When did brands turn to first-person and why is it so effective?

I greatly enjoyed this article from The Ringer about how Entertainment brands have started to voice their social media accounts it the first-person – and unpacked how and why doing so has been so effective to building their brand.


As Alyssa Bereznak aptly puts, “All the legal scholars tirelessly debating whether corporations are people may be dismayed to learn that, on social media, a powerful billion-dollar tech company can quite effectively wrap itself in the personality, cadence, and sexual desires of an extremely online 20-something.” This is a well-worn trend, but it’s worthwhile to note that what may have previously been carefully crafted as a stringent corporate strategy has now become a more organic, fourth-wall-breaking, fast-reacting one-manned stream. As entertainment brands have adopted the voice of millennial fandom, it will be interesting to see brands in other industries continue to build their personalities (and brands) on social – particularly in instances where the sarcastic or joke-y tone threatens the brand’s credibility. (More on that here: https://www.theringer.com/tech/2019/1/25/18196741/why-mental-health-apps-sound-like-millennials)

SOURCE: The Ringer

Harmless meme or massive data mining initiative?

WIRED op-ed writer Katie O’Neill tweeted last week, somewhat in jest:

In the article this conversation spawned, she unpacks the hypothetical that any mindless data we share (as part of this week’s viral sensation, or any other future social media trend) could unknowingly feed technologies behind the scenes. Exploring the implications of facial recognition technology, particularly for age progression, is a fascinating (and somewhat horrifying) thought experiment. And while FB insists that nothing of the sort is happening, the reaction to O’Neill’s tweet signals the growing overall awareness (and wariness) towards big tech – and the healthy dose of skepticism that people are beginning to direct towards the platforms they use every day.


It’s not a question of that FB could do what O’Neill writes, but more a matter of users’ awareness and attention to the use of their personal content, information, and likeness across all channels.  O’Neill summarizes: “Humans are the connective link between the physical and digital worlds. Human interactions are the majority of what makes the Internet of Things interesting. Our data is the fuel that makes businesses smarter and more profitable.

We should demand that businesses treat our data with due respect, by all means. But we also need to treat our own data with respect.”

SOURCE: WIRED https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-10-year-meme-challenge/

How the Redesigned Duolingo Mascot Triggers User Behavior (and memes)

The developers at Duolingo know that when people stop using the app, it’s not because they’ve signed up for a language class and are learning elsewhere – it’s because they have stopped learning altogether. To protect against the high risk of distraction when it comes to using a mobile app, they have taken a creative strategy for staving off churn – sending emails of their adorable (and newly designed) mascot Duo the owl, crying in a pool of tears in your inbox and begging you to come back to your lessons. You won’t want to disappoint Duo.

And it’s more than just the emails where Duo shines. “The developers at Duolingo know this email campaign works, because they’ve A/B tested several iterations of the crying owl, down to how many teardrops he sheds. Today, the company is launching its biggest redesign in five years, and Duo is at the forefront. Now the owl’s illustration has been simplified to make it easier to animate, and he’s been given a wide array of expressive emotions in hopes that users will become more attached to the mascot. He’ll even cry animated tears in your inbox now. “It’s so sad and pathetic :(,” a Duolingo spokesperson told me.”


It’s more than an improved illustration or app reskin – it’s an entire approach to user behavior. As the app’s Mascot has developed, so has the overall design of the game itself and the tactics it uses to keep users engaged and learning. The subtle use of psychological triggers and gamification establishes an emotional connection with an otherwise innocuous mascot (most games have a mascot that players forge an emotional connection with; think: Mario – who emotes and responds to your progress and performance) and nudges and other tactics (e.g. Hot streaks) keep users incentivized to continue learning.


And so far their strategy seems to be working – the Duolingo bird has had a “profound effect” on people. Yes, there have been successful metrics reported back on app engagement, and the bird has also become a meme in its own right. “People have Photoshopped exaggerated e-mail blasts that could be mistaken for real ones, and the app has even been parodied in a Clickhole article titled, “Duolingo Is Reporting Any User Who Goes 10 Minutes Without Opening The Duolingo App As A Missing Person.”

^ one of the parody emails

SOURCE: https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/13/18137843/duolingo-owl-redesign-language-learning-app

The new home security outfit: Drones

The home security industry is about to be disrupted by drones. Startup Sunflower Labs has developed a personal home surveillance drone aimed at a med- to low- density target market (think: Suburban America). The idea is that with a drone monitoring your property 24/7 will serve as more of a deterrent to potential threats/intruders/etc than a traditional home security system that has no real deterrent function.

Here’s how it works, from The Verge: “Part of the Sunflower system involves the Sunflowers, the small, roughly 1.5-meter bulbs filled with sensors that are disguised as garden lights. “The sensors can detect people, pets, and cars. Vibration sensors detect footsteps, car engines… even if you’re running a coffee maker.” The Sunflowers are placed around the home to help create a map and triangulate people and other objects within the space. But the real draw of the Sunflower system is the drone that flies itself. The drone is called the Bee, and its base station is called the Hive.”


