December 13, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different

May I interest you in another story?

Because, really, I’m getting kinda sick of this whole viral video thing. And, no, I’m not linking to it again. You can scroll down.

Here, click these links:

The Boys of Tornillo

Messages of Hope Removed

The first video has a little over 20K views, and the second has around 6.5K views. These videos deserve to go viral because they actually have something to say about an important, ongoing news event. We actually have video that news organizations don’t have.

“We” is Carbon Trace Productions — the non-profit documentary education and humanitarian service organization that I founded. I serve as the president of the board of directors.

Click those links. You get an emotional experience that is real, not fake. You’ll see things happening that are real, not fake. And you’ll be able to check for yourselves. You can practice a discipline of verification to discover how real those videos are and exactly who made them and how they were made.

Then you can share those links on social media with confidence that you are not harming our civic discourse.

December 10, 2018

Not a Laughing Matter

Hello. I’m a 62-year old man, and I’m here to give you social media advice.

Best. Opening. Stand-up. Comedy. Line. Ever.

But seriously folks…

How I use social media

Twitter:

Twitter is a business tool for me. I never see viral content or much fake content because I operate with a strict rule to follow only legitimate, mainstream news organizations, professional organizations, and other groups with a high degree of public accountability. Individuals I follow have blue check marks or are personally known to me to be cogent, responsible thinkers.

If you don’t fit in that description, I don’t follow you.

Facebook:

Facebook for me is about personal stuff only. While I sometimes share things from the news that fit my interests (e.g. urbanism or documentary film), I never share anything about politics. Mostly, I share personal stuff.

I have 589 Facebook friends. I only follow a tiny fraction of these people– only those whose lives I want to be connected to on a daily basis. That’s actually a wide range for me if a small number. I follow across the (simplistic) political spectrum, although I pay very little attention to anything political.

If I follow you, and you post something that you should have done a better job of vetting, I’m likely to be pissy about it. One of my favorite lines is: “I’ll believe it when I see it in The New York Times.” I mean the NYT as a synecdoche — it’s a well-known part of a whole I understand as the legitimate, mainstream news media. (Although my wife pointed out just yesterday that I should change this to the Washington Post; she still hasn’t forgiven the Times for Judy Miller because, you know, war and death.) FYI: I subscribe to the the Times and the Post via smartphone app.

Facebook offers some great communications tools. I run several pages and several groups. And I like Messenger.

Instagram:

I used to love it. Now there are just so many ads and other crap that I only check in a couple times a week. I don’t post to it nearly as much as I used to. I only follow people I know personally.

FWIW

I have been burned by my own laziness, stupidity, and gullibility. But it doesn’t happen that much any more because of how I use social media now. I’m also far more fearful about it. I’m far more skeptical than I was just 10 years ago. And I’m always eager to do the whole critical thinking thing. In short: I believe nothing posted by anyone or anything that I do not recognize as a legitimate source of information. Unless it has been vetted by an organization/individual that I trust to act as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification, I treat it as entertainment only.

IMHO, if you’re treating unvetted social media messages as true, you are a part of the problem. You are helping to degrade our civic discourse and dumb-down our nation. Stop it.

 

December 9, 2018

15 Minutes of Nothing

As of this morning, the viral video I “starred” in has 7.7 million views and almost 70,000 retweets.

My Twitter feed has calmed down. It’s been at least 24 hours since the last e-mail. It’s over.

What did it all mean?

I was once in a bad car wreck. I suffered an injury. During the wreck, time slowed in a way I found both fascinating and terrifying — like being disconnected and over-connected at the same time. Like being dangerously drunk or way too high.

That’s what being the focus of attention of a viral video was like. And just as quickly as it started, it ended … with a hangover.

Some observations:

  1. The vast majority of people who watched the video did nothing that I can detect on social media.
  2. Of the approximately 150 people who sent me e-mail, all but three seemed utterly sincere in their care for me as a “wronged” human being. It took time to write these messages. It took time to find me online.
  3. IMO, the vast majority of retweets (of retweets of retweets) were people trying to drive traffic to their own feeds. The reactions were similar and in some cases simply copied and re-copied, and re-re-copied. All the “I cried so hard” and “I’m so glad you’re not hurt” was, it appears now, just a lot of bullshit.

