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May 23 12

Facebooked

by Editor

In the middle of all the griping about the “failure” of Facebook’s initial public offering last week, no one seems to be talking about the real reason many investors are upset.

It isn’t that the IPO failed. It didn’t fail: it sold millions of shares and raised a significant base of capital for the company, as well as money for Facebook’s founders and early investors. That qualifies as a successful IPO.

Nor are most investors upset that the valuation was wrong. If they thought it was wrong, they had the option not to buy the shares in the first place, despite having been among those offered first crack.

People aren’t really upset about the role of Morgan Stanley in bringing this IPO to fruition, or about Morgan Stanley’s fees, or even about the technical glitches on the NASDAQ exchange (that caused some very real trading problems).

Here is the real reason: Investors–those big, frontline, so-called “institutional” investors–are upset because they weren’t able to flip Facebook’s stock for an immediate and magnificent profit. They never had any intention of holding the stock, no intention to evaluate its share price and its price-to-earnings ratio and say “I’m going to hold this for 5 years–or 10 years–because it seems like such a solid investment.”

They are not investors so much as opportunists. And they are upset because flipping the stock requires the broader world of mom-and-pop investors to be foolish enough to believe in The Next Big Thing and want to buy its shares at any price. This is what the hoopla is really about. Most of these major investors probably don’t really care about Facebook as a business past that first day of trading. Sure, some will hold shares over time; some will take a percentage of their overall investment and hold it back, to see what the market does. But most are upset because the secondary trading didn’t turn into a bonanza.

That represents the biggest flaw in this whole process, and it is difficult to feel sorry for these major investors who were unable to flip their investments in Facebook as rapidly and lucratively as they wanted.

May 5 12

Occupy Shark Jumping

by Editor

What do I think about Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its affiliated Occupy [fill in the blank] groups around the country? I’m unimpressed.

Before you jump all over this simple statement of un-support, one qualifier: I believe unambiguously in the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The New York Police Department, along with the police in Oakland and other cities across the US, as well as those on many university campuses, have not handled themselves especially well throughout these protests. Whatever I think about OWS, I fully support the right of these people to gather and speak, free from harassment, pepper spray, marginally legal spying tactics, etc.

Unfortunately, beyond gifting us the convenient marketing idea of the 99% versus the 1%, OWS has not accomplished much—and marketing slogans are useful, but they’re not enough to create or carry a movement over time. Beyond that one framing device, OWS hasn’t taken us anywhere new: complaining about capitalism is hardly a novelty, nor is focusing on the most nefarious or cronyistic aspects of it, especially after the spectacular crash we have gone through in the last three years.

What would be new is working to point society in a different direction. New might be having a message that is married to a set of priorities, and a plan (beyond demonstrations) for how to get those priorities accomplished. If you look at the most successful movements for change in our society over the last forty years—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the marriage equality movement now—they all had clear priorities and plans for action that were more than just demonstrations in the streets. They combined their outrage with focused social action and a compelling narrative.

By comparison, OWS and its related protests all feel naïve, as if “Freedom Rock” actually represented the rebelliousness of the 1960s. OWS’s use of smartphones and technologies like Facebook and Twitter to spread their message is done seemingly with no self-awareness of the irony here. (The Daily Show, as usual, nailed this quite effectively in its segment “Occupy Wall Street Divided.”) There’s no aggressive, visible “use their tools against them” push, or a wholesale effort to deploy less corporatized networking systems (of which there are a few, such as Diaspora). That sort of thing would require leaders, for one thing—leadership that the Occupy movements have expressed an explicit desire to avoid. It’s also harder to spot and address the irony when you don’t really have a clear message or understanding of the change you seek. The New York Times’s David Carr nailed the problems in all this in describing the protesters’ desire not to have a political focus. But, again: no focus, no impact.

The economic disparities in our society are hard to dispute. Hell, even the 1% aren’t arguing the point! Nor are such august, pro-capitalism sources like The Economist. But identifying this issue isn’t enough, and over time it may even erode sympathy (to the extent that it exists; it’s hard to tell how widespread the support for the Occupy-ers really is) for that message when there’s nothing else to back it up.

If the Occupy-ers really want to have an impact, a transformational effect on our society, then they should take steps to influence our society directly. Instead of expending oxygen saying there’s no explicit political agenda, or arguing over why it’s important that they remain leaderless … move away from political protest and get engaged in real social change. Perhaps the most valuable thing these people could give is their time—time spent doing something rather than, er, nothing.

Some ideas: Flood the social services systems with support, with active volunteerism. Hit every soup kitchen, homeless shelter, and family service program in the country—especially those for the elderly and for children—and give those working hours to them. For those who are not much for social contact, haul off to farms across the country and agree to help harvest crops for free, in exchange for farmers giving 5% of their yield (for free) to local food banks. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are actually places where there’s a real shortage of farm labor because of all the immigration disputes in the US right now. If farm work isn’t your thing, hook up with the various local “improvement district” type organizations in cities big and small, and put your time to work cleaning streets, maintaining public gardens, and potentially even addressing derelict homes and buildings that are a result of the foreclosure crisis.

