The rise of over-familiar websites


From social networks to the websites of venerable High Street stalwarts, over-familiarity has spread like the plague across the internet, says Colm O'Regan.

Sometimes it's the jaunty "What's going on, Colm?" On other occasions the question is "How are you doing, Colm?"

As of yet I haven't been asked "How are you feeling, Colm?", though I know it has asked this of other people. "It" in this case is Facebook. The company is trialling different ways of encouraging people to write, share, fume, blub and splutter their thoughts onto their Facebook page. To this end, a personalised prompt appears at the top of every user's timeline.

It seems friendly enough. "What's going on, Colm?" is my favourite. It sounds like I've met a friend by arrangement and we've got plans for the day - plans that are not dissimilar to the adventures you see groups of friends having in an advert for an Apple product or a bottled beer.

And asking after my welfare is not a dramatic departure for the company. It used to ask "What's on your mind?"

The difference is the use of my name. I also have a problem with people excessively using my name. I feel it gives them some power over me and overuse implies disingenuousness. Like when you ring a call centre where they seem obsessed with saying your name. "Now Mr O'Regan, just to let you know that for training purposes I will be repeating your name throughout this phone call, in case you forget who you are."

Facebook is not the only one getting chummy. All over the internet, websites seem to want be your friend. Once you tell them the slightest bit of information, they seize on it like a chugger and use it to reinforce their "relationship" with you.

There's also an informality that I find irrationally grating. It's the same feeling I get when someone in a trendy coffee shop calls me "man", even though I have no recollection of giving permission for such impertinence.

Image caption,
"One double soy decaf flat white - hey, great glasses, man!"

One of the more informal is my mailing-list provider. I have a modest-sized mailing list - not enough to say that I have a cult following but certainly enough to form a cult.

When someone unsubscribes from the mailing list, I get a message saying: "Nuts, a few people jumped ship. Ah, who needs them anyway?" I feel like reprimanding it for not taking the loss of customers seriously.

This is not the only example. Companies seem to be programming forced familiarity into their interactions with us.

When I register on some websites and then log in again, I'll see a message saying "Howdy Colm, welcome back!"

Don't "howdy" me. You're just a piece of aluminium coated in some sort of magnetic substance in a server farm located in a country where the climate makes it economically viable to keep the machines at constant temperature. You are not my friend. I bet you say that to everyone.

Other applications want to convince us they experience emotion. When something goes wrong on Firefox, it displays a message saying "Well, this is embarrassing". Really, is it? I don't think so. Until the Firefox Internet Browser drops a pint in the pub in front of a group of its friends, it will never know embarrassing.

Facebook and Twitter both say "Oops!" when the unexpected happens as if they are an adorable sparrow-like old aunt who has forgotten you don't take sugar.

This almost makes me nostalgic for a time when computers didn't give a hoot whether their errors had discommoded you and made no apology whatsoever.

Image caption,
Computer says no

There was no "Oops" from the 24 Commodore 64s in secondary school on which, as a class we struggled manfully for an hour to create a glowing green rectangle on the black screen, put it on a floppy disk the size of a frisbee and then watch the whole thing fail for no reason.

There was no "Well, this is embarrassing" as the box hilariously called the disk drive made angle-grinder noises and the teacher tried for half an hour to turn it on again before blaming the students and cancelling computer class for a month.

Computers were like bouncers. You were the three-sheets-to-the-wind punter swaying glassy-eyed in front of them pleading to continue. They remained impassive saying, "I don't have to give you a reason. You're not going into that file and that's that."

You know where you stood with computers in that sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't.

I say I am nostalgic for those days but only up to a point. Just now one of my Facebook friends, no doubt prompted by the question "What's going on, [insert_name]?" has put up a video of a dog playing with an otter.

Now that's an unlikely friendship.

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