Monday, March 31, 2008

Shine Does Not Sparkle

So Yahoo created a new "portal", Shine, for women between the ages of 25 and 54. It's supposed to be another area for women to congregate, much like the older iVillage. Apparently it's an "underrepresented demographic" (um, ok...) and is the first time that Yahoo is categorically targeting based not on interests or pyschographics. But, like any other major portal, it's struck deals with other content providers and will feature their material in addition to original stories.

Of course, the company is trying to market itself as a destination for women who are looking for "attitude," "personality," and "humor", while providing advice and secret tips like "a friend." First of all, I don't go looking for websites to be "my friend". That's what people are for. "Attitude" "personality" and "humor" are also better served by niche sites. I'll take Radar any day over generic posterings--although, obviously, one well-linked article suddenly will gain a couple million viewers when it's featured on a main page of a portal. Something as mainstream as Yahoo will not be able to afford to appeal to those looking for something "edgier", the ever-important encompasser of all things that constitute "attitude", "personality" and "humor".

As part of marketing the image of a hipper version of iVillage, Shine is written in blog format. But short spurts of text masquerading as articles do not a successful website make (just ask any blogger). That's its most innovative feature. Everything else is your standard women's content: food, astrology, parenting tips, fashion, beauty, boring nothingness. Based on market research (the bread and butter of companies), Shine is meant for women who are "looking for one place that gave them everything," "a place that was looking at the whole them — as a parent, as a spouse, as a daughter." Like everything else in life, there is not one thing that is going to fulfill all your desires. The idea that one thing can be everything to everybody is a laughable concept, though one that companies in every conceivable industry will strive to be. After all, I wouldn't go here if I was looking for in-depth analysis on the news of the day, but that's relevant to me. I know that's not the point, but I'm also not looking for content that works for me as a daughter, because, well, who thinks like that? I'd sift around for good father's day gifts, but that's about it. But despite wanting women to "start their day" with a portal that will offer them "a more relevant experience" (compared to regular web browsing? like more bang for their buck?), Shine can't really work if there's no link from the main Yahoo page.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Another Survey Explaining Why Men Don't Get Women

Clueless Guys Can't Read Women

"More often than not, guys interpret even friendly cues, such as a subtle smile from a gal, as a sexual come-on, and a new study discovers why: Guys are clueless.

More precisely, they are somewhat oblivious to the emotional subtleties of non-verbal cues, according to a new study of college students.

"Young men just find it difficult to tell the difference between women who are being friendly and women who are interested in something more," said lead researcher Coreen Farris of Indiana University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences."

This "lost in translation" phenomenon plays out in the real world, with about 70 percent of college women reporting an experience in which a guy mistook her friendliness for a sexual come-on, Farris said.

As any girl knows, there's a fine line, which is why intentions often need explanation.

Of course, most people are going to use this as another example of Why Boys Are Dumb, why a lot of popular science is of the "duh" variety, why women need to be more direct (you go girl!), and why we're all so damn clueless.

But what might be the most interesting thing about this study is that it was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

As even more girls will tell you, drinking means that that friendly "Hey! I haven't seen you in FOREVER!" automatically MUST mean that you're totally digging said long-lost buddy. And, well...relationships affect our mental health. Just ask anyone going through a breakup.

Does a feature story on one boy's bullying warrant coverage in the Times?

I read the feature on Monday about Billy Wolfe, and his horrible bullying saga…but I’m missing the point. At the end of the article, I went, “That’s it?” It ends with a quote by him, in reference to an incident where he opens a textbook to find hate message directed at him. Maybe because the article is making no judgments, just simply laying the story out there, is why it feels incomplete. What’s happening? What’s going to happen? It’s sad to say that in situations like this, many families move, but I completely agree with the Wolfes in that it is incredibly unfair to make them move and that the school is basically forcing them to do so, or to take such dramatic action as suing them.

The idea behind an article like this would be to highlight bullying. But I think the paper did a poor job of it—by focusing on one boy in particular, we only get his story, not even if it’s indicative of bullying levels across the country. His story needs to be tied into something larger—or maybe that’s just me expecting traditional journalism. “A Boy the Bullies Love to Hate” is part of Dan Barry’s “This Land” column, which tells human interest stories from all areas of the United States. Ok, sounds cool. But…what is the point Barry is making, other than publicizing Billy Wolfe’s case? That’s not a bad thing at all, and he’s doing it in a low-key way, even if the article is currently listed on their most-emailed list. From reading articles like this, it seems like bullying has increased, or maybe it’s just that it’s getting more coverage—which always skews perception and numbers. The story, like most bullying ones, is sad. What breaks your heart is that the kid is probably going to grow up with a lot of problems, thanks to what he’s experienced. Focusing on school is hard if everything school-related is a source of constant anxiety, and only doing well will spur others to further their harassment.