Sunflower Labs represents a new type of drone company – they specialize less in the physical hardware or camera technology, and have more of a focus on the application of the technology.  They are exploring the possibilities of what this technology provides to a consumer to solve for a specific need. As they develop both consumer and commercial business models (they already have investment from Stanley Black & Decker) Sunflower is “taking advantage of the fast-maturing drone market to sell the promise of aerial video surveillance to both the home consumer and the security industry at large.”

SOURCE: https://www.theverge.com/2018/12/7/18129308/sunflower-labs-system-drone-surveillance-bee-hive-home-security-startup


Lyft broadens its transportation scope; debuts new bike share design

Lyft has finalized its acquisition of the bike share company Motivate, and has launched the design of its new bike.  The company announced the acquisition in July, “saying Lyft would acquire Motivate’s technology and corporate functions and the company would be known as Lyft Bikes. (cnet).

The ride sharing program will allow bikes to be reserved through its app, in an effort on the heels of its carbon neutrality pledge and increased initiative to offset the documented stress put on cities by ride sharing services.


Motivate Exec Chairmain Steve Koch says: “How we get around cities is changing rapidly, and the combination of Lyft and Motivate will bring tremendous new resources and energy to making sure that bikeshare plays a fundamental role in the new urban mobility,” … “Together, we believe that integrating our services in partnership with the public sector will transform the urban transportation landscape, increase bike ridership, and make our cities better.”

Throwing the gauntlet to Uber!

SOURCE: https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/29/lyfts-pink-wheeled-shareable-bikes-will-be-available-to-rent-soon/

What is Voldemorting, the anti-SEO phenomenon?

An article by Gretchen McCulloch in WIRED this week looks at the phenomenon of “Voldemorting” – or – choosing to use alternative words when referring to a certain subject in order to abstract it (much like “He Who Must Not Be Named” from Harry Potter).

Here’s an example of synonymous words hiding in plain sight:

“I’m so tired of all the bad news on birdsite.”

“Yeah, there’s just too much about The Cheeto.”

McCulloch cites this quirky internet habit to a paper from Researcher Emily van der Nagel, and describes two different approaches to this subversion of language becoming increasingly common on social media:

On one hand, internet users may choose an abstracted term in order to subvert the power dynamics of a subject or person they reject.  But interestingly, the tactic can also be used simply to evade brands, accounts, or users who may be highly attuned to a certain keywords. McCulloch writes, “Slightly different words make it difficult to find any particular one through search. While search engine optimization uses keywords and hashtags in a competition to make your post or website the most relevant, Voldemorting is the anti-SEO, the anti-keyword, and the anti-hashtag.”


As search algorithms have gotten smarter, and with it our increased ability to seek and find information, so to has the topic of every conversation to be traced. Voldemorting is the ultimate SEO-“dis”.

McCulloch wisely ponders, “What does it mean to be a human brain supplemented by the extended memory of internet search? This was a big question in the earlier days of the internet. Now, perhaps, we have an answer: It means that we can find things, but others can also find us. Cultural references that were once opaque are now easily cracked open for ingenious wordplay, and that same ingenious wordplay can restore a sense of local community by keeping our complaints within their intended audiences.”

SOURCE: https://www.wired.com/story/voldemorting-ultimate-seo-diss-resident-linguist/

Can’t go it alone: GM and Honda and the future of self-driving

Honda is helping GM on its mission to lead the quest towards a self-driving future. From WIRED: “In a deal announced today, the Japanese automaker will help San Francisco-based Cruise and its Detroit owner develop and mass produce a new sort vehicle for a world in which human drivers are no longer needed. Honda is opening its checkbook too, pledging to spend $2 billion on the project over 12 years, and immediately putting a $750 million equity investment into Cruise.

…For Honda, the partnership offers entree into a self-driving space where it has thus far spent little time and effort. For Cruise and GM, the newcomer adds engineering know-how as it moves to develop the self-driving car that will replace its current model, a modified Chevy Bolt EV.” Much of Honda’s engineering know-how will be of value for the interior design of the vehicles; once the driverless tech is ready, the ridership experience will hinge on the interior design of the vehicle, much like airplanes today.


In addition to being a somewhat a surprising global partnership, the joint venture between Honda and GM shows that to pioneer the future of driverless vehicles, you can’t go it alone. Strategic partnerships across financing, engineering, and manufacturing will become the norm in this race to the future, particularly due to the fact that no one knows how/when driverless will make money. This deal helps de-risk GM’s path to scale its operations into driverless with a partner that will help it execute long-term.

SOURCE: https://www.wired.com/story/honda-gm-cruise-self-driving-cars/

Google’s 20th Birthday and its position in culture

To celebrate it’s 20th anniversary, Google has launched a series of content to celebrate, including a look back at the history of the Google Doodle, and an tool to explore search trends over the last 20 years.

