The Memeing of Life

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Memes, we all love them.  They inundate the world around us via social media and the internet, and have become a common form of communication.  Chances are it is nearly impossible for any of us to get through the day without seeing at least one meme, whether we want to or not.  And though it may seem that memes are a relatively modern phenomenon, a recent discovery from a 1921 issue of Judge Magazine proves otherwise.

Seem familiar?

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At their best, memes are riddled with silliness and contain zero value other than entertainment.  However, much like everything else the internet has to offer, there is a dark side.  At their worst, memes are generated to spread lies, disrupt communication, and divide.  It’s no secret that memes heavily influenced the 2016 Presidential election by fueling tensions and reinforcing stereotypes.  Yet two years later the misinformation spread by memes seems to have grown in scope and animosity, far beyond the political spectrum.

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Memes have become the passive-aggressive go to for making a statement:  though you may have posted it, the words aren’t really yours and, after all, it’s only a meme.  No harm done.  Except what they’re really providing is insight into social and cultural trends  and opinions, as well as data for analytics used by campaigns, marketers, and others.  One study based on keyword searches illustrates the increasing popularity of memes spotlighting racism, Nazism, and fascism between 2012 – 2017.  There is even a subreddit movement (NASDANQ) to quantify memes.

The Daily Show host Jon Stewart was once credited with being the most trusted source of news for young adults.  Stewart has since retired, and current studies are demonstrating that people relying on social media sites for news is steadily increasing.  Some sites have even questioned:  can you get your news from memes?  Although memes have the tendency to quickly go viral, it is important to note that they are often just opinion and rarely rooted in fact.


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Why Guns Don’t Belong in Classrooms

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas tragedy, one of the solutions floated to address gun violence in schools was to train and arm teachers.

In November 2017, the New York times published these two charts in an article entitled “What Explains Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.”

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The first chart (above) shows a correlation between the number of mass shootings and the number of guns present in countries with populations over 10 million people.  The United States leads in both the number of mass shootings and the number of guns.

The second chart (below) affirms the correlation by examining the density of gun ownership versus the rate of mass shooting incidents per unit population.  Only Yemen outpaces the United States in the frequency of mass shootings.

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Since the Parkland tragedy, four news stories have broken that directly suggest more guns in school would increase the likelihood of a gun-related incident.

The latest incident involves a teacher from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.  Last week, the Miami CBS affiliate reported that the teacher inadvertently left his loaded pistol in a public restroom.  The gun was found by a homeless man who fired off a shot.

The main take-away: even well-intentioned gun owners make mistakes.  Introducing firearms into schools increases the likelihood that they could be left unattended.  Unattended firearms spell danger.

Two previous incidences involve trained staff members whose firearms accidentally discharged inside their schools – 3,000 miles apart, on the same day.   Last month, CNN reported that a teacher in Seaside, CA accidentally fired his gun into the ceiling during a safety demonstration (you can make this stuff up) injuring one student.  Coincidentally, a school resource officer in Alexandria, VA also accidentally fired his gun, but into a wall.

The main take-away: accidental discharges happen.  Introducing firearms into schools increases the likelihood that they will accidentally discharge in school.  Loaded firearms – even in the hands of trained personnel – spell danger.

A fourth incident involves a Georgia high school teacher.  Two weeks after Parkland, CBS News reported that a teacher barricaded himself inside a classroom, fired off a single shot, and surrendered after a 30-45 minute standoff.

The take-away: guns make situations when people are under duress more dangerous.  Introducing firearms into schools increases the likelihood that they will be in the possession of someone experiencing duress.  Loaded firearms in the hands of individuals experiencing duress spells danger.

These stories are about factors that are slightly beyond our control: we cannot completely prevent people from leaving firearms unintended, we’re even less likely to be able to prevent accidental discharges, and we’re far from guaranteeing that teachers will never find themselves under duress.  Coupled with the international statistics showing a correlation between gun ownership rate and the propensity for mass shootings, it seems clear that schools are the wrong venue to fight fire with fire.

Guns in classrooms only increases the risk that something will go terribly wrong.


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Right-swipe for Cardi B

Since the end of March, university campuses across the country have been swiping right on Tinder to try to win a free concert by Cardi B (who is pregnant, by the way).  This “swipe-off” is organized like a March Madness bracket, with rounds lasting a few days long, and the schools with the most right-swipes advancing to the next round.  For the past week or so, a lot of undergrads have downloaded Tinder (or upped their regular Tinder use) to try to win this concert.  Penn students must have been swiping right a lot, because we made it to the Finals as one of the top 8 schools!  (We did not end up making it to the championship round of only 2 schools, winner to be announced soon).

I personally did not participate in this swipe-off, mostly because I’m not such a huge fan of Cardi B’s music and don’t feel strongly about winning a concert from her.  But as a marketing strategy for Tinder, I see how this partnership with Cardi B was really successful in increasing Tinder downloads and average active users.  Especially once we saw we were in the finals round, my friends kept asking each other if we’d been swiping for Cardi (side note: some people did get frustrated that they kept getting all these Tinder matches but knowing it was just for the Cardi B swipe-off, not because the people had any interest in meeting up).

It’s crazy how this campaign took over campuses, and Tinder (a social strategy addressing meet-failures),  for the past few weeks.  By partnering with Cardi B, who has been in the spotlight a lot since everyone saw her perform with Bruno Mars in “Finesse” at the Grammy’s this year, but who is a popular rapper in her own right, Tinder was able to significantly boost engagement on their app.  Even if people weren’t using the app for its original purpose, instead swiping with abandon to win a concert, people were collectively still swiping a lot more than they otherwise would.  Also, this contest resulted in some people creating new Tinder accounts, which they might use even after the swipe-off is over.  Partnerships like this could be effective for other social platforms, using celebrities to engage and larger audience.

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Neighborhood Buzz

My neighborhood is all abuzz about being at the center of what’s become a national embarrassment for Starbucks, our city and my little neighborhood.

On Friday, I saw the following tweet from the Philadelphia Police:

This first got my attention because it’s my local Starbucks.  It’s a block and a half from my house.  It’s where I get my coffee when I am too lazy to make it at home.  Sometimes I go there to study, just to get out of the house.  I started to dig in when I saw this tweet, to learn more about the incident.

This video captures the part of the story where the police first enter the Starbucks.   The account of the entire incident, from the moment the men entered the store, is not on video.  Apparently there was nothing video-worthy about two men walking into Starbucks.

When police arrived, the Starbucks employee told them two men had asked to use the restroom, but were told they couldn’t, because they hadn’t purchased anything.  The men allegedly refused to leave after being asked to do so by Starbucks employees.  The police also report that the two men refused to leave after being asked by officers.

In the video both the police and the two men were calm and orderly.  I thought long and hard about if I could have remained so calm.   I don’t think I would have.  I would have been furious if the store manager asked me to leave, and I would have been outraged if the police were called.  I also don’t know if I would have gotten up to leave if the police told me to.  I mean, when someone with a gun tells you to do something…

Then again, the chances are pretty good that none of this would have happened to me.  The Starbucks employee would probably have given me the code.  If they initially declined, I would have explained that I was waiting for someone (maybe, oh, I don’t know, someone who had offered to meet and buy me a coffee.)  I feel pretty confident that I would have been able to use the bathroom while waiting for a friend or colleague.

I have been in that Starbucks hundreds of times and the only time I ever saw a manager say anything to someone loitering in one of the chairs, was to ask a customer to stay awake.  This particular frequent customer has a habit of falling asleep in his chair.  He’s white, by the way.

I also wonder if this would have gone differently if there were not cell phone cameras and the risk of the inevitable social media sharing that would follow.  There is no yelling or threatening from anyone.   Everyone remains very calm.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about this, some blaming Starbucks, some blaming the Philly Police, and some saying there just must be more to this story, that this can’t be all there is to it.

So far, though, first hand accounts indicate there is actually not much more to the story.  Everyone was calm and orderly, almost oddly so, given the circumstances.

The Philadelphia Police defend their actions, and the service they provided that day.


Starbucks on the other hand, has apologized, and decided not to prosecute the men.

If Starbucks has a policy about loitering or bathroom use, that is their right to do so.  That enforcement, however, needs to be consistent, regardless of store location or kind of customer.   One could argue that all of the social media buzz and noise aside, the facts do seem simple;  the men were breaking the rules, the Starbucks employee was enforcing the policy, and the police were doing their jobs.   It all does seem very black and white.

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Pardonnez-moi? Trump pardons Scooter.

Image: NPR

On Friday, Trump granted a pardon to Lewis “Scooter” Libby. In case you have forgotten (or mentally blocked out) Scooter, he was the Chief of Staff to former Vice President, Dick Cheney. He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 in connection with the leak of CIA operative, Valerie Plame during the Iraq war.


Image: Getty Images

In 2005, a grand jury indicted Libby on five counts: two counts of perjury, two counts of making false statements to the FBI and one count of obstruction of justice. These indictments resulted from a special counsel investigation into which member of the Bush administration had leaked the identity of Plame. Some say the leak was in retaliation for her husband’s (former Ambassador, Joseph Wilson) public criticism of the war in Iraq.


In response to Libby’s pardon Wilson called Trump an “utterly unacceptable” leader, and accused him of allowing individuals who put U.S. national security at risk to run free.  Wilson also stated,”Mr. Trump is willing to allow people to violate the essence of our defense structure, our national security, our intelligence apparatus and essentially get away with it.”


Image: CBS News

So, why is the timing of Libby’s pardon significant? Reports of Trump’s decision to pardon Libby came out after the first passages of Comey’s new book emerged in the press. Coincidence? Comey was serving as Deputy Attorney General in the Department of Justice, who oversaw the special counsel investigation into the leak that led to Libby’s conviction. Was this a thumb on the nose to Comey? In part, probably yes. However, the pardon signals something more troubling. Allies of Libby argued that Patrick Fitzgerald, special counsel (appointed by Comey) of the Plame investigation was far too aggressive and ventured too far afield in his pursuit of Libby. One can’t help but see the connection with the Muller investigation. Trump is sending a very clear message about how he feels about special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The more not so subtle message is Trump’s willingness to pardon those that feel they have been unfairly persecuted by a special prosecutor which fits nicely into Trump’s suspicion of a deep-state operation looking to hurt those that don’t align with their ideologies.


For much of America’s history, presidents have used pardoning power to correct wrongs, forgive transgressors, and temper justice with mercy. This time it was used by a man-child to demonstrate his dislike for Comey and the intelligence community. Also, the pardon is a wink and a nod to those currently being questioned by Mueller.

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Timing is Everything

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Timing is everything. Like Mario jumping the barrel at just the right moment in an effort to defeat Donkey Kong and save the Princess, getting attention online is a matter of timing.  For personal branding, moments to jump onto a current trend are rare and fleeting.  Jumping at the right time is a crucial step to launch an individual into the spotlight.

A prime example of this is occurring right now.  Let me start by introducing to you Billy Mitchell, the bad boy of 1980’s arcade games:

Billy is a man who is so dedicated to the 80’s that he still plays in the same arcades and still rocks a sweet mullet.  Billy was the star of the 2007 documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, where he was the antagonist in the pursuit of the world record score for the Donkey Kong arcade game, which he eventually obtained.  In February this year, however, news came out that he had doctored the recording of the game that he submitted to obtain the world record.

So what?  Why does this story even really matter?  It matters because it just might prove that Billy Mitchell is an absolute marketing and personal branding genius. As mentioned before, it was discovered in February that Billy is a fraud, so he was stripped of his Donkey Kong world record.

Note in the Tweet above from April 13th that Billy is only now addressing the issue.  Like his prowess in prompting Mario to jump barrels, Billy knows that proper timing is critical.  Right now there are two major motion pictures that rely heavily on 1980’s video games: Ready Player One and Rampage. And Rampage is about a giant ape, just like Donkey Kong.

And in case you are uncertain how the movie correlates to the video game, this might help:

Billy understands the importance of timing.  If he had chosen to address the issue in February, the story would probably have barely been a blip on the internet’s radar.  He has chosen instead to wait to come forward and make a statement until Rampage is about to be released and there is a buzz on the internet related to 1980’s video games. He clearly understands the importance of a personal brand and apparently does not mind being painted the bad boy of 1980’s video games.  This is a perfect case study in making oneself relevant via association.  Timing is everything, and when an opportunity arises to attach yourself to a trending story, you can make yourself relevant in the world.  In today’s world, where stories come and go with the blink of an eye, Billy had better make the most of it.


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The Facebook CEO’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick or “Mom, Dad, I Had a Little Accident Involving About 87 Million People…”


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The question that kept coming up during Mark Zuckerberg’s 2-day congressional testimony was, Just what is Facebook anyway?

The other takeaway was the scene from Animal House when the Delta House fraternity brothers were confronted by Dean Wormer after their disastrous mid-term grades:

or a kid explaining to his parents that he had an accident with the family car and was telling them how smart they were in getting Allstate’s new “accident forgiveness” plan with his ending up grounded:

Or possibly, borrowing the title from the 1970 novel by Austrian writer Peter Handke, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, adapted into a 1972 film with the same title, to express Mr. Zuckerberg’s nervousness before Congress for his company’s harvesting 87 million users’ personal information without their consent to sell to a foreign research firm, Cambridge Analytica.

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OK, so what was Mr. Zuckerberg defending anyway? Is Facebook a media platform? Is it a distribution service? Is it neither? Mr. Zuckerberg says it is a technology platform–it provides the tools for people to connect with one another.

That’s fine for as far as it goes but if you want to make money connecting people, and Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook want to make money, then you have to monetize that connectivity.

And boy, has Mr. Zuckerberg monetized the social platform’s connection with 2.2 billion people.

Why is this important?

Consider the slide offered last week by Mike Wellens in terms of the critical importance of an organization or business being able to segment its target customers: demographics (i.e., age), geographic (i.e., their location), geo-demographic (ex., urban professional), psychographic (i.e., lifestyle), behavioral (ex., tech-savvy), and contextual (ex., empty nester).

So, if one data mined Facebook’s users and their myriad contacts, one could, for example, find, as the NY Times offered in how Facebook brands and politicians can target us:

Find me: “Anyone who lives in Philadelphia, studies philosophy in college, is 21, has bought a blue T-shirt in the past year, is neurotic, makes less than $25,000 a year, is likely to buy a minivan in the next six months, is interested in camping and whose interests align with those of African-Americans.  Plus anyone on Facebook who is similar to them.”

So, if indeed knowing as much about your customers as possible is important for marketers, advertisers, campaign managers, and everyone else hoping to sell a product to a customer (or a candidate to a voter) then monetizing Facebook’s huge user base and their profiles becomes gold and indeed gold is what Mr. Zuckerberg is hoping to earn for Facebook.

To continue the analogy, is it too much to hope for that a 33-year old who dreamt big dreams in his dorm room 14 years ago and made them come true beyond anyone’s imagination and who is now worth $60 billion might be tempted to sell the profile data (the technical and legal words are crawling/scraping/harvesting) from his user base in order to advance his monetary goals?

Does a kid want to take his parents’ car out for a joy ride?  Do fraternities like to have parties and maybe indulge in under-age drinking while skipping their homework?

No and yes.  But clearly, Mr. Zuckerberg’s little snafu with Cambridge Analytica now has both the Congress of the United States, the Federal Government’s regulatory agencies, and numerous NGO’s, not to mention social media users, looking at how social media platforms, including Facebook, safeguard their users’ data and what laws, regulations, or policies need to be implemented to assure that they are.

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A can of worms?  No doubt.  When Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked what he would do if he were in this situation, he replied, “I would not be in this situation.”

Clearly Mr. Zuckerberg has a lot of homework to do when he gets back to campus and so do his other social media fraternity brothers.  I guess Saturday’s “hackathon” will have to have a new twist: how can nefarious organizations be stopped from misusing Facebook’s platform and how can they still make money and not secretly scrape people’s data?

More Red Bull anyone?



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