Besides this particular website, go to any of the others you frequent and, if you’ve done any online shopping ever you’ll find all these creepy, tailored advertisements along the sidebars of the news you are reading, or the new shoes you are checking out, or the movie you are reading up on. I recently bought a leather dopp kit for myself, and now if you are looking at anything–anything!– on my computer–sports, international news, search engines–you would think I have this obsession with leather goods and world travel. Now on my Gmail inbox–do you have this?–there are spookily, hair-raisingly accurate advertisements based on Google searches I’ve done, e-mails I’ve read, thoughts I’ve thought, feelings I’ve felt. God, was that You? How did You know that?
Joseph Turow looks into this new personalized, conveniently intimate and intimately dangerous, method of marketing online, in his book, The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. And if you’re squeamish, go ahead and stop reading, because it only gets worse. His basic thesis is that we are known by our searches, our purchases, our home addresses, our income, and labeled, given a reputation, which then predestines us for the future ads we receive, offers we get, news we hear. Based on what’s known about you–which is simply what you do and not what you want–you are damned to a class. Turow says this has more implications that we can possibly imagine, including how we see the world before us, and how we begin to profile ourselves within the consumer confines we’ve been fated.
Consider a fictional middle class family of two parents with three children who eat out a lot in fast-food restaurants. After a while the parents receive a continual flow of fast-food restaurant coupons. Data suggest the parents, let’s call them Larry and Rhonda, will consistently spend far more than the coupons’ value. Additional statistical evaluations of parents’ activities and discussion online and off may suggest that Larry and Rhonda and their children tend toward being overweight. The data, in turn, result in a small torrent of messages by marketers and publishers seeking to exploit these weight issues to increase attention to sales. Videos about dealing with overweight, children, produced a new type of company called content farms, begin to show up on parenting websites Rhonda frequents. When Larry goes online, he routinely receives articles about how fitness chains emphasize weight loss around the holidays. Ads for fitness firms and diet pills typically show up on the pages with those articles. One of Larry and Rhonda’s sons, who is fifteen years old, is happy to find a text message on his phone that invites him to use a discount at an ice cream chain not too far from his house. One of their daughters, by contrast, is mortified when she receives texts inviting her to a diet program and an ad on her Facebook page inviting her to a clothing store for hip, oversized women. What’s more, people keep sending her Twitter messages about weight loss. In the meantime, both Larry and Rhonda are getting ads from check-cashing services and payday-loan companies. And Larry notices sourly on auto sites he visits that the main articles on the home page and the ads throughout feature entry-level and used models. His bitterness only becomes more acute when he describes to his boss the down-market Web he has been seeing lately. Quite surprised, she tells him she has been to the same auto sites recently and has just the opposite impression: many of the articles are about the latest German cars, and one home-page ad even offered her a gift for test-driving one at a dealer near her home.
This scenario of individual and household profiling and media customization is quite possible today. Websites, advertisers, and a panoply of other companies are continuously assessing the activities, intentions, and backgrounds of virtually everyone online; even our social relationships and comments are being carefully and continually analyzed. In broader and broader ways, computer-generated conclusions about who we are affect the media content–the streams of commercial messages, discount offers, information, news, and entertainment–each of us confronts. Over the next few decades the business logic that drives these tailored activities will transform the ways we see ourselves, those around us, and the world at large.
Woof. It’s not just that we are known, but that such knowledge is used to sell us off into a cycle of habits beyond our own fixings. It’s not that we are given a profile, but that we are made to experience something like commercial freedom, the making of our own profile, and yet given only the choices on our screens that will bind us more into something which we were already bound to be. As the casinos continue rewarding its biggest losers, so the marketers sell off the sold to the next like-profiled feeding trough.
In fact, the ads may signal your opportunities actually are narrowed if marketers and publishers decide that the data points–profiles–about you across the internet position you in a segment of the population that is relatively less desirable to marketers because of income, age, past-purchase behavior, geographical location, or other reasons. Turning individual profiles into individual evaluations is what happens when a profile becomes a reputation…In the future, these calculations of our marketing value, both broadly and for particular products, may become routine parts of the information exchanged about people throughout the media system.
…[Average consumers] don’t know that that system is working to attach marketing labels to us based on the clicks we make, the conversations we have, and the friendships we enjoy on websites, mobile devices, iPads, supermarket carts, and even television sets. They don’t realize that the wide sharing of data suggests that in the future marketers and media firms may find it useful to lace us into personalized reputation silos that surround us with worldviews and rewards based on labels marketers have created reflecting our value to them…[this system] will increasingly define how we as individuals relate to society–not only how much we pay but what we see and when and how we see it.
It’s an electronic, wirelessly fine-toothed version of many people’s notions of God and god-fearing people–the all-seeing, ever-damning presence of ledger keeping. They watch you. They see your decisions, no matter how subtle. You are the bad, condemned to the Reputation Silo of the Damned. And the Good News–news not even Madison Avenue can separate you from–is that God’s ledger is full knowledge and full acceptance. Would that we could see what is true, that “No one’s keeping count anymore” were written into every sidebar ad page…