The Addictive Power of Social Media

Recently I have been worried about this constant feedback loop generated by social media, and when I say social media, I am mostly thinking of Facebook. It’s one of the big “four” (Amazon, Apple and Google make up the rest) and recently it seems to be losing its footing when it comes to weeding out the nonsense from the real stuff. Trolls, bots and click-farms are a concern when democracies are at stake, don’t you think?

I have been active on social media for years and I do realize that there are some benefits of being connected to family and friends, being more aware of happenings around the world, and browsing through aesthetically composed pictures (here’s looking at you, Insta).

This New Year, while I was contemplating the hours I spend on Facebook, I found out that “On Jan. 1, Germany began enforcing strict rules that could fine major internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube up to 50 million euros ($60 million, £44 million, AU$77 million) if they don’t remove posts containing hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint” – CNET.

It’s a step in the right direction. People are far meaner online, thanks to the anonymity factor, than when they are debating face-to-face. And it’s as damaging as all the fake “likes” and “loves” one garners after posting a photo on Facebook.

Speaking of which, I recently read Justin Rosenstein’s interview on the Guardian where he says that “he was particularly aware of the allure of Facebook likes, which he describes as bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive.”

And who is this Rosenstein guy you ask. Well, he is the Facebook engineer who created the ubiquitous “like” button. A button which needs no introduction, and has recently been supplemented with the love, angry, wow, and sad “reaction” buttons.

Buttons are the easiest, they require no effort, no typing, and yet they send across these little packets of affirmation which provide a short-term feeling of happiness. Kind of like a dopamine infusion. And I may go as far as to say – not so different from cocaine.

While we reveled in the “bright pings of pseudo-pleasure” derived from sending and receiving likes, Facebook found itself swimming in a sea of valuable data. So they mined it with care and sold it to advertisers.

It also tweaked the activity-alert/notification color from dull blue to trigger-happy red so as to drive maximum engagement. The pull-down-to-refresh feature you see on these sites and their apps, well, they are not so different from the pull-down levers of slot machines. The advertising professional in me loves all these little modifications, and that’s why I got hooked into the psychology behind the social media phenomenon.

According to the same Guardian interview, Loren Brichter, the designer who created the pull-down-to-refresh mechanism, says he never intended the design to be addictive – but would not dispute the slot machine comparison. “I agree 100%,” he says. “I have two kids now and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”

When we share pictures of our food, homes, vacations, kids, friends and family, I guess we are trying to project a controlled image of ourselves to people we don’t get to meet on a daily basis? And there’s nothing wrong in doing that. It’s all good till it gets addictive. Till these likes and reactions and comments take over so much that we lose sight of the good from the bad. Till we start sharing every single thing that happens to us. And till we almost plan things around a Facebook post.

There are people whose “feedback loop” has gotten so out of hand that they are posting pictures on a daily basis. The give and receive likes and post saccharine comments almost instantaneously. No matter how blurry the shot or how awful the picture, they have to adorn it with a suitable adjective in the comments section.

But I am not worried about them. My concern lies with the next generation who will not know a world before Facebook. Will they miss out on hanging out with friends in real time and find it difficult to forge real connections? Will they miss out on real-time fun? Every single shared joke will be online, and worst, forever. There are things I have said and done in my teens that I don’t want to be stored in a chip for eternity. And neither do you.

During a talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business, former Facebook VP for User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya said that the “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

Later, of course, he went on to apologize for his hard stance on social media, especially to and on Facebook, which led him to release a more balanced statement weighing the good vs the bad. And I agree, it’s not all bad. None of this is part of a mega evil plan laid out by a mega villain rubbing their hands in glee as we tap likes and loves.

Social media sites are not driving us insane on purpose, and they do a lot of good in the world in many ways hitherto unknown to us. And I am sure that they can become a force for the greater good, if only we knew how to use them better.

Maybe the next generation, the one I worry about, will do just that.

Pic(k) of the Week – Joyeux Noël

Ridgefield, CT

Ridgefield, Connecticut. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Ridgefield Holiday Stroll 2017

Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

If you had a list of New England town must-haves, three-century-old Ridgefield in Connecticut would tick every box. Located on the western fringe of Fairfield County, it’s the right amount of small. It’s upscale but not pretentious, has museums and playhouses, and parks and lakes. The town’s generously tree-lined Main Street has rows of charming storefronts and a slew of Colonials and Capes, which made for a pretty nice backdrop for the Holiday Stroll.

Ridgefield CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Ice sculptures, Christmas carolers, cozy cafes, and tasteful decorations aside, we found an indie book shop called Books on the Common. Defying the onslaught of Amazon and Barnes and Noble, it has been a part of the community since 1984. It had everything we wanted. A great collection, cozy reading corners, friendly staff, fun recommendations, and a warm, relaxed vibe that made it almost impossible to leave.

