Facebook And The Arc Of Coolness

There’s been lots of chatter lately about the future of Facebook. Millions of teenage users apparently are no longer using the social media network. Some Princeton researchers have concluded that social networks are like communicable diseases that infect people rapidly then just was quickly burn out; they predict Facebook will lose 80 percent of its peak user base by the 2015-2017 time period.

There’s no doubt that Facebook is not as cool as it once was, but that result always was inevitable — because nothing stays ubercool for long. The equation of coolness is simple: young people add to coolness, and old people who aren’t rock stars detract from it. Once Moms and Dads and people in their 60s started to use Facebook to post boring pictures, send inspirational messages, and attempt to make “hip” comments about their kids’ drunken selfies, any self-respecting youngster would realize that the coolness luster was gone . . . and move on to the next big thing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook is doomed. My guess is that Facebook wants to end up as a kind of utility — that is, an invention that initially is cutting-edge and used by only a few people and later becomes so broadly accepted that it is unconsciously integrated into everyone’s daily life, like the electric light or the telephone. iPads might not be as cool as they once were, but does Apple care if they are being sold by the millions to uncool people in the business community who love the idea of a lightweight device that they can customize to meet their unique business and personal requirements?

The key for Facebook, or for that matter any other form of social media, is whether it can make that transition. If Facebook sticks around and keeps that critical mass of users, will those coolness-sensitive teens return to the Facebook fold when they hit their late 20s and realize that the social media network is a really handy, one-stop place to keep in contact with high school buddies, college friends, and former co-workers, remember their birthdays, and have some sense of what they are doing with their lives?

When You Realize You Are Completely Out Of It

One of my mentees and his wife have welcomed a new addition to their growing family.  The baby’s name will be Maxwell.

I wanted to make a mild joke about the newborn with my other mentees, so I asked them whether they thought it would be appropriate to get little Maxwell a silver hammer.  In response, I was greeted with absolutely blank stares.  “I don’t think a hammer would be an appropriate gift for an infant,” one of my mentees politely responded.  “Is there some kind of tradition involved in giving a hammer to a child?” another asked.

“You know, the Beatles song,” I prompted.  Additional baffled looks.  “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer?”  I added.  More uncomfortable silence.

Occasionally, an incident occurs that crystallizes the fact that you are getting incredibly old, and the common cultural touchstones that used to be assumed in every conversation are common touchstones no more.  My references to Beatles song have no more resonance with my 20- and 30-something mentees than the latest Jay-Z song (assuming Jay-Z is still a popular artist — which I of course am blissfully unaware of) would have with me.

Bluetooth In The Bathroom

I’m not a big fan of Bluetooth earpiece devices.  I’m not talking about whether the technology works well or not; I just think it creates too many awkward situations.

How many times do you walk around a public area — airports in particular — see someone who appears to be talking vigorously to themselves, and decide to give them a wide berth?  You do so because long experience has trained you that people who talk to themselves are probably dangerous lunatics, and the last thing in the world you want to do is enter their field of vision and become the focus of their deranged rantings.  Bluetooth devices have interfered with that crucial modern survival instinct.  Now you don’t know whether the self-talking person is a nut or a Bluetoother, talking louder than is necessary because that’s just what Bluetooth users always do.

The worst scenario for this is the public restroom.  If you’re a guy standing at a urinal, you don’t want to make eye contract, have a conversation, or otherwise engage in any form of human interaction whatsoever.  So, when a person who at first appears to be talking to himself shoulders his way into the urinal next door, apparently flouting every known rule of male bathroom etiquette, it’s a cause for concern.  You feel that initial sinking feeling, only to later realize that it’s just jerky Bluetoother who is still flouting accepted norms — and also consciously demonstrating for all to see that their call is so important that it can’t wait until after they answer the call of nature.

I’m reconciled to the fact that Bluetooth earpieces and those hanging string-like microphone devices are here to stay.  It’s too bad, because they make public areas like airports gates a babbling cacaphony.  But can’t we all agree to keep them out of the bathroom, for goodness’ sake?

Self-Marriage? Give Me A Break!

I was surfing the net recently when I ran across an odd piece in the Huffington Post about a North Dakota woman “marrying” herself.  Six years after dealing with a painful divorce, the woman went though a commitment ceremony with herself.  She describes herself as “very happy” and “very joyous,” and she takes herself on “dates” to “invest in this relationship.”

At first I thought it was one of those oddball stories about the curious antics of one person — but apparently it isn’t.  There’s actually an entire website devoted to self-marriage ceremonies, with links to sections like “self-marriage unveiled” and “about self-marriage.”

I’m not a hidebound traditionalist about who should participate in a marriage.  I support same-sex marriage, for example.  But I also think that the whole concept of marriage has to involve another person.  A crucial part of the institution is making sacrifices for the betterment of someone else, and legally committing yourself to that separate individual in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.

I don’t care how many “dates” you might take yourself on.  I don’t care how schizophrenic you might be.  I don’t care how disastrous your prior relationships have been.  You simply can’t “marry” yourself in any meaningful sense.

One reason I support same-sex marriage is that it recognizes the importance of the institution of marriage.  Gay couples who want to marry are eager for the commitment, welcome the legal enforcement of that commitment, and understand that making that legal commitment means something important.  They want to participate in an institution that has been crucial to the advancement of civilization.

Proponents of “self-marriage,” on the other hand, are really devaluing and mocking that institution.  It’s transparent, pathetic, and kind of sad.

Weiner Rolled

Here is some good news:  disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner limped home to finish fifth in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary, getting less than 5 percent of the vote.

Why is it good news?  Because it not only shows that voters have good judgment, it hows that maybe — just maybe — we’ve gotten past the point where politicians and sports figures and celebrities are immediately forgiven by the American people simply because they appear in public and express regret for their appalling actions.

Weiner was repeatedly confronted by disgusted voters during his campaign, he was forced to admit that he had continued his misconduct even after he resigned from Congress, and he sank like a stone in the polls.  He was (or should be, at least) further embarrassed by his ill-advised reentry into politics and held accountable for his bad behavior, his previous lies, and his stunning willingness to expose his wife to even more humiliation.  (And, to top things off, another disgraced New York politician, Elliot Spitzer, also lost in his attempt to get back into politics.)

Some people may think these comments are unfair piling on a man who is down, and we should forgive and forget.  I understand that perspective, but I am fed up with people who abuse the public trust and then trade on their misconduct to achieve heightened fame and fortune and end up making jokes about their prior misdeeds on late-night talk shows.  I hope no network offers Weiner a “news” program in hopes that his notorious status will attract viewers.  I hope Saturday Night Live doesn’t recruit him to host a show.  I hope no reputable publisher will print a sugar-coated confessional.

I’m perfectly content to let Anthony Weiner live his life — but he should do so out of the public eye, without constantly looking to benefit from his past errors.

Duck Dynasty Days

In the fascinating book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about one curious aspect of our culture — the moment when something seems to just be everywhere you look, being talked about by everyone.

We’ve reached that point with Duck Dynasty, don’t you think?  It’s got all of the buzz in the world going for it.  The ratings are through the roof.  Even highbrow publications are writing about the show featuring the guys with the signature ZZ Top beards who manage a duck call fabrication business, trying to figure out whether the show’s success is the result of carefully cultivated entertainment savvy or southern Christian values (or stereotypes).  The show’s not quite an overnight success — after all, it’s in its fourth “season” — but it’s reached the popular culture pinnacle.

I don’t watch Duck Dynasty. I don’t watch much TV, and most “reality” shows don’t appeal to me.  For all I know, Duck Dynasty could be a fabulous, richly entertaining show or it could be idiotic, but at this point it doesn’t make much difference.  What’s fascinating is that the tumblers have clicked into place, the PR campaigns have succeeded, and the opinion makers are all heading in the same direction.  When seemingly everyone is talking about the same thing in this broad and diverse land of ours, it tells you something about the power of popular culture, and  the power of peer pressure.  How many people have started watching Duck Dynasty because everyone seems to be watching it, and they don’t want to be left out?

We also know one other thing about popular culture — no one and no thing stays on the top of the heap for very long.  Just ask the producers of American Idol.

The Family Silver

Back in the ’60s, many suburban homes had a silver set proudly displayed in the dining room.  Our mothers had them and our grandmothers had them; they were in our friends’ houses and glimpsed in the dining room scenes on TV sitcoms.

IMG_3767The family silver sets were a tangible sign of success and a mark of class.  In an era when people might be invited over, in coats and ties and cocktail dresses, for a fancy sit-down dinner, silver place settings and coffee pots might be used occasionally.  And you always got the sense that your mother and grandmothers wanted to be ready in case the Queen of England unexpectedly dropped by for tea.

Over the years, our mothers inherited the family silver from our grandmothers, and now our mothers have no use for them any longer.  So, our generation stores these ornate, scrolled, increasingly tarnished objects, but nobody uses them.  I’ve never been served from a silver teapot or dish, or eaten with a silver spoon.  No surprise there — silver is a pain to keep polished and probably gives food and drink a slight metallic tang, besides.  I can’t imagine any of our friends serving high tea or inviting us for a formal meal with fine china and silver utensils.

So, what to do with this stuff?  Kish did some did some digging and found that these once-treasured objects are not really worth much.  No one is buying silver tea sets, so there is no resale market.  If it’s sterling silver, it can be sold and melted down.  And if it’s silver plate?  Well, one woman Kish talked to said if there were little girls in the family they could use it to make their tea time play more realistic.

Imagine . . . from a prominently displayed source of family pride to little more than a kid’s plaything, in the course of one generation.  What does that tell you about putting too much stock in material items?

Anti-Social Media

Does social media make people ruder?  One survey says that is the case.  More than 75 percent of the people surveyed say they think people are more likely to be insulting on-line, and almost 20 percent say they have seen people end their “real” relationships after a social media spat.

I don’t know how scientific the survey is, but the results really shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Incivility increases with each step we take that is farther away from face-to-face interaction.  That is because it is not easy to be hurtful and insulting to someone’s face.  You see their reaction, physically, and you think that you wouldn’t want someone to say something mean to your face, either.  The natural tendency therefore is to tone down the rhetoric.  It’s somewhat easier to be rude over the phone, but even then you can hear the hurt in the other party’s voice.

But as you move away from immediate, personal contact, the visual and verbal cues that encourage civil behavior vanish.  Any employment lawyer or HR manager will tell you, with a shake of their head, that people write incredibly harsh, stupid, and ill-advised things in email messages, and the same is true of social media.  People act in the heat of the moment, without reflection or any brake on their offensive impulses, thinking they are being clever when they are really just being crass.  Discourtesy and angry reactions are the inevitable results.

Social media has a lot of advantages as a means of keeping in touch with people, but it also provides a ready mechanism for thoughtlessness on a large scale.  We’d all be better served if we paused before hitting the “post” button and considered how wounding our words might be.

Manti Te’o, And Hoaxing Weirdness

The Manti Te’o Star Football Player Fake Dead Girlfriend Story is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever heard, on more levels than I can possibly identify.

One significant part of the weirdness, for me, is this:  how can you have a “girlfriend” who you’ve never really met?  I recognize that the internet, cell phones, text messages, tweeting, and social networking sites permit long-distance, virtual relationships.  Before you took that significant emotional step and started calling someone a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend,” though, wouldn’t you want to satisfy yourself that the person actually existed?  Wouldn’t you want to walk with them, smell their hair, and see how they looked when they laughed or ate their food?  Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I think a lot of the “girlfriend” concept is satisfying yourself that the person in question is someone you like to be around, and not just some disembodied voice you hear on the phone at night or get an “LOL” from in response to a text message.

Another part of the weirdness is trying to figure out the motives of whoever was involved in perpetrating a colossal hoax.  Why would anyone put the time and effort into maintaining such a complicated bit of deception?  What satisfaction would any stranger get by concocting a phony person, convincing Te’o to fall for the facade, and ultimately making him look like a naive and pathetic Mr. Lonelyheart?  Aside from being astonishingly cruel, you’d have to think that anyone involved in implementing such an elaborate, time-consuming scheme needs to get a life of their own.  And if Te’o was involved, why did he do it?  He had a great career at Notre Dame; why would he feel the need to add a gloss to it by inventing a non-existent girlfriend and then knocking her off?

A final part of the weirdness:  why did the sports news media just swallow this story without doing very basic fact-checking — like trying to confirm some of the core elements of the story?  It makes you wonder how many of these heartwarming, overcome-all-odds sports stories that we hear are outright fiction.

Sadly, Seeking Sugar Daddy

There’s always been a seamy side of life.  Does the internet just make the seamy side more visible, and thus more troubling to those of us who weren’t aware of it?

