#thedress for journalism educators

Black and Blue? Gold and White? What does #thedress mean for journalism educators?

The Dress Buzzfeed
Original Buzzfeed post has now had 38 million views.

At the time of writing, the original Buzzfeed post has just under over 38m visitors and 3.4m people have voted in poll at the bottom of the post. Slate created a landing page, aggregating all their posts including a live blog. Cosmo copied Buzzfeed. Time produced a quick post that included a cool little audio slideshowWired published a story on the science of why people see the wrong colours (white and gold). How can we use this in our teaching?

Nearly every single student in my big Introduction to Journalism lecture knew what I was talking about when I mentioned #thedress. I used it as a simple example to illustrate some core concepts for operating in a multi-platform or convergent news-based media  environment.

Multi-Platform Media Event

Journalists used to be trained to develop professional expertise in one platform. Until very recently this included radio, television or print and there was a period from the early to mid-2000s when ‘online’ existed as a fourth category. Now ‘digital’-modes of communication are shaping almost all others. We’ve moved from a ‘platform only’ approach to a ‘platform first’ approach — so that TV journalists also produces text or audio, writers produce visuals, an so on — and what is called a ‘multi-platform’ (or ‘digital first’, ‘convergent’ or ‘platform free’) approach.

When with think ‘multi-platform’, we think about how the elements of a story will be delivered across media channels or platforms:

  • Live – presentations
  • Social – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.
  • Web – own publishing platform, podcast, video, etc.
  • Mobile – specific app or a mobile-optimised website
  • Television – broadcast, narrowcast stream, etc.
  • Radio – broadcast, digital, etc.
  • Print – ‘publication’

‘Platform’ is the word we use to describe the social and technological relation between a producer and a consumer of a certain piece of media content in the act of transmission or access. In a pre-digital world, transmission or delivery were distinct from what was transmitted.

Thinking in terms of platforms also incorporates how we ‘operate’ or ‘engage’ with content via an ‘interface’ and so on. Most Australians get their daily news from the evening broadcast television news bulletin. Recent figures indicate that most people aged 18-24 actually get their news about politics and elections from online and SNS sources, compared to broadcast TV.

#thedress is a multi-platform media event. It began on Tumblr and then quickly spread via the Buzzfeed post to Twitter and across various websites belonging to news-based media enterprises.  It only makes sense if the viral, mediated character of the event is taken into account.  #thedress media event did not simply propagate, it spread at different rates and at different ways. The amplification effect of celebrities meant #thedress propagated across networks that are different orders of magnitude in scale. Viral is a mode of distribution, but it also produces relations of visibility/exposure.

New News and Old News Conventions

Consumers of news on any platform expect the conventions of established news journalism. What are the conventions of established news journalism?

  • The inverted pyramid
  • The lead/angle
  • Sourcing/attribution
  • Grammar: Active Voice, Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence structure
  • Word use
  • Fairness

When we look at #thedress multi-platform media event we see different media outlets covered the story in different ways. Time magazine wrote the most conventional lead out of any that I have seen; the media event is the story:

Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is
The Internet took a weird turn Thursday when all of a sudden everyone started buzzing about the color of a dress. A woman had taken to Tumblr the day before to ask a seemingly normal question: what color is this dress?

Cosmopolitan largely mediated between the two, both framing the story as an investigation into colour, but also reporting on the virality of the multi-platform media event:

Help Solve the Internet’s Most Baffling Mystery: What Colors Are This Dress?
Blue and black? Or white and gold?
If you think you know what colors are in this dress, you are probably wrong. If you think you’re right, someone on the Internet is about to vehemently disagree with you, because no one can seem to agree on what colors these are.

I’ve only include the head, intro and first par for Time and Cosmo and you can see already they are far more verbose compared to Buzzfeed’s original post. The original Buzzfeed post rearticulated a Tumblr post, but with one important variation:

What Colors Are This Dress?
There’s a lot of debate on Tumblr about this right now, and we need to settle it.
This is important because I think I’m going insane.
Tumblr user swiked uploaded this image.
[Image]
There’s a lot of debate about the color of the dress.
[Examples]
So let’s settle this: what colors are this dress?
68% White and Gold
32% Blue and Black

The Buzzfeed post added an ‘action’: the poll at the bottom of the post. Why is this important?

Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the Relative Value of a Page View

Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg addressed the question of the Buzzfeed business model by posting a link to this article back in 2010:

Some of its sponsored “story unit” ad units have clickthrough rates as high as 4% to 5%, with an average around 1.5% to 2%, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg says. (That’s better than the roughly 1% clickthrough rate Steinberg says he thought was good for search ads when he worked at Google.) BuzzFeed’s smaller, thumbnail ad units have clickthrough rates around 0.25%.