So of the of 7.7 million who watched, more than 7.6 million did nothing more than watch. What do we know of them and what they thought?

Nothing.

I’m not sure what this means yet.

[I am sure, however, that the advice I gave re: critical thinking is good, but, perhaps, my evaluation of the audience was too harsh. What if their reaction was meh?]

December 8, 2018

On Ethics and Paradox

Early each semester in my MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence class I ask this question: What are you doing here spending money when you could be in Miami making money?

Most of them give me a WTF look. A couple, to their minor embarrassment, snicker because they know what I’m referring to.

Then I launch into a short explanation that goes something like this:

Why are you here spending money — even going into great debt — when you could be in Miami right now making money? There’s enough media talent in this room to start a successful pornography business. And Miami is the center of the action. Think about it. You’d be using your talents right now to make money and living in an interesting city with nice winter weather.

You can imagine the squirming as I say this 🙂

And then I pull the trigger: I want an answer. Why are you here spending money and not in Miami making money?

They know. I’m not sure if this is the first time most of these students have thought about media ethics or themselves as ethical actors in the mass media. But what I’m doing is forcing them to think about what it is they imagine for themselves outside the naked pursuit of wealth.

They never disappoint me. They always say, in some form or another, that they imagine greater things for themselves, their crafts, and their audiences. They are better people than this, which is one of the reasons they are here spending money to get an education rather than exploiting themselves and others for money.

Imaging greater things for themselves in mass media careers requires them, however, to think about, and operate within, some uncomfortable realities.

Our social media environment is one of those realities.

I’ve been assigning the “go viral” assignment, described yesterday, for about six years now. Students have found many ways to make me uncomfortable with this assignment. So I’ve had to add a few things to the discussion over the years.

For example: Do not portray any illegal act. Do not make pornography.

Thankfully, no students have ever produced porn for this assignment. But I did have a group early on produce a video that portrayed them engaging in a minor illegal act. When I asked if the video was real (because, you know, critical thinking), well, they got a big kick out of that. I took that to mean the video was fake, but they never said for sure. In case you’re wondering, it did not (thankfully) go viral.

So in the discussions leading up to the assignment I have added a few don’ts.

But otherwise, I leave them much room to work. The variety of videos they have made over the years continues to astonish me. Some are fake. [Definitional timeout: “fake” is a problematic word today but also attention-getting. I’m being denotational. I’m also making up a lot of words here 🙂 ] Some have been deadly serious and most certainly real; this sometimes happens if I have a working group with a critical mass of journalism majors. And I get the stupid stuff. Just this semester I got another in the genre of “silly stunt.” Others are just weird … because, you know, weird can go viral.

The assignment also calls for them to write a justification for their video that explains what it is they did to make it go viral. This assignment is all about “on purpose.” And you can’t do something on purpose if you don’t know why you’re doing it. This assignment, again, is about both critique and control, both thinking and doing.

Without the doing part it isn’t education so much as another thing the professor is yammering about at the front of the room.

It has been suggested to me (by a person I respect) that my decision to handle this assignment this way for the purposes I have stated is Machiavellian, i.e. I’m willing to have students create things that are — in many cases — designed to fool the public for an educational purpose, and, possibly, putting them at social and economic risk. Does the end justify the means in this case.

I think it does.

I am aware that I am asking students to do something that could lead to a bad choice — even a choice that could have life-altering effects. I believe I prepare them for these choices before they do the assignment. I believe that one cannot be an effective media professional without having to face tough choices — a situation we put student journalists in everyday across the country when we ask them to publish student newspapers with no direct oversight of their editorial product. That shit gets real a lot.

If the potential for getting real is absent, I question the value of the lesson.

Our social media environment exists in the form that it does. It has to be dealt with — understood — in the form that it exists. And the audience is particular, too, to the form of social media. You gotta feed beast what it wants. This has always been true. And what the video beast wants more than anything — especially on social media — is emotion. That doesn’t mean you can’t do good, important, audience-informing work in video for social media (so, yeah, I have some areas of major disagreement with Neil Postman). Take a look at this video by my non-profit production company. It’s all pathos. And I stand behind it as an important, true, and audience-informing addition to the civic discussion. It is not fake news.

