DigiGirlz Day 2014

What does 3D printing, light up greeting card making, video game designing and a digital tour to the Sphynx all have in common?

They’re all activities a group of Massachusetts high school girls participated in at the Microsoft event, DigiGirlz Day.  Held last Friday at the company’s Cambridge, MA offices, DigiGirlz Day is a one day program Microsoft hosts in conjunction with Women’s History Month with the aim to show young women what a career in technology could look like.

I had the privilege of shadowing all the sessions and sat in on a lessons including how to make video games, a 3D printing workshop, a circuit making class as well a ton of other cool* tech demos.

(*I learned from some of the girls that you don’t say “cool” anymore – it’s “clutch.”)

The day began with a keynote address from Cathy Wissink, Director of Technical Community Outreach. Wissink covered topics from binary coding to career lessons and shared personal takeaways, like saying yes to everything – especially when it pushes you out of your comfort zone.  With a vision focused on the future but a concentrated attention on the young women before her, Wissink addressed her audience as the next technology directors, Chief Marketing Officers and innovation leader.

Imagining the future of technology in everyday experience was a resonating theme throughout the day.  For example, at the 3D printing workshop, Allison Knight from Microsoft Retail asked the girls to consider ways 3D printing can impact the world and business.  Insightful answers included printing human bones, building a restaurant and one girl suggested even making hair.  The young girl elaborated that between the high cost of weaves and constantly changing celebrity style, there is an opportunity in the marketplace for a salon specializing in printing affordable 3D ’dos. Hashtag genius!

In addition to learning about 3D printing, participants also saw live demos from Technical Solutions specialist, Hitakshi Nanavaty, in the company’s Envisioning Center, a room showcasing the seamless integration of devices to our lives.  Nanavaty showed ways that technology can help in the classroom, at home, work, play and even its use during your morning commute (the Envisioning Center boasts a mock MBTA stop – if only all subway stations had such awesome, excuse me, clutch toys).

The day also included a lesson in developing computer games from Microsoft’s tech evangelist Michael Cummings and a panel discussion with interns from The Foundry, Microsoft’s boot camp for college students.

What was evident from my day with the DigiGirlz is how focused on the future Microsoft is. I saw first hand how the company constantly thinks forward.  And with these smart and savvy young women firmly in the picture – the future of technology looks very bright indeed.

The simulated Kendall Square T stop inside Microsoft's Envisioning Center
The simulated Kendall Square T stop inside Microsoft’s Envisioning Center

Making the impossible, possible

Last night at the Berkman Center for Law & Society at Harvard University, model turned innovator Lily Cole, introduced her latest venture “Impossible.” Impossible is a new social media platform with a simple goal and huge potential: to make wishes come true.

The website aims to create a community of people that can guide and give to one another. For free.

Need a photographer? Want to learn Spanish? Looking for a local perspective in a new city? Hoping to talk a problem out? Need someone to shovel your driveway (yep, this is an event in Boston after all)? Wish for it on Impossible.

Cole’s concept stems from the idea that we receive personal reward when we give and help others.  On Impossible, you pay for your wish with gratitude and appreciation. While Impossible has roots in a sharing and gift economy, it’s foundation is a feel good one.  Warm and fuzzies is its currency; altruism is its bank.

And while the panel (who included Jonathan Zittrain, Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web), Judith Donath & Rosemary Leith) raised concerns of trolls and coercion, the consensus is you can kill with kindness (Zittrain points out how Wikipedia handles its trolls by thanking them).
Cole’s eloquence, commitment and enthusiasm is inspiring and the project is without a doubt, impressive.

Optimists can sign up at http://www.impossible.com.

I just created my account and I’ll happily help shovel your driveway.
Mission possible.

6 Boston Company Blogs I’m Reading Right Now

As a media professional helping companies with media and content strategy, I’m always curious to see how digital businesses tackle their own company blog and website. I like to find websites where I can pick up marketing insights and communications advice about my industry, beyond go-to sites like Mashable.

I’m also intrigued by  the day-to-day management of how companies tackle content on their website. Do they have a dedicated member of staff managing the blog with one voice throughout or is it a team effort offering a multi-perspective insight? I am also curious to see how they connect their services, product and what they do to their consumers. Do they publish white papers or e-books as a way for lead generation and sales? Are they a brand turned publisher in their own right? What kind of evergreen content do they produce? And how do they stay consistent across other channels as well, like social and PR? Do they present themselves as an authoritative thought leader or do they have more of a conversation and a dialogue with their audiences? Or are they a distinct hybrid – and how do they get that balance right?

What I love most is seeing companies who demonstrate energy, excitement and passion about what they do.

Here is my roundup of Boston based company websites and blogs that I am reading right now.

1. Hubspot

Hubspot, the inbound marketing company, is a firm that truly leads the field by example. Their website integrates inbound marketing at its finest and shows companies how to do it by doing it themselves. From slideshare presentations to blog posts, white papers, e-books, guides, one-pagers and more – Hubspot equips content marketers with tips to nail their content strategy.  While they do have paid services, they offer a lot of resources for free. Sharing is caring.


an example of a guide that is a one-pager:hubspot one pager

2. Constant Contact

This Waltham based company specializing in email marketing offers broad tutorials like emailing 101 to more specific tips such as managing Facebook campaigns, using Twitter better or integrating PR into an email marketing strategy. It’s clear Constant Contact cares about their clients beyond their email campaign and are committed to educating customers on utilizing other media platforms the best they can – with or without their service.  I’ve used Constant Contact a lot in creating email marketing campaigns and I love what they offer to their customers in regards to advice.  Offering added value like this is great customer service for existing customers while also being a useful tool for recruiting new ones (see the call to action on the right side bar, with an email sign up right below it).
Constant Contact 1

Constant Contact shows us that it is not about a hard sell for them:Constant Contact 2
3. Leaf

Leaf, a tablet POS built for brick & mortar businesses, has a unique capability to show how business can connect to their customers through the data they gather through their system.  I first heard about Leaf at the Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium conference last year. They were on a panel about small businesses, and I was immediately captivated by the quality of customer service and advice they provide their clients. Leaf realizes their customers success is their own success too and this philosophy runs throughout their online communications, with articles like “Visual Media: Why Small Businesses Should Use It For Marketing and How To Get Started.” Plus, not only do they show-and-tell success stories/ case studies (which I always love reading), they also address universal problems and best practices within the retail industry.

