“Tailored” internet advertising seems uncomfortably close to stalking.
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently noted how few insects he sees in the garden nowadays. He made the point that a new generation does not know any different and thinks the state of affairs in the backyard is normal, when actually there is a lot wrong with it. This observation has stayed in my mind. Partly, that is because I, too, remember regular encounters with ladybirds, praying mantises, stick insects and monarch butterflies, and had also noticed their almost total disappearance from city gardens. But there is a wider point, too, which is that we often accept the status quo and do not think it could, or should, be different.
I probably should be thinking about this as it relates to politics, society or culture, but I have actually been thinking about pink suitcases – well, really, about internet advertising. A few days ago, I was online looking at a brand of luggage called Away, lured by a picture of a pink suitcase. I mean, who wouldn’t like a pink suitcase? Oh, okay. Well, I would.
Soon afterwards, I was on Instagram and there very quickly appeared an ad for Away luggage. I found this slightly disturbing. Somewhere in internet-land, there is a file on me that says I like pink luggage (and lots of other pink things) and have been to websites x, y and z. I know this is supposed to be “tailored advertising”, but to me it is stalking. Wherever I go on the internet, I will be pursued by pictures of attractive young women touring the world with pristine pastel suitcases so pristine and pastel that they obviously have never been through baggage handling at an airport or stowed in the hold of a 747.
I started thinking about how all of us now accept this online information-sharing as normal. Interested in how it works, I googled some key words. A Newsweek story with the headline “… Five companies owned by Facebook and how they use your information” came up. Thinking that Newsweek had done my research for me, I was reading the story when what should pop up but an ad for Away luggage. Suddenly, I no longer wanted a pink suitcase. At least, not from a company that is following me around.
Through no choice, we seem to have accepted a loss of privacy as a trade-off for all that is “free” on the internet. I am sure there is a way to outfox the tech companies and advertisers by playing with some of the settings on your computer. But that is not really an option for your correspondent, who is old enough to remember ladybirds landing on her finger on a warm summer’s day.
The biggest story in Washington DC right now is the mystery over the identity of the “senior official in the Trump administration” who authored the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times. The piece said that the official and others were working to curb the worst excesses of President Donald Trump until he was out of office. Trump has described the op-ed as treason, and a hunt is on in the White House to reveal the writer.
After thinking about the New York Times’ decision to publish the piece – and possibly to solicit it in the first place – I cancelled my subscription to the newspaper. While readers and journalists prefer quotes in a story to be attributed, sometimes the promise to keep a source secret is the only way they will talk. Most of us understand that. But to hand over a whole opinion piece, without readers knowing whose opinion they are reading, crossed a line for me.
White House staff have been furiously denying they wrote the piece, and possibly none of them did because it may not have been a White House employee. Then again, maybe it was. Maybe it was even one of the people who has denied writing it. Who knows? Well, the New York Times knows, but instead of telling the public what the public wants to know, it is keeping it secret. This is not Watergate and the Times did not break this story; it manufactured it. The Times is losing its compass.
To hand over a whole opinion piece, without readers knowing who wrote it, crossed the line for me.
“I’m sorry Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answerover yours, so he gets the points.”