Think Tank: Vine Culture, Longer Vines and Why You Should Care

So Zoë, tell me about Vine. When did you first hear about it? 

I first started using Vine in 2015 on a whim, long after the social media network had emerged. I don’t remember what prompted me to download the app on my trusty iPhone 5, but it was probably curiosity — I wanted to see what people could do with only seven seconds. To this day, I have never uploaded a single original Vine. I’ve only ever used the app to watch Vines, save my favorite ones to find again later and share a select few. The easiest way for me to decompress after a tough day is to watch Vines for 15 minutes.

What do you like about it so much? 

Two things. First of all, Vines can be incredibly funny. I would rather scroll through Vine for an hour than watch most sitcoms, or a extremely popular comedy movie. Here are a few of my favorite Vines that always make me laugh. Everyday people who aren’t necessarily aspiring to be comedians or actors are able to distill deeply funny things into a matter of seconds, and make ideas or experiences universally relatable. There’s an entire meme system within Vine that has dripped into other digital corners, and it’s emerged as a eternal spring of Internet culture. It is also extremely hard to find Vines in the app if you haven’t saved them, since a lot of people don’t hashtag or caption their Vines. This adds to the ephemeral aspect of the medium, and how trends can come and go.

I don’t care for the users who have tried to monetize their content or segue Vine into a career, because 99 percent of their Vines aren’t funny to me — they try way too hard, and the emotions are contrived in a way that screams “commercial.” Here are some good examples. However, these creators are insanely popular with young teenage girls, which has helped catapult events like Vidcon into mainstream interest. This is the second reason why I like Vine as a social media network. Vine is a gold mine for sociological analysis on race, gender and communication, because it tells us a lot about what young audiences are looking for in their media consumption and whose ideas they find entertaining. Millennials would rather hear from themselves than old white people asking what the deal is with some old people aspect of life.*

What have you observed about Vine culture?

One important thing to note about Vine is that there are several types of content creators. There are people who come up with completely original content, whether that’s skits or jokes. There are people who do it to showcase their dance or musical talent, favorite sports team or a particular aesthetic. There are people who post videos that aren’t meant to be funny but are, or catch moments of animals being derpy. There are people who happen to take video of funny things happening in the world, or grab and repost content from elsewhere, and sometimes they make clip compilations of their favorite celebrities or lipsync. And then there are people who layer on music or other memes to add new levels of meaning. These types of Vines and content creators often overlap and intersect in interesting and creative ways. The only way to really understand this is to just download the app and scroll through the Popular Now or On The Rise feeds.

Viners have created their own discourse specific to their app community. Once you spend some time on the app, you’ll pick up on the nuances and how they add to the stories and jokes. For example, a user will often switch their positions on camera to visually say that they’re supposed to be two different people, even if it’s the same person on camera, to make a more complicated story and funnier bit. Sometimes they’ll change their clothes or put something on to heighten the comedy. Viners will also borrow other Viner’s jokes and recycle the audio / credit in the caption with the abbreviation “IB” (Inspired By) and the Viner it came from, to add more layers of humor and meaning and create a sort of in-joke or meme. This also suggests that Viners value giving credit where credit is due, which I think partly stems from the fact that when outsiders use Viner content as marketing concepts the creators, which are often black teenagers, rarely see compensation. To operate within the 7-second limit and the nature of the free app, users come up with highly creative ways to tell jokes within stories. This becomes its own set of social practices.  And again, I think there’s a lot for academics to analyze here, especially if they’re interested in documenting the Internet.

Why is that important?

The social constructs of rules and conventions that these Viners have brought in from our own culture and the ones they’ve made themselves help the people within and outside of the community understand how it works. Discourses often overlap in many ways — for example, a user can post both clip compilations of their favorite actress and original skits on their account, and would be operating underneath the general Vine creator-audience relationship expectations and the discourses of these distinct genres.

There’s an ongoing debate about what deserves to be archived from the Internet, and if we didn’t archive Vines, for example, we’d lose a lot of valuable anthropological and sociological information to help us understand how our relationship with the Internet evolved. For example, consider the “What are those?” Vine, which achieved peak meme status. It’s more than just teenagers fooling around on the web.

Tell me about the moment where you noticed that Vines could be longer.

One day earlier this week, I hopped onto Vine after a particularly tough day at work. As I scrolled through, I saw a black bubble in the bottom right hand corner of the Vines that showed a much longer video duration.

