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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dumping Semel, Yang and Yahoo

In case you didn't hear the party horns on Wall Street, word is out that Yahoo's ill-selected, ill-fated and generally ill CEO, Terry Semel, has finally been ousted as Yahoo's CEO. That's the good news. The bad news is that his CEO slot has been filled by Jerry Yang, one of the able founders of Yahoo.

The worse news? None of it matters.

In the immortal words of Pete Townsend, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Just about everyone has the story wrong on this one. The Los Angeles Times quotes analyst Trip Chowdry of Global Equities Research as saying, "Any person less than 30 has never heard of Jerry Yang...They know the founders of YouTube. They know the founders of Facebook and MySpace." That may be true. But who cares? Nobody any age gives a rat's ass about who creates or manages an online entity -- certainly not Wall Street. Believe me, if a trained monkey sat in the CEO chair at Yahoo and produced Google-like numbers, nobody would care at all. They'd be happy, but they simply wouldn't care.

Jerry Yang, at 38 considered by some to be "over the hill" in internet years, thinks Yahoo's issues are all about absent talent. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Yang said on a conference call with analysts Monday that filling key management jobs would be among his highest priorities. "A company such as Yahoo is all about talent," Yang said. "We have positions we need to fill. We need to convince people that this is a great place to work."

Wrong-o-ritos, Jerry. The old "We Need To Get Talent In Here" is what guided Yahoo's ship on to the rocks back at the turn of the century when someone, somewhere, decided that Yahoo's future lay in entertainment and brought Semel in as its captain. If you want to read what a huge mistake that was, you may be interested in these two articles, which pretty much predict how and why Yahoo would and did find its way into this unholy mess.

Clearly, Yahoo's problems are not about management. They're not rooted in talent. Sure, those are problems that plague the company and contribute to its demise. But Yahoo's real issues begin at the bottom: Like Wal-Mart, Yahoo has an identity but no brand strategy. So it doesn't matter who's at the helm. It doesn't matter what kind of talent you bring:

If people can't articulate why Yahoo is "the only solution to their problem," they have no reason to choose, use and evangelize that brand. And that's the point that Semel, Yang and Wall Street simply don't want to hear.

Word on the street is that Yahoo's current CFO has her CEO training wheels, waiting in the wings to eventually step in to the CEO's chair. Personally, Yahoo is probably better off with Pete Townsend. At least he can see things clearly.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Second Life? Get a life.

Every once in a while, I get a real boost out of witnessing a rectification of life's Great Injustices. That's what happened this week, when the everyone-is-talking-about-it-but-I-can't-figure-out-why website, Second Life, launched its mega-monied public relations campaign. If you buy into their hypet, Second Life is going to do to the internet what e-mail did for, well, the internet.

If you've never heard of Second Life, you're not missing much. Essentially, it's a web site where grown-ups -- or at least people old enough to know better -- pay good money to don a digital costume and play out the fantasy life that they've always dreamed of, but could never actualize in our regular, three dimensional world. If you're a fat guy, you can be a skinny girl. If you're a tall girl, you can be a rugged guy. You can be an animal. A shopkeeper. A fairy princess. You can even be a child molester, if you like. At Second Life, anything goes.

As an added bonus, Second Life allows you to interact in a variety of ways with other Second Lifers. Not only can you talk, date and fornicate, you can also pursue the goal of every other American website: spend your real-life, hard-earned cash. That's right, just check your credit card at the door and pay for everything from enhanced services to actual merchandise and you're set to go. One more useless venue at which you can drain your wallet -- and time -- for no real value.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. In the late 1980's George Lucas and the now-defunct Quantum Link experimented with avatar communities -- and failed. Of course, one could attribute that failure to simply being too far ahead of the online curve. After all, in those days, a 300 baud modem was considered "wicked fast." The same can't be said for Apple's ill-fated "e-world," however, which promised a fantasyland of people, shops and places for Mac users a bit later in the decade. E-world collapsed within months, though this time the culprit wasn't so much the public's inexperience as it was their realization that fantasy communities are, in a word, a gargantuan waste of their time.

Just ask anyone who's had any exposure to the people who play Dungeons and Dragons and you'll get an idea of what Second Lifers are like. Losers, mainly. People who, for the most part, spend their lives imprisoned in cubicles, wishing they were someone -- and somewhere -- else. To me, it's bad enough that a person can wither away his existence mired in the dissatisfaction that he doesn't live up to media-driven social ideals. But to leverage that kind of misery into financial gain strikes me as somewhat cruel. How, in good conscience, can a company take money and time from people by telling them their only shot at happiness is taking a different form and personality?

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for escapism. I can indulge myself in all kinds of fantasies involving various voluptuous vixens tempting me to become a member of their websites for only $4.95 a month. But for all their temptation, I have to hand it to those vixens: All of them want my money, but not one of them ever asks me to become someone else. For all their prurience, they're willing to sell me their fantasies based on who I am, not how unacceptable I may be. They take me -- and my cash -- just as I am. Beyond that, everyone other than certified psychotics knows that healthy fantasies are measured in sessions, not lifetimes. Even a call girl charges by the hour. Second Life, on the other hand, knows no end. You can stay on for days, months, years -- and the more time and money you invest, the harder you're hooked.

To hear them tell it, Second Life is nothing less than the Second Coming. Huge Fortune 1000 companies have fallen for their hype, building million dollar Second Life presences, like online stores where they hawk their real-life wares -- and soak you for real-lifew cash. The media, ever-ready to jump on the latest Next Big Thing bandwagon, is ready to hype Second Life as the wave of the future for socializing and commerce.

At least, they were ready. Not so much any more. Because just as the big public relations push was supposed to be cresting, the folks at Second Life got pushed off the TV screen by the revelation that Paris Hilton was headed back to court, possibly to reinstate her jail sentence. No matter that the G8 conference was charting the future course of nations in Germany or that a striking new Israeli-Syrian peace plan had just been announced.

Nobody cares about that stuff.

I find that, in a strange way, to be somewhat comforting. I mean, if real news can't make headlines, than at least I can revel in the fact that one big media hype story got knocked out of the spotlight by an even more worthless media hype story. Media people will tell you that they're just giving the people what they want. But they're wrong. The media is giving the people what the media wants: cheap, quick worthless thrills. Brain candy with no intellectual nutritional value. Not exactly the stuff on which legends like Edward R. Murrow built his journalistic career.

To those of us who find no use for cell phones other than to make phone calls, I'm sure you understand. For those of you who don't, forget about Second Life. Try getting a life instead.