Category Archives: literature

We watch more than we read. Is this normal?

If I didn’t put storytelling on my blogs, it wouldn’t be me. I’m not a vehicle, I’m a person (and I tend to be boring). So why not get out of the common place and try to grab people’s attention with facts, not numbers? Well, sure: anyone who’s asked to talk about motion pictures is going to go all the way back to Charlie Chaplin. They’d probably skip the entire history of advertising, and wake up when they remember the personalities of Larry King or maybe the very traditional NBC program Saturday Night Live. Talk shows, so it seems, have become part of American culture just like Snickers, Nike and Coca Cola. Except that the whole dynamics of a TV network will show you a range of attention focus that goes from an artist, a host, a topic at hand and a bunch of products.

What I want to make clear, first, is that I have many stories to tell in relation to educational institutions; but today, I have more of a business mindset. What led people to make such and such decisions? How did they assess risk? Who were the people sitting in a sort of board room, advising them? How did mission translate to policy and was in turn applied at every level in a company? So let’s take a quick detour, and then I’ll give you my bits about why we watch stuff more than we read.

The niche called ESL (English as a Second Language)

Here’s the storytelling part: I dated a film maker. I say this in a professional perspective (I still think she’s one of the greatest people I’ve met in my life): a guy wants to teach you the basics of traveling abroad, so he says: “when you’re on your first date, ask if you can split the bill”. And so I think he winks or smirks. That is the advertisement for every independent English teacher’s competitor in Brazil and all the companies as well, by any standard. As for its owner, it suffices to say that he’s reached the 7 figure landmark, then doubled that, with investments in foreign capital and sell-outs (which, if not granted with immunity from top PR, would make him feature on other sorts of news stories). Interviewed by Forbes, recently, about the secrets to successful entrepreneurship, he says:

Go with ambition. Don’t confuse that with greed, where an individual does anything it takes to reach a goal, regardless of the methods or whether people get hurt. I’m talking about your appetite, which is connected to your purpose and your most noble motivations. Also, if you want success, you need technical knowledge: that has more to do with focus than academic background. Lastly, you need to thrive over fear. Determination, persistence and the ability to overcome frustration and betrayal are essential ingredients of a great journey of entrepreneurship, where you have to show malleability and patience.

Flávio Augusto da Silva, Brazilian businessman

When the guy was making the top decisions in the company and I played a minor role as a teacher, though it was a considerably busy commercial hub in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, everyone (from teachers to coordinators to students) thought that the idea of creating original materials for study was crazy, with a variable pinch of lame, depending on who you asked.

They had this whole DVD series that students received to follow with the study books, 4 bulks of around 300 pages each, and the preparation for classes was watching 10 minutes of an episode of “That’s all about fame“, a series produced by a less talked-about man, who happens to be black and homosexual but also a father to four adoptive kids, as a low-circulation vehicle points out. And everyone, literally, knows he’s the man who made it all possible. In his words, he describes the creative process, which has to do with his background in theater but also a vast study that includes a Master’s Degree with the New York University, as follows:

To create as a profession demanded that I learned how to navigate in between the extremes of deep sorrow and a shiny joy without losing my way, knowing that my journey was a story in itself and I had to keep things on a scale in order to produce creative work both in melancholy states and in euphoric states. This aspect of creation develops in and around you becoming a voice of its own, but you’re the one responsible for controlling where it goes.

Sérgio Barreto, educator, social worker and the man who made Flávio Augusto a billionaire

But we all witnessed what happened with mass adoption of social media: everyone was able to create content: in the words of consultant Brian Solis, quoted previously on this blog, “people shifted from content consumers to content creators”. And there you have it: YouTube became the sensation of the web — until Facebook took notice. In the meantime, Google itself tried to make people migrate to Plus, but Facebook successfully made its userbase spend time watching videos. That happened on that original platform, but also sharing on WhatsApp and later producing in unprecedented scale on Instagram — which drove interest from marketing companies. That’s where we lost track of things.

