The extent of the invisible surveillance enabled by the Internet is spreading like chicken pox in a kindergarten, yet most of us occasional web surfers and social media addicts largely ignore the extent Big Brother is really watching our every move.
If you thought that Facebook was the only bad guy in town, tracking your every like, share, comment or personal message, it's about time for you to extend your "paranoia reach" and start connecting the dots. For that's what the web really is: a massive, potentially infinite network of interacting nodes.
What if Google told Amazon that...
Just a few weeks ago I was introduced to the practicality of using a cheese slicer to get just as much fresh Dutch cheese and in just the right thickness as I wanted. Although this might sound like the most trivial of activities, it is also a very culture-specific one (for example in Italy I have never seen anybody using such a tool to slice a block of Parmesan, and there is probably a good reason for it...). Not having a clue what such a tool was, I checked a picture of it retrieved from Google Images. The following day I went to the shops and got myself a cheese slicer, then completely forgot about my new cultural/culinary discovery.
Until a few weeks later...
When I received an Amazon ad sent in my personal email inbox, advertising "the best deals in the cheese slicer industry" I got a bit suspicious. I would have expected to receive such an email if I had looked for cheese slicers on Amazon, but how on earth did they know about my Google Image search?
Although this was just a silly little episode, it opened my eyes on a sort of "cheese slicer syndrome", which is nurturing my innate skepticism and enhancing the conspiracy theorist in me.
Slicing away your privacy, one piece at the time
So, is Google sharing data with Amazon? I don't know but it sounds likely...although officially they are in direct competition in what has been termed the Great Tech War of 2012 (and beyond I would add), including other online giants such as Facebook and Apple.
Of course the answer to my dilemma probably lies in web browsers and cookies dynamics (which partly escape my understanding) but then how about advertising being sent to your personal inbox when you did not google or amazon anything?
For it does happen for real...you are sure you did not search for a new hoover but how come you received a "50% off our hoovers" from Bol.com? Maybe you mentioned to a friend in a private Facebook message that you needed one, but yet, shouldn't private messages be excluded from the ubiquitous online marketing scanner?
Is the machine determining who you are?
Another at first sight annoying, but at second sight psychologically worrying, example is represented by the Google+ reading suggestions delivered to my email inbox. Beyond the fact that I never actively joined Google+, it is also true that I haven't bothered checking if unsubscribing from this service is possible, so I have only myself to blame for receiving unwanted emails. However I don't really like the idea of being automatically included in a social network without being aware of it.
The thing that left me baffled though is why Google+ thinks I might be interested in reading about "funny pictures and videos" and a random blog post named "How American beer went from the world's worst to world's best in only 30 years".
Is it possible that "the machine" knows my personality better than I do, or was this just an algorithmic calculation gone wrong?
What often worries me when I look at the content overloading content sharing platforms (Youtube above all) and increasingly online newspapers too, is the quality of the published information. Even if you hate silly Youtube videos like "Nyan Cat" or "Charlie Bit My Finger", it is so hard to resist clicking on them when you see them featured on the sidebar of your favourite online newspaper.
And featured they are indeed, as news organisations are increasingly relying on a mix of funny/serious items displayed on their home page to boost online traffic. In fact, some media observers such as Poynter are even starting to question if viral content will represent an alternative future for the news industry.
"BuzzFeed as a news organization looks foreign to many people in legacy media because it is entering the online news realm from the opposite direction. Legacy media came with an understanding of news, but are still trying to apply that to the Internet. BuzzFeed began by understanding the ways of the Internet, and now is applying that to a webby version of real news" reads a Poynter article about the viral content issue.
The good old saying "you are what you read" should be adapted into "you might become what they want you to read", for I do believe that this constant exposure to funny videos, cute puppies and Facebook memes does enter your system and remains there until you decide to shake it off.
Think about it next time your attention swerves from the breaking news section to the much more visually appealing little sidebar revealing all of the world's glamour to your eyes.
So, to conclude, if before the new media we were already subject to subliminal messages in TV advertising and billboards, now we also have to worry about the dangers of social engineering on a global scale.
Remember that not only Big Brother is watching you but it might also be shaping you more than you might be willing to admit to yourself.
And that, I believe, is an even greater danger.
P.S. It would be great to hear more cases of "strange coincidences" and the mesmerizing power of viral content. Did you also fall in the trap? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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