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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Circle

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The CircleA bunch of my tech friends have asked me to suggest a book  to read over the holidays. My unambiguous recommendation is The Circle by Dave Eggers.

I think it’s one of the best books I read this year. I’m an unabashed Eggers fan. My favorites of his are A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius: A Memoir Based on a True Story and Zeitoun. I also have a giant literary crush on everything McSweeney’s.

The early literary reviews of The Circle were awesome while the reviews by people in the tech community were mixed to negative. The tech criticism was weak and felt like it lacked depth. Most of it was “hey – Eggers doesn’t really understand how this stuff works” or “Eggers doesn’t use this stuff therefore his book sucks” kind of stuff.

The Circle was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony.”

We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

Eggers completely disassembles this through a deeply engaging story with vibrant characters. Some of the characters are recognizable composites of well known people from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a few other large bay area tech companies. Some are unknowns, but broad representations of archetypes of the people that work throughout these companies. And some are random players.

They combine in a magical way as the story unfolds. Large parts of the book are uncomfortably close to home, shining an absurd light just a little to0 brightly on stuff we talk about – in private, and in public – all the time.

And then – boom – Eggers does what he does best. As the pressure builds, he makes his point, over and over again. With a relentless drumbeat of character destruction. In a way that is cringeworthy to an extreme. Where you vacillate between “she deserved that” and “shit, that’s just not right.” And, as you take a deep breath and process what just happens, he does it again.

All the little circles with numbers on them on my phone are bothering me right now. All the dots, numbers, flashing, and bouncing things on my laptop reminds me how absurd this has all become. While Eggers shoves it in our faces with The Circle, the end-state implications of this is prescient, especially in a Snowden-like (or should we say Orwellian) world.

Powerful stuff. And really fun to read.

A Confusing Social Media Birthday

Comments (33)

I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.

I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.

As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.

  • The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
  • The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
  • About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.

I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.

I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)

I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City  and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.

When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.

This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.

Oh – and the best thing I got electronically for my birthday was from Andrei Soroker via a different channel – Kato.

I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.

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