[Book Review] Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Bottom line: Essentialism is common sense, which also means it’s easier said than done.

I was on vacation for the past several days and I finished reading a couple of books. One of them was Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  The book has been making the rounds at work where there are a lot of people who find themselves pulled in lots of directions.

The book description says Essentialism is “a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.” And the length of the book is an examination of applying this idea to different parts of life. A quick Google search will review lots of articles and podcasts with the author looking at this “new” idea.

I really want to love this book, but in finishing the book I found my socks remained solidly on my feet. They were not blown off.

The book purports to provide a framework that will change your life and I’m sure it will for some people.  But I found it to be mostly a reframing of tons of life hack, productivity, time management techniques. Yes, I know that the author says it’s not those things and “Essentialism” is a lifestyle not a diet. yadda yadda yadda… But that’s really kind of what it is. It’s like a book form TED talk. (Which is why I don’t read business books very often. Only one in a zillion business books are actually worth my time.  If I were an Essentialist, I would have put this one down, probably.) Part of my lack of enthusiasm here is probably due to the fact that I heard someone recently use the phrase “ruthless prioritization” to describe how they manage an overwhelming pipeline of work and so I’ve been musing over the idea for a few weeks already.

But rather than mope about it, here’s a quick list of the items in the book that I found most interesting:

  • Lots of nice stories about famous leaders practicing “Essentialism.” You can tell this guy writes for HBR a lot and, honestly, those mini-case study stories really do work for me. So, thumbs up!
  • How to say ‘No’ gracefully. When I get stressed, I tend to forget my social graces and reduce interpersonal communications to the bare minimum. This helped me add some new tools to my toolbox.
  • The power of sleep and play. It’s good to be reminded of the things we say we already know to be true. Seriously, it’s true. So embrace it.
  • Be in the moment. The reminder that when you choose to do something, you should be all the way there for it and really focus on it rather than trying to multitask.
  • The Beginner’s Mind. This is a Buddhist thing that is mentioned in the book. I found it poetic and fun.
  • Reminder that it’s a choice.

I think that last bullet is the most powerful thing in the book for most people. Most people think most of the things in their lives aren’t choices, but they are. There’s a shocking amount of choice in our daily lives and we would all do well to remember that.

Anyway, I give this book two stars.  It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination. It has a lot of very good information, advice, and recommendations.  But it’s also a lot of information that can be found elsewhere.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Will Durant 

About Facebook’s Newsfeed Algorithm

What follows is a description of how I believe Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm works in general. This is not based on any special or intimate knowledge of Facebook. Although I do work with products that integrate with Facebook’s advertising platform, I don’t have the particulars about Facebook.  What I do have is a special set of skills and I will find you and… wait. No. I’m just saying I work in ad tech around big data and data management tools and thus have an inflated sense of my own ability to comment on how Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm works.

I think the first thing to understand about Facebook is that their primary objective is to provide something(s) that users want to use over and over again. In the parlance, they want to create a platform that is engaging for end users. That may seem obvious, but many people skip over this point and right to the idea about Facebook selling ads and using data to target ads and all that. But selling ads is a result of maintaining an engaging platform that users come to a lot and enjoy.

Some people will argue with me about this, I know. They’ll say that Facebook just wants to make money selling ads and that’s why they make Facebook so attractive to us users.  This, friends, is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, so I am fine with that argument so long as we also recognize that the exact same thing is true for the extreme majority of content providers we interact with every day. Television shows? Yep. Money-grubbers. Magazines? Total greedballs. Newspapers? Radio? Yup and yup. All are selling ads.  And in order for anyone to be willing to pay for those ads, they have to be able to attract audiences. And in order to attract audiences, they have to provide content of interest.

Before I look at how Facebook tries to determine what you will find interesting, let’s talk about some of the ways they can measure engagement.

“Engagement” is a very common term in online ad tech. In fact, if it weren’t such an important concept, the rate at which it is abused would turn it instantly into a buzzword. But it is very important.  Simply put, “engagement” simply refers to users interacting with some bit of content or website in some way. Oftentimes, you’ll heard the word “reach” used along with engagement, but reach tends to refer to a more coarse number of visitors or eyeballs that content reaches. Engagement attempts to assess how appealing that content was to the eyeballs it reached.

