Bingeing on Pureflix #1: “In The Blink of An Eye” (2009)

(Warning: Spoilers. All of them)

I began this long journey down the Christian film industry’s list of films with a Pureflix film. While Pureflix wasn’t been a really significant player until the release of GOD’S NOT DEAD, I’d seen a few of their films in the past. As in “I’d seen that they had made movies.” The first one I  remember was “In the Blink of an Eye.” a Rapture-focused drama/thriller that Pureflix released directly to DVD in 2009. It stars David A.R. White (who is basically in every Pureflix film), Eric Roberts (who was Falcony in THE DARK KNIGHT) and David’s wife, Andrea Logan White.

Here’s the IMDB synopsis:

After police detectives save a pop star, her manager invites them for a weekend in Mexico on his yacht. But the perfect vacation turns to terror when he wife and friends go missing.

Sound interesting enough? Well, the description forgot to mention that the film uses a Groundhog’s Day-esque “live the same day over and over until plot says otherwise” mechanic to tell its story.

Yes, That GROUNDHOG DAY.

The film is made up of three plotlines that center around David A.R. White’s character (also named David) in this film. First there’s the rapture. After his wife and friends are raptured, David has to  figure out why they disappeared and why he keeps reliving the same day. Eventually, the crew claim that he caused the disappearances, and David has to “fight” to survive. The second plotline is the cop work. David’s boss (played by Roberts) discovers evidence that seems to imply that the manager may have had a connection to the pop star’s kidnapping, and David has to deal with the manager and his “criminal” team of employees on the ship. The final plotline deals with David and Lori (played by Andrea) and their marriage. Early on in the film, Lori accepts Christ and creates a point of tension with David, who is resistant to the Christian faith. Lori and David spend the rest of the time dealing with their marriage problems as well as the condition of David’s soul.

David A.R. White as David

Overall, I wasn’t happy with IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE. The film was really slow, really preachy, and unbelievable at times. Almost all of the performances were boring and unrelateable (though I do think that Roberts’ police chief wasn’t bad). The film suffers from all of the problems of of your standard Christian film, from preaching too much to telling and not showing.  On top of that, the film doesn’t spend any time resolving the cop work plotline.

That said, I did like that the writers tried to mix two interesting concepts together to tell an interesting story. While I don’t believe in the modern notion of The Rapture, I do think that the Rapture has the potential of being an interesting concept for a thriller. In the same way, I love how films like GROUNDHOG DAY use the “same-day” mechanic to trap a character and require them to figure out the solution to their problems. However, this film’s mashup of the two concepts doesn’t work in any way. If anything, the mashup of a Rapture storyline and a “same-day-over-and-over” mechanic minimized the potential interestingness of both concepts.

But here’s what is weird. I actually don’t think that the team behind IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE was trying to copy GROUNDHOG DAY. I believe they were drawing from a more unorthodox film; A THIEF IN THE NIGHT.

Both of these films suffer from the following symptoms; telling the plot rather than showing, one-dimensional characters, constantly giving characters the opportunity to preach to each other/the audience and unrealistically presenting the conversion experience. They also use the “same-day” mechanic, albeit to different purposes.

a-thief-in-the-nightIn A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, we find out that the female protagonist didn’t accept Jesus in time for the Rapture, which means that she has to live in a world with a one-world government that requires all citizens to take the mark (a pretty standard plot mechanic in most Christian films about the apocalypse.) However, she doesn’t want to do that, so she runs. But as she runs, the screen gets fuzzy and we discover that it was all a dream. The Rapture hasn’t happened yet…..Except that it has. While the girl may have escaped the one-world government, she didn’t save her soul in time for the Rapture.

While I do think that this particular moment in the film was poorly handled, I can’t help but recognize the creativity behind the concept. The creators pulled the rug from under its viewers in a way that they didn’t expect. They almost gave the girl the chance to save herself; except that they didn’t. It was the perfect way to scare the fear of the Lord into younger viewers.

