Archives for category: Politics

hitmakers

Why do some ideas become wildly popular while others languish in obscurity?

Derek Thompson’s riveting, and impeccably researched, book; “Hit Makers,” postulates that there is a formula to making ideas popular. It argues that knowing how manipulate ideas to create successful products has major implications, but that it is also just as important is to understand when successful products are the result of manipulation.

At its core, Hit Makers asked two questions:

  1. What is the secret to making products that people like, whether they are music, movies, TV shows, or Apps in the vast cultural landscape of today?
  2. Why do some products fail, while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Mr. Thompson tells us that people are both neophiliac, a love of the new, while also being neophobic, a fear of the new. People who are hit makers marry old and new ideas. They create familiar surprises. People tend to gravitate to the familiar – the most popular movies in recent times have all be sequels or reimagining of existing properties. People want new things, but they want those new things to seem familiar.

The most popular theory of modern content creation is that if you make great content, it will be recognized, shared, and go viral. However, Mr. Thompson states; “Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” Catchy tunes that do not get air play on the radio will remain unknown. New tunes get on the radio by being new, but being familiar enough to listeners that they do not turn off.

Repetition, repeated exposure which creates familiarity, can actually be used to engineer popularity in groups of people. Politicians have known this for years. Consider this speech by Barack Obama:

“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

Or this speech by Winston Churchill;

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Mr. Thompson makes a convincing case, although not guaranteed, that popularity can, and has been for centuries, been manufactured and manipulated, but that it can also occur spontaneously by specific sets of circumstances.

Hit Makers is a starting point for understanding how and why things become popular and how we can get our ideas to find their audience, and what we can do to create that audience in the first place. It postulates that we misunderstand terms such as “viral” and “influencer” therefore ideas are not spread in the ways that we hope.

Hit Makers is a phenomenal book for anyone who sees to understand ideas and popularity. It draws from history and the present day. It should, for better or worse, change the way you share ideas and see how ideas change the world.

codelling
The best book I read last year, and I’ve read it three times now, was The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

All two of my repeat visitors may be wondering as why they have not seen a review of this book. The simple answer is that the themes and messages were so fundamental and altering of one’s world view that I’m still trying to get it straight in my head and I worry that by writing a half-hearted review I will not do the book justice.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is similarly dense; however, this is a book with a belief and a wrong that it feels needs to be righted. A mission if you will. The subject is a contentious one; that making academic spaces places of intellectual and emotional safety does a disservice to the purpose of a university, to the students themselves, and to society as a whole. However, this is not a rightwing attack on the “snowflakes” of the left and the colleges of the liberal elites. The Coddling of the American Mind is a well thought out analysis on what is going wrong in our academic institutions, and therefore with our students, and how both sides of the political spectrum need to understand their part in how we ended up here. The book is also a plea for why seats of learning must change. As perhaps the most vivid analogy in the book states:

“Students are treated like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind. The goal of a Socratic education should be to turn them into fires, which thrive on the wind.”

This is a book written by liberal academics who care about the academic world and the students who undertake a college education. While the authors lay blame at a number of doors, including the left AND the right, it also offers up potential solutions and gives credit where credit is due to universities who are resisting slide towards “safety-ism.”
An area where the book really breaks new ground, in my opinion, is its definition of Generation Z or as it likes to call them iGen (short for Internet Generation). This is not the first generation to have internet access; however, it was the generation that always experienced having the internet in the palm of their hand, and always has had Facebook.

“This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving.”

I’m not a fan of the handwringing that seems to take place over millennials these days, but the tangible differences in information flow, and how iGen is exposed to the world and therefore responds to it, makes a lot on sense and of course is a significant cause for concern. The book also uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy to show just how out of tune the thinking of some students has become.

The Coddling of the American Mind treads some of the same ground as Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan (which I reviewed here) however its argument goes much further than Facebook and Social Media alone. With Universities bending to the will of students and parents, because they consider them clients, what is getting lost is critical thinking.

This is an important book for society as whole, but particularly for anyone in the academic world or who deals with the students it produces.

Which is probably everyone.

anti social cover

Warning: This book may alter your perceptions on how the world currently works and your part in democracy’s downfall.

Anti-Social Media is actually misnamed.

This book is an indictment of Facebook and to a lessor extent the other social media sites that seek to emulate its success. What initially seems to be the book’s raison d’être; an examination of the overreach, and dubious business practices, that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is actually far more wide spread, nuanced, and ultimately damning. With possibly its most revealing allegation being that Cambridge Analytica were never anything more than Snake Oil Salesmen; while Facebook’s own employees worked directly for political campaigns in multiple countries with almost universal damage to democracy and the pollical process in the countries in which they worked.

