Friday, October 29, 2010

Influential Me

It is no lie to say that my photo is included in the latest issue of Fast Company magazine, the one with Lance Armstrong on the cover, on page 138, in a section about Social Media's New Stars. (Yes, that's how it's referred to on the cover.) Inside, an article is called "The New Influentials," and it's all about the "unexpected players" who "exert outsize impact and power online." As the magazine asks, "Who is the most influential person online?" Well, according to Fast Company, I'm one of them. That much is all true.

Of course, the full story is that I'm one of 32,955 people who entered themselves in an "experiment" to determine who was the most influential person online, and I'm one of 29,795 people who also submitted a photo, and therefore were included in a four-page spread in the magazine. Those who, through a combination of clicks and signups, were deemed the most influential, have their photos a little bigger than those of us who are not in the upper echelons, but my photo does actually happen to be in the top third of all those on the page. (Thankfully, I'm not in the bottom third, where the photos are so small they're unrecognizable.) If Shaquille O'Neal is No. 1,709 and I'm just one row below him, that's gotta mean I'm up there — relatively speaking, of course. And if that's not enough, the web site says I'm in the 94th percentile, so that's definitely up there.

I mean, the whole thing was nothing more than a virtual popularity contest, but still ... it's pretty cool, right?

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Monday, October 18, 2010

What Did You Think Was Going to Happen?

About halfway through Jackass 3D, Chris Pontius sticks the bottom half of his face in a diorama where a couple of scorpions are crawling around. Seconds later, bitten and stung, Pontius is questioning his motives for partaking in such an inane stunt, and he's asked, "What did you think was going to happen?" Exactly. Anyone considering seeing this latest film in the Jackass series must ask himself a similar question. After all, this is a movie in which the marquee stunt is something called "Poo Cocktail Supreme," which features Steve-O sitting in a poo-filled port-a-potty that gets flung up on bungee cords and shaken around a bit (and yes, there are cameras inside the port-a-potty so you can see not just Steve-O's reactions, but also the poo flying all over).

If you enjoy this kind of gross-out schadenfreude humor (and I do), then you'll find Jackass 3D to be an enjoyable time at the movies. If not, well, then this is not the movie for you (and you already know that). That said, gags like "The Rocky," "Roller Buffalo," "High Five," "Lamborghini Tooth Pull," "Beehive Tetherball," ''Sweatsuit Cocktail,'' and an untitled midget barfight (featuring Best Supporting Actor contender Jason "Wee Man" Acuna) are funny, but not as high-larious as some of the stuff seen in the first and second film of the trilogy (and the MTV series). In addition, though this Jackass makes some amusingly gratuitous use of the 3D technology, overall, there's really nothing here that wouldn't have been just as funny in 2D. I laughed till I cried while watching Jackass 3D. "It had danger. It had puke. It had shit — and sex appeal," as Pontius and Steve-O say late in the film. But I still left the theater thinking this was not the strongest film in the trilogy. So that's why I'm only giving Jackass 3D a B–.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Not Dead. Just Retired.

What is Red? Takes a while to figure that out. This quirky action-comedy about a group of over-the-hill former CIA agents who band together when a hit is ordered on one of them has some stylistic touches, and a distinguished cast — both of which make for a surprisingly enjoyable film. After all, who wouldn't love to see Oscar winners Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman putting on disguises, throwing punches, and shooting bad guys? Bruce Willis, he's the kind of guy you expect in a movie like this, but you don't see him going mano a mano with Richard Dreyfuss every day. Sure, you may not have as much fun as Mary-Louise Parker seems to be having, but thanks largely to its cast, Red is a good time at the movies. I'm giving it a B.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

If You Don't Like Twitter, Then You Must Not Be Using It reported Tuesday that 71 percent of all tweets on Twitter are ignored. I don't believe that. Just because only 29 percent of the things posted on the social network get an @ reply or a retweet, that doesn't mean the others are being ignored. I'm sure people are clicking on the links in those tweets, or reading the tweets and moving on (they're only 140 characters long, after all). I'm an active user of Twitter, and even though I don't reply to a lot of tweets I see, and I don't retweet everything people post, I'm hardly ignoring everything in my timeline.