So, how can you measure engagement?

You can look at the number of repeat visitors. Obviously, if people keep coming back, then you’re doing something right! But that’s pretty high-level and the internet is a wonder of technology that allows us to do a lot more.  Here I’m going to start referring more and more specifically to Facebook.

Facebook can tell what you click on.  If you click on something, then it caught your eye, right? You’re engaged with that content!

You can click “like” on something. That literally means you like it… whatever liking literally means. (And, let’s face it: that Like button doesn’t always carry a lot of meaning behind it. I just clicked “like” on someone correcting a typo in an earlier comment to a post, for instance. What? Will I get content related to dictionaries, spellcheckers, and style guides now?)

And there are Likes for pages and Likes for posts. And there is something sort of like a Like when you say you Like something in your profile.

You can hide things to show a negative engagement with this. Facebook will even ask you to provide some level of information about why as well.

You can stop and stare at things.  This is a little fuzzy and some people are creeped out by it. But in ad tech we have a way of knowing how long a piece of content (usually an ad) is on the screen and how much of it is on the screen.  So, if you stop and stare at something, it suggests there’s something about it that interests you.

All of these are more or less direct means of measuring engagement.

But Facebook CAN go a step farther in trying to figure out what else you might like because they can just look at what your friends like. Birds of a feather and all.  So, even if you didn’t click or Like anything, they could just take a look at what is trending among your friends and make a pretty solid guess that it might interest you as well.

Another thing Facebook can look at in order to figure out what interests you that people sometimes forget about is the social sign on. You know how you can use Facebook to log into a news site or an app or whatever? That’s social sign on. And Facebook sees when you grant those permissions and they can make inferences about what you might want to see in your feed.

So, there are lots and lots of ways that Facebook can measure your level of interest in a particular bit of content and they can use any, all, or subset of them to make good guesses at what else might interest you.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, because one of my Facebook friends asked about it in the wake of these articles:

My friend wanted to know how Liking or not Liking would REALLY affect her newsfeed. She’s been toying with the not-Liking strategy.

I just know there’s a report somewhere that shows how much traffic these two pieces are getting from Facebook relative to other sources and I would bet dollars to doughnuts FB is a leading source of referral traffic for both. I’d like to say it’s because I have amazing intuition about what the internet is doing, but I happen to already know that Facebook is a leader in social referral traffic everywhere. Oh, And FB has been coming after the Google, too, as a top referrer to news sites. So, basically, I’m a cheater at gambling.

Does Liking or Not Liking affect your newsfeed? If so, how?

Well, you can read those two articles above and see how it affected two people, but that is an embarrassingly small sample set.  So, let me add my speculation to this embarrassment.

To start, let’s be clear: We won’t ever really know what Facebook’s algorithm is doing because it’s their secret sauce and because they’re always changing the recipe. I also think it’s reasonable to suspect that there is a learning component to the algorithm, so it should — in theory — evolve to get a more nuanced grasp of the things that interest us.

The basic idea, though, is if you have demonstrated engagement in a particular topic, brand, activity, event, or whatever then they want to show you more of that.

I don’t think Facebook wants to be a perfect mirror of your past behavior, though.  Interests change. Trends shift. And a certain amount of diversity in our newsfeeds just makes good sense in terms of making it more interesting to us.

So, what if you remove one of the most heavily weighted measures of engagement, the Like, from the formula?  Well, the writer for Medium felt that it evened things out and made her feed “better.”  Better for her, mind you. It also forced her to adopt a different behavior in order to engage with the content she was seeing.  But as mentioned, that doesn’t mean she was invisible to Facebook. Not by a long shot. (More on Facebook advertising in a moment.)  I suspect her experience is merely a reflection of the fact that the Like is heavily weighted in the newsfeed algorithm’s calculations of what may interest you. As a result, the calculations had to rely on “weaker” signals for engagement and respond accordingly.

But what if you overwhelm the system with lots of noise by Liking everything? Again, the writer at Wired describes a result that would suggest that the Like is a significant factor in determining what you see in your newsfeed.  He saw increasingly schizophrenic and polarized content, exactly the result we would expect.