Check out the list of activities here:



Google has solidified its place in our culture, for better or for worse, and these back-patting initiatives remind us of the influence Google has had over the past 20 years. Despite recent events putting Google under fire, it is impossible to ignore how influential the search engine itself has been in our lives, and undeniably fascinating it is to look back at fun facts from search trends over the past two decades. It is a perfect time capsule of the growth of the internet.


How Much Hotter Is Your Hometown Than When You Were Born?

Check out this interactive feature from the NYTimes that takes you the history of the climate of your hometown, with an eye towards the future effects of climate change:


Once you enter your hometown and birth year, scrolling down reveals the model of how many days at or above 90 degrees your hometown will experience in our lifetimes.

The article also compares your hometown to other major cities globally, like New Delhi and Madrid.


Besides from being, well, literally hot, this interactive feature puts climate change into the perspective of our lifespan, and the place we call home. For a phenomenon that is difficult for some people to fully grasp, this content makes it feel not only clear and personally relevant, but also immediate and urgent. When the effects of climate change are put into the context of our own lives, it is impossible to downplay or ignore.

Andreeson Horowitz launches new diversity-focused fund

Andreessen Horowitz has unveiled its Cultural Leadership Fund, a vehicle that will be used to back multicultural founders. Reports of the fund emerged earlier this month, with The Wall Street Journal noting it will total about $15 million. LPs in the fund include Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kevin Durant, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Richelieu Dennis and Shonda Rimes, among others.

The stated goals of the fund are twofold:

  1. Connect the greatest cultural leaders in the world to the best new technology companies
  2. Enable more young African Americans to enter the technology industry


As part of Andreessen Horowitz’s main investing fund, the Culture fund will “focus purposefully and intently on creating opportunities for people of color in tech.” Despite repeated vows the past few years to reverse a woeful track history of diversity in tech, progress has been glacial. Only 3% of the U.S. tech workforce is black, while 57% of the workforce is white, according to data compiled by market research firm IHS Markit. With the help of a set of diverse leaders, the CLF will aim to reverse this trend.

SOURCE: https://a16z.com/2018/08/22/introducing-the-cultural-leadership-fund/

What does $1tn really look like?

On Thursday, Aug 2 2018, Apple became the first publicly traded American company with a $1,000,000,000,000 market cap.

Here’s a neat interactive data visualization from the NYTimes to play with after the jump; it gives you a reference point for just how big $1tn is compared to the rest of the publicly traded companies on the S&P.

SOURCE: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/02/technology/apple-trillion-market-cap.html

Here’s another nifty graphic that shows us the history of Apple’s valuation:

SOURCE: https://www.ft.com/content/aebad290-9644-11e8-b67b-b8205561c3fe


So, how big is $1tn? When you hear a big number out of context, it’s not always easy to quantify. These data visualizations help define how BIG $1tn really is in the context of American business, adding more meaning to this landmark event.

itty bitty sites

A neat new web tool called itty bitty sites from Nicholas Jitkoff, VP of Design at Dropbox, lets you create self-contained microsites that exist solely as URLs. You can create your own by following this URL: itty.bitty.site. From there, you can fill the equivalent of about one printed 8.5 x 11-inch page with any combination of plain text, ASCII characters, or emojis. (To launch the project on the 4th of July, Jitkoff created this page: independence.bitty.site) The actual byte limit depends on where you’d like to share it; Twitter and Slack allow for around 4,000 bytes, while the Mac version of Chrome can accommodate up to 10,000 bytes. For reference, a longer piece, like the US Declaration of Independence is 5200 bytes. This won’t work on Twitter, but can still be used in a domain redirect (which is how this and many of the other examples are stored).

The interesting part is that the site isn’t actually hosted anywhere — the entirety of the webpage exists as a URL compressed using what’s known as the Lempel–Ziv–Markov chain algorithm.

How itty.bitty works

✏️ ▸ ▸ ▸ #️⃣ ▸ ▸

itty.bitty takes html (or other data), compresses it into a URL fragment, and provides a link that can be shared. When it is opened, it inflates that data on the receiver’s side.

Source Code: https://github.com/alcor/itty-bitty

itty bitty sites exists as an open source project on Github. While Jitkoff doesn’t know what people will do with this tool yet, “he does suggest using it for standalone poetry, bypassing Twitter’s character limit, and using it as a clever alternative for domain redirecting, so you can host larger-than-normal portions of text as standalone URLs.”


This is a clever and creative way to make creating and sharing work online more accessible and usable for more of the population, freeing those from the heavy lift of hosting a full site, but expanding the confines of what’s available on social media platforms. It really feels like the early internet.