The article notes, in the issue of fairness, that some people think that Billy has contributed to his bullying; that is, he’s instigated or egged on his tormentors. I’m sure he has—what teenage boy doesn’t snarl an insult or hurl his fist when he’s reached his breaking point? It may not be right, but it’s true. It’s also true that sustained beatings for several years when clearly he is the only one needs some serious monitoring and some serious questions answered pronto.

Being the victim of bullying is always an unwinnable situation. You tell your parents or other authority figures, and just about whatever happens will come back to haunt you: you feel like a sissy, weak, a failure, but often it’s as a last resort. And whatever disciplinary action happens, it just makes others angrier and can possibly start a whole new level of agony. Even if the bully goes away, the lasting scars—and his friends—still linger.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I love the world

How can you not love the world today when you can access Ashley Alexandra Dupre's MySpace, when the BBC limits employee's Facebook accounts for exactly the reason above (blogs can publish your embarrassing photos to the world!) and when Gawker Jezebel offers up such amusing media criticisms as this?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

News Analysis: 60 Minutes, Hillary Clinton, US Weekly and Gender Stereotypes

Although these 60 Minutes interviews aired a month ago, and much has changed, I feel the criticisms and observations I’ve recorded still stand. I’ve updated and edited various versions of this since that time, more because of time restraints than anything else. The segments are solid pieces, very well-written, but look at the stark differences in terms of style of questioning, arrangement of questions, what they discussed.

60 Minutes aired the Obama interview first, then after the commercial break came Hillary. Notice the differences, in approach, in style:

Obama’s video:


Now watch Hillary:


They’re both excellent interviews, no doubt. There's no coincidence that Katie Couric is the one interviewing Hillary, and the 60 Minutes newsman Steve Kroft has Barack. Katie Couric--with all the criticism of her Evening News broadcast, her soft Today Show background--is going to be asking "the tough questions" of the female presidential candidate. It's a perfect meld: Katie gets to be serious, yet show off her gentleness, how at ease she can be, and Hillary can indulge them.

Both interviewers ask good questions, often touching on similar topics, and both candidates do shill out a bit their lines. But notice: while Kroft ends the interview with the “How do you do it?” question, Couric begins her interview that way. While both interviewers aren’t antagonistic, and are usually very friendly, Couric affects camaraderie right away: She brings up her troubles, the fact that she could very well lose the nomination, starting the interview off negatively, though with a pressing question. Yet Hillary answers positively, that she believes in what she’s doing, telling herself, essentially, that she can do it. It’s all very touchy-feeling women’s magazine-y. Katie interrupts her: “You never think, oh I’m so tired, I’m so exhausted, I’m spending so much money, wouldn’t it be easier to hang it all up?”

It’s such a bonding moment, yet it’s a question I’m sure many are wondering. “Katie, you can’t think like that, you have to believe you’re going to win, otherwise leave the field and let someone who has the confidence and the optimism and the determination that a leader has to have get on the field and stay,” Hillary responds with iron-strong conviction. However, as much as it is easy to mock Hillary Clinton's women's magazine-self-help strong-woman mantra of "I believe I can", she's got a point. There's no way--and this goes for anyone undertaking such a massive effort--that you can do something so huge, so completely taxing on every possible facet of your life, without believing in what you are doing. It’s impossible. You have to believe that you can effect change, that you can succeed. That will (and her money) must be strong. Yet that line, especially in this context, does come across as a little pandering, self-serving, haughty, even. To some people it sounds patronizing. Would it come across that way if Barack Obama said it, if a male candidate said it? Probably not; it wouldn’t have that ring of cynicism that plagues her.

Watch their faces during this interaction. Katie Couric really wants to know how Hillary does it, and Hillary, true to her gender and her persona, gives details, techniques: hot peppers, water, no diet soda, washing her hands to stay healthy. Details are what women want to know. We marvel at those who somehow have it all, get it all done, and Hillary fits perfectly into that. It’s why her “crying moment” before New Hampshire worked for many women voters.

