Social Commentary

We learned what will turn $41B of corporate giving into $1.2T

There is a world where every company chooses a social or environmental cause that’s true to its brand DNA and methodically works with customers, employees and nonprofit partners to solve it, perfectly balancing profit and purpose, which generates deep brand love and improves the world. It’s totally possible. Patagonia is doing it, and a handful of other companies are authentically making an impact and winning and keeping customers as a result.

What’s the barrier to every business realizing this triple bottom line dream?  

We – the Altru team – interviewed corporate social responsibility (CSR) and social impact leaders at some of the biggest and brightest companies and nonprofits to learn about their challenges and what they think would overcome them. Read on to find out what we learned. 

Turns out corporate-nonprofit partnerships follow a path that looks a lot like dating. 

An eternity goes into the hunt with lots of unrequited interest and many ill-fated first dates. Relationships are often short-lived, because communicating and meeting respective needs and finding stuff you both want to do together is hard. One side often feels used by the other, and each side has their own set of standards and success metrics that aren’t clearly communicated upfront. So…most relationships don’t work out.

Unlike dating, there are very specific, solvable problems that prevent companies from more effectively and profitably standing for causes. If these problems were solved, every brand could easily be authentically known for its impact mission, customers could be engaged and won by CSR initiatives, and social and environmental problems would be solved faster, because more money would be redirected from advertising into the generative flywheel of doing well by doing good. How great would that be?  

There are 3 basic phases in the company-nonprofit dating game: discovery, collaboration, and amplification.

Each phase has its own set of problems, and – spoiler alert – each can be solved by software that someone (😉) should probably build.

1. Discovery: it’s hard for companies and nonprofits to find one another

Ever notice how lots of companies tend to talk about the same big-name nonprofits? You know the ones, because their logos are synonymous with the cause – even though there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of great nonprofits that are doing effective work that deserve more support. Turns out it’s super hard for companies to find them. 

Even the most experienced CSR and impact leaders at the most resourced companies spend HOURS doing “desk research” (aka Googling keywords) to try to find nonprofits who are working on both evergreen causes and emergency response, and this desk research often yields…nothing.

Discovery is an even more acute problem in emergencies. 

For example, when the Ukraine war began, several CSR teams I spoke with wanted to mobilize resources immediately but couldn’t find the smaller grassroots organizations who were agile enough to “show up at the border on Day 1.” One corporate impact team actually flew to the border early in the conflict and found the tents of the biggest refugee relief organizations empty but discovered a number of smaller nonprofits they’d never heard of already at work. “We need a systematic way of finding nonprofit partners,” said one corporate foundation leader.  

There’s an equal problem on the other side of the discovery process. Nonprofit leaders spend hours creating and sending pitches to companies, and according to every CSR person I spoke with, “80% of them are out of scope.” According to many nonprofit leaders we spoke with, public-facing corporate impact pages and annual reports often aren’t specific enough for them to figure out whether or not there’s a fit, so development teams often default to spray and pray.  

2. Collaboration: companies and nonprofits speak different languages

“What’s the give and what’s the get?” Collaboration is usually the phase that takes the most time and starts the most headaches. Nonprofits aren’t the best at packaging their programs and campaigns into turn-key programmatic private sector collaborations, partly because they very rightly spend most of their time doing the work on the frontlines and many nonprofits still operate episodically – ie, two big fundraisers a year with very little other campaigning. This makes it hard for corporate sponsors, who want a drumbeat of activity to talk about with their employees and customers. Nonprofits need a way to package the range of ways they can collaborate with mission-aligned brands. 

Nonprofits also generally don’t have the creative and media resources internally to build campaign assets. Several nonprofits I spoke with have hours of amazing footage of all kinds of events and interviews but no team or budget to turn them into content that would educate, inspire and activate the people who care about their issues. Nonprofits need the marketing talents and budgets of the private sector to craft and tell their stories. 

Telling stories is critical to getting the public engaged in a specific issue, but companies often want to focus their donation on these issues within a broader theme – like Ukrainian refugees within the broader global refugee crisis – in order to tell the story. Thing is, the issues that own the news cycle are often over-resourced, and even larger, well-known and finely-tuned nonprofits (like World Food Programme and UN Women) can’t actually digest and deploy a glut of funding into the very narrow issues with which every corporate sponsor wants to be associated. Nonprofits would rather allocate resources where the need is most acute within a theme, not where there is PR value to a donor. 

