Navigating the Dark Side of Social Media

A few years ago, Aziz Ansari made the excellent point on the Freakonomics podcast that the time he spends on social media could be spend enjoying great literature that has been cherished for centuries. I find myself agreeing with that point more and more. Every time I check Twitter, I may feed that dopamine craving of checking in with that is happening in the world, but I don’t get any real enlightenment or true satisfaction.

However, as I have taken steps to cut back on my own social media use, I have not found that it leads to a direct increase in my consumption of real culture. For one, I don’t exactly have the ability to whip out War & Peace for two minutes between meetings at work. I certainly waste time on social media, and should spend more time reading great books, but it isn’t an easy substitute. This is in part because of how social media has inserted itself into our lives to be ubiquitous, available with as few hurdles as possible.

I do consider myself to be moderately addicted to social media – currently my fix comes from Twitter. Part of this has to do with the world we live in today, with my craving for breaking news constantly being fed by one thing or another. But I was addicted to social media long before the 2016 election, so blaming the news cycle would be a cop out. I think often about the Radiolab episode, in which they discussed addiction, and how there is a school of thought people who are more prone to addiction are merely more highly evolved. The argument goes that we as humans evolved to respond to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it helped us avoid poisonous fruits. The pleasure center evolved to make sure we ate oranges and not poisonous berries. Unfortunately, this makes us susceptible to drugs that really trigger the pleasure center. Could social media be similar?

 


 

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in USA Today that there are parallels to when humans first started forming cities. He makes the point that when we were spread out as hunters and gatherers, we’d come into contact with a few dozen other people a year. When we moved to cities, we’d see a few hundred a day. This created an environment in which diseases could flourish. Before cities, a disease would impact only a few people and then die off because there was no one else to infect. Once cities formed, it had the ability to spread exponentially.

The same is now true of bad ideas on social media. If I had a conspiracy in 1985 that I wanted to spread, my idea would probably not extend beyond my group of friends. But if I’m on Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – not only do I contact many more people in a day – but my ideas can be easily and effortlessly shared by everyone I reach. Exponential spread.

This puts us in dangerous territory. An incorrect narrative, doctored photo or video, or mistaken identity can spread like wildfire. This is especially true when it confirms a belief that someone holds. The old saying goes, it’s easier to fool someone that convince them they’ve been fooled.

Bad ideas and false narratives are only one negative side effect of social media. Typical symptoms of depression in teens rose 33% from 2010 to 2015, correlating strongly with the increase in usage of smartphones and social media. Getting “likes” on our photos and posts has replaced actual enjoyment of experiences for some. Our sense of self worth is now quantified in the number of likes our posts get, leaving our psyches desperately fragile.

Psychologists have also shown evidence that we are really addicted to social media. Research has shown that receiving a text or Tweet can light up the same area of the brain as heroin or cocaine. This is why I am constantly checking Twitter. Not for real enjoyment. For that hit of dopamine.

 


 

A ray of light emerges from Reynolds’ cities metaphor. He shows us a path forward. We fought back against the diseases that spread with cities by adapting. We developed better nutrition, medicine and public services. There is no questioning that human migration to cities brought about a plethora of scientific and societal advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, there can be no denying that social media has brought with it advances as well. Disenfranchised can speak out, artists have new platforms to share their work, and sometimes it can be nice to see a picture of an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

The honest truth is that there is no silver bullet coming to help us. No app, no startup, no product, or any kind of technology-driven solution is going to let us enjoy the benefits of social media while offering us compete protection from all of its dangers. If you are like me, and believe we need help navigating social media, this is concerning. I don’t think we need to cut out social media altogether – it is clearly here to stay – but we need to understand how to manage it in our lives.

What needs to happen is we need to evolve, as both individuals and society.

I have taken measures to cut down on my own social media use. I deleted Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from my phone. I still don’t have stacks of classic American literature sitting around my house. I have made a conscious effort to read more, but there wasn’t a 1:1 exchange for a minute spent on social media replaced with a minute of reading a book. It just doesn’t work like that. Social media has made itself extremely ubiquitous in our lives in a way that a book – or even a newspaper – article can’t replicate.

