Trends, Memes, and Viral Videos, Oh My!

The history of advertising is fraught with attempts to quantify and exploit "cool." The problem with these attempts, and with the concept in general, is that the very act of searching for what is cool makes you uncool. Think of it like Quantum Physics (though by doing this I've squarely planted myself on the wrong side of cool). You can determine the velocity (or trend) of coolness, or you can determine its current location (memes, specific viral videos, etc.)  Understanding the difference between a meme and a trend is a critical step toward being able to effectively use social media. But this is just the tip of an extremely large, fickle, and cat-shaped iceberg.

There are a ton of people working in huge companies as "Social Media Consultants" or the like, often isolated somewhere within marketing departments with few other immediate coworkers. The irony of this is that companies think they can solve the issue of social media, which few understand and even fewer can use effectively, by hiring a single 20-something who appears to be "hip." The reality of social media is that you're only as good as the number of people who see, share, and comment on your posts, and the answer to increasing these numbers is to incorporate social media into the entire office structure.  All employees should be able to post, review, and share things that they're interested in, and the company should benefit from large, disparate friend circles generated by a diverse staff.  Hiring one person to manage a company's entire social media presence is like planting one apple tree and expecting to sell hundreds of apple pies in a few months.

Companies that "get it" are often the ones that never list jobs like the one I described above.  These are companies that naturally value ideas, experimentation, and employee input — which all allow natural, viral growth of a social media presence.  Word of mouth is a much more effective form of marketing than flooding inboxes with coupons, and even companies who advertise profusely benefit from an organic spread of goodwill. Take Starburst, for example — one of the most commercially successful sub-brands of candy, owned by the mega-company Mars, Inc.  About 6 years ago, they released this commercial. It was instantly catapulted to viral status on the internet and became a meme, producing spin offs like thisthis, and this (from Starburst itself). Very few marketing departments would have signed off on an ad like this, because there is always a risk that doing so will backfire, creating the social media equivalent of a black hole from what was supposed to be a bright star. If an ad or a social media post goes from being funny, goofy, or clever to being tacky, trite, or boring, it doesn't matter if you have the king of YouTube behind you, the crowd you're trying to convince to buy pistachios might be LESS inclined to do so based on your distinctly "uncool" approach.

I'm lucky to have worked at two companies that really get the concept of social media, and use it in smart, effective ways.  Milestone, the subject of a previous blog post, regularly promotes its films, screenings, and events on Facebook, but keeps a healthy distance from the kind of ad-blasting you get from other companies. Milestone's posts are always well-received, with several likes, comments, and shares on each.  Recently they were able to successfully launch and fulfill a Kickstarter campaign for the restoration of Portrait of Jason. They tapped into that social media capital, and also received generous write-ups in places like the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and recently, NPR. Broadcasting each of these things on Facebook, while refraining from too much blatant advertising, gained them a much larger following and a helpful dose of funding for film restoration.

DonorsChoose.org is also a pioneer in a certain brand of web marketing. As a company, DonorsChoose encourages ideas and communal thought as a corporate practice, resulting in a lively, energized environment where people are eager to share activity and accomplishments on sites like Yammer, Facebook, and Twitter. As a charity, it is always a struggle to keep people coming back, year after year, to give money to new public school projects in high-need districts.  DonorsChoose puts out a newsletter to their donors a few times a year, telling them about projects that really need funding and making pitches for specific campaigns. They recently generated a sizable amount of funding to rebuild classrooms in Moore, Oklahoma, which was devastated by a tornado.  Their good standing among charities and the foresight to combat this disaster while it was still freshly branded in people's minds landed them on CBS's official list of places to help in the tornado's aftermath, and has led to other prominent listings for top charities.

In essence, my argument is that you don't need to be a 20-something, spend all day on your computer, or tweet your thoughts 24/7 to have a healthy understanding of social media. You simply have to cultivate social behavior in your offline spheres, and this will organically lead to a powerful online presence. Trends, memes and viral videos should not be goals set for specific projects, but rather guides for social consciousness that will lead to new, creative thinking.  You can't get to 10 million views on YouTube by copying the content and style of another popular video. But it is not impossible for a company to do so through traditional advertising — it just requires a few leaps of faith.

Moving Forward, Looking Back

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favorite writers — he's the author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and seems to be a fountain of sage advice about human connectivity. He recently posted a piece in the New York Times about the dangers of instant communication, which you can read here. It starts with an anecdote about a girl sobbing into her phone, talking to her mom about some unknown source of grief. Foer goes on to write about his own dilemma in reacting to this situation: should he approach the girl and offer solace, or give her space? Should he even be asking this question at all? In Foer's words:

“It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection, but it did make ignoring her easier in that moment, and more likely, by comfortably encouraging me to forget my choice to do so. My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.”

