Two Fundamental Concerns about Social Media

The bulk of my concerns about social media can be broken into two fundamental areas: its psychological impacts on us and the centralization of our data. Almost everything else (and most of what you’ll read about on this blog) are offshoots of these fundamental concerns. This is a brief summary of both of them.

Psychological Impacts

There are a lot of questions about what social media is doing to our brains, which researchers are only just beginning to explore. Is it behind the increase in teen depression and suicide rates? Does it lead to increased bullying? Does it lead to a decreased sense of self worth? Are we addicted to it? If so, why are we addicted to it? Is there an evolutionary component to our behavior on social media?

I think the answer to all of these questions is that we really don’t know yet. Researchers have established links between unhappiness and social media use, but we really don’t understand the extent to which social media impacts us. We are also still in early days of social media, so there is no way to understand the full extent of long-term psychological impacts of  social media.

Centralization of our data

This might seem like a two-parter, but it’s really two sides of the same coin. Due to network effects, the world of social media has always been destined to consolidate to a few platforms. These are Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Snapchat – at least in the US. Due to the concentration of where we congregate online, these firms now have outsized power, and are essentially monopolies. When a firm is a monopoly, it doesn’t have an incentive to fight back against abusive trolls or fake news.

It is also in the position to collect vast amount of data on its users, which is can then sell to the highest bidder. When we learn that a company is abusing our data, it might create a brief PR storm, but that will soon blow over. The truth is that social media users do not have the ability to choose an alternative provider who does not abuse their data.

Steven Johnson wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times in early 2018 about blockchain and the benefits of a decentralized internet. The (long) article is well worth a read. It speaks to the benefits of decentralization, verification, open protocols and the lack of an “owner”. Why bring up an article on blockchain in a blog about social media? Look at this quote:

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance.

The Bitcoin bubble has become a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. If we look past the speculative bubble, we can see the potential of a “network of distributed trust”. This could lead to a decentralized and democratized version of the internet we know today. This would prevent our identities from being housed in Facebook or Google’s walled gardens. We could have an identity that exists based on open protocols, and we can take it from platform to platform as we please. There would be penalties for abusing our data.

It is helpful to understand the two layers of the internet. The first is based on open protocols that were developed in the 1970s, which still exist today – email and web browsing still works on these. This layer is decentralized. The second layer of the internet are the platforms that we use to access the internet today. These are private companies such as Facebook or Twitter. This layer is private and highly centralized.

Johnson argues that keeping smartphones away from kids and government regulation are commendable, but will not cure all of societies ills. This belief – that there is no silver bullet to protect us from social media – is a fundamental reason for the existence of this blog.

Johnson paints a vision for a decentralized future with open protocols overtaking the highly lucrative private platforms that exist today. Blockchain, afterall, has shown us that it is possible for everyone to agree on the contents of a database without the database having an “owner”.

I hope he is right. But his vision requires the success of swashbuckling punk rockers that are driven purely by a mission to restore the internet to its original utopian vision. This would require everyone to turn a blind eye to the gobs of money that will be thrown at him to keep the internet closed.

Until then, the social media platforms we use will remain closed and highly centralized. Our data lives with these private companies, which earn their revenue by harvesting and selling our data. While some are perfectly comfortable with the sale of our personal data by fortune 500 companies, it is important to remember that these private companies are vulnerable to attacks, and our personal information can get into shadier hands.

This all leaves me thinking about a very prescient tweet that I saw once, which I would love to attribute to its author, but cannot remember:

The only businesses that refer to their customers as “users” are tech companies and drug dealers

This is what drives this blog. There are many questions about what social media is doing to us. Most of the efforts to understand social media have to do with monetizing our attention. How can businesses advertise to users as they spend time on these platforms? And how can the social media platforms monetize the time we spend using their technology? It’s fine that many smart people are dedicated to answering these questions – because if they weren’t, bad actors would fill that void.

However, the conversations about what social media does to our brains seems limited to fragmented academic studies. Discussions on social media’s centralization and its impact on society have become more mainstream recently, but do not seem to have impacted the fundamentals of how social media platforms operate.

Those of us that seek to understand what is happening to us as individuals and society as a whole will never come to a satisfying conclusion. We seem destined to only uncover more questions. Questions I am happy to continue asking.