Side note: what I also really like is how they use their blog as a point of entry. They choose to link to that on Twitter over the company homepage. If you are proud of your company blog – this is a great way to drive traffic.
Leaf Twitter
4. Microsoft New England

Microsoft New England, the interdisciplinary research lab in Cambridge, is committed to collaborating with the Boston community. Their company blog shows the ways they connect and interact with local innovators who do interesting things in fields like technology, arts and education. Their company blog is delightfully chatty and conversational – which is surprising coming from such a corporate giant.  Whether it’s highlighting exciting happenings in Kendall Square (where they are based), or showing their involvement with Boston Public Schools, it is clear they want to be seen in a supportive, neighborly way.  More specifically – they want to show themselves as the kind of neighbor you can go to when you need a stick of butter or a cup of sugar. Their blog is meaningful, interesting and ultimately inspirational. Bravo Microsoft!

5. Nannigans

Nannigans, an advertising platform that helps markets plan, measure and predict advertising spend, has a robust website dedicated to educating the industry on how to use targeting effectively in a marketing strategy.  With a blog that is updated daily (sometimes more!), case study analysis, e-books and resources like informative white papers, it’s clear the company is committed to showing and sharing marketing insights. They have nifty and helpful infographics too, like these visual guides for Facebook marketing.
And here are some of their company e-books, presented in a clean and neat way:

Nannigans 2
6. Overdrive Interactive

Looking at Overdrive Interactive’s landing page for their blog you’d have to look close to realize they are actually a marketing agency and not a media news site. They are a digital publisher in their own right, with newsworthy stories like the Facebook WhatsApp acquisition and a witty angle on the winter Olympics. They also provide handy guides to walk you through all you need to know about digital advertising and social media marketing.  Offering these resources are great for lead generation, SEO, etc while also being a means to position your company as a thought leader. If you are a digital marketer (advertising, social, content strategist) this is a site worth checking out for tips, advice and new angles.

So what can you, as a media business, learn from these examples in developing your own website content?

Here are my 8 tips:

1) Don’t be selfish.
2) Do provide tips, resources, guides, e-books at no cost
3) Don’t expect anything in return
4) Do be nice
5) Do focus on the success of others
6) Don’t hard sell
7) Do be natural with your reader
8) Do demonstrate that you go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure your client’s success. Their success is your success.

I’m always on the lookout for great company blogs and websites (especially if you are Boston based!). Tweet me @melissadewitte if you have any suggestions for me to check out (who knows, maybe you could be featured here next!) or comment below. I promise to respond!

Email Marketing Tips: 7 Ways to Create a Meaningful Subject Line

Are you getting ready to send an email marketing campaign? Here are some tips to get you started.

This is the most important component of your email. Why? Because this is how you get people to open your message! Think about how many messages you receive that go unopened because they sound like a hard sell, spam, boring or irrelevant. The subject lines that grab your attention are ones that sound compelling, relevant and relatable.

 So how do you create an effective subject line?

Here are some basics (and a lot of these rules can relate to your message content as well):

1) Make it short.

The fewer words you use, the better. Stick to 50 characters or less (30 – 40 is ideal).


It comes across like yelling. Capital letters and exclamation points makes your subject read like spam plus they are hard to read. Don’t use them. Ever.

3) Avoid certain words or phrases.

Some words have been overused and abused by spammers and marketers.  As a result, we ignore them. The folks over at Hubspot have put together the ultimate list of words to avoid. These include words like free, help, limetime, teen, wife, hello, greetings, sign up free today, free sample, free offer, act now, bonus.  See the complete roundup here.

4) Stop selling and start telling!

Use your subject line to tell, not sell, what your message is. Emphasize how we will benefit from opening your email.

5) Ask a question

Ask a question that will make me say yes and want to learn more about what you are offering.

6) Create a sense of urgency.

This is a tricky one because anything too urgent makes you sound desperate.

7) Make sure your subject line reflects the content of your message.

Do you have any email marketing tips to share or add? Do you have a trick that works for you? I’d love to know!

4 Takeaways from Bill Warner’s talk, “Build Your Start Up from the Heart,” at Harvard University’s innovation lab

Warnerimage via Abby Fichter, @HackerChick

Turn off your head engine! That’s what Bill Warner advised to b-school students and aspiring local entrepreneurs at an event at the Harvard University’s innovation lab on Tuesday night.  His talk was about how to follow your heart rather than your head when growing your business.  As founder of Avid and Wildfire, Warner learned what it’s like to run business from both sides but he found that when you create from the heart, anything is possible (he went so far to say that we all have superhero potency when we are in that place).

Mr Warner shared 4 golden rules to redirect the head (that left-brain noise) to the heart (the right-brain chatter) for business success.

1) When you want to say no, say “that doesn’t feel right to me.”

We’ve all been in meetings or heard ideas and suggestions that we instinctually want to shut down.  By saying no to something, you immediately turn off dialogue.  The statement “it doesn’t feel right to me” opens the conversation to the heart instead of the head.   Warner contended that this is a great way to open conversation – responses to that question are almost always “why?” You can get to the negative in a positive and productive way.

2) Instead of making declarative statements, change it to “I believe that”

Warner contends declarative statements are commanding, controlling and are a projection of power.

Warned compared these two statements:

“don’t make declarative statements.”


“I believe that declarative statements are controlling [or insert whatever reason here why].”

See the difference? Stating your beliefs puts you the heart into your conversation and mindset.

3) When framing your business, think of it in terms of how you intend to help people.

Talk and think about how you intend to help your people.  Understanding your intention is understanding your heart.

4) You can’t use big words

Warner advises to stick to words a first grader uses. Language needs to be timeless and kept simple. By thinking about your business in a universal way, you can get to the heart of the business idea rather than get lost in left-brain logic.  Warner says you need to get rid of left-brain words and tap the timeless ones that go straight to the heart.

Do you tend to over think things instead of following your heart in business? Do you have any tip to re-direct conversation?  I’d love to hear!

For more advice from Bill Warner, follow him on Twitter at @billwarner

To find out about the Harvard Innovation Lab and other public events they host,  visit their website.

Questions? Comments?  Please email me at melissa.dewitte@gmail.com.   Do you have a success story you’d like to share?  I am always looking for interesting people to feature here and elsewhere (like the Social Media Club and Young Women In Digital – two blogs I contribute to)

4 Marketing Trends in 2014

It’s the new year and that time of year when we’ve rolled our sleeves up (or down if you are in the polar vortex) and focusing on what the next 12 months will mean professionally & personally.  Media plans are being written, strategies assessed & yes – marketing budgets defined. As I think about the year ahead, here are four trends I believe are worth paying attention to for 2014.

1. The rise of the “super consumer” & user-generated content

Move over bloggers, it’s going to be as some have called, “extreme consumers” and “mavericks, outliers, obsessives” that brands turn to for creating collaborative content for their online and social media.

Fashion brands like Free People are already tapping their customer base to reach new audiences through a user generated community board, “FP Me,”  their own online style community.

While integrating collateral created by fans is not new (brands like Bauble Bar are doing an awesome job at this with “the download” as have ASOS & the Gap), I believe that companies are increasingly going to turn to their expert customer to help with media, marketing & even innovating their product.

2. Ephemeral, or erasable, media is going to surge

Snapchat, the social media platform that deletes all uploaded media (the “snaps”) from their servers after 24 hours & vanishes immediately after viewing, is the app on all pundits lips and is already social media’s latest darling. With a “here today, gone tomorrow” mindset, this makes it an ideal network for brands to use when they want to promote flash sales, offer teasers for an upcoming launch, showcase new collections or highlight reactions at press previews.  Or even for retailers who want to offer “exploding coupons”.

Beauty brand Nars experimented with it in October, as did designer Rebecca Minkoff during the September shows at New York Fashion Week and just this week, HBO’s Girls joined in anticipation of their upcoming season three premiere.

Expect to see more to this over the coming months.  I bet it’s going to be used a lot more at New York Fashion Week in February.

3. Wearable tech will – literally – integrate the fabric of everyday life
With Google Glass being available to all in 2014 & the dominance of Nike’s FuelBand & rise of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear over 2013, more wearable media will be prevalent over the months to come.  Even at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, wearable media is taking center stage & technologies designed to connect all aspects of your life are being showcased (even down to toothbrushes that tells your phone how well you are brushing).

4. Content marketing will become standard practice

Content marketing has shifted from marketing hype to industry expectation.  As more business hire content managers (according to LinkedIn, there are over 8000 businesses seeking content marketers), content is no longer king – it’s de rigeur. As a result, quality & meaningful content will be needed more than ever.  As Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local shares on his 2014 predictions list, “if you think the social web is noisy now, in 2014 you’ll see more content than ever before. This means you and your business need to create better, more fun, and more valuable content in order to be noticed and to truly benefit from social media.

As you create your 2014 marketing & social media plans, what are your thoughts for the year ahead? Will you be using Snapchat for your business or plan on hiring a super consumer? Comment below or tweet me at @melissadewitte – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Instagram, me & the rest of the world

A little reflection on Instagram…

So I am in the middle of editing this blog post & I take a little break for a media hit – a quick perusal of my Twitter stream in search for a little content buzz.  And what catches my eye but this story of how one man landed the job he wanted all down to Instagram. That’s right.  No cover letter or CV sent.  Just a matter of “have hashtag & filters – “will work” kinda attitude.

Success stories like that really puts Instagram into perspective, demonstrating how traditional communication is drastically shifting thanks to social media.

Over 3 years, Instagram has transformed itself from a quirky & cozy photo-sharing platform to a full-fledged (& I’d argue, still cozy!) social community of plebs & celebs, ‘gramming everything from food to fashion, malls to movie sets, and yes – worktime as much as playtime.

My first Instagram


Flashback: It’s October 27, 2010 & I just took my first Instagram, 21 days after the platform launched (media artifact #1).  I took it with a new (now old) handle I was messing around with, the quesclamation mark – a username I briefly toyed with in honor of the hybrid question and exclamation point. I was wavering between offering the web the full transparency of @melissadewitte or have a semi secret alias. Hashtag 2010 problems?! See media artifact #2, this New York Times article about how to live in a world where the web forgets nothing).

(& in case you wondered, I since switched to @melissadewitte)

At the time Instagram felt like a better way to share pictures over social media than with apps like TwitPic.  And somehow manipulating images felt easier & more natural than any of its digital photo predecessors available (like Hipstamatic). Plus I fell in love with how the Nashville frame & the Early Bird filter transformed my cell phone photos from drab to fab.

After playing with it for a few months, I focused my efforts into growing the company I was working for, Accessorize’s US account, over building my personal profile.  I launched it at one of the many in-store blogger events I would organize (and side note, it breaks my heart that no one at the company has kept up with the account I created since I stepped away from handling the social media for company. 4000 lovely fans are waiting for you!).


Media Artifact 3, Accessorize USA’s first Instagram… Having fun with Wit & Whimsy, Sugar Laws and 1977 (guess which one is the filter name).


Fast-forward a year later.  It’s October 2011 & it’s our Press Preview, an event for media & bloggers to catch a sneak peek on the upcoming collection.  Two of the most awesome girls stop by – the duo behind Honestly WTF – and fell hard for one of our key pieces of the spring season: a double ringed snake.  There & then, they ‘grammed it.

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 8.46.12 AM

In an hour the shot jumped to almost 500 likes.  For our relatively young brand in the US market, this was one of first times I saw such engagement from just one organic post on social media (remember folks, this is 2 years ago when 500 likes was considered a lot!)

You could literally & figuratively feel the buzz as my phone vibrated with requests, comments, questions as the web fluttered for this one piece.  Hashtag Totally Awesome.

Creativity Unraveled

One of the things I loved was the release Instagram offered me.  I no longer was under the clutches of the more formal & traditional creative process.  Gone was the wait of images needing to be processed, edited, touched up & approved.  I no longer needed art directors, location scouts, professional photographers or fashion stylists to create marketing collateral.

Instead it was down to me, who had to assume these different positions.

I honed skills in composing, lighting & framing shots (& yes, looking at some of my earlier ‘grams makes me cringe just a little. Did I really use the Kelvin filter?).

And this post from blogger designlovefest seems spot on – it can take (more than) a couple of tries to find the right pose to post, and yes hardly insta when you think of the staging efforts behind the scenes:


The Hawthorne Effect

Interestingly, I gradually found that Instagram started to add more texture to my marketing duties offline.   When organizing events I found myself choosing foods, decorations & props based on whether they offered an “Instagram appeal.”

In sociology, researchers call my shift in behavior the Hawthorne Effect – when subjects modify how they act because they know they are being studied.

And so in true Hawthorne fashion, I searched for likability factors.  My eye for details turned sharper, noticing minutiae I might have normally overlooked (maybe this blog post should be named “How Instagram Made Me Anal”)

Even in person meetings transformed into an Instagram photo shoot.  A quick arrangement of coffees or cocktails, the careful positioning of a hand, the placement of bauble or two, a snap decision between Amarro or Valencia, & boom: upload.

(Mini side note: maybe there should also be a blog post about a shift from Hawthorne Effect to Hyperreality?  Is life mimicking art & vice versa?)

Connections Established

Whether you are a foodie, traveler, blogger, fashionista, hobbyist, tech geek, runner and enthusiast – there’s a hashtag out there for everyone.  And with each hashtag comes it’s own community of fans & friends (hey, did you read about how one couple met through Instagram?)

What are some of your memorable Instagram experiences? How has Instagram impacted your own life, personally or professionally?  Comment below, let’s chat!

10 Things Social Media Managers Can Learn From George Takei

Who would have thought that George Takei, the 1960s Star Trek actor, would go from playing a helmsman on the Starship Enterprise to becoming a superhero across social media?  His witty & self-aware Facebook posts receive more likes & shares than most other actors & musicians or even global brands.  When looking at fan engagement, his posts trump the likes of Coca Cola & Justin Beiber.

So what can we as social media managers garner from George Takei when creating a strategy?

Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from observing George Takei (& you can see him in action for yourself by liking his Facebook page here)…

1. Know your audience
From Star Trek fans to internet nerds & math geeks – George Takei knows what his fans are interested in.  He plays with the puns & humor appreciated by this character set.  But he keeps it broad enough that you don’t need to be a Trekkie, web geek or a math whiz to find these types of posts funny.

George Takei FB1

2. Have fun & have fun with your fans!
Takei doesn’t take himself or his craft too seriously.  His humor is his signature trait.  He acknowledges his audience & often shares posts his community sends in.

George Takei FB 2

3. Take ownership
While he will jest with these Trekkie & math nerd stereotypes, it’s clear he is proud of his craft & what he has accomplished.

George Takei FB 3

4. Be consistent
He posts throughout the day, balancing anywhere from 2-5 posts over 24 hours.  According to an interview with Hyphen Magazine, he uses HootSuite to queue his posts.

5. Stay Focused
Takei is active in 2 causes: Asian American issues & homosexual rights.  He peppers in these topics sparingly (but again, with regularity).  Fans clearly know these are the two causes that matter most to him & rarely will he introduce other politics.  And while he still uses humor as a tool for activism he also balances it with a more serious tone when it matters.

George Takei FB 5

George Takei FB 5.2

6. Have a meaningful & relatable message
It’s the message that is important.  Takei shows us that you don’t need fancy or professionally produced graphics and slogans.  It (really is) the content, stupid.  Finding the right internet meme or fan submitted image gets the likes & shares.

Takei FB 6 Takei FB 6.2

7. Offer familiarity
He often acknowledges that he can’t respond to every single comment or write back to every single fan (one post can generate thousands of comments!). He sometimes refers to himself Uncle George & always keeps his tone chatty & informal.  But he still asks for fan feedback when he can with things like caption contests to keep things conversational.

George Takei caption content

8. Maintain perspective – positively
Takei keeps it real in upbeat, inspirational ways

George Takei FB 8

9. Go for the warm & fuzzies.
Takei taps into humanism & universality in touching & emotional ways. I mean, doesn’t this friendship against all odds make you feel warm & fuzzy inside?

