Saturday, November 07, 2015

Do I Know You?

I like to think I'm generally a helpful person. I hold doors open and offer to help carry things. If something is broken, I'm happy to try and fix it. As needed, I offer to take out the trash, bring in the groceries, stand in line. In the past I have even offered to help with the laundry, but after throwing one too many thing that shouldn't have gone into the dryer into the dryer, I'm been asked by my wife to focus my good intentions elsewhere.

So when I got an inquiry from Amazon about a new computer that I had just purchased, I was quick to respond. Mind you, this wasn't a request for a review. If you buy anything online, odds are you have gotten this kind of followup response. You're asked to rate the item or transaction, give it 3 stars or 4 rainbows or 5 rockets, and asked for any pithy comments you might have. Your responses are used for a crowd-sourced critical evaluation of said product or service. (See GA #941 "Sitting in Judgement") But anyone who has ever read a Yelp review knows that these need to be taken with a large grain of salt ("The hamachi handroll had rice falling out of it. This place sucks."). Still, as long as you view them with a healthy degree of skepticism, they can help you find the Dustbuster of your dreams.

No, this was a specific question, and was even identified as coming from a specific customer: "L. Clark wants to know: How many total USB ports? Is there wifi?" I assumed the question was posted for anyone who had bought that machine recently. True, it wasn't one of those "I've never seen this before, does anyone know how to fix it" type of inquires that the internet excels at answering. ("Old glue smeared on your desk? Try peanut butter!") It was a simple factual inquiry, one that could just as easily been answered by looking the specifications listed online. But hey, as I said, I'm a helpful guy, and so I responded with the facts: "6 ports and yes, wifi." I hit send, and assumed that was that.

But the next day, another one appeared in my inbox. And it wasn't just another random question; that I would have understood. Had that been the case, I would have assumed the system flagged me as a a person who liked answering questions, and so steered others my way. No, this was from once again from Mr. or Mrs. L. Clark, writing as if we now had the basis of a relationship: "Thank you Marc! Do you own this computer? And would you recommend it? Any issues?" I half expected there to be a dinner invitation at the end.

So here's where I stopped being helpful. I quickly wrote back to Amazon, howling my unhappiness. It's one thing if I choose to answer anonymously a technical question about something for which I might have some insight. But it's another for them to be go telling some random person what I am interested in and/or purchased and/or own, and give them my name. Amazon says they don't reveal the emails of those who answer questions. But with identity theft being such a pervasive problem, just how hard would it be to put the pieces together? I'm sure Mr. or Mrs. L Clark is a lovely person living in Charlotte or Des Moines or Santa Clara. But if he/she is really a hacker named Stosh from Estonia, my buying habits are just the kind of info he would need to pose as me online. After all, as Peter Steiner's famous cartoon noted, on the internet no one knows you're a dog.

That said, I haven't become a reformed helper, whose seen the error of his ways. Since this exchange, I helped my wife with her web site. I helped a client carry some boxes. I helped a women on the train put her suitcase in the overhead rack. My natural inclination is still to lend a hand, for people I know as well as those I don't. And I don't want to change that. That said, I don't want Stosh using my good nature against me. But if you really are a Mr L. Clark from Des Moines, them my apologies: the computer works just fine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't mind answering questions. Usually. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online atGlancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

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