Monthly Archives: May 2009

up! and away: in defense of writing.

Plenty of reviews of the new Pixar triumph Up! will justifiably rave about its awe-inspiring look or nuanced voice work or overall fun factor, but I’d like to draw attention to an often-overlooked strength of Pixar films: outstanding writing and storytelling.

Nothing in a Pixar film comes out of the blue or as a cheap plot twist. If you pay attention, almost everything in Up! is foreshadowed, fits and engages the audience. The plot finds widower Carl and eager scout Russell driven to adventure by the absence of his lifelong love and a distant father, respectively. Since no one is immune from loneliness, we can’t help but feel for Carl and Russell, and though we realize the obvious way they’ve found each other, it never falls to cheap sentiment or mawkishness. The romance of Carl and his beloved Ellie is shown through a musical montage of their decades together, nary a word needed because its messages are simple, direct and compelling.

The key to any work of fiction — whether book or 30-second TV ad or motion picture — is constructing a world where every action makes sense according to its internal logic (however fanciful). Thus Carl’s transition from grieving grouch to daring/caring action hero (who outwits rather than outmuscles adversaries, a welcome change) is so well-plotted it doesn’t surprise us. As with most Pixar movies, the villain here comes with a psychological backstory; the studio’s canon never has the simple psychotic archetype baddie to trigger the car chases and explosions of many a Jerry Bruckheimer crapfest. Even with the amazing visuals of Up!, that I never stopped to wonder about how the animators did anything shows how much the story drew me in.

And ultimately that the movie’s four protagonists — senior citizen and young boy, exuberant dog and exotic bird — are driven by trying to satisfy someone or something else masterfully underscores the movie’s message about the importance of friendship and connection. That it doesn’t have to come out and say this only underscores the masterful nature of Up!‘s writing.

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storm chasing and social media.

Let’s say you’re trying to show that your college lets students learn outside the classroom. You have a summer course where students pursue extreme weather across the Midwest. Wouldn’t keeping current and future students, friends and family, and the media updated via social media be a good idea?

In the case of the SUNY Oswego Storm Chasers course, this is indeed happening. The @oswegochasers Twitter account not only keeps followers updated on the team’s location, but readers can see some pretty cool photos as well as links to AccuWeather videos and AccuChaser Shawn Smith’s relayed blog updates. Talk about bringing the experience to the reader!

Fig. A: Storm cell reflected, courtesy of @oswegochasers.

Fig. A: Storm cell reflected, courtesy of @oswegochasers.

In theory, we could take it a step further. Imagine they tweet that they’re pulling into, say, Kansas City to chase storms around the region the next day. With a little time, planning and luck, couldn’t we take a shot via email (a long shot, perhaps) at interesting the Kansas City Star and/or local TV news operations at WADF, KCTV, KMBC and KSHB in doing a story on these out-of-town social-media-using storm chasers? (Though, sad to say, some editors may be more interested in the Twitter angle than the weather one.) Between having the cell number for the lead meteorologist plus compelling photos and access to AccuWeather’s ride-along videos, the basic elements are there for an interesting story.

If nothing else, it shows one more way social media can bring interesting experiences to the world, the silver lining for weather enthusiasts out pursuing the darkest clouds they can find.

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live-tweeting a wedding: risky business?

Long before people curiously decided Twitter was the next killer business app, it was a social-media site for sharing experiences. In that vein, when my Facebook status Saturday pondered live-tweeting that day’s wedding of my friends Fred and Michele, other friends unable to make it asked me to keep them updated on the festivities.

I’ll say this much: Live-tweeting a wedding is more difficult than doing Commencement or any number of other activities. The wedding of Fred and Michele (or @fredvigeant and @mjoyner, if you prefer) unfolded in St. Mary’s in Oswego, a beautiful church with soaring architecture and large stained-glass windows. What it doesn’t have is the kind of light you’d like for iPhone pictures. Thus attempts to photograph the bride may look like this:

Fig. A: Here comes the blur.

Fig. A: Here comes the blur.

