The Hub Cool News

Magical Thinking

magical-thinking"We’re more susceptible to magical thinking than we’d like to admit," reports C. Nathan DeWall in The New York Times (10/28/14). Magical thinking, essentially, is the belief "that events happen with no physical explanation." It equates "an image of something with its existence." For example: "Zombies wreak terror because children believe the once-dead can reappear. At haunted houses, children dip their hands in buckets of cold noodles and spaghetti sauce … and know they felt guts."

The thing is, the tendency to suspend disbelief is not limited to children. Laura A. King of the University of Missouri conducted a study where she asked students to throw darts at pictures of babies and face-shaped circles. She found that the students’ performance "plummeted when people threw darts at the baby" out of a "baseless concern that a picture of an object shares an essential relationship with the object itself." Our subconscious tells us that whatever happens to the image happens to the depicted object itself, as well.

This response is at odds with our rational mind, and Tamar Gendler of Yale has coined a term — aliefs — to capture the concept that our "innate and habitual reactions … may be at odds with our conscious beliefs." It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Most people wouldn’t eat chocolates shaped like feces even "though they knew it would not harm them." Our aliefs are based on "deeply ingrained reactions that protect us from disease." In other words, "magical thinking … is part of our evolved psychology."

The Magic Table

magicians-societyHarry Houdini’s spirit lives on at a Manhattan cafe, reports Louie Lazar in The Wall Street Journal (10/13/14). "Magicians have been meeting in Manhattan since the 19th century …" In the 1920s, Harry Houdini and fellow conjurers would talk magic "at a Midtown restaurant." The Magic Table, as the gathering is known, has also been visited by "big names like Slydini, Doug Henning and David Copperfield" — along with "lawyers, salesmen and doctors who share a passion for magic and a reverence for magicians of ages past."

Today, they meet each Friday at the Cafe Edison, "a converted former ballroom in the Theater District." The regulars levitate coffee cups, wield trick scissors and make things disappear. Leaving a tip "and then reeling the money back with an invisible string" is a favorite of Jerry Oppenheimer, 92, "a longtime stenographer in Bronx Supreme Court … he did magic tricks for juries during recesses." He was known as The Court Magician. To Jerry, The Magic Table is "the pinnacle of a place where all the greats gathered. It’s a relic of my past," he says.

It’s a past somewhat upended by the Internet, which "has killed a lot of secrets," says Doug Edwards, "an expert on the history of magic." At the same time, it has made magic "more accessible than ever." While Magic Table gatherings are small, they remain "a focal point known all over the world," says George Schindler, "lifetime dean of the Society of American Magicians." The get-togethers also remain true to their origins, not only a place for magic but also "a place where you could tell a guy your troubles," says Jerry.

The Eir Ball

eir-ballA new kind of soccer ball is designed specifically for girls and women, reports Claire Martin in The New York Times (10/26/14). The Eir Ball – named after the Nordic goddess of health — was created by Majken Gilmartin after watching her young daughter’s team playing with a standard soccer ball, like those used by adult men and women. Her daughter was 12 or 13 at the time, an age at which kids graduate from children’s soccer balls. "They got fatigued," says Majken, who was also concerned that the larger soccer ball might cause injuries.

Her solution is a "smaller, softer soccer ball for girls and women" that "weighs 13 ounces and has a circumference of 26.4 inches. It is one to three ounces lighter and a half-inch to one and half inches smaller in girth than a professional-size soccer ball. It’s also made of softer materials, including foam on the inside that provides extra bounce." Because "women’s more slender legs and ankles mean they have to kick a standard soccer ball at a higher velocity, on average, than men to make the same shot," the Eir Ball "adjusts for that difference."

Most important, the design helps prevent concussions: "For girls, soccer poses the highest concussion risk of any sport." The Danish Football Association has approved the Eir Ball "for use in girl’s and women’s recreational games" and Majken hopes FIFA "will do the same." For now, the Eir Ball is sold "through Eir Soccer, a nonprofit." It costs $58, compared to a range of "$35 to $160" for high-quality soccer balls, and so far some 16,000 Eir Balls have been sold throughout Denmark. Majken hopes to expand distribution to the United States.