Books in the Common, Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Books in the Common, Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Books in the Common, Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

During checkout, our six year old was given a Dog Man Comic Creator, and since then he has scribbled some fun “situations”, with plenty of CRASH, KA-BLOOM, and SPLAT thrown in for good measure. We love indie shops, especially those that are not just pretty to look at, but also has the goods if you know what I mean. Books on the Common is one such store, and we will be going back for more.

Tazza Cafe in Ridgefield, CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

We also stopped by at Tazza Cafe for some hot chocolate, and later, at Prime Burger for a bit of Americana – burgers, fries and milk shakes.

Prime Burger in Ridgefield CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Prime Burger in Ridgefield CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Ridgefield CT

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Christmas,  as I have written before, is a joyful gathering filled with food and festivities. It’s meant to include, not divide.

The towns are all decked up, there’s singing on the streets, presents are being exchanged, parties are being planned, smiles are freely exchanged, hands are tightly held, and kids look happier. They know Santa season is here and they are trying their best to be nice, even if it’s for that coveted toy they have been eyeing for a while.

At the cost of sounding cheesy, I must say it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

10 Things I am Thankful for Right Now

Autumn in New York

Autumn in New York. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Today the kids in my son’s school had their Thanksgiving lists up and ready. As it turns out, the kindergarteners and 1st graders are thankful for toothpaste, leaves, dogs, grandparents, chocolate cake, puddles, moms, dads, Batman, snow, recess, Legos, frogs, mint chocolate ice-cream, Christmas and more – but not necessarily in that order.

So I thought I should make a list as well.

1. I will start with my own little family. Thankful for each and every one of them and all that they do day to day. Every little thing.

Thankful for parents who understand.

Thankful for my extended family, the aunts and uncles and cousins who keep in touch via WhatsApp, no matter where they are. It could be as simple as a picture of a giraffe from my aunt who writes “For the little guy, with love, from Amboseli, Kenya.”

2. Friends. The real ones. The ones who take time out of their busy schedule (even if they have a cross-continental wedding to attend) to hear you gripe about life in general.

Friends who turn up with a casserole when you fracture your leg.

Friends who text you out of the blue and you pick up where you left off. They don’t need to pretend perfection, and neither do you. Friends who keep in touch after moving to another country.

Friends who stand up for you.

3. Thankful for technology (FaceTime is the best) that makes expat life so easy. It also makes switching career paths to start a craft brewery business or getting a degree that much more plausible.

4. I am grateful that For Now, Trump to Keep Ban on Importing Elephant Trophies.

5. I am not a vegan by any means. Not yet. I have a hard time saying no to delicious food. But given the cruelty in factory farming and environmental impact of high meat consumption, I am grateful that there is a slow and steady movement towards better eating. And more choices for people to make better decisions. Click here for an encyclopedia of vegan food.

6. Happy to have the four seasons of New England, Fall being my favorite.

7. Thankful to have lived in two different countries on two sides of the world. It gives me perspective, and often, hope.

8. Thankful for crumbs on the floor, because that means there’s food on the table.

9. Thankful for the outdoors, the parks, and the patches of green around me.

10. Thankful for the pale blue dot we call home.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and a festive fun weekend!

Pic(k) of the Week – Autumn in New York

Upstate New York in Fall

John Boyd Thacher State Park in New York. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Hot Chocolate and Old Books in Kent

Kent, Connecticut

Photos by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Have you ever bought a book because you liked how it smelled?

Well, I just did.

This is how it all began.

We were in Kent, a town in Connecticut’s  Litchfield County, often described as “quaint.” For the better part of the 19th century, it was one of the leading iron-producers in the state. It has a lovely stretch of Main Street, cafes, covered bridges, waterfalls, jazz festivals, and so much more.

Right across the Visitor’s Center, they have the Kent Coffee & Chocolate Co., a place that looks made to order for a crisp fall afternoon. We got the dark chocolate barks, a vegan hot chocolate with almond milk, a buttered bagel for a carb-happy kid, and an Irish Cream Mocha. When asked about the egg content in the barks, they took the extra effort and confirmed that it doesn’t. When you have a kid with allergies, this is the sort of service that makes you life-long patrons of a place.

The barks, especially the one with cranberry, were the lip-smacking melt-in-your-mouth kind, and lasted until the next morning’s Sunday paper and coffee.

Sunday Times and Kent Chocolates

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

We stepped out into the tree-lined street, feeling warm and content. Dark hot chocolate, the kind you can wrap your fingers around on a cold day, has a certain kind of power. It can rival wine and coffee on a good day.

