Thursday, July 24, 2008

I have enough big brothers

A recent reader of our blog requested that he learn a little bit about us, so we are no longer faceless names.

A little bit about me. That seems like a harmless request.

I include an "About me" section in my Facebook profile that includes all that I think anyone needs to know that they haven't gathered from my extensive list of favorite movies, television shows, music, interests, activities, times of day, pizza toppings, world flags, gang symbols ... the categories are endless. Currently, the only thing I think people should know is, "I love TV, summer and candy."

Simple enough. I'm a simple girl.

But it seems to me that the world knows more "about me" than I realize. One day, while surfing my favorite website, SomeEcards, I noticed an abundance of hotel advertising on the site. I had vaguely noticed more and more banner and skyscraper ads from hotel brands dirtying up my up-to-the-minute celebrity trash on, but I brushed it off as an impressive advertising increase by the folks at La Quinta or Howard Johnson.

Now, I knew that on Facebook, the skyscraper ads often drew from my profile. For example, advertisers just LOVE to offer me Arrested Development T-shirts, based on the fact that I list the witty but short-lived show as an all-time favorite. And I was fully aware that Gmail perused my e-mail messages to snag the fact the word "mom" from my e-mails and give me ads for "World's Worst Mom" (which, by the way, is not mine and I would never speak of her in this manner). But now hotel advertising is popping up all over any site I visit because of the fact that I'm an avid fact checker and insist on typing hotel names into Google for verification at least 80 times per day.

After uncovering this fact, I decided to do some investigation (read: I did a Google search and clicked on one legit article) to find out more information. It turns out that large Internet companies are tracking what people search for online in order to predict content and advertisements the reader might like.

It makes sense, in a way. When I pick up my latest copy of Glamour off the newsstand, chances are I don't want to see ads for the newest line of John Deere tractors. Magazine sales reps understand that, and it's for that reason they do their job so well. So doesn't it make sense that advertisers for websites be afforded that same privilege of targeting exactly who the readers are and where their interests lie?

In short, I think, no. Not that I want to hurt any hard-working advertising exec's job—it's just that what I search for online, at my own personal computer, is my information, not anyone else's. So while I may not be searching for anything embarrassing, what if it turns up that my mom uses my computer and gets wind through an advertisement of a vacation I'm planning for she and my dad? The entire idea seems a bit "Big Brother"-ish to me, and no, I don't mean like the quality entertainment of the TV show Big Brother.

And it seems I'm not the only one who views this as an overstepping of bounds: According to a University of California at Berkeley study referenced in the New York Times article I mentioned previously, 85 percent of California adults included in the study thought websites should not be able to track their Web-styles to show them ads.

But when is it OK? What are the benefits? What are the other downfalls? Let me know, I'd love to learn.

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