Archive for May, 2011
This weekend, I can’t imagine I was I the only one who noticed a strange thing in the best seller book lists. Both in the LA Times and the NY Times, a truly ragtag group of celebrities – Tina Fey, Steven Tyler, Rob Lowe and Betty White – dominated nonfiction hardcover book sales for the first week of May. The top ten was rounded out with new books by the (clearly) irrepressible Dick Van Dyke and Shania Twain (in the NY Times) and, in the LA Times, along with Van Dyke, we found the equally energetic Shirley MacLaine . . . and yet another book about Cary Grant.
Has the nonfiction book list become the publishing industry equivalent to reality TV?
No one bats an eye anymore when a celebrity dominates discussions about a political election or a natural disaster or an international health crisis. We’ve grown used to these incursions and the optimistic among us just hope that a little glitter and razzmatazz will attract constructive attention to difficult social issues. But perhaps our apathy about the way that entertainment has weaseled its way into just about every aspect of modern life will end once we’ve started to notice how beholden our notions of reality are to celebrity takes on them.
Is it all that bad that one of the more brilliant TV comedy writers of our generation sits atop our nonfiction best seller lists? Not necessarily. But the relentless drive within every media sector to find “built-in audiences” by attaching their formidable resources to pre-made media stars like Fey may start to wear thin as we realize that the books that might be telling us about our shared history are edged to the side by reminiscences about life inside the media bubble . . . which is increasingly becoming the only reality that really counts.
I was a little surprised by the invitation I received from Hernan Ortiz and Viviana Trujillo to speak at their annual Fractal conference . I couldn’t figure out how they knew that I was interested in all the things their conference was about: science fiction, technoculture, music and the porous boundary between fiction and real lived life. I knew that my current work at the Norman Lear Center was informed by these interests – which I’d cultivated while I was earning my English PhD in a theory-heavy program – but it was hardly obvious in any official bio you might find online.
The conference was in Medellin, Colombia, and so I immediately contacted my friend, who has lots of family in Colombia, and asked her whether it was safe for an American gal to travel alone there. She assured me that things had improved tremendously: Medellin was now safer than it had been in decades, and it just happened to be one of the most beautiful places in the entire country.
Boy, she wasn’t kidding.
Hernan and Viviana were clever enough to include in their original invitation links to two glowing reports about the two previous conferences in 2009 and 2010. Science fiction writers John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly wrote this about the first Fractal:
The festival blithely crossed boundaries in the arts, exploring the literature of the fantastic, music, art, science, technology, and fashion. It was Colombia’s first national science fiction conference. Dedicated to presenting different ways of imagining and creating the future, the conference took its mission from a quote by J.G. Ballard. “I believe in the power of imagination to rebuild the world.”
There were several reasons I was happy to be invited to speak at the Fashion140 event last week: first, it was in the brand spanking new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center (wow!), and second, it gave me an opportunity to talk about two things that I think quite a lot about these days: fashion and social media.
I’ve given a TED talk on each of these topics – one was about the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry and the reasons that that might be very good for business and for the artistic craft. (The response I received to this argument from working designers at Fashion140 was exclusively positive.) My more recent TED talk, which I gave in December, was about social media and the transformative impact that I believe it will have on traditional media industries and global popular culture, including the representations we see in magazines, TV, film, games, toys … you name it.
At the Norman Lear Center, which is based at the University of Southern California, I’ve been doing a great deal of research on social media and its impact on the television industry, in particular. As I was combing through data, I kept stumbling across articles about women’s dominance of various social media platforms, including Flickr and Facebook, and Twitter, where 57 % of users are women according to the most recent data from Ignite. I wondered if I could find some global stats and lo and behold comScore put together a very nice report in June of last year called Women on the Web: How Women are Shaping the Internet. In it, they demonstrated that women outnumber men on social media in every region around the world, and they spend a LOT more time on these sites than men do: women spend 5.5 hours per month on social media sites compared to 3.9 hours for men.
It didn’t surprise me that women were flocking to social media sites – there’s quite a lot of academic research that explores why it is that women tend to be more social than men. But I must say I was shocked that this trend wasn’t just appearing in rich, first world nations, but in every region around the world, where, I had thought, women’s access to the Internet, and the hardware and software that they need to participate in social media, might be pretty limited.