Women & Wine

red-wineRed wine is the drink-of-choice for powerful women on television, reports Eric Asimov in The New York Times (10/29/14). On The Good Wife, "Alicia Florrick, the high-powered lawyer … wants nothing more than a giant glass of red wine when she gets home from a day of legal maneuvering … Claire Underwood, now the first lady in House of Cards, drinks red wine alone at an otherwise empty dining room table." As a woman of power, she "must drink red" even in "private moments," lest she be exposed to "the audience as white wine weak."

Even in real life — relatively — Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb of The Today Show "famously have glasses of wine in front of them at a jarringly early hour. The wine either connotes a convivial, intimate gathering with the audience, or utter artificiality … American popular culture has always been awash in alcoholic beverages, but seldom has the drink been wine, red wine in particular, and rarely has it been treated so specifically as a beverage primarily for women, served in oversize goblets and consumed like after-work cocktails of previous eras."

On Scandal, Olivia Pope "treats even the finest wine as if it were a can of beer. She habitually grabs glasses by the bulb, rather than the stem … she never swirls or sniffs. She guzzles rather than sips." While red wine conveys a certain strength among women, "it would do the opposite for men, conveying too contemplative a concern with pretty things." On Frasier, such "connoisseurship was used to connote fastidious vanity … The way wine is used as a character device … can tell us a lot about how wine is viewed in popular culture."

Houzz

houzzStarted five years ago at a kitchen table, Houzz is now disrupting home remodeling, reports George Anders in Forbes (11/3/14). Alon Cohen and Adi Tatarko — husband and wife — were amazed to find that "even after a 15-year stampede of consumer Internet startups, nobody online had solved such a big common need." They decided to create Houzz after their "three-year struggle to get their own home renovation organized properly." Today, their site gets "more traffic than retailing giants such as Nordstrom, Gap and Staples."

Their big idea is to keep it real, avoiding "talking up trophy homes in favor of showing people ideas that feel right in their own neighborhoods." The philosophy: "Be welcoming. Don’t hunt for one official sense of taste. Stay away from celebrity homes. This isn’t about unrealizable fantasies. It’s a site where users can see realistic ideas for their own homes." It’s a philosophy that attracts "more than 25 million visitors" monthly to "endlessly shoppable photo galleries" contributed by architects and designers who also pay for listings.

Being industry outsiders makes a difference. "We like founders who build companies to solve problems in their own lives, even if they aren’t experts in the field," says Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital, an investor. "They unpack issues in a way that people in the industry have never unpacked them. They see things that everyone else misses." Houzz is currently break-even, but how it will make money is not yet totally clear. For now, the plan is simply to continue to make Houzz "the friendliest, smoothest site possible."

Munchery

muncheryDinners delivered cold is Munchery’s plan to beat other meal-delivery services, reports Ellen Huet in Forbes (11/3/14). Where Sprig scrambles to deliver meals piping hot and Blue Apron is pushing meal kits, Munchery has "placed its bet on the middle ground: Its meals are cooked, plated and chilled before being dropped off during dinnertime hours to be reheated in homes and offices." CEO and co-founder Tri Tan sees "stone-cold logistics" as his competitive edge for several reasons.

When it comes to hot meals, he says: "How long has that been sitting in a car?" And as for the kits: "Three meals means a 20-pound box with packaging up the wazoo." What’s more, "cold food is exempt from California sales taxes, roughly a 9% savings." Among Munchery’s backers is "Shervin Pishevar, the venture capitalist who bet on Uber back when it was just a scrappy black-car service," whose SherpaVentures is in for some $25 million. Beyond the concept, Shervin was attracted to Trin’s "quiet leadership."

He also was taken by the entrepreneur’s personal story: "He escaped from Vietnam by boat at age 11 with his grandmother and older brother, ended up in San Jose with his aunt and uncle, and didn’t see his parents again until he graduated from MIT." He told potential investors that compared to that "a startup didn’t seem so hard." Says Shervin: "The world needs to see someone like Tri build a multi-billion dollar company." Currently, Munchery is valuated at about $180 million, and is expanding from San Francisco to Seattle, NYC, LA and DC.

