Randi Zuckerberg’s E-Gospel Dot Complicated Is No Sacred Text

Dot.Complicated hcWhen I sat down to read Randi Zuckerberg’s Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives, I decided to attempt just that: untangling my own wired life, by taking a moment to disconnect. I put my laptop on airplane mode and stuck my iPhone in another room, vowing to remain unplugged until I had finished the book. By page thirty, I was phone-in-hand, texting a friend, and with two blogs and a G-Chat conversation open on my computer screen. This may be a testament to Zuckerberg’s thesis – that we are too reliant on the Internet and social media and that we need to work at striking a better ‘Tech-Life Balance’. But more likely, it’s a testament to the quality of her prose.

Dot Complicated is Zuckerberg’s guide to managing our lives in the time of social media, her message supposedly lent credibility by the five-and-a-half years she has spent as a marketing executive at Facebook. She provides us with a backgrounder as to who she is – not just Mark Zuckerberg’s sister (a point she is embarrassingly explicit in driving home) – and a brief history of her time at his company during its early years. This becomes the launching pad for her advice on life in the Internet Age, with chapters covering topics such as the self, personal and familial relationships, romantic love, careers, and community.

When it comes to life in the 21st century, Randi Zuckerberg stresses the importance of the ‘authentic self’, of being the same person both online and off. But this notion of living authentically feels hypocritical coming from Zuckerberg, who presents a personal narrative that is glaringly contrived. Zuckerberg can’t seem to decide which persona she wants to put forth: the savvy, jet-set business exec, who constantly brushes shoulders with media moguls, world leaders, and celebrities (get ready for some Dot Name-Dropping); or the ordinary American wife and mother, who enjoys playing Angry Birds in line at the supermarket and can’t understand why someone would want little ol’ her to be on a reality TV show. Knowing who Randi Zuckerberg is matters to a book like this. Why else should we care about her tips on Facebook etiquette or online dating?

It should be said, however, that regardless of Zuckerberg’s chameleonic identity, she does get a lot of things right in her assessment of our interactions with and through social media. For example, she identifies the ease with which cyber-bullying takes place, when aggressors no longer have to look their victims in the eyes and can maintain a degree of anonymity while making their attacks. (This point was certainly on my mind while sharpening the hatchet for my review…)

But I’m not willing to praise Zuckerberg for her “insights,” mainly because there is nothing particularly insightful about them. She’s telling readers what everyone already knows: posting too much lovey-dovey stuff on your partner’s wall is obnoxious; parents need to have serious conversations with their children about the internet’s potential dangers; be careful what you put on Facebook, because potential employers (or your boss!) might be watching. None of this is news. And that most of her “sage counsel” is accompanied by cutesy headings such as “To Thine Own Profile Be True”, “You Can’t Tag Intimacy”, or “One Small Click of a Button, One Giant Heap of Repercussion” does little to help her credibility problem.

While the book is peppered with anecdotes about her time working at Facebook, I was disappointed by how little I actually learned about the inner-workings of the world’s pre-eminent social networking site and what exactly Randi Zuckerberg herself was actually contributing. In Dot Complicated, she showcases an ability to say very little with a whole lot of words and to leave readers with the impression that they’ve learned something – perhaps a trick she picked up at Harvard Business. She has certainly learned a thing or two about product placement: Throughout the book, she repeatedly plugs her production company, Zuckerberg Media, and her website, a ‘digital lifestyle community’, also called Dot Complicated.

Randi Zuckerberg is fond of recalling the early days at Facebook, when many of the company’s best business plans were pencilled out on the back of a napkin at some late-night greasy spoon in Palo Alto. Dot Complicated is similar to those unconventional planning sessions, only in that it feels thrown together, “unprofessional,” and lacking real depth or information. I say crumple up that napkin and toss it in the waste bin. If you want to learn about Randi Zuckerberg, the early days at Facebook, or just how one should/shouldn’t behave online, go to Wikipedia or Reddit or whatever your social network of choice. I doubt they’ll be any more biased or any less informative than Dot Complicated.