Every morning, I spend roughly an hour surfing the web…, looking for trends, interesting stories, and cultural moments. I see it as a key part of my job to be completely current on social trends and phenomena. Some of the major sites that are a part of each day are CNN, Foxnews, MSNBC, The Star, The Globe, BBC, AOL, MSN, Aljazeera, Economist, NYT, and RT. The links I follow will routinely take me to hard news, philosophy, politics, entertainment sites, gossip sites, and in many cases…, absolute time-wasters. So why don’t I restrict my viewing to professional information and topics of interest by using news feeds?
Consider what the Internet is hiding from you.
Almost any major website worth its salt is tracking your activities and apparent interests. Amazon is built on the premise of offering you books similar to books you appear to be interested in. Based on previous behavior, Google tries to predict whether your search for “discs” is related to your spine or your car’s brakes.
In fact, the ads you see as you roam the web are based on advertisers’ assessment of your interests based on your web browsing history. All of this technology, is touted as helping to insure that you see information that is of interest to you…, but here’s the problem…, you’re not going to be surprised. For an Internet marketer, your search results will be biased by your previous searches and apparent interests. It’s extremely unlikely that a chemical engineer will read an intriguing article about electronics and recognize a parallel with his/her field.
The primary method used to track behavior and interests is a cookie. This is basically a small file placed on your computer by almost every website you visit. I’m not suggesting paranoia here…, a cookie created by an advertiser when you visit a CNN does not tell them who you are. However, if the same advertiser provides the ads to your local city directory, it will tell them about the type of page you have previously visited. Try this test… pick a topic you have no interest in and have never searched for on the Internet. Spend a couple of hours, searching and visiting related sites. You will see the advertisements that come into your web browser begin to reflect your apparent new found interest in animal husbandry.
Belly button gazing and cookie lint? The result of this technology is that you do not learn new things! Most of the Internet is trying to establish your interests and deliver you information that is specifically tailored to the record of what you appear to be interested in.
My advice to anyone building websites for the population at large, or who should be aware of social trends is simple. Set up at least one web browser on your computer and block all cookies from every website. Never sign in to one of your accounts using this web browser. Preserve it as a “factory-fresh” browser that contains no information about your possible interests. You might be surprised by what you discover.