Or, if you’re lucky and steady, this way:

This is better, despite the back light and low ambient. Those who saw it live-tweeted at least appreciated it.

Fig. B: This is better, despite the back light and low ambient. Those who saw it live-tweeted at least appreciated it.

Pictures aren’t the only challenge (and I did collect enough for a Facebook photo album). When typing the info to provide context on the live-tweet (preferred to just throwing a link on Twitter), I sensed others looking at me funny. Texting or typing in a church isn’t broadly embraced … and I don’t want to become that guy who obliviously and rudely focuses on his personal electronic device when he shouldn’t.

Other miscellaneous notes: In case you’ve ever wondered, it’s not easy to catch the Electric Slide on an iPhone:

Fig. C: It's electric!

Fig. C: It's electric!

Or here’s a curious one: Someone else’s flash impacts the ability of the iPhone to properly process the image. Or I could say the reception lighting was just very odd:

Fig. D: Turn around, bright eyes.

Fig. D: Turn around, bright eyes.

But sometimes, if you have the right light, the right subject and the right moment, everything does come together:

Fig. E: The happy couple.

Fig. E: The happy couple.

Being able to send this picture, showing Fred and Michele veritably glowing in the aftermath of the wedding ceremony, pleased a lot of people following my updates. And, in the end, sharing such meaningful experiences is really what social media can do best.

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drake walks the walk, gets A+

Come college commencement season, you see a lot of status games: Who’s speaking? Who’s streaming it on the Web? Who’s live-tweeting it? But frankly, Drake University has us all beat, and it has nothing to do with VIP speakers or use of fancy technology.

Drake’s graduation day started with a nightmare scenario as Glenn Koenen, whose daughter Cassaundra was set to receive her sheepskin, suffered a heart attack while waiting for the ceremony. According to the Des Moines Register, an ER nurse attending to see her niece graduate, a doctor and two Drake staffers sprang into action and restarted Glenn’s heart with a defibrillator. And while that kind of life-saving heroism is commendable, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable.

As Cassaundra sat beside his hospital bed, Glenn rued that he’d ruined her graduation day. A nurse contacted the college to see what they could do. What they did exceeded anyone’s expectations: Drake’s college president and other administrators came straight to the hospital room to present Cassaundra with her diploma in front of her dad.

Think about that: A college that cares enough that its president goes to the hospital on graduation day to present a diploma! If you are a student considering Drake, have a child attending the college or are an alum, you’ve got to feel really good about what this says about the institution.

As we all look at and discuss what social-media tools and other gadgets we use to promote our institutions, we can never forget the most important lesson: People matter. What any college does for one of its students in his or her hour of need is its greatest test. By that measure, Drake University scores an A+ and provides a lesson for us all.

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live-tweeting a joyous day.

On Saturday, SUNY Oswego joined the vanguard of colleges live-tweeting Commencement, as I posted updates and photos throughout the two-ceremony day at our Twitter account twitter.com/sunyoswego.

Fig. A: Graduates gathering.

Fig. A: Graduates gathering.

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to do. Any mobile device with Web access to provide running commentary is all you need. It’s a bonus to have a device that also takes photos, such as my iPhone, to provide the proverbial 1,000 words to followers. Camera phones mean a lack of zoom and depth of field, so you may have to count on panoramic shots or the occasional blur. The ability to get in there for behind-the-scenes views, serendipitous shots and hammy bits of joy — and to communicate instantaneously — is quite the payoff. (You can also collect ’em all into a Facebook photo album later.) Remember that if you’re live-tweeting photos, a short compelling description will let people decide whether to click the image link.

Fig. B: A time to rejoice.

Fig. B: A time to rejoice.

LiveTweet 1 had room for improvement. My Commencement responsibilities include media relations (most notably having C-SPAN in the house!) and managing ushers, so such other duties probably got in the way of posting content. Having the luxury of a person dedicated entirely to live-tweeting probably makes for better output. I also decided late in the game to live-tweet it, which meant we didn’t do a lot of pre-promotion.