Taking these two results together, my understanding and suspicions about how the newsfeed algorithm work are confirmed: you see more of what you engage with. So, it’s a bit frustrating to me when I see people complaining about what they see in their newsfeed and it’s even more annoying when they acknowledge their own role in creating it. If you don’t want to see a particular type of content, don’t click on it! Hide it! Send a signal that you don’t like it!

One of the things that I think is kind of strange in all of this is the notion that one might monkey with their Liking patters because in the words of the Medium writer, “I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me.”

My first reaction to that sentiment was, “Wut?” But then I had to remind myself that I work in ad tech and the way normal humans perceive online advertising tends to bounce between thinking the robots are some kind of omnipotent, omniscient gods at manipulating people into buying things by showing them a banner ad at the exact right time and that maybe the robots are actually just really slow monkeys. REALLY slow monkeys. Maybe actually moles.  But I digress.

Here’s the thing: your newsfeed activity is not likely to be a strong source of data for targeting ads. Crazy, right?

Facebook is spending all this time and money to make your newsfeed something you really, really, really want to see, but at the same time they’re not relying on it (heavily) to target ads to you.

The reason is because first of all your newsfeed is entirely too specific.  In online advertising, you buy ad impressions on the scale of millions.  Advertisers do not have time to worry about whose favorite My Little Pony is Rainbow Dash and whose is Pinky Pie. Honestly, most media planners aren’t even looking at whether you like My Little Pony in particular when an affinity for animated television will do.

But let me shock you even more: Facebook has actually been cutting down on the number of ads they show you. And they’ve been raising their prices. AND they have learned that all this granular targeting doesn’t work as well as basic broadcast demographic targeting!!

That’s right! Rather than targeting some tiny group of people with a rare, shared interest, they’ve lately been learning that the most efficient targeting on Facebook is the same sort of targeting (Age, gender, income) that has been in use for a kajillion years!

I’m not saying no one is doing finely tuned targeting on Facebook. They are. And I’m not saying Facebook doesn’t offer targeting options that are derived from affinities observed through newsfeed engagement. They do.

But there are lots of ways not at all related to what you Like that are used to target ads every day.

It’s not clear to me why anyone would want to be shown irrelevant ads.  If you’re in Facebook and seeing ads, why not do whatever you can to make sure they’re ads that might interest you?  That’s a topic for another day.

The point is that stopping use of the Like button does not remove yourself from being an “active participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me.” It’s just not.  Advertisers don’t rely solely on Facebook to guide their ad targeting decisions and Facebook doesn’t rely solely on Likes to determine targeting options.

It’s a much, much, much bigger ecosystem than that.  I’m astonished that people don’t get that.  Do folks think all the billions of dollars spent on online advertising and technology each year are just being shoveled into a boiler somewhere to keep the monkeys (moles?) warm?

Anyway, if you change your own behavior in order to change what you see in your newsfeed, I think that is fine and passingly interesting. But let’s not delude ourselves here. You aren’t denying Facebook anything… because you’re still using Facebook.  And unless you’re like that lady at Medium who clearly clicks on a lot of things she doesn’t actually like very much, you’re probably not going to see an improved newsfeed.

My recommendation is that if you want to improve your newsfeed, then you should be more judicious about what you Like.  You should look at all the different ways you can engage with the content you see and use them all just as judiciously.  It’s not about teaching Facebook how to advertiser to you. It’s about teaching Facebook how to create a newsfeed that is meaningful to you.

Another Idea for Facebook — or Any Other News Feed Publisher Out There

Give users more direct control over what they see.

People loooove complaining about their newsfeeds.  Not just on Facebook, either. If there is a website that uses algorithms or content personalization systems to “curate” content for users, someone is complaining about how the robots aren’t doing it right.

The other day, I saw an article somewhere in which the author was upset because she clicks on every single gruesome murder link she is shown and for some reason the algorithms that control her feeds think that’s what she wants to see. In spite of clicking on every single one, she swears that she doesn’t REALLY want to see that. Apparently, she sold her self-control on eBay or something.

Anyway, here’s my thought: let users have more direct control over what they see.

Facebook asks people to help them teach their robots how to make the newsfeed good.  These little surveys pop up and ask things like, “Does this feel like an ad?” and “Do you want to see more posts like this?”

