The value of reading books written by brilliant thinkers is that you see the world differently when you read them. What would happen if every link online had to be two-way? That’s Jaron Lanier and “Who Owns the Future.” Just how paranoid ought we to be of the hybridization of the national security apparatus and new technology? Here comes Thomas Pynchon and “Bleeding Edge.” How does the internet subtly circumscribe our capabilities for action? Let’s ask Evgeny Morozov and “To Save Everything, Click Here.” Isn’t it remarkable how much being online is like being addicted? Tao Lin and “Taipei.”
This brings us to Randi Zuckerberg—the sister of Mark, former head of Facebook’s marketing department, and current multi-platform integrated brand—and her new book, Dot Complicated, which purports to explain, according to the back cover, “how to navigate the social challenges created by technology.” Banal advice? Check. Endless celebrity name-dropping? Double check (Barack Obama shows up in the first scene and M.C. Hammer in the last one.) The incessantly chipper tone of the morning weatherperson? Gosh, we’ll give that one just an absolutely amazing check mark, won’t we?
But for al that, it’s still a worthy book to read. You just have to change the standards of judgment: It’s not the insight that it sheds onto a single captivating point of view. In it relentless inability to rise above common wisdom, the book inadvertently succeeds at explaining the average mindset. This isn’t literature—this is mass sociology. Because, let’s face it, most of the time most of us don’t rise above common sense either. Someday historians will place it alongside Castiglione’s The Courtier and Emily Post’s Etiquette—not because of its intrinsic interest (there isn’t much), but because of how it speaks to the unexamined practices of its tribe.
Randi Zuckerberg, by any standard, is not an ordinary person. You may have heard of her brother, Mark, and of the Silicon Valley firm at which she was the Director of Market Development, Facebook. In the memoir-style sections of the book, she takes pains to remind us of this. She was in the room when Facebook chose that particular shade of blue that it uses (more on this later). She hosted President Obama for a digital townhall in 2011. She has long lunches at bad restaurants with national TV news producers. She worked for Steve Forbes’s show on Fox (“I remember thinking how cool it was that such a successful, accomplished businessman had remained so down to earth,” she writes of him.) Katy Perry drops by for Nachos Wednesday. She’s parties with Peter Thiel at the Slanted Door. She has “stood less than ten feet away from Kanye West at his private performance at the Google-Vanity Fair party” at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She’s even been on a boat with M.C. Hammer.
And to her credit, Zuckerberg maintains a tone halfway between awe struck and aw shucks in the biographical parts of the book. It serves the dentist’s daughter from Dobbs Ferry, New York well. In her early time at Facebook, she once put up a draft fake flyer for a sorority rush party at Stanford as a project test. Unfortunately, she used the name of a real sorority—and the crowd had to be dispersed by a security guard with a bullhorn. She writes with insight about the tempest in a Twitter teapot when a Christmas 2012 family photo ended up being shared far more publically than she had expected it would be. (“All I could think about was how ‘dot complicated’ this whole situation was.”) The passages that deal with how she used Facebook to update her social network on her pregnancy, birth, and growth of her now two-year-old son have a real finesse behind them. In twenty years or so, I look forward to this side of Zuckerberg taking a shot at writing a 21st century version of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham’s Personal History. I’d read that book.
But that’s the book we deserve, not the one that we have. The bulk of Dot Complicated is filled with advice on electronic etiquette that anyone who has mastered how to pay their ISP bills had figured out by the time that AOL stopped mail bombing those free trial CDs. She tells us, for instance, not to post anything online that we wouldn’t be comfortable saying to a person’s face. That we ought to teach our children to responsibly use new forms of communication. That instead of playing Bejeweled Blitz on our iPads under the covers, we should have sex with our significant others. Much of the advice comes formatted in easy to digest lists with titles like “Tips for Achieving Tech-Life Balance in Your Romantic Relationships.” The reader is lavished with advice like “cat videos shouldn’t edge out the attention we pay to actual cats” or that when texting with friends we ought to cut them some slack if they don’t respond instantaneously. A long section begins and ends with the advice to stop and smell the roses.
There are times when Zuckerberg’s advice radar seems to go a little haywire. We ought to hand out smartphones to our kids in second grade, she informs us. She expects managers to monitor their employee’s social network personas, since “every employee who is online is now a kind of PR representative for his or her firm”—regardless of whether the employee has consented to be or not. She even praises the Kony 2012 chumps to the high heavens because the “cause soon went viral”—even though “no viable plan was ever organized to stop Kony.” (The African warlord is still out there, as is the publically masturbating founder of the Stop Kony organization.)