SOURCE: https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/5/17538474/itty-bitty-site-self-contained-websites-urls-open-web

By The Numbers: The State of Newspapers

It’s no news that newspapers have been on the downtick for years. But despite the uptick in news consumption in America, largely thanks to the Trump bump, the newspaper industry’s survival remains in jeopardy, according to the Pew Research Center’s newly-released newspaper fact sheet for 2017. (SOURCE: Axiom)

From Axiom:

“The big picture: The future for newspapers remains bleak. Though web traffic has grown for many news outlets, the industry’s subscriber-based audience has steadily declined since the 2000s, per the report. Meanwhile newspapers, which have failed at finding fresh ways to compete with digital products, are using antiquated business models that show no signs of improving their readership.”

Although newspaper advertising revenue was $16.5 billion in 2017, down 10% from 2016, newspaper ads for digital are on the rise, and accounted for almost a third of ad revenue in 2017. That’s only up 3% from 2016, but it’s a number that stayed out of the red.”

As major papers with the budget to innovate to combat these headwinds, they (read: NYTimes) are creating new digital products and services to expand the role of the publication in the lives of their readership. We have begun to see publishers treating their paper more like a service offering, and less like a traditional journalistic outlet.

Latest Pew Research Teens & Social Media Study confirms concerns of negative effects

Pew Research just refreshed its survey of Teens on Social Media (last conducted in 2015) and reports that things have markedly changed just in the last three years.

While none of this may sound surprising, Teens report mixed feelings about the effects of social media (both positive and negative) and 45% report that they are basically never not online (which I’m sure most of us can relate to).

In terms of the platforms teens use, Pew reports, “it is clear the social media environment today revolves less around a single platform than it did three years ago.”2   

While Facebook had the clear majority in 2015 (71% of teens reported), today there is no clear majority and FB has fallen from prominence.

It’s worth noting that YouTube and Reddit were not even included in the 2015 survey.

For the most part, teens tend to use the same platforms regardless of their demographic characteristics, but there are exceptions; Lower-income teens are far more likely than those from higher income households to say Facebook is the online platform they use most often (22% vs. 4%).


While many of the findings may already be well reported at this point (Facebook has slipped), it is telling to note how self-aware teens are of the more problematic effects of social media use– potentially more so than their adult counterparts on the same platforms. It will be interesting to see whether the market continues to fragment or whether we will see the re-emergence of a single leader in the months and years to come.


New Technology Analyzes Gender Equity in Scripts

At this point we are all familiar with the disparity between men and women’s roles and screen time in film, TV and even ads. Year after year, women appear less often, say fewer words, and general do less on screen than their male counterparts.

A new screenplay software can automatically tell whether a script is equitable for men and women. It only took a few weeks for Christina Hodson, a screenwriter who is involved with Time’s Up, to take her idea from theory to reality, working with the developer of screenwriting software Highland, John August, to create Highland 2. She wondered if screenwriters could tackle the problem before casting directors and producers even stepped in.

Above: an analysis of La La Land.


The next issue will be one of buy-in. While Hodson has already inspired others in the film community to come up with tests and tools of their own, will gender representation become the new benchmark of getting a film, show, or even script for TVC green-lit? And how might this tool or others tackle other issues of underrepresentation in Hollywood, and beyond? The Times writes, “Ms. Hodson and the software makers say they expect their tools will be expanded to address other issues of representation, like race and ethnicity, although that is more complicated, because those details are not always mentioned in scripts.”

How Juuling became a public health crisis (via Instagram and Snapchat)

From a New Yorker article this week, Jia Tolentino explores how Juul has become a major threat to big tobacco, the hottest thing for teenagers across the country, a social media phenomenon, and a public health crisis.

The health professionals are already calling Juuling a “nathional health crisis,” made possible by co-opting a wellness trend in America. And it’s getting huge. “An analyst at Wells Fargo projects that this year the American vaporizer market will grow to five and a half billion dollars, an increase of more than twenty-five per cent from 2017. In the latest data, sixty per cent of that market belongs to Juul.”

According to a 2017 study by the C.D.C., about fifty per cent more high schoolers and middle schoolers vape than smoke. Tolentino writes, “Young people have taken a technology that was supposed to help grownups stop smoking and invented a new kind of bad habit, one that they have molded in their own image. The potential public-health benefit of the e-cigarette is being eclipsed by the unsettling prospect of a generation of children who may really love to vape.”

And on the viral marketing of Juul, Tolentino writes: “Just as the iconic images of Malboro were shaped by Madison Avenue, Juul has been defined by Instagram and Snapchat. The company’s official Instagram account, @juulvapor, is age-appropriate and fairly boring—it has an aesthetic reminiscent of Real Simple,and forty-four thousand followers. But viral, teen-centric Juul fan accounts like @doit4juul (a hundred and ten thousand followers) are populated with a different sort of imagery: a bodybuilder Juuling in a tank top that says “Real Men Eat Ass”; a baby (labelled “me”) being shoved into a birthday cake (“the Juul”) by her mom (“my nicotine addiction”); a topless college student who has a Juul in her mouth and is wearing a pink hat that says “Daddy.” Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth. In another, teens at a party suck on a flash drive that they’ve mistaken for a Juul. “I know one of the girls in that video!” a high-school senior from Maryland told me. “It was a huge deal at my school.”

