2014-03-27

Heritages: More Than A Movie, A Wake Up Call

Disclaimer: This is not an objective movie review, I am not Anis Tabet and you will not get a professional opinion on the cinematographic qualities and shortcomings of the movie.




I watch a lot of movies and consequently, I have become quite desensitized by movie trailers in general. I am also a fan of Lebanese movies, but not necessarily the ones that everyone swoons over. For example, I loved Taxi Ballad way more than any of Nadine Labaki's flicks.

Many who have met me, or read my blog, know how critical I am of stereotypes, especially the very Yippeekayay-ish approach to the proverbial "joie de vivre" lie that we enjoy telling ourselves in Lebanon.
So when I first caught a glimpse of the Heritages trailer in some pre-movie session, I was reluctant on what to make of it: Is it another sob-story on the struggle that many Lebanese-born must undergo or just another cheesy attempt at glorifying feelings of nostalgia for a Land that continuously keeps offering less and less to its natives? It was neither.

On the pre-screening night, I managed to steal a few moments with Philippe Aractingi and we briefly exchanged some ideas which got me even more psyched to see how he had placed those ideas onto film.

I was happy to see that this filmmaker did not slip into every cliche that's been thrown our way, about being the greatest place to live in the world, but instead offered an honest, accurate and enjoyable storytelling experience from his own perspective, while basing it on his own family's past and present, without denying his love for the country he was born into.
The richness of imagery, the candor of the characters and honesty of emotions made me feel privileged to have been given a front-seat ride into this visual autobiography and the plethora of emotions thrown at the spectator along the way.

Lebanese cinema has recently brought us many choices and styles: the touching, the smooth, the badly executed, the same old story and even the doubled-monosyllabic comedies. Far from all that, Heritages stands alone as an honest witness of a person's love and struggle with a country that binds you to it and still pushes you away until you feel like being on the edge of a yo-yo toy.

Heritages is a must-see movie for everyone: the disappointed idealist, the chronic nostalgic, the wannabe immigrant and most importantly the delusional patriotic narcissistic. It's a hangover cure, sugarcoated with honesty and warmth emanating from the lives of a very honest family somewhere between Beirut and Paris.

This movie should make it to the official school syllabus as a valuable educational tool for the young and impressionable minds that, so far, seem bound to repeat the same experiences of their parents, and their parents before them. Perhaps a powerful wake-up call like this might shake the country out of its unpleasant version of Groundhog Day but then again like I started by saying: I watch too many movies.

2014-03-20

"We Are Pleased and Honored..."

Beirut Airport DSC 0439
By Captainm (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
If you have ever flown out of Beirut's (only) international airport then chances are you probably have had the chance to hear the overzealous welcoming message that gets pushed through the loudspeakers all over the facility:

"Welcome to Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. 

We are pleased and honored to have you in our city".


Pleased and Honored, you say?
Those two consecutive adjectives just get the best of me every time I hear them.
See, I am not a jet-setter, but in my modest travels, I have never heard any city airport shout-out to passing travelers that it was honored to have them over, even in the most touristic of cities.

This got me really thinking about all the hidden reasons and emotions associated with it, and to me, that sentence wreaks of self-loathing. It makes me feel, as a citizen who payed/pays for this facility,  like I am that sort of sleazy whatchamacallit-monger who is desperately cozying up to foreigners in hope of selling them some useless artifact; in this case the artifact is a city and a way of life that is in a constant downward spiral, simply because no one is willing to wake up and smell the coffee [sponsors, you are welcome to contact me and I will insert your coffee brand here, yes shameless...].

We are proud, we think the universe revolves around our Lebanese identity, and then we hurry and bury our heads in the sand in the hope of problems flying by unnoticed (proud Lebanese this is your cue to start bashing me if you have not started yet)
Yet in the middle of all that, we are honored to have people in our city.  Because if there's something we can do well, it's sucking up.

We suck-up to the kindergarten teacher, to the principal, to the boss, to the client to the policeman and to the tourist. I'm not saying we need to be rude, but maybe, just maybe, if we ever decide to apply rules and law instead of flattery and pleasantries, we just might become a real nation and not merely a country; a state in a constant state of being pleased to have you in our city.

