Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Only the Lonely

Is Friends Replacing Friends? Okay, so the reference is out of date, but the latest Scientific American reports on research that TV can lower feelings of loneliness. Researchers from the University of Buffalo and Miami University reported in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that people who feel lonely feel less lonely while watching their favorite show. They attribute this to a "social surrogacy" effect, with people forming one-sided "relationships" with people and characters on TV and becoming invested in their lives.

I can say that a lot of the shows I have liked had charismatic and memorable characters, from cartoon to reality shows. I watched a lot of TV after school in middle school after I got too old to play Barbies with the neighbor girl across the street. Sometimes, when my parents were away, I just left it on to have someone talking in the background. In contrast, I watched next to no TV in college when I was surrounded by people 24/7.

These authors are building on a long line of media research that shows people treat a lot of things like human beings. In school, we read The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass. The book didn't focus on loneliness, but pointed to 35 studies that showed we have not yet evolved past treating pixels like human beings.

So this study feels right to me. But I still have to wonder, is it the characters on the show, or is it the act of watching TV that alleviates loneliness? I'd like to suggest some follow-up experiments to tease this out:
  • Would people feel less lonely if they watched a nature documentary?
  • If it was a documentary without discernible characters, would it make a difference if the show was narrated or not? In other words, is it enough just to have someone talking? Would it even matter if that narration was in their native language, versus one they were unfamiliar with?
  • Would a show about sociopathic characters, like The Shield or The Sopranos, be more effective than one about a group of friends, like, well, Friends? What about a show that only showed people's work roles without any major story arc, not their personal lives, like Law & Order?
  • What if the show had characters, but they were animals, such as Meerkat Manor? The meerkats had personalities and social and family crises, but didn't talk.
  • What if they watched a new show with characters, rather than a show they liked?
  • What about other media: a non-fiction book? a personal blog? a vlog on YouTube?
My guess is that there would be a range of responses to each of these categories depending on how realistic it might be that this character could exist in real life and how likeable they were. If characters do turn out to be key, TV series creators might turn to this type of research to see what might make a compelling show--and in fact, USA Network has done something terribly similar--it turns out their "Characters Welcome" tag line is not just part of their brand, it is their strategy for producing hits. According to a recent Newsweek article, CEO Bonnie Hammer and her team determine whether they will sign a series based on whether it is "blue sky," "aspirational," "fun," and "character-centric"--all the characteristics of their first recent hit, Monk. So far, it's been a winning strategy.

But enough tips to the marketers--the fact is that Americans have become more and more isolated and this study helps to confirm that TV is part of the problem--after a long commute and a longer day at work, it can be easier to pick up the remote than the phone.

Luckily, research by Barry Wellman at the University of Toronto shows that the internet can help people reconnect and stay in touch with people. Wellman was one of several authors on a 2006 research study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which found that
"...research is showing that the internet is not destroying relationships or causing people to be anti-social. To the contrary, the internet is enabling people to maintain existing ties, often to strengthen them, and at times to forge new ties. The time that most people spend online reduces the time they spend on the relatively unsocial activities of watching TV and sleeping. Moreover, the relationships maintained through online communication only rarely are with an entirely new set of individuals who live far away. Instead, a large amount of the communication that takes place online is with the same set of friends and family who are also contacted in person and by phone. This is especially true for socially close relationships — the more close friends and family are seen in person, the more they are contacted by email.
I have to say that for the last year, surfing the internet and blogging replaced TV as my drug of choice and was probably just as isolating. At the beginning of this year, I decided to stop blogging so heavily and instead join Facebook. Sure, part of it was for professional reasons (I'm working on a collaboration environment that will incorporate social networking in it's next major release) but it was also to make sure I kept in touch with people, and in large part, it's worked--casual talk online turns into dinner or lunch plans.

So if you found this blog because you're trying to quit TV, my best advice would be to stop reading this blog and get into an online network. As for me, I'll do my best to write to people I know, rather than this blog.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review: (500) Days of Summer

When my husband said "Let's go see (500) Days of Summer," I could not have been less enthused. I hadn't seen any commercials or trailers for it; having no expectations for a movie can be good but inherently leaves one completely unmotivated to see it. "What's it about? Maybe I'll just stay home," I moaned even as we were stepping out the door. By the end of the movie, I was thanking him for dragging me along.

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was once an aspiring architect, but now writes greeting cards. In some ways, it's the perfect job for him because he is a true believer in love. His belief that he will one day find "the one" are only reinforced when he meets the new girl at the office, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). He thinks Summer is just another unattainable pretty girl until she comments on how much she likes The Smiths when she hears "To Die by Your Side" leaking out of his earphones in the elevator. From then on, Tom is a goner.

