Halloween 2010

Dr. Manhattan
CC photo by Kay Steiger

Halloween is kind of a big deal for me. This year I was sad not to be able to throw an enormous party, but it did give me an opportunity to put some more thought into my costume than usual.

I always go as something comic-book-related; typically I go as a super-villain (I broke that tradition last year and sort of regretted doing so). In the past I’ve chosen characters based on my personal affinity for them and a balance between the feasibility and potential awesomeness of the costume. I kind of ignored that this time. This year I went as Dr. Manhattan. Like every other self-respecting geek, I love Watchmen, and there were some personal resonances that made me want to go as doc.

I’m supposed to be dressed the way Dr. Manhattan was when he made a TV appearance in the comic. There isn’t anything particularly important about that scene — it’s just the only one where he isn’t naked (I wasn’t that committed to the project).

I think people tend to have a confused reaction to Dr. Manhattan when reading the book. It’s very tempting to view him as a sympathetic character. For one thing, he’s omnipotent, and people naturally find themselves sucking up to all-powerful authority figures. Also, his backstory does make him something of a victim. Finally, he’s helpless — in a sense — and people mistake helplessness for innocence. But this is a bad judgment. In truth the guy’s actions are abhorrent both before and after his self-imposed exile. So I feel comfortable including him in the “villain” costume list.

At any rate, the costume was well-received, though most often as “blue man” or “blue man group” (on the way home a woman yelled out to me that her brother-in-law is an actual blue man group blue man, an admission that I think left us both embarrassed). Choosing a costume that’s so thoroughly makeup-based is definitely a pain in the ass — I think it’ll be a few years before I go down that road again. And to be honest, people mostly just liked the contact lenses: they worked great, thoroughly disturbed people, and seem not to have blinded me. And hey! At a mere $25, I think they’re well worth the investment. A+++, would stick into my eyes again.

yet another way newspapers are doomed

I think it’s safe to say I’m not a social media triumphalist.  But this is silly:

This week, some Post staffers responded to outside critics via our main Twitter account. At issue was a controversial piece we’d published online. The intent in replying was to defend the decision to publish the piece, but it was misguided both in describing our rationale for publishing the piece and as a matter of practice. It shouldn’t have been sent.

Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.

Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: when we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor–and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do. Please feel free to flag Marcus, Liz and me when you see something out there that you think deserves a response from the Post. As we routinely do, we will work with Kris Coratti and her team to respond when appropriate.

Emphasis mine.

So: you’re free to use social media to spam people — a strategy sure to reap long-term success — and readers are free to wade into the cesspools of racism and reactionary thought that are newspaper web comment sections, where their contributions will be utterly ignored by everyone.

That’s just not how it works.  This is a fundamental problem, and one that all the Chief Innovation Officers and Social Media Strategists and Vice Presidents of Thinking Outside the Box at big firms will eventually find themselves unable to deal with.  The things that make new media compelling make message discipline impossible.

People have been fooled into thinking it can be otherwise by some unreproducible early successes.  It’s true that if your early-adopter employees happen to be talented spokespeople for your organization, everything will be fine.  This actually happens sometimes!  Look at Major Nelson or Comcast Frank or Robert Scoble.

But as disintermediating mediums expand to include the meaty part of the employee-competence bell curve, it becomes increasingly unwise to rely on that kind of luck.  To whatever extent message discipline is important to your organization — and it is, to varying degrees, for every organization — you really do have to choose between the exciting possibilities that social media represents and exposing the true nature of your workforce.

Personally, I think that’s all to the good.  I don’t think it’s any great tragedy that the callous idiocy behind the Post’s decision to publish an anti-gay bigot in its pages was accidentally highlighted.  But hey, if the organization is keen to use regimented silence to disguise the abhorrence of its op-ed decisions for a few more years, it’s within its rights and abilities to do so.  It’s just a little silly to pretend you can have it both ways.

(I should note that the memo is less severe than it’s been billed: the narrow language used pertains to Post-branded Twitter accounts, not writers’ personal accounts.  Still, it’s hard to imagine that distinction persisting for long.)

the social network

It’s a very good movie. You should go see it.  I don’t have much more to say about it than that.

What I do want to observe, though, is that the reaction to the movie on Twitter has been fascinating.  A surprising number of people are leaping to Zuckerberg’s defense.  Many are linking to this account of the legal maneuvering dramatized by the film — an account which doesn’t actually exculpate Zuckerberg, but is written as if the author thinks it does.  Even more astounding are posts like this one, which lionize Zuckerberg as a sort of Nietzschean hero.

It’s all a little weird.  People clearly have reservoirs of affection for and identification with the founder of Facebook. Presumably this is because of what his invention means to them.  I suppose that’s fine.

But let me offer my predictable cranky technologist perspective.  Zuckerberg is wildly successful, and I don’t begrudge him that.  Nor do I find myself particularly outraged on behalf of the various people he seems to have betrayed, all of whom are now even more astoundingly wealthy than they started out being.

There’s a strange tendency in this country to declare everyone who’s extremely rich to be some sort of visionary genius, whose unprecedented perspective allowed a break from the chains of history.  This is ridiculous.  Mark Zuckerberg did not invent social networking.  His achievement at Harvard wasn’t even that remarkable: 400 unique visitors to a just-launched website is great, but hardly unprecedented.  Nor are his technological achievements all that impressive: assuming the movie’s depiction to be accurate — and I suspect it basically is, judging by the tasks he was performing — he seems like a strong web developer, but not any kind of wunderkind (Facebook’s ability to operate at its current scale using a hugely rewritten version of PHP is a genuinely impressive achievement, but the entry-level LAMP stuff Zuckerberg himself did is simple enough).

What Facebook did was deploy an extremely effective marketing scheme — one based on exclusivity — at exactly the right  moment.  From there, network effects took over and delivered success.  This is an impressive commercial achievement, but it is not a triumph of vision or technical skill.  Depending on your perspective, you might not even consider it to be particularly admirable.

In the absence of Zuckerberg, someone else would have almost certainly come along and stolen Myspace’s thunder — just as someone or something will surely supplant Facebook before its ludicrous valuation is realized.  Zuckerberg is not one of history’s great men — he’s just one of its richest.