Chatbot Therapists, and 4 Other Stories We Loved in May

Here’s what you missed in marketing, media, and tech while you were figuring out what Autocorrect does to the word “coverage”…

Bloomberg: Mom-and-Pop Joints Are Trouncing America’s Big Restaurant Chains

Selected by Dillon Baker, tech editor

I love secret tech stories. What seems like a dry business report on the decline of big restaurant chains is actually a fascinating look at how the internet is shaping the economy.

Before the internet, and especially before smartphones, finding a good restaurant was difficult. You could get a recommendation from a local, buy a guidebook, or just guess until you found a favorite spot. Now, people are turning to crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp and Google for advice on where to eat. As a result, ubiquitous chains, which once thrived off of comfort and familiarity, are being overtaken by local restaurants with great reviews.

It’s a trend that’s happening across industries. Gamers are increasingly buying small, independent games with great reviews on Steam. Amazon has brought down major publishers’ cartel when it comes to books. The internet has done many negative things, but we shouldn’t ignore how it has supported the rise of localism and independent creators.

Wired: The Internet Defines ‘Covfefe’

Selected by Erin Nelson, marketing editor

It’d been a long time since I laughed out loud while reading the news on my commute. That was until last week, when I read Wired’s coverage of what the internet made out of the most recent Twitter extravaganza now known as #covfefe.

Here, Angela Watercutter describes how a tweet by President Trump that read “Despite be negative press covfefe” turned into an experiment of what the internet could do with a (presumable) typo. The answer was an onslaught of memes and internet ragging that ranged from a new definition on Urban Dictionary to a Eurotrain ad that adopted the phrase “Fancy a covfefe?” My personal favorites are a screenshot from Merriam Webster of suggested words and Nespresso-inspired meme of a thirsty George Clooney, ready to tackle the day after a cup of covfefe.

For Watercutter, a deep dive into Twitter banter is a hilarious exercise. At the same time, it represents the unprecedented ability of social media to turn nothing into something—an aspiring singer into a star, a reality TV celebrity into president—the possibilities are endless. If “covfefe” wasn’t a word before, it certainly is now… as real as the power of the man who typed it.

The Ringer: Woebot Is Therapy Inside a Chatbot*

Selected by Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief

*I’m cheating because this was published in June, but then again, Jordan isn’t getting this column out until the 6th, so who is he to judge?

This story is about Woebot, a new invention that combines my two favorite things: cheap therapy and chatbots. I had The Content Strategist on the chatbot train as early as 2014—a time, fittingly, when I was also paying $10 per week to go to a student therapist the same age as me. His name was Yakov, and he was trained in the same discipline as Woebot: behavioral therapy.

While I doubt Woebot can compare to my boy Yakov, I do see why it could work. Behavioral therapy largely involves asking the patient to consider the actions in his/her own life and come up with actionable strategies to improve it. It’s not rocket science, and I can definitely imagine Woebot and it’s decision-tree AI doing the trick.

Since I’m totally incapable of any sort of work-life balance, this also made me think of B2B applications. What if we built our own version of Woebot, but for marketing problems? It’s an exciting idea, but maybe a little bit dangerous. As Contently’s head of content strategy, I’ll probably just end up replacing myself.

The Atlantic: How Pixar Lost Its Way

Selected by Brian Maehl, talent development manager

In this story, Christopher Orr examines the quality of Pixar films since the film studio was acquired by Disney back in 2006. Thanks to the mouse house’s cashgrab, he argues, Pixar has descended down a path of sequels that fail to capture its old magic.

This struck a nerve. The fun fact on my business card proudly proclaims “I’m a Pixar encyclopedia.” Not only can I rattle off every film, its director, and year of release (I know what you’re thinking but I do, in fact, have a girlfriend), but I’ve probably read every piece of literature about Pixar’s approach to storytelling and company culture. And while I’m sure Disney loves greenlighting sequels to classics, I think the quality issue runs deeper.

During Pixar’s “golden age,” films like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and Wall-E were directed by some of the company’s earliest employees—several of whom were mentored by co-founder and storytelling god John Lasseter. Since 2011, however, only two of these directors (Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter) helmed Pixar films. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

What I’m suggesting is that Pixar has a talent development problem, not a corporate direction problem. The studio prides itself on trusting directors to make personal films, which means those in charge operate with an awful lot of autonomy. The recent films that Orr finds lackluster might simply be in the wrong hands, not the wrong studio.

The New Yorker: Go Ahead, Interrupt My Day

Selected by Jordan Teicher, managing editor

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get through work without the constant interruptions? No email, no Slack, no coworker tapping you on the shoulder. Just pure productivity. Writing that almost makes me laugh.

Today, pure productivity is a pipe dream. That’s not to say people are unproductive. They’re getting a lot done—answering emails, going to meetings, getting feedback. I held off on downloading the Slack mobile app as long as I could, keeping my chats just on a laptop, but I eventually caved in to make sure I could address any pressing issues before they turned into problems. But it often feels like technology has made us capable of doing a lot of things simultaneously instead of completing a few things at the highest ability.

FlowLight may be able to change that. A computer science professor from British Columbia and a few of his doctoral students came up with an office product that signals your availability to colleagues based on desk lights that change colors. The lights take their cue from an algorithm that measures keyboard and mouse activity: “Red (busy), pulsing red (super busy), yellow (wishing you were busier), and green (checking Facebook).”

This kind of solution isn’t perfect. If bosses were to track productivity through the device, it could “trigger a red-light arms race” But it’s telling that kind of invention exists. Professionals would probably admit they’re overconnected and too available. And sometimes, to get stuff done, you have to find a way to shut out the world.

Image by Pexels / CC Zero

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