Take the website seekingarrangement.com, which bills itself as the elite “Sugar Daddy” “dating site” for “Sugar Daddies” who want to find “Sugar Babies,” and vice versa.  The site says that its “Sugar Daddies” want to “date the best” and adds, provocatively: “no matter what your desires may be, you are brutally honest about who you are, what you expect and what you offer.”  “Sugar Babies” are described as attractive, intelligent, ambitious, and goal-oriented; of them, the website says, “You know you deserve to date someone who will pamper you, empower you, and help you mentally, emotionally and financially.”  The website seems to allow people in each category to “browse” the other and, apparently, reach out to make arrangements for their relationship.

Sounds sleazy, and creepy, to me.  Are there really “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies” who are doing this?  The website says there are.  Recently, stories have appeared in Ohio and in Michigan about hundreds of female college students using the “Sugar Daddy” they found through the website to pay for their college tuition, room and board, and a little bit more — an average of approximately $3,000 a month.  What is the nature of the arrangements that have caused the “Sugar Daddy” to shell out that kind of moolah?  Perhaps they are just altruistic benefactors who enjoy the company of younger people, simply want to help highly motivated, risk-taking young women, and don’t expect anything in return . . . or perhaps they do.  In any event, the spokesman for the website is quoted as saying, “We do advise that members set their terms at the very beginning of the relationship.”

With all of the odd people out there, why would any self-respecting co-ed want to reach a dating arrangement with an unknown man in exchange for financial support?  It seems incredibly risky and sad and pathetic, for both parties.  Would you feel comfortable with your daughter using the website . . . or your father?

Silent Justice

In a loud and loquacious world, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has earned a reputation for his silence.

During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Thomas almost never speaks.  In fact, his statements during oral argument are so rare that, when he does ask a question or make a comment, it becomes news and is covered even on overseas websites like the BBC.  That’s what happened this week, when Thomas made his first statement during an oral argument since February 22, 2006.  In short, he hadn’t spoken at an oral argument for almost seven years.  On Monday, his comment apparently was a joke about lawyers from different law schools that caused some of the other Justices to laugh.

Thomas doesn’t think he needs to ask questions during oral argument to do his job — and he’s right.  He reads the briefs submitted by the parties, votes on whether cases should be accepted for review by the Court, writes majority opinions, concurrences, and dissents, handles the other duties of a Supreme Court Justice, has developed a very consistent (and very conservative) judicial philosophy . . . and gives an occasional speech, besides.  The other Justices bombard the attorneys who argue before the Court with questions and, many legal scholars believe, pose the questions not to hear the answers, but rather to communicate with and attempt to persuade other members of the Court.  Thomas thinks that lawyers should be able to present their arguments without constant interruptions, so he stays silent during oral argument.  Who’s to say which approach is the right one?

I admire Justice Thomas for his willingness to buck the prevailing trend and follow his own approach.  I also respect anyone who, in our texting, talking, e-mailing, communication-saturated culture, somehow manages to keep his own counsel.

Applying Mom’s Rules To A Food Wasting World

The BBC reports today on a study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that estimates that between one-third and half of all the world’s food — as much as 2 billion tons — is thrown away. The primary reasons for the waste are poor storage, strict sell-by dates, people buying food in bulk, and picky consumers.  The report estimates, for example, that 30 percent of the vegetables grown in the United Kingdom aren’t harvested because their appearance isn’t quite up to snuff.

The amount of wasted food is infuriating, given the hunger found across the globe, but it’s also — in part, at least — an inevitable by-product of modern society.  We’ve moved far away from a world of families that ate the last withered carrots and turnips in the root cellar, knowing that they had harvested the vegetables themselves months ago and stored them in the same way their families had done for generations.  Now we eat food that is produced God knows where, God knows when, by God knows who.  If it looks a bit fishy, we’re not going to buy it, or eat it.  When you consume canned goods or frozen food, you’re obviously going to pay attention to the “use by” information — and anyone who pushes for expanding the “sell by” envelope will face pitchforks and torches the next time a mass botulism or other food-borne illness strikes.

But we can’s just thrown up our hands, either — and not just because we have to help people who are starving.  Food production requires lots of fresh water, which is in short supply.  We just can’t afford to devote huge amounts of water to growing vegetables that aren’t eaten.  (And we can’t afford to subsidize the growth of crops that aren’t eaten, either, but that’s an issue for another day.)

So, what to do if you are a red-blooded American?  How about listening to that inner Mom’s voice — you know, the one that told you to clean your plate and remember that there are starving people in Africa — and only buy what you can eat, and then eat it?  Don’t buy the enormous cans of food at Sam’s Club if you don’t honestly think you can finish them off in one setting.  Instead of purchasing huge quantities of food on your trip to the neighborhood grocery store, plan on shopping only for the immediate future and making a few more trips as a result.

With New Year’s Day not far behind us, there’s still time for a new resolution.  How about resolving to apply Mom’s rules and trying to avoid wasting food this year?

It’s National Empty Chair Day! Or Is It National Invisible Obama Day?

The world moves so fast these days.  Thursday night, Clint Eastwood gives a weird, unforgettable performance at the Republican National Convention during which he talks to an empty chair that is supposed to be President Obama.

That day and the following day he gets alternatively ripped and praised, depicted as senile or as crazy like a fox.  And then, social media takes the story deeper.  People from across the political spectrum seize on Eastwood’s empty chair theme.  Democrats mock him with “Invisible Obama” pictures and tweets on Twitter.  Republicans respond with “empty chair” tweets and blog posts.  And then someone declares today to be National Empty Chair Day, and from coast to coast Romney supporters are taking photos of empty chairs in various poses — and the press starts writing about it.

Clint Eastwood therefore has accomplished something beyond the powers of mortal men.  He’s brought Republicans and Democrats, conservative “wingnuts” and liberal “moonbats” together, by making the empty chair a potent political symbol for both parties.  Put chairs out on your front lawn (as some of our neighbors have) and let people guess whether you are marking National Empty Chair Day, or Invisible Obama Day . . . or maybe you just plan to sit in your yard later, with the bare feet in the grass, on the last day of a three-day weekend.  Whatever you mean, why not be part of a goofy national craze?

In the meantime, we can all marvel at the speed of the modern world.  It used to take a week or a month for fads like hula hoops or pet rocks to sweep the nation.  Now, it just takes a camera, a twitter account, and a potent symbol, and within minutes people are off to the races from sea to shining sea.

Going Off The Grid

Everyone should go off the grid now and then — disconnect their technology, stop checking their messages and sending texts every five minutes, and sit in a rocking chair and read a book or have a good talk for a change.

Our trip this weekend up to Hen Island in Lake Erie took us into the “roaming zone.”  When we landed on Pelee Island, in the Canadian waters, we promptly received a text message advising that we would be assessed the dreaded roaming charges for any calls or cellular use.  I immediately turned off my phone.  When we reached Hen Island we discovered that, oddly, some parts of it — miniscule as it is — are roaming, and parts have Verizon coverage.  I nevertheless kept my phone off except for once a day checks to make sure that Kish and the rest of the family were okay.

What a delight to be unhooked from the grid and no longer enslaved to the phone!  And what a treat to have a conversation without being interrupted by a beep or chirp — or noticing that the person you are talking to is surreptitiously checking their handheld for a text message that apparently can’t wait.  Liberated, by necessity, from the reflexive, repeated phone checking, you have the time for a quiet walk, some exploring, a good read, or a silly game.  Relaxation inevitably follows.

When we returned from the roaming zone and restored our phones to the grid, the world was pretty much the same as when we had left it.  Astonishingly, it hadn’t ended because we were disconnected for a few days.  It’s a good lesson to learn.

Madonna Is Pathetic

I freely concede that I am completely out of it when it comes to most facets of current popular culture.  I’m way behind on the new musical acts and popular songs, the hot TV shows, and the latest fads.

I recognize that my opinion therefore doesn’t count for much . . . but I still think Madonna is pathetic.  She’s an act from the ’80s who has fallen out of favor and into modern cultural irrelevancy.  She’s not alone; other ’80s singers like Boy George and Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis aren’t doing much these days, either.  Apparently, however, it is driving Madonna nuts to be out of the limelight, and she will say or do anything to get attention.  At least, that is how I interpret her reported conduct on an overseas tour, where she shows controversial videos, flashes a nipple in one city, and flashes her keister in another.  Anything for a headline!

It’s sad to see the formerly rich and famous scramble to hold on to a glimmer of their celebrity status.  They are so addicted to attention that they will stoop to incredibly demeaning behavior to get another fix.  Madonna’s problem is that she never had much of a voice, can’t transition to singing standards as prior artists have done, and has learned that today’s young people aren’t really interested in buying songs sung by 50-year-olds.   When you want desperately to be a musical and cultural phenomenon and you confront those realities, there’s not much you can do but work out for hours every day, expose a butt cheek now and then, and ponder what form of outrageous behavior you’ll need to participate in tomorrow.

What’s next, Madonna biting the head off a chicken?  It’s pathetic.