Monday, October 19, 2009

A Half Billion Reasons to Reform Election Laws

I went to the New Jersey gubernatorial debates last weekend and it was a bit underwhelming. Not because my candidate, Chris Daggett, an independent with real ideas didn't clearly win like in his first debate or that his competition was clearly more polished than in their first debate, although all that didn't help. And not because the pre-debate rally wasn't fun. I secured a megaphone, led 50 people in cheers and made fun of the other candidates and their supporters (clever retorts about college republicans, bad suits and trench coats and raver antics). I even had a professor protect me from Corzine's union boys who were looking to get violent.

No, instead it was just another reminder of why this system is so screwed up. It took half a billion dollars to elect an eloquent, Harvard educated law professor against a party who led the collapse of two wars, the world financial markets and a major American city. Let's reiterate. $500 million. For one candidate. Maybe that's just $2 for each American. And maybe that's 7,000 more teachers. It's a big bloody number. Like a corporation. A conglomerate. If the democratic party were a corporation, it would be a fortune 100 company at the very least ($25 billion in revenue).

So why is campaign finance reform so hard? Do we really need all the TV ads? All the commercially directed, poll influenced, slandering attack ads that make you want to hot snack in your mouth. The complete lack of understanding of the policies, the counterpoints and any semblance of a policy debate is sickening, maybe even more than the fact that your average American couldn't understand it if it were to go on.

"Mr. Corzine, NJ is so far in debt it is on the verge of bankruptcy with a record deficit and debt burden. How do you get back to fiscal sanity without constricting the fragile economy with higher taxes? You have 1 minute, sir, and please contrast your plan with each of your opponents'."

What a joke. Just enough to smile, spin and throw someone under a bus.

Isn't it simpler? Drastically less money for commercials. More mandatory debates with a round table format, lengthy answers, candidate questions to each other and full back and forth. Specifics to plans mandated. No BS Palinesque avoidance answers.

We live in a world where the more you say, the more material your opp0nents have to attack from their war chest on mainstream TV. Ideas are penalized. Marketing speak rewarded.

I saw today on CNN that 7 out of the top 10 radio shows are conservative talk shows. So much for liberal media right? Yet 65% of America believe in the public option. In the battle of ideas, Democrats are winning. No, no. That's not right. It's more of a liberal trend with which Democrats are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If the Democrats could get their ideas straight, they could change the political game to reduce the election process to ideas.

Maybe that's naive. Maybe the Democrats know that they are just as bad at talking about ideas as, well, a third grader. But how can they think that they will get more money than the big business Republicans. And who wouldn't support massive campaign finance reform? Wouldn't they win big votes by being anti big business and pro voter? You could be the voters' party.

I don't get it. But this spectacle has all the intellectual honesty, strategic intricacy and the production values of a McDonald's commercial. Well, I saw it first hand. Sorry to say it. But I'm not lovin' it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Crumbling Internet

The reporting hasn't been widespread, but I think the Internet is crumbling under it's own weight. Two massively popular services, Facebook and YouTube seem to be buckling. On YouTube, videos regularly get caught in a buffering state or don't start at all and the page needs to be refreshed. On Facebook, CDN loading times are lagging ("waiting for ...") and more than occasionally I get the network transport error. And yes, I see it on other people's machines on multiple types of networks. It's just unreliable. Not unworkable. Just nagging enough.

Now interestingly enough both of these services have recently, and surprisingly, reported that they are near or at profitability well ahead of schedule. While many have talked about the surprising success of Facebook ads, especially the ad budgets of games like Farmville, I think it is more than coincidence that these performance issues are happening now.

The funniest commercial I have seen on TV lately has been the Verizon Wireless commercial "there's a map for that." Poking fun at AT&T's network is a little too easy. But it's too easy to take your natural lead in a market and cut costs to maximize profitability. You still have your features. Your bells and whistles. Your network value (Metcalfs Law). Your brand equity. But you have undercut your users for the sake of cost.

Would cell phone carriers have taken off if they were this spotty to begin with? Would Facebook be as popular if it were regularly frustrating? There's a natural cycle to businesses where you spend less time innovating and more time profiting from the existing market position. This tends to happen in a waning market, where long term iterative innovation just won't have an effective ROI. Disruptive innovation and creative destruction then rules, and new ventures open up new markets.

But it's way too early. This market has just begun. Premium video is being flanked by Hulu and other popular and accepted premium VOD services. It's easier than ever to discover content with video search engines. Netflix is poised to supplant cable. Now is not the time to alienate users.

And Facebook. You've got analysts saying that the future of digital advertising is about leveraging social network data to provide more effective ads. Facebook is now the leading photo sharing site on the Internet. And it's the biggest video game platform. It's the largest event planning site. But you have threats from Open Social, micro communities like Ning and yes, Weplay.

And so I find myself using Facebook a little less. Maybe it is become I am busy, but also because it is slow and clunky. And I am reading ACLU reports on how Facebook apps give away your friends info without their permission. And I am thinking to myself, is a backlash really possible? Is something that is so much a staple to many, really so vulnerable? Well, I have had a couple friends leave Facebook in the last week. Maybe it's too early to milk the business. Maybe the cookie is crumbling.