But neither was the recent viral video in question. It was not fake news. It was just fake. A trifle. A bit of entertainment. A bit of entertainment that worked on the pathos of pretending to be true. A bit of entertainment designed to manipulate the audience. A bit of entertainment that crossed a boundary that we think exists between the real and unreal, between news and entertainment.

That boundary? Man, that horse has been out of the barn for so long it has died in the field.

I am continually shocked when I see working journalists appear on TV dramas as themselves. I shouldn’t be. Nobody gives a shit. Their employers don’t give a shit. It’s a part of our media environment now. That boundary is fiction. That doesn’t mean the fictional boundary isn’t important. But I’ll need to deal with that in another post cuz this is getting into the tl;dr range.

I am not happy about this. But I cannot ignore it as I try to teach media students — including journalism majors — to be better media producers whether their goal is to inform, entertain, or something in between. In a very real sense, I’m also trying to teach citizens to be better consumers of media messages.

My screed yesterday was a first attempt at articulating all this. But it also points out a paradox I embrace.

On the one hand I want students to know what it means to produce viral content — from the silly to the serious. On the other, I want the audience to ignore them when they choose to be fake.

December 7, 2018

Social Media and Critical Thinking

Is going viral good or bad?

Yes.

And I assign students to do it.

I have a culminating assignment in my MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence class. It’s called the viral assignment. The first sentence of the assignment reads: “Go viral.” There’s a whole course load of material that gets us to this point, and I’m going to leave it in the classroom for now. But, generally, after many weeks of discussing “viralness,” I have my students, working in groups, give it a go. And the incentive: 1 million views before the end of the semester earns all students in the group an automatic A for the semester. (BTW, every group that finishes a video and writes a cogent justification gets an A for the assignment because, well, going viral “never” happens on purpose in this class. More in a second.)

The biggest point here is the idea of going viral on purpose. There is great social, political, and economic power in that. I believe going viral is as yet not well understood. But media professionals need to try to understand it, critique it, and do it … if possible. Going viral is a particular thing — generally understood as getting a million or more hits over a short period of time. But it also represents, in our social media age, an achievement in attracting the attention and imagination of a large audience.

In the roughly six years I’ve been assigning this task, one group went viral and two groups had their videos picked up by an aggregator and earned a little money. The first viral group did it by force of will; one of the students already had a large audience for his (if I’m remembering correctly) beat box channel. Over 10 days he worked, begged, and finessed his group’s way to a million hits. Nothing came from it.

As I type these words, my e-mail inbox continues to ingest messages at an alarming rate, and I can’t hit the Twitter refresh button fast enough to keep up with all the new retweets, DMs, and mentions.

A group in one of my MED130 sections went viral. More than 2 million hits in less that 24 hours. And I just learned from a local TV news crew that it’s topped 5 million. I was an actor in this video distributed on Twitter (several times over the years I’ve played the ranting or befuddled professor for viral projects that went nowhere).

I was intrigued about how “well” the video was doing until I realized someone had recognized me. Someone else posted my e-mail address. Others began digging around for personal information. What made this particularly uncomfortable was all the heartfelt emotions of people who were reaching out with messages of support (I’m making a massive assumption here…more in a second). This had to stop, so I issued this statement on Twitter:

I am gratified by all the well-wishes. But… This video was made as part of an assignment in MED130. It is fake (many clues). The point of the assignment is to “go viral” in order to study viralness — especially as it plays on the emotions in the emotional medium of video.

I am always intentional about my rhetoric if not always careful about my usage. I gave the “(many clues)” parenthetical thought a good mulling over before I typed it. Because, you see, I am right now dissing all those people — real or fake — who poured well-wishes into Twitter meant for me — or meant to boost their own feeds 🙂

And, sure enough, here came the question: What clues?

I did not mean to suggest that the students who made this video planted clues. They did not. Instead, seeing the clues required Twitter users to think critically about what they were seeing. For the most part, it appears they did not.

