Long before Farmville and its innumerable clones, there was SimCity. Many formative years -- mine included -- were devoted to micromanaging a sprawling metropolis in order to placate a population of fickle digitized denizens. It was, without exaggeration, the pinnacle of single-player gaming for an entire generation.
A cruelly long 10 years passed since the last official release in the franchise -- SimCity 4 -- hit the shelves. Not surprisingly, the announcement in March of last year of a new entry in the series was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. The best news of all: Maxis, the same company that brought the original games to life, would be at the helm. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently, nearly everything.
Rumblings began to surface following the revelation that gaming giant Electronic Arts (Maxis' owner since 1997) would be implementing a Digital Rights Management policy that requires the game to connect to official servers in order to operate. Questions were immediately raised about the long-term effects of DRM: would EA force players into purchasing upgrades or add-ons to maintain functionality? If EA were to shut down the servers in the future, would the game become effectively unplayable? Despite the concerns, pent-up excitement still seemed to crest above the discontent.
And then, SimCity launched. Or, more appropriately, it went on sale. Many buyers quickly discovered that the game was basically unplayable due to server overload. Others, who have been lucky enough to connect, have reported intermittent crashes that wipe saved cities, ostensibly another deleterious side effect of the cloud-based DRM system. All of these issues, furthermore, surfaced on a product that had been allegedly tested in an open beta.
One would think that the makers of a game focused squarely on effective management of resources and public sentiment could do a bit better. The irony, nonetheless, is striking.
There certainly is no shortage of venues for voicing criticism. SimCity's rating on Amazon is hovering at an abysmal 1 star, forcing Amazon to temporarily suspend further downloads until the issues are resolved by EA. Meanwhile, the aggregated user review metric on Metacritic has plummeted into territory identified as "overwhelming dislike". Gaming forums everywhere are swamped with complaints, frustrations and general disgust for EA's handling of the situation. Even some professional reviewers have revised their initial judgments of the release, at least pending further action by EA to rectify the situation.
Statisticians would be quick to point out that "review bombing" -- a form of selection bias -- potentially creates an inaccurate distortion of consumer sentiment and belies the actual severity of the situation. Some observers have even drawn parallels to the haphazard launch of Blizzard Entertainment's Diablio III, which suffered from strikingly similar connectivity issues and vociferous initial complaints about game design. The early trouble, however, didn't stop it from becoming the fastest selling game of all-time.
Whether or not the SimCity debacle follows the path of Diablo III, the outcome should not dilute the importance of the underlying dispute over DRM. As consumers, we are responsible for fighting with our voices and our wallets. The evolving notion of ownership and use in a cloud-based age is a debate we cannot afford to sit out.
After all, the EA motto is "Challenge Everything." In this instance, I wholeheartedly agree.
January 18th is #InternetFreedomDay: the one-year anniversary of the collective uproar that derailed the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills from being signed into law. What should have been a euphoric celebration of a hard-earned victory, however, has instead become a memorial for the loss of one of the cause's bravest defenders; a life, incidentally, that might have been saved had the cause come to fruition sooner.
In the year since the battle against SOPA/PIPA was won, the fate of the Internet remains unresolved. In fact, the discussion had nearly disappeared from our national discourse. That it took a personal tragedy to bring the debate back into the spotlight is an unsettling reminder of how far down on our list of priorities Internet policy has fallen.
Given that neither lawmakers nor law-abiding citizens have the luxury of halting the digital revolution in order for policy to "catch up," we cannot afford to wait for a more opportune moment to act. Without establishing an ongoing, thriving national conversation about an ideal future for the Internet, we will be left to repeatedly fight defensive battles against countless future SOPAs as they are pushed through Capitol Hill. On the international stage, the stakes are even higher and the competition is even fiercer.
The anti-SOPA blackout demonstrated the Internet's capacity for meaningful collective reaction. For now, we can call that stalemate a victory in the fight to protect the digital domain. But unless we learn to act proactively, we're fighting a war of attrition that we cannot win.
Progress on a number of fronts is, at least ostensibly, underway.
A handful of preternaturally tech-cognizant members of Congress such as Rep. Zoe Lofgren have recently taken public strides to rectify the archaic, insufficient and easily-abused legislation currently on the books. Whether or not the momentum will spread to other policymakers, including many who are unsurprisingly hesitant to the touch Internet issues after last year's toxic SOPA meltdown, remains to be seen.
What can we do as citizens to amplify this conversation?
First and foremost is to share your thoughts with your elected officials. Vote thoughtfully. Join and support organizations that lobby for progressive Internet policies. Become an ambassador for the cause both online and offline. The Internet itself doesn't have a single voice from which to defend its independence. That responsibility rests primarily on us, its users and beneficiaries.
The second step is education. Fluency in the language of technology is a pre-requisite for both defending the Internet and convincing others to join the cause. We are still decades away from a time when millenials will hold substantial numbers in Congress. The concepts and virtues of open access that seem innately comprehensible to many of us may still seem mysterious and unwieldy to decision-makers at all levels and on all sides of the debate. Voting out of fear of the unknown is a well-proven recipe for disaster.
Not surprisingly, some of the most vocal leaders in the Internet generation have been exploring inventive and effective ways -- both online and offline -- to spread the message.
In early October 2012, as the election season was nearing its peak, Alexis Ohanian and Erik Martin -- both known for their instrumental roles behind Reddit, among many other things -- corralled a smorgasbord of like-minded individuals, journalists and supporters for a widely publicized, crowdfunded bus tour to spread awareness about Internet policy. A remarkable film documenting the Internet 2012 bus tour, Silicon Prairie (produced by Nimblebot), was screened earlier this week to policymakers, journalists and tech enthusiasts at both CES and in Washington, D.C.
The film -- which will be available online in the near future -- offers an upbeat glimpse into the young, growing companies in America's heartland that are utilizing cutting-edge Internet technology to reinvent business. The premise of the film is clear: Businesses of the 21st century will thrive by embracing -- not resisting -- the inevitable paradigm shift ushered in by the Internet. Their success, however, is at risk of being thwarted by unsound, outmoded and unfair policy.
