You’re amazing!


Since November 6th, my inbox has more or less returned to business-as-usual. Four years ago, while on a sabbatical in the U.S., I took the fateful decision to accept 'occasional emails' on behalf of the Obama campaign. Note the word ‘occasional’.

The number of emails that I have received over the past few months on behalf of the campaign has been simply breathtaking. However, the most fascinating aspect was their personal touch. A trove of emails arrived from 'Barack', 'Michelle' or 'Joe', suggesting longtime friendships, and using informal headers such as "Hey," or "Thank you, Wijnand" or "Wijnand, you're amazing" (no objection there…).

They contained invitations to White House dinner parties and even to Barack’s 51th birthday. Despite the fact that these flattering messages were effortlessly combined with an easy-access 'donate'-button, these mails did not bother me too much initially. Initially.

Byron Reeves and Cliff Nass, two media psychologists from Stanford University, described in their classic book 'The Media Equation' how people are suckers for flattery. Whether it’s sincere or insincere doesn’t matter much. Even when a computer gives positive feedback that is overtly random and unsubstantiated - and people are made aware of this - they will still feel better about themselves and the computer.

The work by Reeves and Nass also inspired the creation of "Clippy" - that cheerful “intelligent” paperclip that would interfere with anything and everything a user was trying to accomplish using Microsoft Word ("It looks like you're writing a letter…"). Until people got fed up. In social psychology this is called reactance – with a nod to electrical engineering: a negative emotional reaction against rules or procedures that curtail individual freedoms.

Slowly but surely, the incoming emails from the Obama team transformed from being flattering to being downright pushy. With an email titled “Do this for Eindhoven”, Jeremy Bird - the National Field Director no less - summoned me to organize support meetings in my neighborhood (I live in Strijp). And Deputy Campaign Manager Julianna Smoot sent me a subtle reminder of my zero financial contribution to the campaign: "If you were waiting for the last minute, you're pretty much there."

I’m happy Obama got reelected, but his campaign should not have lasted one moYou’re amazing!re day.

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