Category Archives: Communication and Media Studies

The Social Media Bubble

Social media has become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that it’s difficult to remember a time before Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. So ingrained are these platforms in our daily routines that we seldom stop to ponder their effect on ourselves, other users, and/or the larger society.

As an early financial advisor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, venture capitalist Roger McNamee is uniquely positioned to consider those effects. In conversation with San Diego Union-Tribune’s Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Jeff Light, McNamee discusses the concerns that led to the publication of his recent book, Zucked. He starts by describing Facebook’s business model, which is predicated on enticing users to spend ever-more time on the site to maximize advertising exposure and on selling members’ data to those advertisers.

McNamee outlines the use (or misuse) of algorithms to tailor the “Facebook experience” to each user. “Likes,” targeted News Feeds, comments, online games and other features are designed to reinforce the user’s sense of belonging to a larger community, which of course serves a basic human need. This seems harmless enough on the surface, but McNamee argues that the net effect is to create a “Facebook bubble” around the user, in which already-held theories and beliefs are constantly reinforced while opinions that may challenge those beliefs are discouraged or hidden altogether. In that light it should come as no surprise that roughly 40% of adult Americans believe things that are demonstrably untrue.

More pernicious, and potentially more damaging to society, is the outsized influence wielded by social media platforms on civil discourse and the democratic process itself. A society that cannot agree on basic facts is a society that cannot function effectively. McNamee cites two momentous events, the Brexit vote in the UK and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as instances where Facebook and other social media were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, the Russian and Chinese governments, and other disruptive agents in such a way as to influence the vote’s outcome. As the evidence for this manipulation steadily mounted McNamee confronted the Facebook leadership, who at that time refused to acknowledge the severity of the problem or change their practices. Thus, began McNamee’s disillusionment with social media and growing sense of alarm over what he perceived to be a threat to democracy.

Though McNamee believes this threat is very real, he is nevertheless optimistic. He points out that there is still strength in numbers, and voters can pressure legislators to protect consumer privacy by ending the unchecked (and in McNamee’s view, wholly unnecessary) “data mining” employed by the tech sector. They can also require social media platforms to make efforts to verify information before posting, at the very least by identifying the information’s true source.

McNamee also insists that we social media consumers can and must do a better job of educating ourselves. Determining which news and commentary sites are trustworthy is a good start, and McNamee notes that there are tools available to help.

Watch “Zucked” with Roger McNamee – Helen Edison

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Immersive Languages

It’s a misuse of terms to say that we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution. – François Rabelais

Constructed languages, or conlangs, are popular features of many science fiction and fantasy tales. Examples include Barsoomian (Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter series), Elvish and Khuzdul (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (James Cameron’s Avatar), and Dothraki and Valyrian (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). Thanks to the efforts of dedicated – some might say obsessive – fans, these invented languages occasionally slip the bonds of their native genres, as witnessed by Klingon translations of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Not all conlangs have roots in fantastic literature. The most widely-spoken “auxiliary language,” Esperanto, was created in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist, and was intended to be an easy and flexible second tongue that would foster peace and international understanding. UC San Diego Linguistics Professor Grant Goodall was fascinated by languages at an early age, and quickly found himself drawn to Esperanto; through his study of Esperanto he developed an interest in other conlangs.

In addition to Goodall’s remarks about his linguistic adventures in Inventing Languages, two of the most popular contemporary conlangs, Na’vi and Dothraki, are discussed by their creators. Paul Frommer was tasked by Avatar director James Cameron to create a language for his science fiction epic set on an alien world. Frommer describes a process which entailed setting certain rules for the new language, dubbed Na’vi, which were drawn from various Earthbound tongues, including English, the Romance languages, and several Eastern European languages. The primary challenge was to create a language that seems sufficiently alien to our experience, yet could be learned quickly by decidedly human actors portraying the language’s native speakers while also lending itself to a vocabulary that could be expanded on short notice.

David Peterson, co-creator of the Dothraki language used in Game of Thrones, faced a somewhat different set of challenges since the basics of Dothraki were established in the novels upon which the series is based (complete with translations). Peterson’s first task was to reconcile inconsistencies in spellings across various books, followed by establishment of certain rules of grammar and pronunciation based on common usages in various modern languages – key elements in Peterson’s ability to form new Dothraki vocabulary upon demand. Like Frommer’s Na’vi, Peterson’s Dothraki needed to sound exotic while retaining just enough familiarity for actors to learn and speak the language convincingly.

In recent years conventions, workshops, seminars, websites, and user groups have sprung up around fictional languages, including Na’vi and Dothraki, as fans seek an immersive experience based on their favorite novel, film, or TV series. Thus far none have yet achieved the international prominence of Esperanto, but devotees are convinced that it’s only a matter of time.