This dynamic is one of the leading causes of greenwashing. Companies tend to follow the news cycle, chasing issues that get media attention. Rather than building long term associations with social and environmental themes, companies often ride the coattails of issues that have already captured public attention rather than getting ahead of it and calling attention to an issue themselves. It’s sort of like New Yorkers who only go to restaurants after they’ve gotten buzzy and only on clear-skyed Friday nights. These folks aren’t the ones who get the best tables and comped desserts – it’s the ones who choose their places, tell all their friends about them, and show up rain or shine. 

If brands aligned with one or two themes and had a live feed of initiatives led by vetted organizations within that theme throughout the year, each with easy ways of collaborating that had predictable outcomes, it would be easier for companies to become synonymous with the good work they’re all trying very hard to do. 

3. Amplification: raising awareness without raising suspicion

This is perhaps the most valuable and perilous phase for companies. As a company, once you’ve found your nonprofit partner and figured out what you’re going to do together, how do you bring attention to the initiative? Issue a press release? Sink a bunch of media spend into Meta and Google? Buy a Super Bowl spot? 

No, no, and absolutely not. Buying media to talk about good deeds is the fastest path to press ridicule and consumer distrust. 

Isn’t it more effective and also just nicer when someone else says great things about you to the people you want to impress? Then, all you have to do is show up and blush. How do you do that if you’re a Fortunate 5000 company? What’s the alternative to buying media and tooting your own horn? Who should be the one(s) telling your social impact story? 

Who better to tell your story than your customers and the activists and influencers who your customers listen to? 

You can probably see by now how solving discovery and collaboration is critical before tackling amplification. It takes having the right partner, the right timing, and the right engaging collaboration to earn trust and compel people to share corporate-nonprofit impact stories, and it also takes the right set of incentives. Everyone knows by now that solving the most challenging social and environmental problems takes a combination of pure altruism and commercial might, and there’s no reason why companies shouldn’t reward influential people for sharing stories that educate, inspire and activate even more people. 

Solving these problems is a massive opportunity. 

Companies donated $41 billion to causes last year and spend $1.2 trillion annually on ads and media – around $250 billion to Meta and Google alone. We see an inevitable conflation of these two budgets. Everyone born after 1981 (55% of the population) is demanding that companies stand for something and take action. There are already bottom-of-funnel tools that let buyers donate a percentage of their purchase to a charity, but these tools are just the beginning. Tools are the precursor to infrastructure. Infrastructure ushers in systemic shifts of process and budget and provides the analytics and ROI to turn radical change into predictable, profitable standard operating procedure. With the guidance of the many CSR, social impact and nonprofit leaders we’ve learned from, we are building this infrastructure, and it will bring an era when companies spend less on ads and media and invest more in solving the social and environmental problems that their employees and customers care about, because it will be better for business.


THANK YOU to the many busy CSR, social impact and nonprofit leaders who took time out of their days to help us learn and understand. I’d like to particularly thank and bring attention to a few inspiring and impactful organizations who have spent a lot of time with us and collaborated on early versions of our product:

The Chick Mission is focused giving every young woman newly diagnosed with cancer the option to preserve fertility through direct financial support, educational programs, and advocacy for legislative change (did you know only 11 states have legislation supporting oncofertility services?)

EMA‘s mission to to provide a unified voice for our planet through entertainment, storytelling and education.

Homecoming NYC provides food tours in neighborhoods all over New York City, bringing attention to great restaurants owned by the immigrants and people of color who make up up the cultural fabric that gives NYC its personality and gravitational pull. They turned a donation through Altru by Imperfect Foods into the purchase of 400 meals from Renee’s, an awesome Filipino restaurant in Woodside, and worked with Woodside on the Move to distribute these meals to Queens residents with food insecurity.

The dream team who activated Altru’s NYC food insecurity rally: Homecoming NYC, Woodside on the Move, and Renee herself of Renee’s Kitchenette & Grill

Orca Conservancy is dedicated to protecting the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) – a genetically distinct population of orcas in the Pacific Northwest. NOTE: breaching the the dams of the Snake River will restore Chinook salmon spawning, the decline of which is starving the SRKW. Sustainable seafood company Neptune Snacks worked with us to support them with their time and money to get signatures for a petition to breach the dam. The fight continues.

Plan C gives women everywhere in the United States a safe, at-home alternative to abortion.

RIP Medical Debt is focused on the elimination of personal medical debt.

Supermajority galvanizes women to vote and champions gender equality.

Sustainable Oceans Alliance is restoring the health of the world’s oceans by funding innovation, activating young people and mobilizing an ocean workforce. The tireless team at SOA Peru worked with us and kelp food company AKUA to raise awareness about the devastating effects of the January oil spill.

UN Women is the global champion for gender equality. NOTE: experts think gender equality will take ~100 years to solve. Let’s do it in a fraction of that?

World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and they are focused on saving lives in emergencies through food assistance and ending the global food crisis.

Social Commentary

The Day Trump is Released from Prison: a Hopeful Satire

It’s 8:09am on May 14, 2032. Donald Trump has just been released from Federal Correctional Institute, Otisville after serving 9 years of his 14-year sentence. 

Convict Trump squints against the daylight, the gentle Spring breeze taunting his precarious hair-shelf. A crowd of photographers swarm him, illuminating his orange-grey skin with pops of unforgiving light as reporters hurl out questions.

“How does it feel to be free?” shouts one.

“I feel fabulous and I look tremendous, more than I can say for America, everyone is saying how bad it’s gotten,” responds convict Trump. “That’s just what I’ve heard.” 

“Save us!” shouts a solitary, deranged-looking, heavily-bearded man draped in a plastic red tablecloth wearing a soiled MAGA hat. “Make America great again!” he offers through a crooked, gap-toothed grin.

Convict Trump grimace-smiles at the man and then the cameras, waving at no one and anyone with one tiny hand, and turns his attention to the two people standing in front of a car beyond the throng of reporters.

He walks towards it purposely, deflecting questions and taunts from reporters and identifies two pensive, familiar faces: Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

Barrett smiles awkwardly as convict Trump hands his duffle bag – unironically emblazoned with the faded logo of Mar-a-Lago, which was turned into an oceanographic research institute and educational center in 2027 – to Gorsuch. Convict Trump squints at the doughy man in the driver’s seat, who lowers the window.

“Get in, loser, we’re goin’ to Dunkin Donuts,” says Brett Kavenaugh, who laughs. Trump glowers at him and his trademark scowl tightens. Kavenaugh’s chuckle dies in his throat and he turns his attention to the swarm of photographers around the car. He smiles and blows them a kiss while the other three ideological relics enter the car. 

“No Twitter or Fox in there,” convict Trump says to no one and anyone. “Like a black hole — a huge, vast, terrible black hole, even worse than the Oval. What the hell is going on in the country? Get me current.” Barrett clears her throat.

“Well,” says Barrett, wondering where to begin. “Desantis was defeated in ‘twenty-four by the Harris-Cortez ticket, and Cortez was sworn in as president with Jared Polis as her veep in January.” Trump shakes his head. 

“Saw that one coming a mile away,” says convict Trump. “Mouthy Latin broad and a gay running the country,” he says. “Huge disaster. Truly incredible.”

“Hey Siri, drive to Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Kavenaugh. 

“What?” asks convict Trump.

“The car, sir. I was talking to the car.” The car soundlessly glides forward, and Kavenaugh’s many chins twist like a freshly-baked Challah as he turns to look back at convict Trump. He opens his mouth to speak but is interrupted.

“Yo, eyes on the road, Kav, hands at ten and two, massively precious cargo in the back,” says convict Trump, pointing a stubby finger at Kavenaugh.

“The car drives itself, Mr. President,” responds Kavenaugh.

“Horrible! China and the cybers getting all of our data, totally laughing at us, getting away with murder,” convict Trump mutters to no one and anyone, closing his eyes, which are indistiguishable from his open eyes. “And why are we in this shitbox baby-girl electric toy? You know I hate electric cars, no substitute for American horsepower.” 

Gorsuch, who has been marinating in cortisol since convict Trump sat next to him, responds.

“Petroleum-powered cars were banned in 2030, Mr. President,” he says.

“Are you shitting me? How did the energy lobby let that happen?” convict Trump’s eyes are now wide open, which still appear entirely closed. “The oil companies, Russia –”

“Russia no longer exists,” says Barrett. “It was willingly subsumed by Ukraine in 2026 after Presidents Zelenskyy and Navalny agreed to peacefully merge the countries into one sovereign nation following the joint reunion referendum which took place four months after the collapse of the Russian government when Putin died in ‘twenty-five.”

“Oh God, Vladi.” Trump slumps against the door of the car and sighs deeply. “That stings. How’d he go?” 

“Unclear, Mr. President,” says Gorsuch. “Some say super syphilis, some say a Novichok nerve agent.” 

“What about my shares in Gazprom? Did Weisselberg get my money out?” pants convict Trump.

“Well, not exactly,” responds Gorsuch. “Gazprom no longer exists.”

“Whaddya mean, no longer exists, it’s one of the biggest oil companies in the world,” declares fossil Trump. “Massive, very successful.”

“There are no oil companies left anywhere in the world, Mr. President,” says Kavenaugh. “And the liquidation of US oil companies funded the repurposing of the Keystone Pipeline project into an intercontinental irrigation system using desalinated water.”

“No more oil? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE, how does anything work?” bellows convict Trump.

“The entire world now gets its energy from thermonuclear power, and the Global Clean Energy Union administers the planet’s supply of electricity,” says Gorsuch. 

“Did Weisselberg at least get me into the deal?” asks convict Trump.

“Er, it wasn’t a business deal, it was a public initiative,” responds Gorsuch. “All but one of the 195 countries participated in the effort.”

“Which one didn’t?” asks a bewildered convict Trump.

“The Republic of Texas,” responds Barrett. 

“I’m having heart palpitations,” says convict Trump.

“Want a psilocybin lozenge?” asks Kavenaugh brightly.

“I think he’d do better with a ketamine seltzer,” says Gorsuch. “I brought a sixer.” 

“YOU MORONS ARE ON DRUGS? How the hell are you still sitting?” shrieks convict Trump. 

All three justices remain silent. Kavenaugh and Barrett glance at one another. Gorsuch looks out the window and starts quietly humming Somewhere over the Rainbow. 

“Hello? HELLO?” Trump shifts his venomous eye-slit assault between each of them. “What, recess come early this year?” 

Kavenaugh chuckles. “Let’s just say our services were no longer required,” he says. “Hey Siri, play Justin Bieber. Bieber makes everything better, amirite?”

“Stop the car, I’m gonna throw-up,” says convict Trump. 

“The Biebs,” coos Kavenaugh. “Good ‘ole Beeee–”

“We were impeached,” says former justice Barrett flatley as Bieber and Taylor Swift hit a high note in their love-drenched duet. 

“You’re telling me all three of you lowlifes let yourself get impeached?” asks orange anger-muppet Trump. “How did the House and the Senate let this happen? They both totally blue? DOES THE REPUBLICAN PARTY STILL EXIST?”

“Very much so, Mr. President,” Barrett responds. “Democrats control the House and Republicans have the senate. Republicans supported impeachment.”

“Wwwwwwhhhyyyy?” Trump brays, stupefied. 

“Because they did what the people wanted,” says former justice Gorsuch. 

“Let’s overlook the totally obvious question, which is when has that EVER mattered. How? How did they know? Know their — opinions?” asks Trump, weakly.

“Thousands of activists and nonprofits worked together to organize over two hundred million Americans,” says former justice Barrett, “who all considered vetted facts compiled by the nonprofits, wrote letters and then demanded through an identity-authenticated vote that their representatives begin impeachment proceedings.”

“They held elections for this?” asks Trump.

“No, all of this was done on a technology platform that lets nonprofits, activists and people work together on causes and organize collective action funded by companies,” explains former justice Barrett. “Elected officials also use it to understand public sentiment and opinion.”

“WORST IDEA EVER,” snorts convict Trump. “Who runs this thing — Zuckerberg?”

“Facebook was shuttered in 2024 and Instagram died in 2025, about a year after it became just videos of chickens with arms attacking Desantis with lightsabers,” says former justice Kavenaugh.

“Not attacking me?” whimpers Trump.

“No, sir,” responds former justice Gorsuch. “You ceased to be a part of public discourse when you went to prison.”

Convict Trump sulks in silence, his sullen blinks imperceptible.

“I think I need to see a doctor,” declares Trump. “Do I still have insurance?”

“Everyone has insurance,” responds former justice Gorsuch. 

“Who pays for it?” Trump frowns.

“The government,” says Gorsuch.

“Lemme guess, proceeds from the oil companies,” smirks Trump.

“The reallocation of what was the defense budget,” says Barrett.

“It funded universal basic healthcare, universal higher education, added billions to the EPA’s budget and funded Planned Parenthood’s operations in perpetuity,” adds Gorsuch.

“What do you mean, Planned Parenthood — how is that still a thing a decade after Roe v Wade was overturned?” barks Trump, re-energized with bile. 

“Roe was reinstated on Christmas Eve, 2024,” says Barrett.

“I suppose that’s the least of our problems given we have no money to defend ourselves,” Trump utters.

“There’s no need for defenses, or offenses for that matter,” says Gorsuch. “Solving energy and water ultimately eliminated conflict, and the global population’s ability to rally together with nonprofits and corporations for causes that benefit society, well — I guess you could say it gave the world more hope and brought people together.”

“Dystopian. Truly. Not sure I want to live here any longer,” says former American Trump.

“About that,” says Kavenaugh. “You’ve been voted off the island, er, the country—“

“By this cockamamie platform,” Trump interrupts.

“— to a rig off the coast of California where Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg live.” 

“I hear the seafood is fantastic,” offers former justice Kavenaugh.

“I hate seafood,” says Trump, staring out the window. A drone flies next to the speeding car. Trump raises his short middle finger to the drone’s camera eye and it flies back off into the blue sky, which contains the lowest level of carbon dioxide in recorded history. 

Social Commentary

Parallel-Path Marketing: How Brands Win Gen Z

Imagine you’re walking down the street on your way to dinner. Like every average human being in the history of time, you’re running a few minutes late. You’re wondering if you should come up with an excuse or just brazenly, unapologetically turn up late like the savage you wish you were. 

You turn a corner, and suddenly there’s dozens of people lining the sidewalk, each holding a sign, each shouting directly at you about a soda, a car, a cashmere hat (kind of cute tbh), a private jet service (really?), a class on how to concentrate (the irony) and lots of other stuff. Some of the signs are lovely and some of the people are beautiful and engaging – one actually compels you to pause and listen before you remember you’re late and hungry – but they are all ultimately impediments to the mission that you set out to accomplish: to get to dinner as close to on time as possible.

This is a metaphor for most advertising: impediments and distractions that line our path on our way to whatever it is we’re trying to do – drive to a cupcake shop, watch a TV show, search for how to slow down aging, stalk a crush on social media. Billboards, TV commercials, pre-rolls, sponsored posts and influencers are all relentlessly focused on taking your focus away from your chosen path in order to nestle into the junk drawer that is your memory or get you to impulse-buy a product or service.

You could call this perpendicular-path marketing: brands fire attention-seeking missiles at people trying to do something online, on TV or IRL and hope to divert them into a click, a watch, or a purchase. Advertisers have been doing this since the mid-19th centure, and they’ll continue to do this in some form or another until we’re all space dust.  

But a lot has changed in technology that’s making brands look for alternatives…

  • Streaming video has taken eyeballs away from advertising-subsidized television
  • iOS has made it harder to target mobile users
  • Google has made it far more expensive to target internet users
  • The harm that social networks do has started a brand exodus from social advertising

…all of which has driven up customer acquisition costs, lowered conversion rates and decreased brand loyalty.

A lot has also changed in culture.

Be it the pandemic or climate change or economic uncertainty or now war, people feel unsettled. Depression is on the rise, particularly among young people. Everything suddenly costs more. News is rife with random acts of violence and hatred. The suffering of all living things – people, animals, plants – seems more common and more palpable.

And yet $1.3 trillion dollars or more will be spent this year on advertising and marketing in ways that don’t solve any of the increasing variety and velocity of problems that makes life more challenging. This to me seems like the epitome of perpendicular-path marketing.

What if there were a way to invest advertising dollars into making the world better while still getting return on ad spend (ROAS)?

There is, and I call it parallel-path marketing.

I may have coined the term, but I didn’t invent the concept. You can see shades of parallel-path marketing in a brand sponsoring a party that’s actually fun or giving away products in a contextually relevant environment or underwriting cultural and sporting events. This kind of stuff is hard to track and measure, but we know it works. People like brands that do cool things.  

A brand backing fun and games is great, but there’s an entire generation – 40% of the global consumer base – that has less interest in fun and games than they have in changing the world. Gen Z is the most politically, socially, and environmentally vocal and active generation in history, and they want brands to help them change the world.

Some brands – like Patagonia – have done a superb job at this, partly because they’ve been doing it since they were born. But most brands struggle at purpose, and young people are quick to label most purpose-oriented efforts by brands greenwashing.

Brands that don’t have social and environmental action woven into their DNA often make the mistake of making big, flashy donations or paying superstars to talk about a company’s good deeds or buying media about their charitable efforts. Grand gestures are not how to win anyone – particularly Gen Z – unless you’re a character in a second-rate romcom and it’s 2006.

Smart brands make many small, impact-oriented gestures, and they do so in partnership with activists, organizers and experts who have dedicated their lives to solving a given social or environmental problem.

They let these people find a worthy and relevant cause and create educational messaging and choose a 501(c)3 to turn a donation into action. These brands understand that their many small, authentic gestures will start to add up to big change and more loyal customers.

Sometimes brands can do this with really great corporate social responsibility (CSR) people, but these professionals are hard to find, they usually don’t come equipped with an audience or a platform, and there is a very large chasm between CSR and marketing departments, which makes measuring the impact of, well, impact difficult.

We are bridging that gap with a platform that lets brands sponsor activists and lets brands benefit from the engagement activists generate around specific causes.

Everyone wins.

Activists, who usually have day jobs or are forced to moonlight as influencers, get to make a living creating educational content and leading communities to take constructive action. 501(c)3s raise more funds through corporate philanthropy, which is currently only 5% of giving. Brands get impressions, opt-ins, conversions and loyalty by doing good. The influence and action of young people is rewarded through donations by brands to relevant causes, which makes them feel better about the future.

Imagine how much good could be done if only 10% of the $1.3 trillion that’s spent on perpendicular-path marketing were redirected onto the path that young people are on to change the world?

If you’d like to find out, please reach out. We’re looking for our founding brand sponsors.

Social Commentary

Social media brings out our worst. Here’s mine.

TL:DR this post is basically a psychological and emotional strip show in which I go bare with what I do on social media and what it does to me, and once I’m naked and cowering after revealing my darkest thoughts, I offer a glimpse at how we could feel less empty when we go online. 

Like a mindless lab rat, I tap mechanically through three or fifty Instagram stories, allocating more of my scattered attention to the people who I feel are cooler or richer or better looking than me, lingering on the stories that brandish places or experiences that give me FOMO or make me feel excluded.

In response to the more compelling stories that aren’t just status-signals, I send words to the handful of people who are IRL friends and just emojis to Internet friends. The “💯” is my favorite, because it has the affirmational effect of the “👏” without seeming fanboyish or pandering. If these people are online, and most usually are, I watch for them to “see” and respond to my bid for attention. I feel it’s important that responses be matched and balanced: words for words, emojis for emojis. I perceive a response to an emoji with more than a slapped-on 👍 or ❤️ to be desperate from someone I don’t know well, and escalating to words with really anyone makes me anxious. 

If a word exchange somehow begins, I muster the wittiest response I can think of through the morass of sudden self-consciousness and quickly click out of the conversation. Because if they see that I immediately see their message, then I seem over-eager or like I have nothing better to do than wait for it. If I initiate words and I don’t get a response, I feel slightly (intensely) rejected, and I resume my hunt for connection and validation from other people on Instagram with whom I have friendships that may or may not be real.

Basically the script that my brain is running through when I’m on IG

After tiring of flicking horizontally right through humble-brag and LOOK-WHERE-I-AM stories, I scroll vertically down — an appropriate direction — through the murky chum of grid posts and obligingly like the ones posted by people who consistently like my own posts. I’ve found lately that my attention span has shrunk to the point that a grid post almost feels like an affront, an act of war, an actual photo bomb, particularly if the photos aren’t superbly shot or in a highly desirable location — like the stern of a sun-drenched yacht (preferably with an exotic flag waving in the background), the top of a mountain in a country with stringent visa requirements, a delivery room, or a step-and-repeat at a charity gala that has absolutely no beverage sponsors and includes people with only very subtle lip injections.

I’ve muted anyone who has ever defiled my feed with selfies or poorly lit group photos at basic parties that aren’t even in Europe or Mexico City. I’ve unfollowed the handful of people (who I probably met in Tulum) who posted selfies. Because gross and desperate.

100% asked for this photo to be taken because I knew it’d make a decent grid post or dating profile photo

And I just feel bad for anyone who thinks they still have to go to Tulum. I feel actual contempt for anyone who posts from this seaweed-covered, morally bankrupt, ecologically ruined, insecurity-ridden thirst-trap for the hollow, strident wokeism and performative meditation of C-grade Instagram models and the trust-funded Shaman Bros who prey upon them. I feel trace amounts compassion for their aimlessness and the soul-crushing, collective ennui that they thinly veil with shapeless $400 rags they were peer-pressured into buying at Caravana that are also sold wholesale for nineteen cents to locals as eco-friendly reusable toilet paper because Millennial and Gen X global nomads have overburdened their septic tanks with what was initially small-batch mezcal and avocado toast. “Aho,” and also unfollow.

After these three or fifty minutes that go by as fast as a lunchbox-sized bag of Doritos and leave the grotesque mouth feel of a Costco-sized bag of Cheetos, the lurid yellow residue not on my lips but glazed across the whites of my eyes, I lurch back into reality, feeling sluggish and a little confused. I try, like a beached whale flopping towards the sea, to return my focus to work or to my friends or my family, who I actually care about and who want me to be present and not hunched over a screen powered by algorithms engineered and optimized to turn my hijacked attention and hapless chemicals into their swelling NASDAQ share price.

The kajillion-dollar advertising-supported social media apparatus in a nutshell

I find this return difficult, sometimes so difficult that I default back into Instagram, or worse, if it’s a dull day on the Gram, to its increasingly irrelevant Boomer parent product, Facebook. And sometimes, worst of all, to some dating app that masquerades as a productive pathway to romantic salvation but is actually designed to keep me doing the exact same thing that most digital products are designed to do: pay off my constant partial attention with just enough dopamine to keep me hooked, which translates into just enough engagement to not quite justify vampirically draining the ad budgets of B2C brands who are forced to buy into this dystopian abstraction of what was in 1997 ironically named social media.

What do I get in return for this state of persistent mental and emotional malaise? What do I actually get out of social media, which is eating the Internet like a ravenous bacteria?

At best, I get the ostensible admiration (but hidden resentment) of acquaintances who tell me at parties that are not in Europe or Mexico City how much they envy my life, which looks to them like an unending series of “high-vibration” long-table dinners, far-flung travel and aspirational family gatherings, but is actually a rollercoaster of anxiety, stress and self-consciousness.

At best, I get a place to post photos of life events that I think will get likes and maybe even comments from my followers.

At best, I get fleeting validation and affirmation from those likes and comments that are in and of themselves also ploys for validation and affirmation.

At worst, I lose minutes, hours, and days that could at least be spent watching unsubstantiated, hyperbolic documentaries on Netflix or deepfake threesomes on PornHub.

At worst, I create a false impression of my life in the minds of people who don’t actually care about my life, and it makes them think less of their own lives.

At worst, life goes by looking down and not up.

At worst, I become my worst.

And I’m a fckng adult. How would I feel if I were 13? How would I feel about my niece feeling this way when she’s 13?

How do we all feel about all of us on the Internet feeling this way?

If you flinched or nodded or sighed at any point, here are a few questions to consider –

How much immediate dopamine are we willing to give up in exchange for doing something that has a long-term positive impact? Can that impact actually deliver a dopamine hit, or better yet, can it deliver a steady stream of serotonin? And how can we redirect the $250 billion dollars that brands spend to show up on apps that marinate us in insecurity and fake news into solving the social and environmental problems that people care about?

How can we create a sticky social media experience that brings out the best in us and un-ironically makes the world a better place?

I think it’s possible.

I think we’re better than our last Instagram binge and more useful than our last Facebook post and kinder than anything we’ve ever written on Reddit.

I think that the Internet, with its wondrous potential to turn collective attention into collective good, deserves to be more than a way to broker eyeballs for ad spend at the expense of mental health.

I think there’s a way to create a new system of constructive incentives that gives people the affirmation that we will always crave and delivers brands the impressions, conversions and loyalty that privacy changes are making increasingly elusive.

I think the Internet can do better. So we’re going to try.

Meantime, I hope you’ll put your phone down and go take a walk outside with someone you care about. Even if it’s just yourself. Especially if it’s just yourself, your best self. Maybe I’ll see you out there. Because we’ll both be looking up.


Social Commentary

Signs are everywhere. We just need to look up.

You wouldn’t think there’d be a business (and life) lesson hidden in Bajan civic planning.

Generally, the folks who man the desk at rental car agencies go to great lengths to either furnish old fashioned paper maps or upsell you on a navigation system.  The friendly man who provided me a rental car in Barbados this past week did neither.  He instead assured me that it was impossible to get lost on Barbados.   “Just follow the signs.  Wherever you want to go, there’ll be a sign for it.”

In an age when we’ve outsourced most of our environmental perception to technology, this seemed quaint and outdated and flat out impossible.  How could there be a sign for everything?  And what was the point of paying enough to AT&T for local data to chart a course to any point on the island ten times a day if all I had to do was look up rather than down at my smartphone?

Turns out using GPS technology on Barbados just makes traveling more complex.  They tend not to like straight lines: it may take 30 turns to go less than a mile, which makes following a little blue dot on a tiny screen challenging.

Like the little blue squares of paint that mark blazed trails in the woods, frequent uniform civic signs inform drivers that they’re driving either towards or away from whatever major town to which they’re proximate, and customized private signs with colorful logos point – literally – to nearly every commercial destination in the region.


It took me three days to finally look up for these signs rather than down at my phone.  It took getting lost because I lost signal.  It took asking a passerby where an establishment was only to have her smile and point up to a sign for the establishment not 30 feet ahead of me.  It took making room in my intuition for a few well-placed, hand-painted signs on defunct telephone poles to finally get where I wanted to go without endlessly clicking the next arrow on my map app.

I once read that finding your true path in life is a combination of internal direction and external perception.  You must have a strong sense for what you want, but you also must listen to the directions that the world around you provides.  Call it motivation coupled with cosmic jujitsu.

I’ve been hearing a lot about “failing fast” lately.  It needs little explanation: realize you’re wrong as quickly as possible so that you can change course and succeed more quickly and efficiently.  That to me now sounds like “get lost fast.”  Why, in the age when signs both real and virtual surround us entirely, must we fail at all?  Why can’t we just look up a bit more often and take in data in “realtime” so that we never fail or get lost at all?  To me, modern failures hailed as “fast failures” seem totally avoidable.  The folks doing the acrobatic pivots should have just paid closer, “iterative” attention to the signs all around them.

Too many people get lost these days – in business, in relationships, and on rustic roads on holiday in countries with an aversion to straight lines – because they don’t listen to the world around them.  All it takes is looking up from time to time and adding what you see to your own well of motivation.

Social Commentary

The photo industry needs sharper focus.

I’m doing some branding and innovation work for large imaging equipment manufacturer, and I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at the broader imaging industry.  I think low-cost, multifunction connected devices loaded with super smart code will one day replace just about every dedicated device on the imaging market.  Here’s the picture I’d paint –

MIT professor Henry Jenkins has talked a lot about convergence, and he seems to think there’s always going to be a role for dedicated image capture devices.  I 100% agree if “always” means the next 10 years.  Beyond that, I think we’ll be able to take pictures on our smartphones and turbo-charge image quality and tweak depth of field, contrast and colors with intuitive software and end up with a shot that’d make Ansel Adams swoon.

Evolutionary, adjacent innovation is swell, but startup businesses and their upstart thinkers are gunning for revolutionary breakthroughs.  Kodak’s ongoing demise should be a cautionary tale and a mega motivator for big manufacturers to acqui-hire the shit out of as many of those imaging revolutionaries as they can find.

Social Commentary

I say “F.U.” to your product.

There are lots of complex ways to evaluate the odds of survival / success of a product.  To all of that complexity, I say eff you.  All products can be neatly plotted onto a grid with two simple axes: fun and utility.

If your product is just fun, you’re going to have more competition, and your users are going to be more fickle and have shorter attention spans: fun is disposable and replaceable, and everyone’s on the lookout for the next funner thing.  Zynga is a good example of a fun-centric product.  #hitdrivenbusiness

If you’re long on utility and shorter on fun, you’re in a pretty good spot.  It’s difficult to find true utility in the world, and once people are plugged into a useful resource, it takes a lot to lure them elsewhere.  Google‘s a truly useful product.  [we won’t mention their forays into fun]  Bing’s only managed to eek out 8 or so percent of the total search market despite three years of a blood, sweat, and deals.

Ideally your product manages to be both fun and useful, like Apple. Or a burrito, which is packed with protein and fiber but also super delicious.  So when you’re standing back and basking in the glory of your product (or your whiteboard scribbles), ask yourself if you’ve created a burrito.  If you haven’t, well, F.U.