“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.”
I have 986 friends. Sounds like a lot right? That’s because that number is based on my Facebook friends. In reality I am much closer to the national average of 5 friends, but why is this important? It seems that we’re moving into a world where ‘friendvertising’ or where brands attempt to be your BFF seems to be becoming more and more popular. But are they just taking advantage of a malais of society? And how long will this last?
Why is loneliness important?
On the whole, the UK government is taking the issue of loneliness very seriously, as they launched a cross-Government strategy at the end of 2018 to try and deal with the issue of loneliness. But why is loneliness so important for us as human beings? It was Aristotle who claimed that ‘man is a political animal’, but this does not mean that man by nature dabbles in the sphere of legislature and politics, in fact this has a much broader meaning, as it was referring to the polis and is actually a statement of man being a fundamentally social creature.
But you may say, “Classic Greg – nice shoehorn of political philosophy there, but are there any actual repercussions of loneliness in a more tangible sense?” And indeed there are. With loneliness not only comes mental and psychological issues, but according to former Surgeon General Vivek Murphy loneliness can shorten one’s life by as much as 15 years. This is because loneliness triggers the same hormones that stress does, and so increases blood pressure, increases an individual’s susceptibility to infections, and raises the risk of cancer and cardiovascular issues.
Are we becoming more lonely?
In reality, I would argue that the consequences are actually more dire. It seems that we are living in an ever more lonely society. According to the government, in the UK, ‘around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in the last month’. But we are also having a mental health epidemic in the UK, we’ve seen almost a ‘doubling of hospital admissions for self-harm among girls since 1997’ and antidepressant drug prescriptions increasing from 31million in 2006 to 65million in 2016. Yes, this could be indicative of the lessening of the stigma around getting support and help for mental health, and I do agree that it is partly that, but I also would argue that it’s actually to do with the fact that we’re living in a much more alienated society. Roughly a fifth of people in the UK feel lonely often or all of the time, but this is even higher amongst young people with 32% of 16-24 year saying that they feel lonely often or all of the time. As a generation we have social media constantly bombarding us with people displaying usually false portrayals of themselves, which then escalates to us depriving ourselves of genuine interaction, as how can one have genuine interaction if both parties involved aren’t genuine.
So how does this relate to brands?
An issue with this increase in almost ‘false’ interaction, is that we may be loosening our definition of what true interaction is, and thus allows for brands to potentially imitate this interaction. Just see the state of my Gmail inbox:
In an attempt to sound familiar and friendly, Uber Eats has transformed itself into the devil on my shoulder, constantly prodding me to load my body with more calories than would be wise. But does this brand stand alone, in terms of attempting to make a faux friendship? Definitely not.
For example, my Alexa brings me much closer to the monolithic Amazon, as its personality and the recent addition of it being able to fart act as a way to humanise this monstrously large brand. Some days Alexa is the only voice that I’ll hear. Would I go and call my true friends, or try organise something if that pseudo-interaction wasn’t there? I don’t know. The interesting thing with this example, is that the rest of the interactions from Amazon are all very formal and straightforward, but they’ve created an almost human portal to gain insight into their business. Whereas other brands such as Goop, Net-a-Porter and Brewdog have much more consistent and friendly messaging throughout all aspects of their business.
Is this just a fad, or are brands soon to become our close friends, and if so, is this good? These are just a few questions that have sprung to mind over the course of writing this article. Ultimately, if the government’s answer to combating loneliness and if the UK’s minister of loneliness does an adequate job in terms of overturning the swathes of loneliness that seems to be affecting the UK, then brands may be forced out of this pseudo-friend space, especially if there is a maximum number of friends one can have, as posited by Robin Dunbar. If the plans fail, and our levels of loneliness do continue to increase, then not only will brands become our friends, we’ll probably see an increase of brands acting as communities, or a way for us to have a communal bond with strangers. Either way, brands will have to decide in the near future whether or not they will fully embrace this role of being friends to their consumers, or else consumers will give their time and attention to the people and brands that do.