Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Demise of Social Media: A Rant

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Social critic (do not call him a social scientist!) Neil Postman famously stated that “New technology is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something, but it always takes away something important.” This is markedly true when it comes to Social Media.

The obvious direction I could delve into is the dichotomy of Social Media’s tendency towards helping us connect with many more people, while keeping us isolated on the computer. That, however, is not the objective for this discussion… okay, rant.

Social Media is used by the multitudes that rely on it to connect through text and / or images in two directions: we learn what others are thinking and doing by reading their input, and we inform our own impressions by what we decide to contribute to the zeitgeist. And yet, the companies who run these media want to think they know what we want. Rather than asking the clients what they need, however, these companies insist their wills upon those who do not want it. But, as Patti Smith once said, “People have the power,” and in some instances, the people win.

A good example of this is MySpace. At one time, this early Social Media was the 800 pound gorilla, being used widely and mentioned in sit-coms and news channels. It started as being a place for musicians to offer their music and escape the financial pressure of putting their sounds to CD, or finding a “legitimate” outlet through a third party, such as iTunes, which would keep a sizeable part of the money taken without promotion. If an artist sold millions of digi-songs, sure the profit was worth it, but the odds are slim for that even today, so it actually made sense to find a place to put the music for free to hear (such as record stores having listening booths back in the early days of rock’n’roll), and then the listener could choose to purchase there or elsewhere.

Before long, non-musicians were utilizing MySpace as a way to connect with others, share images, music, and even bond whose that impart similar tastes. As time went on, the site itself became a bit bloated, and with people using large wallpapers, attachments, and music inserts, resulting in pages taking ever longer to load. In a smart move, MySpace gave an option for a stripped down version to see others’ pages, which again made viewing enjoyable and easy to fly from one page to the next and making it possible to ignore unwanted digital baggage..

MySpace soared and seemed to become self-important to those behind the scene. They decided to change the way images were viewed, one at a time, and smaller than had been previously. Also, photo albums became more fluid, and it was hard to tell when you were in one collection or another. This was frustrating to the users. Then MySpace made the fatal “tough nuggies” error of taking away the choice of how the page loads. It became slower than ever, which drove its participants away. Despite protests, they kept the format, and the viewers started to give up, and indirectly led them to the newly emergent Facebook. If the timing had been different, Facebook may not exist anymore; Facebook was not as much a magnet as MySpace drove its audience away. Oh, MySpace still exists – go on and check, even though you probably haven’t been there in years now – but it is back to being a center for musicians; it is the only reason I still have an account, which I go to about three times per year. It used to be every day.

The story of the origin and rise of Facebook is well-known, especially with the hit film based on the events, Social Network (2010). It came at just the right time as MySpace was sinking under its own misguidance. Now, ironically, Facebook faces the same fate (say that three times fast) for the same reasons.

Facebook used to be fun, going down the list to see notices from others. It was addicting, though other media such as Twitter interfered with the zeitgeist and turned it from an events and interest driven channel into a brief “I’m standing on line at the bank” style of messaging. But this was a user-end issue, rather than management. But that changed after a few “tweaks” from the Facebook administrators. First they separated what they judged was important and not as essential information. There were protests, but it just meant taking more time to go through two sets of listings that were stacked. Life went on. Then Facebook quietly announced that all the photos on the site were their property to do as they liked, including using them in advertisements, without needing to ask permission. People balked, and now it’s a choice, if you know the selection is even there. Following this, they started making addresses and phone numbers easily available to any participant in the site. Again, after some rumbling, they made it harder to do so, but only if the subscriber knew to go to a specific place and then change the default.

But then, they did something so egregious, that it raised a bigger cry, which they call the Timeline. This was not an option, but a systemic change to the very basic viewing medium that a huge majority of Facebookers did not like. Like callous and thoughtless cads, they shot their own foot, as it were, by doing this just before the IPO went public. The dislike of this new format was so wide, the stock crashed almost as soon as it was offered, and has never recovered. Odds are it never will, because Facebook’s attitude is “Fuck you, get used to it.”

Why is the Timeline so bad? There are a number of reasons. One example is the Timeline is split into two columns, so to read them you must roll up and down the page. And if you tell it to go back further in time, the columns change so you have to go back up and down. It would much easier to be able to go unidirectional rather than rolling back and forth, which is hard on the hand, wrist and eyes. Another is that the columns are too narrow for the content, especially if images are involved. The edges get cut off on either side, so unless you click into it, it is usually unreadable. This takes unnecessary time, and again, is that much more pressure to click-click-click. These two alone make the use of Facebook from an easy and enjoyable experience, to a confusing mess of work.

