September 7, 2008

Lacy, Sarah. Once you're lucky, twice you're good: The rebirth of Silicon Valley and the rise of web 2.0. New York,: Gotham, 2008. 294pp.

As with many of the business books I review in this space, I am profoundly torn by this book. On the one hand, tech journalist Sarah Lacy's account of the business side of the ride of various web 2.0 companies is compelling and fascinating reading. On the other hand, the depths of uncritical and nauseating hero-worship she displays toward the tech entrepreneurs she profiles is both revolting and disturbing.

Revolting because because of the over the top admiration and worship Lacy has for the people she profiles. Disturbing because the "it's all about the money" mindset diminishes the social impact, or at least my appreciation of the social impact, of the web 2.0 technologies.

In fact, if you're not careful reading this book could completely disillusion you about the whole web 2.0 phenomenon because it tears aside the veil and you see it for what the business people truly see it as: not a way of sharing and expanding our social horizons and making our true, real life social networks easier and more pleasurable. But as a way of making money, of delivering eyeballs to advertisers, of growing market share. Almost, but not quite. You really have to read this book with your business book brain engaged -- ignore the sycophanticism and hype and get a feeling for the stories and the personalities.

Some of the personalities/entrepreneurs she profiles include Max Levchin (PayPal, Slide), Mark Andreessen (Netscape, Ning), Jay Adelson (Digg) and, of course, Sarah Lacy's King of the World, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

From the first chapter, focusing on Levchin, all the various entrepreneurs mostly come off as almost repulsively arrogant and greedy -- these social networking pioneers are no Robin Hood figures, it's all about the money. While their life stories are often interesting and even compelling, I find it hard to believe that they're actually as unpleasant as they seem in the book and for that I blame Lacy. She really needed to balance their stories of ambition with a more "human" side.

From a library point of view, one of the important ideas that I always try to keep first and foremost in my mind is that as public institutions (or private not-for-profits) it's not our job to deliver eyeballs to vendors or advertisers but to serve the interests of our patrons first. We should not make it our mission to deliver our patrons' attention to corporate interests. If nothing else, this book has reminded me that when we partner with vendors, even vendors we think have high ideals, we have to remember that their bottom line is ultimately different from ours.

In sum, this is a business book about business issues and mostly business people. There's a bit of analysis and reflection in some of the chapters, but you definitely won't learn much about what web 2.0 is and why it's important from this book. For that, definitely pick up Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody. Is it all bad? No. Although superficial, I did pick up quite a bit of useful history and background on the web 2.0 phenomenon. I mostly enjoyed the book and would recommend it for any library that supports people studying the historical or business side of the web.

Some minor (and not so minor) things that annoyed me: Lacy's constantly using first names for her subjects giving and overly familiar air plus making it hard to keep track of which person she's talking about when it's a fairly large cast of characters. I also didn't appreciate that she referred to all the technical people as "engineers" -- may of whom were likely computer scientists, mathematicians or whatever. She didn't seem to have a sense that the job title engineer means someone that studied engineering. There were also a couple of uncomfortably misogynistic moments in the text (p. 42 and 226) that were unnecessary; Lacy seemed to be suffering a bit from The Stockholm Syndrome. She was also a bit flippant about the dark side of web 2.0, blowing off cyberbullying and copyright issues (p. 109).

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