George Takei FB 9

10. Have an all encompassing catchphrase
It’s amazing how Takei’s signature “Oh myyy” can be used as a comeback to haters, a reaction to the bizarre or even as a nod of Takei’s approval.  It’s even gone on to be the name of his book & his perfume (eau my).

George Takei FB 10

Have you learned other lessons from George Takei?  What do you think makes his posts so popular?  Share in the comments!

Fashion and the Culture Industries: Copyright or Wrong?

At the 2011 Free Culture Conference, Johanna Blakely of the Norman Lear Center spoke candidly about the intersection of intellectual property, copyright, fashion and its impact on creativity and innovation.  As new legislation (The Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act) is making it’s way through congress to protect fashion designers, Blakely raises some interesting points that I, as both a Media Ecologist and clothes horse, want to reflect on.  While the Act is aimed at those knock off Louis Vuitton versions you can score for $20- $200 (depending on how authentic you want your fake to be), it has consequences worth considering.

In her talk (and PBS article), Blakely described that while logos and trademarks can be copyrighted, the three dimensional design of the product is not.  Historically, courts have denied fashion designers copyright on their ideas because of a clothing’s utilitarian use. Think of the designs that have proliferated what we wear: the blue jean, the leather jacket, an oxford collar, the high heel shoe (okay, you might be ask just how utilitarian this one is) – but the point is royalties can’t be paid on a three dimensional design that serves a practical function.

Come to think of it: what if The Ramones had trademarked the punk song, or the Sugarhill Gang laid a copyright over the hip-hop genre?  Interestingly (and problematically for the fashion world), Diane von Furstenberg is lobbying congress with the  Prevention Act to ensure future protection of the fashion industry’s designs.  Which means, if she were to have designed her signature, iconic wrap dress with this kind of law in place, any other designers would have to pay her royalties if they wanted to use the concept.  While I am all for giving credit where credit is due (I’ll get to this later), let’s think about this bill for a minute…

Blakely points out that the wrap dress has been around since ancient Greece.  Fashion constantly plays with designs from the past, borrowing inspiration from everything from nature through to the military. For those working in fashion, look at what Melet Mercantile offers – it’s known as the industry’s destination for designers to source archival pieces intended for inspiration and mimesis.  Even a Vanity Fair article celebrates the New York based warehouse of historical relics as “a gold mine for designers looking for the perfect bag handle, belt buckle, Edwardian topcoat, or Civil War epaulet to copy or use for their runway pieces.” While the legislation proposes a three year copyright license – the point remains that copying happens.  Look what the supposed seven year copyright license has done for Disney: their cartoons are in a trademark vault.  Would the same happen to fashion?

To return to Blakely’s point and for all other free culture enthusiasts out here, Culture Industries rely on a freedom of expression to experiment and evolve.  For the fashion world, the main reason it moves so quickly is because of the lack of copyright.  Minimal regulation it what maintains the fashion world’s vibrancy: because there are so few legal obstacles, fads and trends can be created.  Because Marc Jacobs can riff of Rayban and the US Airforce, we get a spin on the aviator sunglasses.  We have inspirational street style blogs like the Satorialist and Mr Newton – who can snap people’s style on the street because it’s outside in the public domain.  No permission is needed to publish the style they caught on camera.  And to add further fuel to the fire: designers (high street and couture) source their ideas from this fashion seen on the pavement and runway.  In sum: copyright can stifle creativity.

And for a sociopolitical argument thrown in here: I can’t afford to spend a cool $325 on a pair of shades, but I really like those aviators, so I’ll be getting the look at a slightly more affordable price point of $14.99.  With a law like this, would we even have a High Street culture of Zaras and H&Ms with their affordable ready to wear disposable remix of couture? And would couture be so popular and emulated to the extent that it is without the support from mass culture, ready and willing to copy and wear the trends the couture establishes? (As a sidenote, Lana Swartz followed Blakeley with a fantastic in depth commentary into the counterfeit culture and authenticity).

Fashion is the ultimate remix culture: everyday people piece together their wardrobes with inspiration taken from high and low culture, across industries and gernres and places.  In fact, fashion icons are celebrated for their craft of the creating the perfect remix. Their outfit is their mixtape: artfully piecing together designer, DIY, vintage, and highstreet into the perfect look (see fashion’s latest darling Alexa Chung, or blogs like the Glamorai, White Lightening, or Man Repeller for their celebrated cerebral spin on fashion). Fashion constantly crosses boundaries, but the question remains – how can we put a copyright on a style or a look without inevitably hindering the creative process?

Man Repeller (Leandra Medine’s eponymous blog), is now a becoming a term commonly used by media outlets to describe the clothes that women love and men hate.  Most of the time, journos site her blog but sometimes they don’t.  At the recent Evolving Influence conference, the point was raised that as the phrase is adopted culturally, credit may not necessarily be given: showing the point that it’s pretty hard to keep track of where a trend or slang term is originated.  Yet, are we looking at a trend or downright plagiarism here? And would more pervasive copyright legislation in the fashion industry protect independent tastemakers like Leandra or, or will heightened intellectual property rights prevent the spread of ideas and trends from happening?

Again, don’t get me wrong here: I am all for giving credit where credit is due. Stealing is wrong. I think I would flip out if I saw a term I created being used without crediting me.  Hypocritically, my blog’s name is a riff from Neil Postman (see my about section).  But my point (and ethical dilemma) is that we need to find a way to encourage a culture of collaboration that can maintain innovation while respecting young (and the old) independent designers out there. Lobbyists for the bill will think a strict trademark copyright license will do that…

How can we make sharing… warm and fuzzy…?

What we really need to be asking is how can we create an environment to encourage participation rather than enable elitism – can the young designers out there (who the bill want to protect), afford a litigation team that the Urban Outfitters or the Diane von Furstenbergs in this world can afford?

Stretching beyond practicability, it’s hard to copyright style, it’s got an intangible quality, why is a girl a muse or an “it” girl?  According to the courts, fashion is part of a peculiar list of things that can’t be copyrighted: smells, magic tricks, hairstyles, furniture, and even jokes are all considered part of the public domain.  Jennifer Aniston would be rich on just the royalties she would have received on her signature Rachel bob.  Arguably, if every hairdresser had to pay a license fee to cut hair that way, would we even know what “A Rachel” is, meaning every woman in America would have been saved from an era of lookalikes and wannabes?

Even in industry with heavy copyright protection: people still violate regulation all the time.  Girl Talk sells out shows at Terminal 5, but the Hip Hop/ Rap industry is still going strong – with or without Greg Gillis.  Or what about all those memes (that Meme Factory track so excellently, and even make the case that fashion is by it’s very nature is a meme)?  Here’s a blog post I wrote a few years ago at NYU that raises some of these questions.

What I am asking is to not be so naive when we celebrate the proposed legislation.  As we all know, copyright is not necessarily black and white. It really does become a gray area when we bring into the equation free culture, creativity, communication, ideas while also protecting rights of creative thinkers and ensuring originality and authenticity.

So. Where to next?  I’d like to discuss what can Creative Commons offer the fashion industry, or even go back to Fair Use to work this one out… In the meantime, it’s time to look at some LOL Cats.

(and yeah, I got this image just from searching “Rachel” on Google Image Search)

McLuhantic, part deux

Marshall McLuhan is the theorist de jour.  Across the mainstream press his maxim “the media is the message/massage” appears frequently, From Ebert to the Guardian, McLuhan pops up in any pundits diatribe of a media saturated society.

For someone who tried to distinguish between hot and cold media, this cool guy is a hot topic.  It is easy to see why McLuhan is having a theoretical renaissance.  From the iPhone through to an iPad, droid, Kindle, and Wii, media begs to be touched, stroked, Digg-ed, pinched, rubbed, thrown, shaken and in every physical sense – pampered and massaged.

Just as McLuhan proselytized, technology is increasingly becoming a prosthetic appendage – an extension of the human body.  We log in into Facebook; seek information like nourishment as we scroll though a news feed; we offer approval by clicking a “like” button which represented by a 2-D icon of a virtual thumbs up.  During Social Media Week, one speaker at JWT remarked social media is an extension of the human brain.  At a talk at Google, an MIT nueroscientist applied how the human brain is networked to interactions on social media sites.

Paradoxically, while we physically interact with media, communication has arguably become disembodied. We shout our thoughts into a void, not knowing who is listening, who will respond, or what will come back.  We share a like, but never know if it’s reciprocated. We can communicate without really communicating. We stay “in touch” with our friends by not necessarily touching back.  For example, through your updates, I know you’ve recently gone on holiday, were nervous about a job interview, had flu or worse, a baby …but I haven’t responded to any of it.

Does that make me a bad friend?

According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, whose book Alone Together just came out, we’re becoming “less human” (see the recent Guardian review here). But is this McLuhan’s point? Technology is seemingly seamlessly substituting society and social interaction.  But in his vision of a global village (let’s temporarily put aside issues of the digital divide), does being “along together” result in deeper alienation or emphasized socialization?  According to McLuhan, participation distinguishes what makes a medium either a “hot” (low participation) or “cold” (high participation) category.  Conceivably then our digital technologies are presenting a new option: you decide what level you want to engage with it in.  We’re not really alone, but we’re not really together…

As our handheld smart phone mobile devices are a telephone, radio, TV, book, newspaper, music player all in one –categories can be collapsed even further.  We go in between hot and cold media all the time.  Is the hottest new phone or coolest new technology really just lukewarm, a tepid experience of emotions that blend passivity to engagement, empathy to disregard in just one click?

But before I sound like a complete advocate for technological determinism here – as I momentarily take a break to check my four (yes four) Twitter accounts, I do feel connected. The online world – as we fully enter an era of transparency rather than anonymity – is now a place where everyone knows your name.  FourSquare, hashtags, 2-D Twitter Avatars, are connecting people offline.  EXAMPLE: I was at a Social Media Week event and I decided to approach the amazing Danielle Friedland (whose claim to fame I later learned was selling her Celebrity Babies Blog to People) – cause I recognized her user pic from her highly entertaining tweets broadcast across the hashtag #smwcommerce throughout a rather annoyingly pompous event.

So just what are the theoretical explanations as to why I have never commented on your decadent vacation, congratulated your job placement, sent you get well wishes, or cooed at your wrinkly infant?  Well, I don’t think McLuhan can help me on that one.

And YO, check out McLuhan Centenial Worldwide Tour: Coming to a city near you!!!

The Conquest of Cool – a revisit to Thomas Frank’s account of business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism… (And how American Apparel ruined the Hoodie)

A friend recently tweeted “artsy photo shoot on 98th? Upper UES, new home to hipsters.”

While it may be true that hipsters have made a new home, I have a different theory:  I argue that their new home is really a grounded footing in mainstream popular culture.  Whether it is in the Upper UES or suburban America, the hipster style is now and has been for a while, ubiquitously trendy.   And as I write this, the argument can be made is the Hipster as we’ve known it is (arguably) dead.

Over the past few months, countless articles have documented the demise of the Hipster as we know it.  In October of this year, New York magazine ran an article by Mark Grief under the headline “what was the hipster? [emphasis added].” Offering a historical analysis of the rise and fall (and the rise again and fall again) of the hipster – the article examined how media has absorbed Hipsters into the mainstream of pop culture. If some of you are throwing your tattooed fist into your black Americano, you are not the only one. The article showed up everywhere, a frenzied dialogue ensued. People were tweeting it all about it, posting links across Facebook (the link went viral across all my friends’ status updates).  Publications like the Village Voice reacted swiftly, nit-picking at times Grief’s case studies but really they stressed further that this is really nothing new, for example the 1960s was also a golden era for the Hipster – with musicians like Bob Dylan showing how subcultural movements can progress quickly into the mainstream zeitgeist.

While I don’t want to sit here and bandy back and forth on a topic that has been deliberated to death (I think I might gag if I read another article about Hipsters, and I am also thoroughly disappointed in myself for adding to this debate) – I am still curious to examine what Thomas Frank has called (and also the title of his book) “the conquest of cool.”

Frank describes how a culture industry relies on an anti-establishment ethos to ensure the cycle of commodities. Big Businesses need the Williamsburg hipster backlash against culture to sustain culture. As slogans are uttered against a hegemonic structure, culture industries readily usher them into its ideological framework. The creative revolution propels consumerism.

(As a completely difference topic, but related nonetheless: even media pundits are arguing that Wikileaks is going to save the crisis in journalism – revolution fuels growth).

Recently I gleefully came across another piece (by Grief as well) in the New York Times, using none other that LSE’s sociology department’s preferred theorist (and also NYU’s Rodney Benson’s personal favorite) Pierre Bourdieu to examine how symbols and cultural clues are used to distinguish (and at times, blur) class lines.  Indeed, the Hipster (coming from a mostly white, middle to upper class background) appropriated many icons of American working class culture to define their fauxhemian lifestyle (for example, think PBRs, lumberjack shirts, unicorns, and trucker hats).  Under the umbrella of “irony,” anything goes, and the kitsch ephemera is legitimated across new build condos and rodent ridden lofts in the hipster playgrounds known as Williamsburg and Bushwick.

But as Grief points out, in turn these “ironic” symbols have also become reabsorbed, with many mainstream icons “acquiring subculture as if it were ready-to-wear.” Grief uses the time when Paris Hilton sported a trucker hat as an example.

Indeed – for a Hipster, the minute something is perceived and even labeled as cool, it immediately loses it’s cultural capital. (Ahem, yes that was some Bourdieu thrown in there for you – I wouldn’t have it otherwise).  But to continue: cools value is diminished as it achieves an economic surplus (ahem, could that be a hint of Marx in that argument?)

Even Frank argues that hipsters have a “burning consciousness of the present” (p12).  So when pundits declare something as the it think, the now, its immediately is cemented in the past.  What’s en vogue quickly becomes mundane.  Indeeed, think of the blogger Hipster Runoff’s constant chastise of the “lamestream” as Justin Bieber sports an American Apparel hoodie once adored by Williamsburg Hipsters in the summer of 2007/8.  Yes, I can turn around and argue that it American Apparel ruined the hoodie as their aggressive growth across cities worldwide spun them near bankruptcy countless times…

Either way, you begin to see a circuitous, almost tautological loop of referencing..

So message to all the dying Hipsters out there, in sum: your f**ked.

Even channels like the Independent Film Channel and Sundance are far from being the free-spirited, savvy thinkers they claim to be: they’re really just a part of Cablevision.  Even the big cats out there know to keep tabs on those quirky kids (said in a Jack Donaghy voice).

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer – that kinda thing, right?

But this is exactly Franks point: big businesses rely on the quirky, the ironic, the hip, savvy and  rebellious to sustain a cycle of consumption. In the same way fashion houses and publications need the Style Rookies and Sartorialists of this world, businesses are quick to realize that rules need to be broken in order to be made.  Yes, as I write that I realize that probably sounds like something you would see on one of those cheesy No Fear shirts in the 1990s, but point proven: Rebellion sells… The obvious example – just think of the ubiquitous face of Che Guevara.

But as Frank points out, hipsters have always looked uniformly defiant – whether it be through plaid shirts, a carnival of brightly colored sweatshirts, and skinny jeans – a walk down Bedford Avenue is more like a real life runway show of the Urban Outfitters catalogue.  You may scream at me “but it’s vintage!” like that justifies anything – it only proves my point further. Revolt is close friends with Co-opt, and whether your vintage is real or a fake, your subversion is now homogenous.

I’m going to sign off now, and am embracing myself for a deluge of criticism and attacks of hypocrisy, but hey I’ll completely fess up: I probably dress like all those hipster plebeians out there.  And I’m aware of that – cause as it stems from my childhood fear of not fitting in and dude, I gotta tell you – I totally feel those social pressures of conformity when I go out drinking in Billyburg…


I’m Still Here, …or the film where Joaquin Phoenix looks like Slavoj Žizek

Whatever one wants to call it: Film, Mockumentary, or Performance Art – I’m Still Here is a sublime bend through a hyper-realized culture of American celebrity. Joaquin Phoenix plays a fictionalized version of himself, transforming his suave celebrity image into “JP” – a man who is mentally unstable, overweight, and a drug abuser pursuing a career in Hip Hop.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix’s transformation into JP

Directed by Phoenix’s close friend and Brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here tracks Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting and shows his struggle, and eventual failure, of becoming a rapper.  Phoenix’s “breakdown” is artfully fabricated; viewers see that uncomfortably tacit interview with David Letterman, a disinterested meeting with Ben Stiller, and painfully awkward conversations with Sean Combs.  As the film transgresses, Phoenix’s appearance grows more unkempt: a expanding and unsightly belly, crazy hair, unwashed clothes and…

And wait a minute….

OMG! Phoenix looks like…. SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK?!?!

But JP’s rambling tirades, the monologues….

OMG! He’s acting like… ŽIŽEK?!?!

