Hitting the Refresh Button

Dear Blog,  I have been neglecting you as I built and launched a new company called Social Media Attitudes which has, yup, another blog.  Talk about the shoemaker lacking shoes!  Or infidelity perhaps. Pick your metaphor.  In any event, I’m sorry.

Yet there is lots to talk about here too.  In particular I want to get back to talking about the emerging multilingual world we are living in and how online availability of new translation technologies will change how we trade ideas and who we can talk with.  And about how social media is changing how organizations and businesses function, now that it has already changed how people interact.  Talk about riding the back of the tiger! More soon….  I promise.

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James Madison, John Roberts and Barack Obama walk into a bar…

No, it’s not John Roberts — yet.

It was a good day for Chief Justice Roberts and President Obama, for the Supreme Court, and for our country.

As my previous post indicates, I think national health care insurance is a good thing.  I was watching  CNN at 10:10 am when it put its foot in its mouth and announced that the individual mandate had been overturned, so I was doubly joyous when CNN reversed itself on appeal at 10:16.

Most Americans do not think much about how important it is to have an independent, life tenured high court.  Nor do we think much about how people will act — and change — when they have that kind of job security.  I used to spend a lot of time with judges and attorneys.  The interactions are interesting to watch.  The bar is a tribe apart.

Chief Justice Roberts put down his marker today — that he will not be taken for granted. is not in anyone’s pocket, does not see himself as an ideologue, and has ambitions for a legacy of his own.  He will be in his current position, good health permitting, for 20 years or more.  He has no reason to care how many people, conservatives today, liberals again tomorrow, are furious with him.  He cares what the bar thinks, his community of peers.

Barack Obama is from the same tribe of legal scholars.  He has four, maybe eight years to make his mark.  In this instance, he kept his cool under huge pressure and way too much second guessing (I mean, really, Robert Samuelson, what were you thinking?). He surely knew everything about the arguments being advanced by his attorneys, and together they came out with the winning position on his own legacy — and won on the issue of taxes!  God is nothing if not ironic, huh?

Since reading David Remnick’s excellent biography of Obama and its chapter about his rise at Harvard Law School, I have predicted that we will see this past four years less as a era of partisan politics than as a unique contest of wills and ideas between a President and Chief Justice. Obama and Roberts: two men of roughly the same age and training in constitutional law, with diametrically opposed views, each heading a branch of the U.S. government at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  It’s a fascinating situation and one with few precedents.

Today showed how closely the two men are locked together in history  — in their hope to be remembered as leaders in a grand tradition of thoughtful, intricate legal analysis and argument about the role of democratic government tracing to the Founding Fathers and beyond.

Speaking of the Founders, wouldn’t James Madison have been happy today about how the system of separation of powers was bearing up under enormous strain? For a moment there, I was getting worried.

We all have a responsibility to make this health care system work better, for more people, and to control costs.  But we will do it together.  Massachusetts was the laboratory, so thank you Governor Romney too. We will all have what our members of Congress and the justices of the Supreme Court already have: health insurance!  Hurrah!


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The landline phone: Casualty of the 2012 campaign?

Sometimes change is pushed by annoyance and inconvenience, not just cost and usefulness.  That seems to be happening with the telephone system.

Surely I am not the only one to think it:  If I finally get rid of the landline, will those incredibly annoying marketing phone calls stop?

When did the sound of the phone ringing go from being a welcome ding-a-ling to an obnoxious interruption?  If I were running AT&T or Verizon, I’d be really worried about this political campaign stretching endlessly to the horizon.  It’s a turning point for the phone system, I think.

Landline phones have become the domain of the zombie fundraisers and push pollsters.   Friends working this political cycle tell me those of us living close to the capital have no idea how bad it gets in the swing districts when voters are targeted with constant phone calls by superPACs, political parties and candidates desperate for a few more votes or donations.  It’s the death knell of the landline phone system, I think. Who hasn’t thought of flinging it out the window when one more unknown caller tricks you into answering only to find stunning silence while the voice activated response comes alive? And this is from someone who regularly contributes to candidates.  (Maybe that’s the problem.)

There are many reasons for the rise of mobile technology but this is one.  If the zombies ever invade the mobile space, we are really done for.  There are solid reasons to have landlines, especially with a rise in natural disasters, but the way the system is being managed makes me fear for its future.  And of course it is the politicians who have abused the regulatory system by giving themselves exceptions.  They are killing their own golden goose.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook, my original peg last week of $30 a share is looking pretty good.

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The Value of Facebook

Connecting to my world on Facebook

Is Facebook worth more than $30 a share?  We will find out tomorrow and more importantly, in the days to come.  But it’s been worth a lot to me, so the question of what the value of Facebook is in our society now is quite interesting.  I thought today would be a good moment to explain its value to me.

“I don’t do FB.”  I hear this a lot, even though there are now over 900  million Facebook users so I am kind of wondering why I know so many hold-outs (besides my mom, I mean).  I usually respond, cautiously, that Facebook is essential these days, a social utility like the telephone.  And that means it is worth quite a lot. Why?

The word “friends” is a misnomer that confuses a lot of people who distrust the Facebook world.  How could you have 200 or 500 “friends”? My Facebook contacts are not a list of my friends – I am not equally close or intimate with all the people to whom I am connected.  But it is a genuine community of real people who know me, inside of which are different but overlapping circles of family, close and casual friends, colleagues from a variety of jobs and activities, neighbors from several homes, and classmates from various schools.  That reflects normal life pretty well, doesn’t it?

Facebook has become particularly useful when you are in transition – between homes, jobs, schools, travels around the world, anywhere you’ve created a circle of people don’t want to leave behind.  It’s great that it is global when, like me, you’ve lived in lots of different places.  Email – well, it just takes too much time to stay in touch with more than a few people, and who likes getting emails with large cc lists? Not all that personal really.

I left a job a year ago. In a flash I lost access to the email listserve with hundreds of colleagues with whom I had worked for years.  Not my first job transition. But this one has been very different. Through Facebook for the first time, I found myself in easy touch with many of the people with whom I used to have lunch and share jokes.  We still exchange shoptalk and rib each other, in real time.  When someone in my FB world has a big announcement – a new boss, a baby, a retirement, an event, or a birthday, I hear about it and see the photos.  When I do see or call them, it is much easier to pick up the conversation because I know they’ve been on vacation to Cabo, gotten a dog or changed jobs.  I even got invited to and kept track of my high school reunion in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

When I got sick last year, I could keep up with what my family, friends, and colleagues were doing even when I wasn’t getting around a lot.  I could check in on the antics of various young relatives, though I try not to comment on their pages!  When I finally told my FB friends that I had breast cancer (partly because it was getting hard to remember who I had told privately), I got an amazing flow of supportive messages from all over my world.  People kept track of my progress in private messages, visits and comments. Now that I am fine and back working, Facebook offers an easy way to pick up conversations, exchange messages, and search for people with whom I have lost contact.  It is quite efficient and definitely not a waste of time.  You put into it what you need, and you get out of it what you put into it.

That’s why when people say, “I don’t do Facebook,” I respond, “You should try it, it works.”  What I don’t say is why do you want to be left out, when you too will go through these normal transitions in life and this kind of new social media allows you to carry your relationships with you?  What is more valuable than your network?

So, Mark Zuckerberg, are you worth all the money the market is throwing at you in this IPO?  We’ll see over the long term, whatever that is in a social media world.  But thanks a lot for making possible these conversations, photo and news sharing with my family and friends.  Just remember please two things as Facebook grows:  privacy does matter, and so does doing good.  We look forward to seeing how this story will play out.

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Back in peaceful Merida this week looking at social capital

Children performing in Merida's plaza

I am so happy to be back in Merida this week, to follow up on the article I wrote about the Other Mexico last month and to meet many of Mexicans and ex-patriates who wrote me with their comments about life here.  I will be blogging and tweeting during the week, meeting with some of the local officials, and giving a talk about the “soft power” of social capital and how it feeds Merida’s special brand on Wednesday.