I'm mentioning this because a friend of mine posted the article on Facebook and added the following note: "See, I thought the figure would have--and should have--been much higher, like at least 100%." Clearly he doesn't get Twitter. When the site launched a couple years back, it was a place where people could — and often did — post silly updates about what they were up to. "I'm on line at Starbucks" or "I just had a sandwich," for example. And he's right: those kinds of posts should be ignored.

But these days, that's far from the kind of stuff you'll find on Twitter. Pick the right people to follow, spend the time, and you'll laugh, you'll learn things, you'll make new connections, and you'll be part of a conversation. You'll actually find value in being on the site. Anyone who uses Twitter actively knows that. It's only the people who don't use it who think it's full of lame postings. Clearly, my friend is one of those people.

When I first joined Twitter, I didn't understand it either. Like many people, I did it more out of obligation than interest. "How can you really say anything of value in 140 characters?" I asked. "Do I really need to see the random Tweets of random celeb folks and other people? Why would I want to 'follow' someone if all they did was link to other sites? What is with the people who seem to Tweet all the time? And isn't Twitter really just a marketing site now — a place for companies and celebs to promote themselves? Sounds like a waste of time to me."

Flash forward about a year. Now I'm an active tweeter. I don't just listen and read other people's tweets. I post my own content — in fact, I do so with almost obsessive regularity (HootSuite allows me to schedule new tweets as often and as frequently as I want). I engage with other people, retweeting and replying to their tweets or starting up brand-new conversations. I go to conferences and I live tweet, which forces me to pay better attention to the speakers and increases my overall enjoyment — and even better, allows me to meet a whole lot of new people. I've found lots of interesting and entertaining (and sometimes infuriating) people to follow — actual, smart people, who are relevant to my life, not just celebrity types. I've developed my own following (as of this writing, 772 people — more than half of whom I don't even know). Oh, and I laugh at and share the posts by "fake" tweeters (like Average Batman and Fake AP Stylebook). I wouldn't say I'm an expert on how to use Twitter (chances are good I overtweet), but I've come to really enjoy using this social network.

It took me some time, but I've gone from Twitter skeptic to evangelist. I don't hesitate to tell anyone that I really like Twitter, and because I'm so into it, I've even been asked to teach folks how the site works. I enjoy being a part of global conversations (especially during big events like the Oscars or the Lost finale), learning about new and interesting things, and just being in the mix. To put it most simply, Twitter is fun. I mean, how can you not like something that results in tons of free ice cream being delivered to your office? But that's just one of the benefits of being on and actually engaging on Twitter.

So that's why I have to take issue with people like my friend, who think Twitter is lame. As a counter-argument, I often direct people to the blog post "Twitter’s not stupid — you just have boring friends," by Andrew Dubber, because I think he hit the nail on the head: You can't possibly like Twitter if you follow uninteresting people who have nothing of value to say, and you don't really engage with other people on the site.

I am a firm believer that if you spend the time to get to know Twitter, then you'll find there's a lot to like about it. And then you'll agree with Mitch Joel, who wrote earlier this week that "Social media is only a waste of time if you’re using it to waste your time."

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Monday, October 11, 2010

It's Kind of a Good Movie

Whenever a comic actor tries to stretch and takes on a more dramatic role, it's a dicey proposition. For every The Truman Show or Greenberg, for example, there's another example of a less convincing performance. So what a relief that in the new movie It's Kind of a Funny Story, Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) is actually good at walking that fine line between sad and clown. In the film, Galifianakis plays Bobby, a patient in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, who takes a younger patient under his wing. That younger patient, 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist), has checked himself in because he's feeling stressed out and suicidal, and needs to sort some things out.

It's Kind of a Funny Story was written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (best known for Half Nelson), and despite the plot synopsis I gave above, it's actually a sweet, teen-oriented drama. Boden and Fleck's screenplay (based on the novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini) has some black humor mixed in with the drama, and it never once is a downer. There is, of course, a girl on the inside — Noelle (Emma Roberts) — but the romance between her and Craig is predictable and not very well developed. Still, this is a very easy-to-watch and enjoyable film, and as noted, Galifianakis demonstrates decent (albeit limited) range. If you're going to be stuck in the mental ward for a week, he's the kind of guy you want to have around. I'm giving It's Kind of a Funny Story a B.


Friday, October 08, 2010

Horse Wins, Audience Loses

I know what you're thinking: Will Secretariat be Diane Lane's The Blind Side? No. No, it won't be. It won't even be this year's The Rookie, Miracle, or Seabiscuit. This fact-based film about the Triple Crown–winning horse and his fiesty owner is cut from the same cloth as those previously mentioned films: down on her luck character finds salvation/redemption through sport and battles adversity and naysaying by others with the help of a quirky coach/trainer to win the big game/race — or in this case, races. Lane even gets to sport a blond hairdo, like Sandra Bullock did in Blind Side.

However, unlike those other films, Secretariat has neither the suspense nor the grace to pull off making this true story a compelling big-screen story. Instead, like its title character, it's a hard-charging film that's not exactly subtle. From its first minute you know just what kind of predictable, sanitized, connect-the-plot-points movie it's going to be, and the platitudes and obvious metaphors in the heavy-handed screenplay only serve to, ahem, beat a dead horse. And sure, there's some gorgeous photography of the horse races, but that's not enough to make Secretariat the sports classic it so wants to be. So that's why I'm only giving this film a C–.


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hey Zuck ... Leave Facebook Alone, Will Ya?

During a much-buzzed-about press conference yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg announced two significant changes to Facebook: Users will now be able to download all their data to their desktops for safe keeping, and they'll also be able to more easily segment their friends into groups. Great. It's nice to see the site evolve, and for Zuck to continue introducing forward-thinking innovations that make Facebook an even more important part of our lives. (And I'm sure he liked taking more attention away from The Social Network too.)

Except it isn't so nice. Quite frankly, I'm getting really tired of Zuck changing the site on me every few months, or even more frequently than that.

In the social media world, as far as I'm concerned, Facebook is like chicken soup or macaroni and cheese. It's online comfort food. Strip away all the games and the videos and flashy stuff, and Facebook is reduced to a site where you can connect with friends and, perhaps more importantly, reconnect with old friends. As websites go, especially social media ones, it's about the connections more than the content. And the soft, blue color, the simple, lower-case logo, and the relatively basic design only add to the warm feeling you get when the site comes up on your screen.

Personally, while I'll post things to my profile page throughout the day, I often won't read all the posts until I get home at night. That's when I sit at the computer, and for about 15 or 20 minutes I'll scan through every single status update, news article, photo, video, and other item my friends have posted. Yes, I know I'm a freak, and not that's not something the typical user does. But I do, and it's one of the ways I like to relax at night.

Facebook is one of those things you can count on: When there's news to share, you post it to Facebook. When there's some big news event, you look to the site to see how your friends have reacted or what funny comments they have. And so on and so forth. Everything in its place, and you know how to navigate it all. It's consistent, it's predictable, it's good. As I said, it's like online comfort food.

And then Zuck goes and changes things on you, whether it's by reorganizing the news feed or putting the birthdays in a different place or having your items display differently on your page, or whatever. Facebook users know this kind of stuff happens all the time. Now he's made the experience of using the site different again with this new Groups thing. Will it radically change how people use Facebook? That remains to be seen. All I know is one of my friends is already using it and I'm not sure I'm a fan of how it has affected me.

So here's what I'm asking: Mark Zuckerberg, would it be so bad to just leave Facebook as-is for, like, six months or a year? Make your subtle tweaks, clean up some code here and there. Fine. But don't do anything else that'll change the user experience for a while. It seems like every time we get used to a change, you go and change the site again. Nobody's asking for this stuff; we like the site plenty right now.