The societal evolution also seem to be off to a slow start. It was made abundantly clear recently that the United States Congress is in way over its head with regards to social media. The Supreme Court refused to even think about the technical and data complexities of gerrymandering when they realized how smart the analytics people were by describing the gerrymandering methods as sociological gobbledygook. Essentially letting the public know that if an issue requires any level of technical or statistical depth, the Supreme Court is not going to step in, because they don’t get it.

More simply put – this is going to be a battle and it is up to us as individuals to fight that battle. On the other end of our phones and computer screens are engineers, data scientist and sociologists that do everything in their power to make their product as sticky as possible. There may be an evolutionary angle here. There is a new predator among us, praying on our attention and capacity to learn and become productive members of society. Some will certainly adapt and survive – thrive even. My hope is that society can make sure to limit the number of us that don’t to as few as possible.

 

 

IHOP: Hobe is a better strategy than Hope

The internet rolled its collective eyes yesterday at IHOP’s “rebranding” of itself to IHOB. It is unclear if this new name will stick, but I think this stunt has accomplished what it was supposed to.

In today’s world of collecting customer data, developing lookalike audiences, finding your audience in the digital world, and determining the perfect message for the perfect moment for the perfect recipient – this stunt sliced right through the clutter. Yes, it is a stunt, and the jury is still out on how it performed, but it is not without its merits.

Here are my two arguments FOR the IHOB stunt.

Meal Shift

How many chain restaurants do you regularly eat multiple meals at? As in, are there chain restaurants you eat breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner at regularly? For me, Chipotle kind of checks this box, but its still more of a lunch place for me. When a brand has been built around a specific meal, as IHOP has, it can be very difficult to convince consumers to visit you at a different time of the day. I’ve been to a Panera for dinner before. It was not a fun meal, but I’ve never waited in a shorter line.

Apparently, IHOP had already been serving burgers. Who knew? Well, now everyone does. Burgers are clearly a lunch or dinnertime meal, so they’ve gone a long way towards convincing customers to consider IHOP as lunch or dinner option.

Buzz

There is no doubt this was a publicity stunt. Will it win awards at Cannes Lions? I honestly have no clue. What I do know is that according to the WSJ, online mentions of IHOP soared to 362,000 from June 3-June 11 compared to 21,000 in that same time period in the month of May. This is all due to the fact that the company has announced to the world that their menu is staying the same! Remember, they have been selling burgers for years. This lift is purely due to its marketing stunt. The goal of a marketing stunt is to generate buzz. Mission accomplished.

Now, take a look at the tweet from ESPN personality Trey Wingo below. He, like many others on Twitter, dove head first into the social media response to the IHOP rebranding. With all the burger chains jumping in on the fun, he has observed that June 11, 2018 was the day of the “burger wars”. In a way, this puts IHOP on equal footing with Wendy’s, Whataburger and others in the battle to serve America its burgers.

The looming question

The big question here is not whether IHOP can become King of the Burgers – it won’t. It is whether this extension of its brand into different mealtimes will damage its breakfast-oriented brand. The bet IHOP is making is that its brand is so strong for breakfast, that they have no reason to worry about losing share of the breakfast category in the QSR industry. Judging by some of the internet’s incredulity that IHOP could change its name to anything other than “pancakes” – it seems like this is a pretty decent gamble.

Even if IHOP is not going toe-to-toe with McDonald’s in burger sales within the next few years, they are likely to see an uptick in lunch and dinnertime traffic. Anyone that starts going to IHOP for lunch/dinner after this stunt is unlikely to think that IHOP has completely abandoned pancakes and stop going there for breakfast. Therefore, any lunch/dinnertime traffic will be incremental and a win for IHOP.

There is a chance that there is no uptick in burger sales or lunch/dinner traffic. While that could fairly be viewed as a failure, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle for the amount of chatter the IHOP brand has generated in the past week. Time will tell what happens with burger sales and its brand.

Gardening versus Painting

I once heard the horticulture legend Mike McGrath describe gardening as an “exercise in failure”. Meaning that you try things, you fail at them, you learn from your mistakes, and then you try again. Or you will wise up and hire a professional to do it for you. That is what I do with painting projects – hire someone that knows what they are doing. But with gardening, I continue to fail and come back for more.