While A THIEF IN THE NIGHT’s rug-pull was kinda creative, IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE is more formulaic. The only reason that David is allowed to live the same day over and over is so he can accept Christ a few hours before the Rapture (as well as help the pop star accept Christ as well).

Oh, and it’s so we have enough time in the day for the Christian characters to lecture us about Jesus and the Rapture.

But if God can do this for David, then why can’t he do it for, well, EVERYONE?!?!? I could see God/the plot using the “same-day” mechanic effectively if David had to do something monumental, like save thousands of lives. But why would God stick him in a time loop if he just wants him to accept Jesus? That was just poor writing.

Conclusion: IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE seems to be Pureflix’s attempt at making a 21st century version of A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. By doing so, the film is dull, the plot pacing is mediocre and it suffers from all of the standard problems of Christian films. Frankly, it’s a pretty poor attempt. It does look better than A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, but that means very little when you consider how the technology has evolved in the last 40 years. I recommend skipping this film.

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE is currently available on Netflix and Pureflix.

 

Bingeing on Pureflix: Introduction

If you can’t tell from my social media or my blog posts, I am not a big fan of the Christian film industry. I think it’s tropey, preachy and not as helpful as the creators think it is. However, the majority of my experience comes from the mainstream films that hit the theatres, such as GOD’S NOT DEAD and FIREPROOF.  That means that I miss out on a lot of Christian films, which might  be better or worse than GND. That drives me nuts.

As a researcher (read: nerd with no social life) who is very interested in the state and history of the Christian film industry, I want to watch the smaller films and see if any of them break out of the trope I’ve placed in my mind. However, acquiring these films would cost me a lot of money.

However, a recent development opened up some interesting doors. GOD’S NOT DEAD distributor/producer Pureflix announced their own Netflix-esque streaming service.

“This new Pure Flix service offers you the largest library of faith-based films and programs … PLUS a faith-focused vision to take on the big boys in the entertainment world.

Once again, Pure Flix is ready to link arms with you in the battle for our families’ hearts and minds … and our culture. Together, let’s make a difference!”

While I’m not excited about ANOTHER attempt at creating an alternate media culture for Christians, I couldn’t stop my  maniacal giggling.

So, here’s what I hope to do in the upcoming weeks and months. I’m going to view as many of the films on Pureflix’s  streaming service as I can and review them here. I’ll likely mix in a few films that I find on Netflix and Youtube to provide some variety, but the goal is to get a better grasp of the “breadth” (or possibly lack of) of the Christian film industry.

Will you join me on this journey to the center of the Christian film industry? 

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Hey, where are you going? Come back!

 

Napster Killed the CCM Star? (musings about the CCM Industry)

Source: Wikipedia

Cornerstone Festival 2007

Relevant managing editor Tyler Huckabee published an essay over at THE WEEK titled “Who killed the contemporary Christian music industry?” In the essay, Huckabee explores how CCM lost its’ cultural influence, and how it evolved from a semi-thriving musical tradition with some cultural potential into a genre that mixes gospel messages with adult-contemporary melodies and sensitive gatekeepers. It’s a good article, and touches on a lot of important parts of CCM’s history. I recommend reading it.

However, there are a few things I’d like to add to the piece. Huckabee only had so many words, so he couldn’t touch on every factor that played into the industry’s changing market and demographic. But I do think there’s some noticeable trends and historical events in the history of CCM that I hope someone will (one day) research and figure out how they played into the rise (and fall) of CCM.

