Fiddling While Rome Burns

What do Facebook, WhatsApp and the Ukraine have in common?

Nothing, you might say at first – but a lot if you think about it.

At its most basic, they were all in the news last week – with the announcement of Facebook’s epic purchase pushing the deaths of Ukrainian activists off the top of most news feeds.

However, at its most conceptual what they had in common was, in fact, what was missing from the stories coming out of the Ukraine, and that was anything to do with Facebook and WhatsApp – in contrast to all the punditry that poured forth from the Middle East during the Arab Spring….

Only a couple of short years ago, the analyst community and news organizations focused as much on Facebook and Twitter driving the revolution as they did on the revolution itself. However, that story got stale pretty quickly – as the participants themselves were careful to point out that often they had no digital connections to unite them and that ultimately, it was the power of the people that drove change – culminating in a Time Magazine article that clearly stated the issue:

”The protests have marked the rise of a new generation….Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.”

Interestingly, as the Spring has sadly turned to Fall and even Winter in some places, we hear nothing about digital media stemming its decline or otherwise affecting the next round.

And for sure, we hear nothing of Facebook or Twitter or WhatsApp helping and abetting the revolutionaries….

In fact – and it’s worth checking country by country as I did – the Ukraine is way down on the list of hot trends – if it appears at all – with the Olympics, the WhatsApp deal and even Kate Upton’s spur of a kiss getting more play and interest.

But there is more – seems to me that the Ukraine is real-time commentary on where the market is going and, frankly, what I have been writing and speaking about for a long time.

Facebook is, as the Financial Times said way back, broadcast TV. Although we ascribe personal and intimate powers to it – imbue it with magic and mystery – it is a mass means of communicating.

In fact, what I find ironic are the analyst commentaries – since the WhatsApp purchase – from the same people who were speaking from the other side of their mouths only a short while ago when FB went public.

In fact, according to the new canon, WhatsApp is critical – because while we still like to shout from mountaintops and have our 15mgs of fleeting and negligible fame – what we really need – what the younger audience really needs – is a way to have more personal, more in-close, more real friends’ communication – all true – and I’d laugh if the sudden turnaround didn’t trash FB – who I believe still has a place in the world.

So who knows? If FB had purchased WhatsApp two weeks earlier maybe we could have seen it play a critical part in the Ukraine….or would it have been window dressing like FB and Twitter in the Middle East?

Bottom line – a city burns…and we are socially elsewhere.  Listen:

“We all lack support from the international community. This is what I can say” Jenya (Quote from an email I received from a friend in the Ukraine)

And there you have it – in a week when users of an app were worth over $50 a name, when women’s Ultimate Fighting was worth more than most anything else and people dying in the streets was worth very little….I wonder if it’s not time to take stock – cut the Digibabble and apply what we have – the powerful tools – all of them – to really solving the world’s problems and not just monetizing the next greatest, all-pervasive way to communicate?

What do you think?


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