Testing Testimonials

Last month I watched a news story about an investigation performed by CBC to discover the identity of a “serial” testimonial giver. According to the story (article here), one woman had been hired by dozens of companies to give glowing video testimonials for various products and services. In each video, the woman portrayed a different character to fit the product or service being promoted (e.g., a financial advisor, a licensed dietician, teacher, etc.).

I often look at peer reviews to get a sense of how good a product, service, place, or restaurant might be. Even when reading peer reviews, I’m thinking about how to evaluate the quality of the reviewer. As I wrote about earlier (in Irony of the Information Age), when reading a bad review, sometimes it’s hard to tell if the product was inferior, or if the person simply had trouble using it.

When I read reviews, I look at a mix of ratings, often balancing out my selection with a few from the middle (4/5 stars or 2/5 stars). Somehow I feel like some of these have a better chance of being genuine. However, after listening to this news story, I’m definitely going to be even more discerning when reading (or watching) online reviews. I always knew that companies hired people to give positive testimonials, but it didn’t stop me from reading them. It just meant that peer reviews could only be one part of the selection process.

It’s unfortunate that so many peer reviews are disingenuous because it’s one aspect of the selection process that can be the most helpful. Often when I search online for help with something technical, I prefer to get it from peers instead of the vendor because my peers will use the product like I do and therefore have more targeted solutions. A company can’t always anticipate how someone will decide to use their product. For that reason, I prefer to read/watch peer tutorials, because they’re (often) not financially motivated.

Even before the internet and social media existed, how often would you call a friend for a review or recommendation of something? And how likely were you to trust that person’s testimony?

The internet is supposed to be this amazing space where anybody can have their voice heard, but what about when those voices are paid, or endorsed, and we don’t know that? Who are we supposed to trust?

Party Line

The other night I was calling a friend through WhatsApp (a popular messaging app), when another call came through on the actual phone. I rarely use my smartphone for actual phone conversations so it was new for me to have more than one call come through on different platforms. The call was still ringing on WhatsApp when I answered my phone without knowing what would happen. (Turns out the WhatsApp call disconnected when I accepted the incoming call.)

Later that evening, I was using Google Hangouts to chat with a friend (yet another messaging service I use) when another call came through on the phone. I accepted the phone call, again without knowing what would happen to the Hangout call. I kept my phone conversation brief and generic, imagining that my friend on Hangout was able to quietly listen to everything. It reminded me of a time before smartphones and call waiting. I’m not old enough to have experienced “party lines” (shared phone lines from decades ago), but I do remember when call waiting first became a thing and how many calls were accidentally merged instead of being switched seamlessly from one to the other.

When I’m talking on the phone and another call comes through, I have three options:

  1. accept the new call and disconnect the existing one;
  2. accept the new call and put the existing one on hold; or
  3. accept the new call and merge it with the existing one.

However, when calls are coming through on different apps, these options are not offered so I’m not sure what is supposed to happen.

When I answered the phone while on Hangout, the Hangout call was put on hold and my friend couldn’t hear anything. However, when I switched back, I couldn’t tell she was on hold and tried to call again through Hangout. Eventually we reconnected, but it wasn’t as easy as it could have been if both calls had been on the same service.

Using different messaging apps (WhatsApp, Hangout, etc.) has been great for keeping in touch with friends who live in other countries because calls are free. And many of the apps also support video calling. However, it does get confusing trying to keep track of all the calls, or to remember who to contact through which app.

Remember when phones used to just be for calling people?




Information Curation

Over the holiday I started working on my digital scrapbook projects. It felt nice to review pictures of warmer times while listening to the wind howl outside my windows. I flipped through photos of vacations taken to sunny climates. Swimming. Laying near the beach. Going rock climbing.

Our trusty kayaks waiting for us as we lunched on the rocks above.

One big difference I’ve noticed in the process is choosing which pictures to place in the scrapbook. I’m overwhelmed with options and I get decision fatigue often. It makes the process very time consuming, especially when I have to go to multiple locations to see all the photos. I selected the image above from many similar ones of the kayaks tied up at different locations throughout our 4-day trip last summer.

However, the more pictures I select, the more I can fit on the page, but then the smaller they become. So many compromises to make! The image below wouldn’t be as nice if it were too small.

One of many stunning views while rock climbing in Lake Tahoe.

Volume was more contained when pictures were still printed, likely for practical reasons (space, cost, managing, etc.). It would have been difficult for most of us to obtain the same large volume of photos/videos with older technology. But on the other side, features have been developed to accommodate the volumes, some of which can automate the hard work of organizing and managing photos.

Every time I create a digital scrapbook, I feel keenly aware that I’m somewhat crafting my own history by the choices I make, sometimes from hundreds of options. Cost is definitely a factor for me because I like to get my digital scrapbooks printed. So I carefully go through them to choose the best representatives, or my favorites. I’ll often limit how many scrapbook pages are dedicated for each set of photos.

Each time I look through one of my scrapbooks, I become more familiar with the highlights of the event I memorialized. The narrative I designed by the images I chose and the accompanying text. I wonder, as time passes, will I only remember these few curated moments of the experience?  The ones that match the photos I selected?  Will I forget about all the other small details and things that happened if I can’t see all the photos?

And then I wonder, if that’s such a bad thing.





With the start of the New Year, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be better, healthier, more organized, etc. We convince ourselves that we can change decades of bad habits and stick with it the minute the clock ticks from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1. But maybe with resolutions, we don’t need to be so resolute with ourselves. Sometimes it’s best to decide not to decide just yet. Keep your goals in mind, but remain open to possibility and unexpected outcomes.

Last summer I had the good fortune to go on an amazing 4-day kayaking trip with my family in the Johnstone Strait, off the coast of northern Vancouver Island. We went in August when we would be most likely to see orcas, an animal that has been at the top of my mom’s wish list for decades, although there were no guarantees. Even though there are 3 resident pods of orcas in that area, they are wild and could show up anywhere at any time. And we intended to be ready for them, paddling in our kayaks, floating and waiting.

Day 3 of the trip stands out as a highlight in my mind. We started paddling that morning in a thick fog, obscuring the landscape in a blanket of wet, gray mist. The edges of the land peeked out enabling us to use the shoreline to guide our path.


Some birds hanging out on the bull kelp.

Suddenly, we heard loud smacking and cracking noises ricocheting off the haze around us. Humpbacks! They were close. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see these massive 40-ton animals sliding through the fog. It was eerie, exciting, and magical, all at the same moment.

The fog started to clear as we disembarked on land for a small break.

The fog starting to clear as we took our morning break on land.

Each passing minute revealed more of the landscape. Every turn offered a new vista, stunning and pristine. We paddled close to seals, splayed out on the rocks in an array of tawny and gray colored bullet shapes. Bald eagles dotted the trees with their bright white heads, surveying us from above.

A seal peered at us curiously as we glided by in our kayak.

In the afternoon, orcas! We were lucky. Our kayaks were right in the middle of a few orcas swimming by.

The dorsal fins of three orcas cutting through the water near our floating kayaks.

Sometimes when you just relax and spend time floating, the best things come your way. If you’re too resolute about what’s supposed to happen when, you may miss out on alternate possibilities and unexpected, yet delightful, outcomes.

The Gift of Time

During the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of consumerism. Every where I look I’m bombarded with ads for cool gadgets, special holiday sale pricing, tantalizing offers of free shipping and extra freebies, and a persistent message to buy, buy, buy.

In Canada, my home for the last 12 years, the holiday season starts near Halloween. We don’t have a holiday between October and December to distract us from buying gifts for 2 months straight. Canada even now offers Black Friday sales in November to match the US, even though Canadian Thanksgiving happens on the 2nd Monday in October.

It’s easy to succumb to the pressure (and guilt) and start buying things at this time of year.  Even things you might not have considered purchasing if you weren’t inundated with promotionals and infected with “the holiday spirit.” However, one thing many of us want, but rarely get, is the gift of time. The tricky thing about time is that once it’s spent, it can’t be regained. It’s done, never to be repeated again. It can’t be returned, exchanged, or traded in for something better. We all get one shot at the time we have.

Some months ago I read an article in the New York Times, “Want to Be Happy? Buy More Takeout and Hire a Maid, Study Suggests.” The article reports the findings of a study that people who spent money on timesaving services experienced increased levels of happiness. Timesaving services mentioned in the article included things like ordering takeout, hiring a house cleaner, or paying someone to run errands for you. If these are things that you hate doing, it makes sense to me that hiring someone to do them for you would increase your happiness. Not only do you not have to do the dreaded task, but you also have more free time to do something you would rather be doing.

So for this holiday season, enjoy the time you are spending with your loved ones. It’s not about the presents. Give yourself the gift of time and take an afternoon off to do something you really enjoy. Or, if you’re still scrambling around for gifts to buy, consider giving your loved ones time by offering to do something such as babysit the kids, clean part of the house, prepare a dinner, or pick up the groceries. The gift of time is precious.

Avoiding Spoilers

It’s harder than ever to avoid spoilers for shows or movies that you may be interested in watching. This past weekend, on Sunday, I went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the movie theater. It was only 4 days after it was released, but even so, I had concerns about how to avoid reading, or hearing, about the movie until I could actually see it.

I had a number of friends and colleagues who all rushed to see the movie on opening night. Afterwards, I was careful to only ask them if they thought the movie was worth seeing, while artfully dodging any other questions that may have inadvertently led to spoilers.

Even reading a review, or synopsis, about a show or movie can contain spoilers. Some authors are better than others about marking reviews and articles with a “spoiler alert” message. I recall once reading about the next season for a program I was watching, only to discover I could figure out everything that happened from reading the small synopsis for each episode. Talk about spoilers! And there wasn’t even a warning.

Sometimes, spoilers can be verbal, and can happen on radio programs, during interviews, or even with an innocent discussion. Or from a news source that’s totally unrelated. A colleague of mine, who incidentally is a huge Star Wars fan, shared with me how she was inadvertently exposed to a big spoiler for the previous Star Wars film in 2015. This colleague was being mindful to avoid any source that could potentially have information about the movie. Shortly before she went to see the movie, a big spoiler was randomly posted (with no warning), in a magazine about an unrelated topic, like gardening.

I’m not sure what the solution is, other than to avoid all news, social media, and casual conversations until after the threat of spoilers has past for you. Or learn to live with the disappointment. It’s almost impossible to control this type of information flow. Or to predict how and when it will appear. And at what point does a “spoiler” stop being a spoiler? Surely after enough time has passed, it’s ok to share certain things….