That’s nice and all, but it never really gets at what I really want.  Here’s an example: there’s this heterosexual man with whom I am friends on Facebook. I enjoy most of the content he posts and shares. EXCEPT. He likes to post pictures of semi-nude women. They’re beautiful women, but I don’t want to see those. At home, I just keep scrolling, but at work it creates some nervousness and awkward moments. I don’t want to block him because I really like all the other stuff he posts.  Similarly, I have a few friends who share pictures of beefy guys in similar states of undress. Cool but, you know, NOT cool.

So, why can’t I have a setting that allows me to say something to the effect of, “Show me only the G-rated things?”

Or, “Hide all mentions of Sarah Palin.” Because I never ever need to hear about her ever again.

Or, “Limit posts about kale, Obamacare, Senate Democrats, Crossfit, lizard sex satellites, and Florida Man to less than six per day.”  Strike that. I want to see more Florida Man and lizard sex in space. But let’s keep the other stuff to a minimum.

Let me have some explicit, not simply implicit through surveys, say in how my feeds should be filtered!

Now, I realize this would take a clever user experience designer and some engineers to make this happen. But I know these folks exist. Hop on it!

An Idea for Facebook

Facebook is catching a lot of hell right now because of this ridiculous “emotional contagion” study.  I think there are a lot of legitimate questions and concerns about how this experiment was designed and conducted, but I have a suggestion for how Facebook might avoid the kerfuffles and do a lot of good for science.  Here goes:

At the beginning of some period of time — like a month — they could post a giant opt-in screen to everyone’s newsfeeds:

RESEARCH MONTH!

This month, we are opening our data and newsfeeds to researchers. All experiments have been through an ethics review. None of the data used will be sold or used directly as part of a business strategy. If you’d like to participate, click YES. If not, click NO. At the end of the month, we will tell you which studies you were in — if any. And we’ll alert you when the results are published so you can see what we learned.

As a FB user, my posts are private, but I would love to open my data up to science like this.  And I would like to know what my data was used for and what they found.

Seems like good fun and good PR to me!

Rationalizing the Sometimes Irrational Customer

A coworker of mine shared this article with me this morning: Rationalizing the Sometimes Irrational Customer.  It sent me off on a bit of a rant that I thought I would share in a modified form for the world.

I hate the presumption that because humans have individual values defined by their particular knowledge, experience, and life context that their decisions are “irrational.”  This is the underlying premise of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and I would argue that it leads to the baldly manipulative paternalism suggested in Nudge.

Here’s a perfect example of the problems from this article.

First, he says, “Factors such as life experiences, framing of situations, habits, self-control or lack thereof, social impacts, and decision fatigue are examples of important components for determining what makes people behave as they do.”

Then he says that the wrong way is this: “Classic economic theory tells us that consumer behavior is born of certain traits: unbounded rationalism, willpower or restraint, even selfishness.”

Why is it irrational to draw on your life experience when making a decision? If you can’t draw on the knowledge you have exactly where does the “right” knowledge come from and how can anyone access it when they’re in the middle of all the various economic decisions they have to make in a day?  I would suggest that if the first set of considerations is right, then in order to make the second set of traits wrong then he should add “omniscience” to his list of traits because obviously humans do not have that, but would mean the opposing argument here is a straw man and classic economics — in spite of evidence to the contrary — has never, ever applied to the human experience.

Finally, he says, “The problem is that consumers don’t always follow these rules of thumb or conform to our experience and wisdom.”

So, just because consumers don’t do what presumably human marketers believe they should — based on the marketers’ COMPLETELY RATIONAL AND FULLY INFORMED — knowledge and experience consumers must be throwing reason to the wind and acting like lunatics with credit cards and unless you’re peddling hookers and cocaine that is a problem for your business? I don’t think so.

Further, the evidence of this supposed problem is the fact that marketers’ predictions about consumer behavior aren’t 100% accurate.  I have to wonder where this imaginary marketer got a set of consumers that were 100% identical in every (possible and impossible) way in order to make a prediction that they might even plausibly expect to be 100% accurate. Sarcasm aside, he’s posed a problem for our universe based on presumptions from an imaginary universe of platonic ideals that he says comes from classic economics.

