Sunday, September 23, 2007

Redcoats and Terrorism

There are all kinds of ways to learn things in life. Some people are good at memorizing facts. They look at a list, commit its contents to memory, show up for the test and ace the exam. The minute they walk out of the room, of course, every bit of memorized data detaches from their brains like leaves from a tree during an autumnal gust of wind. With those bits of data goes every bit of knowledge, because the main goal of the discipline -- to pass the exam -- has been achieved. They keep their little cheat sheets, though, just in case they ever have to memorize those facts again.

I've never been a memory learner. I've always been an observer of patterns. I look at situations and try to discern the commonalities they share. Once I see a pattern, I apply it to other situations to see how well the model holds up. It's an alternative way of learning, but it happens to be the way my brain works. I find that the more I understand why something happens, the easier it is for me to remember what happened. And because I've extracted the patterns leading up to, and through, each situation, I tend to string events together, making sense of the universe as best I can.

People who don't know me tend to dismiss my commentaries as somewhat cavalier, but I assure you they're not. I watch and listen. I observe things that some people find insignificant, but hold real value in stitching together patterns that, more often than not, reveal fascinating insights into everything from minor family events to major world political crises.

Take terrorism, for example. Everyone has been watching as the United States has deployed hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of billions of dollars into what we've allowed to be called The War on Terrorism, mainly the active military efforts to combat the forces of radical islam. We've been at this anti-terror thing for quite a while now, most noticeably in Afghanistan and Iraq, if you believe what you read in the papers. We've watched thousands of young Americans die and ten times that number return home wounded for life. Through it all, from the comfort of my armchair, I can't help but wonder:

Have we been all wrong in the way we're fighting the war on terror?

The way I see it, we've been led into these conflicts by memory learners. People who read a list of prerequisites, check off as many as apply to their situation and, having checked off the required number, launch into action. Don't get me wrong, I'm not selling the Joint Chiefs of Staff short here. I'm just Joe Average, with barely enough information on the Pentagon's decision-making process to even make an argument.

But what if the Pentagon -- which like every other governmental institution is driven by policy, rules and consensus -- are really memory learners? What if they really do react on a "if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck" basis? If that were the case, their reactions would likely follow the "we've been attacked, so we have to return fire" track. They'd do exactly what they've been doing: deploying formally-militarized units and supplies into the theater of war identified as the enemy camp.

And this is what concerns me. As a pattern learner, I've never thought the war on terrorism should be fought that way. When I look at the war on terror, I see the patterns that date back to the defeat of British redcoat soldiers. Whether in Africa or North America, the British faced armies of rag-tag, local militia (Americans and Zulus) who wore no uniforms. They blended into their environments and attacked the British in guerilla actions -- much the way radical muslims attack our own troops. The British further enhanced their own misfortunes by choosing bright red uniforms, making them easy targets for any sniper hiding in the woods or among the bush. The Brits marched in formation, signaling their approach with drums and bagpipes, tipping off their adversaries whose most successful tactic was the ambush.

See any similarities yet? See the patterns beginning to emerge?

I can't help but wonder why the Coalition Forces are sending in uniformed, organized military units to fight a stealthy enemy that knows no uniform or central command structure. Have we learned nothing from the past? Can nobody else see the patterns here? From the outset, I have never heard anyone in any position of authority put forth the argument as to how and why conventional military tactics simply don't apply to the war on terrorism. Is hubris so powerful a character flaw that we would have it risk our defeat?

I have no inside information. I have no White House connections. In fact, all I have is the hope that someone, somewhere deep inside the government has recognized the patterns evident here, creating counter terrorism units that move in stealth, applying the same tactics to counter terrorists as the terrorists use to attack the rest of the world. I hope they realize that every uniform worn by an American soldier is a 21st century red coat. A misapplied tactic woefully out of its place and time.

People ask me, "Are you for or against the war in Iraq?" Honestly, the only answer I can give them -- if they take the time to listen -- is that I've never supported doing anything stupid. I do believe that the threat terrorism has to be met and eliminated. I just don't see sending hundreds of thousands of easily identified targets as the smart move.

Red coats haven't been effective since the eighteenth century.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Demise of Social Networking

If you've been around the internet as long as I have (I didn't invent the internet, but I watched it being born), you get a sense of how it works. I'm not talking about the technology. That's kid stuff. I'm talking about the people who use, abuse and sell the technology.

Anyone who witnessed the internet meltdown of Web 1.0 remembers all kinds of statistics and theories that were supposed to propel the "new economy" through the fiber optic pipelines. Most of them were, in a word, ridiculous. Concepts like "lifetime value of a customer" inflated worthless companies' valuations beyond the stratosphere. Today, all but a few early-selling believers in those myths and legends (Mark Cuban, are you listening?) lost more than they ever hoped to gain.

As we wade into the muck known (typically) as Web 2.0, we are once again asked to believe in a new set of scams and paradigms. This time, it's Social Networking. And while social networking isn't nearly as fallible as say, "personalized start pages", these are the things of which Internet Bubbles are made.

Let me clarify:

The thing that makes Social Networking such a dangerous concept is the fact that its basis is fundamentally sound. The truth is, and always has been, that the web is a communal medium, given to aggregating humans around a central source. Anyone, from anywhere, can meet anyone else from anywhere else, establishing bonds that range from discussions of nuclear disarmament to the best motels for a kinky hook-up.

So far, so good.

But the problems with Social Networking far exceed their benefits. In the first place, simply gathering a bunch of dopes into one place with no specific purpose has the same effect as advertising a Giant Tractor Pull with no Giant Tractors. Sure, you'll probably meet up with some beer-swilling fans chugging the same tall cans of Miller, but after that, what value is left?

Second, with no structure, how long do you think people can tolerate each other? After you've finished that last can of Miller, what's left to talk about? I mean, there's only so much small talk one can manage during the course of the day. Which means the entire category is subject to the same fast fade every novelty item experiences: A small introduction, followed by a huge grassroots acceptance, fabulous usage, drop-off in interest and eventual extinction. For those of you old enough to remember them, Social Networks are the Digital Pet Rock.

Third, there are now so many Social Networks out there that nobody has the time to deal with them all. Especially since none of them have any stated purpose, the main topic of conversations among Social Networkers is no longer which music is hot. It's which networks to axe. These things are major time sucks.

Fourth, the dirty little secret about Social Networks is that all but one (yes, it's my own that's been profitable since 1998) have no sustainable revenue model. They rely too heavily on third party advertising. But what advertiser is going to pay for a network that's here today, gone tomorrow? Especially when even the hottest Social Networks of the day can't produce effective results? In case you haven't heard, all but one Social Network continues to produce results considerably lower than your basic direct mail rates -- and their sell-through rates are even lower.

Does this spell the demise of Social Networks like MySpace, Facebook and all the others that come online in droves? Yup. Not because people aren't using them. But because all but one are fundamentally flawed.

Think Rupert Murdoch can't blunder by paying $800 million for MySpace? Think Google is genius for paying $1.6 billion for YouTube? Think back to Web 1.0, when Netscape owned 90% of the browser market and Qualcomm stock was nearing $1000 a share.

That popping sound you hear ain't just in your ears.