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A couple of months ago I got very frustrated with so-called targeted advertising. Everywhere I went, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, random sites on the net, the only adverts I seemed to get were for nappies, baby foods, baby pictures, and other baby related things. Either that or advice on how to get pregnant and dating websites.
Being fairly oblivious to how targeted advertising works, I posted something along the lines of "Why do I get bombarded with babies and pregnancy stuff wherever I look, when the only thing I recently googled that had anything to do with children was child sacrifice?"
Friends were quick to educate me. Turns out, targeted advertising has a lot more to do with age and gender than your Google Search History. Considering the things that I look up online, that is probably a good thing. In fact, having received a number of strange looks on the rare occasions I let anybody else on my computer, I am now doing all my research in private mode. It won't make it any less recordable or any less incriminating, but at least "strong sedative administration [and] effect" won't be the first thing that appears when someone types an S in my address bar.
I like to imagine a red light flashing up in some office whenever I go online, and someone sitting at a computer, bleary eyed and weary, sighing: "Here we go again."
I wonder what you would have to search before you drew anyone's attention, especially considering that some of the sites you end up on are more than a little dodgy. To use my search for sedatives again, I went deeper than the effects - though landing on pages that gave me every detail I wanted on rape drugs was uncomfortable enough - and looked for a black market. After some digging I ended up on a message board that allowed users not only to discuss the correct use of needles, but also to arrange meetings where money would be exchanged for illegal goods and services. Of course, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of that page, but it felt dodgy enough for me to back away slowly.
Did that visit alert my bespectacled coffee addict who eagerly pursues my browsing history on his screen? Or perhaps my name has a little tag next to it: Author: Mostly Harmless.
Sometimes, it looks like Google does influence the targeted advertising. Last Halloween I still imagined myself setting up my own tabletop roleplaying group, playing an RPG called Little Fears, comfortingly subtitled The Game of Childhood Terror. Naturally, as the narrator to the other players' characters, it would have been my intention to fill my "children" with as much fear as possible, before I sent them back to their own homes. Alone. In the dark.
My Google search history was full of supernatural creatures, from ghosts to werewolves. What should pop up in the "you might be interested in..." section of Facebook page the very next day? Sexy Werewolves Singles Halloween Party... for the extra blood thirsty this full moon.
It certainly sounded interesting. It also brought to mind a phone conversation with my mum one night. As we were about to hang up mum proudly declared that "it is the full moon tonight", followed immediately by her usual end of conversation tag "be careful", and, rather worryingly, a very concerned whisper of "don''t hurt anyone".
Mum? Is there anything I should know about?
In the instance of the sexy, single werewolves I decided it was perhaps safer to keep work and personal life strictly separated - and not just because of mum's warning.
Then, of course, there are the Google searches that are probably less troubling to anyone consulting your browsing history than they are to you. Those moments when you enter a search term and then hover your cursor over the Search button, sweating and biting your lips, because you are not sure if you really want to see images of bullet wounds or acid burns. Turns out bullet wounds don't necessarily look that awful. Acid burns, on the other hand, can be stomach turning.
I must admit, I'm bad at keeping my research organised, especially if it's just a minor thing. But when I have spent many hours laboriously gathering all the data, it really should be saved somewhere. With titles like The Goo and Gore of Death, Drugs to Sedate, and Poisonous Plants and Animals, I guess my file collection is no less incriminating than my Google Search History.
I'm just a writer. I'm mostly harmless. Honest.