Rows and rows and books lay before us, separated into categories like politics, mysteries, history, travel, humor, children’s, cooking, beverages, philosophy, etc. I picked up an old tattered copy of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, and as soon as I opened the book, I got a whiff of what can best be described as an old book scent, the exact same one from my childhood.

So of course, like any normal person, I had to get the book.

Then I found this edition of The Beauty and the Beast, exactly like the one I read and re-read as a kid. I had to get that too.

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Apart from memories, we found other books – a tongue-in-cheek one on British humor, graphic novels, a beer encyclopedia, a cookbook by Bill Granger, and so on and so forth.

There are many ways to spend a Saturday. But one in which you browse books on a sunny fall afternoon in a small New England town, and get transported to long summer holidays in a far-off country on the other side of the globe, is up there with the best.

All Things Autumn

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Autumn in New England is not to be taken lightly. It’s when the green around us gets replaced by flaming oranges and bright reds and golden yellows, but not for long. Soon most of the color will disappear, and slowly but surely, frosty white will take its place.

Amidst the maple pecan lattes, blushed cheeks, fall fashion, and seasonal delights, there’s a sense of time slipping by. Much like the leaves swirling in the crisp autumn breeze, we are reminded of the fickle nature of time. It really doesn’t wait for anyone. It rushes, even when it seems to be donning its best finery.

This year, fall in New England made a late entrance, a dramatic one nonetheless. Blame it on the lack of what many call the “cold snap.” It took a while for the weather to get to its usual crispness. Cozy sweaters and boots and scarves were pulled out and put back in, with a sigh. The latte remained ice-cold. Windows were pried open in the evenings. But the days didn’t stop getting shorter, and the nights steadily grew longer.

Some say this uncharacteristic persistence displayed by summer is due to global warming. Here’s a story on The Fading of Fall.

If you need a pick-me-up after reading the Slate article, here’s a gorgeous drone video of fall foliage from Above Summit, a studio in Somerville, Massachusetts. They specialize in Aerial Drone Photography and Videography.

For a live Fall Foliage Map, go here.

All those apples leftover from an afternoon of apple picking? Put them in these Vegan Apple Brownies. I bookmarked this recipe for a friend who has recently become vegan.

If fashion is your thing, here are Seven Fall Trends.

Like me, if you are all about coffee cocktails, then you got to try some of these during the busy fall entertaining months. The Dead Rabbit’s Irish Coffee is a keeper.

They are good for a quiet evening at home too.

When all you need is a good book. While on the topic of seasons and books, have you read Autumn by Ali Smith? It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is being hailed as the first great Brexit novel by the New York Times. It’s been on my “want to read” list for a while now. Being a planned four-volume series based on the seasons, I have to finish it before “Winter” is published. According to Sarah Lyall of the Times, “the wondrous changes wrought by autumn start to express themselves in the characters as well.”

Here’s a lovely excerpt from the New York Times –

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing,” Smith writes. “All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

The reference to “A Tale of Two Cities” is deliberate.

People are Predictably Irrational – Professor Thaler

Williamstown, MA. Autumn in New England.

Williamstown, a town in Berkshire County, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Richard H. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on Monday. Way back in 2010, while writing about Choice Architecture as it pertains to advertising, I found his best-selling book “Nudge” rather fascinating.

In a nutshell, the book is about our choices. But it’s not just about how we make them, the authors have also shown us how reasonable choice architecture can nudge us towards making better decisions. And of course, their statements are backed by decades of research in the fields of behavioral economics.

Here’s an excerpt from my post on Choice Architecture and Advertising –

“If books like Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Prof. Cass R. Sunstein or Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely are to believed, our mind plays quite a few tricks on us, and those tricks actually influence our day to day decisions! This piqued my interest in the subject and I realized along the way just how invaluable this field of study, known as Behavorial Economics, is for the advertising industry.”

To read more, hop on to The Business of Advertising.

Prof. Thaler also appeared in the 2015 film “The Big Short,” which in my opinion, is one of the best depictions of the 2008 housing bubble, the fiasco that led to the financial crisis.

Mainstream economics simply surmised that people behave rationally. But according to the good professor, one has to keep in mind that people are human, not flawless robots. People behave irrationally, yes, but they do so consistently. And it is this consistency that will help us foresee, and in some cases, shape behavior.

When behavioral economists say that people are predictably irrational, it’s the word predictable that will make all the difference in the world. Now you see where marketing and advertising comes in.

Sure, governments around the world have experimented with his model to drive everything from school lunch programs to retirement savings plans. But I am intrigued by the implications it has for understanding buyer behavior and buyer motive. It ties in well with my current pursuit of Web Analytics.

