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Being a student of New Media, people I know who are less involved in the world of new media sometimes turn to me with questions on the latest technological developments that are being covered in the news. As if I personally were responsible for the launch of every new device, I get subjected to a barrage of questions (I do the same thing to befriended medical students with every question regarding my physical well-being, so I can’t complain). The device that attracted to most attention was, not totally surprising, the iPad. Of course, not being Steve Jobs or even a seller of this object, I don’t have a particular interest in defending this device. And it certainly needs defending in circles outside of new media and Apple fan boys and fan girls.

This is because people can’t seem to grasp what the iPad is: is it an e-reader, a laptop or something entirely different? This is the power of a device like the iPad. It’s the first iPad. It’s an e-reader with so much functions that it appears to be a laptop with fewer functions, or better yet: a supersized iPhone that doesn’t allow you to make a phone call. It is however, the prime example of an e-reader type of device that successfully combines all sorts of media in one device. Of course a device like this looks and feels much like a laptop or iPhone (or whatever smartphone) and leaves people wondering what the use of this device is.

Right now, I wouldn’t just buy an e-reader like the ones that are on the market today, save for the iPad. Its options are too limited and it does not yet fully make use of the possibilities an electronic book can realize. To see what can be possible with e-readers, I believe one simply has to look at what is possible on the Internet. As computers and the Internet took on text, images, sound and video, it was only a matter of time before people would start consuming their total books on a similar device as well. The most important change would be that the size and shape of the device on which you will read, has to fit the experience of reading a book. It has to be as convenient as a book when you want to read in a relaxed mode. One of the most important enablers of this experience is a screen that is pleasant to look at for a long period of time. ‘Pages’ must be turned in a natural and effortless way. Also, an electronic book can have a lot of advantages over a paper book, such as simply searching for keywords, copying and sharing pieces of the text, placing extensive bookmarks and making interactive notes.

What I would want out of an electronic book depends on what kind of a book I’m reading. When reading an academic paper on a new media subject, the text could use a more dynamic way of reading. Take the book of Henry Jenkins, ‘Convergence culture: where old and new media collide‘ for example. He uses endless examples of fanmade culture, but is only able to describe it in words. With the possibilities of an e-reader, the text could be way more forward, just showing a video clip and telling how it relates to his argument. This saves time and makes it a far more joyful and significant experience of the story. By making the examples easily and fast accessible, his overall argument gains strength. In this way, non-fiction books could be greatly enhanced on an e-reader.

So when to enrich a fictional book or text? I would say, when talking about a different form of media in a text, you should link to it or be able to show it in the text. Or when in the classic novel ‘American Psycho‘ the protagonist dissects Genesis songs in between murdering and torturing, you could easily just stream the specific songs he is talking about. Amazon must love this idea: when reading about a Genesis album, just click ‘buy’! This is of course something that can be subject to a lot of spam and unwanted commercial offers. Also, you could include features similar to DVD extras, such as audio commentary, a standard audio book function or a making of.

But how far do we want this to go? Do you want your e-reader to play The Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack when you are reading the original book by J. R. R. Tolkien? I think not. While the possibilities for enhancing the text with different media on an e-reader are plentiful, a book is still a book. When I want to read a (fiction) book, I don’t want to watch a movie or listen to its soundtrack. The new way of reading is in this sense more suitable for educational, shorter texts or non-fiction books that feature a lot of references to other media content, much like how Internet sites have been for a long time now.

Sitting in class, I had just created my account on Wikipedia. Within minutes somebody had altered my biography on my personal user page. Luckily, it was the person sitting next to me in class who had successfully fooled me, but that’s not the point here. Imagine someone else being able to alter your biography on Twitter, or your personal information on Facebook. This was a clear welcome to the world of writing for Wikipedia: everything is open, up for debate and traceable by everyone.

After this I started writing a Wikipedia entry on Instant Replay, a small record label from Amsterdam that has been founded earlier this year as a sublabel to the more established Amsterdam label Magnetron Music. I thought that it would be nice to share my ‘knowledge’ with people that are confused about the different aliases of the artists that have released records on both Magnetron Music and Instant Replay. Seeing as some of them like De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig are fairly popular in the Netherlands, I thought there might be some people interested in this. In any case, I didn’t expect the subject to be controversial or unworthy of an entry.

