FEBRUARY 2016 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD
Twitter has been experimenting on me, showing me drastically different advertising targeting strategies at different times to see how I will react. While on the whole I can understand why Twitter would feel the need to experiment with its approach, the process has at times been unnerving. As analytics becomes a more integral part of advertising, large, well-funded corporations are conducting experiments on all of us every day, and it is hard to imagine how Internet users will react when they begin to tune in to this process.
Probably Twitter’s experiments targeting me go back to the middle of last year, but they became very obvious during a blizzard in January when it stopped showing me any advertising at all. That lasted for a week, after which it started to display an aggressive mix of advertising including some of the most offensive ads they could find. Some seemed so calculated to offend that they might have been fake. The heavy load of toxic advertising made Twitter a toxic place and drove me off the service entirely for a day at a time.
At the same time, the obvious experimenting made me self-conscious. How should I react when Twitter showed me an advertisement that it had already calculated would offend me? Would it stop showing me such toxic content if its metrics showed I wouldn’t tolerate it? What would you do? In the end I decided to respond naturally, which meant not trying to grin and bear it, but closing Twitter as soon as the advertising started to get on my nerves. In the following weeks Twitter’s targeted advertising became less intrusive, but I still haven’t gone back to reading Twitter with the frequency I did before, nor can I sign on to Twitter without being reminded that it is tracking my behavior and trying to understand my reactions.
Some people are more resistant to being experimented on than I and will sign off social media entirely when they start to notice they are being prodded and measured in the virtual-world equivalent of the humans abducted by the mythical flying saucers. They can’t escape the creepy feeling that being the target of an experiment engenders, and they may go to social media just the bare minimum necessary to stay connected. Facebook has been the most aggressive site, experimenting not just with advertising but also with content, and partly as a result, about a quarter of Facebook users check in on the site just a few times per year.
Most people, so far, are oblivious to the experiments being conducted on them online. Indeed, many have gotten so skilled at tuning out online ads that they might not even notice, the way I did, when ads disappear from a site for a week. My hunch, though, is that the automated targeted social experiments that are conducted every day online by advertising platforms and others will inevitably become common knowledge. People, I believe, will become more sensitive to situations where they have become the experimental target of a digital script. When that happens on a large scale, how will people react? What will the consequences and implications be? I don’t believe anyone has an answer to that.
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