At the same time, Vine was premiering Camp Unplug, a collection of skits made by Vine stars under the backdrop of a summer camp. Some of these videos went way past 7 seconds, which allowed for more elaborate storytelling and joke delivery. Later in the week, I found an article that reported on Vine’s move to offer original television episodes. I also noticed that the song in some of the Camp Unplug videos had its official video debut on Vine, in all of its 4-minute glory. This unveiling was obviously very strategic, and Vine decided to do a whole campaign using what their users find funniest to show how cool the new update was.

As someone who doesn’t use Vine, why should I care? 

There are a couple of things going on. Television networks who are struggling to compete with services like Netflix are going to start moving in on Vine, and I can imagine that one day they’ll have a channel devoted to full-length television episodes. We’ll have yet another thing competing for our attention. I would rather pay Vine a monthly fee to make sure that the people who are funny and thought-provoking are compensated for their work, but there have been problems with that in other similar situations.

I can also see this going down the road of users having to pay for in-app programming, and I’m not cool with that. Arguably, it could be good for the users who are on there right now — people come for the tv show and stay for the skits. If Vine is dominated by content backed with millions of dollars in production values, people who just have their iPhone will stop using the app, and Vine will just become a shitty repository for millennial-branded content. That would still be an interesting point in the Internet narrative and tell us a lot about our media consumption, but it would be a huge waste of money, time and energy when what people are putting on there now is better. I understand that Vine is a business and it has to be lucrative, but eventually it could push people out: if there’s nothing but big media power plays, why try to compete for attention? 

You should care because even if you’re not a Vine user, you’re complicit in this transaction. Our insatiability for content and having it available 24/7 has pushed media outlets and upstarts to go to the Internet and use any avenue possible to make money. This has also sparked a redefinition of what it means to be a social network, or an entertainment network, and how the original purpose will inevitably change. Traditional advertisements don’t work anymore, so production and marketing teams have to think of more insidious options. People are the worst, and we can never have nice things.

You can say that the people who don’t like it can go find somewhere else to post their videos. That’s entirely true. But eventually everything and everyone is going to monetize everything, and that brings up important questions about what we consider art in today’s world. If you ask me, Vines are an art form, and we should be protecting it for all of the best artistic and cultural reasons.

What do you think about Vine and commercialization on the Internet? Let’s talk about it in the comments.


*This is absolutely not a knock on Jerry Seinfeld.

Think Tank: Facebook’s Expansion of the Like

If you use Facebook, you have probably noticed that in the last few days there has been a significant change to your News Feed that a lot of people are talking about. In addition to just plain old Liking a post, you can now react in varying degrees of emotion:

What a range.
What a range.

The impetus for this change is that users have always complained about how limited the Facebook Like is when it comes to posts that aren’t happy announcements or accomplishments. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve maybe commented “dislike” or some variation on someone’s post to register that you’re not really Liking the post, or you’ve seen other people do this. Now, Facebook provides an expanded range of reactions to help signify exactly how you feel about your friend’s posts.

When I found out about the expansion and saw it roll on my News Feed, I thought about how I use Facebook and how it has shaped my Internet identity. I’m somewhere between an active participant and lurker. I post a fair amount: links to these blog posts, statuses where I try to seem funny, interesting articles I can’t wait to share, YouTube music videos and some of my Instagram photos. I don’t really make personal announcements, and I don’t post anything to get my friend’s sympathy — if I’m having a terrible day or something bad happens, I do not mention it on Facebook.

For the interacting part of Facebook, I’m also the same kind of user. For my closest friends and even people I don’t see regularly but really like, I like about 90 percent of their posts and leave birthday messages. For former classmates and coworkers, I’ll like the accomplishment statuses or photos of cool things they’re doing. And for people I haven’t interacted with face-to-face in years, a like from me on anything is rare — the same goes for posts from pages I’ve subscribed to. When it comes to my Facebook friends, I both want to keep up with how things are going and also have the option to virtually observe. Even though I don’t Like a lot of content that comes across my social media feeds, that doesn’t mean I didn’t see it or that it didn’t impact me in some way.