Then there is the “Map of where you’ve been” that can’t be turned off, and privacy settings that are confusing if you don’t know where to look. Fortunately for Facebook, there is no other outlet on which to jump, as people did after MySpace. Google+ tried, but failed due to the same top-heavy interference leading to indifference. But Mark Zuckerburg (I now call him either Zukerputz or Schmuckerburg) is indifferent to the hew and cry of the crowd, I believe because of either a) he has his money and just does not care, or b) he is no longer in control of the company since it has gone public (initially $38.00 per share on May 2012, which crashed and is now up to only $26.12 as of closing on Nov 27, 2012, after averaging for a long time around $18.00). The reason for this drop, I believe, is lack of confidence due to the Timeline. Also doing damage is that there is once again a push by management to tell the reader what is important by putting posts from others indiscriminately into another area, without input from those either sending or receiving the text. While doing this, the ads have become bigger, taking up more space on the page. Ugh.

People are leaving Facebook faster every day, begin given more reasons to do so. About once a month I go through my Friends list, and more and more of them are no longer there. I used to go every day, and now it is more occasional. Perhaps it’s better, because I’ve been more productive as a result of it, such as this article.

Even emails, the once-great equalizer, are being affected by the visions of those who are focused on a supposedly larger picture (i.e., bottom line), rather than on the individual. Take Google for example. Google owns many of the common softwares that are used, such as Blogger/Blogspot, YouTube, Gmail, and Google+, the latter an unsuccessful attempt to delve into Facebook’s demise. However, if a new user tries to create an account, it is now more difficult than ever, especially for those who are new to the technology milieu. It used to be that when you joined Google, you had a choice of a backup by either having a second email account for them to send a notification to as proof of your being a human (rather than a computer-generated account for the purposes of stopping spam), or you could give them a question that you could answer on the spot to retrieve a forgotten password.

Recently the secret question part has been abandoned for a mobile phone number, so that the password or start-up information can be texted. However, if you are like me or a novice and do not have a cell, well, you are screwed. Google insists on your having two accounts: you must have a previous email and a cell phone. If this is a first time account and you have no cell, then you can no longer join Google or any of their multitudes of subsidiary companies. The computer classes I teach are filled with elderly or newly arrived immigrants who can either not afford a cell bill or lack the need for one, and it is getting harder to connect them online. This has recently also come true for MSN’s Hotmail. Yet, the email companies still make you do the Captcha, the squiggly letters that were created for the same reason of stopping spammers. Even in my own Hotmail account, I occasionally get a pesky pop-up window asking for a mobile phone. I already have an account with them, so why do they need to know it, if I had one? All the networks of information stop becoming interconnecting and start to turn into a trapping web for which there is no realistic escape, if you want to live in a modern world.

The latest top-down change to affect me directly is what is happening to the Webshots photo storage site. They had been owned by American Greetings, and worked wonderfully for my needs. I have a premium account with them where I pay $30 per year, and I can group the pictures into folders with descriptive titles, use keywords for use on search engines (e.g., on Google, Bing), and most importantly, they tallied the amount of views of each picture. While a little cumbersome, I found Webshots easier to load pictures and manoeuvre than, say, Flickr or Photobucket. As of this date, my 71 albums have 378,426 views since 2006, with 2273 just this week alone.

Recently, Webshots was purchased by Threefold Photos, who have decided to turn it into something called Smile by Webshots. They, in turn, have decided to completely change the way photos stored on the site are viewed. There will be no more tallies of hits, no context of folders meaning the viewer cannot tell when or where the pictures were taken, or even of who is the subject, and no tag words for finding on search engines. I wrote to the company to question this, and the response I received said that there are no organizational tools available at this time. My reply was that there will be no money coming from me at any time, as the reasons for my wanting to be connected were being disconnected. My site, is to be razed and will disappear on December 1, 2012, as I was informed the second week of November, a mere two weeks before buh-bye, tough nuggies. There simply is no accountability by anyone at Threefold, and no asking if this is what we want.

So, Neil Postman was partly right: Social Media is a Faustian Bargain; however, there is another layer of the Powers That Be giveth and the Powers That Be taketh it away through change. Or in this case, unwanted updates. It’s not as much as “fix it” if it ain’t broke, it’s a matter of disrespect to those who use the services.

Perhaps it is going to take the coming of a Howard Beale character to tell these companies that we are mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take it any more.

Friday, November 9, 2012

James Keelaghan Trio, The Bassment, Nov 7, 2012

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos, 2012
Video from the Internet

James Keelaghan

Every once in a while, you hear someone with a pure voice and it takes you by surprise, be it a Roy Orbison, kd lang, or James Keelaghan.

I first became aware of Calgary-native Keelaghan in the very early 1990s, while attending the Calgary Folk Festival. Initially, I was there to see the likes of Dave Alvin (ex- the Blasters), Odetta (RIP, 2008), and the underrated Proclaimers (“[I Would Walk] 500 Miles”), who put on a terrific live show. It was there that I also learned of Anne Lorre, Bob Wiseman, and Keelaghan’s amazing tenor voice. His release at the time, Small Rebellions, was an instant classic in the Canadian canon of singer-songwriters (I bought it on cassette at that show); to illustrate its strength, one song on it, “Red River Rising” (about the M├ętis Rebellion of 1885), was covered by no less than three other artists during the weekend. I can easily avow that there is not a filler song on the entire collection.