 

Social Media / Trolls / Free Speech

The bulk of social media companies were founded and are headquarted in the United States. In the US, we enjoy and believe strongly in our freedom of speech, and go to great lengths to protect it. It is not surprising then, that freedom of speech is a topic that is raised frequently in discussions about how companies should police their social networks when it comes to trolls.

Trolls are an issue across pretty much every social media platform. Wikipedia defines the term internet troll as “Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” While this definition makes internet trolls seem like a mere distraction, trolling can take on many forms, often devolving into misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and otherwise ethnocentric harassment. It is nearly universally accepted that internet trolls are bad, but approaches to stamp them out are varying.

For instance, Facebook and Instragram take a more aggressive approach than Twitter or Reddit. Victims of harassment on the two former platforms might argue to the contrary, but Facebook does at least require you to use your real identity. On the other side, Twitter, and of course the wild west of the internet – Reddit, willfully allow users to exist in a cloak of anonymity.

Reddit and Twitter have long viewed themselves as bastions of free speech. Free speech is an important right, but as we all learned in school, we cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Freedom of speech has its limits. When it comes to speech on Reddit, pretty much anything goes. Reddit is compiled of groups called subreddits. The subreddits are monitored by “redditors”, who are just users of Reddit. The term “monitor” is applied very loosely, as they merely upvote or downvote a comment, to determine how much visibility it gets. Therefore, a subreddit filled with hateful redditors frequently has hateful comments bubbling up to the top, going viral. This all happens in plain sight with no intervention from the powers that be within Reddit.

Some will argue that trolls have always existed, and the trolls on social media platforms are nothing to worry about. But in earlier times, trolls had to show their faces and use their actual voices to harass someone. This type of behavior invited well-deserved shame and obviously didn’t scale well. We now live in a world where an army of Twitter eggs (users with no avatar) can say whatever they want to anyone they want with no repercussions because they are free to exist as anonymous users on the internet. Twitter can suspend an individual account, but how hard is it to create a new one with a different email?

Twitter deserves credit for at least trying to take on the trolls. It recently revised its  approach to taking on trolls, citing a 4% decrease in reports of abuse. It’s new approach referred to many as “out of sight out of mind”, decreases the visibility of tweets from users who display behavior consistent with that of trolls. Such behavior could include signing up for multiple accounts at once or repeatedly tagging users that don’t follow them back. As I’ve argued before, there is no silver bullet to many of the problems that have accompanied the rise of social media. It’s great they are trying a new tactic, from which we will likely learn more about policing trolls. However, this is not going to end trolling on Twitter. If Jack Dorsey and his team at Twitter are truly dedicated to furthering free speech, and I believe they are, they would be wise to stay vigilant in their pursuit against trolls.

Good intentions aside, the success of this effort really hinges on the business aspect of it. If Twitter believes, and its investors agree, that curtailing trolls is good for business, then there is hope. The problem is that it would be difficult for Twitter to effectively police trolls on its platform without impacting the free speech of all of its users. Difficult, but not impossible. More accurately, it would be expensive.

The issue is that an algorithm can’t solve it all – which is often the first, second and third approach by most Silicon Valley companies. Think back to school. The  school had rules about how to behave and language we could use. But in the cafeteria, it relied on monitors – real people – to ensure that we adhered to those rules. This same approach would be required by Twitter and other social media companies to rid their sites of trolls.

The problem with real people is that they are expensive. Deploying them en masse to stamp out trolls is not conducive to the kind of margins enjoyed by large tech firms and demanded by their investors. Policing the trolls would need to show that it not only has an impact on abuse, but that it also results in higher revenues for the company. If Twitter sees that fewer trolls leads to more users and greater engagement, they will conclude that trolls are bad for business. If they conclude that the presence of trolls is not keeping users away, policing the trolls will only result in greater costs, and have a negative impact on Twitter’s bottom line. Until the link between trolls and a company’s bottom line is established, attempts to stamp out the trolls will be mere PR fodder.

What makes social media platforms so addictive?

Two things: the growing field of Optimization and the age-old concept of Network Effects.

Why does this help explain why these platforms can be so addictive? It’s because the companies running these platforms know that they are part of the attention economy. If they take their foot off the pedal, our attention to wander to one of their competitors. Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, has said that its main competitors are Facebook, Youtube and sleep. Our attention on is the economic engine that enables a lot of these tech companies to thrive.

So what do these companies do to encourage us to devote as much of our attention to them as possible? They test. They test and test and test and test. Facebook is running more tests in a single day than the FDA runs in a year, according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of the book Everybody Lies.