Above, the Juul website. Below, a post with the #Juuling hashtag on Instagram.


This is a classic example of a brand stepping back and letting viral marketing do its job – whether it was for the “intended” audience or not – with major consequences.

“Alexa, Let’s Make Some Money”

Today, Amazon made important updates to its monetization model for Alexa.

First, Amazon finally opened up Alexa to developers to make money off third-party skills. Developers can now add purchases to skills and sell physical goods through Alexa. In-Skill Purchases (or ISPs) work almost exactly like in-app purchases for mobile apps. Developers will be able to offer either one-time purchases to unlock new content or ongoing subscriptions that enhance the skill. Developers get 70% of revenue from the in-skill purchase, and Amazon is ensuring that Prime members will always get some sort of extra benefits here, whether that be discounted prices or early access to new features. (It’s important to note that all skills are still free to use).

The second monetization update is that Amazon is now opening up Amazon Pay, letting third-party developers sell their products through their Alexa skills (similar to how you can already order things from Amazon through the voice assistant). TGI Fridays and 1-800-Flowers are the first companies to create skills with the new functionality, letting users order food or flowers through the Alexa voice interface using the same payment information that’s already attached to their Amazon account.


Opening up Alexa purchases to third-party developers will increase the velocity of the Amazon’s expanding ecommerce universe. As voice grows, Amazon makes a compelling platform for any brand or retailer to reach its customers.

How Sweetgreen helped transform a corner store in a food desert

Sweetgreen has spent the last 8 months helping a family-owned liquor store in South LA reinvent itself as a healthy food market.

The original owner’s daughter, Kelli Jackson, took over, and decided she had the opportunity to serve as a beacon for healthy food options in what is otherwise a “food desert.” With the nearest grocery store over a mile away, access to fruits and vegetables for local families was severely lacking.

Working with the LA Food Policy Council, Jackson’s store was deemed appropriate for a full transformation. That’s where Sweetgreen came on board to help. Working side-by-side, they assisted with rebranding and in-store signage (they removed the giant “Liquor” sign out front, and took down the displays that previously drew all your attention to beer). Their designers worked with Jackson on a new visual identity and renderings of the space. They even helped with with sourcing and pricing strategy, and how to track waste and spoilage. Now, the most visible and prominent items are the display of healthy produce.

The owner sees her market as a safe space for kids in the community, adding tables where they can hang out, and hopes to make it a venue for art exhibitions and performances in a community where such spaces are lacking.


We often see major food chains putting family-owned small businesses out of business rather than making a difference in communities, and Sweetgreen is setting a new example. This also demonstrates the power of design transforming how people shop and engage in public spaces. Kelli Jackson may have invented a new breed of corner store.

SOURCE: https://www.fastcompany.com/40563651/how-sweetgreen-helped-this-corner-store-with-a-healthy-transformation

Brick & Mortar & Airbnb

It a surprisingly organic turn of events, SF-based fashion brand Marine Layer pulled off the smartest brand activation I’ve seen in ages.

The retailer started renting out branded apartments on Airbnb, in residential spaces above their stores in touristy cities (Chicago, Portland, New Orleans, with Nashville on deck).

Following the brand’s retro design aesthetic, ML opened its first Aribnb location on a whim in 2014, after renovating the store’s upstairs apartment so out-of-town employees would have a place to stay. Soon, it was booked for 300 days a year on Airbnb. In addition to the trendy interior, each apartment is stocked with snacks, bespoke city guides compiled by the ML team, and a 15% discount on anything from the store downstairs.


They say necessity is the mother of invention. Marine Layer didn’t open the apartments to be a revenue stream, but a bet that their brand could extend into hospitality and broaden the brand experience. As more and more retailers shutter their storefronts, (2017 set the record for store closures in the US according to CNN and Quartz, with more than 8,000 shops shutting down, see chart above) I see this as a brand extension beyond the traditional retail experience that feels natural, not forced. It’s the continuation of a trend that Michael Brown of A.T. Kearney calls “retail anywhere” – the idea that shoppers want to engage with a brand beyond a store and a purchase – and maybe even IRL (!)

SOURCE: https://www.contagious.io/articles/what-s-going-on-upstairs

The strange world of dropshipping (or: what’s up with all of those weird brands in your Instagram feed?)

A recent podcast from Reply All, inspired by this Atlantic article and this paper by artist Jenny Odell has sent me down a rabbit hole and into the strange world of dropshipping. Each of them set out to answer: What is up with all of those weird ads in your Instagram feeds? You know, the ones with what look like luxury products with dubiously cheap price tags or limited time offers? Does anyone ever click these and actually buy these products?