The experience of watching is not the experience of reading

Motion entices us. The still pictures are a historical and technological landmark, but maybe people didn’t know how quickly another door could open into massive scale production of film. We don’t have to study Cartier Bresson, but The Sound of Music is a reference not only for the plot. There we have it: the ability to tell a story, in one frame, suddenly got transposed to a wider spectrum. It was not about shades and patterns, or portraits closer to reality — history of art has its evolution. Instead, what we had were narratives, and human emotion expressed not just in one recognizable facial feature, but many. A variety of exchanges, bringing to literature what it couldn’t before: a life of its own, more recognizable. Soundtracks were produced with the techniques and tools of the time, but that didn’t stop people from being touched deeply. And so dialogues, interpretation, sectionality or photography as a technique in motion pictures, as well as soundtracks, were scrutinized.

To be accurate, Cartier Bresson passed away in 2004, while The Sound of Music debuted in 1965. Regardless, we know that the Hollywood enterprises only grew bigger. The ability to captivate audiences of all kinds, due to high demand, made people suddenly look forward to more formats and genres. Television tried to capture everyone, every day. That was a hard task. And so movies began to gain some sort of space in our subconscious, like fiction writing used to.

Of course, as this blog has previously mentioned, reading was not exactly widespread until a certain point in time, much less fiction. What happened was a tendency for news media to try to occupy people’s minds with whatever was happening in the world — at the top levels of decision-making. That tendency, if we fast forward to the internet age, makes the influence of mass media easily identifiable for the people searching for implicit biases and stories not told. Today, we talk about fake news; the problem is that, with social media, our lives became the spectacle.

While I may want to see a picture of the sunset when my friend just woke up, maybe I just need some rest. And then we have to catch up. There’s not only this one friend who likes to run early in the morning and always captures the moment: there’s hundreds, maybe thousands of people — some of them, complete strangers. And we still need to catch up. How about turning to what’s really important? Traditional media, which is not the social, but tried and succeeded in incorporating itself onto it, brings you the latest. And what if we just don’t care? The internet made it perfectly fine to wake up and watch a dog doing something stupid — it could happen in your own home, and so you can share it. We have become the producers. But do we take good shots? Are we master framers? Can we build a narrative? Can we put music on a score and carefully design the experience of our viewers to engage with our content in a way that is, like motion pictures, inciting?

The answer might tend to hell nah. But at the same time, more and more people are sharing videos, and they dominate social media (although, through the means of logics or corporate level intervention, they’ve become considerably shorter). Nobody’s going to sit for an hour to watch you talk about your life. But they might, if it’s an artist’s biography or a documentary. You never know — and everyone has a different interest. For education, that raises many questions: are we supposed to teach kids how to inform, like journalists? Are they supposed to look good in a talent concert presentation, or maybe in a sports competition? Because yes, these will all go to freaking Instagram. And what about the conversations, and more than that, observation? That’s what reading entices, without a direct competition with film, but more accurately through the power of words alone.

You are what you read, but who are you?

If we teach teenagers that the best way to learn how to make a solid argument is to read comments on social media, we’re all doomed. What companies seem to be doing is to monitor conversations, and then offer solutions. But these are not conversational solutions, but software solutions instead. We enter a completely new realm: instead of fiction and all its genres, you can be a great writer — of code.

Maybe they don’t want us to know what they’re talking about. I mean, of course they don’t — would you? But their conflict-solving strategies might shock you, if you don’t at least entertain having a good conversation about habits. Considering the problem with gender-based violence, and that being expressed in speech more frequently, ask your daughter how many people she has blocked on social media. The response might surprise you, but are you going to ask why? You’ll probably hear: “they were bothering me” — but how so?