Poster for the Žižek! documentary

But then all the critics are asking just what is real… Wait a minute… is Affleck/ Phoenix/ JP “interrogating the real…?”

OMG! I’m Still Here is philosophizing like… ŽIŽEK?!?!

I’m Still Here is an improvisation on the real, and according to Affleck – it is a fake. The film is a warp on reality – and as a New York Times critic puts it, the film offers viewers not a single “wink” to confirm the absurd.  There are plenty of scenes with drugs, nudity, hookers, and sex – that all indicate Phoenix truly became JP, taking the blows (sexually and mentally) of a celebrity losing control.  Phoenix takes method acting to the extreme, leaving reviewers wondering how far JP pushes himself to the limits of fact versus fiction.

However, it is this dialectic tension of fantasy and reality that drives the films narrative (and yes, can make it very Žižek-ian).  There is an inherent doubling against the real and surreal, which I’m Still Here delicately refers to.  On the one hand we have Phoenix, and on the other we have JP: each are intertwined in a definitional matrix against the other.  In psychoanalytical terms, Phoenix is the ego, JP the body.  Like Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage, Phoenix’s subjective state ontologically struggles with the physical crisis represented in JP.

We see Phoenix in his hotel room gaping at his performance on Letterman, and later we see Phoenix’s remorse as he watches Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman mock him at the Oscars.  In another scene, Phoenix is reading reports of himself from the web, and he appears shocked as he realizes he has lost all credibility (or cultural capital as Pierre Bourdieu would put it), and instead slipped into becoming a national joke.

These are scenes that show Phoenix watching himself, or rather Phoenix, as JP, but really as Phoenix watching JP (yes, this character mirroring is a bit of a mind fuck). There is Phoenix as the real Joaquin, and JP as the apparition or the fantasy.   Like the Lacanian mirror, JP and Phoenix contract into each other. I’m Still Here pulls on this dynamic of identity formation, using the role of celebrity in popular culture as the fantastical device for othering.

In Žižek’s essay, “Connections of the Freudian Field to Philosophy and Popular Culture”, he writes:

“What is the problem with fantasy? I think that the key point, usually overlooked, is the way that Lacan articulated the notion of fantasy which is ‘OK, fantasy stages a desire, but whose desire?’ My point is: not the subject’s desire, not their own desire.  What we encounter is the very core of the fantasy formation is the relationship to the desire of the Other: to the opacity of the Other’s desire. The desire staged in fantasy, in my fantasy, is precisely not my own, not mine but the desire of the Other.  Fantasy is a way for the subject to answer the question of what object they are for the Other, in the eyes of the Other, for the Other’s desire.  That is to say, what does the Other see in them? What role do they play in the Other’s desire (p58)?”

I’m Still Here shadows a peculiar, almost self-fulfilling prophesy of a celebrity fuelled by a desire, fantasy and obsession.  Are we seeing Phoenix consumed by a desire for JP and ultimately a need to repel a fantasy that exists both for and from himself?  Or is the film playing with the megalomaniac, celebrity urgency for status, fame, and fortune? One scene shows JP performing at a Miami nightclub, attacking a heckler in the audience. He screams out to the crowd: “We have a bitch in the audience,” and “I’ve got a million dollars in my fucking bank account, what the fuck have you got?”

By engaging with the heckler in the audience and making remarks about his affluent status (as Bourdieu would claim, his economic capital), JP’s defense ultimately reveals his paranoia over losing his well, cultural capital. As a rapper, JP has no musical cred.  And slowly, Phoenix, as JP, is losing credibility by becoming JP.  Arguably, were JP a child making these remarks on a playground, teachers would dismiss his outrage as the result of low self-esteem.  He is paranoid, vulnerable. But according to Žižek, the paranoia JP experiences would be symptomatic to his identification for the desired Other.  For Žižek, desire is the paranoia – and I’m Still Here slips into a car crash version of self-compulsion, obsession and the paranoid.  Or, the paranoia could be symptomatic of the drugs Phoenix (allegedly, does he really) consumes (one of the hot questions for the press)…

Really, I’m Still Here becomes a semantic and metaphysical trap: unknowing, unsure.

The guessing, the questioning to the process of constructing an image, this desire with knowing, or the fantasies constructed by now knowing, is what I believe to be the whole point of the film.

In Žižek’s documentary, A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, Žižek claims that cinema is the ultimate parable art that dictates the terms and conditions for desire.   Again, another doubling emerges: film becomes Phoenix’s mirror, offering retracting images of a media obsessed with, well – images. Every scene is scripted, each reality staged, every identity purposefully constructed is for the sole purpose of the movie.  Affleck’s exercise of constructing an image becomes instead a process for deconstructing an image.   And in this further Žižek-ian twist, I’m Still Here uses film precisely as a catalyst and text for not just JP’s desire, but a media obsessed with a desire for celebrity. Which Phoenix revealed (looking more clean cut and trim) in last week’s interview with Letterman as his and Affleck’s motivation for making the film.

But behind JP we know there is still Joaquin Phoenix, hidden underneath the mumbles of rapping, disheveled beard, and pudgy face: as perhaps the movie’s title “I’m Still Here” indicates.  Of course, there is the argument that the clean-shaven and buff image of Joaquin Phoenix that the media know is as much a construction as JP is.  And the loop of analysis and over thinking goes on…

For a final thought…

Anyways…  if Joaquin Phoenix can transform himself into a man who looks like Žižek, I can’t help wondering what Žižek would look like if he were to transform himself into a man who looks like Joaquin Phoenix…

Žižek, S.  “Connections of the Freudian Field to Philosophy and Popular Culture,” from Interrogating The Real, ed Rex Butler and Scott Stephens, 2005.