This isn’t how any marketer, data analyst, or classical economist I’ve ever heard of actually approaches the challenge of their work. No one has ever honestly expected their segmentation strategy would result in 100% conversion rate from their target segments.  That’s why we use statistical, probabilistic modeling and normalization techniques. My own microecon professor was what might be called a “classical economist” and his commentary on human economic behavior was always posed as “If you want to achieve X, then you should proceed as Y.”  He did not assume everyone wanted to achieve X — which is what behavioral economics does do.  And that makes me want to tell them to go mind their own business.

However, all that aside I do think he makes a valid point about what it takes to drive better results: “[A]n organization should move from an assumption-based business culture to a strategy-driven, fact-based culture informed by analytics.”

Yes. Duh.

Too often marketers do make assumptions about their customers and fail to check those assumptions against the data. That’s not because the consumers are being “irrational” but rather that the marketers are. The marketers are not using evidence and experience to make decisions.

So, the point and the problem here is not really that the consumers are sometimes irrational, but rather that marketers are too often irrational and obstinate in remaining ignorant as they approach the customer.

Recommended Reading: Simple Program Design

A friend of mine home schools her children and one of them expressed an interest in learning how to code. I shared a list of apps and games that could help, but also shared a book that I used way back when I was a developer.  It’s a bit dry for kids, but if you’re interested in learning to code or design software it’s a must-have in my opinion.

The Death of #DailyDigital

I will tell you this: rushing every morning to read all the latest tech and advertising news sites in my feed just to pull out three to five articles to comment on is tough and the obligations of work and life frequently stand in my way. So, I’m going to take a little break from doing them every day in the format I’ve been doing them so that I can focus on some other personal initiatives I have in mind.

But in case you’re curious, I’m doing a bit of “academic” reading/listening on product marketing, product management, programming, and computer science lately.

Of course, with this change, I will need to focus on producing more original content for my blog here.  So, please stand by!

UPDATE: One of the benefits of not having to rush to find things to post every morning is that it gives me time to read and enjoy more of the content I come across every day. If you want to see what really catches my eye, I invite you to follow me on Twitter, where I Share links directly from my Feedly.

Examples:

Just be ready for a lot of history, science, and random foolishness.

#DailyDigital Apple Continues to Distract Everyone from Everything Else

This morning I have a smattering of interesting tidbits for you. First, video is getting quite a bit of attention and television continues its collision course with the digital world. And then there’s an interesting piece on event data worth reading. Enjoy!

The growing pains of video ads, in five charts
Video is a fast-growing area for online advertisers and content creators.  This article is interesting because it takes a straight-forward, simplified look at some of the trends seen in online video in recent history. This is particularly poignant given that Google is pushing forward with additional investment in the video space and Nielsen is digging more deeply into video to look at cross-device/platform measurement.

AT&T Says Bulking Up With DirecTV Will Help It Squash Programming Costs
The AT&T acquisition of DIRECTV is still a ways out, but I keep watching it because it’s sort of interesting to see a telco cable provider acquiring a satellite cable provider. In particular, I think the potential for addressable TV here is pretty significant.

A programmer’s view of Apple’s new Swift language
This is kind of nerdy and off-topic, but when I get a minute I kind of what to poke around in this new language that Apple has rolled out.

Event-Level Data Enters The Spotlight
The question of media attribution is VERY interesting to me and here’s a nice article discussing some of the different approaches and how the market is evolving to take a more mature, more robust view of user activity in tracking the path customers take down the marketing funnel.

One Last Blast:

#DailyDigital Apple Apparently Rules the World

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference yesterday completely overwhelmed my feeds. No one was really talking about anything else.  I saw lots of mildly interesting things, but not a lot to really offer any commentary about.

The MOST interesting thing that happened was that I had saved an article on Ad Exchanger headlined as “With Brands Wasting Millions, Bot Traffic Is More Than A Nuisance.” I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to the article I shared yesterday that said ad fraud was an overblown and poorly reported issue that was little more than a mild irritation. Well, this morning, the article seems to have disappeared. So, I wonder what THAT’S about.

Anyway, here’s the one article I wanted to offer a bit of commentary on for this morning’s #DailyDigital post:

Data-driven digital marketing triples conversion rates (study)
Adobe has issued a study of how marketers benefit from data-driven decision making. The numbers tell a very compelling story and it’s worth a look.

One Last Blast: