Author Archives: Will Matthews

The Attention Merchants

With the next meme or viral hit bursting into the cultural zeitgeist faster than Thanos can snap, it can be hard to organize your attention on what is truly important in the world. Columbia University professor Tim Wu, author of the book, “The Attention Merchants,” looks closely at media attempts to control our attention. From the advent of print media to the current digital age, Wu examines the formula for garnering our interest in celebrities, notably in his chapter on what he refers to as the celebrity-industrial complex.

Wu begins by telling the story of the founding of Time Magazine. Its creation was a response to the dominating news entity of the era: The New York Times. The great institution was not without its critics, as Wu reveals that a New Yorker writer in the early 1920s described the publication as “colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless.” In other words, dry and uninspired for the nature of the postwar Roaring ’20s.

It appeared that their audience wanted more than just the bare bones facts; thus, Time-Life Magazine was born. Here in the chapter, Wu seems to emphasize this shift as a point where news media also became an outlet for entertainment and personality. Even the standard for article length was changed, as Time founder Henry Luce decided that 200 words were the absolute limit. In the modern context, one can apply it to how people respond to the 200 character or so tweets that Twitter users publish, and how that can gain far more attention than would a 3,000-word article from The Guardian or Huffington Post.

If Wu is arguing that size matters in the attention economy, then it definitely pays to be short and sweet. As he quotes Luce in the chapter, “People just aren’t interesting in the mass, it’s only individuals who are exciting.” Time Magazine was the first magazine to focus on the individual. Whether they be significant statesmen, generals, artists, or entertainers, the philosophy behind the publication of Time was to put “a different notable face on the cover every week.” This would lead to the annual Man (and eventually Person) of the Year. “The relentless focus on personalities was a different way to do news,” as Wu explains. Over the years the faces of Stalin, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and even Taylor Swift have all graced the cover of Time Magazine; their images glorified and immortalized on a single glossy sheet

Wu falls short of saying that celebrity focus was popularized by any single news entity. However, some publications, like People, developed an effective formula. Richard Stolley, a former editor for People, explained that he decided each week’s cover based on two key factors: the face had to be “recognizable to 80% of Americans” and there had to be something you want to know about them.

Any average consumer of entertainment news can now infer that any individual making it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine like Time, Elle, or Vogue is an indication of status, as well as an investment into the attention economy.

As consumers, our eyes are drawn to the flashy covers, whether we want to recognize these individuals actively, eventually we passively come to collect enough general information about them that you can, at the very least, say you know more about them than they know of you.

As so-called attention merchants, media executives set the standards of what deserves their consumer’s attention, based on what attracts the most attention. Consequently, it developed very exclusive standards: young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly, rich is better than poor. These standards continue to permeate entertainment publications, despite “body-positivity” and “real women” movements, there are still narrow standards of beauty for women, and men for that matter. However, other standards have seen a notable change in recent years, that do not seem to reflect today’s media: TV is better than music, music is better than movies, movies are better than sports, and anything is better than politics.

Personally, this writer would argue that music, due to online streaming services has reached, if not surpassed the attention economy of TV and movies. Many people are dropping their cable subscriptions in favor of other services, and movie attendance has seen a general decline over the years. More to this writer’s point, politics has now become the main focus once again of the average American. From infotainment shows like “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” to daily news coverage of national politics, it is clear that we have once again become an issue-oriented attention market versus the personality one that we lived in up until we reached peak celebrity culture.

Wu describes our passive participation in the attention market as almost insidious in its nature, “you don’t have to be a fan to identify [ …] Angelina Jolie or Leonardo DiCaprio. You know them like you know the names of major cities you never visited.” So what explains the fascination that literally can cause a physical reaction in our body? If you’ve ever encountered a celebrity or famous person, you know that feeling of your heart beating faster and having the urge to document the moment as if it were something so deeply important to your well-being.

Wu argues that the strength of these feelings can be connected to older traditions of worship, such as religion and magic, though he falls short of equating celebrity worship to a religion. Though he does bring up the allegory of Moses’ and the golden calf idol, he burned for being a false idol. In fact, there are several connections made to the Bible in this book, so much so that it’s hard not to equate celebrity and prophetic worship.

In summation, Wu’s general argument is that the celebrity-industrial complex is maintained not by “the existence of [celebrities] but rather the idea of constructing an industry based on the demand for feeling some communion with them.” In other words, the complex exists because we, as consumers of entertainment media, crave a connection with someone who looks just like us, yet feels worlds apart.

For anyone interested in the story of how our eyes and minds are controlled by advertisers and programmers, and how little control we actually have over what we consume, then “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu is a must-read.

Medium Flesh

A close-up shot of delicate hands deliberately washing a fresh green apple, a bejeweled ring flaunted on a finger, a grip tightening around a cup of coffee — these are just some examples of hand imagery used by student Lorena Garibay for her film, “Medium: Flesh.”

The inspiration, comes from a specific aesthetic, as Garibay puts it. “I’ve always had a fascination with nice hands, and jewelry,” she explained. “I wanted to explore what fascination and desperation could drive a person to do.”

Without giving too much of the story away, the main character, Emil, also played by Garibay, is tasked by her art professor to create an art piece using hands as the subject. Garibay portrays Emil’s character as a tense person with a cold, quiet exterior that hides a whirlwind of visual and auditory hallucinations that play on her greatest insecurities. Fellow Chabot student, Stu Briggs, plays David, a seemingly close and concerned friend. He also appears in her hallucinations, and thanks to Briggs’ compelling acting, the viewer gains insight into the anxieties and obsessions of Emil.