An open and free Internet does not mean the end of business or the end of new ideas. The countless rising successes of the new economy are an ongoing testament to that reality. But we desperately need our laws to catch up in order to foster, not stall, the innovation that will power our evolving modern economy.
The era of the Internet as a wild, untapped frontier is drawing to a close. While this transition is yet another bittersweet moment for longtime Internet users and advocates, we must accept that we also have a vested interest in establishing fair contours for law and order online. It's a conversation that will take place with or without our participation. Without our voices, however, that conversation will be hopelessly one-sided and the result detrimental to us all.
Let this be our chance to shape the future of the Internet. The conversation begins now.
As far as D.C. weekend destinations go, Anacostia usually doesn't rank very high on anyone's list. That, however, may soon be changing.
Last Saturday, I ventured across the river to Lumin8 Anacostia, an event funded by ArtPlace and organized by D.C.'s Office of Planning, in conjunction with the local not-for-profit ARCH Development Corporation. Lumen8 is one of four projects that are shining a light -- pun intended -- on D.C.'s less-traveled neighborhoods.
Like many urban communities in the United States, Anacostia underwent a turbulent demographic upheaval during the 1950s and '60s that traded a nearly entirely white population for one that was almost exclusively African-American -- within the span of a few decades.
The so-called white flight left in its wake a torn economic and social fabric that has become a visible staple of many American inner cities. Local governments turned a blind eye to neighborhoods that were no longer lucrative sources of tax revenue, leaving a trail of dilapidated infrastructure and underfunded public services that only furthered a vicious cycle of disrepair and destitution.
During the 1990s, Anacostia and its surrounding neighborhoods gained notoriety for harboring the highest rates of violent crime and drug abuse in the city. Tourists and first-time visitors are still admonished by locals with a familiar warning: never travel to Southeast.
Gentrification -- perhaps the dirtiest word in the urban development lexicon -- is likely to remain a heated topic of conversation in the coming years. Many interpret the transformation of certain neighborhoods as a thinly veiled reversal of white flight. But the result, as seen in the cultural and ethnic diversity of revitalized areas like U Street and Columbia Heights, seems to indicate that the fear may be somewhat unjustified when the transition is handled with care.
Many signs seem to suggest Anacostia is next in line for resurrection. Homicide rates have steadily fallen for the past two decades. Despite the lingering effects of the recession, investment in residential and commercial property is surging. And projects like Lumin8 Anacostia are a sort of immersion therapy for the countless DMV residents -- myself included -- who would not otherwise venture eastward.
On Saturday, local galleries and restaurants along Martin Luther King Avenue opened their doors to passers-by. A colossal warehouse adjacent to I-295 hosted a smorgasbord of popup art installations and live performances, while local vendors such as Busboys and Poets sold food and other merchandise. Artists were brought in by the Alliance Francaise of DC and The Pink Line Project, two organizations well known for their endeavors in D.C.'s other quadrants.
My takeaway is that Anacostia is on the verge of an inevitable transformation. The vestiges of economic blight -- unkempt liquor stores, barred windows and condemned buildings -- are slowly vanishing as startup businesses, workspaces, art galleries and new restaurants take their place. As I strolled down MLK Avenue, I couldn't help but wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, we'll treat Anacostia as just another normal corner of our unique and rapidly evolving capital city.
I'm what you might call a tech pseudo-geek, a rather common archetype of the Internet generation.
MS-DOS, dial-up modems and "The Oregon Trail" were staples of my childhood. AOL Instant Messenger was my social stenographer throughout middle school. When I arrived to college in 2004, everyone was raving about a brand new MySpace clone called "TheFacebook."
Despite this lifelong affinity with tech, I have nonetheless kept a safe distance from its true backbone: the miles of incomprehensible code that course through our trusty hardware and give life to our inanimate gadgetry.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I have flirted with HTML and CSS, two languages that -- as any decent programmer will remind you -- are child's play.
I have endured a few false starts over the years trying to tackle some of the grittier and more powerful languages such as C, Python, and Ruby. I've struggled to follow everything from print textbooks to YouTube tutorials, eventually tossing up my hands in a bout of frustration and retreating in defeat. Few moments are more dispiriting than staring blankly at an eyeball-searing, monochrome terminal window, attempting to divine where I could have possibly erred amid lines and lines of disparate characters.
My series of failures, however, might finally be coming to an end, thanks to a bevy of new, intuitive browser-based courses that make learning how to code mercifully simple.
Codecademy, launched last summer, is leading the fray with a program called Code Year, a weekly course series that attracted fame when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to join the weekly challenge. During Code Year, I can freely start, pause and resume the thoughtfully-designed online lessons, whose completion earns endorphin-triggering medals, badges and other requisite gamification swag.
Addictive? You bet. And whenever I hit an impenetrable wall of code (i.e. at least once a lesson), a well-populated Q&A forum with novice and expert programmers is one click away.
CodeSchool offers a similar smörgasbord of browser-based tutorials, including one of my personal favorites: Rails for Zombies, which, as you might have guessed, is a zombified walkthrough of the incredibly popular Ruby on Rails framework. Again, the creative implementation of instant gratification and reinforcement makes learning any other way seem hopelessly primitive.
By wrapping the arcane world of programming in a fun and accessible package, these tools have liberated that which once seemed perpetually reserved for the über-nerdy.
The question remains: Why bother at all? Why not just leave the cryptic world of coding to the coders?
As I see it, it's a bit like the world of cars: You'll probably be a better owner and driver if you are at least minimally cognizant of what's happening under the hood. In a world increasingly dependent on technology, our economic productivity - -both individually and collectively -- is increasingly incumbent on our ability to interface fluidly with all things tech.
More broadly, these tools demonstrate new models for instruction at a time when our nation faces a growing crisis in our stressed and antiquated education system. Initiatives like Code for America are poised to inspire a generation of students to pursue science with an enthusiasm not equaled since the Space Race of the 1960s. And while we have successfully leveraged information technology to bring about vast changes in the way we communicate and share ideas in our daily lives, one frontier remains to be revolutionized: the classroom.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that AOL Instant Messenger has been discontinued.
As we bid adieu to a tumultuous 2011 and welcome a hopefully apocalypse-free 2012, I've put together a short list of trends to keep an eye on in the social media universe:
1) The slowing growth of Facebook in the U.S. and its skyrocketing growth in the developing world.
At the risk of sounding like a stodgy curmudgeon at the tender age of 25, I'll point out that when I joined Facebook way back in 2004, it was known to us young whippersnappers as The Facebook.
In the ensuing years since its debut and subsequent global explosion, the ubiquitous social portal has expanded in every conceivable direction. Its growth, however, has recently shown signs of slowing, especially in the United States. Now that rising giants like Brazil, India and your grandparents are jumping on the bandwagon, that should be enough to trigger a mass exodus from the once-hip social network.
Then there's the segment of longtime users, including yours truly, who have grown tired of Facebook's relentless shenanigans. The algorithm controlling my News Feed condenses my apparent social universe to an ever-shrinking handful of people with whom I have almost no regular contact in the real world. Live chat is basically a tractor beam that traps you into keeping a Facebook tab open at all times. And heaven forbid you try to ignore Facebook altogether, as I tried to do during most of December; a series of automated reminder emails dutifully warned me that I've missed out on some "popular" developments. (It turns out that during my selfish withdrawal, two of my friends changed their profile photos and someone posted on someone else's wall.)
Let's be clear: I don't see Facebook as inherently evil. I'm a bit disturbed, however, by its unheeded intrusion into our neurochemical pathways. We've all felt that endorphin rush and subsequent crash after someone "Likes" your pithy status update. Am I the only one who is tired of wondering why everyone else's highly manipulated virtualized life looks so much more interesting than mine?
Prediction for '12: Facebook grows up, loses some of its youthful charm -- and its user base.
2) Web video as a viable form of media.
Video has been the quirky but ignored step-child of the social media revolution. Until very recently, web video basically consisted of rehashed material from other sources or one-off viral videos of fuzzy kittens playing Beethoven. A few major developments are thankfully underway that will finally bring web video up to speed as a viable medium.
YouTube is pouring millions of dollars into nurturing premium content and curating an in-house collection of producers and stars. Traditional broadcast stalwarts such as PBS are investing in engaging video content that is produced exclusively for the web. The success of web-exclusive studios such as College Humor and Revision3, whose flagship shows regularly draw in millions of views across multiple seasons, suggests that there may even be room for thriving independent studios alongside the major networks.
Prediction for '12: As advertisers turn their attention to mobile and web audiences, profitability will finally become a reality for web-only programs.
3) Following a year of Facebook and Twitter-fueled protests, governments are brushing up on their social media skills.
2011 was the sort of year that will earn a bold-ed heading in future editions of world history textbooks. The cascading revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and sparked tensions elsewhere in the Middle East were abetted in large part by the use of social media networks as channels for organizing protest and disseminating information. But the honeymoon for social media and political protest may be drawing to an abrupt end.
Governments are wisely sharpening their social media skills at both the intelligence-gathering and policy-setting levels. They've caught on to the fact that open social networks are basically free intelligence networks that can be easily mined for information on civil unrest. While protestors in Tunisia and Egypt were able to coordinate demonstrations beneath a technologically-aloof government's radar, looters in the United Kingdom were surprised to find incriminating photos on a Flickr feed organized by the Metropolitan Police.
Prediction for '12: Until the hazy legal doctrines surrounding the relationship between law enforcement, social networks and end users are clarified, expect many more intriguing intersections between the three in 2012.
4) Social media startups will discover that they actually have to earn money to survive.
If you're a daily reader of Mashable or TechCrunch, you'd think every shiny tech startup is headed for a $150 million valuation. A new photoblogging social network for dalmatian owners! A mobile payments app for disbarred attorneys! A freemium analytics platform for model train hobbyists! And, of course, no brandcuffs!
No one seems to ask the big question: is there even a critical mass of users to make these services viable?
Prediction for '12: As the industry behemoths -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. -- begin to swallow up and incorporate every niche feature offered by smaller platforms, it will be harder and harder in 2012 for the next "revolutionary" social media tool to break through and earn staying power.
5) Niche-based aggregator sites will continue to thrive.
The surging tide of new web content, continuously disseminated by everyone from staff writers at The New York Times to your smartphone-equipped cousin, has made it increasingly frustrating to stay abreast of relevant and worthwhile content.
Not surprisingly, aggregator communities like Reddit have exploded in popularity, allowing users to subscribe, digest, and respond to the content they find most meaningful. The voting-driven ranking system isn't perfect; but like democracy itself, it is reliable enough to be effective and flawed enough to keep things interesting.
Sites like Reddit have also evolved into platforms for aggregating support for hot-button political and social issues. Case in point: following fervent calls-to-action posted on Reddit's homepage, the domain host GoDaddy rescinded their support for the controversial legislation known as SOPA, or the Stop Online Privacy Act.
Prediction for '12: The line between politics in the real world and the online world continues to blur when a viable presidential candidate openly campaigns on Reddit.
For ages, Washington, D.C. has been known as the quintessential political town -- and little else. In recent years, thanks primarily to the concerted efforts of District natives and transplants alike, our city has earned recognition for reasons independent of its betrothal to the federal government.
We've seen the rise of a vibrant and diverse culinary scene that reflects the city's multinational demographics. A thriving community of technology entrepreneurs has carved out a unique local niche for new startups to take root. Even the innovative Capital Bikeshare program has become a model envied and adopted by other cities.
The latest industry to take up the cause of building a D.C. brand is one that hits close to home for me -- TV, film, and video production. One might assume, given the countless Hollywood blockbusters featuring our iconic monuments, avenues, and neighborhoods, that D.C. is already a bustling hub for production. For many industry producers, however, D.C. is synonymous with high cost, red tape, and a sub par network of local production personnel.
Many of the productions that generate headlines -- HBO's Veep, USA network's Covert Affairs -- merely pass through for a handful of exterior shots and then move on to Virginia, Maryland or back to California or New York to resume production. This "get in, get out" mentality translates to far fewer dollars spent and fewer local jobs created by these well-heeled productions. Veep, a show that "takes place" in D.C., is expected to bring in roughly $25 million and 2,000 jobs -- to the state of Maryland, where the bulk of the show is being filmed.
The rumblings of change, however, are underway. The Office for Motion Picture and Television Development, under the direction of film industry veteran Crystal Palmer, has been working tirelessly to improve D.C.'s reputation. By revamping and streamlining the permit process, providing ample resources for local location scouting and production support, and pushing for financial incentives for large-scale productions, the MPTD has handily exceeded its goal of bringing in $20 million in local expenditures for the current fiscal year, according to spokesperson Leslie Green.
In what may be a harbinger of further government support, the D.C. Council's Committee on Small and Local Business Development hosted a November 9th roundtable hearing on the landscape of the film industry here in the District. Scores of filmmakers, producers, and executives emphasized in detail the need for both broader incentives for high-budget productions and more support for locally based production companies. In a city where unemployment in certain wards easily trumps the national average, the allure of a multimillion-dollar industry can hardly be overstated.
The second point of discussion raised at Wednesday's hearing -- supporting local filmmaking -- is another step in the right direction. Without question, D.C. is the international hub for non-fiction and documentary film. In addition to the smorgasbord of news networks and the corporate presence of Discovery Communications and National Geographic, the District is also home to a growing set of ventures that are emboldening D.C.'s reputation in the eyes of filmmakers everywhere.
Meridian Hill Pictures, founded in 2010 by regional natives (and brothers) Lance and Brandon Kramer, is harnessing the pedagogical power of documentary film to foster community bonding throughout D.C.'s diverse neighborhoods. Targeting areas whose residents do not have access to video technology or training, Meridian provides the tools and inspiration to create and publicly share stories in an innovative and meaningful way. Community screenings, documentary production classes, and partnerships with local education centers are just a few of the tools that have been early successes for the tight-knit Meridian team.
The locally produced web soap opera Anacostia has captured the culture of one of D.C.'s iconic neighborhoods in an experimental format that is making waves across the new media landscape.
D.C. native filmmaker Anthony Anderson and a robust, ever-expanding cast of local actors have harnessed social media to build a following of loyal fans, many of which are eagerly anticipating the web debut of the show's third season on November 11th. Currently syndicated on DCTV, Anacostia has won numerous festival awards nationwide and has raised eyebrows from network executives. Anderson, who was recently recognized by the Office of Motion Picture and Film Development as November 2011's "Filmmaker of the Month," treats the positive attention as evidence that D.C. is finally coming into its own and that a cooperative creative effort can produce remarkable results.
A handful of initiatives are focusing efforts on encouraging a healthy and dynamic exchange between local film producers and appreciators. The DC Film Alliance, under the direction of filmmaker Jon Gann since its founding in 2006, has led the most concerted effort in D.C.'s history to create a centralized hub for the promotion and cultivation of an organic D.C. film community. By regularly partnering with similarly focused organizations such as Women in Film and Television, Docs in Progress, and the 100+ festivals that take place in the D.C. area annually, the Alliance hosts and promotes an array of initiatives, events, and resources for filmmakers and film-lovers alike.
Washington, D.C. will not, nor should it strive to, be the next New York, L.A., or even Toronto. Nevertheless, there is a certain uniqueness to working in the District that cannot be replicated in a Burbank studio or a Brooklyn soundstage. Most importantly, a thriving production community not only brings much-needed revenue and jobs to this region, but also fosters a creative community that inevitably boosts our overall cultural net worth.
A host of fresh ideas are a fine place to start: substituting empty storefronts for temporary theaters and art installations, constructing facilities that are accessible to productions of all sizes, and funding incentives. But the first order of business is to collectively recognize what was self-evident at Wednesday's hearing: that D.C. is ready, willing and able to be a prosperous nexus for productions of all shapes and sizes.
Nine months have now passed since the tumultuous beginnings of the Arab Spring burst forth in the streets of Tunisia. A rising spirit of protest has since spread like wildfire across the Middle East, communicated primarily through the channels of social media.
For the legions of critics who had previously dismissed platforms like Facebook and Twitter as vapid troughs of celebrity gossip and self-aggrandizement, the toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt suggested that these tools were as effective for organizing protests and revolutions as they were for organizing keg parties. The movements throughout the Arab world appeared to have imbued social media with an irrevocable sense of legitimacy as a tool for fomenting change.
As the ongoing tumult throughout the Middle East enters a sort of adolescence, however, the true role of social media in the revolutions is undergoing a necessary closer inspection.
On Friday, a bevy of innovators, policymakers and evangelists of social media gathered at the magnificent new home of the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss the ever-evolving role of social media as a tool during times of conflict.
In the spirit of social media, I'll share a smörgåsbord of snippets culled from Friday's summit that reflect the breadth of topics addressed by the panelists:
Researchers and policymakers are faced with an overwhelming deluge of data generated by users across social media platforms. Capturing the data is only half the challenge; presenting it in a meaningful, digestible form is critical to understanding its role and influence. Even the most advanced analytical platforms struggle to keep up with the breathtaking pace, volume, and overlapping nature of social media channels.
In addition to the sheer size of data sets, how do we cope with the complexity of the data itself? To take one example, how do we effectively interpret reaction-based data such as the Facebook "like," which, despite its moniker, does not always connote approval of an idea or person?
Social media, through its heavy reliance on memes, is reshaping human language through the unprecedented mixing of idioms, dialects, and alphabets. What long term effects will it have on the way we speak, write and listen?