Alternatively, OWS folk could embrace the idea that our problems are fundamentally political and social, and decide to tackle those issues directly. So, how about a peaceful movement to Occupy Capitol Hill (or your local statehouse–like the effective coalition of groups in Wisconsin last year)? That would be much more compelling than Zuccotti Park, and would start speaking directly to those who make policy—and can change policy. OWS might even trigger a Constitutional crisis over the right to free speech versus the trumped-up “security” rights of lawmakers and other government officials; such a fight could be very useful.

No, the Occupy-ers won’t get paid for this work; but they were not getting paid for camping out in Zuccotti Park, either. What they will do is demonstrate to everyone that the thing they are most concerned about is the people in our society, and not just the self-aggrandizing glamor that comes from seeing yourself on the evening news when you’ve “successfully” protested somewhere.

The real turning point in my views about the Occupy-ers came with the launch last November of the selfish, over-intellectualized Occupy Student Debt campaign. The group’s simple message was what you might call faux-radical: when a million people sign on, that group of a million will formally abandon their student loans. This “break the debt” concept was bundled with some very valid ideas about the problems of our college and university educational system, a desire for it to be more affordable and accessible, etc. But ultimately I found this morally bankrupt, an attempt to fight the “system” that was more about freeing individuals from their burdens than actually pushing for change. The Occupy-ers had jumped the shark. Or, to put it in context: once again a protest, not really a movement. (Interestingly, there is a new or different group operating under the Occupy Student Debt banner, and their website says they are “not affiliated in any way with the ill-conceived campaign urging borrowers to voluntarily default on their student loans that was launched in late November 2011. We strongly advise anyone with student loan debt NOT to participate in this form of protest, especially given that the law, as currently written, allows lenders and collectors to profit from defaults.”)

Here’s the thing: right now, we are in an era in which far too many of the 99% are focused on getting to that 1% range as their singular life goal. And who can blame them—no one has given them any real alternative way of looking at life beyond the lens of wealth. But Occupy [fill in the blank] isn’t doing that either. Indeed, I can understand why many Americans may simultaneously be sympathetic to the protesters who get knocked in the head in Oakland or pepper sprayed by a cop in New York and yet, still, not rush out to join the “movement.” Until OWS decides it wants to be a movement, with goals that address the actual problems faced by our country, and until it is willing to grow up enough to accept both the challenges and benefits of real leadership, they’re destined to be marginal. Considering all the attention that they have received and continue to receive, it’s actually kind of a shame, not to mention one big lost opportunity.

Mar 4 12

Misdirected, Misdirection

by Editor

There are plenty of reasons to try to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Nuclear non-proliferation should be the Mom-and-apple-pie of international relations because nuclear weapons are dangerous even in the “safe” hands of a nation like ours.

However, protecting Israel is not and should not be the driving reason to engage with Iran on this issue. I say this not because I am unconcerned with the lives of those living in Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere, but precisely because I am concerned—and I believe that Iran shares those concerns, too. There is no chance that Iran will drop a nuclear bomb on Israel. There, I’ve written it. (Again.) Nope, not even a small chance. There are three reasons for this.

First, and most importantly, both Israel and the surrounding region are filled with Muslims, including many Shia Muslims. Millions of them. Many more Muslims than Jews, in fact! Whatever animosity there exists between the (Persian) Iranians and the Arabs, Iran is not going to drop a nuclear bomb on a region where the potential for Muslim deaths are even higher than Jewish deaths.

Second, a bomb on Israel almost by definition risks seriously affecting Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest cities. Sure, the Iranian government is playing a “long game” in all of this (quite effectively), but there is no evidence that this includes the several generations it would take for the radioactivity to subside.

Third, as relates to the prior two points: the Iranians are not crazy. Bombastic, antagonistic, polarizing, crafty—pick a word. But they are not crazy. And a nuclear attack on Israel would be suicidal for Iran. If you think Iran is concerned about an Israeli counter-attack, the odds are they are even more concerned about an attack coming from the combined quarters of the world’s Arab countries plus Turkey, who would likely use this as a pretext for overthrowing an Iranian government they do not like. And then there’s the potential for involvement by the United States, which Iran certainly does not wish to trigger, even if they (rightly, I suspect) recognize the degree of reluctance on our part to get mixed up in another war.

Given all this, the question that naturally arises is: why, then, are the Israeli government and its AIPAC partner still working so hard to try to manipulate President Barack Obama, the US Congress, and American (Jewish) public opinion? Well, this whole Iranian nuclear issue is a marvelous distraction from the more terrifying and disturbing reality that the Israeli government would prefer not to face. That reality includes:

  • Israel’s morally degrading and financially unsustainable 45 year occupation of what should be the nation of Palestine;
  • a bi-directional demographic crunch, coming from both the Arabs within and outside of Israel AND the ultra-Orthodox communities within Israel and the West Bank, who are breeding at significantly higher rates than the less observant Israelis who help sustain the Israeli military and the economy;
  • evidence that despite significant initiatives such as Birthright Israel and other programs, Diaspora Jews are not deciding en masse to make Aliyah and relocate to Israel, which means that the demographic problem Israel faces is not going to be resolved as a result of Jewish migration
  • and, of course, the potential spread of democracy throughout the Arab world, which undermines Israel’s claim as the region’s only democracy—a claim that has long been meaningless but to which Zionists around the world have clung as the last justification for do-or-die support for Israel.

