Sunday, 28 November 2010

Mad Men- series 4 almost over...

In October, I managed to watch the first three series of Mad Men, which I'd somehow failed to catch over the last few years. It's gripping stuff, despite the fact that not much happens in most episodes and I'm glad that I've now knocked off 51 episodes so that this Wednesday when I see the final episode of series 4 I will be completely up to date.

If you don't know the show, it's set in the 1960s and tells the story of the Madison Avenue advertising executives through a fictional agency and particularly through the messed up central character, creative director Don Draper, an anti-hero for our time, as much as any other.

The title sequence is a graphic tour de force and takes you straight into the mindset of Don Draper, who appears to be falling from a high floor of a New York skyscraper.

Mad Men Title Sequence from Caleb Woods on Vimeo.

Across series 1, we see Don's series of adulterous relationships set against the backdrop of his family life, creating a tension which is then layered with flashbacks to his own childhood, revealing his secret past. By series 2 it becomes impossible to contain all his secrets as his marriage starts to disintegrate and in series 3 it falls apart completely. Series 4 sees him in a bachelor pad in New York, but unhappier than ever as his life and work seem to unravel around him.

But this is only a part of a complex web woven by the writers; there are several interesting characters who develop over the four series, notably Peggy, who starts episode 1 as the new girl secretary introduced to the firm but by series 4 has developed into the only female creative in the company and in many ways the only character who can handle Don- possibly because she is one of the few women who hasn't had a sexual relationship with him.

The programme is all set against a backdrop of American social and political history in the 1960s, including Kennedy's election and assassination, the black civil rights movement, the Cuban Missile crisis and the Beatles at Shea stadium, but it is also a fascinating analysis of power relations, especially the role of gender in US society of the time. Despite the appalling behaviour of the male characters at times, especially Don, the viewer is drawn into a strange sympathy with them as their complexity is allowed to emerge. It is an interesting example of the American tradition of quality TV drama, as seen in the Sopranos, ER, House and others, but in its ad agency setting it defies the usual genre characteristics of the crime series or the hospital show. If you haven't seen it, there's a box set of series 1-3 available (£30 in HMV), but be warned, once you start you won't be able to stop!

And here's the official site, where you can play games and even take on the role of characters

Twitter- why it might be useful for A level

Are you on twitter? Do you tweet? Last week, I saw a list of the ten most influential brands in the UK and the US and Twitter was up there near the top of both them, along with Google, Facebook and Apple on both and John Lewis on the UK one. But if you ask in the average classroom, 'who uses twitter?' the numbers will be well down on who uses facebook- so how come it's seen to be so important?

It was started in 2006, and in case you don't know, involves being able to send messages of up to 140 characters (a tweet) to all users of the system who follow you. Your messages are not private, but can be seen by anyone signed up to twitter, though they only automatically get messages from people they have elected to 'follow'; all other messages would involve a search. Messages can be grouped together by the use of a hashtag #, so for example if people are at an event and want to send live comments on it to the twitter feed there can be a common hashtag which they all use for their messages so they get to read anything related to it, rather than just messages from people they already follow.

There are currently estimated to be 200 million people signed up to Twitter, though many may just be readers of tweets or people who haven't signed in for a while; nonetheless there are huge numbers of people who do use it daily. One feature that makes it stand out from other forms of blogging and social networking is the number of well known people who use it. Unlike websites for bands or actors, where usually someone is employed to send out messages and keep us informed about the star's life, twitter is frequently used by celebrities themselves to send out their thoughts, which is one of the reasons they frequently get into trouble with it. As it is an instant medium and easily used on a phone, very often people tend to tweet their thoughts without considering the consequences. A number of sports people have got into trouble in this way after tweeting their reaction to being left out of teams, for example. Politicians likewise have a tendency to 'put their foot in it' when left to their own (mobile) devices, without their spin doctors to tell them what to say.

Many people think of tweeting as rather self-indulgent and narcissistic, saying 'who cares what so-and-so had for breakfast', which is of course true, just as it is with endless status updates on facebook, but as with any new medium, with twitter you have to be selective. If people you follow are rather boring to read, you can just as easily 'unfollow' them.

It is estimated 65 million tweets are sent every day, so there will be a lot of variety in terms of what is sent in the messages. It does tend to be more of an older group of people who use it by comparison with facebook and other social networks, with only about 11% of its users being in the 12-17 age range.Women are slightly more likely to use it than men and about 75% of content on it comes from 5% of users. A popular use of twitter is the re-tweet (RT) function, where you can send on an interesting message you have seen to all your followers.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian last week wrote an interesting piece on the importance of Twitter which you can find here. He outlines 15 things that twitter does effectively, which include the effectiveness and swiftness of its distribution, its value as a search, aggregation and marketing tool, its diversity and the ways it is challenging and changing conventional politics. Well worth a read, as is this article from The Guardian about how people tweet during certain TV programmes to form commentating communities. Some programmes, such as 'Giles and Sue live the Good Life' have benefited hugely from the amount of discussion from tweeters during the episodes.

So who is worth following for A level Media?

@julianmcdougall wrote the OCR textbook and he tends to use his tweets to send out useful links for the A2 exam in particular

@henryjenkins is the American academic who wrote 'Convergence Culture' and has done a lot of research on fans

@ainnucci Armando Iannucci the creator of 'The Thick of It' and Alan Partridge, amongst much more, is always amusing and interesting

@petesmediablog is me- I don't say much but you might find other people I follow quite interesting!

Get yourself on there, add a few people then have a hunt around for comedians, actors, film-makers, politicians, journalists you find interesting. It could open you up to a whole load of interesting stuff!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Twitter on trial: #iamspartacus

Last week saw the first stirrings of rioting in response to the coalition government's policies as students holding a demo in London broke into the Conservative Party HQ in Millbank Tower and smashed some stuff up. On Thursday, almost every national paper had the same picture on the front page, but with a variety of different headlines, offering slightly different perspectives on the whole event. there is an interesting analysis of the coverage on the POLIS blog here while this montage from Political Scrapbook shows just how dominant the image was.

I was quite struck, however, by this slightly wider shot of the moment which someone tweeted on friday:

In this, we can clearly see just how many photographers are there with a ringside view so that what seems like chaos starts to look...set up?

Twitter was a good source for inside material on wednesday during the demo when people were tweeting about what was happening as it happened and others were re-tweeting and commenting upon the flow of events.

On thursday, Twitter itself hit the news with an appeal case in Doncaster Crown Court. Back in January, a man called Paul Chambers, on his way to see his girlfriend in Northern Ireland, got to the airport near doncaster to find it was shut. He tweeted: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!!". It was meant as a joke and he didn't really think that anyone other than his girlfriend would see it. Unfortunately, apart from his 600 followers, someone did and called the police. neither they nor Robin Hood airport thought it was a serious bomb threat, but he was brought to trial and convicted for sending a menacing communication. His appeal this week was thrown out, with the judge actually increasing his fine and making him pay costs. In the meantime, he has lost his job as well.

On Twitter, this caused a bit of a stir, with avid tweeter Stephen Fry offering to pay off his fine and many people seeing it as a threat to free speech. The judge appears to have taken the view that there was no humour involved, saying the tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

The implications of this case are wide-ranging, as people using twitter or indeed any social network, like Facebook, could be open to prosecution for any public remark, however it may have been intended. This case coincided with an incident where a Conservative councillor, Gareth Compton, from Birmingham was reported to have tweeted after getting annoyed by a phone-in on Five Live: "Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really."

He too was arrested and has been suspended by the local party. His tweet contained the hashtag #R5L indicating that his words were a response to the phone-in, where Ms.Alibhai-Brown had been making some forthright points about the war in Iraq, with which he disagreed. Though his words were rather clumsy and even offensive, it would be hard to argue that they were meant as a direct threat.

She heard about the tweet and suggested he should be arrested and someone went on to report him to the police. He was arrested under suspicion of a breach of section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act – Improper use of public electronic communications network, where "a person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". Though this law is rarely invoked, it is a bit alarming in terms of its breadth, as it would appear that many thousands of messages on twitter or facebook each day could fall foul of it- think of some of the things you may have sent or just posted on your facebook wall which you thought were just funny...

Anyway, this point was taken up in a big way on friday, when thousands of twitter users, including many celebrities like Dara O'Brain, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry re-sent the Chambers tweet along with the hashtag #iamspartacus, a reference to the 1960 film where rebellious gladiators refuse to let Spartacus carry the blame and all claim to be him.

Charlie Brooker's tongue-in-cheek column for The Guardian takes it one step further.

If you aren't on Twitter yet, don't be put off by commentators who suggest it's just a middle-aged and middle class fad. There are a lot of influential people on there and a lot of people who tweet interesting and useful stuff; next week, I'll be suggesting some people you could follow on Twitter, so in the meantime, set yourself up an account!

I'm @cmdiploma by the way!