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Leaving White Space: The Growth of Remix Culture

February 24th, 2013

One of my favorite ideas on interactivity comes from something of an unexpected source. In his 1995 diary turned book: A Year With Swollen Appendices, arty soundsmith Brian Eno suggests that the term ‘interactive’ is really just a hyped-up tech term for ‘unfinished’. Coming from 1995, the year that Microsoft Windows took over the computer world, Eno envisioned a future where music would be left unassembled, still in pieces, waiting for the listener to finish the song as they see fit. Since then, we’ve seen the technology emerge for anyone with an Internet connection to do just that. Becoming much more than an underground music trend, “Remix Culture” has caught on big time with some of our biggest companies; What started with drum loops being lifted from old LPs has expanded into a web best-practice.

For example, the biggest content websites in the world: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, each offer up remote access to their content through APIs — little snippets of code that allow websites to pull and push content to and from other sites — so that anyone can replicate key points of functionality from anywhere on the web. These APIs are the reason you can see your friends’ favorite articles on the New York Times site, update Twitter from your iPhone, or watch music videos on some kid’s Tumblr blog. In essence, what these sites have realized is that it isn’t necessarily best to keep tight control over how and where people view your content. In fact, people are sometimes much more engaged with content if they feel some sense of authorship over it. In the age of the Internet, people have come to expect their participation in media (and many other things) to come on their own terms.

I was reminded of this idea recently by two different encounters with culture I’ve had here in New York over the past year. The first was the subway advertisements that appeared to announce the arrival of the fifth season of Mad Men. The posters were little more than a stark white space with a familiar suited figure falling through it. They were striking ads on their own, but the coolest thing is what passers-by did with them. All over the city, these ads were treated as canvases, unfinished dots to be abstractly connected into a new pictures. As anyone in NYC can tell you, subway ads have long been defaced as interactive canvases, these ads just left a little more to the imagination. I’m not sure if this was a foreseen feature of these ads, but it was very fun nevertheless.

mad men subway ads

 

More recently, artist Rutherford Chang has taken over the Recess space in SoHo (at 41 Grand Street) with an installation titled ‘We Buy White Albums’. Chang has filled the gallery with a bank of record players and bins upon bins filled with his extensive collection of first-printings of The Beatles so-called ‘White Album’. Going through the collection, you’ll find that some of the most interesting specimens have been decorated and filled-in by their former owners, endowing the objects with much more power than their more pristine brethren. (These images were lifted from Dust & Grooves, which offers a great interview with the artist.)

whitealbum01whitealbum02

 

Philosophically, the idea of decentralizing authorial control over meaning is nothing new. The academic grad-schoolers among you will recognize the notion that an audiences’ interpretation may, in fact, represent the true meaning in any work of art. Browse some of the post-structuralist musings of Jacques Derrida from way back in the 60′s and you will find that some creative philosophies actually give the audience more credence than the author. Maybe this is what the Beatles were acknowledging when they put this record out in 1968… or maybe they were just trying to clear their minds after their extended hang with the Maharishi.

In any case, whenever I make something — especially when I’m designing a platform that will be populated with user content — I try to leave room for this idea of the unfinished. I believe that some of the most engaging experiences (and business models) are those that leave room for a little serendipitous audience manipulation. Why try to build a world all by yourself, wall it in, and declare it finished, when your audience would be thrilled to offer up their own energy to help build alongside you.

 

Advertising, Design, Digital, Ideas

Does Netflix Like Throwing Money Away?

November 10th, 2012

So I’m a little confused by this one. Netflix has apparently purchased the Google AdWord for the term ‘netflix’. This advertising strategy seems strange to me for two reasons:

1. Netflix.com is ALWAYS going to show up first when someone googles the term ‘netflix’. I mean, the 2nd-place result is currently a blog article from forbes.com — a site that has no chance of being more relevant for this search term. Why bother defending your position in search results if your position is iron-clad. Apple doesn’t buy the the AdWord for the term ‘apple’ and Hulu doesn’t buy ‘hulu’ because there is literally no reason to. It doesn’t make sense.