This all goes to say that I operate in a particular way within Facebook’s structure — as do you — and the choices that I make and Faceboook makes for me shape my Internet identity. I don’t think I’ll use these reactions (much in the same way I have yet to abandon the Instagram square photo format), but I can’t prevent my friends from using them to interact with my posts. It’s become part of the social construct and discourse that is Facebook, and it’s now pretty much inescapable unless Facebook decides to pull it. What you post or the way you utilize the Like and commenting systems are actions also say something about who you are on the Internet, and by extension who you are in real life. These expanded reactions now impact this shaping, regardless of whether or not you decide to use them. 

The most important thing that this Like expansion magnifies is that it is a form of social currency that validates our feelings and experiences and makes us feel that they are real. Think about when you post something on Facebook — you might expect your close friends to Like it, and you’re surprised when someone you haven’t talked to in awhile hits that thumbs up or leaves a comment. You may even feel obligated to return the favors as a way to maintain relationships. If someone you’re close with doesn’t like your status or leave a comment on your photo, you at least wonder why and may jump to conclusions that are probably not good. Facebook has made and facilitates these social constructions that have affected the way we live our everyday lives, and it is rooted in the Like.

This article hits the nail on the head of what these Likes mean: “The more “liked” a post or tweet is, the more present it becomes, and since online we are little more than the sum of our posts, the more real we feel ourselves becoming.” The acknowledgement of our posts makes us feel that we are legitimate and that we can feel things that mean something, even though it’s all happening in a virtual space. I think the leaders at Facebook are hyperaware of how their service is changing the way we live our everyday lives, and do things like this expansion in order to cement the social media network as a cultural behemoth. If it didn’t happen on Facebook, it might not have really happened at all.

What do you think about any or all of this? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Think Tank: Concert Tickets and the Price of Art

I have been a big fan of the Arctic Monkeys since I was 12 years old. I listen to all of the music, attend their concerts when they come to Los Angeles and read any articles or interviews about them. I love their discography for many reasons, but I will always tie memories and feelings about my youth to their music. Think about the band that you loved during your adolescence, and you’ll know exactly how I feel about the Arctic Monkeys.

When I found out that frontman Alex Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, was going to release a new album and go on tour, I decided that I was going to buy a ticket and go to the LA show. The new single, “Bad Habits,” was really catchy and I wanted to experience the band live. I found out there was a ticket presale — Thursday at 9 a.m. — so I marked the time down on my calendar and waited. At 8:50 a.m. on Thursday morning, I opened the link to the ticket website, entered my presale code and filled out all of my information. So far, so good.

At five minutes before the official opening, the website took me into the virtual waiting room where I could purchase my tickets. At 9 a.m., my web browser refreshed to show me where there were available seats — except that there were none. 

I was really surprised that the show sold out within the first minute, and I thought that maybe the presale had only released a finite amount of tickets. The venue, the theatre at the Ace Hotel, is also not that big. I thought I’d try again during the general sale, but I didn’t have any luck in that round either.

I was immediately curious about why this show — one where the band is really not that well known compared to Turner’s main project — sold out so quickly, because I’d never had this much trouble buying tickets for a concert. I quickly cruised through Stub Hub to see if there were any tickets for sale, and there were — marked up astronomically high. (The most expensive ticket for this show in the regular sale was about $50 excluding fees, but Stub Hub’s resale prices were between $115 and $250 a piece.)

This experience made me think about, for the first time, the commercial aspect of being a fan. This resale practice for concerts and sporting events is commonplace, and these resellers make money off of capitalizing on the fan’s desire to go to events. The profit never makes it back to the musicians, athletes or the staff that put on these events. Something like Stub Hub is legalized ticket scalping for the people who buy eight or 10 tickets to resell immediately, and I don’t know why we as a society have allowed it.

General ticket prices these days are insane, which I have to believe is linked to both a Coachella and a streaming music effect. The first Coachella ticket was only $50 per day in 1999, but weekend tickets for the 2016 festival are going for close to $500. Not only have the headliners gotten bigger, but so has the festival’s cultural pull. I’m not the first person to make this observation, but many people go to these shows and festivals just to say that they were there. This demand for tickets drives overall prices up (#capitalism), which makes going to these events a serious economic decision. Plus, people aren’t buying physical albums like they used to and are turning to Spotify where they can listen to just about anything for a small monthly fee. This kind of cultural shift has a trickle down effect in how artistic industries approach business, whether that’s music or film or television. Adele and Taylor Swift have made headlines for removing their catalogs or being highly selective about streaming services, and while neither woman seems to be hurting for money, they’ve certainly made a statement about the cultural value of what they make.

