Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

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Re-Imagining Memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home


Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.

I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:

“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”

I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.


Read the rest of this entry »

Mobilizing News


The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.

As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting. Read the rest of this entry »

New Media & the Holocaust

As we recognize the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we can’t help but consider what’s changed … and what hasn’t. After the recent attacks in Paris there are renewed worries about how we communicate the Holocaust to new generations, especially as the ranks of survivors and witnesses dwindle away.

Media and technology are always leveraged in one way or another for educating, historicizing and memorializing, but with subject matter like the Holocaust, the stakes seem even higher that we get it “right.”

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s landmark film that introduced the Holocaust in all its murderous horror to an entire generation. The Shoah Foundation invited me to participate in a conference that reflected on the film’s impact while looking at new media and other new technologies that can be used for testimony and memorialization.

Much of my recent research has been on the social impact of social media and so I was excited to explore how these new technologies, and the valuable data they produce, can be leveraged by Holocaust scholars.

As with all new technology, there’s a great deal of anxiety about its social repercussions, and particularly how it should be used to tell stories about something as highly charged as the Holocaust.

Recently, I’ve been focused on measuring the impact of media, which I regard as a tremendously powerful educational tool, particularly when it’s embedded within compelling stories. I believe that films like Schindler’s List play a very important role in our culture, introducing people to topics that most would prefer to avoid, and triggering conversations – around dinner tables, beside office coolers, and in the media – that give us an opportunity to face history and decide what we will learn from it.

Having worked in the entertainment-education video game industry, I have first-hand experience developing and evaluating the effects of interactive media. It seems abundantly clear to me that multiple media forms can be – and should be – mobilized to help people develop a more nuanced understanding of complex subjects such as the Holocaust.

Not everyone agrees. There have been decidedly mixed responses to a project at USC that creates full-body, interactive holograms of Holocaust survivors. Unlike the Tupac Shakur hologram at Coachella, the Pinchas Gutter hologram responds in real time to questions posed by a live audience. Read the rest of this entry »

New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement


I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

For those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn’t everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn’t it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth — that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I’m hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

You can read another blog of mine about the Symposium and watch the video. Follow the conversation on Twitter: #NEACVP

Experimenting with Space & Reinvigorating Modernism


I’ll be joining artists, critics and curators for a two-day conference about experimental art installations in modernist house museums. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I was completely smitten with the Competing Utopias installation at the beautiful Neutra VDL House. It was a brilliant mash-up of East/West Cold War aesthetics and ideals that revealed how powerful and intellectually venturesome an art installation in a historic home can be.

And so I’m really excited to be involved in this upcoming conference October 4-5, 2014.

Invention: Contemporary Artists and the Modern House responds to the curatorial shift in the maintenance of house museums, in which directors are supporting increasingly transformative art installations that both challenge and celebrate the modernist landmarks. These collaborations with artists point to alternative preservation strategies, which move away from the conservation of historic homes as static objects and instead affirm the importance of human occupation and transformation. The conference will host a series of conversations between house museum directors, curators, artists and architects to reveal the curatorial motivations and artistic processes behind these interventions.

I’ll be joining Mark Allen, the incredibly creative guy behind Machine Project, and Ted Bosley, the Director of the Gamble House, for an intimate conversation about Machine Project’s playfully irreverent installations and performances at the historic Pasadena home. Be sure to check out the entire conference schedule (Oct 4-5), which takes conference goers to the marvelous MAK Center on King’s Road (built by Schindler), the Neutra VDL house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

All events are free to the public. To register for the conference, visit the registration page.

Deflating the Filter Bubble


I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.

When someone mentions “media choice” to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.

I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.

I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the danger of “filter bubbles,” which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don’t understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that I found in a major survey research project I conducted on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)

But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance, found that “suggesting the videos most closely related to the one a person is already watching actually drives them away.”

Of course YouTube’s goal is to get you to sit and watch YouTube like you watch TV: to lean back and watch a half hour to an hour of programming, rather than watching for two minutes, getting frustrated trying to find something else worth watching and then going elsewhere. So, in short, it’s in YouTube’s best interest to introduce some calculated serendipity into their recommendations. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve Been Upworthied!


I just found out my talk on fashion and copyright was deemed Upworthy. As you probably know, Upworthy is a crafty outfit that goes to great lengths to increase viewership of video content that serves some kind of socially progressive purpose. Part of their process includes generating multiple potential headlines and photos, and testing the different combinations on different platforms to see which combos attract the most views.

Of course it’s fascinating to me to see what they decided worked best for my video:


I must say, it never occurred to me that my argument was something “hippies” would love, but there ya go!

I’ve been following Upworthy’s progress for the last two and half years, and I was especially excited to hear about how they are developing new metrics for assessing how people are engaging with the media they’re promoting. Uniques? Nah. Time on site? Nope! Their latest focus? Attention Minutes, which they define here:

Attention Minutes measures everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing to a user’s mouse movements to which browser tab is currently open — all to determine whether the user is still engaged. The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or have moved on to the next thing.

At the Norman Lear Center, where I’m managing director, we have been studying the “Attention Economy” for several years, and now with our Media Impact Project, we have the opportunity to develop tools that accurately measure human attention. Needless to say, there’s a great deal of debate about how this might be done and so we invited several experts in the field — including Daniel Mintz from Upworthy — to debate the topic on our new website, The Fray. Launched with a skeptical piece by Richard Tofel from ProPublica, we solicited responses from ChartBeat, LunaMetrics, the Financial Times, and Columbia University.

This is not a debate that’s going to be settled any time soon, but I sure hope I find out whether my little video turns out to be must-see-TV for hippies.



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