Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Size of Numbers

Mark Zuckerberg by Mathieu ThouveninIn a recent interview with the Googliest leather-clad author around, Paul Coelho, Napster founder Sean Parker called The Social Network “a complete work of fiction.”

While I could write a book about that last statement, the thing that jumped out at me in the Mashable write-up just referenced was a quote attributed to Mark Zuckerberg.

Apparently, when asked if he liked The Social Network, Zuckerberg responded by focusing not on its fictionalization of a reality that he has supposedly lived but rather on the size of its audience saying, “We build products that 500 million people see… If 5 million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter that much.”

Let me just repeat that last line: “If 5 million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter much.”

Is that true? Can it really “not matter much” if 5 million people all engage in the same activity? Of course it could be true given that 7 billion humans live on this planet. I mean, how much can the isolated actions of .07% truly matter?

If human beings are merely ciphers—numbers, eyeballs, data points—then I guess we can play a purely quantitative game and determine what really matters by simply doing the math. Billions of people have looked at McDonald’s hamburgers (most following this period of observation with the act of consumption), so they must matter more than the hundreds of millions who have looked at Facebook, right? In fact, the Facebook-seers are basically a subset of the hamburger-seers, so, if we want to understand the world and how it works, we ought to by rights spend more time focusing on the latter instead of the former.

Of course, numbers are themselves merely ciphers. They don’t have a meaning in and of themselves nor does the comparison of any two numbers have any particular meaning in itself. What meaning might be had from such comparisons depends less on the counting than on what got counted.

As far as the what behind the numbers goes, how much sense does it make to compare the number of people who have “looked at” Facebook to the number of people who have looked at a particular movie? Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare it to the number of people who have looked at movies in general? I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would wager that many more people have seen movies than have looked at Facebook (and that all people who have seen Facebook have seen movies, while the opposite certainly does not hold). Does that mean that Facebook “doesn’t really matter that much”?

The answer to that question has to be, “No.” Facebook is more important and will have a more lasting impact on our culture than the relatively well-made feature film on its origins (which is not to say that Facebook will have a more lasting impact than movies, generally speaking). Why? Because Facebook is a medium, like film, and not a mediated object, like a movie (though, to stick with a strictly McLuhanesque taxonomy, we’d have to acknowledge that Facebook too is a mediated object insofar as it is accessed via a meta-medium like the Web).

For the same reason, I believe that the printing press has had a more lasting impact on human culture than any book printed on it, even though many more people have seen said books than have ever actually seen a printing press.

Image Source: Mathieu Thouvenin.

Thought Ronin

3156136099_c30649532e_mI’ve been a “thought ronin” for going on a year now.

In the same way that the lone gunslinger is a staple of the Western, ronin (“masterless samurai”) have been staple figures, and frequently protagonists, in samurai films from the very outset of the genre – an early epic of which was in fact entitled 47 Ronin.

My favorite anime film, Ninja Scroll, is the tale of a ronin, as is the more recent and rather austere The Sword of a Stranger, not to mention Kurosawa classics like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, to name but a few examples.

In other words, my sense of what a ronin is comes mainly from the movies (and Hagakure).

[As a total aside, it’s interesting to note that many of the most celebrated samurai films of recent years – such as the work of director Yoji Yamada, maker of the masterful Twilight Samurai – are not about ronin at all but instead about the plight of the low-ranking samurai who often had to ply a trade (e.g., building and selling umbrellas, for instance) to supplement their meager stipend. I read this as an allegory for the plight of the “salaryman” in contemporary Japan – but what do I know about it?]

Anyway, I called myself a “thought ronin” because everybody wants to be a thought leader and I guess I wanted to subtly mock that aspiration (having always been partial to the guru or “cult leader” angle).

On a more serious note, I was stating allegorically that, having served as the retainer of a thought leader and possessing many skills necessary to effective and ongoing thought leadership, I was for “out there.”

Finally, I thought the mass unemployment of “white collar workers,” including members of the intelligentsia such as myself, following on the Global Financial Crisis (is that still happening, btw?) analogous, mutatis mutandis, to the mass unemployment of samurai after the Battle of Sekigahara.

I mean, what did you think a thought ronin was?