Getting Yourself Out There! Thursday, Apr 5 2007 

It has been a while since I have posted to this blogring, but at long last I have some more practical advice to share. You have all become much more secure and aware in your posting, and many of you have reached the point where you could hang with the best critics out there. Donna and I are very tickled. So, how about increasing your profiles? You have great sites, and I assume you want more people to find them…

First, you need to concentrate on generating content that is search engine friendly. This is all about key phrases. You need to figure out what key phrases people who would be interested in reading your blog are typing in their google search bars and lace those key phrases into your blog entries. Categories are a godsend for this, as you can type in bunches of key phrases without interfering with the flow of your text. Search terms are more effective, though, when they are in paragraphs–and the search engine spiders can tell when they are. I, for example, have used the term “key phrases” four, now five, times here in one paragraph. That has probably boosted my google search ranking for “key phrases” from somewhere in the ten thousands to somewhere in the thousands—it’s a start).

There is a fine balance between offering useful content (good criticism in this place) and lambasting your readers with key phrases that are likely to bring you search engine traffic. It is a balance that critics have to be especially aware of, because “search term whoring” isn’t looked on kindly by critical readers. It is easy to overuse the content-generating stuff—titles, technical terms, names, genres, etc.—to the detriment of your critical purpose.

Once you have your search terms in place and have a good strategy for making them appear on your blog ever so often, you need to concentrate on good links. Spiders can tell whether the links to and from your site are relevant or not by examining the text on both ends. Irrelevant links actually hurt your standing, but relevant links are the sweet-spot for attracting readers both from search engines and those sites that are linked to you.

Your backbone strategy of link-building should be to seek out reciprocal links. If you read other critical blogs, make it a point to link to them in some of your posts. If they are on top of their game, they will notice. If they are nice, they will find an opportunity to link back to you. Friendly networks of link-buddies get started this way, and this is where most of your traffic will come from.

The best kinds of links to have are one-way links coming into your site. Search engines love these, and they will boost your search ranking considerably. One way of boosting this value is to create other blogs, cram them with search terms, and then create links on them to your “real” site. This is tacky, though, and will only get you so far. You have to generate content that other people consider link-worthy, and build enough of a profile that potential linkers can actually find it. One-way links from reputable sites can be a long time in coming, but they are worth the wait and the effort.

A moral dilemma, though, is whether to link back when someone sends a link in your direction. This person has, after all, been decent enough to link to you, so it would be nice to be link back. On the other hand, one-way links are great for your profile. How to approach this is up to you.

A last thing to consider is that links work the same way as key terms: they are infinitely more valuable if you have them integrated into your text. You always need make links in the form of words or phrases. That increases their value to both you and the linked party, whereas making lists of URLs has little benefit to either.

So there are the basics. Happy link-hunting!

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Concerning my role… Friday, Feb 16 2007 

I am not an avid movie-goer.  When I go to theaters, it is almost always just for the social aspect of the experience.  Tonight, my friends are going to see Ghost Rider, so I am too.  I don’t watch that much television, either.  Until the new Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, the only show I ever watched all the way through was Survivor:  Australia.  My taste in books is limited to sci-fi and historical fiction, and I repetitively listen to the same music for years without feeling any need to branch out and listen to something new.  Except for what is demanded by classes, I only get on the internet to look at the same five sites every day (hcol, xanga, email, cybernations, and facebook).  As much of a gamer as I am, even that is limited to my old favorites.  I am still playing Diablo II:  Lords of Destruction religiously, and when someone mentions Final Fantasy, I think back to III.  Even my experiences in manga, my forte, are limited exclusively to my fiancée’s periodic purchases.

So what is an illiterate troglodyte like me doing as a teacher’s assistant in a class on pop culture criticism?  Why am I in a privileged position next to peers who are only two years younger than me and know more about the content of these media genres?  This is a legitimate question that Donna and I must ask, and that students and onlookers are surely curious about.

The answer boils down to one word, mechanics, which takes on two different forms:

As a TA, I obviously take on the mechanical roles that any class necessitates.  Somebody has to make sure that people are where they are supposed to be doing what they are supposed to do.  Somebody has to keep all that on record and be prepared to initiate correspondence when…anomalies in the system occur.  This class alone has three online written components per week.  Add to that a few more classes, a family, publishing deadlines, thesis reading, faculty committee meetings, and an associate directorship, and you start to get a picture of just how busy our very own professor can be.  Donna loves to interact with her students, as any teacher should, and places much more emphasis on student-teacher interface than most.  Mechanisms like hcol and Justin assist in moving the busy-work so that she—the real expert—can spend more time sharing that expertise and less updating spreadsheets.

I would like to think that my value goes beyond that, though.  There is a mechanical aspect of criticism that is easily overlooked in the throes of fanhood.  Most basically, there is writing quality to worry about.  And if I have any talent at all, it lies in editing:  tried and true since my first editing position on the Bradford Elementary School newspaper and perfected by UCA’s history department.  My primary role in past TA and PA positions has been paper workshopping, editing, and grading.

In addition, there are many mechanical aspects of media which necessitate concern in criticism.  Film, television, literature, music, comics, the internet, and all other media have specific and unique pathways through which ideas interact and move from mind to media to mind.   To say that, like McLuhan, my way of thinking inspires more interest in the media itself than its content would be a self-aggrandizing lie, but I am interested enough to dabble.  Donna herself has trained me in the art of seeing through film, I have had a little experience recording and mixing music, I have studied how comics work enough to make a thesis out of it, and working experience has given me a decent understanding of web design.