Mr. Vaidhyanthan’s case is that Facebook is on its way to becoming, or indeed has already become, the operating system of our lives. While it has been beneficial in general terms for individuals; improving communication with friends and relatives, and even people who we would never have hoped to keep in touch with before its arrival, Facebook has done significant damage to society as a whole.

Facebook’s success, Mr. Vaidhyantha argues, is based on two elements. The first being that Facebook is deliberately engineered to be addictive; rewarding interactions likes, and shares, in similar ways to how casinos keep their guests playing. The second element of Facebook’s success being that it has become “one of the most effective advertising machines in history.” Facebook knows so much about us, and offers advertisers such levels of targeting that were never before dreamed of, that it is unparalleled as a sales tool.

If Facebook was just an engine for kitten & puppy pictures, along with family updates, and the odd attempt to sell us things, it could quite possibly be the force for good it sincerely believes that it is. However, Facebook has become a major factor in the political world. Facebook encourages weak ties between people, and is great for declaration and reaction. It undoubtedly helps political activists, activism, hyperbole, and alarm. Facebook; however, is useless for political discourse and deliberation. Posts which do not create strong reactions one way of the other fall foul of Facebook’s algorithm and are just not delivered in news feeds.

Although the tone of Anti-Social Media, is one of alarm, and it makes a strong case for the damage that Facebook and its ilk do to the world; the author does have some interesting suggestions as to possible ways to close the pandora’s box that Mark Zuckerberg has opened. If fact, Mr. Vaidhyanthan’s historical comparison of Facebook with the East India Company, and their “shared zeal for making the world a better place,” should give us all pause for thought. Facebook’s users are currently its product – Facebook sells highly targeted, and therefore highly effective advertising. Facebook could be forced to treat its users like clients; much like lawyers or financial consultants. If Facebook was to become an informational fiduciary, the argument goes, an only use data in ways that do not harm us, it may finally understand the difference between advertising that tries to sell us products, and political propaganda.

The Anti-Social Media is more than an inditement of the social medial filter bubble and Facebook creating more divides while its intentions are to bring us together. The book asks us to look at the changes in society, and in ourselves, as we have been using Facebook as an operating system. It asks us if the kitten and puppy pictures are worth it? Interestingly it does not ask us to give up on Facebook or Social Media; but to understand its societal dangers and the recognize our responsibilities in doing something about it.

This is the book that did not make me give up Facebook.

It did make me delete Facebook off my phone.

And renew a year’s subscription to a highly reputable news organization.

It’s that good.

conspiracy

 

Conspiracy is a book that the reader picks up believing it to be one thing, changes into something else while reading, and then turns into something unexpectedly different at its conclusion.
Subtitled; Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Conspiracy tells the story of the gossip and snark site Gawker’s outing of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel as gay. This sets in motion a conspiracy with Theil using his vast resources to try and find a way take Gawker down. Or at least clip the site’s wings.

The vehicle that the conspirators ultimately settle on is Gawker’s publication of parts of a sex tape of wrestling star Hulk Hogan that was made without Hogan’s consent. With Thiel footing the bill, Hogan can undertake a long and protracted campaign, encompassing multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions.

Thiel’s motivations are at the heart of the book. Is he out for revenge? Does he feel that a site such as Gawker should be allowed to get away with pushing freedom of speech deep into the territory of invasion of privacy? The book explores these issues in depth, and the nature of conspiracies. This is not, however, a thesis on conspiracy theories. It is rather an exploration of what it takes to construct, and maintain, a conspiracy. It is also a behind the scenes look at how the rich and powerful (all the characters in this tale are rich and powerful by conventional standards) go to war with each other.

Where Conspiracy sets itself apart is its examination of the aftermath of the Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit and its effect on both the conspirators and the media. Mr. Holiday also uses the case, and Thiel’s motivations, to explore the culture wars and society’s relationship with the media.

Conspiracy is an entertaining and intelligent book. The constant focus on the nature of conspiracy can get tiresome, but this a tale that is rarely told and it reveals a lot about us as a society and the use, and the potential use, of power in the business world. It is a tale that has implications far beyond its Silicon Valley and Hollywood roots.

homo deus

“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” is the follow up to the internationally acclaimed bestseller “Sapiens.” Both books are remarkable and well worth reading if you want to have a better understanding of our species: where it came from and, perhaps, where it is going.