  • A Technological Market Failure: While CCM is an industry that started in the 70s and 80s, it blew up in the 90s and 00s. Interestingly enough,  this was also a time of technological change in the music industry as a whole. As my friend Luke Harrington noted, this was the time of Napster, MP3s and file-sharing. The entire music industry was under a lot of pressure because kids could transfer tunes back and forth without having to pay for the CD. Most labels didn’t know how to respond, which meant that they either had to close down or shrink.
    I’d love to see some more research into the pirating/file-sharing habits of CCM fans and if they did it more (or less). I mean, I am often surprised how many high school students don’t view pirating as a moral issue.
  • The Hillsong Factor: While there are likely a lot of factors that determined CCM’s commitment to “positive and encouraging” music, I think a key player was the international success of Hillsong. This Australian “music ministry” blew up in 1996 with their album “Shout to the Lord”, with millions of album sales to name. The ministry eventually grew into a multi-million dollar ministry, with spin-off ministries like Hillsong United and Hillsong London. While each band is unique to a degree, they all rely on a similar worship-focused semi-rock style that millions found enticing. While I’m not 100 percent convinced that Hillsong is THE factor that established a particular style of worship music in CCM, I’m convinced that it was a MAJOR factor, and that someone needs to “connect the dots” and figure out how exactly that connection affected things
  • Positive and Encouraging radio: Just as most commercial radio stations only play the music that gets them listeners, so did contemporary Christian radio stations. While some stations tried to play the “hip” and “unique” rock hits that bands like Switchfoot, P.O.D. and Hawk Nelson made famous, most followed a similar formula of “positive and encouraging.” These stations helped establish a music style that wasn’t challenging or thoughtful. This is because CCM radio execs decided to focus one particular audience; Becky the 30-something soccer mom.
    I’d love to see some research into how radio execs encouraged CCM execs to overemphasize family-friendly, or if this was a market-driven emphasis.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. What factors did I (or Tyler) miss? Let me know on Twitter (@chris_journo)

 

Why “Collide” AKA Christian Tinder is Really Unnecessary

Source: TwitterLast week, a group of developers released “Collide“, an app that they described as the “Christian version of Tinder”. In case you didn’t know, Tinder is a popular dating app that has evolved into more of a “hookup app”, where users judge an individual on their looks and either approve (by swiping right) or deny (by swiping left) the person the possibility of “hooking up” with them. Most relationships are fairly shallow, and end in either short-term dates or one-night stands (though some individuals said that they found their future spouse on the platform)

So, hearing that someone made a Christian version of a hookup app sounded weird, especially since most Christians in America are not big fans of hookups and one-night stands.

That was just the start. The app itself is a set of peculiar app design functions. First off, profiles only displayed a user’s  favorite Bible Verse alongside a picture of them as well as (if you pay enough money) their denomination. The app also seemed to promote a progressive view of sexuality, where a user can express interest in either men or women (or both) regardless of their chosen gender.  While this may not be a weird design in normal dating apps, it is a bit peculiar in a Christian app, where a traditional view of sexuality (one man-one woman marriage is only legitimate form of marriage) seems to be the majority view. On top of that, the transaction system (where you pay $1 a person to find out their location and/or denomination, or you pay  a one-time $20 fee for the Pro version) seemed a little obnoxious, but that’s more an issue of weird design, not necessarily of religious ideas.

(If you want an in-depth look at the app, read Britton Peele of Dallas News’ play-by-play review of the app)

These app flaws gave off some weird vibes, as though the designers didn’t fully understand the market that a Christian app would appeal to. Laura Turner of RNS later confirmed this when she revealed in a column that the three team members behind the app had no history in the Christian faith:

I asked the founders–Steven Gaan, Nelson Wang, and Steven Rueter–to expand on their religious backgrounds, and they confirmed what I thought. Between the three of them, one is agnostic, one is not religious, and one believes “in God but doesn’t follow a specific religion.” Wang went on to say that “The reason we made the dating app is because we’ve always been focused on one goal – helping people make deep and meaningful relationships with others. And we felt the Christian community didn’t have a good way to do this with mobile apps, so we wanted to solve that problem.”

But how can three men with no history in the church hope to market to a Christian audience? This is where I think the app falters. While I do agree with Turner that “maybe it’s a good thing that some folks who aren’t Christians are taking on the Christian demographic”, I’m not sure these are the right guys. Christian Singles resource Single Matters touches on why this app is, well, terrible:

Remember when we reviewed Christian Mingle and said that it felt more like it was created for the Christian stereotype rather than actual Christians? Yeah, Collide feels the same way.

Most Christians don’t care to see a person’s favorite Bible verse when they’re looking for an online date. We can count on two hands the number of people we’ve ever had that conversation with in our entire lives and those were back in the youth group, so it’s certainly not a qualifier for a night on the town.