Only minutes after publishing the entry a Wikipedia editor changed a misleading part: I said the label had only released digital music, but I indeed meant to say that the label had only released music digitally. Next to this some other editors and bots changed a couple of things to make it conform to the standard layout. I thought it was going just fine: my entry was becoming better even without any effort from my part. However, only one hour after I had posted it, an user by the name of Davin came along and decided that my entry should be put on the proposed deletion list. The reason: the label is too young to be worthy of a Wikipedia entry, implying that the relevance of the entry would only be proven if the label would survive for a more extended period of time. Of course I pleaded my case on the discussion page, saying that the label is a sublabel of Magnetron Music, which makes it a sublabel of Universal thus not just some new label. Next to this I pointed out that people are involved who are fairly famous. I haven’t got a response yet, so I assume it will be evaluated on my personal judgment day next week. Seeing as the other editors that saw and even contributed to my entry didn’t think it should be deleted, I still have hope.

So what’s happening here? The more experienced and respected Wikipedia editor gets to say if the subject of my entry is relevant enough to be included in this online encyclopedia. There’s a lot to be said for the professionalization and cleansing of Wikipedia, but it can also let Wikipedia get a more narrow scope than it could have. To stay with the example I have used for my entry: I can just as easily upload this information to wiki-like sites that are more focused on music. Discogs is a fine example of a website that resembles Wikipedia in look as well as in user contributions, but lacks the editors saying that your contribution is not relevant.

Also, a subject like the Vietnam War is more likely to spark a discussion with subjective arguments than say, the discography of a new record label. So if ‘they’ don’t want it, I’ll just take this content and knowledge somewhere else. This fragmentation of content pushes Wikipedia in a more distinct serious direction. It’s ironic that the encyclopedia that’s by and for users still has a hierarchy. If my entry gets deleted I will definitely feel rejected by these users in specific and Wikipedia in general. What gives this user the right to delete an entry I find relevant? He doesn’t own Wikipedia. It’s supposed to be a free encyclopedia that’s open for everyone, but that’s not the feeling I got from writing my first entry.

In combination with the not overly user friendly system of Wikipedia, lacking templates that would extremely simplify the adding and editing of content by less experienced users, these developments might make this ambitious online encyclopedia ironically enough a work of the elite – just like the traditional encyclopedia was and is. This new Wiki-elite might just spoil the fun and possibilities that Wikipedia gives the user. The regular contributors of Wikipedia have made the choice to make Wikipedia a more professional encyclopedia. They just have to watch that the most fun encyclopedia in existence doesn’t become a little too serious.

Now I’ll just have to wait if the Wiki-elite decides if my entry is worthy of a page on Wikipedia.

In the past years the Internet has been flooded with user generated content. The theory on new media has subsequently been flooded with research into this phenomenon, that is commonly centered around the web 2.0 concept. This theorizing of the beautiful possibilities and promises of freedom on the Internet has become almost tiresome. What I want to do here, is propose to place the emphasis of research on these web 2.0 phenomena not on the ever flourishing and endless stream of amateur content, but on the possibilities for professionalization (partly) free from traditional forms of industry. The ‘cult of the amateur’, as Andrew Keen theatrically and cynically dubbed it, has had more than enough attention. Numerous authors, Henry Jenkins arguably leading the ranks, have often enthusiastically embraced the possibilities of the Internet for the regular consumer to become a producer – or produser as the awful neologism of Axel Bruns goes. I believe it is much needed to take it to the next level and try to think of ways all this diligent users can put their time and work to use in a very concrete way.

One of the areas of industry that’s been in need of a serious makeover for the past decade or so, is obviously the music industry. With free illegal downloading still running rampant, the position of the major labels is ever weakening. In my opinion, one of the most important challenges that faces us as new media theorists in specific and media consumers in general, is how to come up with a model that allows the artist to keep creating and us to keep enjoying these creations. In this respect, the user can use his power for great causes in the music industry.

This is exactly what the website and model of Africa Unsigned has in mind: professionalizing promising and beginning artists through the power of the user. It was founded by Pim Betist, who was also one of the co-founders of the quite similar Sellaband. However, Sellaband didn’t become as successful as hoped, so Betist started a new, improved, even more idealistic venture: Africa Unsigned. The two biggest mistakes that were made with Sellaband were the reliance on cd’s – which made the whole concept way more expensive – and the lack of a quality filter (for more information on the bankruptcy of Sellaband and the lessons Betist learned, see this article from Wired). The goal of Africa Unsigned is to make a pre-selected number of artists from Africa famous and professional artists, that can live off their music . These artists are in fact unsigned, so the money has to come from another place than the regular record label advance money. This is where the user comes in, because Africa Unsigned revolves around crowd funding. The user can invest any amount of money, with 1 dollar being the starting point, in an artist and when the artist hits the magical $10.000 line, it gets to record a professional record in a professional studio with a professional producer. In short, the user decides which artist will become, you guessed it, a professional artist. As a bonus, the users / investors gets half of the revenue generated by online sales. The users become an important part of the process.

au supp

However, there are still industrial forms of control at work. Not just any artist or band can put their music on Africa Unsigned. This is probably a good thing, otherwise the users would get overloaded with artists to chose from to invest in and no artist will ever generate enough money. Anyhow, the users gets to decide which artist will make it. In an absurd sense, they get to decide which artist gets an advance to record a professional record. It turns the production and consumption process around.

The fact that Africa Unsigned is concerned with helping African artists is a sign that people are willing to bridge the gap, or digital divide as Pippa Norris called it. It is one of many examples of websites with a web 2.0 approach that attempt to make the contributions from users literally useful. I believe this is the way to go: use the connecting power of the Internet to create a healthier climate for collaboration and culture production worldwide. It’s a fine example of the idealism that characterizes a lot of web 2.0 websites. It helps out less fortunate artists and proposes a way to keep the production of culture profitable.

Africa Unsigned is successfully utilizing some of the opportunities the Internet offers, but is still a part of the web of the traditional music industry. This is not a bad thing: segments of this industry posses a much needed expertise and experience. In this sense, models like AfricaUnsigned are also a great way for record labels to reinvent themselves. The record labels, or rather: the people that work for them, posses important and absolutely necessary expertise and know-how that helps talent develop into artists. Next to this the success of the promotion of artists and their releases still relies on exposure in the traditional media like radio and music television. When the Africa Unsigned model will further develop, there’s a good chance that at the end of the day everybody’s a winner: the artist, the consumer and even the traditional entertainment industry. The industry has to look at new ways to generate revenue and this will mainly be possible with merchandising and concert tickets, as is seen in the 360 deals some of the bigger stars in the music industry are cutting. Some of the functions of record labels are vital to a healthy and qualitative musical milieu. When these parts of the music industry are combined with the power of the user and with the creativity of more independent artists, the only way is up.

An interview with Pim Betist on Africa Unsigned.

Sources:

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and beyond. From production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Keen, Andrew. The cult of the amateur. How today’s internet is killing our future. Doubleday/Currency, 2007.

Norris, Pippa. Digital divide. Civic engagement, information poverty, and the internet worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

“Communication media are endowed with a nearly sacred capacity for qualitative transformation of human relationships. Many of the limitations of everyday life, especially the trappings of interpersonal communication, are to be alleviated by technological apparatuses that promise seamless and immediate connection.”

The Book of imaginary media: excavating the dream of the ultimate communication medium (2006) explicity deals with imaginary media. These are the potential or possible media, or as its editor Eric Kluitenberg calls it: “dreamed media”. In this sense, the book is not easy to judge on an academic level. It does not consist of theories with grounded arguments that can be dissected and counter argued. However, we can judge if the stories and lineages the book presents are valid and relevant. The book looks into the possibilities of “how human communication can be reshaped by means of machines” (p. 8). Quite a tall order, if you ask me. It does so by examining the imagined media.

The editor of the book is Eric Kluitenberg, who was a teacher in the New Media Master and is now working as the head of the Media Department at De Balie, both in Amsterdam. Next to writing the much needed introduction and conclusion to provide the articles with context, he also writes one text himself. Most of the articles that he has asked the writers to provide, are a direct result of presentations the writers respectively gave at De Balie.

All the articles belong to an emerging field of study called media archaeology. In existence for ten years, it tries to research new media via lineages by looking at phenomena that transcend specific historical contexts. What they have found is that you see the same media imaginaries appearing, disappearing and reappearing every once in a while. In this way the researchers find new paths in history, that have always been there but are seen clearly now for the time. By looking at the past imaginaries, they hope find “less hazardous roads into the future” (p. 14)

One of the writers that provides an article is the famous science fiction writer Bruce Sterling. He looks into “dead” media: the media of the past that for whatever reason have become obsolete. These are realized media that failed, with imaginary histories that could have been developed if the media hadn’t failed. That’s why he started the Dead Media Project in 1995, to archive the media that are gone and forgotten. According to Sterling, digital media die even faster than any previous kind of media. A well-known example is MS-DOS, which used to be very popular but nowadays is rare and outdated. Next to media that were popular, there were thousands of media that never made a lasting impression. With a feeling for dramatic expression, Sterling describes: “The holocaust is all around us now.” (p. 59) He then goes on to make a strong point for the very real and not imaginary problems that come with preserving and archiving digital media.

Another writer, Siegfriend Zielinski, distinguishes three categories of imaginary media. The first category is untimely media. These media were designed much too late or much too early, but have been realized at some point in time. Then we have the conceptual media, which only exist on paper and were never actually built. Impossible media, the truest form of imaginary media, are machines that could never be built, but have an impact on our thinking of actual media nonetheless. This categorization shows that the studies of imaginary media that are undertaken in this book don’t have to be very practical or have some predictive quality: as long as they trigger the mind to think about media and communication, it’s fine.

Next to the articles, the book offers a nice feature: at the top of every page there is a timeline. Starting in 360 B.C. with Plato, there are chronically ordered examples of imaginary media. This fits nicely into the whole lineage approach the media archaeologists tend to take in general. Some of the examples are amusing because they are or totally fantastic or strangely prophetic. Like the futuristic photographer Anton Giulio Bragaglia, who in 1913 writes about a phone which transmits images through which you can see the soul of the other person, whether they are close or not. Examples like this are as prophetic as they are ridiculous.

As a reader, this has to be your cup of tea. The genre might be called science fiction, and that alone means the book is acquired taste. Overall, the articles bundled here stay on point and don’t get too “dreamy”. The difficulty in predicting the future and judging those predictions, is in the fact that the future is yet unknown. Maybe in ten years we will look back on some of these articles and think of them as genius, prophetic masterpieces. The book sure does work as a thought experiment and may give us some insights on how communication media will continue to evolve.

All in all, I think the story this book is telling, is more suited for, how ironic, a different medium. The fact that the book comes with a DVD to provide visual support and examples also points to this. This book is connected to the events and presentations at De Balie on the subject, and it has to be said that the story suits this form better. Imaginary stories for children, like fairytales, are often illustrated, and a more flamboyant presentation of this content would suit the message. The stories are sometimes so extravagant that they deserve another medium. It feels like reading about an art project and exhibition, but not being able to visit it. That being said, the book does serve as a fine survey of what the field of Media Archaeology stands for and it gets the reader to think about what the future of communication media might bring us.

Kluitenberg, Eric, ed. Book of imaginary media. Excavating the dream of the ultimate communication medium. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2006.

http://www.naipublishers.nl/art/imaginary_media_e.html

A couple of weeks ago, producer and rapper Kanye West joined Twitter. Although this fact alone is not all too remarkable, as Kanye West has been a fervent blogger for some years now, he has found remarkable ways to put this medium to use. On the one hand, he uses it as a way to distribute his new songs, posting a new song every Friday from now until Christmas. Around that time, his new album is supposed to be in stores. This idea is an example of a trend we’ve seen for years now: the waning importance of the release dates of records. For that matter, even physical records are becoming, or have become, outdated. It has been quite common for records to leak fairly early, sometimes surfacing on the internet weeks before the actual records will hit the stores. In the beginning, artists and record labels mainly complained about the devastating effect this would have on record sales. In 2010 more and more artists luckily realize that trying to stop (illegal) downloading is an exercise in futility. In fact, they start to fully utilize the opportunities the new media present them.

In comes Kanye West. He makes his comeback after a troubled year following his famous rant during last years VMA’s. During this award show he stormed onstage to express his displease with Beyoncé losing out to Taylor Swift in the category of best video – inadvertently spawning the “I’ma let you finish“-meme. Immediately a stream of criticism flooded Twitter. Even President Obama weighed in, calling him “a jackass“. A year later, Kanye West looks for ways to make peace and change his public image using Twitter. He repeatedly stresses that this is him directly communicating with his fans (he actually uses his own faulty grammar as proof that the tweets are really written by him).

Kanye West has found a way to use Twitter for two causes. First, it provides a very direct way of promotion and second, it provides a way to improve his troubled public persona. After a year of relative rest, he’s trying to show the world he has become a better man, filling Twitter timelines with his extensive rants on how the media tried to destroy him. His tweets feel like a nonstop interview, except that there’s nobody editing his words. In between these public relations efforts, he posts a new song every Friday, putting him in a different kind of spotlight. Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a good hit record to make people forget they hated you and make them love you again.