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning, and the elegant Paseo de Montejo avenue is closed on one side so everyone can enjoy it.  There’s a wedding party starting in our hotel, families coming to brunch with their grandparents, and other families are riding their bicycles, joggers are passing by, and there are preparations for a big walk to raise money for hemophilia. Later we will head to the plaza central to see teenagers perform Yucatan dances and hear some of the fabulous musicians who are contemporaries of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba.  I can’t wait to show my husband the Museum of Yucatan Song today.

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What’s different this time in Mideast changes?

Author Malcolm Gladwell told Fareed Zaharia on the terrific new CNN program Global Public Square (GPS) that social media role in Mideast uprisings was “overhyped.”  He pointed to successful revolutions that took place pre-Facebook, in particular the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany where 1.5 million people protested without the help of the internet.  Zaharia’s own perceptive analysis of the past 15 years of changes emphasized broadcast news as much as new information and networking tools.

Gladwell’s right, there have been other revolutions. But that was then and this is now.  I took part in a terrific discussion organized by ICT4D last week at John Hopkins SAIS about how social media was used in Egypt that suggested Gladwell may not be looking at all the new factors.

Analyzing social media in the Mideast,  “It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see,” said Amira Maaty of NED.  She was joined by Katherine Maher of NDI and Jeff Ghannam, author of a not-to-be-missed special report on the rise of social media in this region. Ghannam rightly reminds those of us getting giddy about these events that hundreds of Egyptian social media activists were persecuted long before the January demonstrations.

From what I can see, a combination of elements produced this combustion:

  1. Outrageous official corruption — Mustapha Nabli, the new Tunisia Central Bank Governor, and many others have repeatedly and specifically said that this was the spark in multiple countries.
  2. The huge demographic shift to a youthful population — half under 24 years.
  3. Media transformation with widespread availability of Arabic language broadcast media such as Al Jeerza interacting with low cost social media tools that young people understood better than their authoritarian elders.
  4. Breathtakingly rapid events and on-line organizing post-Tunisia – hours and days and weeks not months and years.
  5. The scale of the communication – the sheer volume of tweets, videos, blogs, broadcasts from Al Jeerza and so on overwhelmed the police state.
  6. Finally, smart, dedicated activists and brave citizens who used all these factors strategically to facilitate political events that were impossible even a few years ago.

Which was the spark and which the fuel?  Who knows.  Who cares?  I know a few of the Libyans expats working 24/7 to communicate, organize, influence and plead for a new era.  And let me tell you, they are living and breathing radio, email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and of course Al Jeezra.  Did social media make all this happen? No, the people did.  But does new media, including broadcast, make possible the impossible, and at an affordable price?  Yes.  Of course it does.   For now.

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Bahrain’s Brand: When Moderation Dies

A brand is what you are known for, like it or not.  I write sometimes about country brands, and that’s essentially what I was describing in my Washington Post op-ed about Merida, Mexico two weeks ago – a place that deserves its distinctive, different brand.

But let’s change the focus to another country I know well.  Bahrain has always been known as the “moderate alternative” in a harsh region.  Friendly, laid back, where women could drive and work, and Saudi men “relax” in nightclubs with (gasp) liquor, Bahrain positioned itself as a good place to live and do business, an alternative to Saudi Arabia across the causeway.  An ancient speck of land in a vast sea of sand and water, all it has to offer is a central location for financial and other services and being a nicer place to live. It was where you decided to go when your wife said she wouldn’t live in Saudi or Kuwait.

So now what does Bahrain do when it has ruined its brand?  What is its value proposition?  Even from here I can hear the suitcases being packed, the offices being relocated, the calls from families that have already left, and the inquiries about investment alternatives.  Without political stability and moderation, what does Bahrain have to offer?

I used to spend dead quiet weekends driving through the poor Shiite villages, with lousy housing, fading paint and no air conditioning in a place where summer temperatures can reach 38º C.  I am so sorry, I have no side in this fight, but this horrible political crisis just makes public the reality that anyone who has spent time there knew all along — that this was a terribly fragile situation, ready to break along Sunni/Shiite demographic lines.

And it now has. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and it will take all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put him back up again.  If they can.  A brand once broken is dreadfully hard to recreate, especially for a country without other resources.  Which is why it is really important not to break it.  And that’s my point:  the financial price for this political drama will be deep and long lasting.