However, it is Homo Deus, which I think is particularly useful from a management and leadership perspective for its insights into how people made decisions and why. It is also interesting to have a book focus on why small groups of people (under 150 is the magic number) behave so differently from larger groups – even when it is against their own interest. The section that covers the Ultimatum Game, and how this changed the world of behavioral economics is particularly illuminating.

Where the book really comes into its own is when it comes to discussing the myths and fictions that define out world. The stories we tell each other in other words.
“As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behavior of strangers and to organize mass-cooperation networks.”

The fictions we tell each other (laws, money, countries, economic theories, sports, companies, brands, etc.) allow our world of free thinking humans to work and communicate even when we have no personal relationship. We have a relationship with the company or brand because of the story we have been told and we believe. This also holds true for those who work inside the company.

“Fictions enable up to cooperate better. The price we pay is that these same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation.” In other words, a company’s mission statement may be about how it’s first priorities are customers service and low prices, and it may have data to back that up, but is that really the yardstick it should be measured? What about the people who believe in the fiction?

By exposing the way humans work together, Harari builds a case for what is to come for Homo Sapiens. To us, now, it seems frightening and dystopian and as the author freely admits, will probably be nothing like he has described. But by giving us a glimpse into why our world of communication works the way it does, he gives us pointers to why might influence us in the future where the network becomes all important.

This is an extraordinary book about people. It is long, but it has a friendly conversational tone for a book that is essentially about scientific theory. While the book deals extensively with religions, and religious though, it might make difficult reading for those who are not used to looking at these matters from a scientific point of view. However, it does make a strong case for how religion and science need each other.

Homo Deus should, along with its predecessor “Sapiens,” be required reading for anyone who works with groups of people, but it should probably just be required reading for everyone.

power

The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Loose Influence, is a slim but insightful book on the relationship between power, the powerful, powerlessness and the powerless. “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place”, which is from the introduction, nicely sums up the premise.

The author, who uses his own experimental data and a number of graphics, makes a solid case for the phenomenon that others have labeled, incorrectly, as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Separating the Power Paradox into 20 ‘Power Principles, which are too extensive to list here, Dr. Keltner neatly lays out why leaders become leaders, and why they can go off the rails.
What is missing from the book, is historical perspective. It is filled with experimental data, but real world examples from business, or politics, would make for a more compelling case. One of the reasons that I appreciate the argument made in the book so much is due to the insights of Nassir Ghaemi in his excellent: A First Rate Madness which I reviewed here and is full (in retrospect) of historical examples of the Power Paradox in action.

From my own experience, I have seen the Power Paradox at work in supervisors and in myself. Terminology is, of course, a problem. I have always accepted that “power” means the control that your job, or position, grants you; whereas the ability to lead is granted through “authority.” Authority is given by a group. The Power Paradox lumps these both together, though it does make use of “empowered” but because of the larger framework of the “principles” this actually works. The definition of power and authority, may be too simple for such a complex subject, particularly when dealt with in such detail as here with “The Power Principle,”

The book becomes particularly interesting, and potentially controversial, when Dr. Keltner deals with gossip. Long considered a symptom of a potentially hostile work environment, Dr. Keltner makes the argument that gossip is how strong groups self-regulate and expose the “reputations of the selfish and the Machiavellian.” The author does recognize that gossip can be extremely harmful, particularly when it is abused by the powerful; however, the case for it not being the cardinal sin that we have long believed it to be – particularly if your goal is to have high functioning groups – is pretty solid.

Annoyingly for a book written by an academic, but probably a sop to writing a pop-science book, the footnotes are exiled to the end of the book, making following a path of enquiry more complex than it really needs to be, but this is a small criticism of a great leadership book. It is particularly useful for those who have been in leadership positions for a while. There are lots of books out there on how to become a leader, create functional teams, and even dealing with powerlessness; however, it is rare to find a book that addresses the dysfunction of leaders who get used to their positions, and why things can go awry.
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For leaders, you need the book before you really need it, otherwise you will not stay a leader for long.

make your bed

A slim volume, Make Your Bed – Little Things That Can Change Your Life …And Maybe The World, is and expanded version of a commencement address that the author gave to the graduating class at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.

A retired Admiral, who had been a Navy Seal, and ultimately severed as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command, Admiral McRaven is an interesting person who’s life story is one worthy of biography. Unfortunately, although this book does contain a number of anecdotes about his experiences in SEAL training and his life in general, it does not really meet the definition of a work of biography. It therefore needs to stand on the advice that it imparts and there is little here that is new or refreshing. In fact, there is a lot that is hokey or debunked.

The first lesson in the book is actually the one that works the best: to make your bed very morning. The idea being that it meant you started your day with a job well done, something you can could be proud of, whatever came next you will be better prepared for it. There is some merit to this idea, not necessarily making your bed, but starting your day with a task that can be completed successfully and that you can be proud of for the rest of the day. However, the author pushes the example too far, even noting when visiting Sadam Hussain in prison that his bed was not made and so therefore he must be a bad guy. Ignoring Sadam’s appalling crimes for a moment, I’m not sure that there are many leaders of countries, prisoners facing the death penalty, or politicians of any persuasion who make their beds.

Don’t give up, take risks, don’t complain, etc. the lessons are pretty much what you would expect from a career military officer. As mentioned before, there is a story to be told here. Just not with the structure and marketing of a leadership / self-help book. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the book is that the examples can be interpreted in such a way that they can contradict each other. For example, the author tells the story of being injured during a parachute jump and how his boss pulled strings to allow him to stay in the SEALs, thereby preserving his career. The author uses this as an example of why you need to be able to rely on your team. However, later on the book talks about accepting misfortunes that happen to you and that life is not fair so get used to it.

 I’ll buy an auto-biography or biography of Admiral McRaven. He has led an interesting life filled with interesting people and experiences. I’m just not sure I’m ready to take distilled life lessons from him at this time.

shattered

What can we learn about leadership, and management, from an insiders account of the 2016 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton?

A surprising amount is the answer in the case of Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes’ excellent “Shattered.”

Subtitled:”Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed campaign,” Shattered is a surprisingly partisan look at one of the most dramatic election campaigns in memory. As is mentioned in the book’s introduction, if you are a Hillary Clinton supporter this book can make for painful reading and a reopening of recently scabbed over wounds. It is also noted that if you are not a Hillary Clinton supporter it may reenforce your views, but may also engender some sympathy.

The story spans Clinton’s early decision-making process of whether to get into the 2016 presidential campaign all the way to the days and weeks after the election of Donald Trump. It is really the story of an organization; and the failures of leadership, management, data, and strategy.

What makes the story so compelling is that the people at the heart of the campaign to elect Hillary Clinton, and Clinton herself, are painfully aware of the mistakes of the 2008 campaign for the democratic nomination against Barack Obama. The 2008 campaign was characterized by internal power struggles, leaks, and was generally drama filled, and the candidate and her team are hell-bent on not making those same mistakes again. While for the most part they succeed, there are numerous new mistakes which once again create a dysfunctional organization.

Prizing loyalty over everything else, Clinton cannot help but create an organization of fiefdoms which allows them to get top down decisions implemented; however, is then tone-deaf to bottom up feedback. It also creates a system where staff need to get multiple people need to sign off on decisions. This in turn, creates the need for others to get involved to help fix the organizational problems, but unintentionally make things worse. As is noted mid way through the book, leaking was a symptom of the dysfunction of the 2008 campaign rather than the cause. This is a failure of leadership by getting management structure wrong.

As the book progresses, through the democratic primaries it becomes obvious that while some lessons of 2008 had been learned by the 2016 campaign, for example focusing on delegates rather than votes, it blinds them to the fact that some of their underlying assumptions are wrong. They do not realize that they are losing the votes of working class whites who had formed their base in 2008 and for whom Bill Clinton had been a champion.

Other than the organizational issues, there is also the role of big data. Every campaign decision is based on analytics and is constantly looking for the least costly route of victory. However, analytics are being used as a strategy, and a decider, rather than as a tool. The underlying assumption is that is cheaper to persuade supporters to go to the polls, and register to vote, rather than change the minds of undecided voters. This does not take account that there are voters who are actively voting against Hillary Clinton, and they were not doing anything to change the minds of those voters.

The campaign was misreading the electorate, the analytics were wrong, but it was the organization that allowed it to happen. Having said that, as the book correctly notes, no reputable pollster was predicting a Donald Trump win, so the Hillary team is hardly alone.

This is an interesting book because these are people obviously working at the top of their game, repeating the issues made famous by the World War I book “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman. That book explores the idea that the generals of World War I were not fighting the current war but the previous one and not realizing that the world had changed and thereby dramatically adding to the misery of The Great War.

Like Weapons of Math Destruction which I reviewed here, Shattered is also a warning of the potential limits of big data and predictive models. They are a tool, and should just be one of many. There are lots to learn from Shattered; it is an excellent tool as well.

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