerak (@paulbalcerak) October 15, 2014
Things I Wrote For Curator
What I'm Working On
We have a new promotion up and running with Domino's: Tweet or Instagram your team-spirit photos on game day (make sure your account is public) with the hashtag #TailgateAtHome, and you'll be entered to win a fully catered party for your next game day.
Good Things I Read
Gross and horrifying accounts of street harassment. ... A guy who may have saved the world by doing nothing at all. ... This is totally what's in my head every time I get the J.Crew catalog. ... I'm jacked up for bike sharing in Seattle. ... Deadspin corrects a mistake as only Deadspin can.
Pick almost any day, and you're probably going to have more things to do than you have time to do them. You start the day with a to-do list, and it gradually (or quickly) grows; things take longer than you thought they would, and problems crop up that threaten to stop you from completing your tasks.
There are two ways to end days like that:
- Finish feeling frustrated and annoyed that you didn't get things done.
- Finish feeling like you took out a good chunk of your to-do list.
The difference is in how you decide to tackle your day.
Option 1 is where you put your head down and blitz through all the stuff you have to do, and set aside everything you want to do.
With Option 2, you break up the have-to-dos with a couple small want-to-dos.
We're all going to have days where there's just a mountain of stuff we have to do. That's life. But you're insane if you've convinced yourself that 100 percent of your time that day has to be dedicated to obligations. Your days are your time—your time; you own it—and you can do whatever you want with them.
Do you want to do the stuff you have to do? Is it stressing you out? In a good way?
If not, do what you have to do to keep yourself sane. Break up the day by doing little things for yourself. It's perfectly normal and healthy to take time for yourself. Your time doesn't belong to anyone else unless you choose to give it to them.
Stop me if you've heard this at some point during the past 24 (hell, four) hours: Ebola.
Of course you've heard it. It's everywhere. Not Ebola, of course, but coverage of it. If you get your information from U.S. mainstream media, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to find you're "worried," or even that you think there's a full-blown outbreak going on.
There's not. And the U.S. mainstream media needs to chill the fuck out and take a long, hard look at what it's doing.
This is not something to debate openly like a missing airliner, or a new pope, or even an assassination attempt on a politician. Those things shouldn't be debated, either, but Ebola is a particularly dangerous topic to start speculating about because it runs the risk of whipping the public into mass hysteria.
Don't believe it? Here's a chart showing how Ebola coverage has blown up in U.S. media:
We're covering this thing more than fucking Africa, and there are only three confirmed cases.
- Here's the president of the United States rearranging his schedule to hold a cabinet meeting on Ebola.
- Here's some asshole on Fox News telling America that its own president wants the citizenry to contract Ebola.
- Here's one of the few sane people at Fox News saying one of the few sane things about Ebola in the midst of this avalanche of journalism dipshittery.
Mainstream media knows better and obviously doesn't give a damn. The amount of coverage given to any topic gives that topic weight. When people are reminded at multiple points throughout the day that X exists, it becomes impossible to ignore, and once it's in your head, you start playing out scenarios. Uninformed scenarios. In the worst cases, those scenarios might even compel a person to act, or a more nefarious person to fan the flames.
And the danger is this:
What should the media do? A few things:
- Follow the lead of Fox News and CNN.
- Reduce the amount of coverage given to Ebola.
- When new information comes to light, shift into a mode of explanatory journalism.
I don't expect any of those points to be heeded by the media members guilty of turning this whole thing into a circus. But it's what should happen.
Lately I've been paying a lot more attention to how I spend my time. Where once I may have spent free time just vegging out or daydreaming, I'm now finding myself being a bit more productive, if mostly on mundane tasks.
Don't get me wrong—vegging out and daydreaming have their place. But when they start to dominate the free time you have, you can end up sacrificing the future for the present all too often.
My mantra of late has been: When you start to think too much, act.
Another saying I think of is, "Do something your future self will thank you for."
It's not about constant motion or productivity. It's just a means of avoiding that thought of, "What the eff did I do with all my time?" You know—when someone asks you what you've been up to, and you have no idea; you can't remember.
When I can, I'll do something related to what I'm thinking about. If my mind drifts to what I think the weather's doing tomorrow, I'll maybe locate my rain gear and set it out ahead of time for my commute. If I'm thinking about what to write, I'll just write, and if it sucks, I'll throw it away.
When I do need to veg out or get into my head, I've been trying to schedule time for it: 30 minutes online. An hour zoning out, but only after I intently think/meditate for 20 minutes.
Again, it's not about being relentlessly productive. It's just about recognizing that time is a finite resource, and I'd like to at least have something to show for what I spend mine on.
So what I just did was scrolled through my Buffer analytics tab, and rewrote and rescheduled all my top tweets from the week—sort of a best of/week-in-review helping on Friday.
I might also start doing a links-of-the-week feature (something I've always sucked at maintaining) by picking out my top tweets and embedding them in a blog post each week.
Anyway, there's a quick life/work-hack for you!
I've always been a big advocate of education and transparency—it's why I started my career in journalism, and why I continue to try to push those two things out into the world.
I saw a great post on NPR's social media desk Tumblog today that inspired me to—well, no, fuck it, I'm just going to outright steal it. It's a short manifesto for why their blog exists:
At conferences and online, we hear from lots of people who are both surprised and excited that we share our tips and tricks online. We do it for a couple of reasons:
1. We work in public media. We believe that we should be sharing everything we can with the public. We’re in this together!
2. Making our process transparent and accessible helps fulfill NPR’s mission to educate and inform.
3. Sharing is infectious! We’ve found that other people open up with their own wisdom and experiences when we are generous with our own knowledge. The result is that the Social Sandbox now features outside contributors as much as it does our own insights.
4. It’s also a place where we can highlight our successes, failures and curiosities, with the hope that others might take our work and build on it.
Do you read the Sandbox? Have any suggestions for us? Let us know!
My reasons for blogging are a little bit different—I'm here to openly learn, and share that with anyone who wants to listen—but I love the format and the spirit in which this was written, so I'm copying it. Shamelessly, because it's a great idea.
At multiple points during college, pretty much every communication major is told some variation of the following things:
- This industry has a lot of weird hours.
- Coffee is your friend.
- You'll lose a lot of sleep (but that's just the way it is).
That's probably the case with a lot of industries, but it hits especially hard for professional communicators. It's because we derive a great deal of our value from being available. Whether it's a journalist running out in the middle of the night to cover a breaking story, or a PR pro answering a 3 a.m. phone call about some crisis bubbling up.
That's OK. There are times in any job when you just have to ignore your routines, or what's sensible, and get work done.
But when getting-the-job-done starts to affect your health over the long term, it's time to take action. And by that I mean complete inaction. I mean sleep.
There's emerging science that suggests sleep loss could be a real problem, too. Check out some of these points from this Huffington Post article:
- "Getting too little (or too much!) sleep can mean more sick days."
- "Sleep deprivation could be costing $63 billion to the U.S. economy each year due to lost productivity."
- This was the big one for me: "Research shows that for people who are already not getting enough sleep, one extra hour in average sleep over the long run is associated with a 16 percent increase in wages."
The default is to tell yourself to "toughen up" and just keep going. But humans are built for sleep. We need it.
You'll be doing yourself, your friends and family, and your employer a favor the next time you decide, work can wait—I gotta go to bed.
If you want to read an absolutely fascinating article today, go check out this Quora post on how camouflage came into wide use.
The Cliff's Notes: Camouflage came about during a time when long-range weapons were becoming more precise. It wasn't really a means of making people invisible so much as throwing off the enemy's eye and delaying his response time.
The really interesting part is where militaries took their inspiration from; namely, a French artistic movement called Cubism. Cubism was essentially about deconstructing real-life objects into their most basic shapes, and then reassembling those shapes into something that looked vaguely familiar, but not quite right (the world as it actually looked, versus how humans perceived it)—something that would throw off your eye.
And so, two seemingly disparate concepts—modern art, and military science—collided:
Of course, to marry to disparate concepts, you need to know about both of them. Which is why it's so valuable to mentally wander.
Indulge your hobbies, your interests, your curiosities. Pour as much mental energy into those as you do into what you're paid to do day to day. If you think of something and go, "Huh, I wonder how that works?" figure it out. Worst-case scenario, you'll have a few new wrinkles in your brain and that's it.
Best case? You could discover the next camouflage.
There's a lot of gimmickry in news—social media, liquid screen TVs, etc. So it's refreshing when a news outlet takes one of those gimmicks and makes something of it.
Case in point: This animated GIF from Vox, which shows the path of White House intruder Omar Gonzalez.
This is scary as hell. Some nutcase with a trunk full of ammunition was able to rush the White House and get this far.
The file type works well as the medium here for a few reasons:
- It's shocking to see the exact route, and how far Gonzalez got.
- Video would technically fulfill the same purpose, but even if it were looped a few times, it would fall flat. An endless GIF hammers the point home: He got this far. He got this far. He. Got. This. Far.
- The rawness of it makes it tangible—more real.
- The method—using Google Street View to trace the intruder's steps—takes the realness to a whole new level: You can retrace the route yourself.
The wrong lesson to take from this would be: People love GIFs; let's do more of those.
The right lesson is: The right tools for the right job—and make sure you have a good knowledge of what tools are available to you.
John Travolta recently popped up to defend arguably his/the worst movie ever, Battlefield Earth. It was a great opportunity for everyone to remember (though most probably haven't seen it) and laugh at how bad it was.
I never saw Battlefield Earth, and I don't plan to, but I think the fact that John Travolta is still out defending it is fantastic. His reasoning is why:
You can find a lot to criticize about the movie, and the man, but good for John Travolta for not giving a shit. One day, all any of us will have left is the decisions we've made, and we'll either be faced with the fact that we did what we wanted, or that we acted according to what everyone else wanted from us.
I'm flipping through Instagram earlier tonight—double-tap, double-tap, scroll, scroll, scroll—and I come across this one picture that's a real thumb-stopper: Fog and blurry lights at night (I'm a sucker for that) and what looks like the faint outline of a city. Only the fog is above the city, and the perspective is looking down, not up. Someone shot this from a skyscraper.
Double-tap, profile-click, follow, photo-stalk, back button, scroll. The whole process took about 30 seconds, tops, like it always does.
But something stopped me this time. I went back and looked again. The photo was a re share—someone had posted it to promote someone else's account—and the caption made me uneasy:
"This 16-year-old is killing New York <scream-face emojis>"
I go back to the user page: Gobs of photos of tennis shoes in the foreground with gold-tinged nighttime city streets hundreds of feet below. He's dangling off buildings. Normally I would've thought this was cool, but fuck—this was someone's 16-year-old kid.
I played back everything I just did. Then I un-did it—unlike, unfollow.
That did nothing. I'm like one guy in a mob stepping away quietly while everyone cheers.
But I just couldn't follow this guy's—this kid's—account. It would somehow make me feel like I was condoning the stuff he does. He doesn't know, he'll never know, and even if he did, he wouldn't care.
Me tapping a few buttons did nothing. But it felt so much worse to think about leaving things be.
Editor's note: I'm not linking to anything for the same reason I said above. It's just too fucked up.