Still, I was quite happy with the feedback. Several images/links were retweeted, always a sign of appreciation. Alumni tweeps commented on how much they enjoyed their graduation, current and future students tweeted questions and comments, and @sunyoswego saw a jump in followers. So I definitely think it was worth the effort … but I’d say that even if it helped just one more person enjoy such a glorious, momentous, joyous day.

EDIT/UPDATE: Icing on the cake = Oswego County Today, a local online-only daily, did a story mentioning the live-tweeting and using a couple of the posted photos. Who says social-media projects can’t cultivate positive press coverage?

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sweeping away preconceptions.

Whenever I hear people talk of students or prospective students as some kind of homogeneous group, or in generational terms, I recall the first time I ever saw a streetsweeper.

During my senior year of college, I’d crashed at a friend’s house after a late night. Woke around 5 a.m., hopped in the ’78 Chevy Malibu and that’s when I saw it. This strange little vehicle with large rotating scrub-brushes cleaning the street. Coming from a town under 2,000, I’d never before experienced such a fantastical machine. But when I told my friends from cities of any size about it after, they eyeballed me as every bit the rube I often felt.

Similarly, our students come from so many different places and experiences, and have such a variety of needs and interests. So it’s curious that, after we’re taught while growing up not to stereotype, so many involved in higher education are quick to, well, stereotype students. They talk of a reductionist Gen Y or Millennial stereotype (founded on fairly shaky ‘research’ and assumptions) and use broad reductionism in spewing generalizations. Don’t our students deserve better?

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of interacting with even a handful of students know what a diverse bunch they are. The young man from the farming community is quite different from the young lady from the Bronx, even if demographers try to pigeonhole them with the same one-size-fits-all label. Isn’t it arrogant to assume they have all these similarities just because they were born within years of each other? To just classify all as Millennials or Gen Yers or whatever oversimplified stereotype someone will invent for the next generation is to do them a disservice. And, in the process, doing all of us a disservice.

So next time you’re thinking of what students may want, here’s a simple suggestion: Don’t box them into a stereotype. Instead, talk to them. You may be amazed. Moreover, you could sweep away preconceptions and assure a clearer road to understanding.

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black and white, still read all over?

Imagine two restaurants sitting next to each other on a downtown street.

The first has a large, attentive staff. Items on the menu are new and exotic. The food is fresh and in ample portions.

The second is barely staffed. The menu lists items you can find anywhere. The portions are small and uninspiring. When the waiter finally visits your table for the check, you comment about the service. Oh, sniffs the waiter, it’s the Internet’s fault. Everyone orders food online now.

This analogy comes to you courtesy of the current state of the newspaper industry. I live in Upstate New York, a fairly blue-collar, economically challenged region where any paper could blame the economy for paltry readership. Except it’s not true. Rochester rates first in the country for adult readership rate with 87 percent, Buffalo third with 86 percent, Syracuse fifth at 85 percent. Mathematically, that means if you passed 6 adults on a street in those cities, 5 of them read the local daily. Admittedly, that includes those perusing Web sites, but that still denoted devoted readership and flies in the face of the rush to call papers (Webbers?) a dying medium.

But some news organizations are dying from the inside, as corporate ownership continues to phase out positions and present aggressive buyouts. Through consolidating staff, one local paper has virtually eliminated all the interesting reasons people read it, whittling down to basic cops and courts, rewritten news releases and lots of wire copy. Gone or reduced are specialty columns (its differentiation), long and probing articles, community coverage of any depth. The blame falls on the Internet, the economy, demographics … but some papers still exist that didn’t gut staffs but retained unique and interesting features, thus continuing to stay vital. If you get rid of your best reporters and editors, your product will suffer just as much as if a restaurant eliminates its serving staff.

I’m not saying newspapers don’t have challenges. I AM saying that just repeating doom and gloom, and corporate policies that cut, cut, cut are not the answer. If you had a product that reached 5 out of 6 people in your market, would you be trying to kill it? Instead, creative solutions and investments — such as former employees of the shuttered Seattle Post-Intelligencer banding together to create the new online Post-Globe — are needed to sustain a new brand of journalism. Just food for thought.

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