The Facebook Book Club “Disaster”

24 Mar

reading-nook-design-ideas-2A few months ago I came up with a brilliant idea (or so I thought). I love reading books and I spend way too much on Facebook. Why not bring the two together and form a virtual Facebook book club? (Isn’t that what Good Reads is, you may ask, and my answer to that is: Does Good Reads also have pictures of your friends’ kids, pets and vacations?)

So, on my list of 180 FB friends (I am not that popular after all), there were a few who responded to the recruiting call. They shared the news with their friends, but apparently they are not that popular either, because at the end we ended up with a book club of 35 people. While that is a pretty good number if you compare it to an “analog” book club.

The rules were pretty straightforward. We take turns picking a book, we read it till a certain date, and then we post discussions and reviews. Well, we lasted exactly two books. So what caused our bookish enthusiasm to wane?

When we set up the book club, we decided that we will also use the group to comment on what we are reading as we go along. Facebook gave us an opportunity to jump in and share an insight or question right away without having to wait for the end of the month meeting. But it turns out that while the real time-ness of it theoretically should have encouraged comments, as the novelty of it wore off, so did the real-time comments. The absence of ongoing conversation meant that one of the biggest potential advantages of a virtual book club was gone. Which really exposed one of it huge drawbacks—getting together with a bunch of friends, over wine and snacks, to discuss something you all experienced was not possible on Facebook.

Our book club was big, but as we did not know each other that well, our tastes in books varied. Perhaps that resulted in book choices that were more limiting than we needed to engage everyone. I can’t help but think that people felt a bit more restrained in their discussions with this group of people they knew only virtually. Would we have had a different discussion on Italy in the 50s, if we knew where each one of us was coming from and knew what other things we, the club members, had in common? This single shared interest was not enough to keep us engaged with each other, it did not inspire us to get to know each other better or outside of the book club.

This is not to say that a bad choice in books does not happen in a “real” book club. We’ve all had our fare share of book choices that make us secretly groan and roll our eyes. But having to meet with your club peers in a month makes you endure the book and forces you to either find some redeeming qualities or, if you like the confrontation, build an argument for why it sucked. And here lies the other weakness of Facebook – it does not create the strong bonds between people that are the foundation of guilt.

Perhaps we were all just a bunch of detached Northwesterners. But I can’t help but think that it is not just our aloofness that prevented us from making the Bookclub Experiment a success. And I must admit, I am sort of glad for that.

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My Grandma Was a Genius

16 Mar
Grandma with me and my cousin. I am the smiley one. People change.

Grandma with me and my cousin. I am the smiley one. People change.

Part of my work is to keep track of trends. These are usually technology trends, but as technology permeates pretty much every aspect of our lives today, what starts as a technology trend, quickly becomes a social, economic, or behavioral one.

Economist SharingOne of the recent trends I was reading about was the so-called collaborative consumption or sharing economy. The idea is that instead of buying the stuff you need, you can share it with peers, so that you spend less, you waste less, and you are less tied to the objects you own. Makes total sense! I had to read it in The Economist though to remember that that was one of my grandmother’s little pieces of wisdom. If you can borrow something from a neighbor, why spend the money to buy it? And that got me thinking about some of the other maxims she would often disperse. It turns out she predicted most of the trends we are all buzzing about.

  • Sustainability – Grandma hated throwing stuff away. She would save and reuse plastic bags until they started falling apart. She would wash yoghurt containers and find new ways to use them. In her tiny apartment, she would have drawers full of scraps of paper, fabric and strange stuff that she had saved to reuse. She was not a hoarder who stores things just so they have it. She believed that these things would come in handy. And they often did.
  • The Maker’s Movement – Chris Anderson wrote a book about it, but long before that, grandma knew and tried to teach us that creating something yourself, or adding a personal touch to something manufactured makes it special. She never realized her dream to be an artist (she dropped out of the Arts Academy to marry my grandfather), but after she divorced him and her girls grew up, she managed to turn her skill into a side business. She took up painting “champagne” bottles. There were two kinds of bubbly wine in communist Bulgaria – red and white. At weddings and christenings, people would often buy it to celebrate, but since it was not that good, it often did not get drunk. Grandma would do a personalized painting on the glass bottle, turning the undrinkable carbonated wine into a keepsake. I wonder how many liquor cabinets in my hometown still have an unopened champagne bottle from the 70s and 80s with a painting of a basket of roses, or Easter bunnies…
  • Seasonal food – You can tell a great cook from an OK one if they can do something out of nothing. My grandma was a great cook. But even when there were food shortages, she would try to cook with products that are fresh and in season. Even after a long winter, she would not buy the early tomatoes, because they would not have any taste. Waiting for the real tomatoes, the ones that have had a chance to ripen in the sun, that smelled like summer was worth it for her, even if she had to cook with the canned stuff for another month. It did not hurt that the canned stuff was home made from the late tomatoes from last summer, either.
  • Sugar and flour are evil – Grandma was fat, in a soft and comforting sort of way. Ever since I remember, she would try to loose the weight to look better and feel better in the summer heat. She did not need to read diet books or talk to a nutritionist (honestly, even the idea that such a profession exists would make anyone in Bulgaria laugh out loud) to know that she needed to cut out the bread and cookies. But she loved baking and she just had too much fun cooking, and enjoying her food. One of her self-depreciating jokes was that she was on a diet—she ate her fruit without any bread. She would have laughed if someone tried to convince her to that a low fat cookie or yoghurt, full of sugar, would help her get slimmer.

