[part 2 of The Hole in the Soul of our Culture] As I waited at the Paris airport (CDG) for my plane bringing me back home to Montreal, I typed the following into my phone to remind me of what I was feeling at that moment:
Any action that results in making money (or building numbers) is valued over actions that aren't. Such as having an interesting conversation, helping someone out, learning empathy. Sure, these things can be valued...if they lead to prestige or wealth.
My entire trip to Paris - Le Web, my book event (big ups to Rodolphe Falzerana, Luc Bretones, Sophie Reynal and everyone who organized it), the HEC Digital4Change event (big ups to Olivier Maurel for this opportunity), my lovely lunch discussion with my dear old friend Stéphane Distinguin, staying with Emilie Dupré and William Hutter, being picked up at the airport (and getting macarons delivered) by Dominique Gibert, meeting young Alaric (gorgeous new son of Rodolphe and Morgane Falzerana), running with Emilie and William with a lovely view over Paris in Parc de Saint-Cloud, wandering Paris late at night looking for a cab in the snow with new friend Jason Gegere, attending a lovely dinner organized by Renee Blodgett, staying up until I had to leave for the airport talking with the amazingly inspirational Tariq Krim and all sorts of other magic moments I'll never forget - was a whirlwind of amazing generosity, human connection and talk of changing the world.
This directly contrasts with my recent experience of the world, where raising funds for Shwowp has been a slightly painful experience (though learning, too), where only numbers and how we fit into current paradigms or not matters. What's our traffic? Our traction? Can we offer more deals like Groupon? Are we using gamification? Are we too much like this and that and whose-it? I think in terms of how it will help people in the long term, how it will change the customer/vendor relationship, what we can build that will empower people and actually deliver something meaningful: all things that were talked about as important at Le Web, but don't seem to be important to those holding power. When I hear someone like Mitchell Baker say:
"If you start something and everyone looks at you like you're crazy, step back, you just might be on the right track"
...as she did at Digital4Change made my heart fly a little. Yes...that must be it. I'm on the right track and just too darned visionary. Right?
But me and my own struggles aside, I see this everywhere. I've been frustrated with this most of my life. The 'success stories' we hear about, the validation people seek for paying attention to anything, the justification for doing anything that means a damn requires some sort of big number or incredible buzz attached to it. But in reality, so many things that are truly successful today weren't the result of numbers and buzz first, they were the result of doing something that positively impacted people's lives. Who could have predicted Twitter would be so big that it's practically a household name? Well, I did, but that's beside the point. Most people didn't. They thought it sounded stupid and inane. Foursquare? Initial reaction (other than those of us at SXSW who were playing with it) was 'meh'. Matt from Kiva said everyone thought he was nuts. Mozilla has changed the world in unconventional ways. Wordpress is still giving away their IP. Microfinancing? The Grameen Foundation has proven that lending money changes the world and makes a profit consistently (without bailouts). All of these started out as crazy ideas and have become huge success stories.
And by success, I mean impact on real human lives. Some make money, others sustain. But there are countless examples of social companies that make an impact and do well by doing good. They change the world, employ people, sometimes bring profits and continue to grow their impact. Contrast that to 'for profits' that have a fairly high failure rate - whether they take big money or not. [aside: someone has to have a link to a study where social business success is calculated]
But lets go back to the issue at hand. Even many of the companies I know and love have taken on the twist of highlighting the traditional metrics of success. I spoke to Georges Duverger (who I'm working on some cool projects with) about some of Twitter's earlier design decisions and how it changed the raison d'être of the community. By choosing to demote @ replies (hide them from the public stream) and promoting RT's (retweets), Twitter encouraged a growing cult of celebrity. What started out as a virtual water cooler where we could discover, join and debate conversations became a race for who could be retweeted the most often (to get 'more followers'). When people introduce me, they love to mention my number of followers. I rarely check, though I know it means more to most people than the content I produce. "I have 35,000+ followers, bitches!" Whatever. Do I impact people's lives? Inspire? Connect? Why am I still alone on a Friday night? Will it pay my rent next month? It certainly doesn't help where it should help me (opening doors). It means way less than my real-life relationships. Twitter has become the new bullhorn for people. A promotional tool. Conversations have moved to Facebook, Quora and other networks that promote the connection over the status. With all the misgivings I have about Facebook, I actually like that they encourage me to weed out non-friends so my relationships are more manageable on there (ie. they don't build me tools to scale more and more friends like MySpace did - they actually punish me for it, limiting the number of groups and friends I can connect to). I could never keep up relationships with 35,000+ people IRL. Nor do I really want to.
But it all comes back to what we value and why I think we have a hole in the soul of our culture. It isn't merely the businesses and boardrooms where there lies an issue. It's all around us. In North America at least. We pay lip service to wanting to change the world, to being better human beings, to 'balancing' our lives, but when it comes down to it, we tend to be more impressed with big numbers: 1 MILLION hits, 100,000 followers, $1 BILLION market capitalization, etc. When was it that Kevin from DIGG was on the cover of Business Week? 2006? "How this kid made $60Million in 18 Months!" How much is it worth today? Kevin would be the first to admit he didn't have $60 Million in the bank in 2006.
I was happy to see an influential conference like Le Web focus on value other than money. I'm hoping it's a trend. I think that, besides a few conferences like TED, SOCAP and Personal Democracy Forum, we tend to focus on the money and traffic numbers rather than real social impact. And to get to social impact, we need to do all of those things that don't really have any ROI attached...like have conversations and help people and read stuff - some of it will 'pay off' and some of it will just be part of our human experience. Focusing on the wrong stuff will lead us to focus on the wrong stuff...if that makes any sense. Like the executives from day one continually repeating their commitment to user experience without, what it seemed like, having ever even had experience with users.*
Because, at the end of the day, our businesses aren't the only entities lacking a focus on beauty, truth, wisdom, justice, charity, fidelity, joy, courage and honor. Our entire culture is. Just visit Paris for a week. You'll *feel* what I mean. It's nothing you can assign ROI to because, well, it is a true experience, not a production.
* It would have been great to see any number of these execs responding to the naysayers on Twitter...setting up a meetup in Paris to get feedback...even just attending the after parties.