Remember when the only creepy thing about the internet was that somewhere, some old dude was sitting in the depths of some dark basement, crouched up next to an illuminated monitor, donning his mother’s lingerie and asking you what kind of movies you liked. This was the danger of internet surfing and communication: the idea that there were freaks out there lying about their identity (or perhaps being honest about being a 40-year old dude interested in anime cartoons like you), and then instant messaging or e-mailing you after trolling some internet chatroom for 3 days straight. It’s an unsettling experience in its own right, though, truly, it was also one that you could laugh at and roll your eyes over. Internet stalkers like that eventually give up, and with development of advanced privacy tools, messaging systems make it easy for you to identify such unwanted interactions and block them. But then came something new—stalkers of a new breed that aren’t so easy avoided: Google and Facebook.
If ever in the history of stalking were there a more cunning team, it’s this one. So effective are their stalking strategies that I don’t even have to be consciously looking for anything. Most often I’m just browsing randomly, with no true intentions of buying anything, and yet, Google and Facebook know exactly what to offer me. The other day I literally spent 2 minutes looking at some superfluous gadget on the internet. I began reading over one or two reviews under the most lazy and shallow conditions of contemplation before quickly moving on to something else. Yet, not a minute later, while checking my Facebook messages, there it was: three ads with the same product I was reviewing just three seconds ago.
The experience alone is enough to make me cringe at times, especially when considering the bigger implications: Wherever I go and whatever I do on the internet, Google knows about it; Facebook knows about it; some corporate entity knows about it; some data system is sent into a whirring numerical dance, where it compiles a history of my behavior to such a degree, that it knows and understands the explicit patterns of my behaviors better than I do. Yikes. As the internet becomes and place that’s more open and connected through special social networks where businesses are directly connected to consumers, there looms an eerie question about enough space. Is there enough space between business, the products they offer, and the consumers they market to?
It’s a more serious question than most are willing to contemplate. We’ve all had that experience of meeting someone who just doesn’t understand the concept of personal space; they get right up in your comfort zone and dance all over it. By the time they’re done spitting into your mouth and fogging up your glasses, you’re ready to hire that bum down the block who once claimed to be a hitman back in his younger years. The act itself just comes off as completely disrespectful of others. Like when someone directly asks you how much money you make a year, or what the sex is like with your partner—those are usually answers reserved for our very closest friends, and sometimes, no one else needs to know but us. And so, there’s an eerie feeling that often accompanies the experience of using the internet for some personal leisure time, and finding that Google and Facebook have been dipping from your subconscious.
Of course, then, the counter argument to this complaint usually begins by citing the fact that one can simply “ignore” these advertisements altogether, and therefore, render them a non-issue. But I say that such a claim is a folly on the speaker’s part and overlooks the bigger picture. There’s a distinct difference between ignoring billboards in public spaces, and an ad on Facebook that says, “Matthew, want to order that book you read a review about just 5 seconds ago?” Billboards don’t chase you down the street calling your name. This means to say that my everyday experience in the real world, is more than not, an anonymous experience until such time that I choose to reveal myself by handing over my ID or credit card. This is a much different scenario than when a company tracks my every step and then pushes billboards into my private residence, into a personal non-linear experience of my choosing. Even in the case of television—a more linear medium—I believe there’s still a fairness in such a model which has no idea what you want, but only hopes that they catch you at the right time and inform you that some product exists should you ever need it (though these days we can just fast forward through the commercials, or walk out of the room entirely). TV commercials aren’t going through our trash and our personal planners, they aren’t following us around at the supermarket or checking our receipts.
Look, I get it. Companies have to make money. They have to advertise. They have to find newer ways to convince people to buy their products through consumer education. However, what they don’t need to do is assume that tracking my every move and compiling an algorithm of my personal behavior is truly necessary (or ethical for that matter). The internet is the great tool of informational search and retrieval. With the kind of hype people throw around about how awesome the internet is, they don’t seem to give it enough credit. If people want something, they’ll go and seek it out. If people want to be a part of an e-mail list, they’ll sign up for one. Ads certainly help to educate and facilitate that process. However, as the old saying goes, knowledge is power. And that being said, I still have trouble feeling comfortable with the idea that silent Internet Stalkers, like Google and Facebook, deliberately study my every behavior for the sole purpose of trying to manipulate me into buying something. If you ask me, both Google and FB should take a course about personal space and take one giant step back, because all I can feel is them breathing on my damn neck.