I appreciate the entrepreneur’s spirit behind this app,  But in the end, this app is just a poor copy of Tinder that I don’t think will have any chance of attracting a large enough Christian audience to be financially stable. On top of that, I don’t think it was ever necessary. In the end, this app will only further entrench the popular notion that creators interested in making content for Christians can only copy and create inferior Christian-ese products.

 

ROFLMEOW: Arguments Against the Internet: Intro

A common thread in today’s media world is arguing that technology/the internet is negatively affecting us, both as individuals, as communities and as a species. And frankly, there are some great arguments to make for the internet and against the internet. But just as there are good arguments for, why  say, believing in God is bad, there are also really bad arguments for why the internet is bad. I’d like to take some time to examine some of those arguments and explore why we need to stop perpetuating these ideas.

So, in the next few weeks, I plan on posting a few articles examining some of the ideas and propositions people have about the internet, and examining whether they actually hold water. I hope you’ll join me!

 

 

Going to TGC 2015

FYI, I’ll be at The Gospel Coalitions 2015 convention from April 13 through April 15.

I’ll be there reporting as a freelancer (hopefully finding a story) as well as visiting with the many friends I’ve made at Christ and Pop Culture. I have a lot of respect for the team behind The Gospel Coalition, as well as a lot of hesitation. They are a group that only reflects the viewpoints of a select demographic, and should be recognized as such. But they’re also a significant voice in conservative Evangelical channels, and certainly worth paying attention to. I’ll be there mostly to act as a reporter, though I hope to use the opportunity to meet with some of the people I’ve connected with online, in hopes of creating a relationship that extends beyond the digital into a physical relationship.

Anyway, if you want to connect while there, ping me on Twitter and we can figure out the details!

Chris

 

 

Why is LEFT BEHIND 2 a thing?!?!?!

If you didn’t see Paul Lalonde’s remake of LEFT BEHIND, featuring Nicholas Cage in 2014, you’d be in the majority. The reimagined retelling of Jerry B Jenkins’ and Tim Lahaye’s popular drama received a lot of media attention because of Cage’s presence as well as its unconventional ads. The film opened in 1825 theatres, but only made 6.3 million (3452 a screen) in its opening weekend. By the ending of its showing,  the film only made $17 million worldwide and cost more than 16 million to make. A quick crunching of the numbers reveals that this would be considered a box office  failure by a normal studio. Add three Razzies into the mix, and you’d find very few reasons to justify creating another film

For those of us who track box office data, it’s hard to imagine a company justifying a sequel despite the terrible box office. However, Left Behind’s producer and main driving force Paul Lalonde is convinced he can continue the series. Lalonde mentioned on the Left Behind Facebook page that he planned to continue the series. However, it was unclear how such a project would be funded, or if a studio would show interest.

But that’s all been confirmed. Paul Lalonde launched a Indiegogo campaign on April 7 to raise $500,000 for the film.

My first response to this campaign was:

 

Why is this a thing? All the data points to the first film being a box office bomb. . So why try again, especially with such a low budget! (The Indiegogo is trying to raise 1/32 of what Left Behind apparently cost).

Here’s Lalonde’s reasoning:

Left Behind, the first film in the Left Behind Film Project, opened wide in the United States on October 3, 2014. Unlike many Christian films it also was seen by millions of people in over 10 countries around the world, including Canada, the UK, Germany, France and China.

The movie successfully reached out with a Christian message and made an impression on many people who otherwise may not have taken notice. Here are a few of the messages sent to us from people just like you.

The campaign then goes on to list a series of testimonies claiming that the film brought people back to Christ and got them interested in Christianity. Now, I don’t want to doubt these testimonies. If they’re true, that’s great. But there’s also the chance that they’re not. I have no way to validate the testimonies, since their only source is another person’s word.

But are these testimonies enough to validate the creation of another Left Behind film? I’m not convinced. If the testimonies are true, then it’s likely that the people were in an emotional/cultural state that made them receptive to the Gospel. In fact, I’d argue that a variety of things could be a catalyst to get that person interested in Christianity or provide opportunities to evangelize. On top of that, such claims seem so peculiar since the Nick Cage-based LEFT BEHIND didn’t actually present the Gospel!

No, really! The film does everything it can to avoid mentioning “Jesus”, “Rapture” or “Christianity” until the end of the film. On top of that, the characters haven’t even converted to Christianity (unlike the end of the Kirk Cameron one, where all four protagonists are saved) All they do is recognize that it’s the End-times, which opens the doors to a sequel.

So, arguing that a film is justified by the fact that it apparently converted someone to Christianity is pragmatic at best, since the film that did it is, by all standards, technically and aesthetically terrible.

But going back to Lalonde’s campaign, he says that he’s driven to tell end-of-days stories until Jesus comes back:

Ultimately, until my last breath or until the Lord returns, I will be pushing to bring the entire story of the end-time prophecies to the big screen.

In other words, Lalonde will continue to promote a premillennial eschatology until he dies. He won’t take no for an answer. A quick look at his IMDB page makes that clear. It looks like almost every movie Lalonde made in his career has something to do with the End-Times. And most of the films he’s made were pretty bad. (except for the one where Mr. T sued the Devil. But that one is only good because Mr. T is in it)

 

I’m not excited about Lalonde’s attempt to continue his new Left Behind series. Frankly, I don’t think its a good move for Lalonde or for the Independent Christian Filmmaking industry.  I’m also not sure he’ll be able to raise enough funds to make the film he wants. But, if by the grace of God, he somehow raises the funds needed to complete production, I’ll do my best to track the film’s progress and see if he does something interesting with this popular series of novels.

 

 

What I thought of DO YOU BELIEVE?

If you didn’t know, I have a bit of an obsession with the independent Christian film market. Whether it’s a Kendrick Brother film or a biopic of Polycarp, I tend to track the box office and the cultural interactions with various independent Christian films.

So, when Pure Flix’s spiritual successor to the box-office buster GOD’S NOT DEAD  (better known as DO YOU BELIEVE) hit the box office, I had to take some time out of my schedule and watch it. DO YOU BELIEVE was written by the same team who created GOD’S NOT DEAD, and directed by Jonathan Gunn, a young filmmaker whose most recent credit was THE WEEK, a film about a TV anchor who gets drunk and goes on an adventure to rediscover himself.

IMDB summarizes the film up with the following: “A dozen different souls-all moving in different directions, all longing for something more. As their lives unexpectedly intersect, they each are about to discover there is power in the Cross of Christ … even if they don’t yet believe it. When a local pastor is shaken to the core by the visible faith of an old street-corner preacher, he is reminded that true belief always requires action. His response ignites a faith-fueled journey that powerfully impacts everyone it touches in ways that only God could orchestrate.”

Full disclosure: I walked into this film with the assumption that the writers wouldn’t improve on the huge cultural and writing holes that they tended towards in GND. It turns out that I was partially right. In my opinion,  DO YOU BELIEVE is better than GOD’S NOT DEAD on a technical level and on a thematic level.

Corey Atad of Movie Mezzanine notes that

“The leap in quality (in Pure Flix’s film catalog), at least in terms of production, from What If…, to God’s Not Dead, to Do You Believe? has been impressive. The Lifetime movie aesthetic has slowly been replaced with more cinematic storytelling, and the acting has gotten considerably better.”

That description felt fairly accurate. The film looks good and visually worked for me.  Most of the actors gave what I’d consider to be adequate performances, and the camera shots were decent. The writing was weak, but the aesthetics hold up to most standards of theatre-level filmmaking.

What make DO YOU BELIEVE  thematically better than GND was the fact that it wasn’t based on a straw meme. Many bloggers have chronicled how GOD’S NOT DEAD resembles an old chain letter/meme from the early 90s about how a young Christian student disproves an angry atheist professor in his own classroom, then goes on to preach to his classmates. DO YOU BELIEVE doesn’t rely on a such a straw man. While many of the characters are simplified archetypes designed to fulfill certain plotlines so that the filmmakers have a large “web” of characters, many of them seemed to me too be more believable than Professor Raddisson in GND.

But even if this film was a significant improvement when compared to GOD’S NOT DEAD, does that mean it is a good film on its own? I don’t think so. In my viewing, I noticed three problematic areas in the film that really weakened its ability to tell an entrancing story.

Too Many Characters: A constant thread in most reviews I read of GOD’S NOT DEAD and of DO YOU BELIEVE is the comparison to 2004’s Oscar-Award winning film CRASH. All three films followed an assortment of characters, whose lives all intertwined to create the plot of the film to explore a larger thread . While CRASH was commended by many (including Roger Ebert) as one of the best films of the year, LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas notes that:

The characters in Crash don’t feel like three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings so much as calculated “types” plugged by Haggis into a schematic thesis about how we are all, in the course of any given day, the perpetrators and the victims of some racial prejudice. (Nobody in Haggis’ universe is allowed to be merely one or the other.) They have no inner lives. They fail to exist independently of whatever stereotype they’re on hand to embody and/or debunk.”

While GOD’S NOT DEAD and DO YOU BELIEVE don’t deal with the racial themes that CRASH does, they both rely on “calculated types” that are all written specifically to fit into a greater scheme that may seem miraculous and interesting at a first viewing, but is actually just designed to create a variety of situations that are threadbare and uninteresting if left by themselves.

DO YOU BELIEVE has every archetype in it, from the reformed gangster to the cancer patient to the homeless mom with a sweet daughter to a pregnant girl who wants to give away her girl to an adoption agency. Many of these characters had the potential to be really interesting in their own right. For example, I wanted to spend more time with JD and Terry, the two seniors who were struggling with their daughter’s passing. However, the film doesn’t give the couple enough time to flesh themselves out and develop attributes that exist separately from of “mourning elderly adults”.

Telling, Not Showing: A friend once pointed out to me that one of the biggest issue with most attempts at creating Christian films is their tendency to tell their stories over showing them. Film is a visual medium, and if filmmakers aren’t using every chance they have to tell a story visually, then they’re misusing the potential of the medium. This seems fairly consistent. There are a lot of interesting characters with semi-interesting backstories. But the filmmakers decision to emphasize having the characters tell their backstories rather than try and tell them visually or through their actions really weakened the film.

The example that stuck out to me the most was the EMT lawsuit. In DYB, The EMT shared the gospel with a dying man after (according to the film) he’s done everything he can to save the subject. When the dying man’s wife finds out that the EMT shared his faith, she sues him for acting outside of his function. Why? Because she and the man are apparently humanists. But how do we know this? The only mention of it is by the lawyer who’s handling the lawsuit.

While this is certainly one way of emphasizing why a character is terrible, I think it’s an ineffective one. It’s about as helpful as the pro-evolution, humanist and vegetarian bumper stickers that were on the back of the attack reporter’s car in GOD’S NOT DEAD. It doesn’t show us anything about the humanist, or if the EMT actually did his best. We’re just told to assume that all statements made about the characters should be all we need.

Overemphasizing conversion: DO YOU BELIEVE is about the Gospel and how it changes the twelve characters in the film. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that.  Watching the Christian gospel change a person is a fascinating and enlightening experience. But I think the filmmakers tried too hard.

The film gives too many characters a point in the film that could be considered a “conversion point”. Now, this conversion point could be as simple as someone making a decision to help someone, or it could be as cinematicaly “big”  as accepting Christ as their savior. Each of these points could have been important and a solid piece of cinematography. But the filmmaker’s decision to have 7-10 conversion points in the film killed the pacing and made it hard for to invest in a narrative that felt convoluted and threadbare.

Conclusion: DO YOU BELIEVE is Pure Flix’s attempt to move beyond their Lifetime-style filmmaking and create what they think will be a box office hit. The film is a technical improvement, but the writers haven’t moved away from the flaws that their last film, GOD’S NOT DEAD. The film has too many characters, emphasizes telling over showing, and its heavy emphasis on conversion killed any tension or plot consistency that was there. The films doesn’t do much more than confirm things that Conservative Christians already think.The film creates what Ken Morefield describes as an echo chamber.