I am most concerned with and interested in how our society commodifies art, and how things like concerts, films or exhibits have become more about the business than the significance of a culturally-shared experience. Think about it: the average movie ticket is close to $10, and you can easily spend $20 for admission to a museum and a special exhibit. This is a different conversation for a different day, but the price of art is also tied to accessibility, class structure and racial and gender representation. And while life continues to get more and more expensive and more and more complicated, we have to decide where to draw the line between compensating the artist and making the art available to all.

Look — I will pay for a copy of an album. I will buy the merchandise. I will pay for a concert ticket. I am 100 percent for the people involved in the art getting paid what they deserve for contributing to our culture, and I truly want to be able to support the artists I love. What I am not for, however, is this business that hikes up prices and shuts people out of seeing something that is deeply meaningful to them. At what point do we value profit over artistic experiences?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Think Tank: “Treat Yo Self”

In the “Pawnee Rangers” episode of the fourth season of “Parks and Recreation,” Tom Haverford explains to the audience that he and Donna Meagle set aside a day every year in which all they do is pamper themselves. They splurge on clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas and fine leather goods. “Three words for you,” Tom tells Donna. “Treat. Yo. Self.”

This is a side storyline in the episode, but out of all of the incredible plots and jokes “Parks and Recreation” came up with in seventh seasons, “treat yo self” is the one thing that I see on a near-daily basis. A Google search for “treat yo self” will give you 4 million results, and the actress who plays Donna, Retta, said in a recent interview that she hears the phrase at least 10 times a day. There are tens of pages on Etsy of joke-related t-shirts, prints, mugs and more. I see it on my social media feeds when people decide to publicly justify their splurges, and it’s a standard response in my friend groups when we’re waffling on whether or not to buy or do something we think is nicer than normal. Recently one of my friends posted a Snapchat of some caloric food with the phrase as a caption, which got me thinking about how pervasive the mantra is. I realized that as a phenomenon there’s more going on than just a funny joke.

It’s a thing a lot of people (especially millennials) know about, probably because of Netflix.

I’ve written about Netflix before and how streaming is changing our cultural experiences, so it’s unsurprising to me that something that’s actually pretty funny is a well-known thing. All seven seasons of “Parks and Recreaction” are on Netflix, so millions of people can watch and revisit them whenever they want. Because it’s available whenever and wherever, the jokes stretch much farther in the cultural psyche than if the show was only broadcasted live once or just put on expensive DVDs. People that discover “Parks and Recreation” through binge watching on Netflix get fresh takes of “treat yo self” and are let in on the joke, while fans of the show who rewatch “Pawnee Rangers” get to revisit the joke and file it away in their brains. And when I say it to myself, it’s an in-joke that somehow helps me justify buying a new sweater or expensive coffee from my favorite spot.

From one angle, something like “treat yo self” is a cultural shibboleth that’s made possible by something like Netflix. If you like “Parks and Recreation” and drop the “treat yo self” joke to someone and they get it, you know that you probably have similar cultural interests. Knowing what my friend meant in her Snapchat by “treat yo self” enhanced its meaning for me — in some way she wanted to justify why she was eating badly without a special occasion — and shared with me that she also watches the show. The widespread availability of the art makes this possible.

It’s resonant because of the economic conditions young people currently live in. 

If you watch the clip above, Tom clearly says that this is an annual thing — something he and Donna say is “the best day of the year.” From a broad view, it seems that people aren’t really paying attention to the joke, or that they just want to seem funny to people who would know it.

But the more I think about it, especially since I also use the joke differently, the more I realized it’s a facet of its role as a cultural shibboleth. I know so many people my age who are very worried about their financial situations and whether or not they’ll ever be able to make money, so anything that seems extra gets the “treat yo self” justification and a few laughs. Both Tom and Donna have secure, full-time government jobs, and can afford to set aside one day to buy things they don’t really need. Considering these details of the show are important in understanding the impact of the joke on its audience, in that the context that Tom and Donna find themselves in is something that a lot of people are striving towards. Comedy is a method many people use to feel better about their current conditions, and I think that’s what happening here in a broader way for the millennial set. I’ll be very interested to see if in the next decade “treat yo self” will still have the same meaning amongst members of my age group.

