Category Archives: Social

Vanity Sells

If there is one thing that social networks have exposed about the human condition, it’s that we are much more vain than we presume. All across the internet there are recorded traces of people motivated to share pictures of themselves, seek upvotes, attain badges and farm up so-called “internet karma”. This is by no means an exhaustive list of attainable metrics, but these have been categorically the most effective methods of objectifying vanity. Viewing this from pretty much any lens other than the one that I’m about to provide, usually leads us to the conclusion of “it makes no sense why people want useless internet points”. But they do.

Why on earth do people try to get worthless internet points? 

This question has long plagued us since the dawn of internet point based systems and will continue for a long time. It simply doesn’t make any sense for us to attain points that aren’t fungible – as opposed to say, money, which is. The most visible of these today being “karma” and “likes”. So, I’m offering an explanation:

We are all inherently vain.

We’ve only just recently exposed this vanity by attributing a clearly identifiable objective system – “karma”, “likes”, “points” – whatever you call them. They sound meaningless on the surface, but everyday people spend minutes, hours, and even days on end attaining them, with no clearly articulated goal.

If you’re a mid to late 20′s adult like myself, you may notice that your Facebook feed is littered with baby and marriage pics. There’s a simple explanation for this – they get the most likes. This has less to do with Facebook’s algorithm, and more to do with our own mind optimizing for number of likes. Sounds silly doesn’t it? I think it’s a lot less silly than we presume.

Here’s an example of how vanity is being transferred with the transmittance of real currency as opposed to social currency. Believe it or not, but today people are spending billions of dollars on digital vanity mediums and statuses on popular “free to play” gaming platforms. This is everything from popular mobile apps such as Candy Crush and Clash of Clans to the more hardcore e-sporting games such as League of Legends and Dota 2. My favorite explanation of this is by Gabe Newell, founder (and CEO?!) of Valve:

Why do people buy Porsches?

The most important takeaway is, in my opinion, that vanity is no longer about physical products. People will buy vanity and status only if there is a market liquid enough for them to purchase themselves into. What I mean by this is that you can’t simply attempt to sell vanity points to a small community. It has to be at scale. Extend this concept even further as we progress into an economy that will be mostly based on experiences (read -> entertainment) and this gets even more interesting. As the only monetization strategy will be to simply scrape dollars off of vanity seeking humans. What we will see and continue to see for that matter, is companies spending oodles of money creating large scale communities, simply to create a marketplace for new vanity measures. This is the real monetization power.

So next time someone says “well that’s just stupid, because <insert internet karma points name here> don’t mean anything”. Actually they do. I’ll bet you a billion dollars they do.

No, Tweets Aren’t Your Own

It’s fairly common practice to put a disclaimer in your personal profile on Twitter, Facebook, personal blog, etc. explaining that all of your opinions “are your own”. This is basically another way of saying “I wanted to publicly state that these opinons don’t reflect on my employer, and therefore I cannot and should be penalized at work for having these opinions”. I was a victim of falling under this assumption as well. After awhile I began to think about the ramifications of our public opinions on our professional lives.

Let’s set up an example to illustrate my point.

Example – Jim is in the marketing department of a large ad agency. He’s never been accused of badgering other employees for their ignorance in the office, but generally he gets frustrated from time to time because they don’t get work done on time for him. Most of his co-workers don’t know this because Jim is generally pretty good about not showing his frustration. After a bad playoff loss he bad mouths a member of his favorite professional basketball team’s lead player on twitter telling him “You’re the worst shooting guard in the league. I hope you die”.

Let’s take some perspective on this. Let’s say this person had an excellent resume. Would you hire this person? If he was your employee, would you fire this person?

When I’m hiring someone, a big factor in analyzing someone’s character traits is how they handle situations where problems occur. In this case, our friend ‘Jim’ has displayed two sets of characteristics both inside and outside of work. So, the question I would have in the back of my mind for Jim is – if the pressure is on, is Jim going to blow up like he did with the professional basketball player?

Let’s take this a step further to the real root of the problem. Many employees of large (and small) businesses, who disagree with their employers actions, tend to use the public domain as a soapbox for venting their frustrations of their employers decisions, whether deliberately or subtly. This is largely due to the fact that there is no medium or forum for said employees to express their frustrations within their work space.


Contradictory to my sensationalized headline, tweets are in fact “your own”, but only in the sense that you are the one that created them. Hence why I put large quotations around “your own”. Once you have unleashed an opinion into the public domain, it becomes property of the public domain. This is powerful. Many people (including myself) have used the public domain as a means to bolster your status positively, but conversely it also means there can be equally negative consequence. Putting a disclaimer up doesn’t negate this.

What this is ultimately doing is forcing businesses to be much more transparent with their employees with strategies like the use of open-door policies and internal social networks. In other words, don’t piss of your employers, and don’t piss off your customers, and everyone will be happy.

Which is Scarier – That the Rest of the World isn’t like Silicon Valley or Vice Versa?

I’ve been a HN (HackerNews) junkie for almost 4 years now. I’ve been living and breathing topics like MVP, lean start-up, Node.js, git, etc and am a very active person in the community. I truly believe in the customer development process and keeping things agile. Sadly though, I’ve come to the realization that the rest of the world simply does not think this way. I don’t live in Silicon Valley, but I “study” it constantly; trying to find the pieces of the culture that make sense and those that don’t. My impression of the SV startup view on the world is:

  • Anyone who builds a startup must follow lean start-up rules
  • It has to disrupt some business that already exists
  • It has to have to some sort of social 
  • It has to be featured in TC at some point to be worth something
  • If there is no mobile component it’s probably not worth pursuing
  • Pivoting is inevitable, so just plan for that ahead of time
  • Design/UX/UI is everything
  • Business networking is all done socially
  • You have to blog (tweet, etc) in order to be seen
  • Your business model can be based on zero revenues but be based on an exit

The reality is that there are so many companies out there being built outside of SV that do not incorporate these principles. In fact, I’d argue that companies that are built with this mindset represent an extremely limited and small subset of the overal startup spectrum. (note – there’s obviously no way to quantify that) The reality is – there is no one single way to build a successful business. There is no handbook, cookbook, or formula. Are there ways to reduce your risk? Are there some techniques that work well? Sure, but nothing in business is purely anecdotal.