When Prof. Thaler was asked how he would spend his prize money of about $1.1 million, he said that he would “try to spend it as irrationally as possible.”

On that note, don’t ask me why there is a picture of fall foliage at the beginning of this post. I am discussing behavioral sciences here, a topic that has nothing to do with the four seasons of New England. Well, what can  I say? In keeping with the topic at hand, I am trying my best to be irrational as well.

Allergy Friendly Birthday Treat

Strawberries dipped in chocolate

Photo by Esha Samajpati. All rights reserved ©

Last time I did a post on allergy friendly snacks, it was about tahini on toast. This year I found a great alternative to cupcakes, when it came to the annual school birthday treat. With those frosted cupcakes, sugar is already on the cards, so I decided to go for strawberries dipped in chocolate. No eggs. No nuts. And if you use vegan chocolate, you can go dairy free as well.

A box of freshly rinsed, plump strawberries and melted chocolate, that’s all you need. And yes, it was a hit with the first graders. For those with strawberry allergies, as you know, any other berry or fruit works. It’s hassle free and ticks all the birthday treat boxes – sweet, tasty and chocolate-y.

Just wanted to put this out there as a healthy allergy friendly alternative for kids. Moms and Dads, please take note.

Durga Pujo in Kolkata, India

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

Let me start by saying Durga Pujo in Kolkata is not your usual Pujo, a word that roughly translates to “offering of prayers to a deity.” It’s not about penance, abstinence, or thriftiness. Think of all the fun festivals around the world. Dare I say Rio? New Orleans?

Okay, now that we are in the right direction, let’s add a fierce goddess (Durga), astride a lion, in battle with a shape-shifting demon, being replicated in various art forms in handcrafted tents (pandals) around the city. If it wasn’t for her, and the rituals and prayers that accompany her presence, this wouldn’t have been a Pujo per se.

As I have often tried explaining to many around the world, India is diverse and complex. All of us are not vegetarians, and neither do we all do the head-nod or head-shake or whatever you call it. The dots are not a must-have accessory for men and women, no matter what Brian and Stewie from Family Guy say. We have different languages and customs. This particular pujo is native to Bengal, and the people who hail from there, aka Bengalis.

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

While watching an episode of Wild Kratts, my five year old found out that the Royal Bengal Tiger is from Bengal, and yes, we are quite worried about their dwindling numbers. We are partial to football (you say soccer I say football) and fried fish, and the arts. Not necessarily in that order.

So, can you think of a better place to show off the handiwork of native artists than the intricate designs adorning the various Durga idols and the surrounding pandals? Themes are decided months in advance and then brought to life by skilled artisans. The artwork is brilliant, and I must admit it’s not easy to watch it all being dismantled after just four days.

Durga Puja in Kolkata, India

Work in progress. Photo by Dibyaroop Samajpati All rights reserved ©

But for those precious few days, we revel in the celebrations with friends and family. Nowadays many age old customs have been modified to include the outliers, the outcasts, and the marginally ignored. Clay modeling forms the base of the idols, and only after the basic shape has been formed, the idols are painted in bright colors and pretty designs. Once a male bastion, this field of creativity has now expanded to include women.

It is heartening to see silly old traditions being replaced by fresher, fairer perspectives. Being sensitive to the environment is another trendy aspect of this annual bash. Prizes are awarded for the greenest pandal and so on and so forth.

As with any festival, shopping and food and drinks are a big part of the pujos. No Bengali worth their salt is going to pass on the flavorful and sinfully rich mutton kosha or an aromatic mustard fish during the festival. Fun cocktails embracing the spirits of the pujos make the rounds in restaurants. Diets be damned. Fasting is unheard of. Other parts of India may celebrate their festivals by staying away from food. Not us. Not the Bengalis.

Thanks to the mask of anonymity provided by the Internet, there’s been a recent spate of hateful comments around this very theme. How come Bengalis gorge on egg-mutton rolls and chicken biriyani while the rest of India fasts? Well, to that I say, chill and watch this video by Bong Eats.

By the way, Bong is short for Bengalis. Sorry to disappoint anyone who came here looking for the actual thing.

As for shopping, think Christmas. Think Black Friday. Get the picture? Not one to lament about commercialization of a mildly religious institution, I think this meteoric rise in spending does wonders for the economy.

And guess what, tourism gets a boost as well. My brother had friends from Spain and Japan making the trip to Kolkata just to experience this joyful madness, the gorgeous chaotic extravaganza that is Durga Pujo.

Note: In no way do the above photos do justice to the creativity of the artists or the variety of art found in Kolkata during this time of the year. For more pics, you could google Durga Puja or hop over to this article on The Wire.