Watch Inventing Languages: A Conversation in Language Construction

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Comic-Con 2018

San Diego Comic-Con International is the world’s largest convention devoted to popular culture. Emphasis is traditionally placed on the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, but over the decades the convention has expanded its scope to encompass a range of genres and topics in a variety of forms, be it motion pictures, television, print, or digital media.

During the 2018 edition of Comic-Com, “Script to Screen” host Matt Ryan conducted over a dozen interviews with creative talent from television shows such as “The Man in the High Castle,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Mr. Mercedes,” and “Dear White People” – to name but a sampling – and the acclaimed feature film, “A Quiet Place.” Participants run the gamut from actors, producers, and directors to sound editors and composers. (The two latter professions are often underrepresented in industry profiles, so their presence here is particularly welcome.) Though of course familiarity with the programs is helpful, it’s not essential. The interviews focus less on plot details than on initial reactions to scripts and on preparations for the work at hand, be it acting, directing, or scoring. Put another way, the stress is on the individual artist’s contribution to the craft of collaborative storytelling. In this regard, all of the interviewees acknowledge the quality of the writing as the most critical component of a show’s potential success.

Though the shows and personalities highlighted in this program are necessarily just a small fraction of those on display at Comic-Con, they offer a sense of the depth of talent and narrative diversity currently available to the discerning consumer of popular media.

Watch Comic-Con: 2018

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Laraine Newman

“We [the SNL cast] all bore witness to each other’s youth.”
– Laraine Newman

There had been improvisational and sketch comedy ensembles before Saturday Night Live (SNL) debuted in 1975, including the venerable Second City, Monty Python, the Goon Show, the Goodies, the Proposition, Firesign Theatre, and the Groundlings (from which sprang Laraine Newman), but none have had the longevity or wide-ranging cultural impact of SNL. What set SNL apart was the breadth and depth of the show’s on- and off-screen talents, combined with a determination to bring risky, youth-oriented “alternative comedy” to a mass audience. SNL is now entering its 43rd season, and the original cast – Newman, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, and Garrett Morris – have become the stuff of legend.

Newman had theater experience at an early age and studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau, but she notes that it was her work with the Groundlings that provided the best possible preparation for SNL, a show in which scripts were sometimes treated more as useful suggestions than as holy writ. However much the cast would occasionally stray from the prepared text, though, they appreciated the writers’ work; not surprising, considering that several cast members were established comedy writers themselves. As a performer Newman worked closely with the writers and fellow cast members in developing skits and signature characters.

Following her five-year stint on SNL Newman has maintained a busy film and television career in both leading and supporting roles, and is a prominent voice artist on television and in animated features. She’s also a writer and editor who regularly contributes to several online publications, including McSweeney’s, the Atlantic Online, and Huffington Post. When asked what advice she would offer to aspiring writers and performers, Newman’s response is succinct: “Read a book. Make a compendium. Do things differently.”

Watch Saturday Night Live’s Laraine Newman – Script to Screen

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Life After The Fall of Hussein

Join novelist Sinan Antoon and journalist Leila Fadel as they discuss the documentary, Life after the Fall, directed by Kasim Abid, which follows the daily life of a family in modern day Iraq after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

As one family member says, “After the fall, we would sit on our balcony and talk about the future of Iraq. We had high hopes… But in the end everything failed. We didn’t benefit at all. The country didn’t get better or rebuilt, it just got destroyed some more.”

According to Sinan Antoon, there are very few documentaries like this one where Iraqis get to speak about their feelings and desires for more than 30 seconds in American media. “It’s so rare that you actually get to see Iraqis who are not terrorists or extremists.”

As a journalist, Leila Fadel wanted to document what it was like to live and survive invasion occupation. “I told the stories of grave-diggers… I told the stories of pregnant women trying to have their babies without getting shot on roads after curfew… I told the story through marriages and divorces…”

Key to documenting the Iraqi experience is living outside the protected “green zone” and interviewing as many Iraqi people as possible. Says Antoon: “Iraqi’s are like other humans on the planet… are a spectrum, come from different classes, different backgrounds. And they don’t all have one of two opinions – either Saddam lovers or US lovers. It’s more complicated.”

Fadel agrees. “Sometimes when you’re a journalist abroad, they’ll say things like ‘what are people saying on the Arab street?’ — which doesn’t exist and nobody has one opinion and I don’t know where that street is.”

“Without hearing these stories of real people,” says Antoon, “it’s sometimes difficult for people to imagine Iraqis living full lives. So their destruction is not really registered as a loss.”

Watch Life After The Fall – Storytelling from Iraq

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