The Thrill of the Hunt

I do this because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt when it comes to gardening. I enjoy the major landscaping overhauls, the weeding, the raking, the planting, the pruning, the mulching – all of it. Then I look for the next project. Something that lets me build on what I have learned and expand my creativity.

When we have a room that needs to be painted, I look forward to spending time in an improved room. I get nothing out of the process of painting. It is a grind to me. A wasted Saturday. So I hire someone to do paint projects for me.

I love to garden, I understand the need to paint.

We sometimes consider the “thrill of the hunt” to be a negative thing. In relationships, it does not lend itself towards long, sustainable partnerships. However, in everything from golf to the violin to math, it can lead to greatness. This is not an original or even complex thought – the best golfer isn’t the one that enjoys admiring his trophies – he’s the one that wants to spend every hour of every day perfecting his putting game. I promise, this isn’t a 10,000 hours thing – but let’s be honest, you aren’t spending 10,000 hours on something that you don’t enjoy the process of.

Find your Gardening

Most of us will never be paid to play golf or the violin, but us mere mortals can learn from those that do as we embark on our own careers. We tend to gravitate towards the things we are good at, because that is what people are willing to pay us for. But if you find that work to be boring or tedious (how I view painting), work will be painful and you will find yourself defining success in purely monetary terms.

If you are lucky enough to find something that you enjoy – where you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, not just the end result – the good news is that you don’t even need to be good at it. This will be like me gardening. I’m still not very good, but I’m getting better. And I’m going to keep showing up every spring ready to tackle everything my yard and mother nature have thrown at me. Find your thing. Stick to it. Get better. Maybe someone will pay you for it one day.

Since we exist in the real world with bills to pay and food to eat, your career will probably not be one giant passion project. To build a career (a real career), you will need to do a lot of painting in addition to gardening. As you progress in your career, you will find yourself able to do more gardening and have others, that have chosen to specialize in painting, do the painting for you. This is how you become an expert in your field, how you get to flex your creative muscles, and you achieve the all important status of enjoying the thrill of the hunt at work.

 

 

 

 

Why You Hate It: Internet Advertising

A Familiar Tale

I have posted previously about the annoying tendency of ads for products we have already purchased to follow us around the internet. My favorite recent example is the ads I see for the hotel I frequently stay at. When I connect to the internet in my hotel, I am automatically routed to the hotel’s website. I quickly exit the site, so I probably look like someone that was considering booking a reservation, but didn’t. I cannot imagine that it is very difficult to segment out the visitors to the hotel’s website that occurred inside the hotel, but apparently it’s not worth this hotel’s time to avoid wasting money on me.

This problem is not unique. It happens frequently and is the subject of many complaints. The problem, I believe, is the result of an inefficient market for online advertising, and is exacerbated by the fact that marketers are trapped in a prisoners dilemma. Advertisers may not want to show us ads for products that we have already purchased, but since they don’t know what their competition will do, it is their best defensive move.

The financial model for most websites (especially free ones) is this: companies that collect data on us and sell ad space on the internet know that I have “expressed interest” in a given product. They then let marketers purchase my attention by showing me the same product I have viewed previously, when I visit various websites around the internet. If this works correctly, I will only see products that I have considered purchasing, but have not yet. However, as we all know, it is very common to see ads for the products we have purchased. The result is an inefficient marketplace with a poor user experience.

Setting The Stage

To help illustrate this scenario, let’s say that I have recently purchased Marmot Men’s Traverse Glove and that I purchased them through Backcountry.com. Purveyors of data recognize this and lump me in with a group of people that are “very interested” in this product or similar products. My attention is then put up for auction. To anyone. So when I traverse the web, ad tech companies let the entire business world know that someone who is very interested in Martmot Men’s Traverse Gloves is about to view a certain web page. Keep in mind that Backcountry is not the only retailer that offers these gloves, and that these gloves are not my only option to keep my hands warm. Backcountry has just become the prisoner in our example.

Now, let’s consider what happens from my side of things. One website I frequently visit is WGR550.com. When I visit, I often see the products I have either browsed or purchased recently. This is a local sports radio station’s website in Buffalo. Traffic to this site, compared to NYTimes.com or WSJ.com, is relatively low. So from an advertiser’s standpoint, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to get my attention.

