The End Of 'Serial'

by Paul Balcerak in

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.

ClickHole Is More BuzzFeed-y Than You Think

by Paul Balcerak in

Yesterday, BuzzFeed announced it had hired ClickHole associate editor Daniel Kibblesmith. Reactions were basically, "Whelp, this is what the Internet has come to."

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 If The Star Wars Prequels Were A Long Con For 'The Force Awakens'?

by Paul Balcerak in

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.

What Parents Can Do To Understand Their Kids' Social Media Better

by Paul Balcerak in 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:

[Instagram is] a way for tweens and teens to find out what their peers really think of them (Was that comment about my dress a joke or did she mean it?), who likes you (Why wasn’t I included in that picture?), even how many people like them (if you post and get too few likes, you might feel “Instashame,” as one young woman calls it). They can obsess over their friendships, monitoring social ups and downs in extreme detail. They can strategically post at high traffic hours when they know peers are killing time between homework assignments. “Likes,” after all, feel like a public, tangible, reassuring statement of a girl’s social status.
— Rachel Simmons,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

3 Instagram Hacks For Easier, More, And Better Interaction

by Paul Balcerak

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.

This Week's Highlight Reel | October 13-17

by Paul Balcerak in

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

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.

I'm helping with winner drawings and communications, and posting pizza-related humor to the associated Twitter and Instagram accounts.

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.

Why Sensational Journalism Can Actually Be Dangerous

by Paul Balcerak

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.

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:

We’re scared, and getting more scared all the time. And it may be time to wonder whether the combination of fear and politics could hinder the effective decision-making needed to keep the virus from harming Americans.
— Paul Waldman, The Washington Post

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.

On that last point, I've found The Washington Post and Vox to be the best sources of information (the latter a little more so than the former).

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.

Next Time You Get Stuck In Your Head, Act

by Paul Balcerak in

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.

Social Sharing On Fridays Just Got Easier

by Paul Balcerak

Buffer has a great post up on 10 little-known features of the app. My favorite is this:

Re-buffer your top updates from your analytics page

Via both the standard analytics and the expanded business analytics inside your Buffer dashboard, you can drag-and-drop or one-click-add to your buffer those posts that were smash hits the first time around.

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!

This Blog Is About Openly Learning

by Paul Balcerak in

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! 
@melodykramer and @wrightbryan3

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.