Every keystroke is being recorded. Even now, as you read this, faceless, omnipotent companies are assuming you have an interest in me and anything I’ve ever blogged about, including centipedes, problem cats, and Harry Potter. Don’t look behind you. There’s no point. Everyone spying on you is doing it right in front of you, through your computer.
At least this is the topic of several media reports I’ve seen lately. Privacy is dead, and the internet is laying your darkest secrets bare one e-mail and Google search at a time. Massive companies are feeding on your private information like machines in The Matrix use human bodies for batteries. I began to wonder how true it all was. The best way to start seemed to be paying attention to those things I rarely look twice at: advertisements. My interest in the products they offered could tell me a lot about whether those companies really need to butt out.
I decided to start with some more traditional media, for comparison. How well do the publishers of my favorite magazines know me? I subscribe to three print publications. Two are weekly news magazines, and one is a literary journal. According to the ads in the latter, I just might be interested in a Master’s degree in Creative Writing, or essay contests. Gotta give it you, Creative Nonfiction: not too far off the mark.
According to the news magazines, I’m no spring chicken. They believe I’m looking for ways to relieve arthritis, that I’m in the market for a very expensive car, that I’d like a mattress with adjustable firmness, and that I am looking for someone to handle my 401(k) and retirement investments. They also think I’ll be interested in a cell phone called the Jitterbug, which has a large-print number display, huge buttons, a nice loud ring, and which “reaches from your mouth to your ear,” because that’s what people want in their phones.
Not only this, but I may belong to a demographic which needs hearing aids so that they can enjoy restaurants, church, lectures, book groups and bird watching. Apparently I’m also a member of a group who can no longer step into a regular bathtub. One of the arthritis medication ads even features a graceful gray-haired woman in a bathing suit with one of those modest little skirts.
I feel the same way I felt when I went to a Saturday matinee of The King’s Speech. The same way I felt when I recently went to a party given for arts writers by one of my editors. My companion snickered in my ear during the speeches: You do realize you’re the youngest person in here?
I suppose interest in bipartisan international news also typically doesn’t start until after age sixty.
Would the ads on my online haunts reveal more about who I really was, just as everyone seems to fear? I headed over to CuteOverload.com, where a flashing ad featuring a book cover with a woman in a bonnet on it asked me “How do you make the choice to stay Amish or leave?” I’m assuming this ad isn’t for Amish women – unless there’s a computer in the break room at Reading Terminal Market. But I’m not going to be purchasing “Plain Proposal”.
I tune into Pandora, which, for the uninitiated, is an internet radio service whose music you can customize. The ads on there were an onslaught of Cadillacs and Lincoln Highlander SUVs. Apparently most people who prefer a playlist based on composer Philip Glass make slightly more money than I do.
My e-mail in-box is always surmounted with ads. One was a dating service through which I could meet women over fifty. Today’s ads included shampoo (slightly more relevant to me), but apparently someone at AOL, just like at my news magazines, is still holding out hope that I’m over fifty, because another ad was for colonoscopies.
Netflix? Yes, Netflix, so far you take the prize with the movie genres you suggest for me: “Critically acclaimed inspiring dramas”? Why yes, please. “Visually striking emotional foreign dramas”? How did you know?! “Witty twentieth-century period pieces based on real life”? Please, no need to go on, you had me at “Understated foreign documentaries”.
And of course there’s Facebook, which I thought might be the richest ground for advertisers’ dirt on me. I scoured the ads, and discovered that I am likely to become pregnant. Keen work, Facebook partners – however did you figure out that I am female, 27 years old and married? Perhaps similar information led Facebook to offer me ads for the same shoe service used by Kim Kardashian, but I am more likely to buy the walk-in bathtub touted in Newsweek. Clinical research study on the flu? Nah. Book publishers? Getting warmer. Other ads I decide to look at with an eye to whether they’re flattering. Whether or not I would actually want to be a nurse in Trenton, NJ (that would be a no), it’s good that someone thinks I would have the smarts and the compassion to go into that field. “Conflict-free Engagement Rings”? That must mean I’m marriageable and socially conscious! “7 Tips for a flat belly”? Less gratifying – especially since, judging from the picture, one of the tips has something to do with raw eggs. “Yellow Tail is your wine”? No. No, it’s not. It’s actually the wine a former employer used to serve at parties I resented working at. Facebook and Newsweek do have something in common: they both predict that I want to sue somebody, the magazine offering me the “best lawyers in Philadelphia” and Facebook ads asking if I want to press charges over sexual harassment.
If online ads do offer us just what we’re interested in, is it like the moment in movies when the protagonist meets an inscrutable, bad-ass psychic (or someone who just knows just a little too much) and asks, “how did you know my name?” And as my mother aptly points out, maybe the ads I am not getting say as much about what companies know as the ads I do get. After all, no websites are offering me termite removal services, whiskey, country music, wealth management, tennis racquets, Superman apparel or Sports Illustrated – so they’ve got to know something. But I’m not too worried about online ads.
Plus, given the ads that regularly appear on the websites and publications I frequent, I am less concerned about what the companies know about me and more concerned about the ideas that other people might get if they could see the ads that target me. They might think I’m a pregnant lesbian baby-boomer who wants to be a nurse, covets Kim Kardashian’s shoes, and who likes drinking cheap wine while looking for reasons to sue you. Huh. Now I sort of wish I could see what ads are on your Facebook page.
I’m not so sure the forces of the Internet have got me nailed down, anyway – if they did, why would they keep showing me ads for things I already have, like a Netflix membership and a Geico insurance policy? Seems like a waste to me. Plus, Facebook keeps showing me an ad for “Best Boston Date Ideas” – clearly, someone still isn’t quite sure of my home city.
The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on an online ad. However, I went immediately to the website listed in an ad in my literary magazine. Yet while I find the personalized ads on Facebook slightly creepy, my immediate response to the magazine ad didn’t bother me.
So, Internet powers that be: if you have plundered my private data, as far as I know, you haven’t done a very good job of converting it into revenue from me. Let me break it down for you. I would be interested in advertisements regarding goldfish keeping, affordable, flattering jeans, reputable charities (especially for endangered ocean critters, abandoned dogs, the education of girls in third- world countries, and people displaced by natural disasters), Häagen Dazs, really cheap airfare to Africa, lurid historical TV dramas (preferably featuring Henry Tudor or other wayward, oversexed monarchs), Ben and Jerry’s, essay contests that don’t “pay” winners in copies of the magazine, Stephen King novels and new film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.
What kinds of ads are targeting you?