Back to the dilemma facing Backcountry – our prisoner. They understand that I have been very far down their sales funnel. They just don’t realize that I have been all the way through the funnel. Sure, they have a general understanding that there is a chance that I have actually checked out (they probably even know the % likelihood that I have), but they aren’t able to connect the dots that the person that just checked out on their site is the same person that is now visiting WGR550.com, and whose attention is currently up for sale.

Think about his. They have put in all effort to merchandise their site with quality products, marketed it well enough to drive me to their website, designed a user experience that got me to check out, and worked out the logistics of shipping me the gloves. Yet, they don’t have the confidence in their marketing program to believe that they closed the sale. They keep marketing to me even though they executed everything to perfection.

It makes sense for them to want to close as  many sales as possible. So maybe they have made a conscious decision to lump in the people that have already purchased the gloves with their target audience of of people that are “very interested”. It may make sense for them to be a little overly aggressive with this group. However, they also need to consider that if they don’t continue to market to me, what if someone else does? This is why I consider this to be a type of prisoner’s dilemma.

Who else knows about me?

Based on my interactions with Backcountry’s (and other retailers’) various digital properties, ad tech firms have likely identified me as someone “highly likely to purchase outdoor apparel”. While Google and Facebook can’t sell the fact that I have bought the gloves to other advertisers, they could certainly slot me into a segment of consumers that would likely buy a similar product. And there is nothing preventing them from selling my attention to someone else that sells those same gloves.

In an efficient market, with rational actors, the prudent course of action for Backcountry would be to rely on the same marketing strategy that got me to their site in the first place. They should have confidence in their own metrics, which would tell them that at least some of the people that have been to the “view cart” page have continued to complete their order. The problem is that ad tech firms knows this too – maybe not to the degree that Backcountry does – but they know enough to be dangerous. And they are willing to sell this information to one of Backcountry’s competitors. So Backcountry has to swallow the cost of advertising the same gloves to me that I have just purchased to prevent their competition from having the opportunity to start a new relationship with me and win my next purchase. My guess is that this is cheaper than building an effective post-sale media campaign. After all, they have my email address now so they can worry about post-sale tactics via email.

Why am I confident that this is the case? Because I see ads for products that I have bought. And it is also highly likely that the people that pay for these ads also have the same terrible experience shopping on the internet. They have to know what a horrible ad buy this is, and they still proceed.

Why don’t I ever see the competition’s ads? Well, to all other advertisers, I am much further up their sales funnel, and therefore my attention is worth less. Even if Backcountry figures out a lot of the people they are targeting with these ads have already purchased from them, they are still forced to buy my attention because ad tech firms are holding them captive. If they don’t pay for my attention, one of their competitors will.

A Terrible Experience

What we are left with is a terrible user experience on the internet. With the effectiveness of UX experts and Optimization teams today, this kind of efficiency should be eradicated from the internet. At least it would be if the inefficiency were plaguing the internet’s customers. We’ve all heard the cliche that if you aren’t paying for a service, you are the product, not the customer rings true here. With Facebook, Twitter, Google – we are certainly the product. When we are surfing the web, we are more of a hybrid. Content is crafted for us, in the form of video and text. However, for the advertiser’s whose money keeps the internet running, we are the product. I also find this problem to exist on sites I do pay to access content on.

UX and optimization won’t save us from this either. This is a fundamental flaw in how the economics of the internet work. Unless we all as a society reach a point where we are willing to pay for content on the internet with something other than a willingness to view ads, this problem won’t go away.

Economic Theory’s Blind Spot

Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for building the case that economists need to pay more attention to human behavior, and that we are not all rational actors. One of the foundations of economic theory had been that humans behave rationally and make decisions based on our best interests. This is what drives an efficient market. Thaler essentially proved this not to be the case.