2014-03-11

The Rise and Fall of MonotStreet.com


The Backdrop
 

The year was 2002, I was four years into my career as a web developer and I saw everything in HTML markup and Hexadecimal color codes.
I had springboarded myself from working at OGERO the localstate-run fixed-telephony operator towards Cellis, France Telecom's burgeoning mobile operator in Lebanon (currently rebranded as Alfa). I was the first web developer to join the company.
Although my job offered me the chance to work on various challenging projects, it was just not enough to satisfy my hunger for more challenges. On top of that, my employment conditions had taken an unexpected turn to the worse and this incited me towards wanting to build something independently from my day job. An idea that would potentially allow me to run my own show without having to report to individuals who were, at the time, much less informed about the business of the web.

The Idea

At that same period, a tiny street in Beirut was becoming the hottest spot in town, where all the club, pubs and cafes were opening up. Monot Street was where nightlife happened. Unlike myself, Chris, a childhood friend of mine was an aficionado of the Beirut night life and It only took us one discussion and the idea was born: www.monotstreet.com a website/portal dedicated to Beirut's nightlife.
We were going to go all digital on a city that still lacked DSL internet, in a country where in many houses echoed still the distinct whizzing of the dial-up modem handshake; but we did not care.
Chris would be in charge of the field operations and I would handle all the digital aspects of the projects.

The Rise

In March 2003 we went live with a unique nightlife-inspired branding and full arsenal of gimmicks:



Our nightlife portal was armed to the teeth and ready to take on the scene with features such as:

  • An exhaustive Directory of all the hot spots with detailed listing on venue style, music genres, opening hours, price range, location and popularity
     
  • A regularly updated list of all the major Events happening in the street
     
  • A news section ironically called @Monot way before twitter came into existence
     
  • The Party Planner service which would suggest venues based on criteria of date, price, style and number of attendees provided by the user
     
  • The Music section contained a directory of DJs who worked in Monot along with a weekly top 10 of the tracks being requested the most by clients of the establishments on the street.
     
  • The Photos section contained a picture galleries of people enjoying their outing in Monot. For the geeks reading this, I had implemented a JavaScript hack that worked like AJAX (the term was not coined yet) for viewing pictures without reloading the entire page and even added server-side code that would watermark the images on the fly
     
  • The interactive section contained a Chat Room and a Forum where people would be welcome to interact and exchange ideas. It also contained a poll that was intended to help us enhance our features further. At one point we had also partnered with Vibe Lebanon, the first Lebanese online radio.
      
  • Daily Horoscopes were provided and updated automatically through a provider in Italy.

Chris at our stand during
Fete de La Musique 2003
Upon launching the website we quickly gained momentum in spite of a competitor launching shortly afterwards. Although they were quite dynamic on the field, they were outclassed by our website build quality and our premium domain names (monotstreet.com & ruemonot.com). We made sure to cover all events such as Fete De La Musique and became familiar with the Monot scene. All we needed was to start bringing in some revenue.

The Fall 
We had set out to ensure revenue by proposing premium listing subscriptions to venue owners. The premium listing offered them several perks such as increased coverage, prime location in the directory and on the homepage, newsletter and forum mentions and preferential recommendation in the Party Planner section.

We soon realized this was not going to work, as only a handful of locations opted for premium. We had omitted to analyse the profile of the average venue owner and their understanding of what we were proposing. Many of the owners had converted into this business from non-related activities and did not really understand why they would pay a subscription fee (even a small one), since, anyway, their shops were always full and money was pouring-in like crazy.


We fell back onto plan B. It involved eliminating the premium subscription fee and relying instead on making the site popular enough, so that we could sell on-site advertising and ensure some form of revenue from all the efforts being poured into this venture. This approach soon proved itself also insufficient. Neither online nor offline we could build enough momentum nor find a market for advertisers. Club owners were un-cooperative even when we gave freebies and would not help us promote the site even if this would eventually help them highlight their own businesses.
We hung on to the project for several months before eventually giving up and calling it quits effectively abandoning all efforts in maintaining the website.