Katie also asks if Hillary likes Barack Obama. Hillary’s whole spiel–she helped campaign for him, there’s a picture of him in her office, yada yada yada–is inconsequential. What’s the point? Is Katie trying to get Hillary to crack, to prove there is more than a scintilla of bad blood between them, trying to form wedges? Isn’t that what people accuse women of doing all the time, holding onto grudges and forming new ones, to prove that Hillary’s full of hate? Notice Steve Kroft didn’t ask Obama his opinion of Hillary. Why does this matter? Presidential candidates have been known to pick running mates based on electability, not on their personal opinion. Hillary’s answers are all pat, pandering responses that deserve eye-rolling–yeah, we all waited on bated breath for the day where a white woman would run against a black man for president. She is right, though, in that this election is both about what they represent and who they are, more so than any other election. I question whether Obama’s ever had a negative ad run against him. He did run for Congress; senate races do have attack ads. Hell, even my local mayoral election had some nasty (yet clever) flyers sent out.

Look at Katie’s face when she asks, teasingly, if Hillary “couldn’t handle it”. She’s egging her on. Couric also asks about media treatment compared to Obama, and—this is before the “whining” in the Ohio debate—she acknowledges it, but says it’s ok. It has to be ok. If it’s not, she’s got a grudge, a vendetta, and even if that’s true, she can’t let everybody know it. It must not be verified.

Katie also goes into Hillary’s personal history. “Weren’t you the girl who sat in the front row who took copious notes and always raised her hand?” “Well, not always...” C’mon, Katie, weren’t you that type of girl too? They giggle, sharing a laugh about high school boys (it is pretty funny). It’s all designed—much like the entire segment—to show Hillary as human, feminine, to appeal to women voters, her base. I want to ask if it’s really necessary, but that’s a moot question. It’s what you do, and she’s been just as “aggressive” and “manly” in some of her tactics as commented on in the press. It doesn’t matter—you do what you need to do to win.

She doesn’t just do this on television. In this multifaceted media world, you have to hit every possible target, so why not do a spread in US Weekly? Here, she’s embarrassingly over-the-top and garishly girlish and giggly—exactly what this trashy mag is. She's trying to be "relatable", for all those young and middle-aged and bored women who like to thumb through those celebrity digs. It's downmarket Hillary. Look at those exclamation marks! Because it’s too elitist to be in a Vogue spread, since only Coasters read that magazine, and they’re going for Obama anyway. Downtrodden middle-class middle-American voters, that’s who she needs!

But since then, in order to be fair (and because an US Weekly staffer is an Obama fan), the other Democratic hopeful had his spotlight in this great tabloid. His though is cute, People-magazine friendly, with shots of his family and lots of kids, including himself as a lil tyke. Aww. It’s not embarrassing; it’s the male version of “He’s Just Like Us!” the popular feature where famous people are shown doing everyday things. Although one can argue that because Hillary’s been in the public eye longer than Barack has, it’s a better feature to show her atrocious outfits, especially because she’s a woman of power; she should know better. But instead, even with the ridiculous prose and tone of the entire publication dumbing them down, Hillary’s piece comes off as voyeuristic; it’s time to shake our heads and cluck-cluck at her stupidity. It can be relatable, but not in the Oprah way. Barack’s piece, despite him doing “normal” things, isn’t voyeuristic at all; it’s classy. It’s sweet, it’s what Life magazine would do if Life still existed or if he was running decades ago.

It's hard to be humble and confident, especially in politics. No one can be everything to everybody, but a presidential candidate's got to try. For those who accuse me of following the election based on identity politics, there were many times during this interview where I cringed a little. Hillary, like many driven, hard-charging women, comes across a little too earnest, and that turns a lot of people off. Earnestness is vulnerability mixed with passion; you see this trait when people get on their high horse over some issue important to them.

Is the analysis unfair? I’ve been pretty harsh towards both Katie Couric and Hillary Clinton. I don’t have a particular bias against either one of them; some people might call me a fan or apologist for them because of things I’ve said in the past. But I’m struck by the different tactics used in the interviews and by US Weekly. Their agendas were similar; both interviewers were gentle, and the spreads only served as another extension of coverage, reaching to people who may not be politically aware. In the interview, both Obama and Clinton gave excellent answers; I particularly liked Obama’s example of Google as a company that hasn’t been around long but that runs excellently. He has a point–but I also think that experience does go hand in hand with longevity/age, for lack of a better word–it’s why young people have such a hard time finding jobs and such.