But that second release was early on in his now-25-year career, and I had not seen him play since. Sure, I’ve heard the recordings, and I had been waiting for him to play New York City for a number of years, but of course, he finally did after I moved to Saskatoon. It was with great joy that I saw that he was coming to one of my favorite clubs, the Bassment (yes, that is how it is spelled), where I had seen so many other great artists like Don Griffith (jazz), the Oral Fuentes Band (reggae) and Absofunkenutely (well, funk…duh). It’s a nice sized room, and yet still remains intimate. It was a perfect setting for enjoying the James Keelaghan Trio that cold night, on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

My pal in Saskatoon, Dave Hiebert, is not only a JK fan, but sings a couple of his songs when he’s busking, usually downtown, at Flowers By Fred or at the Farmer’s Market, so who better to share the experience. We arrived early and scored some seats by the stage. A clear shot for both my eye and my camera. I decided not to use flash until the last song due to how close we were, and the nature of the show.

David Woodhead
It’s clear from the moment the trio hit the stage, they were not just fellow musicians, but compadres, from the vibe given from the performance. While JK took the lead with guitar and vocals, the other two switched off on multiple instruments. David Woodhouse was on a beautiful fretless bass, and a warm and worn acoustic guitar. Not only an accompanist, he is also a solo act (just not this night) and a studio musician / producer who has appeared on over 200 recordings since 1975, for the likes of Lorenna McKennit, Valdy, Gil Scott-Heron, and both Garnet and Stan Rogers. Oh, did I mention his sons were the foundation of Spiral Beach? On lead 10-string mandolin and bass was Hugh McMillan, more famously known as part of the classic Canadian band, Spirit of the West.

The older audience (i.e., around my age and above) was revved and hyped, and well versed in – er – Keelahania. And JK responded in kind with kindness. While there was a set list that covered his entire career, he also accepted requests that were occasionally shouted out from the audience (such as “Woodsmoke and Oranges”). While occasionally covering songs and having collaborated with some of the other top Canadian songwriters such as Rose Cousins, his own pieces play strongly with language, such as the opening lines of the sing-along-response “Hillcrest Mines”: “Down in the mines of the Crowsnest Pass / It’s the men who die in labor / Sweating coal from the womb of the pit / It’s the smell of life they savor.”

Hugh McMillan
 JK’s songs lean towards (but are not inclusive to) a reflection of life, a cultural sensitivity, a piece of historical narrative, or all of the above. Whether he’s discussing a particular bar he visited in Ireland (“McConvilles”), Canadian Japanese interment camps (“Kiri’s Piano”), waiting to take a ferry (“Departure Bay”: “The fog is rolling in / It’s gonna be a bad one / It’s as thick as soup / Gee I sure wish I had some”) or the everyday life of the working class (too many to mention), he uses his prose pen to make the point, but never to the position of getting lost in the poetic opaque. Not all these songs were played that night, but hey, I’m making a point here. And speaking of which:

This tour is to continue to promote JK’s 11th full release, 2009’s House of Cards, (available HERE), so naturally many of the songs were from there, including the title cut and as the encore, “Safe Home.” But there were also quite a few from over the course of his career during the two 50-minute sets, including “Fires of Calais,” “My Skies,” and “Hillcrest Mines”.

Between most songs, as JK tuned his guitar to a particular setting, he told the back-story to many of the songs with lightness and ease that never bogged down the time. Usually I’m not a fan of commentary between numbers because they tend to be facile, but JK was just the opposite, drawing us in and making the songs all the more poignant. Hey, even David Woodhouse got to tell what he claims is his only joke: “Why are there no banjos on Star Trek?” Well, to get the answer, you’ll have to ask him (I am not going to steal the man’s one joke!).

The story I’ve heard is that JK once worked in the construction biz, and that he’d write poetry inside ducts while the buildings were being erected, and they remain hidden until some day in the future. This gives some insight to the wit behind JK. With no disrespect meant, he looks as imposing as a man who works high steel, but there is a gentleness about him when he sings and talks that is in a joyful contradiction.
The James Keelaghan Trio are approaching the end of their tour (and just in time, too, considering the weather), as they drive east across western Canada, ending in Winnipeg, but you’d never know it from the energy level coming from the stage. They all seem as musically tight as the journeymen (journeypersons?) musicians they are, and yet made every song sound like it was as much a joy to play as it was to hear them perform it.

The only negative thing about the show for me was that there was just so much more I wanted to hear, cuts like “Somewhere Ahead” or one of my personal faves, “Misty Mountain.” What I am saying is that the nearly two hours just wasn’t enough. I was greedy and wanted more than was reasonable.

Let me sum it all up by putting it this way: you know a good time is happening when the 15-minute intermission feels longer than the two sets.
This blog is dedicated in thanks to JK and Joelle.

Bonus video:
(note: not from this night, nor filmed by me; that is David Woodhead playing bass behind him)