Why false intimacy is bad for business

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Even without context from the rest of the movie, HAL’s emotionless voice somehow makes those polite words ring hollow and unsettling. It is an emotionless machine and trying to act polite and “like us” comes off as wrong and almost invasive in a way. It’s a machine putting on the face of a man for the sake of its own gain.

Right now, I have emails sitting in my inbox from companies such as eBay, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, each telling me things like “Selected for you! You really struck gold with this one!”, “Damon, your holiday savings start here,” and “Hi, Damon! We found some Vancouver Canada Pins and boards for you!”

In a way, these companies and HAL are cut from the same cloth.

Personalization is the name of the game on the Internet. The flexibility of programming languages makes it easy to plug in a user's name to give your messages an air of intimacy. Yes, these things are done for you.

While it seems like it may be a friendly way to foster camaraderie, on a deeper level it becomes a bit unnerving.

In a way, it reminds me of an Internet version of the automated calls that awkwardly plug in the name of the homeowner into its “personalized” messages, often resulting in an awkward pause and a horribly mangled name if your name happens to be more than two syllables, a method that, while coming off more seamlessly in the Internet space due to a lack of audio, is still just as detached and false.

The fact that many of these companies are massive, monolithic even, makes these attempts at intimacy sound condescending. While companies acting as if they are buddy-buddy with the average consumer is a very old tradition and arguably makes good business sense, the sheer size and amount of digital real estate owned by many Internet companies make them seem much more distant to the average user than the department stores of yesteryear. Making the friendly voice so personalized comes off sounding just as false as HAL’s words over the spaceship speaker.

Not all messages put forward by companies are like this. But, those that are stick out like a sore thumb. They feel pre-packaged and condescending, like someone encouraging a small child that they don’t quite know. You can do it, champ. We found these things just for you, sport.

Such faux intimacy is condescending to consumers and may be potentially harmful to businesses in the long term because a constant stream of indifferent attempts at camaraderie can only lead to indifference in return.

What’s worse is that many of these messages bury the lede, so to speak. They are inefficient from a business standpoint because they are so focused on coming off as your friend that they bury the point of the email beyond faux pleasantries. What’s worse is that this manner of acting intimate could result in indifference to a brand, which is never a good thing for a business. In my personal experience, any “just for you” sorts of emails in my inbox go right to the trash because I know it pertains to nothing important in regards to my account on a given site.

Unlike HAL, these messages are not of a greater intelligence. They are merely ads shot out by programs without a thought of their content, made to sell just the same products as their paper grandfathers before them. But now, the companies that spread these ads are too large to seem friendly, too incorporeal to seem intimate and too powerful to seem even remotely interested in their customers. 

Reach the columnist at drsmit19@asu.edu or follow @Maxx_Lazerblast on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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