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Opinion: The New Internet Stalker

With an absurd and distinct lack of classroom clocks, Boston College enables teachers to sneakily keep classes late and provides students with endless opportunities for jokes about running on “Jesus time.” I appreciate this humor just as much as the next eagle, but with a host of time-restricted midterms ahead of me, I thought it was due time I got serious and invested in a legitimate watch. I took to the Web and after scrolling through various websites, decided against purchasing a watch online. Unfortunately, the Internet had other plans for me.

In the week following my brief watch-browsing session, it began to feel like my shopping experience hadn’t ended after all. I was seeing double, triple; watches multiplied down the margins of every webpage I visited. The New York Times suddenly had Swatch stamped all over it and even The Gavel’s website was touting watches of every shape and size. Long after I had said goodbye to watch shopping, advertisements for this unwanted product continued to follow me in a relentless, stalker-like fashion.

GIF courtesy of Tumblr

Yes modern, personalized advertisements have come to invoke a sense of queasiness in us similar to that caused by the common stalker. We recognize that their knowledge of us is vastly incomplete, yet they know just enough to provoke a sensation of mild nausea. How does BuzzFeed know that I’m in the market for a watch, and how does the guy from my 9am know my zodiac sign and middle name? Both concerning questions.

We as consumers and Internet users should be troubled by personalized advertising not only because it gathers more and more of our personal information in an undercover fashion, but also because its processes typify each of us based on slyly obtained, generalizing information and thus vastly limits the scope of what we see on the Internet. It makes assumptions about what we as consumers want, and harasses us with advertisements for these products without regard as to whether or not we really have a preference for them.

Facebook uses our “likes,” status updates, and now even microphone gathered intelligence to try to understand the cultures of its individual users. They attempt to take this cheat sheet of our personal interests and derive from it an understanding of what each of us wants, like fast-friends who swear they “get” you only minutes after you’ve met.

Google takes stalking to the next level. The internet giant analyzes search histories to identify intents of its prey, or users. Then, advertisers real-time bid over ad space for specific users whose “intents” – as perceived by the search engine – match closely with a certain product. The resulting advertisements seem too mechanized to be valid recommendations, yet line up closely enough with my interests to come across as creepy.

Stalking advertisements sneak up on you.                                                               GIF courtesy of Tumblr

The products in online ads are typically nothing more than suggestions that fall within a wider category of what I may be looking for, but their predictability rarely spurs me to actually purchase a product and certainly doesn’t leave me feeling intrigued or inspired. Rather, in an act of defiance, I typically snub any products proposed to me by these harassing ads simply to prove that I – the human being – know better what I want than a computer algorithm.

As advertising moves farther away from mass marketing and more towards personalization, the practice is losing much of its randomness and ingenuity. So, in light of this loss of novelty may I request a moment of silence for the trademark of advertising originality: the infomercial. Never will Google recommend to me a vegetable slicer that I can operate with my eyes closed. Where but on late-night HSN will someone pitch to me a circus tent cake pan?

Random yet enticing advertisements seem to be part of a bygone era where marketing introduced us to novel products. The power of infomercials and similar mass marketing advertisements is that they didn’t pretend to know what each individual wanted; they presented the public with products we didn’t know we wanted.

In a world dominated by personalized advertisements, Internet users are only presented with products that an imperfect algorithm has calculated we like based past searches. But what about the future? Will what I see on the Internet always be a reflection of my past preferences? Will I never be introduced to vastly new products without them being a shadow of my past purchases? In my case, for the time being, it seems that Swatch ads will follow me across the lengths of the Internet until they finally lose interest and find a new victim.

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