Well, the answer is yes. As it turns out, what’s behind these brands is one platform: Shopify.

Alexis Madrigal writes: “All these sites use a platform called Shopify, which is like the WordPress or Blogger of e-commerce, enabling completely turnkey online stores. Now, it has over 500,000 merchants, a number that’s grown 74 percent per year over the last five years. On the big shopping days around Thanksgiving, they were doing $1 million in transactions per minute. And the “vast majority” of the stores on the service are small to medium-sized businesses.”

Shopify helps dropshippers quickly and easily build a front end eCommerce experience and integrates directly with AliExpress, so these retailers source and ship products directly from China, without ever holding inventory (or even seeing the product, for that matter). Using a reverse image search, Odell found that the same watch had been listed by numerous e-retailers, with different branding and similarly fishy “About Us” sections on their sites.

Above: A watch listed for less than $2 on Amazon is rebranded and sold for $40 on a Shopify site. 

Above: “creatively” written About Us sections on Shopify sites; Photoshopped storefronts. 

This phenomenon has launched a sub genre of get-rich-quick “how to dropship” YouTube influencers (many of whom claim to have made hundreds of thousands of dollars with their dropshipping companies) who charge a monthly subscription to other wannabe dropshippers looking to mimic their mastery of social media advertising and Shopify tools.

As Reply All investigates, it’s difficult to ascertain how profitable any of these retailers are, if at all. The lack of transparency and semi-scamminess has also led investors to question Shopify’s huge market cap. 


Aside from being an interesting case study in the questionable valuation of an internet company, how dropshippers use Shopify for their not-really-scams demonstrates how easy it has become for brand storytelling to gloss over a sketchy business selling sketchy products. There’s also a real implication for advertisers in a world where consumers feel ripped off by “fake” brands proliferating on social. It also speaks to transparency; how important is it to consumers to know where their products are coming from – both where they are manufactured, and how they get to their doorstep? As artist Jenny Odell puts it in her piece, it all comes down to the fact that “…the internet makes it possible for anyone to tell any story, about anything, from anywhere.”

A tale of two feeds

Pinterest is the latest social media site to shift its news feed algorithm from predominantly prioritizing brands/publisher content, to the activity of our friends (in Pinterest’s case, our Followers). This update comes a few months after Facebook introduced a similar approach that splits the news feed apart from brand/publisher content, and keeps friends’ posts more chronological for the most part. For Pinterest this means less algorithmically curated content in your main feed, unless that’s what you’re looking for– in which case you click over to the “Explore” section.


It’s clear that the push towards algorithmically recommending “relevant” content is so 3 years ago. Social platforms are thinking about ways to make their content more “meaningful” (in the words of Zuckerberg) and transparent. Seeing Pinterest, Snapchat, and Facebook choosing bifurcation of feeds does threaten the engagement of advertisers/publishers, but may ultimately lead to more valuable experiences for users (think: less mindless scrolling, more stuff you actually want to see). As a Pinterest user, I find the user experience simple and personally, I enjoy this divide– we’ll see if the rest of their users agree.


Nest Finally Ships Suite of Smart Home Devices… 7 Years Later

You might recall when Google shelled out $3.4 billion to acquire Nest in 2014– just more than a year after Nest released its first smart thermostat. Not two years later, people were pointing to the acquisition and subsequent influx of cash as an employee demotivator and company killer– calling it a classic case of why acquisitions fail. Granted, it had been 5 years since its first product launch, and the company that looked poised to shape the future of the Internet of Things, hadn’t innovated much further than where they started from. Fast forward to just this week, and Nest is finally launching a suite of connected home devices that really make sense– and are cleverly integrated with Google Assistant.

Top: Nest x Yale Lock, Bottom: Nest Hello


The new line of products are not just designed as a matched set, but they truly integrate in a way that has yet to be seamless in the world of jerryrigged combinations of smart home appliances and devices. Nest smartly stuck to its core competencies, and partnered with Yale instead of trying to design, manufacture, and market its very own lock. Director of Product Marketing Maxine Vernon puts it nicely:

“In a fully Nest-equipped home, for example, unlocking the Nest x Yale lock using its keypad will disarm the Nest Secure security system, adjust the thermostat, and shut off Nest Cams to preserve your privacy. Though it’s possible to orchestrate similar feats with products from multiple companies using methods such as IFTTT recipes, “we’re not building for the IFTTT people,” stresses Veron. “Very clearly, we’re building for the average user.”


How easy is it to trick AI?