In his feature “Do You Believe in Confirmation Bias”, Morefield notes that films like DO YOU BELIEVE do very little to break the conservative mindset out of a set bubble. Humanists are still awful, gangsters are terrible and Christians win in the end. While this might be true in a limited extent, it doesn’t help me or the other viewers thoughtfully or lovingly engage our neighbors.

Maybe the more pertinent question to ask in the face of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead and Do You Believe? is not whether they are accurate representations of the world we live in, but whether the way they respond—and invite us to respond—to that broken world will help us to remake it into something healthier, holier, and more reflective of kingdom principles.

If Pure Flix wants to be a film company that changes the culture AND the Church, it should try to make people reconsider what they think, instead of reinforcing concepts that a significant portion of the Conservative Christian culture already accepts

 

 

Brilliantly Bored: A deeper look at New Tech City’s “Bored And Brilliant” Podcast series

Are you bored enough on a daily basis? This was the strange question that WNYC’s Manoush Zomorodi asked during her podcast’s latest social experiment, titled “Bored and Brilliant”. The project was inspired when Manoush noticed how she tended to use her phone for entertainment/distraction when she was bored. In fact, most people she knew did this. This lack of boredom also meant that people weren’t as creative, which was a problem. So, Manoush wanted to try and provide an alternative.

“Bored and Brilliant” is a series of 6 challenges over a week-long period that were designed to help users develop healthier mobile habits and be more creative. The challenge fitted the show’s theme of “where the technological gets personal”. But would this experiment actually change anything?

As a fan of the show, a tech nerd, and a lover of a good sociological experiment, it was impossible for me to not try the project out myself. After all, most people around me say that I’m “addicted to my phone”. I’ll admit, I do check my phone anywhere between 30-50 times. This interest is partly because of my job as a tech reporter, partly because of how it helps me maintain some relationships over long distances. But regardless of the reasons I used my phone so much, I needed to take some time and consider how I could use my devices in a more thoughtful way.

So, I signed up. I would listen to a mini-episode that provided me with a small challenge, along with interesting anecdotes and research that was relevant to the challenge.

Manoush Zomorodi of New Tech City

Some challenges were simple, such as storing your phone somewhere other than my pocket as I traveled. Others were a lot harder, such as deleting the app I use the most on a daily basis. (For Manoush, it was the game Two Dots. For me, it was Twitter AND Facebook.)

As a podcast and as a journalism project, Each episode was fairly interesting. The emotional relatability of Manoush created a desire to complete the challenge, and the interviews turned the podcast into more than just another self-help project.

Out of the six mini-episodes that NTC released, Challenge 3 (delete your favorite app for the day) was the most interesting. The episode spent its time struggling alongside Manoush, trying to figure out why she was playing so much Two Dots, and whether the extended playtime made her a better person in some way. We followed as Manoush tried to understand why the designer behind Two Dots made his game so addictive, or whether a psychologist would help her find some redeeming factor in her addiction. In the end, we could see how Manoush’s attempts at redeeming her “addiction” fell flat, and how they

At the end of the week, I felt this sense of cleanness, as though I had “cleared my mind”. And records show that many other people who participated in the challenge also received a similar feeling. But did it really change how much people used their phones?

When the project was first announced three weeks ago, Manoush asked listeners to install one of two phone apps that would track their phone usage. That data would be collected and sent to the App team, who would gather the data. In the latest episode, the team revealed that while most users who called in said they felt like they had just made a big change in their phone usage, the data showed the users only used their phone six minutes less on a than the established baseline of two hours a day on average. They also picked up the phone one less time than the basis. In other words, there wasn’t a huge decrease in how people use their phone; just in how they used. On the bright side, there was a big change in other ways. Users who deleted games during Challenge 3 saved more time than someone who deleted a social media or business app. Over 50% of those who answered NTC’s survey said that they planned to continue Challenge 3 (delete favorite app), and 32% of users reported that deleting the app was the most difficult of the challenges.