What do you think about “treat yo self”? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

 

Think Tank: The Case for New Year’s Goals

I like the sentiment of making New Year’s resolutions in anticipation of having a wonderful year. The weird in between weeks of one year to the next is a great time to look back and see how to improve your life. I admire people who want to learn new languages, travel more, save money or lose weight in the next 365 days. But at the same time, I also find New Year’s resolutions to be a weird cultural practice.They are something we all continue to do year after year, but most of us are only ever hopeful that we might fulfill them. If you can even remember the resolutions you made last year, I’ll be very impressed.

If you know me personally or you’ve read this blog for even just a moment, you know that I am all about making myself better every day — whether that’s culturally, physically or however I choose to do so. What I am not about, however, is telling myself vague resolutions that “I’m going to eat better,” “I’m going to exercise more” and etcetera because that approach does not work. You say you’re going to lose weight, but never sign up for fitness classes. You say you want to save money, but you keep buying $4 lattes or eating takeout. Telling yourself you’re going to do something without any kind of plan sets you up for failure. If there’s anything I learned in 2015, it was that.

So this is my case to stop making New Year’s resolutions, and start making New Year’s goals. I’m going to set concrete goals for myself that I know I am capable of accomplishing, and make a very simple plan of how I’m going to go about meeting them. The best part about making New Year’s goals will be that setting something simple and achievable will make you feel better and help you make it part of your daily routine. If you want to save money, for example, make goals to brew coffee at home during the weekdays or save all the $5 bills you come across. If you want to eat healthier, make goals to eat salads on Tuesdays or read the nutritional labels on everything you buy. Just the linguistic switch from “resolution” to “goal” is better in itself. Using the word “goal” means you’re actually working towards something to make the change.

I’m ready for 2016, and excited to see what fortune it’ll bring to me at this transitional point in my life. The goals I’ve outlined for myself make me even more excited. Here are my New Year’s goals for 2016.

I’m going to find a permanent job.

How I’m going to do it: My job is set to end in February, so I’m going to look again for a job as an editorial assistant, assistant editor or junior copy editor. My goal is to apply to three jobs a week.

I’m going to go back to yoga.

How I’m going to do it: I am going to find a studio that I like / is reasonably priced and go to a class at least once a week. I miss yoga a lot, and I regret not sticking with it.

I’m going to teach myself how to code.

How I’m going to do it: I’m going to use free resources like Codeacademy to teach myself basic HTML and CSS, which I know will be a good professional skill to have. I’m going to set benchmarks for myself, and make cheatsheets to refer to. I’ve tried to teach myself in the past, but I haven’t been organized enough nor have I really had the time.

I’m going to learn how to make drinks.

How I’m going to do it: I’m going to sign up for a class offered by my city’s community services office. I’m not a big drinker, but I want to know how to make the classics and how to order them.

I’m going to read 50 books. 

How I’m going to do it: I’m going to use Goodreads to make a solid to-read list, and I’ll also use the app to mark my progress. I read 41 in 2015, and I want to up my intake just a smidge.

I’m going to get better at my lettering. 

How I’m going to do it: I’m going to carve out a time on Sundays to letter one quote or word, and take photos to watch my progress. I want to let go of my perfectionism when it comes to my calligraphy and lettering and be happy with what I make, which I think will be a byproduct of practicing.

What are your New Year’s goals? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Think Tank: Thanksgiving

 

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Despite the history and commercialization (which are complete downers I’m not going to talk about tonight), I think Thanksgiving is a moment that Americans need and need to share. Beyond the food, the thing I love about Thanksgiving is that it’s an opportunity to look closer at your life and realize why it’s worth living. Life can be tough, and everyone has days where it seems like everything is ugly and unfair. But this holiday is an annual moment where we gather with the people who mean the most to us and talk/think about what makes our lives full, and that makes me happy. I try to wake up every day of year and be thankful that I’m Zoë. I’m exactly where I want to be at this point in my life, surrounded by people I love. Last year I wrote a post about what I’m thankful for, and it all still stands. I do, however, have a few additions. I’m thankful for:

My English degree, and the fact that I was allowed to get one.

Having work to do, in all aspects of my life. 

Oscar Isaac. 

Living at home.

Plants.

Access to whatever I want to read.

Art supplies.

The New Yorker.

Having no student debt. 

A bright future. 

Have a wonderful holiday.

Think Tank: TV Revivals and Reboots

I love "Gilmore Girls," but I don't need new episodes in my life.
I love “Gilmore Girls,” but I don’t need new episodes in my life.

