Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mirror, Mirror

What do you see?
La belle et la bête (1946) – Jean Cocteau
“You’ve never seen death? Look in the mirror every day and you will see it like bees working in a glass hive.”

— Jean Cocteau

Much of an investment banker’s1 life, O Dearly Beloved, consists of spurts of feverish activity interspersed with agonizing stretches of boredom, an activity often characterized as hurry up and wait. We get called by potential clients to come present our credentials for their pissant deals on scandalously short notice, we mobilize a small army of overworked child laborers to produce voluminous pitch materials of ludicrous length and specificity, and we cram ourselves into economy class cattle cars to East Bumfuck, Nowhere, where we subsequently cram ourselves into plywood-paneled boardrooms decorated in early J.R. Ewing or late Bernie Madoff style—along with several other small armies of supplicants from our competition—to simper and grovel and polish the shoes of our would-be client millionaires with our Hermes ties. Then we wait anywhere from 48 hours to four weeks to hear whether we have won the assignment, at which point—assuming the answer is yes—we have to scramble back out to the weeds to kick off the real work with an organizational meeting.

The situation does not improve in the midst of a deal, either. Investment bankers are always scrambling to pull together materials for somebody or other—client, counterparty, or our own internal counterparts in capital markets or leveraged finance—which always seem to be due immediately and which are invariably returned, commented on, or revised by said somebody or other at a noticeably more leisurely pace while we sit counting ceiling tiles with our thumbs up our asses. It’s just the nature of an episodic, project-centered, client service job. Of course, we always hope to have more than one iron in the fire at a time, and we hope even more that all our active deals don’t decide to heat up at once and require our immediate, in-person attendance in Sacramento, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Düsseldorf this coming Saturday at 10:00 am local time. Failing that, I suppose I should be thinking clever thoughts about the next stunningly original M&A deal or financing technique I can spring upon an unsuspecting client base, or figuring out ways to wheedle my way into favor with the firms I don’t already do business with. But even after all that, and after I have rearranged my snowglobe collection for the sixth time into reverse alphabetical order based on the last letter of their purchase location, there are occasionally dead spots in my job where there is. Absolutely. Nothing. To do.

And that is when I check Twitter.

* * *
Which led me today, as it so happens, to an article by one Michelle Goldberg entitled “In Defense of Jonathan Franzen,” in which Ms Goldberg defends said literary lion’s rambling and apparently much maligned attack2 on social media and the internet by claiming, in a phrase, that Twitter Is Horrible. Well this, I said to myself, said I, is interesting. Because I couldn’t disagree more.

Ms Goldberg did not hedge her condemnation of the social medium in question, either:
In his essay, Franzen compares Twitter to cigarettes. This is inaccurate. Twitter is like doing cut-rate cocaine at a boring party where a lot of the guests dislike you. (As I said, I lived in San Francisco in the ’90s.) You’re not having any fun, but it’s really hard to stop.
And this:
Twitter began to seem like a machine that runs on rage. You see something that disgusts or infuriates you. Tweeting about it provides momentary relief, followed by the brief validation of the retweet. As you scan your feed, you take in other little microbursts of nastiness. So you get angry all over again and respond, perpetuating the cycle.
As I read these choice nuggets, my first thought was not that Ms Goldberg sounds like she had a pretty shitty time in San Francisco in the 1990s, which she apparently did, or that her description of Twitter and its uses sounds remotely like the one I’m familiar with, which it does not. No, my first thought was how thankful I was that I do not follow Ms Goldberg on Twitter. Or even, were I to be completely honest, have to interact with her regularly in real life at cocktail parties. Because I mean, what?

Ms Goldberg has fallen into the trap—common to many with an unreflective view on life—of damning an entire cultural phenomenon on the basis of her own, particular, idiosyncratic relationship with it. Telling me that you believe Twitter runs on rage tells me much more about you—that you are likely to be a person full of rage or very susceptible to feelings of rage—than it does anything useful or universal about Twitter. It is also empirically untrue. My Twitter stream and experience does not run on rage, and I am observant and interested enough in other peoples’ use and experience of Twitter to know that it does not run on rage for many, many others either. From what I can tell, while admittedly not being a Twitter expert, I would venture to guess there are as many uses and forms of Twitter as there are types of people, personalities, and imaginable uses: Cat Pic Twitter, Celebrity Stalking Twitter, Sports Twitter, Investing Twitter, etc., etc., ad infinitum/nauseam.

This is not to say that I and many others do not occasionally fall into the trap of becoming enraged by something we see on Twitter—or, more broadly and correctly, the Internet—and spiraling into an anger-soaked argument or tirade on some issue or other. I certainly do (and usually regret it afterward). But this does not mean such a relationship with this medium is either inevitable or necessary, as Ms Goldberg seems to imply it is for her. This is too bad, but it is easily remedied. If you are following people who enrage you regularly, stop following them. If certain people troll you or constantly try to engage you in energy-sapping arguments, block them. Nowhere is it written that you have to listen to or engage with angry people. Not even on Twitter. If Ms Goldberg is in fact trapped in Rage Twitter, perhaps it would not be presumptuous of me to suggest she try following some different people. Or try to find something in her experience and use of the medium other than rage.

* * *
What is generally true—given that its members choose whom they follow and, to a certain extent, whom they allow to follow them—is that Twitter can easily become an echo chamber, reflecting and repeating back to you what you expect and want to hear. This is a well understood weakness of human nature, which has long pre-dated the internet or any of its more recent excrescences. I work hard to curate3 the list of people I follow on Twitter to exclude those who, like Ms Goldberg, seem to approach the universe in a permanent state of rage, or those who distract or annoy me with information or opinions that I have little interest in or use for. This does not mean that I want to follow only people with whom (I think) I already agree. I like having my opinions and preconceptions challenged. But when I find people who can engage in back and forth argument and edification without making bile rise in my throat, I cultivate them. Sometimes I persuade them to my point of view; sometimes they persuade me to theirs. I like to use Twitter to engage with people I would otherwise have little ability to engage. I also use Twitter to learn things, to have fun, and to occasionally make an ass of myself. From my personal perspective, this seems like a much more wholesome way to approach a trivial social media app than the Relentless Pursuit of and Flight from Towering Rage. But hey, that’s just me.

In any event, Twitter is nothing more than a silly messaging service. You are not required by God, Capitalism, or the Powers That Be to participate. Therefore, if Twitter is reflecting something unpleasant back to you (like rage), perhaps you should log off and do a little self-reflection instead. As someone I often engage with but do not follow on Twitter said,
“Twitter is a mirror disguised as a window.”
Just don’t ask me where (s)he got it from.

Happy tweeting.

1 I speak here, as is often my wont, of my form of investment banking: capital raising and mergers and acquisitions advisory, which center around intermittent projects for various and sundry clients. I do not speak of sales and trading, or capital markets, which tends to be a more uniformly frenzied activity (at least during market hours) interspersed with agonizing stretches of wining and dining counterparties. These are crude caricatures, but I trust regular readers of this forum know to expect such and have done with it. You novices can go sob quietly in the corner (or try to figure out the details from my back catalogue).
2 Yeah, I started reading it a while back. As the cool kids say: TL;DR. No link.
3 Sorry, I’ve been told I must use this word when discussing social media. Who told me, you might ask? The cool kids, of course.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.