Look: I get it. You need to move quickly in the social media space. Failing to evolve can seal your doom. But think of it this way: At this point, there are about 550 million Facebook users. Clearly you've already built a great site, and it's not like there's a mass exodus after every change. Would it be so bad to do me and the rest of us this small favor and just back away from the computer and leave the site alone? Or, as my coworker Brian suggested, could you create a "Facebook Classic" version of the site that doesn't include all this hoo-hah I don't want? I'm not threatening to close my account or anything, but as a loyal user and fan of Facebook, I'd like to see it maintain its place as my online comfort food for a while longer before you tinker with it again. Thanks.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Holding Out for a Hero

Judging by its title, you might think Waiting for "Superman" is either the latest superhero movie or an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett about what it means to be Clark Kent. The truth is neither of those. In fact, "Superman" is a documentary by Davis Guggenheim (who also made the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth) about the problems with the educational system in America today, and how a combination of unions, unproductive politicians, ineffective teachers, uninvolved parents, and short-sighted administrators are derailing the hopes and dreams of our youth, as well as the future of the country. The film's thesis is that every child deserves a solid public-school education, but right now that's far from what they're getting.

In the film, Guggenheim uses the stories of a half-dozen children (and their parents) in various cities and the insights of some thought leaders in the educational world (including Geoffrey Canada, who is the closest thing this film has to an actual superhero) to illustrate what's wrong with the schools in America: they're overcrowded, not enough teachers are doing a good job, the teachers are represented by a strong union that won't let even the worst educators be fired, and those children who do want to go to a better school are hampered by either financial limitations or a system that selects students by lottery. Presidents on both sides have pledged to be strong on educational reform, but none have accomplished much in this area. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The film builds to a climactic scene where the children all wait (in their various cities) to hear their name called in a lottery — which will mean they've been selected to go to a better school, and their dreams of going to college, of being doctors or whatever they want, are more realistic. To say the scene is tense and ultimately heartbreaking is putting it mildly.

But of course it is. While there's no doubt that what we're seeing is real, Guggenheim has engineered things to increase the drama quotient. He's featured likable kids with supportive families, and he's used heart-tugging music and extreme close-ups to make the lottery results even more emotional. At the film's end, when you're disheartened and wanting to do something about the situation, the best the film can do (during the closing credits) is direct you to its website,, where you'll find more information. I was hoping the film itself would have a stronger call to action than that, and might feature what some non-administrators have done on a grassroots level.

The reality, of course, is that this is a complex problem with no easy solution. Referring back to the film's title, anyone expecting a "Superman" to swoop down and solve things will surely be disappointed. Though the film makes this clear and doesn't present many answers, "Superman" does make a strong case that something needs to be done — and soon. The film (and its marketing campaign) believes the problems with our educational system are everyone's problems, not just those with children in the system. And that's why "Superman" is a film that needs to be seen by anyone who cares about education, children, or our nation's future. I'm giving it a B+.


Friday, October 01, 2010

Boxed In

Talk about a high-concept film: In Buried, Ryan Reynolds stars as Paul Conroy, a military contractor in Iraq whose convoy is ambushed and who wakes up to find himself trapped in a coffin six feet underground somewhere in the desert. Amazingly, he's able to make and receive cell phone calls (he must not have AT&T as a service provider), but not knowing exactly where he is makes it difficult to let his rescuers find him. You might think this sounds a bit claustrophobic, and you'd be right, but somehow, director Rodrigo Cortés is able to shoot the film in a way that gives both Reynolds and the audience space to move around (limited though that may be). That said, how well you go along for the ride depends on how invested you are in the action; at the screening I saw, I was distracted by giggles a few rows behind me. Buried could have been a bit more suspenseful and thrilling, and it probably is with the right audience, but unfortunately, I just wasn't feeling it (probably thanks to that young woman behind me). And in the end, it wasn't just Conroy who was hoping for rescue. I'm giving Buried a C.