2. Netflix has to pay Google every time a user clicks the ad. Let me repeat this important fact: Netflix has to pay Google every time a user clicks the ad.

Considering how many users use the search box to navigate the Internet (as opposed to typing in the full URL of the site they want to visit), Netflix must end up paying Google thousands upon thousands of dollars every year just to deliver this almost entirely redundant search entry. Is it really worth it to get that alternate title and description in there?

 

In a related story, Netflix also hands over money to Bing for a similarly stupid service. However, it appears Hulu has joined them there in the redundant stupidity.

* Slaps forehead… clicks on the ad just to punish Netflix for being dumb. *

 

 

Advertising, Design, Digital

AT&T Tried to Make Me Buy an iPhone : UPDATE

April 1st, 2012

As someone who can appreciate a good user experience when I see one, I’ve long been a fan of the Windows Phone operating system.

Microsoft’s 7-Series mobile software has been critically praised by everyone from Gizmodo to the New York Times, and I tend to agree with these reviews. There are so many fantastic UX ideas expressed in Windows Phone that help make for an incredibly personal and social experience. For example, I like how the OS puts people, not apps, at the center of communication. While a conversation with a friend may technically employ text message, Google Chat, Facebook, and Skype, all these platform threads are pulled together as a cohesive narrative on one screen. It’s so simple! This hub-based approach to social computing makes the totally discreet desktop metaphor found on iOS and Android seem downright outdated.

 

 

Microsoft doesn’t actually make their own phones, though. As good as the software is, the hardware that Windows Phone has been paired with has always been… underwhelming. Cheap black plastic, crappy cameras, and awkward forms abound.

Enter Nokia, the Finnish phone company with a history of great mobile phone design. They’ve always made quality hardware, but they never managed to nail the software experience layer that gives charm and powerful functionality to today’s smartphones. When Nokia and Microsoft partnered last year to begin work on a true flagship phone for WP7, I decided to hold off on upgrading my iPhone to wait until this make-or-break phone would be released. After more than a year, the moment I was waiting for finally arrived with the North American release of the Nokia Lumia 900 on AT&T.

I went to the AT&T website on Friday and saw that the Nokia Lumia 900 was being promoted on the homepage. However, since I’m already an AT&T customer, I had to go through an upgrade path to replace my old iPhone with the new Nokia. When I pressed the Upgrade button, instead of seeing the brand new Lumia 900 — the phone that AT&T is supposedly giving the most launch support to in their history as a company (including the original iPhone launch) — I saw three upgrade options: iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, and the iPhone 4 (Refurb). What?!?

I’ve designed countless pages for websites just like this one, but this page had me puzzled. Since I currently have an iPhone, I’m willing to concede that putting the iPhone 4S as the primary upgrade path makes sense from a continuity standpoint. I’m even willing to concede that maybe the older iPhone 4 makes sense as a cheaper alternative to this primary upgrade path. However, even I was confused as to how I might proceed to choose a phone that WASN’T an iPhone.

Well… Do you see that box at the bottom of the screen that looks like a banner ad — the same type of banner ad that users have been trained to ignore? Well, guess what? Instead of opting for clarity with a basic link to ‘Choose Other Phones’ or, better yet, to simply display the other available phones below the fold, the designers at AT&T deliberately chose to try to dead-end users on this page. Believe me, UX designers try to avoid banner ads like the plague — we all know that users ignore them. Hell, we don’t even like to put useful information in a spot where users expect banner ads to be. It’s that bad.

So, when a designer uses the language of a banner ad to house an otherwise meaningful communication, the message intended for the user on this page couldn’t be clearer: these three iPhones are the only upgrade choices you’ve got.

Since I wasn’t about to be bullied into an iPhone 4S after I’d waited all this time, I nervously clicked on the banner ad — going against every fiber of my being — hoping that perhaps this was indeed the path to more phone upgrade options. It turns out it was. With a sigh of relief, I finished purchasing the Nokia Lumia 900.

However, this little piece of UI trickery bothered me enough to write this article. It just seems so… shitty. When carriers do sketchy things like this, it’s no wonder that it’s so hard to turn the tide of momentum against a particular mobile OS. A good user experience or a great piece of hardware might not be enough to break through the noise of politics and social pressure surrounding the iPhone. Even though I prefer the ethos and experience of the Windows Phone OS, I know I tried to think of a million reasons not to switch.