SV start-up culture has an engineering mindset based on the belief that new business can be engineered, which I simply don’t believe to be true. More importantly I believe SV startup culture has actually created a larger culture (that includes myself) of people who hate to plan. For good reason, plans are usually thrown out in the first 5 minutes after reading them. But it doesn’t mean that plans aren’t important. My theory is that since the dot-com era, we are following a tolerance of failure curve inversely proportional to our adherence to plans. So, we’re do for a planning era when this 2.0 bubble bursts.


The problem I see is that the very few companies who do follow this pattern, only picked the pattern because they saw their idols successful at doing it. But just because these very few companies do become successful it doesn’t mean that everyone can build companies based on the same principles. For example: Twitter CEO, Evan Williams, is quoted for having said

“User experience is everything. It always has been, but it’s still undervalued and under-invested in.”

Point is – just because it worked for one company (and probably a handful of other ones) doesn’t mean it will work for every startup. So, while this advice is certainly good, it’s up to you to determine if it’s applicable to your business (web based or not).

Let’s take for example a company I used to work for: SAP. Most young people have never heard of SAP. Yet it does roughly $20bil in revenue and is probably used by at least one company that you interact with on a daily basis (including Apple!). It also has offices in Palo Alto, so it’s technically in SV. But you’re talking about an ecosystem of people who believe that a whole IT project has to be blueprinted several months (if not years) ahead of the actual build. SV startup culture says “screw it, let’s just build it”.

At the end of the day the important thing to remember is that companies like IBM, SAP, Twitter, SalesForce, AirBnB, Google, etc – all internet related businesses – have built successful business based on different priorities and principles. Just because IBM built and continue to grow their company in one way and Apple did it another way, the reality is that they all have proved one thing – they can create businesses and grow them.

Here’s my prediction for the future – we’ll continue to pretend like we can engineer successful businesses and continue failing at doing that. But it’s worth a shot right?

Did Facebook just kill every start-up in the social discovery space?

I’ll be honest. I had no idea what Facebook social graph was until I actually used it. I was seriously skeptical about it’s potential, but I suspect that I was looking at it purely from a advertisers perspective (which is already available and has been for years) and not an end users perspective.

So, I’ve started tinkering with it and it’s simply awesome. Let me give you some examples:

  • Restaurants in London, United Kingdom my friends like – Ummm, yes. Gimme more!
  • My friends who like Triathlons – Need a training partner? Job done.
  • Music my friends like – Never heard of the band ‘Save the Clocktower’ until I just found out a bunch of my friends liked it

Social discovery is predicated on one large assumption – I buy and do things my friends like to buy and do. Which is predicated on three things:

  1. There is a collection of every thing my friends like to do
  2. There is a way of me accessing this collection
  3. I have a mechanism to find this information easily (search)

Where Facebook lacks is that number 1 isn’t fully collected yet (for example, I don’t put that I “like” triathlons in my profile), people put security preferences around their likes (for example, I just hid all of my likes for privacy reasons), but now number 3 is no longer an issue. With number 3 being eliminated, people may be more inclined to bolster number 1 and 2. Number 1 and 2 are not technical issues, the foundation is there, they simply don’t exist fully yet because of user motivation. I suspect the introduction to number 3 may give way to motivating people to share more about what they like and opening up my security.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting all discovery sites are dead, just the ones who rely solely on connected friendships. For example, I love Hypem, which is largest based on music curation via crowdsourcing blogs. There is a social element (“friends!”), but I’m more concerned with finding new music that is curated through people who live and bleed music.

Marketing Works and I Feel Sad

I, like most technologists, believe in the ideal that those with the most merit should benefit the most. Also, probably like most meritocratic believers, it means that merit and merit alone will get you ahead. Sadly, I’ve found this largely to be untrue.

I recently wrote an article on my blog here that garnered a lot of attention. It was called “Increasing Productivity is a Load of Bullshit” This article had the following characteristics:

  • Poorly written/edited (there were grammar errors)
  • Very hyperbolic
  • Elicited a variety of emotional responses (“ya I definitely agree!” and “You’re an idiot”)
  • Reached the frontpage of Hacker News
  • Resulted in roughly 6,000 pageviews (which far surpassed any article I’ve written)
  • Had evidence to back up some of the theory (but not enough)
  • It was probably the shortest time I’ve spent writing an article.

I felt very weird after writing it. I don’t regret writing it, nor do I dispel the themes in it. But, I learned something very valuable about today’s information-packed world – marketing is as important, if not more important today than it ever has been. Dually, the most effective marketing techniques are those that exploit our brain’s system 1, or automatic system. The problem is I don’t see the merit in this, but it works, and it makes me sad.

To take this a step further, I believe this largely has to do with heuristics and our mind’s natural biases towards processing information. We do so many things that don’t follow logic and I believe this largely is due to our brain wanting to use it’s system 1 as much as possible. The theory, as stated in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is:

Many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.

This theory can be taken even further to say that system 1 uses a lot of less energy and therefore the brain tries to be efficient as possible with it’s energy consumption. Ultimately, I think this whole concept makes me feel sad because it feels like exploitation and therefore triggers a negative response for me. But, hey, it works, right?

If you’re interested in this topic, here a few good resources: