Social Media

Down The Rabbit Hole We Go

I’ve developed a theory that if people can’t sit through a 30-minute meal without touching their phones, they are OSDs (Over-Stimulated Disturbances). Sounds a little like LSD, and appropriately so; our phones are quickly turning us into walking drug addicts.

But who am I to quip? I’m constantly responding to emails on the fly, tweeting,  connecting – it’s a part of work, daily existence.

Connection is a loaded word these days. Social platforms tout it as part of their mission. But what does it mean to truly connect? On Twitter, it means favoriting bursts of 140 snippets. In person, it means having the patience to listen to long, circuitous babbles that are often far less witty, relevant, or sharable.

It’s much easier to fall in love with the former.

One question I’m tackling at work is how to effectively use social media to enhance connection with an audience. Sounds nice in theory but in practice, virtual connection entails something entirely different from a meaningful in-person relationship. Just because I like Red Cross on Facebook doesn’t mean I will spend a dime or a minute of my time volunteering for a cause.

So, I’m going out on a limb and positing that the greatest function social media can serve is to get people away from social media, offline, and into the actual lives of others.

What I mean is that social media should spur offline activity. A company’s goal shouldn’t be to stick people in an unending spiral of Twitter-Facebook-Instagram-YouTube, repeat 100 times until dizzy. That quickly creates obsessive, neurotic, OSD mental cases (raise your hand if you’re one already – – me!).

From a business perspective, it’s no use to Oreo, for instance, to get people to watch its Daily Twist campaign 50 times if no one ever actually buys a box of Oreos.  But by showing the social value of doing so- rewarding users who buy a box and snap a picture of them consuming it in fun ways- Oreo creates a win-win situation. They make money, and you’re presumably happier because now you are having fun with friends.  That’s real social mixed with virtual interplay.

So, is this the modern-day version of connection? Virtual and physical worlds feeding one other, transposing offline activities to the online world, and vice-versa? I suppose so, since these days “it never happened if it’s not online”.

I say this with a bit of cynicism, but the truth is, it’s unrealistic to go anywhere these days without a phone notification calling our name.  Like it or not, our new definition of connection needs to take into account the ubiquitous gadget in the room, while finding a way to channel its use in a healthy way.

Social media is the digital version of junk food. It’s created a habit of mindless consumption. “Once you pop you can’t stop!” But no, we must stop. Lest we further descend down the rabbit hole and emerge into a society disconnected from our most basic human existence.

Set aside a phone and connect with reality. It’s about balance and there lies our challenge.

How do you use social media to enhance connection? Have you found it an effective, or distracting, tool? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below. 


The Value of Social

I’ve been on a “social media cleanse” since Monday. Not a full-out purge, just a mini-cleanse to rejuvenate. (That person on a juice cleanse…at the bar? That’s me.)

I’ve removed the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. It means I’m still able to go on these networks via desktop but also removes the temptation to compulsively, incessantly, maniacally graze through an unending stream of (mostly) uninteresting updates on-the-go. It’s a small move, but proven immensely helpful.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot gives the specs on NYC gov social media engagement.

My cleanse lasts a week. On Monday, I’ll be back on the social grid, starting at NYCEDC as manager of social media and content. My task is to develop their social media, blog, and content marketing strategy, which will require full immersion in these platforms.

Though I sometimes decry the impertinent nature of social media content, I do believe in its value. The problem is I can never explain it. Does its primary value lie in the human capital that powers it? Its technological ability to surface interesting content? Its power to connect?

My real reason for disconnecting this week is to determine the void social media fills, if any. As I pull back the curtain and prepare to step behind the scenes of the grand social media production – taking on the “voice” of a 500-person organization – I’d like to know what exactly it is that people get out of their feeds.

So, I’m curious:

  • What gets your attention online?
  • How do you interact with social media? Do you use it as a discovery engine, an address book, news source?
  • What conversations/stories are relevant to you? (Particularly about your city?)

Please share your thoughts! I may be on a cleanse but ultimately, I believe that social media’s *nutritious* value is just waiting to be revealed. (sad food pun, sorry)

Food for thought:

Social Media Is For Listening.

Are You An IDIOT?