If teenagers had narratives written for them (and maybe by them), this would all be more relatable, to use a common word these days. Here in Brazil, you don’t ask a teenager to analyze the historical context when Castro Alves wrote — except you do. The lesson is clear: they have to learn about slavery, which ended on paper in 1888 in our country. In turn, just to make sure we include a range of authors on this blog that aims to foster cultural exchange, young Russians are not memorizing Pushkin; the British youth aren’t quoting from Ezra Pound; Americans are not interested in Salinger’s style, the German girl whose picture you just liked isn’t going to reply to your DM with a quote from Kafka and neither is the French goth you were stalking all night suddenly going to start following you because you quoted from Baudelaire. But maybe (and this is just a stretch of a theory) someone from Chile might appreciate the fact that you researched Isabel Allende, being from Brazil.

Tumblr is one thing, Reddit is another. News are all over the place, and over time, we form opinions. We can follow the authors and journalists we like the most — even the artists! The world can be beautiful, and they show us love and appreciation all the time. Not just them, your idols and role models, but your peers. And sometimes, you might stumble upon a post from a friend describing exactly what you’re feeling, or how you’ve felt. You’ll reach out to them, and just say: “thank you”. And these little moments are what make social media worth it.

Nobody’s watching what you watch (because that’s highly personalized)

It might be true that our watching habits became, on a very modest account, dispersed. This blog needs a break from addressing the controversies and taboos of pornography. Just draw your own conclusions — or search for data. You know what? Why don’t you talk to the people involved in this business? I don’t care. Because I’ve never even watched pornography more than 3 hours a week (I think that’s a rough average, but it might be less). Meanwhile, you have teenagers reporting 20 hours of screen time every single damn day. And we, as educators, need to offer solutions. As scholars or activists, and content producers or creators or maybe just creative people; rather, as people who have, inherently, creativity or creative impulses, we need to point out that compensation matters. Remember the video?

But on the other side of the equation, we have an entire scientific approach that takes data into bulks of organizational tasks performed by machines, and at maximum speed, provide us with products we consume. These products are advertised by people, entities, governments, industries of all sorts. Some of these products are within the very platforms we use (which is against the law, by the way). But we all know that YouTube popularized the combo “please don’t forget to like and subscribe”. With those simple clicks, machines go crazy. They calculate rates at which we’ll be most likely to consume a certain kind of content, and our levels of investment on them. Shoshana Zuboff, who this blog has quoted previously, associates this practice to the “futures market” — not just a fancy term, but a whole thing in finance. That means big banks want to control what you do on the internet. Will you do as told?

It matters, needless to say, to break away from cycles in which companies control our consumption of popular content and reinforce these for maximum profit. Twitter, when it still mattered, pivoted, when the word still meant something, to user choice in the feed: you could see the latest or the tailored ones. And then things got a little off hand, but how could they have predicted that? They probably did, but then the entire staff had to leave because of a rich man’s ego. Let’s not forget that this man wants to create the “everything app”, where all services will connect seamlessly; but somehow, he’s the one making the most money and holds power to veto anything he wants.

Short or long, nasty or informational, boring or inspiring, colorful or eerie, videos have become part of our language. Communication, including interpersonal (and without a need to classify the institutional and so on), has become dependent on cameras and software tools or apps. What we make of it — more of the same, less of the toxic, a sudden change in everything — is up to us. But we’re seeing a world that relies too much on the technologies we see today and forgets to seek knowledge that has been around for maybe centuries, like the classics we all ignored in school because we wanted an entire night on Snap with 10 different people (or something of that nature). Non-fiction will teach us loads about our recent history, coaches have the right words to hit us when we need, poetry can shed a light on our entire perspective about life and living things, different genres of romance literature can make us see how much of our problems were common ages ago, philosophy will help us understand how societies evolved, and the list goes on and on. We may read from other sources, but we’re more interested in telling people what we know, and that ethical failure hasn’t been emphasized enough. That’s the kind of problem society needs to tackle, and preferably, without a TikTok to explain your behavior.

Image: tgilbers (Flickr Creative Commons)