At roughly 20 minutes, the short film was entered into Chabot’s student film festival, which was held from April 23 — 25. There were five categories for consideration, but unfortunately, “Medium: Flesh” did not take home a single award. Instructor Thomas Lothian of the Mass Communication department, who also had a small role in the film as the art instructor, believed that the film deserved more recognition. He argued that the film should have been awarded the best narrative.

Despite not winning any awards at the festival, the students involved in Garibay’s project were all proud of their work and what they learned. This includes Auburn Jordan, who worked on filming and assisted with the postproduction work. Jordan described his editing process as “piece by piece like a puzzle” because, as he states, “magic happens in production.” This is most evident in a critical scene in the film where Emil, played by Garibay, hallucinates for the first time. In filming, he preferred to let the scene play out in long takes, as he believes “it feels like you’re watching real life, as opposed to a constructed narrative.” He also stressed that he had to take extra care not to clip too much from what was filmed, “when you clip a lot [the editing] shows.”

After viewing the film, several students walked away, feeling impacted by the jarring climax. First-year student Kacie Reed said she “definitely would recommend this to a friend,” noting that she liked the use of sound effects in the hallucination scenes. Another student, Ronwaldo Silverio, was drawn more to the cinematography and storytelling, “my favorite part was the twist ending.” This sentiment appeared to be shared by student Phillip Antwine, who theorized that the main character, Emil, became “overstressed and obsessed by the small obstacle of [drawing] hands.”

While Emil can be cold, obsessive, and self-centered, Garibay herself is bright, sharp-minded, and attentive. When asked how she tried to portray an unbalanced person like Emil, Garibay explained, “I tried to portray her [mental] state by showing her hurting herself and causing herself to bleed.” In postproduction, more effects were added to accentuate that feeling of imbalance and instability, as she further elaborates “We also incorporated some filters that helped distinguish between what was reality and what was her delusion.” Being an amateur actor, Garibay had to draw from personal experiences to accurately portray the character of Emil. Her inspiration came from “times in which I found myself creating another reality in my mind,” which she describes as a way to vent and fantasize about various outcomes in her life.

If you missed the film festival and want to see the twist ending for yourself, you can head on over to YouTube. There, you can search for “Medium: Flesh” or go to the YouTube channel of Chabot College Television to watch the film.

Leprecon 2019

On, March 16, downtown Hayward’s “B Street” lit up in a shade of verdant green for its 1st Annual “Leprecon”. The event was coordinated by the same group that organizes Hayward’s annual Santacon in support of the Hayward Animal Shelter. For the first time in the city’s history, the community was invited to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the form of a bar crawl through several local bars and restaurants along B street. Up and down the street, there was an abundance of green; from the lights, to the drinks, and even the people. Attendees were encouraged to come dressed up in flashy costumes and of course, wear whatever green they had.

Greg Jones looked naturally dressed in his vividly green two-piece suit. As a realtor, wearing suits is part of his trade, but during his off time, he helped organize this event, as well as last December’s “Santacon”. Jones, along with his wife and fellow realtor Anna May, collaborated with co-coordinators Chelsea Anderson and Katie Quick to create this event to once again bring festivities to downtown Hayward.

Jones estimated a total of 300 adoptions at the shelter since holding the first Santacon. He attributed the success and coordination of this event to Chelsea Anderson, who he claimed pushed the idea and got the event going. When asked about future events, Jones hinted at “a zombie crawl” possibly occurring “the last week of October.” Citizens are advised to stay alert should the dead rise to walk among us again.

Chelsea Anderson herself was happy with the turnout, despite it being the first year for this event, and being organized in a shorter amount of time than the yearly Santacon. Anderson’s reason for organizing this event was that she wanted to start another new tradition for Hayward, as well as continue to support the animal shelter and local businesses. It was the success of the last few Santacons that encouraged her and her fellow con coordinators to go forward with this year’s “Leprecon”.

The first official stop of the crawl was at “Chalk it Up”, a bar with a variety of recreational activities such as pool, foosball, ping pong, and chess. Though it was the first stop, many attendees were already at the next stops, “Brews and Brats” and “Metro Taquero”, before 7 p.m., presumably to provide a good carbohydrate cushion for the ensuing mix of specialty “Irish” drinks offered in honor of the occasion.

San Leandro resident Vanessa Pelayo was invited to attend by a friend. She gladly accepted the chance to share her opinion of the specialty Irish drink offered by each bar. High hopes were held for her first stop, “Brews and Brats”, but after a few sips of the “Irish Margarita”, she stated flatly, “It tastes like a regular margarita” and later added that it “was not even filled all the way”. The official rating: five out of ten. It’s not the first drink she would choose, but after a few, she would not mind them.

The Stein Lounge was the peak of her night. She described the margarita as an all-around better drink because it was sweeter and cheaper. Plus, they actually filled her drink to the top and for that, it was given an eight out of ten.

The Dirty Bird was the last stop of her night, though nothing of this Irish Margarita seemed different from a regular margarita. She did notice that the bartender poured too much alcohol by accident. “They messed up and left it in there. I got lucky”.  Luck of the Irish, maybe? Pelayo, however, still enjoyed Stein Lounge’s “Irish Margarita” the best, and gave Dirty Bird’s version a solid seven out of ten.

For Eric Fager of San Francisco, the night was a night to share the wealth. Fager came dressed as The Riddler from Batman, a villain known for his green suit and bowler hat. Far from villainous, he shared golden chocolate coins with fellow attendees out of his pot o’ gold. Along with a not-so-subtle “Vote for me!”, he encouraged everyone to support him in the costume contest that occurred at the end of the night. Unfortunately, the results of the costume contests were unclear, partly due to the crowd petering out around 10 p.m.

Hiccups are inevitable in an initial run. As the adage goes, it’s not that easy, being green, but the success of the first Leprecon may promise an even bigger and better Leprecon 2020.