At the office karaoke party, Summer tells him she doesn't believe in love, and says that most marriages, like her parents', will end in divorce. Nonetheless, they have their first date, quickly followed by a trip to the Ikea furniture showroom. After cavorting through their pretend house, Summer tells Tom she wants to keep things casual and asks if he is okay with that. A besotted Tom quickly agrees, but it's clear he believes that love will win out in the end.

The movie opens with a disclaimer that this isn't a love story, and so you can guess where this is headed. Their relationship is like Ikea furniture: it looks great on the surface and seems like it's going to come together easily but it starts falling apart almost as soon as it gets through the door. In fact, the movie starts with the night Summer tells Tom, midway through the 500 days, that they should just be friends before zipping back to day one of their relationship. But, like Tom, you keep hoping things will work out.

Anyone over twenty will recognize (500) Days' portrayal of the highs of falling in love (humorously choreographed to the tune of Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True"), the averted eyes and tepid smiles of the person drifting away, and the soul-crushing days after your heart's been broken. I won't ruin the end of the movie but it's one of the most realistic portrayals of dating I've seen on screen; even favorites like Say Anything, Before Sunrise, and the recent film Adventureland pale in comparison. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel embody the earnestness of the smitten and the ambivalence of the pursued. However, it's the visual intelligence that first-time feature director Mark Webb brings to the film that puts this movie over the top. There is a split-screen sequence when Summer, post-breakup, invites Tom to her party that is so dead-on, it seems to have been sucked out of the collective memory of everyone in the world who has ever been dumped.

This is not to say that the story is depressing--to the contrary, it's genuinely funny, good-hearted, and original. Unfortunately, it is likely to get overshadowed by big-budget rom-com The Ugly Truth this weekend. Should you take the detour to the smaller theater, however, you'll step out smiling, whether you walked in with your true love or with a big, gaping wound where your heart used to be.

Monday, July 20, 2009

TV as Birth Control in India

Is this the real reason why industrialized nations have such low birth rates? The London Times reports reports these comments from the Health and Family Welfare Minister of India, Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad on why it's so important to bring electricity to rural villages:
“If there is electricity in every village, then people will watch TV till late at night and then fall asleep. They won’t get a chance to produce children. When there is no electricity there is nothing else to do but produce babies.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

Right on the heels of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this time with trailer:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The First Complaint Letter Music Video?

Wow, country musician Dave Carroll may have hit on something here. After more than a year of trying to get United to pay for repairing his guitar when baggage handlers threw it on the tarmac, he wrote a song about his experience and put it on YouTube.

I cringe a little watching it because two members of my family retired after long careers with United, but it's darn catchy and apparently effective-- United contacted him a few days later and offered to pay compensation, which he has asked United to donate to charity instead.

If only I had the musical talent (and YouTube), I might have written "Ikea didn't deliver my bookshelf" 10 years ago.

ABC finally moves to Hulu!

I was away for a week so didn't notice which day this happened, but ABC finally started loading content into Hulu, approximately 2 months after their partnership deal went through. Now they actually have a shot at addicting me to their new shows (their streaming video server app stopped working for me ealier this year and we had to watch Lost on my husband's computer).

Here's the thing though--I've heard good things about Better Off Ted, but the first ep they loaded was episode 4 (below), so I don't plan on watching it. They are obviously focused on the DVR audience, but have to realize that there are more and more people like me, who only watch online. I understand they are probably trying to help their DVD sales, but posting episode 1 of a fledgling series would not only help me get into the show but anyone who missed the first few episodes. They should try to negotiate their terms with the show's producers to allow posting of the first 3 episodes before the second season begins, at least for a few weeks.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Majors Stars Go Straight to Video

I think I first noticed the phenomenon when I heard about Amy Heckerling's unreleased movie I Could Never Be Your Woman. Until then, I thought it was just the B, C, and D-list celebs that went straight to video. If you ever saw a big star on a tape in Blockbuster without seeing that movies first in theaters, it had to be some dreck they put out before they were famous, right?

Wrong. Michelle Pfeifer and Paul Rudd aren't the only ones with such a blemish on their records--plenty of major stars have movies that never get distributed. Here's a few I have found. The first two are just meh, but the last one almost looks like one of those film parodies you might see at the end of Tropic Thunder. What about you? Know of any more?

My Mom's New Boyfriend (2008)
Meg Ryan, Colin Hanks (Tom Hank's son), Antonio Banderas

Neverwas (2005)

Ian McKellen, Aaron Eckhart, Jessica Lange

Tiptoes, 2005
Kate Beckinsale, Matthew McConaughey, and, well, wait for it...
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