But what might be one of the most telling moments in the entire segment is the ending: Says Hillary, “I have a clear sense that things will work out the way they work out. I will be fine.” It’s the quintessential ending for a female-centered story. After all, that’s how Sex and the City ended, with Carrie saying she’ll be fine, and that it’ll be just fabulous. I can just hear Hillary saying the same thing.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Times Roundup, March 1-3, 2008

“How do you prove you’re a Jew?”

A question my family was recently discussing regarding the Birthright Israel trip. I haven’t read the article yet (one of these days…), but I know it’s way more serious than what we were wondering. Still, a good question...

In expanding my repertoire of Times columnists, reading William Kristol’s latest, another elegy on William F. Buckley, I was struck by the sheer number of SAT-worthy words and phrases. Mordantly! Recrudescence! Lodestar! Immanentize the Eschaton! Coincidence? Is this how he really writes? We’ll see. I’m certainly getting an education.

This Scrabulous thing certainly has legs. I don’t know anyone who plays it (I’ve only seen it once on a profile); it was the media that alerted me to its popularity. I agree that nowadays everybody’s gotta adjust to the web; it completely transforms a business. Digital media—expanding beyond the internet, into phones, television and the like—is how a business survives. I understand where Hasbro and Mattel are coming from, feeling assaulted, but for tech-savvy people, that’s not how it works. Money quote:

Many Scrabulous fans, some of whom say they bought the board game for the first time after playing the online version on Facebook, call their approach heavy-handed and out of touch. […] People believe it to be in the public domain, like chess,” Mr. Williams said. “The idea that Scrabble belongs to a corporation is something that people don’t or are unwilling to accept.”
Nowadays we're so used to "owning" things that the idea of paying for certain things--like downloaded music--seems stupid. My brother doesn't see the point in buying CDs if you can just as easily burn them as I feel that every feature article should be available online in full text. It's similar in that for some people it's hard to believe that happy birthday is actually copyrighted. This feeling is only going to get worse, because as things become porous and easily available, it's natural that we feel entitled to it. Another damnation for our generation?

Megan Meier was mentioned in an article discussing suicide and the blogosphere, how harmful criticisms can explode, and ruin lives. This time we’re not dealing with a teenager. More to come.

While I’m not sure how I feel about Gail Collins (other than I’m glad the Times has another female op-ed columnist), I’ve begun to get used to her flippant humor. She’s not biting or punny like Maureen Dowd; she favors a Q-and-A style that’s been used by David Brooks before, but her answers are both irreverent and concise.

I also love the idea of a secular Sabbath, something I’ve done on occasion, whenever I feel my life is being overtaken by Facebook or AIM. There is a freedom to being unreachable, and we’ve gotten to the point where we look at those who reject these technological accoutrements as weirdoes. How do they do it? How do they stand being in their own fluid life, unbeholden to anybody? How do they stand not wondering, unconcerned about what other people are doing?!?!

Tomorrow are the Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont primaries. It's all on Clinton now. Win or lose, we know it's gonna be one hell of an exciting day. Frankly--and I know many people label me a Clinton apologist--if she loses tomorrow she should not fight for the nomination. It'll be tainted because she didn't win it fairly, and fighting for Michigan and Florida delegates when she signed an agreement saying they were out of bounds as punishment for being greedy and moving their primaries up is only going to make her look worse, not better. Going full-throttle ruthless isn't going to help her in the least; it'll just turn off a lot of people.

I've been thinking about Hillary over the past couple of weeks. I remember in 2000 I was against her Senate run precisely because she wasn't truly from New York; like rich people with political persuasions, she could effectively pick a geographic location, plunker down and run for office. Not cool. I was disappointed that Rick Lazio lost by so much. So how in the intervening years had I forgotten this? Yet I've also taken umbrage by those who say that she just relied on her husband, that she could've run on her own. We'll never know. I used to be firmly in that camp, of "you don't need someone's coattails to ride on, do it yourself," and I was very passionate about that. But then one day I went, so what? So what if she used Bill? He undoubtedly used her. People use each other for mutual gain all the time; it's a part of friendship, whether we admit to it or not. Besides, it's long been known in history that women, to get what they wanted, to have any sort of say or power, needed men to do so and often overtook their positions when they were unable to serve. That sounds like what everyone fears here, that Hillary's just extending Bill's run in office. Unfortunately for her, she'll never escape who she is or her past. I'm still not sure how I stand on this subject of women using men to get the position they want. I usually think it manipulative (there tends to be no character I hate more than a manipulative bitch), coldhearted, and in a way, weak (this is for modern-day women), but sometimes I'm not so sure. Maybe it's just smart.