American Consequences - February 2019

As it is in the business of politics, so it is in the business of business. Another example of sympathy contrasting with empathy would be Facebook and Amazon. Leaving aside, for the moment, Facebook’s reputational and regulatory problems and Amazon’s 50% dominance of online commerce and much larger market capitalization, Facebook is by far the more extraordinary business success. That’s because Amazon is, with all its e-bells and e-whistles, just a store that delivers – which the corner grocery had a boy doing 100 years ago. Facebook came out of nowhere from nothing – a product nobody knew existed that filled no stated need or obvious want and suddenly everybody had to have it. The idea behind Facebook was Harvard’s “Face Book,” a campus publication containing the pictures and names of everyone in the Harvard dormitories. Mark Zuckerberg was immediately sympathetic to the idea that everyone would “like” to know other people. Whether there was any empathy involved, I have no idea. Maybe Zuckerberg was lonely. Or – captain of his prep school fencing team, member of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, starting Facebook with friends from his dorm– maybe he wasn’t. But no empathy was necessary. All that was needed was understanding what others feel.

Amazon is different. Jeff Bezos empathized with his customers. He put himself in our place – which is sitting on our butts in front of a computer thinking, “It would be a hassle to go out and shop.” Whether he has any sympathy for us, who can tell? Sympathy is beside the point. Personally, as emotions go, I prefer sympathy to empathy. Trying to understand people’s feelings is steadier, more sensible, and less self- dramatizing than trying to project yourself into their underwear or steal their shoes. Nevertheless... Empathy may be a better business tool than sympathy, as George H. W. Bush learned in his loss to Bill Clinton. Where do you think Facebook and Amazon will be in 10 years? When I mention Facebook to my college- age daughter she doesn’t just roll her eyes at me like I’m the extinct social media wooly mammoth that I am. She also gives me a look of alarmed exasperation as if I’d suggested she give up Uber and start hitchhiking. “Facebook is creepy ,” she says. “The ads stalk you. The people stalk you. All your data gets hacked.” As for where Amazon will be in 10 years?... Right where it is now, and then some, is my guess. Now excuse me, the UPS man is at the door.

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