The Internet you see is based on your visual portrait -- who do advertisers think you are?
Something to make you feel better about all your compulsive newsfeed scanning: Facebook is watching you, too. And just like you as you click through so-and-so's party photos from last weekend, it's getting judge-y.
"One of the things we're concerned about, as we have an increasingly tailored Internet experience, is whether people with certain backgrounds experience a different Internet than other folks," says Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a phone interview with the Guardian. Her organization is a Bay Area-based Internet rights group that defends online privacy, free speech, and consumer rights through law, activism, and policy work. "Online marketers use invisible tracking mechanisms to create a virtual portrait of someone and show them advertisements based on that," Reitman says.
Social networking sites and search engines like Google have in their electronic possession inordinate amounts of our personal information, obviously. The location of our IP addresses, our educational backgrounds, the most intimate details of what TV shows we enjoy, how often we contact our family — the list goes on. And many sites use that data to sell you things.
But it's not just consumer issues. Health insurance companies can obtain access to the records on some sites — a Feb. 4 New York Times op-ed by law professor Lori Andrews suggested that searches we conduct on medical conditions can lead to raised premiums. Our credit limits can be affected by spending patterns tracked by websites, and there's the well-known employer practice of performing web searches to screen job applicants. As we add to our online identities, we become the subject of what is known as "weblining" — specific targeting based on our patterns of Internet usage.
Over the past week, I tracked the ads that Facebook fed me. Many were site-specific — San Francisco arts and culture listings (a good bet for advertisers, given the amount of events I view on a daily basis). There was a wine delivery service, an invitation to a 1920s-style speakeasy, announcements of free gym memberships, my collegiate alma mater's ceaseless plugs for cash, and the tantalizing whiffs of various graduate school programs.
This last category is a part of what should give us pause about the intense specialization of our Internet experience. The average American, according to a December 2011 survey by Forrester Research, spends 13 hours a week on the Internet — roughly the same amount we spend watching TV. And even if you don't think that the ads that lurk on the edges of our vision for 13 hours a week will affect our behavior, there are other ways our Internet morphs to fit companies' expectations of us. Search results, for example, vary between web surfers — Google's been tailoring them since 2009.
A college graduate with a professional job in a creative field, I am being fed graduate school ads by my social network of choice. But not everyone's seeing their opportunities for an advanced degree in sustainability. The Army advertises on Facebook. I don't see those ads, but who does? Who gets the farmer's market directory ads and who sees McDonald's latest deal? You can see where I'm going with this. In the 2011 book The Filter Bubble (Penguin Books, 294 pp, )author Eli Pariser talks about how weblining can lead to a more isolating Internet that doesn't live up to its promise as a place where we can go to learn about anything.