You Are Who You Know

by Meta Wagner

3 September 2007

If I want reading recommendations, Amazon, I’ll turn to people who really do know me. They’re called friends.
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall 

You give your hand to me
And then you say, ‘Hello.’
And I can hardly speak
My heart is beating so.
And anyone can tell
You think you know me well.
Well, you don’t know me.
(No you don’t know me).
—“You Don’t Know Me”, Sung by Ray Charles

Is there anything more human than the need to feel known, truly known, by another?  Maybe that’s why it strikes me as so presumptuous for a stranger, even one armed with surveys and polls and purchase histories and viewing habits, to think he or she (or, in the case of a computer, it) could ever really know any one of us.

It’s bad enough when it’s just another person hastily drawing a composite picture of someone but missing the details that matter.  Woody Allen captured this perfectly in Annie Hall in the scene where his character Alvy makes small talk with Allison, a woman he’s just met, to calm his nerves before going onstage to perform his stand up routine:

Alvy:  You, you, you’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.

Allison:  No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.

But the issue becomes a little more insidious when corporate entities and political organizations and the media are involved.  With advanced technology as their ally, more than ever companies persist in trying to suss out our interests, tastes, preferences, and proclivities, and then market products and services to us based on their often false assumptions about who we are as individuals.  (Full disclosure:  I used to be in corporate marketing but I’ve changed my ways.)

Take the site, for example.  I’ve ordered hundreds of products from them over the years, and so now they’re going wild with ways to entice me into buying other products based on recent product purchases or viewings.  My personal homepage is covered with categories like “New for You”, “What Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?”, “More To Explore”, “Recommended For You”, “Customers With Similar Searches Purchased”,  “More Top Picks For You”, and “Selected For You”.
There are several flawed premises underlying this marketing scheme.  One is that because I previously viewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I’ll want to purchase it at a greater discount now.  But, as some loyal readers may recall, I was writing about the silly Americanization of the language in the Harry Potter series for my last article, and so I looked up the latest book strictly for research purposes (see The Lost in Translation Generation). 

Another assumption is that I care what other people who viewed the same book as I did, then went on to buy in addition to that.  I don’t care.  Or, because I looked at a particular poetry book, surely, then, I’ll want to peruse other, randomly selected, poetry books (or, more likely, books that Amazon is trying to unload).  If I want reading recommendations, I’ll turn to people who actually know me.  They’re called friends.

Then there’s the notion that Hallmark apparently subscribes to.  That is; people want to receive “personalized” attention for difficult life passages they’re going through…from a greeting card writer (i.e., a stranger).  Anything from having cancer to coming out to getting divorced to dieting.  In the past, a friend might have picked up the phone or visited the person or purchased a blank card with a pretty picture on the front or one with a catch-all phrase like “Congratulations” or “Get Well,” and then added something in their own words

Now, we have Hallmark’s “Journeys” series of cards, which the marketing campaign introduces with the phrase, “Welcome to the new normal.”  And so, the next time you’re picking out a card, you may come across one that says, “I’m sorry you lost your job, but please remember that your job is not who you are.”  Or this one for someone in recovery:  “You’re a quitter…and that makes you a winner.”  No wonder young Hollywood can’t seem to stay out of rehab—it’s the cards, not the drugs that are ruining them!

These cards aim to do one thing—provide a higher degree of personalization —while actually doing the exact opposite.  They depersonalize and therefore diminish the recipient’s experience.  It’s as if anything, no matter how serious, no matter how individual it feels to that person, can be reduced to a Hallmark sentiment intended for thousands of others in a similar—but not identical—situation. 

This facile labeling of individuals is already apparent in the premature 2008 presidential campaign, as well.  Politics is, naturally, an arena where identifying potential voters in each district means everything to a candidate.  And yet pollsters and politicians are constantly confounded by what they find.

Rudy Guliani has managed to become the current Republican frontrunner despite his questionable personal behavior and his laissez faire attitude towards abortion and same sex marriage?  No!  Hillary Clinton appeals more to women of a lower socioeconomic status and education than to privileged women?  Get out!  Black audience members are sometimes responding with greater enthusiasm to Dennis Kucinich, a short, nerdy-looking white guy, than to Barack Obama?  Shocking!

Clearly, it was assumed that people would once again support the candidate that they’d most want to have a beer with when, in fact, many Americans have sobered up from that grave error in judgment in 2000 and 2004 and now apparently want to support someone whose policies will benefit them and maybe even the world at large.

So, are people truly as predictable as it’s sometimes assumed?  Don’t bet on it.  We could be surprised in the next US presidential election, because you never really know. . .

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