I would not get into her advice about picking the right bra or husband, but grandma had lots of other common sense insights. Granted, a lot of her wisdom came from economic hardship – she had to stretch a small income and, later, a pension, as much as possible, but it also comes from a feeling of self-confidence and self-knowledge that we seem to have lost or that we have stopped trusting anymore. So as Wired or The Economist proclaim the next trend and we all rush to analyze it, my first question will be “What would grandma think of that?”

On Feminism and “Born Again” Housewives

14 Mar

ImageI was reading all the recent hoopla about Sheryl Sandberg’s, Facebook COO’s, “sort of feminist manifesto,” Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, and remembered that 17 years ago, I wrote one of my own. I dug it up (I have one single hard copy, no cloud back-up in 1996) curious to find out if I would still agree with the ideas of my twenty year old self. The essay, which won first place in a Peace Corps International Essay Contest on Women Issues, was not entirely born out of passion (the chance of a money prize was a great motivator back in my college days), but I was surprised to see that I still agree with most of what I wrote.

I will spare you (and myself) the entire essay. The core of my argument went like this:

  • Women do have to overcome traditional stereotypes and prejudice. The fact that we still have to discuss if successful women are as likable as successful men shows that our thinking has not evolved much since 1996.
  • Balancing professional achievement and family is hard. Women who do so are often considered not feminine or motherly enough. By choosing a career they are compensating for a key feminine deficiency that prevents them from excelling at the traditional wife/mother role.
  • Many decide that balancing being a professional and a good mother is too hard and go back to the traditional role. In an effort to justify reverting to it, they embrace it with the zeal of a “born again” soccer mom. They erase their professional achievements and give up on the effort to define themselves in any other way but through their families.
  • Ultimately, it is this “all or nothing” attitude that creates a permanent feeling of guilt and perpetuates the challenges we face as women.

ImageContemporary French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter made a similar, much more sophisticated argument in her book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.  And I agree with her, the strive for perfection can be as debilitating and as regressive as the oldest of traditions, regardless of if its self-imposed or society-driven.

The Bottomless Glass of Evgeny Morozov

4 Mar

Eastern Europeans have a natural (or, as we will argue, historically necessitated) proclivity to be negative and I fit that stereotype pretty well. I am not a glass-half-full person. “Tell me what you are doing, and I will tell you what is wrong with it” is a pretty accurate description of my attitude. So, you can’t blame me, if I get fixated on someone whose glass is so empty that it makes mine look like it’s overflowing.

Meet Evgeny Morozov – a fellow Eastern European and “a writer and researcher, who studies political and social implications of technology.” It is an amazing field to dedicate your career to. On one hand, technology changes so quickly that, by the time you have discovered a phenomenon to study (music sharing via Napster, anyone?), it is gone. At the same time, our understanding of individual and group psychology and behavior is growing exponentially. One would imagine that the combination of these two factors would provide a researcher with plentiful opportunities to observe, investigate, develop and test hypotheses, build and tear down assumptions.

And then you have Morozov. He does not exactly study and research technology, he speculates about its impact. All of us in the tech world do a lot of that, but his bias is so strong that to describe him as a researcher is as accurate as to say that the American Family Association is about family. Judge for yourself:

  • In his latest New York Times piece, The Perils of Perfection, he argues that we should not use technology to fix our imperfections unless we are confident that the technology solutions Silicon Valley comes up with have pure intent. On the surface, that makes sense. And then you think about, where medicine would be right now, if we took the same approach with pharmaceutical research. Should we ignore progress, if it is driven by the desire for business success?
  • Earlier in 2012, he lamented about the Death of Cyberflaneurism, that ancient art of browsing the Internet for useless information. I guess, sites like Brain Pickings, which does an amazing job of finding interesting information; Prismatic that curates news content for you, or even Facebook (let alone Pinterest), where friends share a lot of useless stuff, make the art too easy.
  • And then there is his recurring column, Future Tense, on Slate.com. If someone reads his posts a hundred years from now, they would conclude that the Internet is killing us.

ImageTo be fair, Morozov does have a nose for the silliness and over-the-top enthusiasm of technologists. His ridicule of pointless services that Tweet after you die, products that “erase” the homeless from your view, or forums (TED) that make a communist parade seem propaganda-free, are absolutely on target. Yet, when I read his pieces, I can’t help but think of agent Nelson Van Alden, Boardwalk Empire’s puritanical government official, whose obsession seems a tad unhealthy. Does Morozov denounce technology because he likes it too much?

In one of his pieces, Morozov quotes Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who argued that being inconsistent is the only way to avoid becoming a doctrinaire ideologue. Morozov writes with admiration:

“For Kolakowski, absolute consistency is identical to fanaticism.”

Smart man, that Kolakowski.

Yahoo!’s No Working from Home Move — a Strategy for Self-Selection

26 Feb

“They pretend they are paying us, we pretend we are working,” went the old communist joke that accurately described the attitude towards the state-run economy and the dead end “careers” it provided. But while they lacked prestige and growth potential, they offered stable if meager compensation and security. Can this be the philosophy of Yahoo!’s army of “remote” workers and what has prompted the company to ban working from home?

ImageIn a decade, Yahoo! went from a shining star and an innovator, to a company with a mirky vision with no clear path on how to get there. As a result, there was a period in the late 2000s, when BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal reported regularly on the Yahoo! talent exodus. It happened so often that it stopped being newsworthy. Executives came and went, strategies changed and as the board pretended to have found the latest path to recovery, the people that remained lost their sense of direction.

Those of us, who have had the misfortune (or, if you are a half-glass full person, valuable learning experience) of toughing it out at a dead end job, know that how long you put up with it depends on various factors — from how experienced and good you are at what you do, to what stage of your life you are in. But no matter what the reason for staying is, if you think that you are making a compromise with yourself and your career, you inevitably start “pretending” to work.

This might be the real reason for why Yahoo! wants everyone back on campus. It is hard to fire everyone and rehire the people that really want to be there. But by summoning them back, it hopes to weed out the true believers from the pretenders. As everyone from a former communist country will tell you – there is no better shake out than when we stop pretending we believe our own propaganda.

Books as a Fashion Accessory

9 Mar

This month’s Vanity Fair features “embroidered canvas classic novel clutches” for only $1,330/each. I am pretty sure that none of the people who buy the Dr. Zhivago clutch would have read the book.

The Alter Ego

12 Jan

The alter ego helps you overcome inhibitions, reluctance and insecurity. Beyonce has her Sasha Fierce. David Bowie has Ziggy Stardust (I had to Google that). My alter ego persona is the social media-active communications consultant, who researches networks, measures influence, tweets, posts and shares. What we both have in common is a keyboard and attention span that gets shorter by the minute.

Just Books

9 Feb

“They are just books!”

This is the quote that inspired me to write today. It is taken from The New York Times article on consumer reaction to increasing eBook prices. So a Mr. Wagoner expressed his dissatisfaction by stating: “They’re just books. I do other things other than reading.”

So what are the things that can occupy 2-3 days of your time and cost less than $14.99, which is the price that set people off on Amazon.com? Here are a few:

  • Facebook — endless entertainment, free, arguably intellectually stimulating. Afterall you can talk to smarter friends, play FarmVille, or have fun drawing fortune cookies
  • Twitter — succinct entertainment, free, you do not waste time reading things you do not like or that are too hard to comprehend. Ashton thanking God for semi-naked Demi can fuel your imagination for a long time.
  • TV — cable is not free, but you can get a month worth of it for less than $100. If you do the math, this is less than $4/day. And you can watch Jersey Shores.

There are other activities of course, but they are way above Mr. W’s price range.

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