Relative anonymity in social media is a double-edged sword: while users can express their ideas more freely, the space is also crowded by false alarms (case in point, Gay Girl in Damascus) and an even newer player in the field -- clandestine government influencers who are learning the lexicon of new media. How do we balance anonymity with veracity?
The dominant social platforms -- i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube -- are powered almost exclusively by U.S.-based private corporations. What happens if business or national interests collide with users' free speech intentions? Would open source alternatives have the bandwith or critical mass to be viable?
Will social media during peacetime remain a relevant venue for political debate, or is conflict a requisite ingredient for driving meaningful online interaction?
Long story, short: no one knows where this is all headed just yet. That didn't stop some of the top minds in the room from speculating, however.
Andy Carvin, NPR's social media maven who through a single Twitter account -- his own -- managed to produce superior coverage of the Arab revolutions than any of the mainstream media outlets, aptly noted that social media is more about narratives than isolated content. Furthermore, Carvin recognized that true credibility in the online arena is earned over time, and the indispensible art of fact-checking is now a crowd-sourced activity.
Also present was Alec Ross, the tech paragon of the State Department, who has spent the past few years merging cutting edge technology with the mission of diplomacy. Once considered one of the more lethargic government agencies, the State Department has recently invested significant resources in "e-diplomacy," leveraging Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and Youtube accounts to interact with, rather than preach to, audiences in other nations. Ross equated the rise of social media to a democratization of world politics, shifting the balance of power from nation-states to individuals and smaller institutions. The downside to that shift, Ross admitted, is the exacerbation of fragmentation by way of the social media megaphone.
The challenges posed by the new media landscape -- security, veracity, and accessibility -- will likely take years to fully comprehend. But as the contours of the role of social media in the Arab Spring and elsewhere begin to take shape in the academic and policy-making arenas, everyone seems to agree on one point:
I awoke Sunday morning to the sort of ethereal calm that can only follow a storm. Apart from scattered pockets of leaves and tiny branches, it was hard to tell if anything -- nevermind the outer bands of an enormous hurricane -- had passed through overnight. Washington D.C., for the second time in under a week, was thankfully spared a catastrophe. As reports pile in from the rest of the Northeast, it is evident that other areas have not been so lucky.
I am breaking with the pack of pundits who have already rushed to criticize the so-called "hype" during this past week's national and local news broadcasts. In fact -- and I am downright shocked to find myself writing this -- the media got it right.
With a death toll approaching two dozen and damage estimates measured in billions of dollars, it is safe to say that Irene deserved the copious attention it received. In an earlier era, before the advent of satellite forecasting, preparation plans and a mass media to deliver relevant information, a storm of the same width and caliber would have commanded a death toll in the thousands. Although unfortunately a boon to the detractors and critics, the evidence of learned lessons is often invisible.
The unintended consequence of Irene, however, was a washing away of much more than beach sand and low-lying vegetation. For a brief moment, we were relieved of the relentless torrent of titillating celebrity gossip, futile political bickering, depressing economic data, and cataclysmic world unrest that fuels the 24-hour news cycle. In the face of natural chaos, a surprisingly refreshing sense of unity, if not calm, emerged over the airwaves.
I'll take those gratuitous cutaway shots of storm-chasing reporters on gust-swept beaches any day over the heartless, partisan hacks that mindlessly spout away on cable news shows like mechanical lawn sprinklers. The raw power of nature is an awesome sight to behold in HD; the raw sewage of politics just stinks. Somehow, we managed to survive as a nation despite ignoring the scourge of sexting or the latest updates on J. Lo's costly divorce.
In addition to invoking an urgency for preparation, the media inadvertently provided in its extensive coverage of Irene -- and the unprecedented mid-Atlantic earthquake before that -- an invaluable dose of perspective.
From above and below, we have been reminded this past week that we are but temporary tenants of this planet, at the mercy of shifting tectonic plates and dense fluffs of moisture and moving air. The prevention of death and destruction is news-worthy; if the most heinous byproduct of our over-preparation was a temporary bump to local merchants and a few extra cases of bottled water in our closets, so be it.
As the flood waters recede and the regular news cycle resumes its deafening roar, we stand to gain from one more lesson learned: while our human-made problems and conflicts seem at times to be the most indomitable, they are the only ones we truly have the power to resolve.
Apple (at least in its 21st century incarnation) is not known for its stumbles. Even the handful of lackluster releases of the last decade -- Apple TV and MobileMe are oft-cited standouts -- can only be considered failures relative to the astronomical success of product lines such as iPod, iPhone, iPad and Mac.
Last Tuesday, Apple released Final Cut Pro X, the long-awaited update to its ubiquitous professional video editor. Within hours of its debut on the App Store, blogs and forums were buzzing with what should have been excitement. The ensuing pandemonium, however, was almost uniformly negative.
Open petitions of protest were filed. Memes were unleashed. Even Conan O'Brien chimed in with a sketch, humorously pieced together by his resentful editors (in Final Cut Pro X, of course).
So what exactly went wrong?
The unanimous charge was that Apple had forsaken the professional community by releasing a product that closely resembles the consumer video editing program iMovie (a step down from the more sterile but more comprehensive Final Cut Studio suite). Among the most cited complaints were the loss of the print-to-tape function (crucial for exporting in broadcast environments), a "dumbing down" of the editing feature set, no ability to monitor playback on an external screen, and a radical new raw file layout that abandoned some of the more traditional processing formats. Perhaps less surprising, there also appeared to be no way to import or edit projects created with the older Final Cut software.
On Apple's App Store (the only venue that sells the software), the rating for FCP X quickly plummeted to an embarrassing 2.5 stars.
To be fair, most of the apparent oversights should have been included in the release, a move that almost certainly would have prevented the subsequent trolling and rage.
And yet, despite the apparent catastrophe, Apple will still likely come out ahead in the end. Why?