Afterthought

Writing this post 11 years after MonotStreet.com went live has given me some perspective (on top of a lot of market experience). At the time, we had attributed our failure to the negative and dismissive attitude that often characterizes the Lebanese society especially when dealing with club owners. We also wondered if we needed to have built some more features into the website. We didn't!
As far as blaming other stakeholders for not being able to push the service effectively, we were only half-right. Yes, we had trouble dealing with some people, but we also had trouble marketing to the end user. Getting the word out, familiarizing people with the portal, making it a daily go-to online destination was simply not possible at the time.
A deadly mix of weak internet market penetration, slow connection speeds and mobile internet limited to WAP had dealt the coup de grace to our project in 2004.

Today, many similar concepts exist and thrive. They do because the ecosystem has changed, a new accelerator has been added to the formula. This new ingredient that has spiced up the mix in a way that allows to compensate for many of the issues that we could not surmount 11 years ago is called (yes you guessed it):  Social Media Marketing.

The existence of Facebook, Twitter and various other channels has made users spend more online time and familiarized them with the power and convenience of digital. Website owners can now run effective targeted ads to maximize awareness on their product and can push their content into these channels for optimized viral reach.

In a world of fast changing technological landscape, we are often warned that we need to anticipate things and move fast enough, yet somehow, moving too fast and anticipating too early was exactly what caused the downfall of MonotStreet.com. The End.


2014-03-09

"We Are All Born Mad..."

I hate politics! Not because it's fashionable to do so but because I live in Lebanon. An East-Mediterranean country with beautiful geography, exquisite cuisine and one of the worlds most dysfunctional socio-political systems.

When I think of Lebanon, I remember a fractal game I used to doodle when bored during my school years. I would draw a triangle, then draw a median line splitting it into two other triangles. Then I would repeat the same thing for each of the two triangles and so onward...
This can best illustrate the schisms that spread and infiltrate all the stratas of Religion, Politics, Business and Social behavior in our daily life.

When Joe Kodeih announced his next play would be be named "Michel & Samir", after two of the most well know political opponents on the local scene over the past 30 years or so, my initial knee-jerk reaction was rather dismissive. But for anyone who has known Joe for as long as I have or has had the chance to watch any of his previous plays, there could be no doubt that what he had up his sleeve extended beyond the cliches offered by the overabundant political satire shows and plays that plague our TV stations and theaters.

The setting and characters both imaginative (as offered by both written and verbal disclaimers) represent two patients, Rodrigue Sleiman and Hicham Haddad,  with identity crisis and an apparent aversion for one another being treated  by two healthcare providers: Tony Balabane and Maguy Badawi.

Over the duration of the play we are taken on a roller-coaster ride into the obsessions, fears and insecurities of the characters tempered by a series of comical jabs at our reality. Joe Kodeih's directing and script combines with the raw talent of the actors to take us into the realm of the absurd, only to jerk us out of it when we least expect it, making us both laugh then smirk at our daily grievances.



Tony Balaban's monumental performance glued the volatile characters portrayed by the oh-so-talented Rodrigue Sleiman and unexpectedly touching Hicham Haddad in a melting pot of angry male emotions tamed by the presence of Maguy Badaoui and her central character in the play.

Michel w Samir (or Samir w Michel, depending on your personal preference) explores absurdity and comedy in equal parts of touching and engaging, not far from our day-to-day reality.

After all like the great Samuel Beckett said: "We Are All Born Mad. Some Remain So"

I sometimes think those are the lucky ones!



2014-03-04

Chocolate Wars: KitKat vs Toblerone


It's always a treat for us consumers when brands take jabs at each other while trying to sway us on one side or the other. A rare commodity in today's world where we feel we have become just tiny chunks of big data.
No matter how much people preach that businesses need to, have become and should remain customer-centric, we still feel too tiny in front of big brands. unless they pull off something like this on Twitter.

When I saw a glimpse of @KitKat's powerful reply to @Toblerone and @Mrugesh15, with a picture containing both chocolate bars in a surprising layout, I felt compelled to check out the entire conversation. Much to my delight, it was yet another duel of the giants. Both brands remained classy and gave it their best shot, but judging by the number of ReTweets and Favorites each reply received, it would be safe to say that KitKat walked away with this one.


In your opinion, who do you think deserved the win? Let me know in the comments section below. Personally, I think Toblerone would have won me over had they used the dark chocolate bar.

UPDATE
Shortly after I tweeted about my blog post mentioning these two amazing brands KitKat came back with a reply and I must say this has been pure enjoyment. Almost as good as having a chunk of each bar...


UPDATE 2 (2014-03-05)

The cherry on top of the beautiful social media exchange came today from the awesome people behind Toblerone. It seems that Cupid (pretty much like everybody else) is also hooked on Chocolate and thanks to these two great brands we are all love-stricken.




2014-03-01

Tribal 2.0: The Great Digital Divide



We are Tribes, we always have been and we always will be. We gang up alongside those who look like us, talk like us, think like us but are not just quite us. We may call ourselves nations, states, societies and communities, but in fact, all we are is tribes unified around one or several common values and united by the motto: Members of the Tribe Come First (regardless of how idiotic, blind-sighted or annoying they are)

In today's connected world one would argue that the barriers maintaining tribal segregation would be eroded, blurred, gone. Perhaps in some measure they are.  Google translate brings down language barriers, Skype saves us the trouble of crossing borders, Facebook puts us in touch with long lost friends...yet we still manage to align ourselves in tribes. We pick sides even when there is no side to pick, we trash-talk the other side over a piece of technology which we don't even own but merely use.

Today's tribal feuds are digital, they live on the web, in virtual space, on the banks of social media channels.
Here's a brief look at some of those I run into most frequently:

  • Mac vs PC:  In the beginning there was the mainframe but who cares about that. This is where the action took place as digital was unraveling itself. It still does in some way but this has been one of the oldest running digital feuds. Countless are the arguments breaking out in college cafeterias, dorm rooms and classrooms between supporters of each with a side dish of sarcasm by Linux lovers.
    This rivalry sparked a series of very successful ads by Apple.

  • Microsoft vs Google: A software company hating on a search engine? what am I missing there? But we all know that Microsoft outgrew its software manufacturer a long time ago and that Google has spread its wings far beyond search. Google's Gmail, Chrome Browsers, Chrome OS and Apps were gaining ground on the supremacy of Microsoft's Hotmail, Internet Explorer, Windows and Office.
    The fans of each side are often arguing the merits of one or the other. My personal observation is that those who emerge from a corporate environment tend to support the more institutional Microsoft while Start-Ups, freelancers, hackers are pro Google. Left in the middle is the average computer user.
    This probably would explain an entire campaign entitled "Scroogled" aimed at taking jabs at Google's array of products in order to portray Microsoft's under a brighter light. Interestingly enough, Google have not reacted to this.

  • Apple Fanboys vs Fandroids: So we've had Microsoft and Apple fans going at it for starters, closely followed Microsoft and Google supporters having their own little thing happening, so it would not be right if we didn't have Apple and Google fans at each others' throats. While I have been an Android user for as long as I remember I cannot deny the merits of either platform. The issue is that of relevance. If the fruit makes you happy bite into that by all means. Both are here to stay, both borrow from each other and the only one to profit is us the consumers. Of course if you ever hoped to work for either company and got turned down, we won't hold it against you if you spent your day bashing their product. After all we are all humans and we can't all handle rejection well.

     
  • Facebook vs Google+: This might be the mildest of all the controversies you can see. Facebookers argue that Google+ is a ghost-town and that Google is pushing it down the throat of everybody who uses any Google product. The latter simply shrug their shoulders and poke fun at all the privacy concerns that have infected Facebook and the type of users and content that is being generated there.
    It's worth noticing that these two giants are probably going to end up doing the same thing. Facebook is spinning off new products (messenger, paper...) from its main platform while Google is connecting all is products (YouTube, Blogger, Android...) via its social platform. I guess it's a wait and see game.



There are certainly other examples to draw on from the House of Tech and the Clan of McSocial (Canon vs Nikon, Xbox vs PlayStation...) but I am sure you can dig-up more on those on your own or even better, give first hand example on your participation in one or the other. What matters at the end of the day is not what technology are you using but rather what are you using the technology for and is it the most appropriate one to achieve the goals you initially set-off to achieve.

I would love to hear your contributions below in the comments on these and other topics so don't hesitate to share your Tribal 2.0 experience.