The tests they run are called A/B tests, or simply referred to as optimization. What companies like Facebook do, is they develop teams of experts that understand their users. These experts develop hypotheses about what will make the user experience better, or more “sticky”. These hypotheses can be anything from changing the color of a button to drive higher conversion rates, to radical changes to its interface to increase the amount of time users spend on the platform.

Then the hypothesis is tested in the form of an A/B test. Even though its called an A/B test, it can assess any number of variables. The button color test can test eight different colors, but it is still an A/B test. Multivariate testing comes into play when the impact of multiple variables are being tested in combination – maybe the new interface combined with the button color change will result in the highest amount of conversion.

Crucial to the A/B test is that “winning criteria” are established. This is means that the testers define metrics (conversion rates, time spent on site, clicks, etc.) whereby if the test variable can show a statistically significant increase in that metric, then the test is considered to be a winner. If a statistically significant winner cannot be found, it’s back to the drawing board.

To test these variables, identical groups of users are shown the control (the way the button looked before) and the test (the new button color). The test runs until the size of each group reaches a statistically significant sample size. Usually this means that testers believe that the result they see will be repeated 95% of the time.

What happens when a winner is declared? The change is likely implemented on a broad scale across the site. But the testing isn’t done there. Since these companies have very powerful and sophisticated software and algorithms, they are able to compound successful tests to determine the optimal state of their website. If a blue button drives more clicks than a red button, maybe it’s time to test which shade of blue drives the most clicks. Social media platforms are able to determine what experience, content, colors, font size drives the most usage by specific groups of people. I may see a royal blue button, my wife might see aquamarine.

This is by no means exclusive to social media companies. All companies with an app or website do this. It is often said that no two Amazon websites look alike. Netflix does this as well, constantly testing new interfaces and ways to recommend shows to us. However, I am deeply skeptical of Netflix’s own valuation of their recommendation algorithm at $1bn.

This is why it so difficult for us to put down our phones and avoid social media. Every ounce of our will power is up against teams of experts that are constantly running tests to determine how to make it harder for us to put the phone down. Apple appears willing to aid in the fight against our smartphone addictions, but it will take more than an app that tells us how much we use each app to cure our societal ills.

This brings us to network effects, a simple concept, that can help us understand why social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat have to be addictive. The concept of network effects is nothing new, but it has scaled like never before with social platforms – Facebook being the prime example.

Network effect occurs when something becomes more attractive because more people are using it. To step outside of the social media realm for a minute, let’s consider video game consoles. If more gamers own an Xbox, it becomes more attractive for video game developers to develop games for Xbox. The more games that are developed for Xbox, the more attractive the Xbox console is to gamers. The cycle continues until Xbox becomes ubiquitous across the gaming industry.

With social media, it is even simpler. We want to be on Facebook because our friends are on Facebook. The more of our friends that are on Facebook, the more valuable Facebook is to us.

Network effects are exactly why social media companies have no choice but to run tests constantly to determine how to make their platforms as addictive as possible. In the attention economy, if they loosen the reigns on our attention for one minute, another tech company will swoop in and gobble up our time. If Twitter, for example, decided it existed for the good of society and no longer wanted to be addictive, the time we spend on Twitter would shift to other social networks that would optimize their way into our lives. Our friends would gravitate to a new platform, we’d go there because our friends are there, and the rest would be history. Every minute we aren’t on Twitter could be spent on Youtube, Facebook, Netflix, or – worst of all – sleeping, working, or engaging with people in the real world.

 

Facebook Jealous Picture

The most honest sentence I have ever heard was relayed to me by a friend. Her sister was complaining that their seemingly blissful vacation in Australia was lacking something. “I haven’t gotten my Facebook jealous picture yet”, she lamented as they were laying on the beach.

At first I was appalled. Who could be so shallow? Then I realized, I could be. I had that exact same mindset. When I’d travel, I’d look for opportunities to take amazing photos to post to social media. Once I thought about it, I kind of envied this person’s self awareness.

I like to think that I have evolved from the “Facebook  jealous” mindset. Maybe I have become less superficial now that I have a young child. However, I think there is more than just superficiality at play here. Social media has wormed its way into our sense of self and impacts everything from our happiness to trivial decisions about where to go for coffee.

It starts out when we are young, even if we grew up without social media. We come of age thinking older people have it all figured out. I remember envying older grades in high school because everyone in their class seemed to be one large group of friends, while mine had cliques and in-fighting. This observation was obviously false. I was just witnessing scenes of camaraderie at school, not actual friendships.

On TV and movies (at least in the 90s) it appeared that there is a way its all supposed to unfold for us. We’re supposed to have a high school sweetheart, who maybe it doesn’t always work out with once we get to college. Then after college, we’re supposed to have a job lined up at a dream company that we will inevitably have a long and prosperous career with.

As young adults, we determine early on that the “dream career” is a myth. But we still believe that there is this life we are supposed to be living. Maybe not a “perfect life”, but one in which we do fun, creative stuff with our partner, have awesome friends who do cool, trendy things, have a great relationship with our families, explore the far reaches of the planet, eat at the best restaurants, watch the newest shows, and listen to the hippest music. And in addition to all of this, we are completely stress free and have zero fears or problems bringing us down.

We have to know that this is impossible to achieve in our real lives. We understand that the stresses, the fights, the fears, the self-doubts, the awkward moments are all part of life. We accept them and adapt as best as we can.

These imperfections, however, don’t have to exist in the lives we project on social media. We have complete control of the narrative in this life. We can edit out the bad parts, highlight the good parts, and even crop out the blemishes.

The version of ourselves that we display on social media is always enjoying life, doing cool things, living a carefree life of self-actualized glory. We are cultured, active, informed, enlightened. We’ve been to Europe, South America, watch Oscar-nominated films or documentaries, eat exclusively at farmer’s markets and exercise all the time.

No matter how we might be feeling on the inside, the version of ourselves displayed on social media continues to be happy. This version of ourselves continues along some kind of trajectory that is consistent with the life we believe we should be living.

ESPN did a great job looking into the Instagram life of a Penn student athlete that took her own life. It’s a tragic tale of how the life we lead on social media can show a person that has it all figured out and loves life, while on the inside we are struggling to get through the day. Social media may not be the cause of depression in these cases, but it seems to be heavily correlated.

This type of behavior is often referred to as social peacocking. Who could blame us for wanting to put our best foot forward and show our friends all the cool stuff we do? And our friends don’t want to see the low moments we have, getting chewed out at work or getting in a fight with our spouse. They want to see their good looking friends doing cool stuff, right?

Plenty of studies have shown that use of social media tends to correlate strongly with being unhappier. Recently, a study has helped to establish a causal link. What they discovered was that when we see our friends engaging in these activities, it makes us feel worse about ourselves. The thing is, we don’t even believe that these people are really living such a happy life. Even though we know they are cropping, filtering and retouching their life, we still feel bad that we aren’t living that life. We end up comparing ourselves to our friends, which on its own takes us out of the particular moment we are currently living in and makes us less happy. Think about it – would you be more or less happy with the activity you are currently engaged in, if you are constantly checking to see what activities your social media friends are doing. The podcast Hidden Brain explains it very well here.

This means that we are actively engaged in an activity that has two downsides. The photos we post to social media are making our friends feel worse about themselves. Something we should seek to avoid. Also, by checking our friends’ posts, we are making ourselves feel worse. Another thing we should seek to avoid.

I think there is another thing at work here. We don’t like feeling bad about ourselves. We like feeling good about ourselves. But we don’t consider avoiding social media to be an option. So we plan a trip to Australia. Then when we get there, we will look to find that Facebook jealous picture so that we can affirm that we are – if only for just a moment – living the life that we want to portray to the world.

Foursquare check-ins used to drive my behavior. I’d skip over Starbucks to a cooler coffee shop, because that check-in would make me feel cooler. There is a positive externality here that I was experiencing more of my community and supporting a local business, but my motivation was problematic. I would look forward to hopping off a long flight and seeing my check-in rack up all kinds of points, rather than looking forward to seeing friends or experience a new culture.

It may seem insane that anyone would actually allow social media to dictate their behavior on social media. But when you consider how likes on Instagram can become such a large part of our sense of self worth, it actually makes sense. While this impact of social media has led me and others to become more superficial, it can become much more serious.

As I’ve posted before, I don’t think this problem has an easy solution. We can’t just tell kids to put away social media or delete an app. The roots of this problem are woven deep into our culture, and the psychological impact is profound. We are just beginning to understand it, but we are fortunate that psychologists are asking the right questions.

 

 

 

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.