In this era of information overload and collective ADD, corporate slip-ups fade quickly from consumer memory. All of the free press Apple has received for Final Cut Pro X -- albeit negative at the outset -- has introduced a wide swath of amateurs to the existence of the more expensive Final Cut line. And when Apple undoubtedly releases fixes for the most egregious issues in FCP X, there are droves of new customers who will eventually jump on board.
As for high-end production studios, were any of them actually planning to make a brisk switch to brand new software upon its initial release? Unlikely. Industry adoption is, for good reason, cautious and lethargic. It took years for professionals to accept and incorporate the original Final Cut lineage into studio workflows. The same will likely hold true for FCP X. And as for the truly high-end studios, Avid remains the industry flagship.
As for mid-level editors, some may jump over to Adobe's competitive Premiere platform; others will stay with the fully-functional Final Cut Pro 7 interface, at least until Apple releases a few critical updates to FCP X.
Finally, plenty of brave early adopters have and will continue to jump headfirst into FCP X, which does offer some notable advantages over its admittedly outdated predecessor. The major speed and interface improvements alone, thanks to the freshly designed 64-bit architecture, are enough to convince plenty of users to take the plunge. Having used it briefly myself, I'll admit that while I like its updated interface, I'll be sticking with the older version of Final Cut until the kinks are fully worked out.
So is Final Cut Pro X Apple's "New Coke," otherwise known as the most ignominious marketing flop in corporate history? Perhaps.
But then again, take a look at Coca-Cola today. So much for lemons.
As a card-carrying member of the millennial generation, I came of age alongside video games. The soundtrack of my childhood could be compiled entirely from 8 and 16-bit Nintendo theme music.
Games -- from hide-and-seek on the kindergarten playground to canasta at the senior center -- are an integral, lifelong part of the human experience.
When we think of games, we often think of them as merely serving as entertainment or distraction from "serious" activities. At last week's Tech@State: Serious Games conference here in D.C., that limited understanding of games was thrown out the window. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department's Office of eDiplomacy, the two-day convergence of technologists, developers and innovators in the gaming industry illustrated the wide-ranging impact of games in our tech-infused world.
The most profound takeaway I gleaned from the conference was the growing impact of social-based gaming as a platform for meaningful change in the real world. Two decades ago, the video game market consisted entirely of content designed for isolated, one or two-person experiences. I have vivid memories of guiding my ox cart across a 2-D Oregon Trail, hoping desperately that my traveling party would not be prematurely terminated by dysentery.
Today's games, by contrast, are built around giant, fluid and interactive networks of users. The powerhouse franchises of the past decade -- World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and FarmVille, to name a few -- are practically dependent on a critical mass of multiplayer interaction for basic operation.
The increasingly sophisticated communication technology that has enabled social gaming to operate on a massive scale has set the minds of many leading technologists and innovators to work finding ulterior, socially-beneficial purposes for these games. The same principles that underpin socialized "entertainment" games -- knowledge/skill acquisition in a rules-based environment, cooperative competition, achievement through progress and/or ranking against others, etc -- are being translated to games that aren't solely useful for amusement or challenge.
Being organized by the State Department, it was hardly surprising that many of the games discussed involved international affairs, public policy and diplomacy. The creators of overtly cause-based games such as Peacemaker (a RPG-style virtual simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that provides a historical context of the conflict to both Hebrew and Arabic-speaking audiences), Tilt (a puzzle-based iPhone/iPad game centered around cleaning up virtual carbon waste and sharing those achievements on a worldwide scoreboard), and the iCivics suite (web-based interactive games that educate users about civic institutions) were on hand to discuss the challenges and rewards of building "games for good."
Playpower, the pet project of a passionate group of programmers and researchers, is bringing simple educational video gaming to developing nations, where access to modern classrooms or textbooks is, at best, inconsistent. By building $10 TV-compatible computers out of discarded keyboards and equipping them with cartridge-based educational games, the Playpower team is aiming to inspire an 8-bit educational revolution.
"Gamification" in the real world is not new. Countless aspects of our society -- from tax incentives to local elections -- can be explained in terms of game mechanics. Even the runaway social media successes of the Web 2.0 era -- Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare -- are essentially thinly-veiled gaming platforms that thrive on our desire to compete for points in a fixed system, whether it be in terms of friends, followers or badges.
Translating virtual or intangible achievements into material improvements in the real world remains a challenge for developers, but progress is being made in surprising areas. Companies such as Arlington-based OPOWER have successfully fused the behavioral psychology of gaming with cutting-edge technology to encourage energy efficiency by way of your monthly electric bill. And any time you hear about the latest attempt to "crowdsource" a problem (e.g. by supplying open source health data sets to app developers), you are witnessing "serious games" in action.
The "metagame" on display at the conference -- i.e. the game of making serious games -- is one where the competition is growing and the rules are always changing. But in the end, it's a game where we all win.
This week, I turn to Tim Pawlenty, who has taken center stage amid the thinning ranks of Republicans with open bids for the White House in 2012.
On Sunday, the day before his long-hyped official declaration as a 2012 candidate, Pawlenty's campaign released its latest video, "A Time for Truth." Clocking in at a reasonable 2 minutes, 15 seconds, this web-only video could not be more different than Gingrich's -- or even Mitt Romney's -- announcement video.
For a full critique of Pawlenty's video, tune in below:
Verdict: All the fast cutaways, lens flares, and artsy angles can't hide the fact that this video still feels utterly artificial. Big bucks were no doubt spent on high-end DSLR equipment and talented, hipster editors to make 2012's most uninteresting candidate seem like a protagonist in a Spielberg epic.
Believe it or not, this video is actually a few tones calmer than his previous campaign videos, some of which could easily pass as lost trailers for Independence Day.
As the 2012 race warms up, it will be interesting to see if the other Republican candidates borrow from Pawlenty's playbook and up the ante on their own videos. So far, no candidate -- T-paw included -- has found a comfortable balance between production quality, authenticity, and innovation in the video space. But the campaign is still young.
Last time around, I dissected Mitt Romney's less-than-spectacular and slightly creepy campaign announcement video.
Newt Gingrich, however, has managed to knock the bar of quality down to a new low for the 2012 campaign season.
