The other day, after resetting my online banking password, I received a message in all caps: CONGRATULATIONS! I like to imagine the ripple of applause spreading from desk to desk as news of my triumph arrived at the bank’s headquarters. Meanwhile, Facebook has started sporadically thanking me “for being here”, as if I were Mark Zuckerberg’s most dependable friend. This is the “new intimacy economy”, according to tech journalist Leigh Alexander, who wrote about it recently at Medium. Despite Facebook’s many annoyances, she said, “All this time it never occurred to me to delete my account, until it began doing this: trying to act like a person.” In Britain, we’re already familiar with “wackaging”, that infuriatingly chummy tone adopted on product labels. But the New Intimacy, Alexander predicts, is going to intensify. As other tricks for grabbing people’s attention on the internet falter, these pseudo-human appeals to our emotions may prove Silicon Valley’s last hope.


The obvious worry is that this might devalue the currency of sentiment: if I’m congratulated for changing my password, does it mean anything when I congratulate you on your new baby, or your Nobel prize for chemistry? But actually, it’s worse than that: the statements in question are usually outright lies. There simply is no human being at Facebook who feels grateful, even fleetingly, when I log in. The radical economist Charles Eisenstein noticed something similar about a beer ad. “Every day, I drive past a billboard for Coors Light with the slogan ‘Coors Rocks Harrisburg’,” he wrote, in a brilliant essay entitled The Ubiquitous Matrix of Lies. “Now, does anybody actually believe that Coors does in fact ‘rock Harrisburg’? No. Does the Coors corporation itself believe it? No. Does anyone believe that Coors believes it? No. It is a lie, everyone knows it is a lie, and no one cares.” It’s tempting to dismiss this as an overreaction to a harmless ad (or as old hat, since Orwell said something similar before). But Eisenstein makes a convincing case that it matters.


When daily life requires turning a blind eye to the falsity of countless things we’re told, it weakens the power of language to sort truth from fiction. “Increasingly, words don’t mean anything any more,” he writes. “Because we are lied to all the time, in ways so routine they are beneath conscious notice, even the most direct lies are losing their power to shock.” Unwittingly, we grow more tolerant of untruths and semi-truths, making it easier (among other things) for our political leaders’ dubious schemes to pass without serious challenge. Dishonest claims about a corporation’s emotions – that Facebook’s happy to see you; that “we love our customers” – seem especially insidious, because emotions operate so instinctively. On one level, I know it’s just marketing; on a less conscious level, I can’t help responding to fake friendliness from a company as if it’s real friendliness from a friend. So we’d do well to keep Eisenstein’s point in mind: it’s all lies. Your call just isn’t very “important to us”. If it were, you wouldn’t be listening to that recorded message in the first place. ( By Oliver Burkeman from )