Here they (some of them, anyway) are:

  1. Do you know the student who posted the video; does she know you? If yes, you still have a little work to do. If no, then you have absolutely no business whatsoever retweeting this as true because you have absolutely no idea whatsoever if it is true or not.
  2. Is the student who posted this a public figure or known reliable source of information (e.g. blue check)? If yes, you still have a little work to do. If no, then you have absolutely no business whatsoever retweeting this as true because you have absolutely no idea whatsoever if it is true or not.
  3. For MSU peeps: It ain’t finals week.
  4. What the hell is going on here? Is throwing a Christmas party something a professor should be doing? Should this professor give gifts to students who may then be asked to evaluate his performance? (This, IMO, is what all of the people who reacted to this video should have been asking.)
  5. What is the timeframe? Is the student reliable? Did she get it wrong? What happened 10 minutes later?
  6. Why is the professor such a dick? There are students in the room. Students who bothered to show up. Why is he sitting there like an ass when he should be engaging them (engaging them would be typical professor behavior, again IMO).

You get the idea.

Or do you? This thing went viral 1) because the students did a good job of emotionally manipulating the audience, and 2) because the audience did a bad job of critically thinking about the message. And this, my friends, is where we live today.

Video is an emotional medium. If you’re not making a play to pathos you’re not doing it right. The choices media professionals make in this can be good or evil and things in between. And our academic program spends a lot of time discussing ethics with our students. We require a 500-level class in media ethics for all of our majors. I taught that class for 12 years.

Two books you should read: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter  by Roderick Hart.

Both are by academics yet quite readable. Both warn of the dangers of receiving information over screens. Because you see, people react emotionally to what they see on screens. And sometimes they overreact or react inappropriately.

I trust that at least some of the reactions to this viral video were exactly as described by the people who commented. And to those people who felt true distress for the plight of the lonely professor, I am sorry.

But whether your reaction was real or fake (hello? retweets, DMs, and mentions can be just as fake as the fake thing being reacted to!), I suggest that without a little skepticism and critical thinking, then retweeting, DMing, and mentioning as if this were true, because you were emotionally triggered, was entirely inappropriate.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the ethics of my decision to play the role of the lonely professor and the ethics of assigning students to a task that might lead to misinforming the public.

November 16, 2018

Our 2018-2019 Reel

Here’s the 2018-2019 reel of work by Carbon Trace Productions. Since 2015, we’ve completed six documentary films including the award-winning feature Downtown: A New American Dream. All of these films are now free to watch on Vimeo. Just visit carbontrace.net. And we’ve produced several videos for humanitarian organizations including the Syrian American Medical Society and MSU Care. I am very proud of this work, my student documentary team and the professional staff, including Shannon Cay Bowers, Shane Franklin, Taye Abithi Taye, and Tyler Beck. Soon, all my Rhetorica and Facebook friends will be able to help. I expect Carbon Trace Productions to get its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in January, which means you’ll be able to make tax-deductible donations to keep this work moving forward and help students learn to tell compelling stories.

Carbon Trace Productions from acline on Vimeo.

October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

October 2, 2018

“Joonyper” Wins Festival Award

Joonyper from acline on Vimeo.

“Joonyper” — a film by Carbon Trace Productions — won Best Documentary/Reality Short at the Ozark Mountain Webfest.

September 27, 2018

Watch Every Child

Every Child from acline on Vimeo.

Here’s the latest from Carbon Trace Productions.

September 20, 2018

“Every Child” to Screen at Public Affairs Conference

My student documentary team and I have finished another short film entitled Every Child. It premieres as part of the 2018 Public Affairs Conference at Missouri State University.

The conference opens with the Unity in Community Film Festival — a day-long screening of films following the conference theme. My team produced two of the five films. You can check out our work at Carbon Trace Productions.

The feature film of the festival is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

In other news:

I ditched the Springfield Report website that used to be a publishing venue for my multimedia journalism class. And I ditched my Carbon Trace bicycle/alternative transportation blog because it was hacked in a brute-force attack. Because I’m also running the non-profit production company on that domain, I felt it best just to let that bit of work slide into oblivion.

Rhetorica, however, will live on. I back it up regularly enough that I can move the content anywhere if something similar should happen here.

If you visit the Carbon Trace Productions site, you’ll notice something called Eyewitness in the menu. That’s the news arm of Carbon Trace Productions. There’s not much there right now, but soon we’ll begin making it something like Vice for Springfield.

President Trump visits Springfield tomorrow for a rally. I’m unable to attend. But I may have something to say following the fake news reports 😉

As a professor of journalism, does that mean I get to be an enemy of America, too?

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