The subtle and omnipresent pressure to align with Apple is really intense within the design community, and increasingly within pop culture at large. While Apple tends to make beautifully detailed products, and I will probably stick with the MacBook Air as my productivity device of choice for the foreseeable future, I grow wary of the Cult of Mac when it starts to do more harm than good.

A perennial problem with revolution is that revolutionaries are cute in the jungle before they’ve won, but quickly become decrepit and sadistic once in power.  Aspirational Che was sexy but empowered Castro was cruel… This is a familiar dilemma, and it is often said that the only response is constant revolution. - Jaron Lanier

I, for one, am looking forward to the exposure to a different digital flavor — a wholly unique mobile OS. Like that feeling of open possibility I get when I travel to a foreign country, I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing that weakens the spirit of creativity more needlessly than a perceived lack of choice.

 

UPDATE

After my hard-hitting reportage on the subject this morning, AT&T has capitulated (slightly) and has changed the design of their upgrade page. It now includes a link to see all available phones down at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps someone at Microsoft or Nokia put the pressure on. Anyways, I hope they eventually create an even more user-friendly solution — one that can, of course, feature a phone or two, but that treats the other phones AT LEAST as second-tier contenders. In this day and age, users expect to be treated with respect, even when they’re on an e-commerce site.

Advertising, Design, Digital, Gadgets , , , ,

Lady Gaga, Beyonce & Product Placement

March 23rd, 2010

There is a whole lot of product placement going on in the new long-form music video for Telephone from Lady Gaga and Beyonce. Virgin Mobile, Diet Coke, Beats (by Dr. Dre) Headphones, Chanel, Polaroid, Wonder Bread, and Miracle Whip(???) are all featured prominently within the Quentin Tarantino-styled narrative. Oddly enough, most of these product placements make a bizarre sort of sense in an artistically contextual kind of way. Let’s review:

POLAROID – Polaroid has hired Lady Gaga as a Creative Director for the company — so the fact that we are treated to Gaga taking a bunch of tiny instant photos of Beyonce (contractually) follows. However, the appearance of a full-screen Polaroid brand logo on a photobooth outside the diner at the end of the video was less gracefully implemented. As an aside, this partnership has the potential to be rad. Nice one, Polaroid execs!


DIET COKE – This was my favorite brand placement in the video. The appearance of empty cans of Diet Coke as impromptu prison-style hair rollers in Gaga’s hair is one of the most creative and inventive examples of product placement in recent memory. It’s sort of a classically feminine version of a shiv. Since we never explicitly see the Coke logo, I wonder if Gaga got paid for this one – but in a just world, she certainly would have been.


VIRGIN MOBILE – I get that Gaga has (rightfully) built up a cache of credibility in the realm of music videos and concert appearances (if not with her actual music) – but I am impressed that this cache is strong enough that Virgin Mobile would acquiesce to their logo being in the same shot as Gaga stroking the crotch of a butch lesbian in the yard of a prison. My guess is that Richard Branson and his millionaire buddies are just out to prove they’re down to party, after all.

(A side not on this one… ha ha… Virgin Mobile = virgin = ironic = good joke. Too bad that Twilight: New Moon beat them to it. )


CHANEL – Ooh! Lady Gaga is wearing Chanel sunglasses! Meh. The Haus of Gaga-designed actively smoking cigarette glasses were cooler.


WONDER BREAD – This is one of those WTF!? moments in advertising. I get that Wonder Bread is associated with lower income individuals, who are associated loosely with criminal acts, which is associated with whipping up a batch of poison, but I wouldn’t imagine that the Gaga image would do much to sell Wonder Bread, and the brand’s appearance in this video in the same kitchen with food that kills people doesn’t seem like a smart PR move, from where I’m standing.


MIRACLE WHIP – All my misgivings about the appearance of Wonder Bread in this video also apply to Miracle Whip, only double. It just doesn’t make sense. The only saving grace, in my mind, is that Miracle Whip strikes me as a great name for Gaga’s next record. Now that I think about it, maybe I’ll steal it for one of my projects.


