PR Disasters Galore

This has been a week of public relation disasters. Netflix split itself into two brands, the Star Wars Blu-Ray set was released with some radical tweaks, and Facebook introduced sweeping changes to its user interface. A tidal wave of negative responses, fan outrage, and user disgust followed all of these announced changes and the floods of complaints show no signs of receding. Did none of these companies ever hear of New Coke?

The Netflix news started with an email to all customers from Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, apologizing for not being clear about the recent changes in Netflix’s pricing and service plans, splitting DVD mail service from online streaming and in effect raising prices. Reed explained that the true purpose of the split was to create two entirely different companies, or at least two brands, in which Netflix will continue to provide steaming video on demand and the mail order DVD service will be spun off into an entirely different entity called Qwikster. The customer response has been overwhelmingly negative. The Netflix blog that featured Reed’s email message has been inundated with about 26,867 vitriolic comments.

I still support Netflix because I support the model they offer, the a la carte style of media delivery, rather than the 100 channel packages (stuffed with commercials and other unwanted programming) offered by my local cable service. I don’t even mind paying more. But the company should really decide what it wants to do and more importantly what it wants to be. All these sudden changes are creating bad press that could potentially hurt the business model. I want more streaming video on demand, but if enough people are alienated and pushed away, it may lose favor with the public. Already people are posting messages complaining about Netflix only offering old movies and rerun television seasons, as if broadcast television offered more.

A cool new feature of the Qwikster service that got lost in the shuffle is the adoption of video game rentals. This is pretty good news. I have been looking for a service that is a combination of  Netflix and GameFly, offering mail-order delivery of both DVDs/Blu-Rays and video games. Ironically, after dropping home delivery in my Netflix account, I may actually sign up for Qwikster to take advantage of the expanded catalog. It all depends on the pricing.

Star Wars was released on Blu-ray, but not without the obligatory George Lucas tweaks and fan outrage.  The Blu-ray versions will feature a revamped CGI Yoda in The Phantom Menace, a larger door to Jabba’s Palace, and blinking Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But these changes are nothing compared with an audio tweak that fans have found the most odious revision since Lucas enabled Greedo to shoot first. The climatic ending of Return of the Jedi, in which Darth Vader makes the stoic and silent decision to save his son Luke and then promptly throws the emperor over that railing, has been changed to include audio that sounds exactly like that used at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the much hated and much ridiculed “Nooooooooooooo!”

When and where will Lucas stop?  Why doesn’t he make a new movie or something? He has turned this wonderful franchise into a joke. I supported and enjoyed the Special Editions of Star Wars released in 1997 and even quietly endured the Han Solo/Greedo controversy. But Lucas has gone too far this time. That scene in Return of the Jedi was a shocking scene precisely because of Vader’s reticence. He makes his fateful decision to turn away from the dark side quietly, privately, and then takes action. There is no need to telegraph it to the audience with a melodramatic Noooooo! There is no need to hammer us over the head with Vader’s feelings of desperation; his actions convey that just fine.

In other struggles with the dark side, Facebook unveiled a redesign of its user interface. This included a number of key changes to its traditional UI. The news feed is now organized by algorithms rather than by the typical chronological time stamp. The algorithmic news feed is intended to curate stories and display content that is most important to the user, but this is putting way too much faith in algorithms. A disturbing new feature is the subscribe option. This allows members to follow other members without friending, giving Facebook a Twitter function. However, the feature has been derided as the “Stalker” button.

These changes have drawn sweeping criticism from across the web. This is not surprising. Facebook has always presented itself as a private network, a place where you can share with a group of friends of your choosing and only of your choosing. The subscribe option changes all of that. It introduces interlopers and eavesdroppers into the heretofore private social experience. With this feature and many others on the way, Facebook is moving from a private to a public social network.

But eventually everyone will forget about the old, private Facebook and continue using the new, public Facebook. Just like everyone will get over the Netflix split and the Star Wars Blu-Ray changes. Complaints on the Internet sit right alongside death and taxes.


Bad Movies, Good Docs, and Robopocalypse

I just relaxed for most of the Labor Day weekend. I avoided taking on any large, ambitious projects. This always leaves me feeling guilty. There is this vague checklist in my head, a list of things I should be doing and should have done, and nothing I do ever gives me a sense of completion. Perhaps I just miss school.

I watched a lot of bad movies and a few good documentaries over the weekend. I think I have exhausted all the good movies available and am only left with the crud at the bottom. I was unable to even sit through these films in their entirety, turning them off less than 50% of the way through. These included The Expendable (25%), Battle: Los Angeles (45%), and Attack The Block (15%). The last film has garnered a lot of good reviews and features a tenuous connection with Hot Fuzz with actor Nick Frost and director/writer Joe Cornish, but the whole British hip-hop scene of Jamaican accented teens dressing and behaving like American  gangster rappers really turned me off. And right from the beginning the story asks way too much of the viewer: Are we really supposed to sympathize with a character who mugs an innocent women of her jewelry?

At least I had a good backlog of documentaries in my Netflix cue. This is my great fallback position; when in doubt and out of ideas watch a documentary. I watched Botany of Desire and Helvetica. Botany of Desire deals with the history of four plants (Apples, Tulips, Potatoes, and Marijuana) and their relationship with humans. The film argues that the way these plants appeal to humans, Apples for sweetness, Tulips for beauty, Potatoes for sustenance, and Marijuana for pleasure, is an adaptation that has created a symbiotic relationship with humans and has enabled these plants to evolve and flourish for centuries throughout the planet. Helvetica is a documentary about the eponymous sans-serif font, an independent film dealing with typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. An 80 minute film about typeface fonts…what more could you possibly want?

I finished reading Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. My initial reaction was pretty negative. The whole thing seemed like a ripoff of World War Z, the brilliant zombie apocalypse book by Max Brooks. However, about 100 pages into the story, the novel starts to assert itself. The initial seemingly random cast of characters are fleshed out and solidified with recurring appearances, each having their own continuity that often intersects with other characters. What started out as a verbal history of an event conveyed through security cameras and interviews turns into a well rounded plot. My favorite parts were near the end when the writer gets inside the head of the freeborn robot Nine Oh Two. These freeborn robots break free from the enslaved control of the AI Archos, the villain of the story also known as “the Big Rob” who is directing the war against humanity. It is really interesting the way these robot allies regard their human comrades. From what I understand, Robopocalypse is slated to be made into a movie direct by none other than Steven Spielberg. It will probably make a really good movie, especially with DreamWorks behind it. As a book it was a lot of fun, a mediocre read at worst, nothing that will keep Charles Stross awake at night, but still a good read and with only a 350 page length it didn’t absorb too much of my time.