For my audio commentary on the Gingrich campaign debut video, check out the following clip:
Verdict: this video is a hopelessly dated mess.
Worse still, this video is the product of a campaign that strategically chose to deliver their big announcement on Twitter. How could they have fumbled the ball so badly on this wretched video?
To be fair, Gingrich isn't all that far behind the other candidates when it comes to web video. A word of advice to the candidates, both in 2012 and beyond: the field is still open for a dark horse candidate to revolutionize political video. Be creative. Engage your audience. Show us a glimpse of your humanity for once. And most importantly, understand that spending more money on production is not the answer.
Maybe that candidate is out there, and 2012 will be the watershed moment. Until then, we're stuck with this.
Just before 10 p.m. on Sunday night, while browsing my typically calm late night Twitter feed just before bed, I noticed that a friend of mine had retweeted an announcement about an impromptu address by the president, scheduled for 10:30 p.m.:
For the next 20 minutes, I scoured Twitter for information. I noticed more and more of my Twitter contacts were also joining the search, posting guesses as to the speech's topic as well as copious retweets from other users. Suddenly, another one of my close, politically-savvy friends retweeted a message that has already become part of the lore of that night:
The tweet spread like wildfire, minutes before CNN, MSNBC, or any other network had announced the story. Although it was still technically a rumor, its source (Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff) seemed credible.
Before the major networks even had a chance to cut into their regularly scheduled programming, I had already booked a Zipcar and was on my way to the White House, a mere 10-minute drive from my apartment. More importantly, I had my DSLR camera and BlackBerry in tow.
Down at the White House, the scene was ebullient chaos. People of all ages were pouring into the open space between the White House fence and Lafayette Park, waving American flags and cheering wildly:
Cars formed informal parade floats along the adjoining streets of downtown D.C., honking in support of the bystanders:
A few brave, skilled climbers hoisted their way up to the domineering light poles that lined the square, draping American flags from the lights, as if in a modern adaptation of Iwo Jima:
Nearly every person in the crowd had a smartphone in hand, uploading content -- tweets, photos, videos -- practically in real-time. By midnight, the cell networks were straining under the weight of the stream of data.
I made my way up to the magnificent iron gates of the White House, only yards from where the president was delivering his address to the world. I furiously updated my Facebook status, posting snapshots when possible.
As to the critics who have criticized the celebrations as a morbid, perhaps deplorable glorification of Osama's death, I respond with the following: a highly emotional moment I captured at the White House fence, one you won't catch on a news network:
Judging from the reactions and energy crowd at the White House last night, the celebration was not actually about Bin Laden's death. It was about granting symbolic and psychological closure to a dark decade in our history.
Thanks to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- which are often derided for being too trivial -- powerful experiences such as Sunday night's celebration can be shared across great physical distances easily, cheaply, and meaningfully. Watershed moments -- the sort that you retell faithfully to your grandchildren -- have been deepened and extended by the communication platforms we have built. These are the moments that, hardly a generation ago, might not have been known outside of the 15 or 20 people within direct viewing range.
I packed up and decided to head home at around 1:45 a.m. Others were still pouring into the square, coming from all around D.C. to see the scene that had undoubtedly flooded their social networks.
At 2:58 a.m., I signed out of Facebook and finally called it a night. And what a night it was.
With the nascent '12 presidential campaign officially underway, we've already seen some relatively innovative early uses of social media to draw attention to the early contenders. Pawlenty and Trump are on Twitter. Zuck & Barack met at Facebook HQ last week for a livestreamed town hall.
With all of this progress elsewhere, why are web campaign videos still so downright awful?
Let's take Mitt Romney, for example. Remember his awesome campaign launch video?
Yeah, neither do I. For the sake of this article, however, here's a chance to watch it again:
Romney is 64 -- yes, 64 -- years old. This guy was practically made for high-definition. And yet, something is distinctly unsettling about the video.
The eerily empty stadium backdrop looks like it was lifted from the set of a made-for-TV Stephen King adaptation. And as if the scripted speech didn't seem artificial enough, Romney peers off-camera every few words to catch up with the teleprompter. On the perceived authenticity scale, that puts him somewhere between a QVC announcer and, well, a politician. Not good.
Instead of this somewhat creepy, manufactured enthusiasm, why can't we have candidates who use web video to speak to us in languages other than soundbites?
Video (on television, at least) was once considered the cutting-edge frontier of campaigning. The 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate has been etched into history textbooks as a watershed moment in electoral history. The story, by now, is familiar: radio listeners concluded Nixon had handily won the debate, while the TV audience favored Kennedy's cool, calm appearance to Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow and beads of sweat. Needless to say, Nixon found himself out of work in a few months time.
Will Election 2012 be the watershed moment for web-based video?
Hopefully. But given what's out there so far, there's a lot of work to be done. And so, to the nascent '12 candidates, I encourage -- I urge you -- do something new with your video.
How so, you might ask?
1. For once, show us the human being behind the candidate.
Internet audiences loathe the manufactured sound-bites that you've regurgitated on everything from Hannity to NPR. Ditch the teleprompter and the fancy backdrop. Instead, have a campaign aide whip out an iPhone on the campaign bus and tell us about your childhood, your family, your favorite episode of Seinfeld. You'll have plenty of time to tout your official platform during the official debates. In a world where social networks are dominant, web video is your chance to get us to "Like" you in a highly visible way.
2. Use online video as a medium for real conversations, not one-way speeches
It's 2011: most of us have figured out by now that your intern is running your Twitter feed and Facebook page. But a one-minute video response to an actual voter's question? Not only is that much harder to fake, but it also sends a strong signal that you are actually listening to voter concerns. On a side note, don't fill your Youtube channel with every last one of your cable news appearances. It's unnecessarily redundant.
3. Good lighting and audio are essential.
Don't be afraid, however, to sacrifice a bit of production value if the trade off is more authentic or organic content. Most viral videos, after all, are produced for practically nothing. But if we can't hear you or can't see you, we won't bother to continue watching.