So, did this experiment change lives and help listeners to use their phones less and be more creative? Definitely. But how much? This isn’t the first project to get people to disconnect their media.  How is this difference from Arianna Huffington promoting a “digital detox” or filmmaker Tiffany Shlain arguing for technology shabbats?

I think “Bored and Brilliant” was more effective because it asks for less and offers less, which makes it more likely to leave an impact on a person. While Manoush does promise certain results (more creativity, less reliance on smartphones for distraction/entertainment), she never made a claim that was too large to fulfill (such as completely breaking one’s addiction to their smartphone). On top of that, the challenges are just enough to challenge convention and to get people to realize what they’re doing so they can be more conscious about it.

It’s highly unlikely that this set of podcast episodes was going to change lives. But I do think that Manoush and “Bored and Brilliant” helped me and many others to be more thoughtful about how they use their mobile devices.

 

Hank Green, Interviewing the President and the Shifting of the Media

One of my obsessions from last week was the post #stateoftheunion interview between three notable Youtube creators and President Obama. In one sense, my fascination with “Youtube Culture” (in the sense of the collection of creators and makers that are intrinsically popular on Youtube) made the event seem bigger than it actually was. But in another, I do think that this interview pointed to some interesting shifts in our media ecosystem.

I originally thought that the interviews were helpful for political discourse and that, as this Mediaite column noted, “now we know that even people who give makeup tips to teenagers and eat cereal out of a bathtub are also capable of conducting insightful interviews with the president.”

However, Hank Green, one of the creators who was honored enough to interview Obama, thinks it meant more than that. In his Medium article “Holy ___, I Interviewed The President”, (warning: NSFW language) Green expresses some interesting insights regarding old media, the new direction, and what the experience is like. I also read this fantastic column on how Google’s biases may have played into the experience. It’s well worth a read. But for now, I’d like to engage with Green’s ideas about the relationship between new media and “legacy media”.

My thoughts:

First off, I’m a full fledged activist for new media. Data shows that the age of Cable News’ median audience member is growing, and that people are looking for alternative sources. Sometimes that means new tools and mediums (like Youtube vloggers, podcasters, etc), and sometimes that means turning to new nonpartisan and partisan outlets. But people recognize that some methods no longer work and must be replaced

However, what is the relationship between new media and legacy media? Green argues that it is one of fear;

Legacy media isn’t mocking [Youtubers] because we aren’t a legitimate source of information; they’re mocking us because they’re terrified. Their legitimacy came from the fact that they have access to distribution channels and that they get to be in the White House press pool because of some long-ago established procedures that assumed they would use that power in the public interest. In reality, those things are becoming less and less important and less and less true. Distribution is free to anyone with a cell phone and the legitimacy of cable news sounds to me like an oxymoron.

In many senses, Green is onto something. Citizen journalism is a real and valid thing. Most people can perform the same functions as other reporter in many situations. And in some situations, the citizen journalists can do their job better than the professional legacy journalist.

But that’s an old point. Most media professors agree with that.

What I find interesting is that Hank Green thinks his work is better than legacy media. In his piece, Hank argues that his ability to communicate with the “Millennials” comes from years of building a relationship with them. His authenticity is what keeps people coming back.

Now, I’m a fan of Hank Green’s vlog, and I watch many other Youtube creators on a normal basisI think they’re the bee’s knees. But they aren’t my news source.

Hank and John’s ability to take complex topics and explain them in interesting and accessible ways is an amazing gift; a similar gift to creators like John Oliver and Sourcefed. But that’s not news. that’s “explainer journalism” We need that kind of reporting and content creation. But they’re not replacements for the mainstream media . They never could be. Guys like Hank rely on the work and research of some on-the-ground analyzing data reporters in order to make their points. These guys are a part of the media ecosystem, just as explainer journalism, editorialized reporting, columns, video interviews, and more.

Will Youtube and new media  replace mainstream media? Nope. But as more and more independent creators gain more legitimacy in the eyes of the general user, we should expect to see them become an integral and helpful addition to our modern media ecosystem.