BEATS BY DR DRE – Lady Gaga also has a partnership with Beats. She designed her own line of jewel encrusted in-ear ‘phones with them that she can be seen sporting in the kitchen scenes (they just look like triangular earrings). However, the way that the Beats logo is featured in the video, arbitrarily stuck to the back of the guard’s laptop, seems like a little bit of a disconnect. Brand white noise is worth something, though, I suppose.


CONCLUSION

After beating the viewer over the head with all this product placement, you would think that the project would have lost it’s spark as it tripped over itself to sell out. However, given the many instances of blatant sexuality, ever-present lesbian undertones, gratuitous violence, group homicide, swearing, and near total frontal nudity that are keystones of both the style and narrative of Telephone, the most surprising element of all this is that the brands were willing to be associated with the project at all. In a way, Gaga seems to have subverted the selling-out process. Her popularity has forced corporations to bend to her wonderfully strange, freaky, and dirty vision of the world instead of the other way around. It obviously isn’t for everyone (Kraft, I’m looking at you), but one has to bet on any company that figures out a way to really hang with Gaga – the reigning master of brand ingenuity (sorry Bjork/Barney).

Here’s to the weirding of media!

Advertising, Fashion, Movies, Music , , , , , ,

Patitz, Lindbergh & the Supermodels

March 10th, 2010

When I was young, everything I knew about Fashion was embodied in the long legs and plucked eyebrows a small group of elite models that were known simply and ubiquitously as the Supermodels. They were in all the makeup ads and all the best music videos. Photographers like Peter Lindbergh (who took the above photo for Vogue in 1991) and Herb Ritts (taking a break from his typical muse: well muscled men) captured these amazons in crisp black and white photographs that exposed us to these mythically unattainable figures in an era that otherwise heroicized the flawed and the authentic. I have a hard time reconciling Cindy Crawford and Kurt Cobain, but they somehow managed to both rule MTV at the same time without any irony whatsoever.


One of my favorite Supermodels is the now largely forgotten Tatjana Patitz. When I look at photos of her now, I can’t help but think that she seems especially austere — so German. This photograph looks like it could have been taken by Leni Riefenstahl. The image below, also by Lindbergh, casts Patitz as a sort of blue-eye to blue-eye match for Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

I did an image search for Patitz recently after a random memory trip while riding the bus to work. I was struck by the unassailable way that the Supermodels were styled and photographed back in the 90s. They seem especially statuesque and hard-edged compared to today’s magazine girls. The Supermodels all look like real grown up women. That Crawford, arguably the most approachable of them all, was the the most popular of the group seems to have taught advertisers to go with a look that is a little more friendly, a little more girlish.

Linda Evangelista

Christy Turlington & Elaine Irwin

However, given our collective penchant for Mad Men, the Rat Pack, and classic cinema, I can easily imagine this type of mature, composed and strong feminine model coming into favor again as a representation of our desire. The era of the 16-year-old model could be coming to a close. Also, I can imagine all of our current economic woes pushing the country temporarily back towards a conservatively European model of beauty like they did at the end of the 80s. Adriana Lima watch out!

Advertising, Fashion, Photography , , , , ,

Oscar Nominated Short: Logorama

February 21st, 2010

The ad man in me can’t resist posting a link to the well-done Oscar-nominated animated short, Logorama. French art/video direction collective H5 made what is essentially a shoot-em-up action sequence set in a world constructed entirely of logos. Watch the whole thing here (until it inevitably gets taken down due to copyright violation).

The film features some amusing dialogue, a lot of clever moments, and a generally irreverent feel — but the best thing about it is that it demonstrates how much of the physical world has been captured into corporate logos. This same line of thinking makes me wonder if one could reconstruct any anecdote, film, or book solely using clips from episodes of Seinfeld — a show that perhaps only came to an end because it had exhausted all the narrative possibilities known to man.

Yeah, I bet a works-of-Shakespeare-as-acted-by-Seinfeld-characters mashup channel would be a hit on YouTube.

Advertising, Design, Movies , , , , ,