“Gilmore Girls” is quite easily near the top of my list of all-time favorite television shows. For most of late middle school and throughout high school, I made watching afternoon reruns on ABC Family a ritual. I remember saying in my interview to be on my high school’s newspaper that the fictional character I was most like was Rory Gilmore.  I even watched it live on the WB on Tuesday nights. I wanted to go to Yale and be on the Yale Daily News. This is how much I loved “Gilmore Girls.” 

But when I read earlier this week that there are plans to revive “Gilmore Girls” for a limited run on Netflix, I was not a happy camper. In the last few years, revivals and reboots of old television shows and movies have become increasingly popular. When there’s an announcement that something is getting a Netflix season, the entire Internet explodes, and I saw at least five articles about the rumors of who was coming back and what the show might cover.

This has been at the front of my half-melted brain for the week, and I’ve been thinking about what this revival trend says about television in 2015 and how we consume culture. I’ve come to the realization that this trend is not a good one, and that there are several reasons why.

Internet culture and TV revivals are definitely connected.

Netflix has an incredible platform to deliver film and television across the globe, even though it’s not always the most helpful way to broaden our cultural horizons. When a show gets canceled, the conversation about moving it to online streaming is serious and becomes top entertainment news. If a production group wants to reinvigorate something badly enough, they make a Kickstarter and fundraise with the help of loyal fans. The Internet is an easy way to spread and strengthen fandom.

We’re living in a world where just about everything is instantaneous, and we demand that our cultural consumption is swift and easy. A revival like “Gilmore Girls” sort of speaks to that. We saturate the media with remembrance posts and listicles, and when we interview show runners or stars we always bring it up. The Internet won’t let anything ever die, so we just keep talking about the same things over and over and over again. Interviewers think that asking creators or actors questions about the shows or movies that they’ve moved away from is logical and interesting, because there’s some faction of the Internet that will go nuts. While this kind of reaction is significant to our understanding of how the Internet works and that there’s the potential to spread information like wildfire, a lack of temporal distance prohibits us from making good observations about the shows and culture in general.

This says a lot about how the audience views itself in the show-making process.

I might be in the minority, but I was satisfied with the ending of “Gilmore Girls.” I won’t make any specific comments for fear of #spoilers, but I liked how it left all of the characters. In my own head, I interpreted it in such a way that the ending was happy and that the characters ended up where they were supposed to. It solidified my understanding of the show and its universe in such a way that I could talk about it critically. I felt the same exact way about “Mad Men,” “Arrested Development” and “Breaking Bad.” They all became complete pieces of art, and I looked forward to reading retrospectives.

In one way, it puzzles me as to why other fans would want to crack the show back open. Sure, there’s probably more story about the Gilmore women to tell. But the show runners, who are in their own way artists, decided to end it in that way for whatever reason, whether it was artistic or financial or logistical. It’s the same pressure people put on J.K. Rowling to do more with “Harry Potter,” or George R. R. Martin to hurry up with more from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” world. We have such high expectations of the culture we consume, and think that in some way the people who make the things we like have to spend the rest of their creative lives revolving around those things. We also think that our collective power can make those things happen eventually, and that if we want more we deserve it. This cannot be particularly healthy for either side.

I love “Gilmore Girls,” but I really don’t want to read about it every day. There are too many other things to see and think about. There’s a difference between visiting an exhibit in 10 years about the show or buying a coffee table book of essays about the show, and having it constantly be at the cultural forefront.

We need to do a better job of making room for more original content. 

There are so many talented people in the world who have dreamt up entire universes and stories to tell on screen, and they never get to share them because we’re too busy trying to figure out how to revive or reboot stuff we’ve already seen. Taking inspiration or drawing parallels from different shows and other cultural areas is fantastic, but redoing them is entirely different. We should really be giving new creators a break and making space for them. In asking for and supporting original content on both our televisions and computer screens, we can do a better job of including marginalized groups or bringing awareness to important causes. Let’s close the books, television and films we’ve already made, and start to write even better ones.

What do you think about reboots and revivals? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

Think Tank: The $90,000 Water Bill

It's crazy to me that someone would think spending $90,000 on water for the year is okay. Photo cred: Los Angeles Times.
It’s crazy to me that someone would think spending $90,000 on water for the year is okay. Photo cred: Los Angeles Times.

