Thursday, August 19, 2010

E-Consumer Anarchists

When the sci-fi thriller Minority Report came out a few years ago, the scariest thing to most people wasn't the implications of being accused of crimes you hadn't committed yet by supposedly clairvoyant hippies soaking in hot-tubs. The scariest thing was the depiction of a world in which advertisers could track you and sell you stuff non-stop based on what they thought they knew about you. In one scene, Tom Cruise walks into a store and the eye-scanning technology thinks it recognizes him (even though he's wearing somebody else's eyes--but that's another story)  and starts up with the pre-recorded sales patter to see if he wants to buy more of the same clothes "he" bought last time. If you think about it, it's just an idiotic notion; like Tom Cruise would say to the robo-sales-associate, "Oh, yeah, I want to buy six more tank tops exactly the same color."

This scene horrified everyone. Mostly because they're experiencing the nightmare right now--not the eye-scan recognition, or even the eye-transplants, but the buying-behavior tracking. Every time you log on to your Facebook page, or to Amazon, or iTunes, or nearly any other commercial site, you are peppered with ads for things that seem uncannily familiar. Search for info on new hybrid cars, and suddenly you start seeing ads for hybrid cars everywhere.  LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING YOU AND THEY'RE IN YOUR HEAD RIGHT NOW! It's enough to make anyone start wearing a foil hat.

But the most disturbing thing to me isn't how uncanny this tracking technology is. It's how stupid it is. It behaves as though it knows what you are in the mood to buy and then starts haranguing you like a pushy salesman. But it's presumptuous. It doesn't take into account that you may have changed your mind, that you already bought that thing, that you weren't serious, or that you're a dick. It just thinks it can read your mind because you're so pathetically predictable.

For instance, I often buy Christmas presents on Amazon and have them shipped directly to people. Because I'm lazy. Then, because Amazon thinks it knows my tastes, its artificial intelligence assumes that since I bought some book on knitting last year (not knowing it was a gift), I must love knitting myself and keeps offering up new knitting titles. Or it suggests that "other people who bought this title also bought these titles" and presents a list, crudely trying to upsell me. All this does is make me resent them for presuming I'm like these other yahoos. Nobody likes to be lumped.

But you can have fun with this. On my Facebook page, before I went in and fluffed up my "interests" fields, all it knew about me was that I was A) Male B) Middle Aged C) Single.  Therefore it assumed that I must have libido problems and liked compliant Russian girlfriends (over 50, of course). So those were the ads I was fed. But after I listed some music, movies, books, and interests, I started getting ads for specifically those things and those artists. Not exactly the most sophisticated sales strategy.

But let's do something about it. Let's be E-Consumer Anarchists. It'll be fun.

If we all banded together we could really mess up this trend by entering wrong stuff about ourselves. And then we could change the info frequently.  We could do things like flip our sex daily, or our marital status, or our ages. We can perversely surf on sites for things we aren't interested in (like knitting or crab taxonomy), performing Google searches for non-sequiturs and leaving misleading trails of interest. In short, we can pop out chaff to throw off their radar homing beacons, like a jet fighter jinking and weaving through a heavily defended airspace. 

I like to hit a few stores online and add stuff to my basket without buying anything. This way they think I'm actually interested. But it really messes up their profiling algorithms, like trying on a bunch of clothes in a Gap and leaving them all in the dressing room. Then I start seeing ads pop up wherever I go online for those same things. "Oh, you're shopping for tires, we see." So I click on those banners to go to the next site and put more things in my basket...and leave. It costs them money because they have to pay per click on the ad, even when the click doesn't result in a sale. And I feel like the closet anarchist my mom always suspected I was (which is probably why I still keep getting those Russian girlfriend ads).

And if enough of us did this, their prediction models would be worthless and they'd have to start communicating with us like we're intelligent beings again, and maybe even come up with entertaining ads. If more of us did this, we could really screw up the Brave New World couldn't we?

But it would be wrong.

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