Joy of Patagonia

patagoniaThe Patagonia brand experience emanates from those who experience it, says Joy Howard in a Hub Magazine interview (Nov/Dec 2014). If you haven’t watched Worn Wear, then Google it. You’ll meet Christo Grayling, an Australian surfer who replaced the backside of his ‘boardies’ with a scrap of beach umbrella. Kristin Gates, who has hiked about 10,000 miles, much of it in a particular wool cap. Steve Sprinkel, a farmer in love with what he does and the used, yard-sale jacket in which he does it. Each character seems a little crazier than the next, and at the heart of their endearing insanity is an intense, emotional connection to a brand. Patagonia. Joy Howard isn’t in the video, but she would fit right in. In 1992 — more than 20 years before she would join Patagonia as its head of marketing — she got rid of her car and rode a bicycle instead.

This wasn’t easy, especially after she had kids. When it rained, well, she just put on her Patagonia raincoat." It was a constant companion for me wherever I went," says Joy. "I had it in my bag and it definitely got me through many a rainy day-care dash." That degree of intensity likely only affects a small percentage of those who buy into the Patagonia brand and its marketing, which Joy suggests is more like anti-marketing. Where most brands use marketing to convert prospects into customers, Patagonia wants to turn customers into activists.

That’s why it famously runs ads urging people to avoid buying things, and produced a documentary film, DamNation, advocating the removal of dams that disrupt salmon populations. The purpose of this ‘marketing’ is less about making us buy and more about making us think. Yes, this does tend to have the reverse effect: Patagonia sells quite well. The difference is, its marketing is not an overlay wrapped around a soft, green promise. It’s not perfect, but it is true to the spirit of the days when founder Yvon Chouinard sold rock-climbing gear out of his car (perfection would have required a bicycle). "It’s not a brand experience that comes out of endless meetings debating what the brand experience should be," says Joy. "It’s just a reflection of our values and the way we work." Read The Hub Interview with Joy Howard of Patagonia.

Nobody’s Perfect

nobodys-perfectWhich brands do consumers love best, despite their flaws? ‘Responsibility’ is the weakest of the weak links in the brand experience across a plurality the 12 top brands offered for assessment in the latest reader survey from the Hub Magazine (Nov/Dec 2014). For some, this was defined as ‘social responsibility’ while for others it meant the brand’s responsibility to its consumers on measures like price/value and reliability. The survey presented a set of six attributes that shape the brand experience (quality, availability, personality, responsibility, usability and remarkability) and asked respondents to pick the weakest point of each of the brands. It also provided ‘perfect’ as an option for those who couldn’t find fault of any kind, as well as a comment box to provide the reasons behind their choices.

Of the 12 brands, ‘responsibility’ was the number-one flaw among five (Apple, Google, Disney, Coca-Cola, and Facebook). The word ‘responsibility’ certainly can mean different things. For example, while some cited Apple’s manufacturing practices, most of the criticism centered on the brand’s price/value proposition. Coke, not surprisingly, was knocked for the potentially adverse health consequences of its flagship product. With Google, ‘responsibility’ was tied to matters of privacy. The same issue surfaced with Amazon to a relatively lesser degree. Facebook, meanwhile, was in a league of its own, with 50 percent of readers citing ‘responsibility’ as its greatest weakness. No other brand scored higher than 33 percent on this measure (Coca-Cola).

Samsung was found lacking in the ‘personality’ department by 37 percent. Interestingly, both Amazon and Google scored poorly on personality, too — perhaps surprising for enterprises that tend to be widely admired. On the flip side, Mini Cooper oozes personality but ‘usability’ is its soft spot. ‘Quality’ is Ikea’s greatest handicap, mitigated for some by a strong sense of style. Starbucks and American Express were notable in that the criticisms were fairly evenly distributed across the various attributes. Neither led the pack as ‘perfect,’ however. That honor went to Nike, which was deemed flawless by 22 percent, compared to 19 percent for Starbucks and 15 percent for Amex. Ironically, the overall report on Nike was something less than perfect. Its lowest-scoring attribute is ‘remarkability’ — surprising for a brand associated with innovation. It also scored relatively low on ‘quality’ and ‘responsibility.’ Read The Complete Survey Results.