If you’re not a Californian, chances are you might not know that the entire state is in the middle of an historic drought. It’s a pretty big deal that has a lot of people — from farmers to scientists to people who live in wildfire-prone areas — very worried. When I was still a journalism student back in May, I went to city council meetings for school assignments. This happened to be during a time when Gov. Jerry Brown was handing down many mandatory water restrictions, announcing that everyone needed to reduce water usage by 36 percent. I found that the council meetings I went to centered on explaining how everyone needed to save water and that they could participate in rebate programs by pulling out their lawns or putting in energy-efficient toilets, shower heads and faucets.  When I look around my neighborhood, it looks like everyone is trying to do their part: grass varies in shades of brown, or it’s been taken out all together in favor of drought-tolerant alternatives.

But as you can imagine, not everyone throughout the state has adhered to the restrictions. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that someone living in Bel-Air used and paid for 11.8 million gallons of water last year.

You read that right. 11.8 million gallons in 365 days, which is about 1 million gallons a month and 32,000 gallons a day. To add some perspective, the average Californian household daily usage is 360 gallons, a mere 1 percent of the Bel-Air homeowner’s.

The homeowner spent about $90,000 for all that water. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that it could be an unnoticed leak, because 11.8 million gallons is kind of a lot of water that someone would notice flooding the street. Someone is purposefully using that water to keep lawns green or swimming pools full, and seemingly doesn’t see any ill effects. The Department of Water and Power refuses to name names, but the entire neighborhood is one of the leading culprits in excessive water usage.

Throughout the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the implications of both the subject of the story and the story itself. I’ve done research and written about California water on multiple occasions, and find the economics and cultural pull of it fascinating. A drought is more than just having little or no water.

There’s a lot of history about California and its water, and it’s not really a love story.

L.A. in the late 1800s was a rapidly growing town, and one of the biggest problems was that there were no nearby sources of water to sustain the population. The solution that city officials came up with was to divert water from Owens Valley in Central California and build the Los Angeles Aqueduct to bring it south. In the 1970s, the city built a second aqueduct to bring even more water.

The conflict is now called the California Water Wars, since farmers tried to sabotage the aqueduct and keep the much-needed water in the valley. The relationship between Owens Valley residents and L.A. city officials has been pretty contentious ever since, because we have literally been stealing their water to supplement our other watersheds. There’s even a well-known movie based on it. I wrote about a project at my university that was trying to highlight the history and come up with solutions to the problem, which was not easy.

A lot of people don’t know about this slice of California history, but I think it’s important in understanding the root of the problem. This isn’t a brand new issue in the 2010s. This has been an integral part of L.A.’s growth, and a key cause of the Central Valley’s languish. Water will always be a point of interest for Southern California, and the people who spend $90,000 to bring water in contribute to a bigger problem.

The water problem seems to be partly a socioeconomic problem.

Utilities like water and electricity and the ability to pay for them are also a significant issue, even in today’s world. In a neighborhood like Bel-Air, which is home to incredibly affluent people, $90,000 on a utility bill isn’t really that big of a deal. The restrictions must not seem real to the people who really need restricting, because there is no real consequence.

But for the farmers who grow our fruits, vegetables and livestock, water is a significant business cost and extreme economic hardship. In “The Botany of Desire,” which is a great book about our relationship with plants that you should read, Michael Pollan says that in 2001 it cost a potato farmer in Idaho about $1,950 an acre on chemicals, electricity and water to grow a crop that maybe earned $2,000 in a good year. The 2012 median pay for an American farmer was $69,300. It’s clear that there is no room to spend extra money on water, even if the prices go up on the produce. Not only is there no money to spend, but the mandatory cuts in usage make it hard to have a profitable business. If you scroll to the end of this page, there are even resources for farmers who are experiencing stress from having to operate under such dire conditions.

A lot of people around the world, especially in SoCal, take the fact that they can turn on the faucet, get water and pay for it for granted.  The farmers who work hard to bring us our produce and livestock are struggling to make a living and provide the world with food. Meanwhile, someone is spending five figures on the water that’s probably serving to quench ornamental thirst. The inequality is incredible.

I don’t think this story is waking anybody up.

This story that the L.A. Times has published in its California coverage is crucial to the everyday function of journalism. This is part of the history of SoCal, and the newspaper is fulfilling its duty to record it. It’s sensational and draws in readership.