Publish Mode

It’s been over a month since I posted about my failed attempt to capture Buzzfeed’s attention. Now, I’m learning the mechanics behind attention as an intern at Business Insider. I still have a lot to learn but from what I’ve observed, there is no recipe for getting clicks on the web. Throw in a spicy headline, titillating photo, vivid writing, and …voila! You may have the makings of a potentially viral story. (In fact,  yesterday Business Insider experienced record-breaking traffic due to a single post ).

That said, I have yet to strike big on clicks. But for what it’s worth, here are some stories I’ve enjoyed working on thus far :

Career Advice from Warren Buffett: Warren Buffet had his first ever office hours, during which he answered questions from Levo League members (shout-out to Caroline Ghosn, co-founder of the Levo League, who did a fabulous job  moderating). My editor and I drafted a post with key takeaways 30 minutes after the live stream. Writing quickly and on deadline is something I’m still getting the hang of. Getting thrown into this on my 2nd day gave me a real taste of the rapid publishing pace…it hasn’t stopped since!

Tiger Babies and all things Asian: Since being assigned to write a book review of Tiger Babies– a comical response to Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom memoir- I have been unwittingly placed on 2 more Asian-related topics. Coincidence? While it probably wasn’t intentional, I’m still concerned that the outside perception of my reporting is that I am touting the superiority of Asians. Which is totally believable with headlines like ‘Asian Americans Are Smarter, Richer, And Harder-Working Than Everyone Else‘ under my byline. (I received a handful of tweets from people calling me racist after that one.) I think the Asian beat has stopped for now, but who knows…

Stanford Business School World-Changers: If you want to feel like an underachiever, check this out. We highlighted 17 of the most inspiring folks from Stanford’s Graduate Business School. Their accomplishments and plans for the future made my mind whirl. My personal favorite was Taiwanese entrepreneur, Chihyu “Wretch” Chien, who created the largest Taiwanese blogging platform, Wretch. It eventually sold to Yahoo for $700 million. He told me, “Wretch was actually my geeky handle in a forum, which then become my project and later my company name.  Eventually people started to call me Wretch in Taiwan and I thought that was cool.’ I thought that was cool too.

Why Grads Should Join Startups: Venture for America‘s Summer Celebration at the IAC honoring its 65 new fellows was even bigger and better than last year. It was awesome to see how much the organization had grown in a year. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert pledged $1.5 million. High-profile supporters Arianna Huffington and Jeff Weiner gave keynotes. Huffington told VFA founder Andrew Yang on stage: “You were one year old when I met you, and my god, how you’ve grown. You are now a phenomenal toddler. When you’re a teenager, truly watch out.”

Huffington also spoke to those of us in the media, saying that too often we chase the stories that elevate fear but don’t put enough spotlight on creativity and good things happening in the world. Word.

I also want to mention a serious journalist mistake I made last week. (Fortunately, by some act of God’s grace, it was able to turn into a stroke of good luck). In an article I wrote on backlash against Tiger Moms, I quoted WSJ columnist Jeff Yang. The quote had been provided to me by a researcher of a study. In the quote, he implies that he disagrees with the study results. A day later, Yang contacted me via Twitter requesting to speak about the piece. The initial excitement of having a veteran reporter reach out instantly faded when I realized that this wasn’t going to be a congratulatory message. Sure enough, Jeff was confused about the quote, particularly since I had never directly spoken with him.  I could immediately see how seeing your name being quoted in an article you were never interviewed for would be odd. We clarified the confusion but I learned my lesson: verify and never ever misattribute. I’m grateful to Jeff Yang (a veteran writer who I highly respect) for taking the time to point it out privately, rather than publicly make a fuss of it. We have plans to get coffee soon.

Takeaway: If you own up to your mistakes, more often than not, people will be willing to help than rail on you.

More stories to come, stay tuned…

ps. on a personal note, I taught my mentee how to ride a bike in Central Park this weekend. as awkward and miserable as we look (it was 90+ degrees), teaching someone how to bike really is as fulfilling as all the parents say. not to mention, getting to model awesome helmets.


Buzz Buzz Buzz…

I’ve spent a large part of the past month applying to jobs. Since many of these are writing jobs, I’ve toiled long and hard over the perfect cover letter, figuring that if the sole quality I’m selling is my supposed mastery of the written word, I better well as heck communicate something Pulitzer Prize-worthy in the only representation of myself to a company. (No pressure, you know?)

On this fun Friday, I thought I’d share the cover letter I wrote a few weeks ago for BuzzFeed’s Fellowship program. In a moment of “who-cares-they-likely-won’t-read-it-anyway”, I decided to write something a little different, in the style of Buzzfeed. Not going to lie: a small part of me thought that if I could make it go as viral as one of Buzzfeed’s cat videos, well, maybe just maybe I’d have better luck getting my application through the black hole of online submission.


Dear Buzzfeed,

I could humor you for several paragraphs on why I want to be a BuzzFeed Fellow but it’s pretty obvious. Who doesn’t want their friends to gawk, “OMG you get to look at cute cats all day?!” That would be a very clear win.

In all seriousness, I like cats but am a newshound more than anything. I’ve been an avid consumer of news since well before the days of GIFs and viral lists. I loyally watched the 6:30 evening broadcast as a child, which resulted in a serious crush on Tom Brokaw’s stately baritone voice.  Having since reported for local and national news mediums, I can comfortably write and produce the full range of content – 800-word articles and videos- at rapid newsroom pace. But additionally, I spend a large portion of my day following hashtags and tweeting 140 characters of wisdom @heyguey.  Times have regressed, they say. However, I see the most apathetic of my friends taking an interest in content – cat videos AND heavier matters alike – and to me, that’s progress. Social news gets people engaged. I want to learn how to make serious journalism go viral. I’m already a natural sharer (ask my pre-K pals- I always shared Lunchables, Dunkaroos, and even Gushers!). Yet I also realize there’s more to virality than simply tweeting and posting things to Facebook.

Truthfully, I am probably no more qualified for a Fellowship than the majority of your applicant pool.  There are many talented writers and editors who can do what I do: write, curate, and generate buzz. So I’m going to simply tell you a little bit about myself,BuzzFeed style. Maybe it will go viral, most likely it won’t.  My simple hope is that, at the very least, you’ll get a laugh out of it.

5 Things You Should Know About Me

Through Embarrassing Videos I’ve Made

 1. In my spare time, I chase zombies.

 2. Everyone has a story so I won’t stop asking questions until I hear it.

 3. Weight loss programs follow me on Twitter.

 4. I’m Asian.

 5. Why I’m Not in Broadcast Anymore.

In short, I am a pesky Asian reporter who likes eating food, chasing zombies, and making Blair Witch-style videos. I care deeply about meaningful content. It excites me to read impactful stories on BuzzReads and easy-to-read conversations on BuzzFeedBrews. I also want good writers to make a living, which is why I am eager to learn more about sponsored content and native advertising. I believe journalism could use a boost from BuzzFeed’s understanding of human emotion and the way we share. My goal as a BuzzFeed Fellow is to create and aggregate content in a way that advances the conversation and brings journalism back to its watchdog roots.

If given the opportunity to join BuzzFeed, I will be absolutely bold and enterprising. I already consume and generate content like it’s my job…so it might as well be.

Hope to hear from you.


Lynne Guey


I never heard back which is okay. In fact, it’s more relieving than anything that no one watched those videos. Last night I saw the founders Jonah Peretti and Ken Lehrer speak at Columbia and I paused for a nanosecond fearing that they would recognize me as the kooky Asian girl who applied to their company with these silly, poorly done videos. Then, I remember that they don’t read the intern applications. Plus, a whole department there makes a living looking for pictures of cute animals.  What is more silly than that? No shame. In this day and age, just be yourself and share away. Happy Friday!

Experimenting with Isolation

It started with a simple suggestion.

When I was teaching in Italy two summers ago, one of my host Dads suggested that I check into a nunnery.  Something told me this wasn’t a compliment.  I didn’t think spending all day with 8-year old Italian children had made me that wild, but who knows. Then he clarified,

“I recommend it for everyone. Silence can be good. We all need to be alone sometimes.”

Those words stuck. Not so much the nunnery part, but being alone. Up to that point, solitude had been a bit of a foreign concept. In college, I was pretty social and regarded as an extrovert. That summer too, I was constantly surrounded by people: at camp with students during the day, at home with my host family at night, and at various destinations with camp counselors on my travels in between. My sole alone time was before going to bed or in the shower . He’s right, I thought. I could use some alone time.


This is what I imagine the solitary road to look like.

Since then, I’ve held an odd fascination with isolation. I’d dream of going on my own “Eat Pray Love” sabbatical. I found myself leaving a lot of social functions early to be alone. I arranged my current living space so I could spend a lot of time with myself.  I live with strangers who work long hours and are usually out of the apartment, so my space is my space and my time my time. It may sound strange, but I’m really comfortable with it. Spending nights holed in my room reading and writing, once uncommon for me, is now routine.

I still had never traveled alone. I tried several times that summer in Italy but somehow there was always something that got in the way (a last minute travel partner or cancelled trains)…I even ended up looking into nunneries but they were quite pricey and I couldn’t communicate with the nuns on the phone.

Then, two weekends ago, a $89 round-trip Amtrak deal to Montreal floated into my inbox. My first inclination was to share it with friends in New York to see if they wanted to join me on an adventure. But then I realized that this was my chance! This could be my “eat pray love”. My itinerary. My trip.

Selfishness ignited. Alone I went. 2 nights and a full day in Montreal, 18 hours on the train (9 hours each way), a little over 40 hours in Montreal, for a grand total of 60 hours in isolation. I was so EXCITED.

Of course, it wasn’t complete isolation. There were people around. I talked. People talked to me (sometimes in French). It wasn’t a silent retreat. The majority of my exchanges revolved awkwardly around my standalone nature.  This is a typical conversation when people saw me eating by myself:

“Are you waiting for someone?”

“Um, no. just me.”

“Are you visiting Montreal?”

“Yeah, for the weekend. Wanted to get away from New York.” (my way of signaling I wanted to end the conversation)

“Ohh, I see.”

At which point people would cautiously back away, assuming my boyfriend had just dumped me or I was a stressed out New Yorker on the brink of a meltdown, and that basically my life was in shambles. None of which was true, of course. Not entirely at least.

Most of the time, I kept to myself. The best part was the efficiency. By 4 pm Saturday, I had climbed Mont Royal, suffered near cardiac arrest waiting an hour in line for the city’s best poutin, embarrassed myself by bargaining at a Quebec designer’s fashion sale (note to self: it is not proper protocol to bargain outside of Asia), and consumed a half bottle of wine at a university cafe (judged by onlooking McGill University students studying for finals).


In drunken glory, I reached the peak of my trip when I trudged through two feet of snow to the top of Mont Royal, 200 meters above ground to the sight of a city blanketed in white. The awe and wonder lasted about 42 seconds. I didn’t have anyone to ooh and ah with. So, as I slid back down the slippery slope of the mountain, I wondered – ‘What next?” If I’d been traveling with others, we would be running behind schedule (which would have surely been frustrating) but that wasn’t the problem. This time, I didn’t know what to do. I had no one to share the beautiful sight with. What’s more is that it was nearing happy hour and I was far from happy. Somehow in a matter of minutes, I had fallen from my highest high at the top of Mont Royal to major depressive disorder.

I mustered the energy to enter a bar, order a beer, and make friends. Something told me the latter probably wouldn’t happen when I pulled out my phone and discovered free wi-fi.  “No, Lynne, no.” I connected anyway. 15 minutes later, I was entering my 8th completed cycle of the vicious Facebook-Instagram-Twitter -Gmail wheel, which is where the anti-social part of this saga begins. Few things I can say with certainty, but I say with the surest certainty that scrolling through your social media feeds while surrounded by real living human flesh is the quickest way to feel like the loneliest person in the world. I left the bar a complete mute.


My peaceful, solitary view from the train

I returned to my hostel cold and tired. Earlier in the day, a McGill University student had recommended a vintage nightclub. “Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, “You won’t feel awkward going by yourself. I’m sure you’ll make plenty of friends.” That I needed reassurance I could make friends was enough to convince me I didn’t want to go. By 11 pm, I was packed and ready to catch my train for the next day.

The train ride back was markedly different from the train there. Two days earlier, the excitement of my solo adventure flooded my thoughts as I undocked at Montreal’s Central Station. Anything was possible.  I dared myself to make a new friend, meet a guy at a bar, or go crazy wild. None of that happened. Maybe that says I’m anti-social, a hermit incapable of connection. (Okay, calm down Lynne. You’re just introverted and shy.) But after 60 hours of little meaningful social contact, my feeling of loneliness had escalated to the point where I truly believed I had no friends in the world.

So, what can be gleaned from this adventure in isolation? That I’m an extremely melodramatic individual, prone to depression and marred by rejection? That solo trips yield delusions? Yes and yes. But more important than that, once I gained my senses back, I learned that we are not meant for isolation – –  at least not for more than 24 hours. It’s not healthy. Also, social media does not make you more social. Shocking, I know. However, it does supplement many social activities nicely which is why I would never completely eliminate it if you want to stay connected to a larger group. It’s a tool to document memories and keep track of interactions. (Case in point: while writing this post, I turned to my Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins as a way of remembering the chronology of events and places I went to on my trip. In just two weeks, I had forgotten a lot.)

My eagerness to be alone has taught me several things. One is that we are social beings, even the most introverted of us. We need external stimulation to prevent us from going insane. Another is that independence, while efficient and empowering, does not make the best memories. Yet I had to experience a taste of it, in the form of loneliness, to know how to appreciate others.  For so long, I’ve selfishly believed my time alone was immensely more valuable than time spent with other people. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction and while listening to people talk, I wondered why they couldn’t get to the point. “What are you trying to tell me? Do we really have to stand here and make small talk?” I now see that people who are willing to allow me to enter their lives, be it through small talk or deeper exchange, are doing me a favor.

Of course it’s a matter of balance; it is never ideal to hear someone ramble on and on about nothing. And we all need our space and time. But when you can find that perfect volume where you can tune into other people’s stations without overpowering the own thoughts in your head – that’s a sweet spot.

To say that we each have our own story is only partially true.  We do have our own story, but we are not always the main characters. Pilots need passengers to take off. Otherwise it’s just a flight and not an adventure.

Note to friends: this saga reveals a slightly maniacal side of me. I am aware that I have many dear friends (including some of you readers) and appreciate your love and concern if you were worried . I am fine (usually) 🙂

Why I’m Back on Facebook

“You have to get offline. I’ll say it again. You HAVE GOT TO GET OFFLINE. YOU HAVE TO GET F***ING OFF F***ING LINE.”  – advice from legendary E. Jean Carroll, of Ask E. Jean, America’s longest currently running advice column

Better advice could not be more emphatically expressed. I took it to heart for 4 months. 4 months of purposeful separation, living life offline, unplugged…or at least as unplugged as life can be when you have a smart phone and still tweet and email and you know, do almost everything except Facebook + Instagram. Still, give a girl some credit: pulling the plug on Facebook was a big deal, kind of like moving to a desert island. I even wrote a goodbye letter.  (melodramatic twentysomething)

I remained pretty social on the island. Before I knew it, 3 months had gone by. One night I thought about the social network and tried to log back in. There were several tell-tale signs I had been gone for a while; for one, I couldn’t remember my log-in. My web history was clogged with news articles instead of the usual Facebook photo albums and in fact I momentarily forgot who some people in those albums even were. Months before, merely typing www—>> triggered automatic completion of “site-thou-shall-not-be-named”.com, and now… LinkedIn has replaced it as the most frequently visited site. If ever there were a sign of professional maturity (or boringness)…

Upon sailing Home a few days ago, Facebook almost seemed foreign, like returning to college after being abroad for a couple months. Soon, though, the falsely jolly, slickly disingenuous first-world details that had ceased to exist during my time away came trickling back into consciousness. Bloop! There went the little red notification. And here we go again…

Ignorance is bliss, I had told myself. But what I’ve realized is that the problem was never really about Facebook or the technology or all the obnoxious statuses out there; the problem was me. I needed to clear out my own cache of judgement.


I deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts on 12/12/12. Since it was supposedly the end of the world, I decided to enter the ‘new’ world with a clean slate. I wanted to return to the root of being social without the distraction of a buzzing phone, without feeling compelled to take pictures of my brunch, and without the aid of a red Facebook notification to alter my serotonin level. I entered detox mode.

My primary justification was personal. I thought that my personhood – the very root of my identity – had been reduced to a set of data points on Facebook. I was living my life out online. How could I allow a single website to simplify my life to a bunch of photos, text, and information? It was naval-gazing for sure, but I couldn’t shake it.  So, I left to return to my offline roots but not before posting a status on Facebook asking people to send me their email; I would write occasionally with life updates, philosophical meanderings, and other angsty Thought Catalog-like topics. Several people did reach out and I was happy to keep my social network limited to these newfound thought followers, family, and close friends. It was my way of keeping in touch.

Life offline was revolutionary & simple. It gave me greater appreciation for things beyond the digital realm such as parks, museums, and coffee shops with no wi-fi. I spent a month at home in Tennessee, a month in San Francisco, another month eating a bunch of really really good food for my job back in New York. Normally, I’d be sharing & posting like it was my job but I restrained. I just ate, just observed, just explored. The ‘justs’ were more than enough. No one was validating the awesomeness of my adventure, so I could focus on the actual act of exploring. It was great. There were moments when I wondered if I was missing out (and for sure, I later found out there was A LOT) but I was aware of the really important things.  In fact I remember secretly gloating that I knew about the new Pope before some of my Facebook-hounding friends did.  (Twitter – 1, Facebook – 0)

Ultimately, however, I discovered a glaringly simple truth through deeper offline conversations : we’re lonely. Some more than others, but at the end of the day, it’s a large reason why social networks like Facebook and Twitter have taken off. Introvert or extrovert, we’re all searching for some form of connection.

Yet connection is thrown around like free lunch these days. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook mission, “to make the world more open and connected” is noble. But just like lunch, real connection never comes free. You don’t amass friends and spit stuff into the never-ending stream of content and expect connection to magically appear. (You also don’t sell that information to marketers, but that’s another topic for another day.) Facebook is not the magic ingredient. If we truly want connection, we must first change ourselves.

When I logged back onto Facebook a few days ago, updating my profile with an affirming Facebook status “They always come back”, I found myself digging back into connections – weak, strong, and the many in-betweens. While catching up with the lives of those I had almost forgotten about, I was reminded of life’s continuous march. Over the course of our lives, things happen, people change. In this digital age, social platforms are there to document it all. While I traveled coast to coast, going from San Francisco to New York, life for others did not stop and wait for me to press ‘play’ to be reenacted. People continued to post, comment, like, and tag whether I was there to participate or not. I had missed a Canadian friend’s trip to New York with her band. I had missed lovely photos from an acquaintance’s wedding. I had no idea the company I worked for had uploaded and tagged an embarrassingly hilarious video of me. (Self-scrutiny commence.)

Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that my view of personhood must evolve like the times. I am nostalgic for a Web that no longer exists. I’d like to think of myself, as author Zadie Smith puts it, “a private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and to herself.”  But I am naive. I’ve taken 4 months time (and an entire Facebook timeline of inner sciamachy) to set aside this identity crisis. I come back because I want to write. Truthfully. Part of that means knowing people. Social media is a way to be part of a conversation you’re creating together with fellow beings. For all its clutter, social media can be rich and multi-faceted. On other days, it can be also be self-glorifying, artificial, and so damn annoying that I wonder if I should just disconnect again.

But that’s life. Life is not always beautiful. Take it or leave it; I choose to take it. Not being on social media means I will simply know less about what is going on with other people.  That is not a bad thing. But even so, I firmly believe humans are not made to be fully removed from each other, whether that is physically or virtually. Do you want to participate and steer the conversation toward good? Yesterday’s Boston Marathon terror serves as an example. People gathered updates and news real-time to help those in need.  Coverage through social media was a mix of qualitative and informative, creating a complete (while heartbreaking) picture of the unfolding scene. The Internet, if we choose, really can be a useful tool for good.

For all its good, though, we must be reminded that the data points we generate can underrepresent reality. Living offline is messier and more complex. Walking away from social media, at times, is not necessarily practical, as we live in an age where many of our communities and lives are built on these platforms. So what I’m granting myself is an approach, a mindset: one of connection rather than comparison. It’s easy to look at the filtered photos and artuflly written statuses as gunk that clogs our news feed. But lighten up. On the days you peer into the screen of your laptop and simply can’t find any semblance of relation to your perfectly posed fellow human beings, just remember that what you see is a mere half-reality and carefully selected portion of life. Life isn’t simply the story you tell about yourself on the Internet. It’s merely one of many.

This is my relapse. I’m back to listen, contribute, and document the evolution of our virtual selves. This time, I realize I am not above it all. While I can’t promise zero judgment, I welcome your sharing. In a sense, I agree with Zuckerberg: our selves evolve and like it or not, it’s a story worthy capturing.

What Trader Joe’s Can Teach Us

trader joes

Last Saturday, I was feeling a little down and out so I went for a walk through the park. Consumer park, I should say. My jaunt took me to the epicurean part of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, better known as Trader Joe’s, where bohemians bustle in and out. Embraced by a horde of herbivores and gourmands alike, I barely had a moment to pause before gluttony jostled me to the side. I wondered why people would ever pay to go to the circus when they could observe such hysteria for free.

Meandering through the aisles, I gawked at 99-cent Israeli couscous, 100-calorie Belgian dark chocolate bars, and compact jars of artisanal jam. With no intention of buying anything (I had just suffered a particularly stressful trip to Chinatown for groceries that morning), I left with a recycled paper bag worth just over $30. And like that, I turned into one of the animals! Going mad, I went online and found the Trader Joes Fan Club ; surely, 530k+ fans can’t all be crazy?

My unscientific theory on why Trader Joe’s is so successful is that they understand humans really well. The secret, I believe, lies in 3 simple things:

1. Categories

2. Portioning

3. Presentation

We love categories.

Things are easier to understand when they’re separated into chunks (similar to digestion). Trader Joe’s neatly stacks spices with spices, cereals with cereals, jams with jams etc. Other grocery stores do the same but it’s kind of messy. I’m certain Trader Joe’s invests in employees with good handwriting because the labels I’ve seen are works of art! (at least the ones in Manhattan)

In elementary school I couldn’t wait to come home after the first day to prepare my binders for the year. Labeling each Lisa Frank binder with its subject name, inserting dividers, then filing papers into their subsequent section was deeply satisfying. I think the excitement stemmed from the belief that everything had found its home. In due time, papers were thrown amuck but at least for the time being, it put me at ease.

Categories give us a sense of order. They make things easy. In life, nothing is ever easily pigeon-holed but a beautifully organized categorization system at a grocery store gives us all the peace of mind we need.

Don’t give ’em everything.

The invention of 100-calorie Weight Watcher snack packs (whoops they’re supposed to be meals?) was brilliant because it told us how much to eat.  It alleviated the resource-heavy decision-making process that kicks in when we evaluate options. Deciding when to stop when your pleasure system says NO requires a huge amount of energy. So, not having to dip into that pool reserves our precious energy for more important decisions.

Similarly, Trader Joe’s understands that too many options can lead to shopping paralysis. Studies have found that buyers enjoy purchases more if they know the pool of options is not quite large. When given unlimited options, customers spend more time deciding what to buy rather than actually buying. On average, Trader Joe’s sells far fewer varieties of each item than a traditional grocery store. Less work AND more money for them!


Depth does not appeal unless the surface frames it so. Plain and simple, we’re superficial. Trader Joe’s is not a food boutique but it’s a lot more inviting than a fly-infested fishy-smelling Chinatown market.

Chinatown prices are usually unbeatable but when your fellow customers are pushing you, produce is not neatly separated, and the floor always seems wet & slippery with who-knows-what…shopping is not a pleasurable experience. Contrast that with bright Hawaiian shirts, sparkling floors, and smiling employees – who cares if it’s all artificiality and chemicals – I’m happy and that’s all I care about.

I didn’t expect a UX lesson from an afternoon stroll in Trader Joe’s. But with 500k + fans and $8 billion in annual revenue, they must be doing something right! Companies like Trader Joe’s are setting standards for better user-centric design. As businesses like Fresh Direct and online shopping reduce the need to visit a brick-and-mortar, UX concepts like these will keep physical stores alive.  Check out this article on how Kate Spade is using technology to improve the  in-store experience for retail.

1. Categorize.
2. One thing at a time. 
3. Frame it well.
Thanks, Trader Joe’s! (On a separate note, if you’re a fan of Nutella, I highly recommend Trader Joe’s Cocoa Almond Spread, my latest obsession. I dip it in everything. You can find a thorough evaluation, as it compares to Nutella, from one of many Trader Joe-inspired blogs: What’s Good at Trader Joe’s.)