The main difference now is the importance of mobile. In a 2013 post to LinkedIN Steinberg wrote:

At BuzzFeed our mobile traffic has grown from 20% of monthly unique visitors to 40% in under a year. I see no reason why this won’t go to 70% or even 80% in couple years.

Importantly, Buzzfeed’s business model is still organised around displaying what used to be called ‘custom content’ and what is now commonly referred to as ‘native advertising’ or even ‘content marketing’ when it is a longer piece (like these Westpac sponsored posts at Junkee).

Buzzfeed
Image via Jon Steinberg, LinkedIN

On the other hand, Tumblr is a visual platform; users are encouraged to post, favourite and reblog all kinds of content, but mostly images. For example, .gif-based pop-culture subcultures thrive on tumblr and tumblr icons are those that perform gestures that are easily turned into gifs (Taylor Swift) or static images (#thedress).The new owners of Tumblr, Yahoo, are struggling to commercialise Tumblr’s booming popularity.

I had a discussion with the Matt Liddy and Rosanna Ryan on Twitter this morning about the relative value of the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post versus the value of the 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post. Trying to make sense of what is of value in all this is tricky. At first glance the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post trumps the almost 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post, but how has Tumblr commercialised the relationship between users of the site and content? There is no clear commercialised relationship.

Buzzfeed’s business model is premised on a high click-through rate for their ‘native advertising’. Of key importance in all this is the often overlooked poll at the bottom of the Buzzfeed post. Almost 38 million or even 73 million views pales in comparison to the 3.4 million votes in the poll. Around 8.6% of the millions of people who visited the Buzzfeed article performed an action when they got there. This may not seem as impressive an action as those 483.2 thousand Tumblr uses that reblogged #thedress post, but the difference is that Buzzfeed has a business model that has commercialised performing an action (click-through), while Tumblr has not.

Event Mechanics of Opportunity

Everyone does not have access to the same opportunities due to circumstance or the inability to witness their own circumstance. An ‘opportunity‘ is a recomposition of processual relations. It is an event that releases new visibilities, new discourses (or different ways of participating in familiar discourses), new capacities for action and so on. There is a movement and reconfiguartion of subjectivity before and after that defines the scale of the opportunity-event. This is the positive way to view opportunities.

Massumi and others have examined this processual dimension in terms of relations of futurity. Massumi’s “Future Birth of the Affective Fact” sketches out the diagrammatic arrangement of one composition of relations of futurity. A chapter I recently wrote for a forthcoming book on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx engages with ‘loyalty’ within capitalism as another composition of relations of futurity.

Relations of futurity are composed all the time. An ‘expectation’ is a good example of the way relations of futurity become structurated; the disappointment of failing to ‘live up to expectation’ is evidence of an ‘opportunity failure’. The opportunity in these circumstances may have been produced for one person (say, a son or daughter) by others (parents). Parents are disappointed because the relations of futurity produced by them for their children are not actualised in the way they expected. The parents know the future in the sense they can draw on experience to produce their own expectations. If a child is talented and does not follow the relations of futurity produced by parents in a way that the parents expect, then according to the parents’ expectations, an opportunity is lost. Expectation here works to discipline relations of future; an expectation is a colonisation of futurity.

It makes sense then, even if it is mildly paternalistic, to work on creating relations of futurity for those without the ability to do so in such a way as the maximise the opportunity and to increase the distribution of opportunity. The problem is in the way the discourse of ‘opportunity’ has been appropriated by those who would dearly like to make a buck off one’s hard work. As I wrote in my original comments about this, the event of the ‘opportunity’ can be deployed and actively cultivated so as to control worker-populations:

Workers are meant to be on the look out for ‘opportunity’ in the workplace or work milieu (if freelancers). They are meant to capitalise on the opportunity and maximise the positive outcome of opportunity to further their respective careers. There is a continuum of opportunity that is differentiated by relations of futurity made possible by the character of contingency around which opportunity is organised.

1) If opportunity is presented by those in power to a worker, then the contingency is often disciplined in accordance with the outcomes of productivity demanded by the managers and the way surplus value is extracted from the worker’s labour.
2) If opportunity presents ‘itself’, then it is because the contingency of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market have not been actualised. A new relation to the market can be actualised.
3) If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she critically appreciates the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality, an example of the limited fourth-person singular; that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. (What Deleuzians call counter-actualisation.)

To enfranchise workers in the emergent entrepreneurial mode of the unfortunately called ‘creative capitalism’ means equipping them with the capacity to appreciate the dynamics of managerial techniques and apprehend new conditions between labour and the market through the praxis of their own labour. It is not a matter of grasping the relations between specific individuals or objects (big or little) but of appreciating how the relations between individuals are actualised and differentially repeated in experience.

The contingency at the heart of these relations of futurity are important because it means that relations to the future are ‘open’ (this was a major breakthrough in my PhD, it gave me a way to think beyond goal-based definitions of motivation, so failure does not quench motivation, because the contingency is properly appreciated). The existence of contingency means that expectations always relate to reality through assumptions.

Hello Blog!

I’ve been a bit busy lately and have been neglecting my blog.

Firstly, I’ve been promoted at my day job from Feature Writer to Production Editor. This has meant a different set of responsibilities, which I am enjoying, but also a new set of opportunities. I’ve been attacking these new opportunities with gusto as my activities and capacities are now more visible within the workplace. One opportunity has been to take on some of the responsibilities of event management for our presence at certain car shows. I’ve been developing event strategies to maximise the benefit to the magazines and these strategies have been received well by management and the other editorial teams.

Secondly, I’ve taken on another job that is mostly at night. This is back at Gleebooks working events. I have been made Assistant Events Manager and my responsibilities so far mainly include staff rosters and some initial tentative forays into social media. I will also be organising the Gleebooks presence at conferences and other similar events. This is basically all event management work.

There are some other exciting developments that may or may not happen, but more on these as they come to fruition (or not).

I am also behind on some promised writing, including a blog post on here about the Ford Fiesta Econetic which I had on loan from Ford as a media car and a book chapter on Derrida and Marx for a forthcoming book. I am hoping to wrap both of these up by the end of this weekend.

The Future

Reading Todd McGowan’s article in the most recent issue of Film-Philosophy it is clear that Hegelians have a radically different conception of the future than I do, and I guess I am a Deleuzian. McGowan argues that the representation of the future in science fiction cinema can not be but an expression of the present ideologies. I agree. So the future of science fiction is not the future at all, but an ideological representation of the present. What, then, is the future?

Brian Massumi has best explored what I would call the actuality of the future, which is another way of saying, in the first instance (pun intended), the actualised virtuality of the present. The virtual can not be represented as such, only actualised. Does this therefore mean that the future can not be actual or is only ever actual? Otherwise the future would be, without any becoming. The futurity of the present, that which is to come but has not yet been actualised, is both present and in the future. The present is not this instant, the first or otherwise, but what is happening contemporaneously now. That is to say, the present duration does not merely exist within the contemporary now; rather, the contemporary exists beyond the present. The virtual exists as the contemporary that is not present, but in the future. Think of events that you are part. Your marriage, it is happening now, so stop reading this infernal internet, but it is also yet to happen. Your marriage has a future, I hope. The happening has not yet been exhausted.

The actual future, that of the present that has not yet been actualised and that of the contemporary, that is not yet present, has little to do with representations of the future in science fiction. I am very interested in the future, because capitalism functions most demonstratively in this space, in what Negri and Hardt called the passage from the virtual to the actual. My interest is specifically in thinking a Deleuzian conception of the spectacle. I agree with every critique in Guy Debord’s masterwork, The Society of the Spectacle, except for his assumptions regarding time, for his assumptions are far too Hegelian. I’ve written about this somewhere, I need to find it.

My primary example, at this stage, is of the ‘rewards’ card — the frequent shopper card, the Fly Buys card, the ‘points’ card, and most telling, the ‘loyalty’ card. ‘Loyalty’ examined through the lens of the Kantian imperative is a question of moral duty. ‘Loyalty’ examined by way of a Deleuzian event mechanics is an effect of modulating the field of possibility in the passage from the virtual to the actual. It is not a question of identity, but a constriction of the field of action. We are all Pavlov’s dogs, it is the character of the reward that defines us and whether or not we are worthy of it. Some of us are more worthy dogs than others.

The loyalty card operates within the space of the contemporary that is never present. There is a deferral of an actualised present that hums with an affective tension. It is pure ideology in the way a closure and contradiction is represented as an escape, a reward. To invert Derrida’s hauntology, capitalism haunts the present with the future while never escaping the contemporary. A perverted eschatology, the deferral of the present is its own reward.

loyalty cards and loyalty programs: part 1

Partially in response to Steve Shario’s post on biopolitics here is an old post that I was a long way off finishing and have decided to post in parts as I have time. I addded the last paragraph to inidicate where the other three parts are headed. They are some rough drafts of ideas I am working on for a book chapter.

One common knot I tried to untie all semester with my students in the Consumer Culture unit I tought was regarding loyalty cards and/or programs.

Maurizio Lazzarato points to the work of Zarifian to indicate one way to understand the function of ‘loyalty’. The long two paragraph extract below highlights, first, the biopolitical dimensions of consumerism (not in the bios=life=biology sense of some interpretations of biopolitics) and, second, the importance of the virtual feedforward loops that cultivate and then harness anticipation as an affective or ‘felt tendency’ for guiding consumer behaviour:

[C]ompetition between companies is aimed not at conquering a market but at ‘capturing a clientele’, at building a customer capital which is managed monopolistically. The market, as understood by political economy, does not exist or is identified with constitution/capute of customers. Two elements are essential tto this strategy: building customer loyalty and having the capacity to renew what is on offer through innovation. The space within which transforms the co-operation between minds into a public/clientele. The capture of a clientele and the building of its loyalty means first and foremost capturing attention and memory, capturing minds, creating and capturing desires, beliefs (the sensible) and networks.

All production is the production of services, that is a transformation of “the conditions of activity and the capacity for future actions of customers, users, and the public”, which in the end always aims at the ‘mode of life’. The service does not satisfy a pre-existing demand, but it must anticipate it, it must ‘make it happen’. This anticipation takes place entirely within the domain of the virtual by mobilising resources such as linguistic resources and language, communication, rhetoric, images, etc. The anticipation of services by the virtual and signs has the advantage, on the one hand, to be able to use all properties of language, thus opening up the exploration of several possibles, and, on the other hand, to enable work on sense through communication. (193)

In the micro-physics of consumer exchange and consumption the services may very well satisfy demands that do not pre-exist and which are co-individuated with the correlate consumer subjectivity through the capacity communicative apparatus to incite (not determine or dominate) consumption. What I find fascinating is the interplay of various temporalities in this process. Lefebvre may have called this rhythmanalysis, but perhaps something is lost in translation as each iterative individuation differentially repeats what apear to be circular power relations in different ways. So it is not circular or rhythmic, but an iterative spiral and heterogeneous.

The rates of change, or different capacities to absorb and nullify or magnify the effect of contingencies, exist at thresholds of different scales. The ‘new’ for a consumer (‘innovation’) is not the same ‘new’ for the business. For example, consumers may understand each version of an iPod to be ‘new’, but from the biopolitical perspective of individuating or capturing a clientele, Apple wants the iPod consumer base to at least remain the same or at most grow. Apple has to ensure the iPod is different enough so nothing changes.

These different rates of change then pose an interesting problem when trying to produce customer loyalty, particularly in those circumstances where there is no necessary reason why a consumer should use one service or commodity over another, such as grocery shopping where the ‘same’ commodity and service is provided by myriad businesses. One way I have been thinking about this over the course of the semester and discussing it with students in lectures and tutorials, is through the function of loyalty cards and programs.

The character of ‘loyalty’ has changed over the last 20-30 years. Customer ‘loyalty’ used to be connected to some quality of the service or commodity on offer. People shopped and consumer because they were serviced by their local shop, they travelled because of some special quality provided by another business, and sought to distinguish themselves from other consumers through these qualilty items. This qualitative dimension produced business-based ‘goodwill’. ‘Goodwill’ is a social relation associated with a business premised on trust, quality and other such positive social traits. ‘Goodwill’ is worth something and is often figured in calculations of business worth. The ‘loyalty’ of contemporary ‘loyalty cards’ is not premised on ‘goodwill’ but a quantitative metric driven by outcomes-based assessment of economic exchange.

What I am interested in is 1) the relations of temporality between the incorporeal infrastructures of ‘saving’ and consumers inculcated in the logic and practice of using the cards, and therefore the microphysics of power in these relations of ‘saving’ and a global market-based cultural economy, 2) the affective character of these relations and the habitualised practices and appreciation of tendential fields of possibility that emerged around contingency and the rhythmic harnessing of contingency into the iterative rhythms of the cultural economy calendar (e.g. xmas, etc), and 3) the way constellations of power relations enable or incicte consumers to consume in a properly biopolitical fashion (mobilising entire populations), so practices of consumption become defined by how contingencies are processed congruently with the fields of possibility overdetermined by a synergistic network of commecial interests.