Three Lessons I Learned From Flappy Bird

Maurice Saatchi has this to write to the employees of M&C Saatchi – and the rest of the advertising world – about what he termed “The Brutal Simplicity of Thought:”

Simplicity is more than a discipline: it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong.

Saatchi is known in advertising circles as the brains behind some of the world’s most successful ad campaigns. Things like “Labour Isn’t Working,” “Let’s Get Behind Scotland,” and the “Face” ad for British Airways. Then again, a developer named Dong Nguyen released a game called “Flappy Bird,” and is now a cause for celebration (perhaps even revulsion) among many mobile gaming fans.

Mostly because the game is hard. Damn hard. On my best day of playing the game, I got a score of 10.

I’m not a fan of writing “marketing thought leader” -ish pieces on my blog – for one I’m not, and for two most of these Mashable-y pieces are exercises in common sense – but “Flappy Bird” got me thinking about the lessons we can learn from the game. It can lend some order and perspective (read: sanity) into a world filled with “Let’s make a mobile app,” or “mobile should be a pillar for awareness.” Because sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t; most of the time, though, some things demonstrate the things we believe in most simply by doing.

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The Work of the Eyes

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “The work of the eyes is done.  Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”

Coy Caballes, among so few, lighted and stoked the embers that started a revolution.

That’s a lot to say for someone.  The word “revolution” has been so abused here that anyone can come up with something mediocre, and call it something grand for the sake of rhetoric or maybe even marketing.  But Coy – my friend, my fellow blogger, my client – came up with something that truly fits the mold of revolution.

In simple terms: Coy came up with social media marketing in the Philippines.  Yes, he was one of the first client-side social media managers in the Philippines.  And it’s an honor and a privilege to have been part of that journey.

I think it was way back November 2008, when I worked for a company that was once called NetBooster – when I walked into the Globe Telecom offices to meet Globe’s new social media manager.  It was on that day that a professional relationship was born, and a personal friendship grew.  There were five or six of us in that meeting: a meeting that, in part, probably helped start it all for community management in the Philippines.

I’m not one to call the task “pioneering” or anything like that.  It was just a meeting, probably.  Social media management – maybe branded Facebook pages – were around long before either Coy or myself got started with making projects named after StarCraft characters.  Back then, the role of the “social media manager” was a gamble: could brands use social networks for marketing?  What does it mean?  What does it give my brand, or my organization?  “What is this ORM?”

*     *     *

It was a mad hustle for people like me, Andre, ES, Bim, and Peter – to name a few – to get the clients that get business moving.  More so for someone like Coy, who worked for one of the country’s largest telco companies.  This was still new back then, when digital had small budgets (or if any) and the risk coming into the venture was too high.  There were no command centers: we had to work in sleeping bags, cramped coffee tables, and clunky Blackberries to get the dice going.

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Pinoy Cinema and Our Discontents

I think it was Lenin who said, “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”  So it is for us here in the Philippines, where anyone who invokes Lenin would be an “enemy” and where “manood ng sine” is held in high regard.  And here we are – past MMFF season – and the Internet is abuzz about the “sorry” (or for some, “not-so-sorry;” still for others, “sorry-not-sorry”) state of Filipino cinema.

Some forced perspective is in order: cinema in the Philippines has seen better days.  In my hometown, the theaters and movie houses have given way to ukay stores. Filipino cinema is still vibrant, but even the pinilakang tabing is tarnished with the patina of operational costs, media piracy, and expensive movie tickets.  It may sound extreme, but every time we say, “I’ll just download the movie,” we move the wrecking ball an inch closer to the movie house.

And then there are “bad movies,” exemplified (at least for this MMFF season) by “My Little Bossings.”  Having opted to watch “Boy Golden” for this season (it makes me think more of KC Concepcion’s future in being this generation’s Cynthia Luster, and less of Jeorge Estregan’s movie career in general, but this is not a movie review), I’ll reserve my judgments for Vic Sotto’s movie for when I watch it.  But let’s take it as a given that our public intellectuals and cultural critics consider the film as a “bad movie:” my answer is a little less simple than what I want it to be.

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On Selfies

Towards the end of “Samurai X” – OK, “Rurouni Kenshin” – the dojo was supposed to have its pictures taken by a photographer in the village.  In the group, it was only Sannosuke who was averse to the idea of still pictures, claiming that the camera will “suck the soul” of anyone who may gaze into the lens.  He or she will be frozen, he claims.  A lot like a mechanical Medusa of sorts, that the blinding flash of the light will momentarily turn you to stone.

I’m not sure about the statistics of Instagram, but I bet that a majority of the pictures there are selfies.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word for 2013 was “selfie.”  Their definition: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or web cam and uploaded to a social media website.”  But we all know that there’s more to the selfie than just merely being a photograph.  It’s not an ID picture, but a filtered, saturated, “artistic” self-portrait.  It’s the self-image – in the strictest sense of the word “image” – that we want to project.

The selfie is the closest approximation we have to show the world how we see ourselves in the mirror.  The touch-ups, the angles, the filters and the colors and the hues are touches of personality that a clear eyesight prevents us (perhaps even betrays us) from seeing in the real world.  There’s a somewhat obvious subtext to the selfie: the way we see ourselves, is the way we want to be seen.

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The Binay Card

By now, much has been said about the whole Binay imbroglio.  Binay’s own camp weighed in, which makes this all the more interesting.

I’m not the biggest fan of Binay – not by a long shot – but the guy has always been consistent about playing the victim.  In the minds of the Binays, it’s the family against the world.  A cursory view of the chatter around this controversy shows that the Binays and their supporters may not take too kindly to netizens.

And then there’s the pink war elephant in the room, one that has always been the choice weapon of “oppressed politicians.”  Dasmarinas Village is the seat of the wealthy and the powerful: the Binays need not appeal to them.  The Binays need not appeal to the Filipino Internet community, either: the previous elections show that the promise of a crust of bread is more important than the thoughts and musings of the upper crust.  Erap didn’t win second place in 2010 – and Nancy Binay didn’t become a Senator – on the basis of things like “social media sentiment.”

They are getting away with it as we speak.  To follow their way of thinking, why should their constituency be bothered at all with the rules of people living in posh subdivisions or the ranting and raving on social media?  If anything, Binay – and the political mindset that precedes and perpetuates public figures like him – thrives on things that are far more real than Tweets and hypertext.  It’s a political mindset that thrives on weak civic culture: that voting is enough, that the highest manifestation of political activity in the Social Media Capital is to Tweet and blog about it (or take up a name and head to Disqus calling out “lefties” and “Yellowtards,” for example), and the millions of reasons not to join the public sector because “politics” is a bad word.

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The Turkey and I

Besides the family dog, the first pet that I truly had was the turkey.

I was about eight when Dad and my uncle bought a couple of turkeys home.  For some reason, I took to feeding the turkey not as a chore, but as a “mission” of sorts.  Feeding leftovers to the neighbor’s pigs was one thing, but taking care of the turkey was another.  I even made the turkey gobble on cue: all I had to do was stand in front of it, jump around, and imitate Taz from “Tazmania.”

Until that fateful day when Dad decided that the turkey was fat enough to be killed.  I was inconsolable: for much of the day I looked at my relatives as cold-hearted pet-killers.  Eventually I relented: after a gift of a plastic robot and a talk with Dad over the facts of life, I sat down to one of the best pets I ever had.

It wasn’t exactly a good meal, though: my pet turkey ended up as adobo and afritada, not the roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce of our 20th century colonial masters.  It wasn’t bad – a rather earthy, gamey chicken – but a bit sinewy and rubbery.  That’s the first and the last turkey we kept.

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Yolanda: Notes on a Disaster

Twenty-three years ago, Typhoon Uring (international codename: “Thelma”) turned Ormoc from a peaceful port overlooking the Camotes Sea, to a wasteland of despair and death.  The flash flood of 1991 gave way to the most haunting images left behind by Typhoon Uring: entire houses flattened by floodwaters, and streets ravaged by rubbish and debris.  Almost 5,000 people died from the flash floods.  An estimated 3,000 were declared missing, and P600 million worth of property were damaged by a storm that was, for a time, deemed the worst of them all.

Perhaps the most haunting images of all were rotting bloated corpses: like statues etched in blocks of impure marble and clothed with tattered rags, it seemed that the sculptor wanted to capture drowning and despair in their most literal forms.

And here we are, in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda (international codename: “Haiyan”). Most storms hit the same places in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard.  The Eastern Visayas region – Samar and Leyte in particular – is no stranger when it comes to typhoons.  Yet at the same time, the region is no stranger to the poverty and vulnerability that comes with generations of underdevelopment.  Eastern Visayas is a place of extreme wealth in the hands of a few, and despondent poverty for the multitude.

The chatter in Philippine social media today spares no barbs for the Aquino administration, international humanitarian agencies, and even reporters from here and all over the globe.  Everything from politics to donation protocols to media coverage was put in the spotlight.  The images of hope – a street child donating a peso, a dirt-poor 80-year-old woman donating a half-open packet of milk to those starving in Leyte, lone helicopter pilots doing airdrops on their own, ShelterBox volunteers – are often shadowed by the criticisms of an angry public, mostly spared from the devastation of Yolanda.  “Donations are not being distributed fast enough,” one says.  “Politicians are hoarding donations for them to put their names on the bags,” says another.  That storm of opinions, brewing and swirling in Twitter and Facebook, did in words what Yolanda did in gales and storm surges: to shake the very core of our being.

Yet the devastation caused by Yolanda was just the exclamation point to the tragic story of Eastern Visayas: mired in hardship and poverty for decades, perhaps even generations.  Samar and Leyte became the poster provinces of rural poverty in the Philippines.  Yolanda barreled through the Visayas and not only uprooted trees and destroyed buildings and claimed lives: it also exposed the extent of poverty and underdevelopment in a place that needed aid and support way before the strongest typhoons of this year started brewing.

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