We’ve now seen two waves of high face-mask fashion: the early-responders and the marketing-minded. Early-responders were fast acting in response to our crisis. Many early-mover brands that retooled for face mask-making, like La Ligne and Clare V., prioritized relief efforts by donating to coronavirus charities. Others simply channeled their creative energies, adapted their couture style to make face masks beautiful accessories.
The freshest wave of fashion-mask makers took a little more time to think, and have figured out different “masks as marketing” strategies. High-end designers have introduced matching outfits, with spring patterns and luxurious materials. “Free mask with purchase” has become a hook to drive sales. And branded masks, both for sale and as give-aways, are providing free advertising for masstige and boutique brands alike.
This industry pivot feels uniquely American. In countries like Korea, where mask wearing was more of a prior norm and more quickly adopted, fashionistas have focused more on eye-makeup than the actual mask aesthetic. America, it seems, is more masterful at driving spending. And looking at our annual ad spend, it’s no wonder: American companies spend 2.7x more on advertising compared to the next biggest spender, China. As they say, it takes money to make money.
American companies are also exceptionally creative at inventing new market niches. I would have expected Victoria’s Secrets to come up with the provocative mask that looks like lingerie. But Katie May beat them to it.
All in all, I tip my protective visor to the fashion industry for getting creative. One of the joys of living in New York is witnessing everyone’s self expression, and right now, the most universal way to do that is through face masks. I’ve collected a few now, with different fabrics, cuts, and patterns. It started out as a search for more comfort, and now, it’s become a statement.
In the new normal of remote work, we are still adapting to the intense amount of screen time that has replaced our in-person interactions. Perhaps you don’t feel like happy hours are as happy when you’re sitting an extra hour at your computer. Or you miss the simple phone calls that have suddenly turned video. For those who empathize, I offer the Zoom serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the Zoom calls I cannot change; courage to cancel the video calls I do not need; and wisdom to know the difference.
Boundaries are harder than ever to set in these crazy times, but also more important than ever for our mental health and productivity. Take CGP Grey’s word for it.
Have your own remote work serenity prayer? Please share on Twitter @mbainthecity!
As American society is increasingly moving from towns to cities, and from meeting face-to-face to meeting on Facetime, we have had to re-imagine community. We are figuring out how to navigate the “iPhone Effect” on our social connections. And our choices about how we engage with others with technology have huge implications. Will our social capital die down as we withdraw from traditional community, as Robert Putnam feared, or will community simply take on a new form? What does it look like to create and maintain a network of reliable peers, to make meaningful connections in new ways that suit our modern context?
Three principles from three places
I have been a part of a few different communities – work, home, and church – and have observed a few features that have made each a place of belonging. I’ll share a story about each, and then explore why these features of community feel increasingly rare.
In hustle-bustle cities like New York, there’s a sense of anonymity as you walk the streets and peruse the shops. You may be having a bad hair day, but you’ll never see those people giving you side-eye again! It can be liberating. And isolating. And so when I walked into Abyssinian Baptist Church, I noticed the immediate difference in the environment. Famous for their role in the Civil Rights Movement, ABC‘s activist roots run deep and were laced through the sermon. But that is not what gave the church a palpable feeling of connection. Rather, it was their ability to lift their community members up and make them known to each other. The head pastor invested a quarter of the service in spotlighting congregation members, asking them to stand and share their two way relationship with the church. The children reading passages from the bible were introduced. A woman who leads a black women on Broadway group was announced and lauded for her contributions. With so many names and faces getting celebrated and supported, it de-anonymized everyone, made me proud of people I didn’t actually know. In other words, I didn’t just connect with the general experience of the church service. I felt I understood some of the people in it, and cared about their well-being.
But this sort of success in fostering connection doesn’t happen on its own. It needs to be deliberately structured into the cadence of community interactions. The next principle and example share a great success story of building relationships in a group whose members were simultaneously complete strangers and close peers.
Build a support system
Gathering a bunch of people who don’t know each other well in a room, even if they have a lot in common, can often lead to short, somewhat transactional exchanges. Yet that same room of people, with deliberate facilitation, can come alive together and seed the beginnings of lifelong friendships. I saw this arc in my company as we facilitated educator user groups, brought together virtually to develop free math resources online. At the end of the first user group, educators noted that, even with virtual summits and chat room discussions, they felt they’d missed an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with their peers. And so we designed more structured interactions into the next group’s architecture. We created peer pairings for ongoing support. We gave each educator two peer reviewers to provide feedback on the resources they designed. And we scheduled weekly discussion prompts for the chat rooms, giving educators a predictable rhythm of convening to exchange information and ideas. Engagement skyrocketed, and lasting friendships developed.
Providing structure to interactions led to shared expectations about engagement. This organically led educators to invest time into knowledge sharing above and beyond what the program required. Creating availability, it seemed, had been the key ingredient to relationship building. This has proven out in other communities, as I explore in the next example.
In many buildings I have lived in in New York, I never met my neighbors. My latest apartment is different. There are a number of retired folks who have lived in the building for many years, and they use their free time to be, well, neighborly. They have time to chat in the hallways. They knock on my door if they notice I have a package in the lobby. They offer to dog-sit. In short, they have time for me. And I, of course, have time for them. I offer to plant sit and pick up their mail when they travel. I have their phone numbers and know who their friends are in the building. We’ve inserted a bit of dependability into our network, by taking every small opportunity to be supportive of each other.
Where technology fits in
You may be wondering, why isn’t all of this obvious? Why is it so rare to know and support the people in your social circles in a reliable way? Why do we fail to consistently invest in relationship building?
Many would argue that today’s lower levels of community connection are a continuation of a multi-decade trend. Robert Putnam famously published a macro analysis in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, that identified a 58% decline in club meeting attendance, a 43% decline in family dinners, and 35% drop in having friends over between 1975 and 2000. Putnam identified changes in work, family structure, suburban life, and screen time, among other factors, as contributing to this decline in meaningful group relationships.
The solution to help buck this structural trend, according to the tech giants of the 2000s, was technology. Technology was supposed to bring us closer together. Facebook famously claimed that it could expanding the Dunbar number, the number of meaningful relationships a human can maintain. However, it turned out that the Dunbar number didn’t change. What social media has done is bring your outer circle of acquaintances in, rather than strengthening or growing your inner circle. Simultaneously, technology has increased our culture of distraction, competing for attention that could otherwise be focused on our close friends and communities.
If we rule our technology, and don’t let our technology rule us, it can still be a tool that builds community rather than undermines it. Use technology to make yourself available. Use the structure of a WhatsApp group to organize regular meetings. Carve out time in your group gatherings on and offline to hear more about the individuals that make your members. Abandon the convenience of liking a post, and actually speak directly to your friends, be it in-person or on Skype. Reject the loneliness of optionality and anonymity that big cities and infinite online interactions offer. Make your circles smaller and your world more personal.
As a youngish professional spending most of my time in Manhattan, I find myself in food deserts from time to time, or move to move as it were. Each new move can spur a renewed exploration of meal kits, which have proliferated as a consumer offering in the last 5-10 years. A lot of listicles like Reviewed.com rate the mail-and-cook kit options, without factoring in the changing face of grocery. Thinking outside the FedEx box means recognizing that Whole Foods is in on the game now, and it’s not just Weight Watchers selling ready healthy meals anymore. Below is a side-by-side comparison sampling one of each of the three mealkit styles:
Blue Apron representing mail-and-cook
Amazon Meal Kits debuting pick-up-and-cook
Freshly repping mail, heat and eat
Amazon Meal Kits: I’m impressed
Amazon always does everything a little differently. In this instance, they’ve priced each meal kit differently, ranging from $15.99 to $19.99. This makes sense when the ingredients range from chicken to shrimp, and departs from the typical meal kit practice of flat pricing.
Also distinctive is the short, simple instructions and minimal number of ingredients. This meant that the 30 minute cooking time was a true 30 minutes! I tried the pork dish, and appreciated the fresh crunch and flavors, likely aided by the fact that I cooked it the same day that I bought it.
Freshly: full of flavor
Freshly caught my eye with a promotion, and now they have me sold. Six single meals for $60 gets you imaginative dishes like “Aloha Chicken” and wild-caught mahi. I had my doubts about microwave dishes, but the spices and the fresh ingredients mean there is only a little added softness from the microwave steaming. It’s all a huge upgrade from the panini and chicken salad sandwiches of downtown delis.
Blue Apron: light on flavor, long on time
I gave up on Blue Apron last year. The long recipe descriptions and amount of chopping for a knife-skills novice meant that the “30 minute” prep times were usually more like 60 minutes – that’s 100% overage! Also, they seemed to think salt, pepper, and olive oil were all you need to make a dish pop. It got a bit boring after a short while. And even with all the cooking time, I didn’t become a significantly better cook. Hence my back-tracking to the simpler options above.
The final evaluation: price, time and flavor
So who wins the a battle of price, time, and flavor? I’ve conveniently plotted price vs. time performance of these three options below, and plotted flavor against prep time in a 2×2 below.
When evaluating flavor against prep time, we see Amazon and Freshly are in the lead.
Using the Net Promoter Score scale for each of the three, rating how likely I am to recommend each kit on a scale of 0 to 10, here’s where I personally land on ratings for Amazon, Freshly, and Blue Apron.
I noticed a bold ad campaign at 14th St. for a city not a lot of people talk about. It’s a city I’ve been to, the home of Mozart, with airy music chambers graced by string quartets and delicious chocolate deserts. Things that are engage the senses beyond sight. Their ad campaign slogan is “unhashtag your vacation”. Their campaign images use a hashtag like a strike-through. They suggest to the viewers that they should engage with experiences personally rather than positioning them for personal branding on social media.
These ads are a bold statement – speaking to America, the birthplace of Mad Men, in our own language – marketing. Because social media has literally become dangerous.
Death by selfie
The viral photo of the queue of mountaineers waiting to take their selfies at the summit of Mt. Everest, and also struggling for oxygen, has shocked the world into a moment of reflection.
Eleven deaths resulted from the excess of wealthy adventurers. Have vacations been reduced to photo ops for bragging rights?
In the same moment, Vienna is challenging us to think about the purpose of vacations and the role of photography – big questions in a world with a growing middle-class and a camera on every personal device. To answer these big questions, it’s worth walking back to the land before digital photography and the world before social media, which I grew up in.
My journey from photography to social media
My first experiences traveling were on middle school trips. My parents let me borrow their film-based camera, and I took as many as 3 roles of film for a 3 day trip to places like Salem, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. With film, you never knew how a photo would come out until it was processed, so I erred on the side of volume. I assumed everything was interesting, worth capturing and documenting, from store fronts to tourist attractions to friends. Eventually I realized that my documentary style photography was a little extreme, and only ~10% of the photos had strong visual interest – I wasn’t even looking at most of the photos! In high school, I had fewer field trips and was more selective about what I photographed. My photography became anthropocentric, capturing natural moments that I valued and events that were firsts or celebratory. I made my favorite photos into little gifts, which friends loved. They were personal moments made special, for private consumption.
When digital photography arose in my college years, I had opportunities to travel again and work in other countries in the summers. My first digital camera was quickly stolen, and when I finally acquired a new one, I was more sparse and selective about what I photographed. Only the most beautiful sites that I would not want to forget. The misted mountains of Machu Picchu. The colorful sands of the Atacama Desert. Enchanting sights that I had never imagined existed, let alone having the chance to visit.
As I was starting to travel, social media was on the rise. This meant, for the first time, large scale external feedback, for better or for worse. I joined the fray of “look how awesome a time I’m having” posts for a while, but found myself naturally limiting my Facebook consumption to one hour a week. Yet I found that hour to be mostly an unhappy one. I told myself I was keeping up with friends, but increasingly just felt left out of all the fun people were having without me. But business school amplified my use and, thus, the detrimental effects of social media, which have now become well documented.
I now sit in the in-between. Sometimes I feel like I should participate in social media because my peers do, yet it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I see lots of photos of food with hundreds of likes, yet when I take similar photos they feel uncompelling, and I never post them. It feels strange, creating content that has become part of our typical virtual communication, but it feeling entirely forced and artificial. Increasingly, I try to eat my chocolate cake without photographing it, too.
Vacation for vacation’s sake
It goes without saying, vacations are more than just selfie opportunities. They are about your being present in a refreshing setting, not about the social media story you tell about it. I used to take a ton of photos and go through roles of film. Then I realized I was neither stopping to look at the photos nor stopping to really soak in the sites I was visiting. Vacations should not be about the external feedback that social media provides. What is most important is the internal moments of reflection, observation, and appreciation that they offer. And the same is true of our weekends, our moments with family and close friends, and every joie de vivre.
This weekend I had my first baby-puppy meet up with b-school friends. Yes, we’re all in that phase of life ranging from millennial pawent to full fledged parenthood. We chose what seemed like the perfect meeting point: Madison Square Park. It boasts a modern playground and one of the rare small dog parks for the under 20 lb pooches. When the six adults converged we began dancing a fine line. A cluster of us filtered into the playground where the dog wasn’t allowed. Then we switched to the dog park, where the two-year-old was less than thrilled but stoical about being surrounded by animals larger than her. Finally, we all decided it was time to stroll in search of a truly common ground: the outdoor cafe. Yet such spots are somewhat elusive, seasonal, and in high demand at this time of year. At this point I started to realize what parenthood is really about: planning.
I began the search for the ideal map of places that meet all of our familial needs. And here is what I found:
Dog friendly cafe map
The Dog People, powered by Rover.com, wins my earnest respect for actually pinning their favorite dog-friendly restaurant to a map! While it’s limited to Manhattan, that’s the hardest borough to navigate with a fluffy friend. Bring Fido comes in second for its colorful food photography, although the “New York, New York” tag for every location doesn’t add much.
Kid friendly restaurant list
Time Out New York is certainly guilty of over-indexing on Times Square, but lots of their picks, like Alice’s Tea Cup, are super legit. I personally love their pumpkin scones – which taste like real British scones, with buttery rich moisture. (If you thought you didn’t like scones, you should still try these ones!)
Time Out New York’s kid friendly list and the Dog People’s dog friendly list share two of the top ten restaurants! They are:
As a new millennial parent, also known as a “pawent”, I have had to make some lifestyle adjustments. As gym sessions got swapped for dog walks, I realized I didn’t want to gain a friend and also a couch bod. I recognized the need to raise the fitness bar with my furry friend. So to complement my airport yoga routine, which helps me stretch my way through JFK on work trips, I’ve developed a plan for me and my dog to both keep up with the squirrels: dogercise. With this new approach to workouts, you’ll see you lose none of your fitness and gain all the time you need with your fuzzy companion.
Bench press → Puppy press
Use a 10-15 lb dog for toning. To build muscle mass, choose a 20-50 lb dog. On a flat back with bent knees, position one hand on the ribs and one hand mid-belly. Repeat 3 sets of 15 reps. Stretch in between by fully extending arms while scratching your dog’s back in reward for being a good boy.
Running → Chasing
In a place where your dog can be off leash, either in a dog park or a living room, chase dog in circles until he or she has been panting for at least 5 minutes. To get your dog highly motivated to maintain the pursuit, bait him or her with a favorite “keep away” object not intended for chewing, such as a shoe or sock. Ensure that the baiting shoe is not one you will miss.
Mason twists → Mason tugs
Sit on the ground with your back angled at 45 degrees. Get your dog engaged with a tug toy by squeaking or shaking in front of his or her nose. Once dog grips the tug toy, raise legs parallel to the ground, with toes pointed, and pull the tug toy under your legs. Pass the tug toy from one hand to the other, until dog has walked a 180 degree arc under your legs. Repeat the passing for 20 reps. Rest in between sets by snuggling your dog.
Yes, you truly can have it all. And as they grow from puppy to adult, yoga may be the next frontier, with tandem downward dog. Namastay. Good boy.
The CEO of Netflix issued a letter to shareholders in January warning that the greatest threat to its growth is not from traditional media companies, but from video game Fortnight. In short, CEO Reed Hastings is signalling that the boundaries of the Netflix competitive set are not limited to direct competitors, but are inclusive of anyone competing in the attention economy.
In our technology-infused day and age, the attention economy has become a fierce battleground. Initially, most addictive, arms-reach entertainment could fill the cracks, folding around one another. People have typically browsed Facebook on commercial breaks or tweeted while watching a live event. However, two trends are forcing stiffer competition for attention. First, consciousness about screen time. Screen time has gone from a neutral to a threatening and uncertain term. Its perceived deleterious effects on our brains and social skills has led to a wave of pushback, from studies professing its harms, to new built-in features in phones for self-regulation. At the same time, video games like Fortnight have taken a page from traditional consumer marketing playbooks, engineering their games to be more “snackable”; each Fortnight round lasts only 15 minutes, easily nudging players into a “just one more” mentality. This segment of time is just tantalizing enough yet substantial enough to lead players and observers to look up and realize hours have passed, hours that are no longer available for other TV and streaming options.
The finite resource of our time is forcing choices as the number of options only increases. And the Fortnight vs. Netflix battle is yet another example of the brave new economy we are operating in, where capabilities are what scale rather than discrete consumer offerings. Fortnight and Netflix are highly skilled at capturing attention. Other companies, like Amazon and Uber, are breaking into new markets by leveraging their logistics capabilities and distribution, with Prime Video and Uber Eats. Unfortunately for Netflix, their capabilities only scale to compete in the most finite market of all: the market for time.
2018 was an epic year for security hacks, from Marriott to Facebook. Following on the tails of the 2017 Equifax hack that exposed half of American social security numbers, now hackers can pair that up with passport numbers and birthdates with a quick purchase on the ever-growing dark web.
While most Americans don’t trust institutions to protect their data, they also don’t seem to care. For me, it was easy enough to take basic password precautions, using 1password or the like to keep passwords varied and random. But now, after listening to Reply All’s interviews with hackers — boasting about destroying people’s credit and lives with ease — I’ve been scared straight into taking responsibility for my cyber-safety. There are three resources that are free, low hanging fruit to reduce your presence on the internet and deter hackers.
1. Google Voice
You may have noticed that two factor authentication these days often involves a text message. Unfortunately hackers know this too, and are now in the habit of targeting phone companies to get targeted numbers transferred to them to enable their cyber hacks. (Details in The Snapchat Thief episode of Reply All). This is where Google Voice comes in handy! You can either port your number over to Google Voice, or start using a Google Voice number as your two-factor authentication number. As a bonus, you can get a Google Voice number for free with a Google account.
If you don’t like fiddling with your phone every time you need a second factor authentication, you could also pay $36 a year for 1password. 1password both securely stores passwords and provides the second factor authentication by automatically pasting the temporary code to your clipboard – Crtl-V and you’re done.
2. Hidden from the Internet workbook
The aforementioned Reply All episode included many helpful security links in the show notes, including this handy workbook. This excerpt from Hidden from the Internet walks through how to freeze your credit (remember that Equifax breach?) and remove your personal information from public databases. There are an eye-popping number of such databases, but the author highlights the top 10 that will have the biggest trickle-down effect of wiping your info from the internet.
DuckDuckGo’s Chrome plugin and search engine offer three fantastic benefits. First, they force sites to use encrypted connections when available. Second, they automatically block tracker networks from spying on you across the internet. Lastly, they tell you how private each site you visit is with a grade, based on how they treat your data — a grade which is boosted by the first two measures. Thus, a privacy rating could move from a D to a B with some automatic protections enabled by DuckDuckGo. I previously used Ghostery for this, which has similar functionality, but it had more manual design, the search was less accurate, and the mobile app was super slow.
Picking the low hanging fruit
Of course I know these measures wouldn’t protect me from a committed hacker, but at least it’s a deterrent for the lazy ones. Not taking these steps is like leaving your front door unlocked. Taking them is simply adding a button lock that could be picked. At the very least, with less of my info on the internet, I’ll get less spam and marketing!
Decades ago Christmas tree shopping in New York was simply a story of street corner competitors. Then came the chain stores, like Whole Foods and Home Depot. And now, enter stage left the biggest player of them all: Amazon. Yes, this season e-commerce is in the Christmas tree market.
Amazon is testing a new thesis on tree shopping: delivery to your door trumps walking to the corner. Aesthetic items used to be squarely in the “try before you buy” category, which only brick and mortar can provide. But our consumer behaviors continue to evolve with the proliferation of e-commerce options, and Amazon thinks the time is now to give e-trees a try.
As Christmas tree prices have remained somewhat elevated following last year’s shortage, Amazon’s pricing of $109 + free delivery is actually a steal! Whole Foods is playing an even more competitive pricing game (likely riding the Amazon wholesale cost advantage), with pricing starting at $35 for a 6-foot tree on Black Friday Weekend. Compare this to the guy on the corner selling $120 trees, and it may be worth the extra avenue of carrying making your husband carry your freshly cut pine – and it’s an excuse to walk off the turkey!
But perhaps you want to optimize for distance walked more than price, and are interested in supporting tree farmers directly. In that case, you can also save some money by buying your tree from your corner vendor in mid-to-late December, rather than early December, when tree demand is highest.
Personally, even at ~20% off, I’m not convinced that buying a Christmas tree blind is a better experience than bundling one up that I’ve examined, checked the moisture levels of, and chatted with a farmer about. I want to know the sustainability policy of his or her farm, and that my tree is locally sourced, 100% organic, free range, cruelty free, and fair trade. I want to be reassured that it had a loving upbringing with a good family. And even if Amazon got all that right, if they are really serious about the e-tree game, I’d want a generous return policy, so that I can order three trees in different sizes, compare them, and return the extras.