Monday, March 9, 2015

Modern Farce, a Symphony of Screens:
Modern Family Plays on the "New Normal"

Is your screen time out of control? It's tough to judge how our own digital media use is affecting us, but it's easy to judge characters on sitcoms--that's what they're there for! As far as I know, last week's episode of ABC's Modern Family (Season 6, Episode 16, "Connection Lost") was the first major network sitcom broadcast to set its comedy completely within the ubiquitous screens its characters use to communicate with each other.
Last week's Modern Family episode unfolds entirely on Claire's laptop screen, shot on Apple devices, portrayed in "real time"--ripe for media literacy inquiry.
This fantastic farce of misapprehension, misplaced assumptions, and dubious online ethics offers an opportunity for us to reflect on how digital environments have become a new norm as a setting for our daily dramas.

The gags call our attention to the limitations of the media we use to communicate and problem-solve, and to how they may complicate our attempts to understand and represent ourselves and each other. There's a central theme around parental surveillance, or as Haley says to her mom, "It's called privacy--Google it!" The production choices--sliding between frames, opening and closing windows, using natural sound from other media--all heighten the hilarity (IMHO), and it's in real time; so, I think we can look at this as innovative from an artistic perspective. It can also be seen as a relentless informercial for Apple products, which were used to shoot entire the episode and provide the context for show's dramatic action--the ultimate target for some analysis of native advertising techniques (but wait, Apple says they did not pay a penny!...). This is a mess for media literacy inquiry if there ever was one!

I think this whole episode is worth a group viewing, and can be used to connect with a wide range of media literacy issues for high school, college and adult learners in English or media studies classes. It's a great way to start an exploration of new literacies, multimodality, new media literacies, or critical media literacy in teacher education classes. Youth media groups and media arts classes can also benefit from studying the production techniques used in this episode to represent online experience in a televisual medium (in this regard, it's also great for comparison to this Portlandia clip discussed in a prior post). My (bad) instinct is to try to do it all, to milk a text with such rich possibilities for all its worth, and to offer multiple paths for diverse interests that we jigsaw together. So, after the jump, I'll set up a series of interest groups with particular things to look for and discuss in this episode, and you pick and choose to focus on what will work for you and yours. Deal? Deal.

ABC does not offer an embed code for their online videos, but I have linked to the HULU link, [unfortunately with ads--ed.], and created a Vialogue of my own notes (which you could do yourself, building from mine or starting anew) [the Vialogues video link is broken now with the Vimeo post take down; seeking solutions, but Vialogues only allows links to Youtube and Vimeo--ed.]. Here is a pdf of my comment/question/notes thread from the embedded post below. For media educators, I recommend exercising your fair use to rip the video for educational purposes to use with your learners (see some how-to resources here)--you never know when a copyright scare might force these video sources to take down the posts (and ABC puts their content behind a paywall after a few weeks).

So, instead of doing a typical view, pause, and discuss group format, I suggest doing a jigsaw of small groups who analyze with particular lenses, discuss and note their most compelling ideas with connections to specific moments in the episode (the common text), and then report back to lead whole group discussion on their topic. This could be organized according to your learning topics--like giving groups different theoretical lenses in a Communications Theory course, assigning particular production techniques to analyze for groups of media arts learners, or splitting up dramatic techniques or characterizations for an English class. Here's some ideas that came to me; please share your own in the comments thread below the post.

The overarching questions for me are: What is normal and what is weird in this show? What is both? What norms (of media/tech use, behavior, attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, etc.) does the show construct? How do they relate to reality (yours and others')?

Here are some ideas for areas of interest/analysis that individual groups could focus on; my (way too geeked out) Vialogue notes touch on all these themes:

For media studies:
  • Devices/Apps, uses and gratifications: Count and catalog the devices and apps used by characters, and what they use them for (interpersonal communication, entertainment, escape, information gathering, surveillance, etc.).
  • Native advertising: Note the products used by characters in the show and describe how their appearance is a form of advertising for particular audiences with particular purposes and messages. Note how those messages are delivered and how the product placement and pitches manage to appear seamlessly, "native" to the characters' world. Does it matter that Apple did not (allegedly) pay for these representations of their products?
  • Ideological perspectives: What potentially controversial behaviors, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs and worldviews are represented as normal or taken for granted by characters and the show's premise? How does the show's ideological representations relate to reality (as you see it)? [Does it inculcate, reinforce, reflect, or distort values or norms?] How do digital media devices, texts and apps play a role in communicating the ideological representations within the show's premise? You could let groups choose a particular ideological focus:
    • Representations of sexuality and sexual orientation identity
    • Representations of ethnic identity
    • Representations of parenting
    • Representations of family and family communication
    • Representations of marriage
    • Representations of age or generational identity
  • Privacy and Surveillance Issues
  • Video Games and Media Effects
  • Portrayal of Risk behaviors
  • Popular Culture References: How do characters use popular culture references to communicate? Discuss the purposes and effects of using pop culture references.
For media arts learners (encourage each group to discuss the possible meanings produced by particular production techniques for different audiences, and how they construct reality/realism):
  • Production techniques to portray online experience
    • Camera/screenshot movements
    • Mise-en-scene framing
    • Pacing
    • Dialogue types
    • Use of text onscreen
    • Visual gags
    • Actors' nonverbal communication
For Teacher Education:
  • New media literacies (have groups find instances of using collective intelligence, remixing, play, etc.) 
  • New literacies skills (have groups note the different discourses of digital communication, and the varied skill levels, represented in characters' behavior)
  • Multimodal Strategies (note types of multimodality and assess the efficacy of multimodal expression for characters within the show and for the show itself)
  • Moments of multitasking (note instances, multiple purposes, pace, etc.; assess realism and efficacy of multitasking as represented in the show).
  • Constructions of youth media culture/tech-savvy (discuss how these representations relate to myths of digital natives/immigrants)
  • Constructions of adult media culture/tech-savvy (discuss how these representations relate to myths of digital natives/immigrants)
For English Classes (for each group: have learners note time codes of examples to tie to textual evidence; encourage discussion of the techniques, target audiences, and relationships b/t representations and reality involved in their focus literary elements):
  • Conflict portrayal (note types of conflict and how storytelling techniques construct them)
  • Dramatic tension (note techniques in plot, dialogue, sound and visuals used to heighten tension; could split groups among just these elements)
  • Irony (note techniques and purposes for instances of dramatic, situational and verbal irony)
  • Privacy/Surveillance themes
  • Selfishness themes
  • Misrepresentation themes
  • Consoling themes
  • Themes of guilt
  • Generational conflict themes
  • Themes of sexual norms
  • Themes of transgression

That's more than too much, I know. Have fun with this amazingly rich media text for talking about the new norms of online experience and family communication/drama!

One closing thought... You know, a decade ago, this episode would have been science fiction--this level of immersion in digital communication, esp. visually, just did not exist in 2005. Many years ago, Renee Hobbs did some research where she found that people who had no experience with electronic media could intuitively understand narrative films on familiar topics despite the use of the unfamiliar storytelling conventions of cinema (variations in shot distance, angle, and camera movement; montage, etc.). I wonder whether and how people with no experience in using digital media for interpersonal communication, information gathering, and problem solving would understand the production techniques in this episode of Modern Family that represent digital communication experience--would it make sense? Have our digital environments moved us further from non-digital reality than earlier media? Are our media tools still "extensions" of our humanity, or have they become something else, influencing our humanity (towards what)? Well, at the very least, the fact the we can still laugh at (and with and through) our media tools is a very good sign for all of us.

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