I bring this up because it is doubtless that the ad tech marketplace has become extremely inefficient. My theory about the prisoner’s dilemma may border on conspiracy, but there is no denying that a lack of efficiency exists in this market. While it is unfortunate that marketers are wasting money, the real victims are consumers. Consuming content has become a headache of auto-play ads startling you at work and dynamic ads pushing text off the screen as you try to scroll through an article. We tolerate this because much of the content we consume on the internet is free. However, like with Spotify, consumers have shown a willingness to pay for something that provides value over a free alternative. Let’s just hope that some rationality finds its way to the ad tech marketplace soon.

 

 

Coffee Interrupted

I was at a client’s office recently where they had a fancy new coffee/espresso machine installed. This machine required a PIN to operate it. I thought to myself, what a terrible idea this is. The PIN is presumably to keep outsiders, such as myself, from using what appears to be an expensive coffee machine.

I understand that a single department within this company invested in this coffee machine. But everyone in that department exists for the good of the company overall. And it would benefit the company overall if everyone was appropriately caffeinated, myself included.

I had a colleague that used the phrased “penny smart, pound foolish” in reference to companies that would save pennies by making decisions that would have major negative implications to their bottom line. This coffee machine PIN strikes me as such a decision. Or maybe I just get cranky when I can’t have coffee.

The next day I found a different (less fancy) coffee machine that was available to the masses. I was happier that day. Just give the people coffee. They will be happier. And more productive.

Permission To Play

I came across this phrase in a Fast Company article on “Creative Imposter Syndrome”. The reason “permission to play” struck a chord with me is that the author mentioned that she felt like she received permission to exercise her creativity after something her boss said to her. She is not suggesting that she needed to ask for permission, but I think there are lessons in here for anyone that wants to try something new in their careers.

It is important to realize that no one is going to approach you to do something you’ve never done before. They are going to look for people that have done it before. That’s just how the world works. People are always looking for someone that has done the work before.

So if you are trying to pick up a new skill, you have two approaches available:

  1. The Nike approach. Just do it. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Don’t negatively impact your or your company’s position. But take initiative and do the thing you want to learn. When you hear a client or colleague talk about an initiative in your area of interest, take a first stab and set up time with your boss to talk about it. Send them an email that says “Hey, I put some thoughts around Client X’s request”. Odds are this new initiative was going to soak up lots of their time, so they will be happy to see someone willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Just make sure this doesn’t interfere with your day job.
  2. Ask. For when the Nike approach would get you in trouble or you need someone else’s help to get started. Ask in a way that will benefit the person’s permission you are asking. Things like “hey – I noticed that department ABC could benefit from XYZ, do you mind if I work with Person X to think about their options?” What’s the worst that they can say? No. Then you are back to where you were in the first place.

There is  third route to be taken, which is to go back to school or take training in your desired subject matter. This is always an option, but much more time and resource intensive. It is essentially your way to earn permission to play as a degree or certificate is often all the permission you will need.

What matters is that you are the only person in charge of your career. Most other people around you want to see you succeed and be fulfilled, but they are also probably incentivized to keep  you doing what you are good at. If something is new to you, you are probably not good at that thing yet. So until you express a desire to do this new thing, no one is going to ask you.

Aside: obviously don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, but by expressing a desire to take new things on (in addition to what you currently do), you are announcing to your company that you want to grow and take on new responsibilities. So if they want you to keep doing the thing you are good at, they should make sure you stay fulfilled. It may not seem like it, but if bring value to your team you do possess leverage in these instances. You aren’t just asking for a handout.

Digital Memories

I came across a tweetstorm of mine from years past on Timehop today. It was after the Bills had just drafted EJ Manuel, a pick I accurately assessed misguided. The memory of the draft pick, my reaction, and the tweetstorm also brought me back to how I learned about the pick. I had been traveling for work and had been keeping up best as I could, but was about to hop into a taxi. My dad called me and stayed on the phone with me as the Bills made the pick.

My dad is no longer with us, and I think about him regularly every day. Moving on is difficult, but making sure he is still a part of my life is one of the things that brings me comfort. The fact that social media forces me to think about him from time to time helps me see the good in it. I, like many others, have been hard on the social/tech giants lately. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many hiccups along the way to the future (think about the car). The lesson for me is to keep social/digital as a piece of my actual life, and not let it occupy an out-sized amount of my time or energy. The small ways it enhances our real-world relationships and experiences are good.

Go Bills.