I think the everyday person reads this story and realizes how dumb it is for one household to use that much water, but I don’t know how these stories can do a better job of inspiring people and businesses to conserve. Most people don’t have that kind of money to spend on a water bill. But they still run the tap until it’s warm, run a half-full dishwasher, wash cars and laundry, fill swimming pools and water the lawn. They still run businesses that use water to make things. There’s the looming threat of running out of water, but it doesn’t seem real as long as the faucets continue to run. There is no one who is able to enforce restrictions that actually deter people from wasting a precious resource.  That is why a story about a $90,000 water bill is reality, and why we’re slowly inching towards a catastrophe.

What do you think about the story and the California drought? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

Think Tank: Instagram’s Embrace of Landscape and Portrait Photos

Hey look, you can upload non-square photos to Instagram now and nothing gets cut off!
Hey look, now you can upload non-square photos to Instagram and nothing gets cut off!

Instagram announced today that in addition to its signature square posts, the app will now allow users to upload  photos and videos in both portrait and landscape orientations. Prior to this change, users made their whole photos fit by using other apps to add borders. Instagram realized that 20 percent of its users use these apps extensively out of protest, and decided to lift the square-only requirement.

I guess  I don’t really have an outright problem with this. I use Instagram regularly, and I guess it’ll be nice to expand my photography choices if I choose. It’s Instagram’s prerogative to change its app when it pleases, and you can always delete the app when you don’t like it. But I think that beyond the obvious “a very popular app has done something significant to its user interface,” there are some points worth exploring.

Because people sign up for Instagram and agree to its terms, Instagram by default controls at least part of the overall aesthetics. You can’t really change the layout or theme of your profile beyond the photos you upload, but you can edit these as you please. And despite this change in the aesthetic that Instagram governs,  you can still add your own borders and do what you like to your photos — there’s nothing prohibiting you from continuing to operate as if square is the only option. You still have as much freedom over your own Instagram feed that Instagram has decided to give you — in fact, even more if you decide to embrace the change. And I do appreciate that this move gives more artistic freedom to photographers who use the app to share their art, which is a fantastic effort.

But this kind of seems like policing in the guise of aesthetic freedom. Now when you see a non-square photo on your feed, the white border a user would have added for a portrait or landscape-oriented photo is either added or deleted to the UI, which to me seems like a subtle recapturing. Adding borders within the design options and keeping the square-only ethos would have been a viable option for Instagram, like how they developed Hyperlapse and Layout to edge out the competition. This is entirely speculation on my part, but it seems that Instagram got tired of its users outsourcing and tried to take back even more power. It’s also probably a business move, so that advertisers can do even more. At the user’s level, you can now devote more time to uploading content and contributing to Instagram’s position in the zeitgeist, uncropped photos and all.

 

This is also an interesting comment on the clout of the App in 2015, and how something like Instagram affects our daily life. This decision to abandon the square-only format made headlines, alongside analysis of today’s stock market and recalls for bread. This was such a shift in the way we think about social media and photography that it made the Wall Street Journal’s coverage, which noted that “Instagram’s move coincides with consumers increasingly purchasing smart phones with larger screens that provide a better mobile viewing experience for widescreen videos.”  Today’s smartphones also  have options to take square photos — which wasn’t a coincidence. A few people will still continue to use apps like Squaready and Afterlight, but I’m curious to know how these apps will bounce back from such a shift. There might be a resurgence in standard photography, or maybe the square has captured our attention so tightly that we won’t even notice the difference.

I might be crazy, and this might not actually mean much in the way we share photos on Instagram. But what do you think? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

Think Tank: 22 Things That Make Me Happy

I’m not a big fan of having big birthday celebrations. But I do think that on special occasions, whether that’s a birthday or a holiday or an anniversary, it’s important to reflect on what you love about your life and who you want to be. Twenty-one has been incredible, and I feel really lucky to wake up every morning to a happy and full life. In honor of turning 22, here are 22 things that make me happy. In no particular order:

1. My family.

2. My friends.

3. Diet Coke.

4. Books.

5. Good restaurants and good food.

6. Making art.

7. Seeing art.

8. When my hair curls just right.

9. Going on adventures. 

10. Good coffee.

11. Henri Matisse’s “La Gerbe.”

12. Doing a good deed. 

13. Reading The New Yorker.

14. Shopping for school or office supplies.

15. Emails and messages that start with or include “I thought of you…”

16. Yoga.

17. Driving with the windows down and my favorite music on the stereo.

18. Writing.

19. Wearing a sweater. 

20. Being on time.

21. Checking everything off my to-do list. 

22. Inspiring other people.