This conundrum is fascinating to me, because it represents a great deal of situations in which restraint is thought to be more prudent than action. And it reminds me in particular of some great conversations I've had with my mom (in person, with no sobbing) about preserving historic buildings. For those of you who don't know, my mom is a historic preservation consultant and has served on several municipal boards — the Closter Zoning Board, Historic Preservation Commission, and Nature Center Board; recently the Nyack Historical Society. Her legal background and political poise make her an excellent combatant against unsound development plans and the demolition of historic structures. She has been instrumental in securing Closter's central historic district, as well as the protection and utilization of open spaces. She has been a great credit to Closter, and will likely have similar influence upon the bustling waterfront town of Nyack.

Driving through towns in northern New Jersey and southern New York state, my mom will often point out houses that represent certain styles, eras, or architects. Sometimes I'm amazed by architectural details, and sometimes I can't understand why something so ugly would be preserved. "Wouldn't it be better," I've said to her, "if someone just built a modern Victorian-style house in the place of this pre-fabricated mid-century crap?" Her answer is always no. Historic preservation rests on the principal that history should be preserved and restored, but never re-fabricated. We must be able to tell the difference between an original Victorian home that's been recently restored and a modern home built at the same time, or else the work of restoring the old home is in vain.  Often, the cost of restoring such a structure exceeds the cost of building a replica, because modern materials used to replicate old details are much cheaper.  But it's important to create a lasting legacy of a place because, as a country that has a relatively short history, we don't have nearly as much to preserve.

The picture above this post may not strike you as something a historic preservationist would like to see — the modern buildings are unadorned and boring in a style all-too-common in New York City. But this kind of structure would highlight the historic Grand Central Terminal by providing contrast.  However, even Grand Central, among the most lauded historic buildings in the city, is a replica of much older architectural styles built over a modern steel framework, and probably would not appeal to present day preservationists were it to be built today. Then, of course, you have the issue of destroying the buildings surrounding GCT, which carry the legacies of other, more modern architectural trends. So there is always a difficult choice when faced with replacing or modifying prominent structures, just as there is a difficult choice when deciding how (or whether) to approach a sullen stranger.

If you're waiting for me to explain how this ties in to the general theme of this blog, which is film and video — here it is.  I am of the mindset that with every new advance in technology, we must first look back to the original methods of doing things and re-learn them before we can really take advantage of the new.  Though wildly outdated, I learned to edit film at Wesleyan using a 16mm Bolex camera and a Steenbeck editing table, and at the time I simply thought they were hipster novelties that probably wouldn't help me in any significant way. I was wrong. Learning to shoot and edit using actual film makes cutting more precise, the use of footage more restrained and powerful, and the approach to the entire filmmaking process more practical.  The same goes for chemical photo developing, which I was also fortunate enough to learn while at Buck's Rock Camp, long before the advent of affordable digital SLR cameras.  This does not mean we should continue to shoot movies on 35mm film stock or process all photos manually — though some might argue those points at great length. Technology will continue to make things easier and more accessible, and we should embrace that change. But if we lose time-honored methods of communication or restraint in the process, our culture will be indelibly blighted.

Milestone Film & Video

If you ask people about their first paid jobs, you might get grueling tales of optimism dashed. This couldn't be further from my experience at Milestone. Dennis Doros and Amy Heller (pictured above, with beagles Evie and Giada) are two of the nicest, smartest, and most dedicated people you'll find in the world — let alone the film industry! I was lucky enough to find them in the little pocket of suburbia that I lived in for fourteen years. From their home in Harrington Park, New Jersey, Dennis and Amy wield enormous influence on the art film culture of New York City, Los Angeles, and the rest of the country.  If you visit them, you may be shocked to discover that there is no army of film geeks running this operation, which rivals the Criterion Collection in stature and breadth. Two industry veterans, four animal companions, and a boy genius headed for great scientific discovery are the only permanent residents of Milestone's office. But as you can imagine, a few extra eyes and hands are always needed to keep this machine running smoothly. And so, Dennis and Amy invest in themselves and the future of the film industry by hiring (and paying!) a team of interns every year.

I started working at Milestone in the summer of 2010, after a mid-college crisis led me to re-focus my  attention on the subject I loved most: Film Studies.  A family friend — Amy Knitzer — had mentioned that she knew a woman who was doing something in film, that she worked one town away from where I lived, and that I should contact her to learn more about what she does.  I googled Milestone and started to read the titles and directors listed on their website with feverish joy.  Alfred Hitchcock, Mary Pickford, Mikhail Kalatozov, Charley Chase, Mack Sennet, Fatty Arbuckle — these were all names I knew well, or was quickly learning in my film classes at Wesleyan University.  I was completely dumbfounded that suburban New Jersey would be a hub for the film industry, which actually makes perfect sense if you know anything about early film history!

Working at Milestone was like enrolling in a second film school. I was immediately immersed in film history I didn't know existed — queer documentary films, pre-Disney animation, rejected propaganda films from famous directors, docu-dramas with little divide between fact and fiction, and the New York underground film scene of the 1960s, among many other categories.  I was able to interact with these films on an incredibly deep level, as Dennis and Amy trusted me more and more to push my interests and abilities on projects that I'm still incredibly proud of.  Among the many things I've accomplished at Milestone are theatrical posters, DVD and Blu-ray box covers, film trailers (one of which was printed to 35mm film stock), audio commentary tracks, full websites, and animated logos.  Each of these projects has helped me grow as a creative professional, and I'm very grateful to Dennis and Amy for allowing me to build my skills on real releases.

Milestone's commitment to hiring paid interns is also something I've come to value immensely in my career. As a film student or a recent film school grad, you may find abundant opportunities for entry-level production crew positions, but the vast majority of these are unpaid. It is, unfortunately, the industry standard, and this standard is leeching into other industries at times when money is tight.  We're made to understand that money is always tight on film productions, but that's a deceitful ruse — there may be little funding put aside to pay the crew, but producers will spend a ton renting equipment, getting permits, paying location fees, and paying the on-screen talent. The crew is often the last thought in a film budget, where it should be the first. Dennis and Amy have their fingers to the pulse of independent film production, and their influence will hopefully spread as their intern alumni gain footholds elsewhere in the entertainment industry (their most famous alumnus, also a Wesleyan grad, is one half of the famed indie band Das Racist.) In an incredibly eloquent speech that I was fortunate enough to witness this January, the two spoke to the audience at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards — at which they won an award for the restoration of Shirley Clarke's films — about, among other things, the importance of paying interns. The eyes of the crowd (which included some of Hollywood's über-elite producers, actors, and directors) may have glossed over, but my eyes were beaming. Working at Milestone is something I'm so incredibly proud to call my first real job.

I don't speak about Milestone in the past tense because I still work there, part time and remotely, three years later. It's a testament to Dennis and Amy's love and passion for what they do that I still enjoy every project I take on for them.  The summer intern torch may have been passed to a new generation of future film titans (including my brother, who started working for Milestone this week), but I still feel just as optimistic about my future as I did in 2010 — and I credit that, for the most part, to Milestone.

A Millennial's View of Internet Video

Most people alive on this planet had to adapt — or are still adapting — the use of the Internet into their offline lives and workflows.  I was fortunate enough to come into this world with buzz of its potential already flowing.  1989 was a banner year of sorts for the Internet, with some branches of the federal government connecting through the Federal Internet Exchange, and internationally through GOSIP (Government Open Systems Interconnection Profile).  It was also the first year the Internet was commercialized — through pioneer Internet Service Provider PSINet.  Suffice to say, I was not the only significant birth on the cusp of the final 20th century decade.

My family, fortunately enough, was evolutionarily primed for technological change. My great-grandfather David Bloom (pictured above) was one of the first people to own a home movie camera — the Movette Motion Picture Camera — which he bought in 1919 and used on subsequent trips to Venice, Holland, Egypt, and pre-Israeli Palestine.  My dad, a technological pioneer in his own right, digitized some of the 17.5mm footage (which required a new, reverse-engineered projector just to screen the extremely outdated format). You can watch the clips here.

My dad is the person I most credit with my familiarity with the Internet, film, and video. Though he refuses to sit through most movies (he doesn't have time), he introduced me to plenty of classic films and TV shows without thinking much of it. Thanks to him I am well versed in British television — Monty Python, Black Adder, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean, Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, and more recently, the IT Crowd.  He famously drafted the script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail entirely from memory during a high school class.  He also was one of the pioneers of medical Internet databases — his website, launched in 1994, garnered national attention and led to several news articles about the utility of the Internet for doctors.

Whether it was the passion and enthusiasm of my family or some other cosmic force, I became interested in making movies and websites in middle school, and I haven't swayed much since. Both Internet and video platforms have evolved around me — so that at times it has seemed like whenever I'm ready to move on to the next step, technology is right there with me. I'm extremely fortunate to have the support of my family in all aspects of my life, but I'm especially lucky to have had the experiences that formed my interests as I grew (to great heights, at least physically!)

Today I'm fortunate enough to be working for an organization that provides critically needed supplies and resources to public school classrooms, so that perhaps this current generation of kids, regardless of their family or socioeconomic background, can develop great passions the way I have. I am so grateful to DonorsChoose.org for existing, and for embracing me with all of my passions and helping me to grow even more. DonorsChoose is a phenomenal collection of people, ideas, and services that is making a huge difference in the way public education works in this country. And I'm so happy that they have found a place for cutting edge Internet video technology in their philanthropist enterprise!