There are also moments where her book does attain a certain level of insight. These are usually where she allows notes of ambiguity to creep into the otherwise blandly upbeat tone of someone who has made her career in corporate marketing. At Davos, she sings a folk song at a Shabbat dinner with Israeli President Shimon Peres. After she posts a video of herself online, she takes heat from unnamed “friends and mentors” who chide her for unprofessionally singing “on touchy subjects like Israel or religion.” When she goes back to Davos the next year, she ducks an invitation for a repeat performance, leaving her feeling she “compromised” her “authentic self.” The year after that, she comes back a third time—now as the CEO of her own media company—and sings. Because she lets us in to the process of wrestling with the decisions, rather than blasting out a Buzzfeed ready list of talking points, the few sections like that one do achieve a gracefulness that otherwise is absent.
But what do the many moments of less fleet footwork reveal about the digital Weltanschauung? More than we might have expected. By paying attention to what Zuckerberg leaves out, the options that she does not even mention before dismissing, we can probe the limits of our collective approach to the subject. What do we find there?
Technology is consistently presented as something alien—a 2001-style monolith that drops fully formed from the sky—rather than as architecture determined by human choices. Tech is “neutral” she repeats, with an insistency that ought to force us to consider the unexamined contrary. It is “not the ends—it’s the means” she says. Later she expands on the theme: “Technology is a tool, and whether it creates order or chaos in your life depends on how you use it. The technology itself is neutral.” This view is how most of us approach the topic—and we are totally wrong. You don’t have to have worked through the entirety of Being and Time to realize that tools are never simply a neutral means to ends. Their contours substantially structure what ends we value, and which we fail to consider. Facebook lets you select any gender you want—as long as it’s male or female. Twitter lets you broadcast any idea you can come up with—as long as it fits in a 140-character burst. Yelp lets you review any food you’ve eaten—except what you’ve cooked for yourself. This structuring is not peculiar to computers. It’s just as present in the form of books or hammers. But it is never value-neutral. If the only tool you have is a status update, the whole world looks like a Facebook post.
Furthermore, in Zuckerberg’s world, tech is something that happens to us, rather than by us, and something that demands to be balanced against our “life”—a term which Zuckerberg barely delineates expect to suggest that it consists of work, sleep, family, friends, and fitness. (“Pick three,” she advises.) For example, Zuckerberg spends a significant amount of time arguing that online anonymity (pseduonymity is what she really means) will soon disappear, if it has not done so already. This is true. But it is not, as Zuckerberg seems to imply, the product of some kind of inexorable force like gravity. After all, way back in the day, thefacebook.com let you maintain fake accounts. (First person aside: when I first joined in 2004 at UC Berkeley, I was a friend with Oski Bear, the Campanile, and Caffe Strada.) That this option is no longer available is not the result of a requirement—but a choice. In the world that Zuckerberg sketches, the basic outlines of the communications revolution are handed down like the Ten Commandments. If we are lucky, like she was in the Silicon Valley house that served as an early office for Facebook, we are privileged to be in the “heart-soaring” moment when the “color palette” gets chosen and asked to lay out our “preferred shade of blue.” (The gendered aspect of this moment cannot be ignored. What good is Leaning In if all it gets a woman is the chance to offer her input on the paint job?) This view, that new technology is something inexorable and self-contained that happens to us rather than a contingent process we can participate in, is not just endemic to the marketing departments of the world. After all, aren’t these the terms that the debate over the gentrification of San Francisco and the “Google bus” effect are conducted in?
Finally, Zuckerberg has an unexamined faith in the power of authenticity. This is not her fault—the rote appeal to just being yourself might be the cornerstone of contemporary Western ideology. But Zuckerberg is insists frequently on the bromides that thanks to new modes of communication, “we can solve age-old problems and create new opportunities for everyone. All you have to do is be yourself.” It’s a fantastically static combination when you unpack it: un-malleable tools appear from nowhere, and in response, all we have to do is, “be our real selves,” which, as best I can, tell to Zuckerberg occurs when we engage in a never terminating spiral of cultural consumption and production. Just share our “narratives” she tells us, the way that her “creative inspiration” did. That wellspring being, of course, the Facebook page that informed employees whether the cafeteria would be serving pasta or tacos for lunch. She marvels that the “multiple-times-a -ay must-visit page” for Facebook employees soon attracted the views of thousands of people “who had absolutely nothing to do with working at Facebook but just wanted to see what we were eating for lunch every day.” If you want a picture of the future—imagine a taco heading into a human face, forever.
But maybe Zuckerberg is right. Maybe its time unplug a little more often from the noosphere. At the very minimum, maybe it’s time to spend a little less time online. How about reading the Sunday New York Times? Nope, she’s being interview there today. Maybe we could zone out in front of the television? Sorry—she’s producing reality TV now too, like last year’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley. Spend some time with our kids? Nope, she’s got a kiddie book now too, titled Dot. If all else fails, maybe we cold go outside for a nice walk in the park? Has Zuckerberg figured out a way to extend her brand there yet? It’s all so complicated.