From the category archives:

Social Media

Matt Richtel 2We all feel like we’re addicted to email sometimes. Now along comes someone to tell us why.

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, interviewed on the NPR program On The Media, explained that in psychological terms, there is something called “intermittent reinforcement” – “that’s this idea that if you put a rat in a device where a food pellet only comes out of a hole periodically, the rat’s going to be checking that hold all the time because it never knows when that food is available.”

The same thing happens with email, Richtel said. “Most of the stuff we get is plainly unimportant. But occasionally, something really important comes along. So what does that do? It randomly reinforces us to be checking all the time.”

In other words, we are not that much more evolved than the common rodent…at least when it comes to checking our iPhones ten times an hour. And it’s not just email – Facebook status updates, SMS, chats – they’re all part of an addiction that, apparently, gets physical as well.

Richtel again: “when you check your device, you basically get the equivalent of a dopamine squirt. Well, if you get that little candy when you check your email and you check your phone, in its absence you start to feel bored.”

And when you feel bored, you want a new squirt. So what do you do? You send out a text or an email or a Tweet, or you initiate a Facebook chat, all in the hope that you’ll get a response. It becomes an endless loop.

What does all this mean for Internet advertisers and publishers? Perhaps this: If you want to get your message out, steer clear of banner ads and choose more interruptive media. Build up your social media fans and followers. And keep them guessing as to when the next big announcement will arrive in their inboxes.


The interview, by the way, was part of a larger discussion on “distracted driving” amid new laws forbidding texting while behind the wheel – see Matt’s articles here. The implications for advertisers when it comes to potentially fatal social media behavior are far more ominous.

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Harrah'sI was listening to an old episode of one of my favorite NPR shows and podcasts, Radio Lab. The topic was how we choose and it featured a fascinating and highly disturbing story that has relevance to anyone involved in the Internet today.

It turns out that in the world of gambling, the casino chain Harrah’s is the undisputed leader. The reason? All visitors must first join a “loyalty” program. Since signing up grants the gambler a nice credit of a few bucks, no one says no. Once you get your card, you have to insert it in the slot machine whenever you want to play.

What happens next is that Harrah’s tracks everything you do at the slots – how long you stay, what machines you play, how much you spend. By crunching the numbers, Harrah’s knows your specific pain threshold and at what point you’ll have lost enough to quit.

Harrah’s staff in the back room tracks everything and when the computer flags someone coming close to their limit, a member of Harrah’s floor staff approaches the soon-to-give-up gambler and intervenes, offering a free steak dinner, or another $15 credit or even tickets to a show that evening. The result: the gambler keeps gambling.

When I first heard this, I was appalled. How could a casino be so manipulative? (Well, they’re already manipulative, but this seemed over the top.) And how could gamblers be so gullible as to give the casino access to their personal behaviors.

But then I realized that what Harrah’s is doing is really no different than what’s happening online today. Advertisers using behavioral targeting are tracking your every move on the web – which sites you linger on, how long you stay in one place, what links you click on. The advertiser then knows to serve up the right ad at the right time and place.

Let’s say you just left and are now at The New York Times. If the two companies both use the same tracking service, it’s easy for The Times to serve up an auto ad even though you’ve long since left

And how about mobile GPS services? We give up our privacy so that we can receive customized ads and coupons for restaurants in the vicinity of where we’re walking or driving. We see that as valuable – hey, I just got 10% off – but aren’t you being manipulated in exactly the same way as at the casino? Minority Report isn’t so far away.

I’m not saying that we should turn off our cookies – often times those ads can be valuable – and in any case, it’s largely impractical given the way the Internet operates. But we should be aware of what’s happening around us and make sure that we know when we’ve given our permission to be manipulated.


This is what social media is all about…a wedding proposal via YouTube and posted to Facebook. It’s in Hebrew, but you get the idea.


There have been some very funny social media parodies that have swept the web. CollegeHumor’s Web Site Story and the BBC’s What if Facebook Were Real?

The latest to come across my desk is this take on a new nano-blogging service with a maximum of 26 character updates: Flutter. Enjoy!

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Have you ever wanted to place a note in the Western Wall but couldn’t afford the ticket to Jerusalem? Now you can tweet it.

It’s traditional to place short notes in the cracks of the Western Wall stones asking for health, livelihood and other personal requests. Now, a new Israeli Web site launched two weeks allows petitioners to submit their prayers or wishes via Twitter. The notes are then printed out and regularly taken to Jerusalem’s Old City.

Twitter is ideal for such a service: the 140-character limitation forces the religiously-minded to keep their requests short. It also allows site founder, Alon Nir of Tel Aviv, to consolidate a number of messages onto a single sheet of paper.

Nir doesn’t see the project more as cultural than religious. “I thought of it after understanding Twitter’s power and wondered what I could do with it,” he said. “So I linked the Western Wall to the millions using Twitter.”

One drawback: since the service uses Twitter, the notes are all public. Didn’t we all learning that telling someone what you wish for means it won’t come true?

The site is at You can follow the service at (Kotel is the Hebrew for Western Wall). The site already has 546 followers.

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