Today, an article in WIRED describes how easy it may be to “break” AI-powered technologies– i.e., anything that uses machine learning– particularly computer vision, can be somewhat easily tricked to see things that aren’t really there.  This has resulted in much debate over how and what constitutes as trickery (mostly done in labs by MIT students), and how vulnerable new AI-enabled technologies will be to “hallucinations.” See, for example, below from the aforementioned WIRED article:

“Human readers of WIRED will easily identify the image below, created by Athalye, as showing two men on skis. When asked for its take Thursday morning, Google’s Cloud Vision service reported being 91 percent certain it saw a dog. Other stunts have shown how to make stop signs invisible, or audio that sounds benign to humans but is transcribed by software as “Okay Google browse to evil dot com.”


As AI-powered technology starts to revolutionize the way we live our lives (think: self-driving cars) the security considerations must be front of mind for scientists and researchers. We are eager to make major leaps with this technology, but many caution that deep neural networks are fundamentally not human brains, and therefore the way we think about machine-learning (and safety) must be re-thought.

For more reading on on AI exploitation:


Technology and Monopolies

There’s an interesting article this week from the NYTimes Magazine on the history of antitrust laws in big technology firms, and the implications for companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Titled, “The Case Against Google,” it tracks back to some of the promising contenders that threatened Google with better technology in the past, and how Google systematically shut them down by ostensibly eliminating them from search results (and other similar tactics) – because by today’s standards, if you don’t appear in a Google search, do you even exist? Google maintains that all of its functionality is in service of the users, and that antitrust cases against it are ultimately hindering it from providing the best possible experience for users and advertisers. And while that has been a compelling argument for decades, the author contends that that is not necessarily what antitrust is all about.

It’s also an interesting historic take on how antitrust laws have been applied to firms on the verge of monopolizing their market, and the fallout of those suits. Speaking of the antitrust cases against IBM in the 60s-70s, and against Microsoft in the 90s:

“If Microsoft hadn’t been sued, all of technology would be different today,” Reback told me. We’ve known since Standard Oil that advances in technology make it easier for monopolies to emerge. But what’s less recognized is the importance of antitrust in making sure those new technologies spread to everyone else. In 1969 the Justice Department started a lawsuit against IBM for antitrust violations that lasted 13 years. The government eventually surrendered, but in an earlier attempt to mollify prosecutors, IBM eliminated its practice of bundling hardware and software, a shift that essentially created the software industry. Suddenly, new start-ups could get a foothold simply by writing programs rather than building machines. Microsoft was founded a few years later and soon outpaced IBM.”


The way the FTC responds to recent European suits against Google, and other tech giants, will be telling in the next few years to come, and will set the precedent that won’t only affect the way we use the internet, but the entire global economy.

NBA Players’ Union launches new marketing group Think450

This weekend at NBA All-Star Weekend in LA, the National Basketball Player’s Association is unveiling their new marketing business, a branch of the union that will control the rights of the player’s collective likeness when partnering with brands– rights that are worth tens of millions of dollars.

To understand where this group came from, (from FastCo): “For the past 20 years, the NBPA has essentially rented players licensing rights to the league, who in turn would sell them to corporate sponsors, then share the revenue with the union. That share hit about $41 million last year, but during the last collective bargaining agreement, the union decided it wanted control over the players’ likenesses and images. The new deal kicked in last summer.”


It’s not hard to imagine the myriad opportunities for brands and partnerships that the union will attract thanks to the popularity of the players collectively (though obviously individual players still own the rights to their own sponsorships, some with their own business teams and agencies working on their behalf). And while the league does a great job to market the players on-court, as players have become more business savvy and realize their value, this new deal allows the union to consider marketing the collective players off-court. And the opportunities for creative and branding agencies are also evolving– FastCo reported that earlier this week the union announced it has partnered with Japan-based advertising agency network Dentsu Inc. to develop content and create and stage global events that feature the union and its members.



Patent alert: Amazon’s haptic trackers for factory workers

In a recent patent granted to Amazon for wristbands that allow for “ultrasonic tracking of a workers’ hands” to monitor performance using “haptic feedback,” we may see a glimpse of the future– and it feels a little “Black Mirror.”

Amazon just patented some creepy “Black Mirror”-esque tracking wristbands

The wristbands would be worn by Amazon employees in warehouses, and would work in conjunction with ultrasonic devices strategically placed around Amazon’s warehouses. Image the scenario: as the worker goes about their tasks, if their hands move to the wrong item, the bracelet will buzz. The devices also monitor inventory and make sure workers are performing at desired speed.


We hear about and talk constantly about the latest customer-facing innovations from Amazon, but often lost in the dialogue is a conversation about the implications for employees at Amazon’s warehouses, which have brought ridicule to the company for accusations of intolerable working conditions in fulfillment centers. How will this new innovation affect the way Amazon treats its labor force– and what could this mean for other cyborg-esque innovations in our global workforce?

SOURCE: via FastCo. 


Will MoviePass harness or hurt the experience economy?

We’ve all heard the stats thrown around about how people are spending less money on material things and more money on experiences. Even last year, Ikea’s head of sustainability, said, ““If we look on a global basis, in the west we have probably hit peak stuff,”– and this is coming from the world’s largest furniture retailer. So how do companies better monetize and brand experiences to appeal to consumers who are becoming increasingly accustomed to paying a monthly fee and having it all?

