Have you ever bought a book from a Facebook ad?
I can now say that I have.
For a period of time shortly after its release, I noticed a regularly placed ad in my Facebook news feed for Antonio Garcia Martinez’s exposé on Silicon Valley titled Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley. I can’t say I purchased the book directly from the ad, but it did get the book on my radar as a book I would like to read. When it showed up on Kindle’s Daily Deals a few weeks later, it seemed like a no-brainer to pick it up. I am not disappointed that I did.
If you’re wondering why I am talking about why I bought this book, it is relevant to my review. Martinez used to work for Facebook for their ads department. I like reading as much as the next guy, and I have no shortage of books on my ever-growing reading list. Obviously, social media platforms like Facebook and Goodreads and digital technologies like Amazon’s recommendation engine have connected me as a consumer of books to books I like to read. However, if connecting consumers to more products they want is the first step in revolutionizing an industry (think Amazon in the late 1990s to early 2000s), the next step is connecting people to communities they want to be a part of (think Facebook from the mid-2000s to our current time).
From what I can tell, the book-selling/publication industry is still mostly stuck in the late 1990s where books are commoditized products that need to be sold en masse to a target market of consumers intermediated by publishers. As such, the relationship between reader, author, and the book is a rather shallow commercial relationship. I do believe that this industry is slowly, if not reluctantly, transitioning to a place where books will become the gateway drug to community building. As such, for those that move in this direction, the relationship between reader, author, and the book will become a political relationship. If this is the case, then an emerging class of literati who decide to use their books to build communities will become incredibly influential.
Some already are. I try to connect on social media with various authors, and I have seen varying levels of success. From J.K. Rowling, to Jeff Vandermeer, to Senator Mike Lee, and self-help gurus of all stripes, I have seen authors build communities out of their book-reading audiences. I also find that academics who translate their academic work to successful popular non-fiction tend to build good niche communities around their books. I recently read Venomous: How the Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry by Christine Wilcox, and she is at least trying to use her book to create a community where she can engage her readers. I’m sure there are others, but for the most part, the world of books hasn’t quite made it into the 21st Century.
The nature of the publishing industry could be somewhat to blame for this state of affairs. After all, if authors all become hyper connected to engaged readers, the allure of self-publishing would probably increase dramatically. Not surprisingly, some of the marquis success stories in self-publishing have occurred for authors that managed to build a community around their work (see Andy Weir and Hugh Howey).
With all that said, when I started getting ads for Chaos Monkeys, and I saw that the author was a product manager from the Facebook ads team, I got excited that I might have encountered an author who was using insider know-how to bootstrap his way to a 21st Century community-centered career as an author and paving the way for others to follow.
It turns out that another reason that authors, and readers, and books haven’t moved beyond the antiseptic commercial relationship phase is because authors tend to be misanthropic, anti-social dorks, which explains why they spend so much time living inside their heads and cloistered away in front of word-processors. Antonio Garcia Martinez does have social media presence, and he isn’t shy about recounting his viral exploits, but ultimately, I think his ads targeting me had the sole purpose of selling his book. I know. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I was really hoping there would have been more there. I still would love to know how he set up his Facebook ads to sell his book and why he chose the strategy he did since it did have limited success with me at least. If he were to put that in a viral article on Medium, I would totally read that article.
Most people don’t read book reviews because they want someone’s opinion about the state of the book publishing industry, but in my case, these ideas and questions informed why I read this in the first place and colored my experience with the book. Somewhat disappointing context notwithstanding, this was an enjoyable book on its merits.
Garcia Martinez is a quant trader on Wall Street turned Y-Combinator funded startup founder turned Facebook employee turned ex-Facebook employee turned author of this book, which seemed to be written primarily to disrupt Facebook’s self-image with a grudge as its primary motivation.
He can turn a phrase, and even if he comes across as a somewhat unlikable character in his own story, the book keeps you turning the pages since one of the major themes of the book is that even if he is unlikable, he is the kind of person you have to be to make it in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley makes people like him, and people like him make Silicon Valley. Imagine a parasite whose host is another parasite, and you will be imagining Martinez’s Silicon Valley.
This is all fascinating to watch this world of mutual parasitism unfold and probably a true reflection of how things are in the Valley, but I can’t say from my own experience. Yet if Garcia Martinez’s account is “true,” it is only true in the limited sense that can only be the case with a story where you are only getting one side. Those who have been conditioned to think that truth is something that exists in a nebulous space between multiple points of view will read Chaos Monkeys with the constant thought that they want to hear someone else’s side of the story.
This is a great story that is compromised by the author’s personal agenda. He wears this on his sleeve, and he makes up for this shortcoming with a writing style that matches his disruptive personality. If the point of his book was to get our society to think twice about its impulsive worship of disruptors (a pretty obvious point of the book once you get into it), then the book succeeds. The book will make you think differently about elites that rule the ever-important technologies that are colonizing so many aspects of our lives because it shows the fallibility and crass motivations that seem to be driving this colonization on many levels. This doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture of a scene that has probably been the only reliable source of optimism in the popular cultural imagination.
While reading Chaos Monkeys, I came across a New Yorker article about how the super-rich are prepping for doomsday. In the article Garcia Martinez was featured in this paragraph:
Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of “Chaos Monkeys,” an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”
So yeah, this book is basically a Jeremiad written by a guy who is actively planning to escape the aftermath of a complete social collapse.
Yet, for all the lamentation about a society lacking a “healthy founding myth” that threatens some “descent into chaos,” one of the most commonly occurring archetypal figures across mythologies among all cultures and throughout time is the trickster figure. The trickster is the boundary-less disruptor – an agent of chaos. Often the character is an animal like a fox, or a coyote, or a monkey. It is not uncommon for the trickster’s actions to be the catalyst for generating new order out of the chaotic ruins of the previous dispensation. One can argue about the extent to which a trickster’s actions are a healthy addition to a founding myth, but sometimes descent into chaos isn’t the end result of a culture that has lost touch with its mythology. Sometimes this descent into chaos is the founding myth, which is probably a healthy thing to keep in mind for those trying to make sense of a world characterized by ascendant tribes of chaos monkeys in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington.