Sriya Sarkar

Digital Media-ite, Comedian, Filmmaker

Sriya Sarkar can be found at the intersection of comedy, political issues, and digital media (just off of I-95). A filmmaker and comedian, she recently received her Master's in Integrated Digital Media from NYU's Polytechnic School of Engineering.

The smorgasbord of her work lives here.

Do the Write Thing

With the massive endeavor that was lolvote accomplished for the most part, I turned my attention to...the paper.

It was slow going to get started, but I have finally gotten into the writing groove. My plan is to finish the project portion of my paper (going over the idea, methodologies, execution, etc) by Friday at the latest, then bang out the research portion between this weekend and next Wednesday. I'll spend Thanksgiving break revising. I'm not going anywhere, so I've got the time to do so. Here is a link to my current paper.

In terms of follow up, I met with my advisor last Friday to discuss ideas. Originally, we came up with a plan to encourage the show's audience to use the Twitterbot to tweet during the Democratic debate this past Saturday. It was the only actionable event I could incorporate considering there's nothing to vote on until February, at the earliest (even then, only for those in Iowa). However, the tragic events in Paris coupled with numerous issues with the Twitterbot that prevented it from running on a server meant I missed the debate opportunity. 

My follow up plan is to fix the Twitterbot and engage users in any political discussion through it, doesn't necessarily have to be the debate. I'll try to time it around a newsworthy topic (i.e. Bobby Jindal suspending his campaign).

Celine and I met yesterday to discuss the status of our papers and projects. She concurred with me about my above plan. She, as well as Ernie and Sandra, provided many suggestions for how to further develop my project down the road (lolvote Global Edition might be a thing sometime in the future, for instance!). I will be incorporating their ideas into my paper.

And that's it for this week!

So This Thing Happened...

As I write this, I am listening to SNL's Weekend Update anchors, Colin Jost and Michael Che, discuss the best time of the week with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. Their reply? 1am Sunday morning because there's nothing like the feeling of relief after pulling off a show. 

Overall, I'm very happy that I was able to pull it off. As with any live event, though, it was not without its hiccups. Perhaps they stood out more to me because I was the most invested, but such is the case with these things. 

When setting out to put on the show, I was determined to find a venue with proper internet. After my interaction design show last semester where my Processing sketch crashed because of spotty internet, I knew I needed to be more careful with my venue selection. Turns out, though, when you're looking for venues just a month in advance, your priority becomes actually locking down a place over their internet connectivity. I figured I could get around the internet problem by renting a mobile hotspot device, thus I wouldn't need to rely on the venue.

I rented a hotspot online and was supposed to pick it up on Saturday (11/7 aka the day before the show). Turns out, the pick-up location decided to change their minds and stop operations on Saturdays, but neglected to let their customers know. So I was stuck on a Saturday with no hotspot. Long story short, several Best Buy and Sprint store trips later, I was able to get a device from Verizon which assured me that the area my venue was in had full 4G coverage - enough to support the type of operations I was aiming to do for the show (Twitter streaming and video chatting, mostly).

We ran a tech day-of using the venue's internet and, weirdly enough, everything worked great. Our Skype pre-interview was flawless, the twitter stream worked fine. I figured the hotspot wouldn't be needed, especially because it was not getting even close to the full service it required to be effective. During the show, I suppose an influx of devices connected to the network caused things to bug out. I'm not entirely sure what happened.

Despite the tech hiccups and background improvising that occurred (including having to switch computers last minute), the show went over pretty well. Did a show happen? Yes. Did people enjoy themselves? Yes, it seemed so at least. 

I would have loved a larger turnout, but with essentially a week and a half of outreach, this wasn't too bad. 

A rough look at my survey results are interesting. I don't think every single person in the audience was able to take it, but I still got a decent number of responses. The majority confirms what I thought at the beginning - most are registered and intend to vote in the Presidential elections. Past voter behavior, however, indicates that there is a sharp dropoff in numbers in terms of those who vote in presidential elections (~80%) and those who vote in state and more local elections (~50% or less). I know it was long, but I needed the information and I think there are some interesting patterns to be seen. I will be meeting with my advisor (who was not able to attend, unfortunately) to go over what needs to be asked in the follow up survey. 

In terms of voter registration, only 1 person actually registered at the event, but multiple people were walked through the process and said they would sign up at home. The Turbovote representative estimates altogether, about 5-6 people signed up which is pretty solid!

All of the hiccups and tech issues and what have you aside, a major, major shoutout to these folks who helped a ton with all of this. Thank you to Lauren, Celine, Ijele, Ernie, and DeAngela for coming out! Much appreciated! 

