Strangers need not always mean danger

As a school boy, I had a strange pastime of writing letters to public figures — bureaucrats, judges, politicians, actors and editors. I would introduce myself and seek an appointment; often to ferret out information about a particular subject or service or to offer suggestions in public interest and in the bargain, get a sneak peek into their careers. Many of my letters were promptly acknowledged and I invariably got a ‘darshan’, if not to hear what I had to offer, at least to reward an idealistic teenager’s audacity of hope. Much as it was a boyish cheap thrill of interacting with people in high places, that exercise was the best confidence booster and career advice I could have ever got. Now what if these VIPs had ignored my communication? What if they had fumed ‘how dare this kid write directly to us?’ What if they had viewed correspondence with a stranger as a waste of time? They could jolly well have — as this was a good two-and-a-half decades before the Right To Information Act!

Extrapolate that scenario with today’s social media. The concept of a ‘stranger’ is anathema to social networking. You can bump into perfect strangers in the online world too. And make the best of friends or even find your life partner through a chance encounter. Yes, there are the well known dangers associated with communicating with strangers. But that’s not exclusive to the social media. For a celebrity, a stranger need not always be a stalker or an obnoxious pest. Who knows, he or she can blossom into a genuine fan, friend and a credible critic. For a corporate leader, a stranger can come up with a brilliant business proposition or end up as a talented resource. For a government official or an activist, a stranger can give a valuable tip off. For a journalist, a stranger can bounce a fantastic lead or story idea or feed a scoop. Never under-estimate the potential of strangers. Do your online checks and unfriend or block if required.

Why does Facebook insist on a certain number of mutual friends to send a request? Why does it reprimand users who send friend requests to ‘strangers’ or ‘people with very few mutual friends’? The concern may stem from the 83 million fake profiles it last revealed in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. This number can be misleading as it includes a broad sweep of ‘duplicate accounts’ that genuine users maintain in addition to their principal accounts and ‘User-Misclassified Accounts’, personal profiles that users create for businesses or non-human entities, again, not strictly fake. The ‘Undesirable Accounts’ that violate its terms of service and engage in spamming are actually less than the first two categories. Or so, Facebook claims.

Facebook has enabled not just kindergarten buddies to pick up the threads post marriage and kids. It can also help like-minded strangers become good friends offline. Why do Facebook administrators view only mutual friends as a common thread? What about similar professions, similar taste in music, in literature in travel, similar ideology, belief, habits? In many cities, the ‘face-to-face Facebook friends’ trend is catching on. Facebook users who have never met, which means strangers who befriended each other online, thanks to the mutual friends magic mantra, catch up in groups for coffee and conversation. What does this signify? It’s an independent social networking exercise beyond the contours of the medium. The irony is that most of these invitations are circulated through the very medium, that for reasons of ‘security’ or ‘privacy’, adopts a hostel warden stentorian disapproval of interface with strangers. I would any day prefer a candid “we’ve never met but I’d like to know you” message with sufficient and relevant data available on the sender (incidentally even messages to ‘strangers’ are not welcomed by Facebook) as opposed to requests from those with whom I have mutual friends but with cryptic profile info and a picture of a dog or monkey or some actor! I had raised this query on Twitter last week only to get an interesting response: “I’m a fan of this actor. My way of showing my admiration is to have his picture on my profile.”

Be yourself, buddy for, as Oscar Wilde quipped “everyone else is taken”!

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