While an expert in none of these, I’ve probed past the surfaces enough to see comparisons and contrasts which I find enlightening, empowering, and worthy of sharing.  I am sure that I think I know more than I do—probably just enough to be dangerous—but that is what Honors is about:  sharing enough to make self-motivated learners out of students.  That is what I hope I can share in the class:  pointers in good composition, a Justinian augmentation of Donna’s appreciation of the magic behind the show, and an interest that goes beyond class-work.  I am not here to tell students what they should or shouldn’t like or show them what they have to appreciate in order to have good taste.  Sharing an MXC clip as my favorite bit of funny television should attest to that—I knew exactly what was coming.

In this class, I encountered an understanding of media and a fluency in writing that shockingly but pleasantly surprised me, but I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted my value as a resource quite yet…

Concerning this week’s blog assignment… Sunday, Jan 28 2007 

Just to clear up any confusion regarding this week’s assignment, I yanked these definitions from dictionary.com:

Formative: giving form or shape; forming; shaping; fashioning; molding
Aesthetic: pertaining to a sense of the beautiful or to the science of
aesthetics.

When we ask for a formative aesthetic experience, what we are looking for is any experience that has affected how you give form to, or define, the beauty or science of a medium. Learning to like something doesn’t count. The Hobbit made me realize that I love to read books, but it didn’t change how I thought about them. An experience that affects your views external to the medium also does not count. Killer Angels dramatically affected the way I view historic generals, but not the way I look at books.

Reading Emperor: The Gates of Rome, though, made me realize that there is a fine line between fiction and historical narrative–if there is even a line at all. The Pegasus episode of BSG made me realize that sometimes television can take advantage of its square shape to do things that widescreen movies can’t. These experiences changed the way I saw the media themselves, and thus were formative aesthetic experiences. That is what we are looking for. Clear as mud?

Concerning the gnosis… Wednesday, Jan 24 2007 

In Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan’s sub-plot involving the critic clearly represents his feeling that picking apart an artist’s work can become an act of hubris. One can become caught in the criticism of a piece and lose what is most important: the soulful expression the artist is trying to convey. While Shyamalan goes too far by villainizing anyone who tries to understand what is going on in another’s mind, there is definitely a point of exploration here.

Someone trained to look at a medium with a critical eye bears a burden of knowledge that the average reader lacks. This is good for analyzing the quality of the art and is generally thought of as a high road to art appreciation. But can it have an opposite effect?

Why does an artist make art? Is it to evoke a sense of technical appreciation in the consumers, or to immerse them in an experience in which technical knowledge of what is being thrust on them is irrelevant and sometimes even counter to the aims? Does the artist want the consumer to say, “Ooh, look at the way he moved—that’s so awesome,” or “Excellent use of zip-ribbons and blurring to create the illusion of movement?”

Much, if not most, of what goes on in television, movies, comics, and perhaps art in general is illusion. Those images aren’t moving. You just think they are. You are made to think that those static pictures are dynamic, living creatures in which there is a world of goings-on. Really, they are just static images in series on paper or film. It is magic at its most refined.

But does the magic show seem the same after you figure out the bag of tricks? Once you know that nobody is really levitating or getting cut in half, does it detract from the sheer pleasure to be taken from the experience?

Love it? Hate it? Get it? Tuesday, Jan 16 2007 

If you are like most of us, the first thing that pops into your mind upon hearing the word “critic” is a handy little column in the newspaper, a weekly bit in the evening news, or a website like rottentomatoes. It is places like these where we get our biggest doses of media criticism. This criticism tells us whether something is good or bad—worth our money or not. We don’t have to decide what media experiences to go forth and grab, because the decision has already been made for us in a one to five ranking system decided upon by the professional consumers.

Is this really what criticism is? We are all under the misperception that criticism is all about a group of persnickety connoisseurs recommending to us what to and not to watch, read, do, and buy. The best books win awards from critics. The best movies win prizes from critics. The currency of new media has become critical acclaim. A well-known critic can immediately determine whether a certain percentage of the population will or will not see X movie before it is available for DVD rental or read X book before it can be borrowed from the not-so-enlightened acquaintance who actually wasted his cash on it.

Those critics who aren’t hitting it big-time by formulating the tastes of the masses aren’t happy with this situation. I hesitate to call this school academic criticism, but some such demarcation is necessary: pure criticism, high criticism, consumer-indifferent criticism…I’ll just call it real criticism. It is this type of criticism that this class is concerned with. For us, criticism goes beyond points of like and dislike. How many stars you would award something or how you would point your thumb at it are irrelevant for all practical purposes. What matters is understanding the media and appreciating it.

Appreciating is different from liking. It takes a sadist to enjoy a sitting through One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, but it takes an oaf not to appreciate the quality of its content and the mastery of its delivery. That is the nature of real criticism: an educated analysis of the quality inherent in the content and delivery of media. These can be analyzed myriad ways in terms of the physics, technology, history, trends, popularity, or any number of other subjects pertaining to the material. A real critic doesn’t tell his or her reader whether or not to like something. Readers can figure that out easily enough on their own. A real critic gives readers informative insights into a piece of media, allowing those readers to appreciate the piece in a way they would not have been likely to before.

So real criticism isn’t about skill in controlling consumer impulses. But on some level, we have to ask ourselves the question: isn’t it? The way people use and define a thing controls what the essence of that thing is. The Platonic embodiment of criticism can look down on the world of American media and proclaim, “That’s not what I’m about!” Is it lying to itself? That is what it is about to the majority of Americans and in the way that most affects the media world. We have made criticism the monster that it is, and it may not be able to stand against the flood of newspaper readers and Entertainment Tonight watchers who use it as their consumer guide. When does the misperception overtake and replace the reality?

Everyone’s a Critic & I Am Too! Friday, Jan 5 2007 

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