Antique Apples

pitmaston-pineappleMost supermarkets carry just 12 kinds of apples out of 17,000 known varieties, reports Michael Tortorello in The New York Times (10/23/14). We now know this because of a new, 3,000-page encyclopedia, "The Illustrated History of Apples in North America," by Dan Bussey, which documents every kind of apple "known to have grown between the years 1623 and 2000." The book is a labor of love for Dan, who began documenting apples in 1983 for fun. He also collects horse-drawn carriages, sleighs and still uses WordPerfect.

His seven-volume encyclopedia is unlikely to be a commercial success, but it is exciting to John Bunker, an apple historian: "This will be the most important book ever published in North America about apples," he says. "There has been nothing like it and there will never again be something like it." While most of these apples are history, Dan estimates there are "at least 5,000 apples still out there, up to present-day breeding." How they taste may be another matter as most have a "thick skin or strong tannins" to repel "critters and blights."

Many of these bygone apples survive only as "archival watercolors, created a century ago from the original apples by the US Department of Agriculture." Some may still be growing — albeit anonymously — as apple trees can live hundreds of years. Dan says he thinks there’s probably about another 1,000 varieties he has yet to find. Meanwhile, as manager of the Seed Savers Exchange Historic Orchard, Dan nurtures heritage apples such as the Knobby Russet, Black Gilliflower and Pitmaston Pineapple — along with about 1,100 others.

Rice Rolls

basmatiAmerica’s search for interesting grains is growing like white on rice, reports Sarah Nassauer in The Wall Street Journal (10/15/14). Actually, it’s not the white rice that’s driving the growth — the majority of growth in the rice category is "specialty rice like basmati, red and blends." It’s currently a $2.2 billion business in the United States "as shoppers flock to ethnic foods that feel authentic and search for interesting grains that boast health benefits like fiber, protein or other nutrients."

"I had no idea these rices existed," says Christina Ragsdale, 58. "If you only eat the white stuff it’s always the same," she adds, intrigued by the "dark red, black and blends of rice appearing more frequently at her local supermarket." Among those capitalizing on such interest is Amira Nature Foods, which "hopes to signal to mainstream shoppers that its basmati, grown at the foothills of the Himalayas, is precious because of its origins and superior to the less flavorful white long-grain rice most Americans grew up with."

Younger consumers, who tend to favor "Indian, Mexican and Thai" food, are prime customers for new rice varieties, as are America’s fast-growing Asian and Mexican populations. Rice is "naturally gluten-free," too, and the "darker rice has more fiber than white rice." Cooking rice can be a hurdle, though, giving rise to rice cookers that "stop automatically when water is absorbed." RiceSelect is promoting its exotic line of rice by "giving away 5,000 rice cookers" and Costco is setting up cookers in its aisles so shoppers can sample Amira’s aromatic rice.

Handmade Vodka

titoVictorino Matus offers a spirited defense of Tito’s claim to being ‘handmade’ vodka in a Wall Street Journal essay (10/20/14). In the beginning, Bert "Tito" Beveridge used Elmer’s glue to affix labels to bottles of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and attached "every cap to the point of getting carpal-tunnel syndrome. Alone, he could crank out 65 cases a day. This was back in the 1990s, when he was sleeping on the floor, next to his still, doing every little thing, well, by hand." Today, however, Tito’s "a 26-acre operation" producing some 850,000 cases.

Can vodka manufactured on such a scale still call itself "handmade"? A pair of class-action lawsuits — one in Florida and the other in California — charge Tito’s with "false representation," that consumers are misled because the vodka is not "made by human hands" but rather in "large industrial vats in mass quantities." It’s also true that Tito’s, like "at least 65% of all vodkas made in the US, originates at contract manufacturing sites." Given this, the plaintiffs say, Tito’s is not the "high-quality product" they thought they were buying.

"Both lawsuits rely on the Oxford definition" of ‘handmade’ as "made by hand, not by machine and typically therefore of superior quality." However, Victorino, author of Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America, says he has "sampled more than a few ‘handmade’ vodkas that weren’t ‘of higher quality’ than their industrial counterparts," adding: "Relative to other vodkas, Tito’s isn’t that expensive, either." The courts have yet to rule, however Victorino predicts few would notice if Tito’s dropped ‘handmade’ from its label.

Animalistic Vanilla

vanilla-beanRaw vanilla beans smell of "castoreum, a secretion from a beaver," reports Ellen Byron in The Wall Street Journal (10/22/14). Vanilla’s "animalistic" note became apparent to Ann Gottlieb, a fragrance developer, while touring "the tiny, rudimentary farms where vanilla is usually grown," after "handling beans before and after processing … The discovery is influencing fragrance projects now under way, including a number of men’s fragrances that will combine animalistic vanilla notes with its warm and creamy ones."

This is but one example of vanilla’s many possibilities now under development — testament to the aroma’s enduring popularity. "Vanilla will never die," says Ann. "It’s probably the most acceptable note of anything there is in a fragrance … Everyone has a vanilla memory whether you realize it or not." Experts say such memory begins "before birth, helped by mothers using and eating so many things that contain it … Vanilla can be found in amniotic fluid and in breast milk … Babies often recognize, or orient their faces toward, a vanilla flavor or scent."

No question but that vanilla is big business: "Since its opening in 1990, Bath & Body Works has sold $1.1 billion worth of vanilla-scented products, including body lotion, shower gel and perfume." The retailer’s latest vanilla fragrance "comes from a bean in Madagascar that takes three years to grow and must be pollinated by hand within 24 hours of a blossom appearing." It is being marketed as "vanilla like you’ve never experienced." Camille McDonald of Bath & Body Works says the claim even intrigues "vanilla skeptics who think they’ve smelled it all."

Kiranas Convenience

fruits-veggiesModern supermarkets have a tough time competing with India’s vegetable stalls, reports The Economist (10/18/14). The supermarkets are cheaper than India’s "curbside stalls and kiranas." They are air-conditioned and have "wide aisles and broad ranges." However, so far India’s supermarkets "account for only two percent of food and grocery sales and are struggling to make a profit … In large part it is because supermarkets are not a compelling draw in terms of price and service." They are also inconvenient, typically far from residential areas.

The supermarkets are further handicapped in that they lack "enough muscle to push around Unilever or Procter & Gamble in negotiations. India also has a law that mandates a maximum retail price for packaged goods." "Merchandising is lackluster in terms not only of aesthetics but also of thinking," says consumer guru Rama Bijapurkar. They fail to stock "flowers during Hindu festivals," for example. Traditional merchants meanwhile lay claim to higher quality goods, longer store hours, credit and free delivery.

Kishore Biyani thinks he may have a solution with Fairprice, a chain of convenience stores with a relatively small footprint, narrow aisles and a large selection of "own-label products" tailored to local tastes. So far he has opened "around 180 of these stores and would like to have 5,000 by 2018, in part by selling franchises to kirana-owners." "Supermarkets won’t kill the kirana," says Rama, predicting, however, that social forces eventually will, as children in India "aspire to more than taking over the family store."

Pencil Power

pencil"People are rediscovering the feel of a freshly sharpened pencil," says Lori Booker in a Wall Street Journal piece by Natalia Drozdiak (10/17/14). Not surprisingly, Lori is a spokesperson for Dixon Ticonderoga, "known for its yellow ‘Number-Two’ pencils." However, Euromonitor confirms that, overall, "North American and European pen and pencil sales are steady or growing slightly … after a dip in 2010." "We have smartphones, but there are also times when we look for a break from that," says Felix Stockle of Prophet, a consulting firm.

Growth of old-fashioned pencil — and pen — sales is also evident in Latin American and Asian developing countries, "thanks to rising wealth and literacy rates." All told, sales of pencils "are set to increase four percent this year to about $2.7 billion, while pen sales will rise 4.9 percent to $8.5 billion," according to Euromonitor, and "growth is expected to continue for at least five years." Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, of Faber-Castell says the digital revolution vision of a paperless world is just "wishful thinking."

To that end, Faber-Castell has introduced what it calls the "perfect pencil," which comes with "its own built-in sharpener and eraser" and sells for about $250. A "diamond-encrusted version has sold for as much as $13,000." Meanwhile Crayola has introduced Digitools, "a range of plastic, rubber-tipped tools" that "let children ‘stamp,’ ‘brush,’ and ‘paint’ designs on a tablet through a free accompanying Crayola app." Staedtler’s Digital Pen 990 "works as a regular ballpoint pen while simultaneously converting everything written into electronic files."

Hendo Hoverboard

hendo-hoverboardMarty McFly inspired a generation of tinkerers to create a real hoverboard, reports Conor Dougherty in The New York Times (10/21/14). Marty and his hoverboard were fiction, of course — a memorable scene from Back To The Future Part II in which the Michael J. Fox character used "a floating skateboard to flee a gang of bullies." (video) The future back then was 2015, and the film "had other futuristic items, like flying cars and self-tying shoes, but none touched the imagination like the hoverboard."

Greg and Jill Henderson are among the inspired, although their aspiration actually is buildings — not skateboards — that float. Their hope is to arrive at a new kind of foundation, using the magnetic technologies that might give rise to the hoverboard, to "build cities to better withstand earthquakes." The Hendo Hoverboard, "a noisy magnetic skateboard that can float above a copper surface … about an inch above the ground," is as far as they’ve gotten. They just launched a Kickstarter campaign (link) to raise $250,000 to keep their dream alive.

The essential challenge is "that repelling magnets are tough to balance." Other hoverboard hopefuls include Rich DeVaul and Dan Piponi of Google X, who "got as far as a fingernail-size piece of carbon that could hover above a lattice of small magnets." Rich and Dan still think they can build a hoverboard, but admit it may be pointless. "I was racking my brain because I so wanted to build this damn thing," says Rich, adding: "We weren’t sure exactly what big problem we were solving except for this global lack of skateboard parks."

Dirigible Dreams

dirigible-dreamsHad it not been for Hitler, "the airship would yet have had a place in global transportation," writes C. Michael Hiam, author of Dirigible Dreams, in a Wall Street Journal book review by Sara Wheeler (10/18/14). Ferdinand Zeppelin "pioneered the ‘rigid dirigible,’ an airship with an aluminum frame that could support gondolas below," and some "fully expected that zeppelins would bring the war to a swift and satisfactory conclusion." The zepps did indeed scatter bombs, but "the unreliable airship’s wartime record was poor."

Unreliability was the recurring theme of the dirigible, which is defined by its "ability to navigate through the air by engine power, unlike balloon flight." Margaret G. Mather, an American who journeyed aboard the Hindenburg, reported "an indescribable feeling of lightness and buoyancy, a lift pulling upward, quite unlike an airplane." The Hindenburg also featured a "well-stocked wine cellar and cocktail bar," and a "tiny but complete" cabin where passengers could sleep "soundly between linen sheets."

The craft’s history is one of heroic attempts — such as Salomon August Andree’s "mission to reach the North Pole in a non-rigid airship," that ended in a crash. America’s "most powerful airship cheerleader," Adm. William A. Moffett, also went down with his ship. The dirigible’s "incredible potential" and the promised "future of human flight" was not to be. "One by one, nations gave up their dirigible dreams, especially after 35 souls burned to death on the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ, one of the first transport disasters recorded on film." (video).

Sweet Spot

david-aakerTapping into a customer’s values and passions is the key to strategic digital success. A Hub white paper by David Aaker of Prophet. How do you create a digital strategy with involved customers in an energized social community? How do you generate an engaged, active ‘go-to’ website? One answer involves changing the orientation of marketing from ‘selling’ the brand to becoming an active partner with a shared-interest program around a customer’s ‘sweet spot.’

A sweet spot reflects customers’ ‘thinking and doing’ time, beliefs and values, activities and passions, possessions, or places they treasure. Ideally, it is a part of, if not central to, their self-identity and lifestyle, and reflects a higher-order value proposition. It could be New York City adventures, healthy living, rock climbing, sustainability, a college football team, or whatever. The driving logic is that customers will seek out, discuss, and be engaged in their interests. Read The Rest of the White Paper.

The Diaspora Four

diaspora"Code can organize many things, but human nature isn’t one of them," writes Christine Rosen in a Wall Street Journal review of More Awesome Than Money by Jim Dwyer (10/16/14). The book is about the attempt by four New York University students to disrupt Facebook with an alternative social network that allowed "people to swap and share without paying a toll in data." The founders had been inspired by Eben Moglen, a technologist and law professor who had termed Facebook "a structure for degenerating the integrity of the human personality."

The attempt to provide a Facebook alternative received "adulation from the press" and interest from venture capitalists. The idealism was quickly met with a decision about whether this social network — Diaspora — "would be a typical startup corporation that accepted venture capital or a crowd-funded, open-source nonprofit foundation." While this debate dragged on, the founders were "working brutal hours for no salary and pursuing the active social lives of young single men in their 20s."

"Their job," Jim writes, "was to demonetize the soul." The essential conflict was evident in that "even as Diaspora caught on among privacy-minded tech geeks, some of its founders continued to use Facebook," presumably "because all of their friends were still on Facebook." Despite the altruism, the Diaspora Four "embodied the hubris that permeates the Valley." Could taking on Facebook require anything less? Moreover, despite the cause of privacy, the essential nature of social networks is premised on just the opposite.

Mellow Ello

elloThe hottest new social network appeals to the highest common denominator, reports Lois Parshley in Bloomberg Businessweek (10/16/14). Ello, as the network is known, is an invitation-only network launched August 7th that by late September "was receiving 50,000 requests per hour to join." Ello describes itself as a "simple, beautiful, and ad-free social network created by a small group of artists and designers." Ello, as co-founder Todd Berger explains, involves "absolutely no advertisements, no data mining."

Positioned as the "anti-Facebook," Ello is also deliberately exclusive. "We don’t want every person in the world to be on it, so we don’t have to design for the lowest common denominator," says co-founder Lucian Fohr. To participate, "you have to be asked to join by one of its existing members or send in a request." If all else fails you can buy an invitation "on eBay for $100." Also unlike Facebook, you need not use your real name, and the site’s "content is divided into Friends (the people you follow) and Noise (everyone else)."

Ello originated at Budnitz Bicycles in Burlington, Vermont, as "a space where creative people could collaborate and share ideas without worrying about privacy," or becoming a "product that’s bought and sold" to advertisers. The network does hope to attract brands, though. "It’s an opportunity to find a new way to advertise," says Todd. Social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk remains skeptical, saying that "people don’t care that you’re selling their data. We want ads that are targeted, more than you think." Ello so far has raised $435,000 in venture capital.

The Connection Stack

steamboat-springsThe entire Colorado town of Steamboat Springs is improving its customer service, reports Ian Mount in The New York Times (10/16/14). The idea of teaching a town how to treat its inhabitants occurred to Tom Kern after noting a drop in its Net Promoter Score to a tepid 68 out of 100. Net Promoter indicates how likely a customer would be to recommend an experience to someone else and Tom, the CEO of the town’s Chamber Resort Association, was concerned. He contacted a consultant, Ed Eppley, for help.

Ed’s approach, typically with telephone agents, is to connect "through personal conversation and to use the information learned" to tailor sales pitches. He had also applied this concept to "cranky ski lift operators" at "the town’s dominant resort" with positive results. At the heart of his method is a series of "pictogram cards that ask five questions: Where are you from? What do you do? Where did you go to school? Where do you travel? What are your hobbies?" "We teach people how to have that proper conversation with a guest or client," says Ed.

Ed calls these cards "the connection stack" and Bethany Clendennen, a local bartender, says it works. "It’s fun. It’s more like socializing," she says. "We find that people are a lot happier in this atmosphere." She says it’s good for tips, too. Ed says sincerity is essential, and Joseph Weintraub of Babson College notes "it’s hard to keep that smiling face and be genuine if that’s not who you are." Also, some people just don’t like chit-chat. So far, the connection stack hasn’t stacked up, however, as the town’s Net Promoter Score has dropped a point, to 67.