Hi Sandip, hope you are having a warm and fuzzy Sunday.
Someone sent you a message.
A secret love letter only for you.
My mailbox runneth over with daily reminders like these of how much my friends love me. Except they are not really friends at all.
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These are just chatty companies pretending to be my BFFs from way back.
Some, like Swiggy and Zomato, send messages daily. Often they are not even offers. They are cutesy little notes. “This will surely melt your heart,” says one. Another says, “Sandip, you’ve got a mail from ChatGPT.” Yet another proclaims it’s a “Mail from IT Department”. It warns me “Your Cooking Skills” is a weak password but “Your Ordering Skills” is super strong.
For a while, it was cute. It made a change from the usual barrage of dhamaka sales and two-for-one offers. Their tone was informal and warm, it amused me that someone had invested time in wordplay. Then I started getting entire letters like that annual New Year’s missive from a friend bringing you up to date with all that has been going on with them over the year. Except this is a “friend” about whom I know nothing other than the fact that they sell organic cotton T-shirts.
Then there was the long bubbly message where a social media and communications manager told me all about her small-town upbringing and how much she enjoys this cool grass-roots company whose speciality “no-toxic-additive” toothpaste I once bought, tempted by some Instagram ad. I have no doubt that she is a real person making a real attempt at putting a face to an impersonal company but I don’t really care about making a personal connection with the people behind my toothpaste. I just want to brush my teeth without visualising the social media and communications manager and her life’s trajectory.
At one time, we didn’t have to strain so hard to make these connections. Our local fishmonger would ask about my mother’s knees while she inquired abut his wife’s cancer treatment. The man selling milk and butter offered house- building advice gratis. The brothers Majumdar, who ran the stationery store, complained, “Haven’t seen your sister in a very long time. How is she?”, as I bought a bunch of envelopes. Years after my family left the neighbourhood, my sister went to our old local sari shop and the store attendants knew exactly who she was and asked about everyone in the family. My mother didn’t go but sent strict bargaining instructions.
These were relationships and these people managed them effortlessly, and nobody needed to call themselves relationship managers. Now I have relationship managers at my bank but they change so often it makes me feel promiscuous. This is not about sepia-toning the past in a nostalgic haze. Those old relationships were also transactional and based on commerce but they did not require a daily dose of fake cheer and funny emojis to maintain a sense of connection.
All this pseudo intimacy is happening in a world where our personal connections feel more under threat than ever before even as we are more connected than we have ever been. An American Sociological Review study said the average person in the US has only one close friend. One in four persons said they have no confidantes at all. Yet one would not think that if we looked at our smartphones constantly buzzing with messages and alerts.
Decades ago, The Beatles asked, “All the lonely people where do they all come from? All the lonely people where do they all belong?” Their vision of lonely people was Father McKenzie writing a sermon that no one would hear or Eleanor Rigby picking up the rice in a church where there had been a wedding. They didn’t think the lonely people would be busily rushing about their lives and jobs, with smartphones sending them constant cheery alerts. All the lonely people, where do they all belong? Probably inside our smartphones and their make-believe communities.
Even worse, now the algorithm tries to create more “friends” for us. Social media keeps suggesting people we might know or should follow. Not content with that, the latest iteration of Twitter pops people into our timeline even if we don’t follow them just because someone we interacted with also interacted with them. Suddenly, my timeline is filled with people who seem vaguely familiar even though we don’t follow each other. It’s as if friends of friends of friends are hanging out in my kitchen, drinking my wine.
In the real world, I struggle to talk on the telephone because I have just become more used to typing out a WhatsApp message. Old friendships have fallen by the wayside because it gets harder and harder for me to pick up the phone and call. Meanwhile, my phone message box is full but almost none of the messages are from real people.
A casual look at my phone shows that apart from bill payment reminders and OTPs, all my other messages are from companies. But they are not just trying to make me buy stuff the way they used to. They are all looking out for me and my well-being, just like old friends do. A laboratory wants me to get a health checkup because heart attacks are a silent killer. The cable service thinks I should watch the Women’s T20 league because they reckon we should all support women’s empowerment. And a food delivery app doesn’t want me to miss the free momo sauce I can get if I buy only three packets of frozen momos. The only “human” message is from a friend who was running late for our coffee date and whose WhatsApp was acting up. Buried as it was in all the corporate telemarketing chit-chat, I missed it entirely.
Now even WhatsApp is under telemarketing siege. Much of it is self-inflicted. Every time I buy something online, I share my number for delivery updates. Then I am on a mailing list and I have acquired a new “friend”. Of course, one can unsubscribe but the more interesting aspect is how corporations are seeking to adopt the persona of friends. And certainly many of them are more regularly in chit-chat touch with us than our old-school real world friends. People probably hear more often from the Swiggys and Zomatos in our lives than from our chaddi buddies. My optical store and bank wish me happy birthday earlier than most of my friends do, especially if my birthday is hidden on Facebook. It’s no surprise that corporations are now using the lingo of friends.
There is a more sinister fallout to this blurring of the private and the corporate. We are getting too accustomed to perfect strangers calling and wanting access to private information.
The other day, a well-spoken man called my mother out of the blue and said he was the bank manager. When she asked which bank, he seemed stymied but recovered and said the State Bank of India, which was a pretty safe guess for the most part.
My mother handed the phone over to me.
Bank regulations had changed, he said, and he was calling to help my mother, as a valued customer, navigate them. He wanted to know who I was, for, as he told me politely, in these times you could not just disclose sensitive information to anyone.
When I asked him which branch he was calling from, he seemed annoyed.
“The branch with your account of course,” he said curtly. “Please hand the phone back to your mother.”
I persisted with my question. Finally frustrated, he shed his polite persona, cursed and hung up.
And I felt I had lost one “friend” in this heartless world, so what if he probably wanted to bilk us out of our money.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
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