Books that stalk

Do you know the feeling? You’re clicking through some random page on the web and your eye is instantly drawn to the cover of a book you have been recently considering buying. The page you’ve clicked to may be a gallery of dog portraits, but there in the sidebar is an ad for that obscure experimental novel from the 1960s you were just looking at the other day.

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Okay, your examples may differ from mine, but you get the picture. Advertising used to be based on content. If you’re interested in this story, you might like this product. What I should see is an ad for dog biscuits, not weird literature.

A cookie is small piece of data sent to your browser and stored in your computer, updated every time you access a particular piece of web content. Cookies compile a small log of browsing history and they’re essential to the modern web, allowing for quick logins, shopping carts, and so on. But advertisers also love cookies; they’re often squirreled away in those flashy banner or sidebar images. The logic is sound: why display an ad of something we think you might like when we can display something we know you like because we know you almost bought it? Cookies have been doing this for years, but it seems only recently that the techniques have become more targeted and sophisticated.

The logic may be sound, but the experience for me at least is not exactly delightful. True anonymity on the web has always been an illusion, but there is a difference between being anonymous online and being actively snooped on. Rather than clicking through to buy something, I’m more likely to click through to my browser’s security settings. But maybe I’m in a minority there.

It’s already cliché to say “when something online is free, you’re the product”. Like all aphorisms, it’s not always true, but it wisely updates caveat emptor and encourages you to think twice before signing up to that free service or linking your social profile to every site out the wazoo. It’s good advice.

The web’s emphasis on free access has created a shadow economy based on views, clicks, and collected data. Add the might of the advertising dollar to the wholesale data collection conducted by national security organisations and you might begin to wonder who’s reading whom.

Tim Berners-Lee remains optimistic that the web can become a more open creative and collaborative space and I hope he’s right. Surely we want to be free to read, share and buy without wondering who might be looking over our shoulder, quietly racking up a cumulative picture of who we are for some undisclosed later use. And it’s unsettling to think that this might be considered a reasonable trade for ‘free’ content.