Enter MoviePass. We’ve heard the hype– $10/month for unlimited movies at theaters. Seems too good to be true? That’s because it is. It remains to be seen how they will turn a profit, but the experimental model purports to be the saving grace of an industry being slowly but surely swallowed by Netflix. MoviePass CEO outlined his vision for the future in  an interview with Wired: “…For Lowe, the MoviePass subscription model is just the first sledgehammer blow of a gut reno. He envisions certain films being exclusive to MoviePass members on their open weekends, and bringing the bingeing experience to the big screen. And why not live sports? And why not YouTube clips between films? US box office hit a three-year low in 2017, despite rising ticket prices. The system, Lowe argues, isn’t working. Why not try something new?”


If MoviePass can prove it’s worth without buy-in from the major players, it could be a harbinger of how the “experience economy” at large will continue to disrupt (or maybe save?) dying industries.

Could genetic testing help thwart the opioid crisis?

Why some people become addicted to oopiods and some do not has become somewhat of a mystery in the medical community. But the story is familiar; patient gets prescribed an opioid pain killer, and by the end of their course of treatment, they have developed a dependency (knowingly or not). But what if a genetic test could signal whether a person is more likely to develop an addiction, and therefore at higher risk from the moment they enter the doctor’s office?

That’s exactly what the medical analytics company Prescient Medicine has set out to do with their LifeKit Test- a genetic test that determines within 97% sensitivity how addictive your genetic response to opioids will be. Using an algorithm they developed based on genes that signal addiction in neural pathways, they give each test subject a score out of 100, with anything 52 or higher showing an elevated risk of addiction.


Perhaps LifeKit and advancements in genetic testing could be the preventative measure needed to stop this national health crisis, and even aid with substance abuse of all kinds. As genetic testing becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, it may arm doctors with the knowledge to offer alternatives that could saves millions of lives.

SOURCE: https://www.fastcompany.com/40513391/is-genetic-testing-part-of-the-solution-to-the-opioid-crisis

Hims is the Goop dudes have been waiting for

At the convergence of the years’ many trends– Wellness, Millennial Pink, and Living Your Best Life, lies a new company– Hims– that has garnered outsize attention for being “basically, Glossier for men.” The company, whose mission states: “Create an open and empowered male culture that results in more proactivity around health and preventative self-care” is peddling beautifully packaged and wittily marketed generics of Rogaine and Cialis to educated men who live in urban areas and earn an average of $90k.

The brand’s founder seeks to “break the ice” surrounding typically uncomfortable health and wellness issues for men– hair-loss and ED being the first– in a progression emblematic of Silicon Valley’s preoccupation with science-based lifestyle decisions (see: exercise trackers, DNA-based meal plans and anti-aging nutraceuticals). Hims simply outlines its product offering into Hair, Skin, Sex, and Merch.



The Ringer’s profile of Hims notes that: “As the mind-and-body market has grown over the past decade, entrepreneurs have found a way to repackage classic dieting, beauty, and health products for a generation of laptop-toting millennials. More specifically, they have frequently borrowed from the world of female-focused commodities and rebranded them to be geared towards men… The outsized attention surrounding Hims’s debut may be related to the fact that it co-opted the marketing strategy of female-focused health startups, rather than a product.”

Seeing the launch of millennial-empowerment brands for women (read: the (frequently problematic) Thinx) it feels significant that Hims is using a similar marketing strategy and applying it to the male audience. Millennial pink and all.

Google makes trending search fun! with celebrity selfie-videos

This week Google launched a new search feature that will have celebrities answer commonly searched questions about themselves in the form of selfie videos that show up at the top of mobile search results. (Read: Can Will Ferrell play the drums?) Well, now when you search a random celebrity fact, you can hear them answer for themselves. And in all honesty, it is delightful. It seems to be a take on the WIRED Auto-complete series– also delightful.

Why it’s hot:

In a time when every tech platform wants to be a content creator and every content creator wants to be a tech platform, Google’s celeb videos are a smart, sensible way to tickle the fancy of fans who are already searching for their favorite celebs. They live directly in mobile web and through Google-owned apps (seamless) and not just on a standard website video player or YouTube embed. The feature is currently being piloted on mobile in the US, according to Google.

The videos are undeniably engrossing; the full screen vertical video provides the immersion of snapchat, with the swiping navigation of instagram stories, Google has ostensibly brought the best of real-time social content to knowledge-hungry searchers. Let’s just say I never actively desired to know if Tracee Ellis Ross was a vegetarian, but now that I’ve seen the videos I don’t want to un-know it! The unfiltered curiosity of the internet x celebrity press junket= gold. Now Google is on its way to defeat all social media platforms, and the James Corden Celebrity Industrial Complex in one fell swoop.