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Questions about “the Other Mexico” op-ed

How did I come to write this article for the Washington Post? Every day in Merida, I had to write an essay for my Spanish course.  This was the piece I wrote on my last day of class, trying to synthesize what I had experienced from mid-January to mid-February.  It was based on walks I took every afternoon with local university students exploring the town, and evenings out. I sent it unsolicited to the Washington Post when I got back, and I am grateful to them for giving me a chance to share another perspective.

How did my views change during my stay? My first impression of Merida’s colonial center and cultural events was that they were aimed at tourists, as is the case in places like Cancun or Oaxaca.  Then I saw the depth of local involvement and participation, and realized that foreign participation, however welcome, was on the margins.  I noticed all the Mexican tourists who come with their families.  I watched people singing along to songs and holding their toddlers up to see the performers.  I learned a lot at the Museo de la Cancion Yucateca, which gave me a new view of the city’s concerts.  As I walked around, I saw many instances of public investment in upkeep, modernization and beautification, in outdoor facilities and fora, and in free events.  And as someone who takes great care when visiting places like Mexico City these days, I relished the freedom to walk around at all hours even all by myself.  As I spoke to residents, their love of their city came through, though of course they don’t think it is perfect.  And I started thinking about Robert Putnam’s writing and other work on building social capital and how it benefits the whole community.

Am I a tourist who wrote a nice travel article? Well, we are all tourists when we are out of our home towns.  I am a longtime international relations specialist, a public policy analyst and writer, and an expert in communications. I’ve worked in civil society, private sector and U.S. government, and most recently spent 12 years at the World Bank where we focus on economic development in developing countries. I’ve lived in a couple of countries, traveled and worked in more, speak French and improving Spanish, and have a masters in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Nearly 20 years ago, I worked with the Mexican Government on a couple of things including NAFTA.  I’ve been visiting Mexico now for 17 years, usually with my husband. He couldn’t come this time, but in a way that left me more time to observe.  My sister and a nephew joined me for a week, and also had a wonderful time.

Why did I say “we” need to bring peace and tranquilty back to the border communities? All of us who are neighbors in North America have a common interest in each other’s well-being and prosperity.  It’s a much more integrated continent socially, economically and culturally than we recognize in our public debate. Mexicans do need to solve this problem but they can’t do it by themselves because narco-trafficking is tied to US drug consumption and also to illegal sales of US weapons.  We should be helping them in any way we can, and we will benefit if they succeed.  And if they fail, we will pay the price as well.  Here’s a good piece called Five Myths about Mexico’s drug war.

Can I give you advice on where to stay, study, or go in Merida? No, that’s not my role, and there are many good websites and blogs for such information.

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Merida photos … and a note to Gov. Perry of Texas!

I’ll be blogging later to answer some of the questions raised by readers of my Washington Post op-ed.  It was also published in the Diario de Yucatan in Spanish.

But in the meantime, here are Merida Photos by Noah Wilson.  He’s my 22 year old nephew and full of talent. He came down to Merida for a week in January. It was his first trip to Mexico and he had a great time, even taking the local bus from Cancun to Merida. Like my sister and me, he wandered around Merida at all hours with no problems.  He loved the food, people, culture, and yes, the margaritas.  His Spanish turned out to be pretty good — hope he goes back soon to get fluent.

I was surprised to hear that Texas officials are advising students not to go to Mexico for spring break.  Maybe they just meant the border areas. Everyone should always be careful when traveling — I am– and that means checking out any location.  But there are lots of places in Mexico where young people can go safely.  If they want to get crazy when they get there, though, they should just stay home where their local police can worry about them.  Not a big fan of spring break American student style.But I am all for seeing this changing world of ours. More students should take the time to do it.

Enjoy the show.  Merida and other cities that work are a lot more than pretty photos, but that’s another post.



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Social capital in the other Mexico…

Apologies for not blogging more recently but I was living and studying in Merida, Yucatan for a month. Here’s an op-ed I just wrote for the Washington Post asking why is it that this city in Mexico is doing so well.  Thanks for all the comments I’ve been getting — it would be great to post them here so we can have a conversation.

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