Celine and I also met separately to digest Sunday's show. We discussed visual references for the game component of her project (which involved, amongst other things, a Zoloft commercial and a Shel Silverstein poem) as well as what our plans are regarding the paper. 

That was a lot of blog to read. Congratulations on making it all the way through to the end (and thank you for reading). Here, have a cookie. 


Logistics: The Sequel: Part Two: Continued

Again, the week was a very logistics oriented week. I also pinned down the question I am trying to answer - which I was struggling with a lot last week. Without further ado:

1. QUESTION - How can young voters be mobilized to vote through comedy?
     I know in previous conversations, it seemed as if comedy was veering too much into the medium discussion. But the more I think about it, I have to politely disagree. In this case, and throughout the development of this project, comedy has been a lens through which I have tried to explore various issues. I believe the medium, in my case, is the show (or the website, or the videos, or the myriad of other ideas I had). There are an unlimited number of ways to mobilize voters, none of which are the ostensible correct approach. What I am trying to research is one specific approach that happens to be comedic in nature. 

2. DATE AND VENUE STUFF
     The event page is up and set, for the most part. In my initial meeting with my advisor, we had discussed how taking a measurement of my audience before and after the show would be helpful in analyzing impact and change. To that end, I devised a set of survey questions to be included as part of the ticket checkout process. They are listed below:

1. Which of the previous elections did you vote in?
     2008 (presidential)
     2010 (midterms)
     2012 (presidential)
     2014 (midterms)
     Not a single one #MissingOut
     N/A

2. Are you registered to vote?
     Yes
     No
     N/A

3. Do you intend to vote in the primaries?
     Yes
     No
     N/A

4. How much do you research before voting?
     The whole ballot
     Just the presidential candidates
     Just the local candidates
     Not at all
     N/A

5. What is your age?
     18 - 24
     25 - 29
     30+

6. What is your Twitter handle?

There would then be a follow up survey sent to all attendees following the event.

3. PARTNERSHIPS
     I learned about and reached out to a number of organizations this past week to partner up in some way. As I realized earlier last month, there is a lot of activity in the field that I cannot hope to compete with in this short of a timeline. If you can't beat them, join them, as they say. So who did I reach out to?

Oh Say Nation - they're a brand spanking new website and app that is trying to make political engagement fun, engaging, and even hip. Their app is getting a fair bit of traction for being one day old and from the research I did on them, they are attempting to align with the NYC comedy scene in order to get more comedians to use it. I had a great meeting with them over the phone yesterday where we discussed how we could mutually benefit from a partnership. I am thinking a kind of "casting station" or "casting zone" where audience members (who would predominantly be comedians anyway) could use the app to cast directly from the event. OSN is also potentially interested in sponsoring lolvote. which would be fantastic because the financial resources of a broke grad student only stretch so far. 

Laughing Liberally - they're part of a larger organization, Living Liberally, but one could argue they've been doing political comedy for a consistently long time with some of the best progressive comedians in the scene. I reached out to them to partner and it got an even better offer - they would provide the comedians! I am working with Katie Halper and Julianna Forlano on that end. No one has yet been confirmed, though.

Turbovote - This is the site that originally spurred my pivot in the first place. We have a meeting set for Thursday (tomorrow) to discuss things. I think it is incredibly important to have some sort of physical presence at the event that will facilitate voter registration and reminders. I think that is one of the fundamental elements of ensuring people turn up at the polls. 

4. TALENT
     In addition to Laughing Liberally, I have also reached out to Electoral Dysfunction, Political Fashion Chat, Ted Alexandro, Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson of the "Guys We Fucked" podcast, and Hari Kondabolu. Electoral Dysfunction and Political Fashion Chat are definitely interested. We're all in the midst of figuring out logistics and how we can make it work since these are groups and it requires significantly more wrangling/schedule flexibility than just one comic. 
     Declines so far only include the "Guys We Fucked" ladies but only because they are out of town that day. No answer yet from Ted or Hari. 


 

Finalising Logistics

It was a very logistics heavy week this week. But it wasn't all for nought - we have a venue and date!

The show goes down November 8th, 8pm, Littlefield.

Cool. That means less than a month to finish things up. No pressure. 

This week I did another brain dump about my question, which continues to be at odds with my proposed project. And I think I know why. For this entire process, I have focused almost entirely on some variation of what gets people to vote. But my initial interest in and passion for this project is rooted in my love for comedy and producing. When my approach to the project is centered around "what do I do best" (answer: produce live shows), I should have known that is the jumping off point for my question. 

So my new question now would be...I'm still working on it. 

Exciting update, though...the show has its hosts! Rae Sanni and Alex English are two colleagues of mine from Lady Parts Justice. Both are seasoned hosts and, more importantly, are involved in the intersection between comedy and social issues. Funny AND politically informed? That's EXACTLY what I need, no?

Update

Lot of moving pieces this week so apologies for the not quite eloquent post. Things accomplished this week:

1. Politicon. I'm going to this politics + media conference in LA this weekend with Lady Parts Justice, a non-profit I work with. Described as "the Comic Con of politics," I think this event will give me a boost in terms of 1) finding the talent portion of my show, and 2) giving me a chance to attend panels that discuss politics, media, comedy, and political participation all in one convenient place.

2. Venues. The venue search is well under way and should be finalized by the end of this week. Chances are 80% that I'll be going with Littlefield, a well known venue for just-under-mainstream indie comics and live music in Brooklyn. They have Sunday, November 8th open and getting a weekend date is key. I'm also looking at the Striker theater at the PIT.

3. Twitterbot. I started work on a quick and easy Twitterbot - one element of my show. The point of the bot is to tweet congratulatory messages (with accompanying GIFs) to anyone who tweets that they voted in past elections. I got it to work but right now it only retweets people it follows on a list. I am going to meet with Luke later this week to fine tune it. In the following screen grabs, you can see that it retweets when messages where it is mentioned (but at the moment, it is only listening to pre-defined users in a list, instead of Twitter at large):

4. Website. I know, I know! No website! But it's done already (minus hosting). The site is just a reference spot to show to sponsors. Because I will definitely need sponsors. The theaters above come with hefty price tags.

5. I met with Allison Goldberg, co-creator of Blogologues, to get some advice on audience engagement in live theater, integrating tech aspects into shows, and lots of production nitty gritty (particularly in terms of sponsorship and the $$ aspect). Here is a photo of my notes, including some ideas that came to me as a result of our conversation:

As you can see, the concept of people's social networks were a dominant player in both the show's content as well as its production.

6. Celine and I met yesterday to go over our progress and where we are at. Both of us have been prioritizing our projects over paper because we both come from writing backgrounds and are more concerned about being able to finish what we are working on. A slightly more constrained timeline for the paper does not seem to be a worry for either of us.

Focusing on audience and more updates

To be quite honest, I fell behind this week. I don't have a worthy excuse besides having two major events this weekend I was working at and performing in. I think I got a little spooked by the possibility of having to rethink my entire project after my meeting last week. I let that supposed sense of defeat get to me a little too much, I think, because I didn't update my Kanbanery, stick to an unschedule, or write the paper. Again, no excuse, that's just what happened.

Instead, I spent more time thinking about my audience and doing a little extra research into who exactly am I building this for. Here are a couple pictures of mind barfs, as I like to call them, of informal brainstorms I did.  

My audience breakthrough was I'm creating something for my friends, my network. This is not as broad of an audience as I was initially looking at ("young people") and it is significantly smaller, but it does narrow the focus. My immediate network consists of:
     Primarily educated millennials
     Media and pop-culture savvy
     Still in the midst of settling on their career and personal trajectories
     Interested in comedy (and knowledgeable about it as a form of entertainment) whether as audience members or comedians themselves

To follow this up, I created another survey to gauge my network's voting habits. This is what I created:

Powered by Typeform

So far, I only have 16 responses and am hoping for more to come in before drawing any conclusions. But it is interesting to read people's responses. The majority lean towards seeing voting as a civic duty, but many have indicated that their schedules and apathy do deter them from getting to the polls.

Making an informed decision is ranked highly across the board. On a scale of 0 to 10 (with 10 being very important), the average ranking of responses so far is 9.29. That right there is the validation I needed to continue to focus on the informational aspect of my project in addition to simply encouraging people to physically vote. The two cannot be mutually exclusive in the context of my project. 

Celine and I also checked in with each other, as we usually do, on Tuesday evening. We chatted online about our approaches to starting the paper mainly. She gave me some good advice about revisiting my pre-thesis paper and identifying the relevant parts to build off of for this paper. 

In terms of my paper, things are a little slow going. I have moved my outline and pre-thesis paper into this Google Doc and moving bits into the places where they'll fit.

My advisor, Chris Dawes, was an immense help by supplying me with a number of studies related to social influences on voter habits and the effects of text, email, and Facebook on mobilization efforts. I will need to drastically ramp up my writing game for this week, however. 

 

Four Weeks In Already?!

We're four weeks in already! *cue panic music*

What has been done so far? Good question:

  • Lots of meetings: I met with my thesis advisor for starters, and it was JUST what I needed. Get all the juicy details of that here.
  • I was introduced to, and set up a meeting with, Allison Goldberg and Jen Jamula, the creators of the wildly popular sketch comedy show, Blogologues. I am hoping to pick their brains about integrating tech into live comedy (which they are quite adept at doing by this point) as well as about more technical producing aspects, such as how to get sponsors 
  • I have locked down a window of dates for which this show needs to take place. Essentially the first two weeks of November is what I am looking at. This gives me enough time to take the feedback and analyze the results of the show.
  • I started writing! Not very much, but I took the hashtag exercise we did with Billy a couple weeks ago and started to do a short freewrite based on one of my hashtags. 
  • More research. Thanks to Chris Dawes, my advisor, I realized that up until now, I had been searching for the wrong thing because I didn't know the technical term for what it was exactly that I was doing. VOTER MOBILIZATION. That's the magical jargon. And now I am making my way through a comprehensive study of youth voter turnout from the last two elections done by CIRCLE, Tufts University's Center for Civic Engagement. 
  • I also met with someone to get a quick tutorial on Twilio in order to start building my SMS service. I think there's going to be a bit of a learning curve for me, alas, but there are plenty of tutorials I can do in order to get things going. I plan on keeping my goals for the service as simple as possible now in order to make the building stage as smooth as possible. I want to create strictly a reminder service now (it texts a reminder before each election). If I have the time to add more features, I will focus on integrating more. But I do not want to go in too big at the moment.
  • Finally, here is my detailed outline for the paper. 

I certainly have my work cut out for me, especially as September draws to a close. There's no time for panic attacks now. I just have to remember...

A Meeting to Put Things In Perspective

Last week, I met with my advisor, Chris Dawes. As a political science professor here at NYU, he isn't a tech wizard nor is he an expert in live comedy or interactive performance. He knows the intricacies of politics, elections in particular, and it was through talking with him that I finally was able to find the right direction to in for this project.

The most important question that he brought up was not "What is your purpose?" or "What are you trying to achieve?" It was, "What are you trying to measure?"

This simple question helped me orient the project much easier than when I had been grappling with more overarching questions pertaining to purpose and results.

Furthermore, because his specialty is voter behavior, he gave me some very interesting insights into what actually gets people to go out and vote, mainly the ability to show others that they have done so (thus, the "I Voted" button on Facebook last election). It's not so much a question of appealing to people's sense of civic duty, but their FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) it seems. 

In addition to some studies and academic paper recommendations, my discussion with Chris was supremely helpful. This was the perspective I was sorely missing during my project development phase so far and I feel it has since put me on the direction to creating a project grounded in the kind of research and political engagement I want it to. 

 

Things Can Change A Lot in One Week

After last week's feedback, I was very aware that there were some significant areas of my project that needed to be re-assessed. I was on the right path, but veering in the wrong direction (which can lead to frustration, but also provided the impetus to throw myself into research and reach out to others for help). Below are the significant updates from this past week:

  • I have a new advisor! I would love to still work with Jacques, but he is understandably preoccupied with his own work. Chris Dawes is a professor in the Politics department at NYU. His area of expertise is political behavior with an emphasis on voter turnout. Considering the political aspect of this project is a glaring gap of knowledge on my end, I think Prof. Dawes' input will be instrumental in giving me the direction I was sorely missing for so long.
  • I also got in touch with a former director of mine, Scotty Watson, to initially discuss the best way to pitch myself as a collaborator with Electoral Dysfunction, a noted political comedy improv group. Watson, a longtime improvisor and sketch writer with significant insight into the craft as well as the industry, mentioned that it is far easier and simpler to ask someone to be on your show rather than the other way around, particularly when the group in question already has an established form and program. 
         That was the spark that gave me the idea for what I need to do with the show portion of my project:
         [Untitled Voting Show] is a live comedy variety show involving various New York City-based improv teams and stand ups performing with interactive technical elements that will be integrated into their performance.
         Instead of relying on an audience member to shout out a suggestion, an improv scene will be based on the results of a live poll of where the audience stands on a particular issue, conducted live and displayed. Perhaps a standup's set will be informed by how many audience members are registered vote. These are all rough, preliminary, off-the-top-of-my-head, spitball ideas. In general, the goal is to build a show around these types of interactions. The actual components themselves, I believe, will become more concrete after meeting with Prof. Dawes (on Thursday) and through discussing with the groups to be in involved.
         Furthermore, Watson is an advisor to the theatrical organization, Artistic New Directions. I met with one of the co-directors, Kristine Niven, last night who offered to provide fiscal sponsorship and resources (including introductions to notable improv groups). Niven has been heading the organization for over 30 years and was excited to work on a youth and tech oriented project; something she hadn't had the opportunity to do in the very traditional slate of work that she is so often involved in. As someone who has organized improv comedy performances around elections and voter registration efforts in the past, she also was happy to offer advice about audience engagement and show elements that effect action. 
         My producing work is certainly cut out for me.
  • The most important point, though...the website! Yes, I was hell bent on creating a website. After researching so much about the salience of online platforms for youth to take action on, I was focused on following that specific direction. After doing some further research and speaking informally to friends, I realize that a preliminary idea I had discarded earlier might be more worth looking into. 
         Instead of a website, I propose a text messaging service that will remind subscribers the day before each primary, debate, and the actual election day. It provides a connection to extend the show even after it is done. In order to create this, I need to learn Twilio - the platform I identified as the most suitable for this project. I already arranged a meeting with a friend who has used it for previous projects to walk me through the basics of it one on one. 
     

As for the "Unmistakeable Creative" podcast, here are my motley crew of questions.

WHY
     Why do young people vote in such low numbers?
     Why do highly educated people vote more than those without access to higher education?
     Why are so many people, young and old, quick to dismiss the importance of voting?
     Why don't comedians take more of an initiative to use comedy to explore significant issues?
     Why, in the comedy community, is there more of an emphasis on social commentary rather than tangible action?
     Why do young people get more excited about pop culture events than things that have a far greater direct impact on their lives, such as voting?
     Why don't young people understand the direct correlation between their votes and their daily lives?

WHAT IF
     What if I could bring together my politically active and my comedy networks in one space? Where is the overlap?
     What if there was a way to infuse the live indie comedy genre with an interactive element that allows the audience to be more involved in a creative exploration of the issues?
     What if there was something that really drove home what would happen if someone DIDN'T vote? What would the country look like?
     What if there was a way to convey the results of acting, or not acting, on election day?

HOW
     How can I make traditional improv interactive through tech?
     How can I educate through a form comprised of performers and an audience?
     How can I integrate the audience into the show as much as possible?
     How can I best use technology for comedic and political effect? 
     How can I make sure that a few months and one year down the line, those in the audience will be lining up to vote?

Finally, the first draft of my outline can be found here.

In the next week, I'm hoping to tackle this main question:

"Why deters young people from going to the polls to vote?"
I believe meeting with Prof. Dawes will greatly help in pointing me to further sources for research. I am also sending out a survey to help in that end. 

I am also going to solidify plans for building the SMS service, and start looking into venues and dates to book for the show. 
     
     

 

A Long Awaited Update

With an entire summer of political campaign frenzy and hullaballoo, even with the presidential election more than a year away, I spent the majority of the time thinking and rethinking my idea.

The majority of the research I had read so far indicated that young people are largely not registered to vote and, even if they are, have low turnout rates. I created this quick survey, which I sent out this past week, to gauge registration rates amongst my social network community and was surprised by the results (click on the image to see the full report). 

While my results are based on only 70 people at this point, it did get me thinking - if the people I have access to are already registered, what is the best use of my time? Try to register people I do not have easy access to (requiring further research into which group(s) that may be) or engage the audience I can reach in ways that will encourage them to get their registered butts to the polls. As always, inspiration strikes at the eleventh hour, and after a lengthy conversation with Luke DuBois last night (quite literally), I figured it out. 

I intend on creating:

  • A live interactive comedy show: I'm hoping to partner with Electoral Dysfunction, a political improv team, to help bring that to fruition. 
  • A simple webpage that will 1) direct visitors to the relevant registration form for the state they need to register in if they have no yet done so, 2) integrate an issue informing service such as I Stand With to provide visitors a way to see which candidates most align with their views, and 3) sign up for reminders to vote on Election Day (funny reminders spread through email and social media; this is something I will have to build myself but there are pre-existing APIs and services that I can integrate for this)

My updated thesis statement is thus: 

“Murica Votes” is an interactive live comedy show and media campaign that informs young voters, ages 18 - 29, on the issues and players of the upcoming 2016 presidential elections as well as encourages eligible youth to register in an effort to increase the political engagement of a demographic that registers and votes at historically low levels but holds power in number and participatory influence. 

Below is a mental map of the three different areas and how they come together

Additionally, I have started Kanban-ing (not sure of the appropriate verb) in an effort to institute a project management system that will, for lack of a better way to put it, get me off my butt and doing the ol' work thang. I am working on a tight 2 month schedule before delivery and there are a number of moving parts to organize. 

This week I will be focusing on creating a separate production calendar for the show itself, and start reaching out to teams and players to get the ball rolling on that. Exciting stuff!

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