4. Don't put us to sleep.
In this era of AHDD and multitasking, expect most viewers to lose interest in your video by the one-minute mark. Don't even think about putting out a 5 or 10 minute-long segment unless the material is extremely interesting or engaging. If people want long and boring, they'll turn to C-SPAN.
5. Take risks.
Short of unleashing a drunken tirade of racial slurs, try something new and exciting with your video. Stage improptu livestreams from your kitchen. Post video responses to random Youtube parkour videos and see how long it takes for people to catch on. It's still early enough that you can be a pioneer in online campaign video. The bar is set very, very low. Believe me.
6. Give your youngest staff member the final say over your videos before they are posted. Note: if your youngest staff member is over 30, you will not win the 2012 presidential election.
Memo to the campaign staff: Need some inspiration? Look to local politics; there, the candidates often don't have the money to spend on lavish TV ads, so you might just find simple ingenuity.
Bryan Weaver, an under-the-radar candidate for the D.C. city council, has utilized web video in a way that I (and many others) have found unique and endearing. His videos pay homage to one of the true pioneers of campaign video, the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, whose early '90s TV ads have now earned a second life on Youtube as sensations of their own.
November, 2012, may feel like a long way off, but if history is any guide, it'll be here in no time. It's time for campaigns to start crafting the web video campaigns that -- with any luck -- will someday earn a permanent place in the annals of electoral history.
Last Saturday, as a chilly April rainstorm drenched the nation's capital, I ventured to the chic, eco-friendly Microsoft headquarters situated on D.C.'s northern border.
I braved the rainstorm to join a diverse group of technologists, strategists, and other local professionals for the one-day MobileCitizen Summit, an event devoted exclusively to all things relating to mobile technology. In case you haven't heard, mobile is hot. Very hot.
Given the event's proximity to Capitol Hill, the opening keynote panel dealt -- surprise, surprise -- with the role of mobile in politics and the election cycle. Long story short: expect to see a huge push by campaigns to incorporate mobile into their outreach strategies.
Following the keynote, a veritable smorgasbord of sessions covered everything from the unique U/I design challenges of mobile platforms to the novel intellectual property issues arising from the proliferation of mobile content.
True to the style of the burgeoning DC tech scene, there was plenty of innovative and hands-on action to be found. In one room, a hackathon (sponsored and curated by Peter Corbett of D.C.-based innovation tank iStrategyLabs) challenged participants to build socially responsible mobile apps, with cash prizes awarded to the best designs. Elsewhere, political video blogger extraordinaire James Kotecki turned the audience into impromptu mobile video producers by setting up a Youtube channel and having small groups upload their best attempts at a faux-campaign video from their own mobile phones.
The MobileCitizen summit reflects a growing call to action to make mobile technology work in meaningful ways. The vanguard of the mobile revolution -- the smartphone -- has usurped the roles of countless other devices that until recently were considered necessities of modern life. Eventually, we may rely solely on our mobile devices, especially as they expand voraciously in capability and speed.
The catalytic power of mobile technology can hardly be overstated. It has enabled modernization and development in areas of the world largely passed over by the computer revolution. SMS systems have doubled as mobile banking platforms in sub-Saharan Africa, while the recent revolutions along the North African coast have been bolstered by cell phone-wielding citizen journalists and organizers. Entire regions of the planet that lack broadband wired data networks can bridge the crevasse of connectivity thanks to affordable, scalable mobile technology.
The meteoric rise of mobile also brings a whole slew of new problems and challenges, many of which were highlighted at the summit.
The first and foremost is the growing deluge of mobile data. From a transactional standpoint, wireless networks must continually expand in order to meet demand for bandwidth; meanwhile, everyone from the media to end users have to contend with an overwhelming amount of content produced and shared on mobile devices. How do we make this ceaseless surge in mobile-sourced data meaningful? Who will be responsible for curating and organizing it?
Thankfully, there is evidence that these issues are finally being given the attention they deserve. Case in point: the MobileCitizen summit and similar initiatives popping up worldwide.
As recent as two or three years ago, application developers and companies alike treated mobile as a secondary platform -- if they acknowledged it at all. Thanks to the runaway success of mobile app stores, developers have caught wind of the mobile gold rush and have been shifting focus to mobile development.
The end result is a virtuous cycle: as mobile gets more sophisticated and lucrative, more developers join the fray and take the requisite experimental risks, pushing the mobile envelope even further into the future.
Ultimately, we are mobile creatures. The progress of technology towards a mobile future is, in a way, a return to our core modus operandi. Instead of us being more and more tied down to the devices that occupy our desktops, workstations and living rooms, mobile technology allows for us to have it the other way around.
I focus on digital strategy and platform distribution for PBS Digital Studios, the team responsible for creating original web video content by PBS. The Digital Studios network has reached over 40 million views and 500,000 subscribers on Youtube in its first year (2012-2013).
I also serve as web producer for PBS Arts, supporting broadcast Arts programming with a web presence online (www.pbs.org/arts) and across social media.
My skills cover a wide set of responsibilities:
2009 - Present
Digital Media Consultant + Filmmaker / media | sophe
I develop content strategy and produce promotional films for companies and organizations, as well as pursue creative video projects in my spare time. Some of my recent work has included:
- The Space Below Dupont: a film about the Dupont Underground (in production) | Director, Producer - The Secular Center with Jacques Berlinerblau (2012) | Executive Producer - Faith Complex (2011) | Consulting Producer - The God Vote with Sally Quinn - The Washington Post (2011) | Consulting Producer
In 2010, I directed and produced a feature documentary, Dreams for Sale: Lehigh Acres & the Florida Foreclosure Crisis. It received attention on numerous blogs, was screened at film festivals in 2011 and has received over 50,000 views online.
Transportation and Communications Coordinator / Re-Elect Dave Aronberg for State Senate
Lending and Advisory Services / Calvert Social Investment Foundation
Legislative intern / United States House of Representatives