It’s time. Time to pull back the curtain on this farce, and time for the American Jewish community to reject the emotional and financial manipulations of AIPAC, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and others. We should support President Obama’s efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons—but not because of Israel, and not because of some threat by Israel to bomb Iran themselves. And while we’re at it, we should start pushing harder on Israel to address its own issues, most critically the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the continued construction of settlements. Again, it’s time.

Oct 10 11

My Time Isn’t Facebooked

by Editor

Over the last few weeks, I have been complaining on Twitter and Facebook about the underwhelming nature of the changes that Facebook has been making to its user interface and, in particular, it’s timeline. It isn’t that I see anything sinister or malicious in what Facebook is doing; I doubt they’re being any more aggressive than they already were about using knowledge of us for their own remunerative purposes. It’s just that these changes are poorly designed: Facebook seems to have a one dimensional view of how people might want to use their little self-contained universe to share information. And I seem to be outside that singular dimension.

I don’t have 4,000 Facebook “friends.” I don’t even have 400 Facebook friends, nor do I necessarily aspire to have that many. It’s not that I am an ardent devotee of “Dunbar’s Number“—I think people can have a wide circle of friends, in varying degrees of connectedness—but I do think that there are limits to how much information one can truly absorb about people within these different circles, and how close those relationships can actually be.

So to the extent that Facebook, too, has recognized this issue (in light of the ease-of-use of Google+‘s “circles” approach), I’m irritated by the change but can get on board with it. It’s fine to define people as “friends” versus “acquaintances,” and certainly there are a couple of Facebook friends I have “met” only through other friends and would surely place in that latter category. But there’s something irritating about the retroactive nature of this process—of having to go back and reestablish your connection to each of the (in my case) 194 people with whom you have a connection, in order to sort out the flow of information you will see from them. Facebook thinks it can do this automatically, but it can’t—not accurately, anyway.

Which leads me to my other complaint, one that is not a mere irritation but has actually brought me to the point of using Facebook less and less frequently: the over-curation, rather the automatic curation, of the timeline. This sounds silly, no doubt, especially if you’re a Facebook user with several hundred or even a few thousand friends: no one can wade through that much stuff, so having a set of filtering mechanisms is surely useful. I get it.

But let me turn them off. Because I don’t want them. And while you’re at it, Facebook, bring in someone new, someone with some common sense to help you with your user interface and control mechanisms.

With 194 friends, I can stay on top of things quite efficiently—when “stories” are chronological. Even as my network has grown, I have been able to manage that. I hide a few friends’ Farmville posts, I know I can usually (but not always) skip items from some other people. It’s very easy to scroll through a chronological list and see what’s there and what’s not. It’s much harder to do this when information is out of order—especially posts from the same person, where subsequent, more commented posts wind up as “Top Stories,” but have no evident antecedent because Facebook has decided to bury them. Or they wind up as posts in this ridiculous secondary timeline Facebook created, in the sidebar.

Reading this interview by Liz Gannes on AllThingsD with Facebook’s “Timeline product manager” Sam Lessin left me cold—and I think Facebook’s efforts are misplaced. All these “powerful” tools they’re talking about will make an already-too-complicated ecosystem even more complicated and harder to manage. It seems to me what people want to do is share information, and so to the extent that Facebook (and Twitter, and other systems) encourage that, well, great. But when it starts to become too complicated to share your own information, or to find other people’s information, then that system loses its power. In other words, Facebook is starting to turn into the Windows of social networks: it may be the dominant platform of its genre, but it’s poorly constructed, badly organized, and unnecessarily difficult to manage even simple tasks.

Why do I care? Perhaps I care more than many folks because I went through such a conscious exercise to get myself engaged in these systems in the first place. Maybe it’s because I work in communications, in a field that has come to rely on these tools as important mechanisms for sharing information. Maybe it’s because, as I type this on my MacBook Pro, drafting it in Evernote, getting ready to publish it through WordPress, and eventually to promote it through Twitter … it’s because Facebook has just become so damn inelegant.

Life is too short. I’ll keep using Facebook—I’m not quite ready to go cold turkey, though Sam Lessin is giving me reasons to reconsider down the line—but I already look at it much less than I used to. And I’m finding, in spite of myself, that there are indeed other engaging and valuable things I can do with my time.

***
UPDATE (10/14/11): Time Magazine has an essay from last week’s issue (subscription required) by Harry McCracken about Facebook. The subtitle says everything: “Will Facebook’s shift toward data sacrifice it’s soul?” McCracken is off on a slightly different argument–more focused on the underlying mechanisms than the user interface–but in my view they’re clearly related. There is a balance between data wonkiness and user satisfaction. Apple (as one example) strove hard to get that right. Facebook now seems to be leaning in the other direction.