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Column: Ever get that feeling you’re being watched? You are – right now.

Our lives are closely tracked from the minute we go online, writes Hugh Torpey, and it’s only getting weirder. So should we be worried?

Hugh Torpey Irish Management Institute

LOOK OUT THE nearest window and see if there’s anyone watching you. I bet there isn’t.

Now look at the screen. You’re being watched right now – by this website for one. It’s got your IP address, which city you live in and how you got here. And it’s not even trying.

Yep, the online world is becoming downright creepy. For so long the reserve of the outsider opinion, the wild tangent and brilliantly weird sub-cultures, the internet is morphing into a giant megastore of sameness. It’s like going outside really.

Except that it’s not. Because when you’re outside you may be being watched, but there isn’t someone following you with a little radar that is sending ping-ping noises at you all day. When you walk into HMV you can browse around, ignore the sales person and walk out again safe in the knowledge that no one knows you considered buying a Coldplay album.

But when you click that connect button and open up Google you are really opening your curtains to a giant Peeping Tom who’s staring through the gap to see what you’re doing. You can’t bash a keyboard anywhere in the world without a little robot peering through its binoculars and taking down notes. For people in marketing, their only problem up until now was how to use this mass of information in a practical way.

That’s about to change. The old days of mass spamming has almost come to an end, with proper personalised advertising coming your way. The beginnings of this is largely been driven through social media platforms.

Even if you’re not a user of Facebook, and have only passed through it by clicking on a link one of its users posted, it has the ability to track where you go on the web afterwards. So, while you might be keeping it clean on Facebook, that more risqué video loading in your other tab is likely to go into a database that will be sold onto advertisers.

Someone, somewhere, will know that you prefer blondes over brunettes.

At present that collected information is generally going into massive databases to be categorised into broad demographical strokes. Soon however a spreadsheet just for you will start being developed. You may already have started the process yourself – the new Facebook Timeline is a fancy looking spreadsheet, but a spreadsheet nonetheless. This handy little device gives a history of your activities on Facebook over long periods of time, in what is basically an online diary of your life. Isn’t that sweet?

‘There are others who also want to see what you’re up to’

Apart from the strange conceit of letting your friends read your diary, there are others that also want to see what you’re up to and are doing it right now (and it’s not just that creepy bloke that you met in Australia one night who’s ‘liked’ every post you’ve written ever since). Facebook makes its money by selling information to advertisers and your personal information – those petty little thoughts that once disappeared into the ether – is their golden ticket.

But what matter? Being in a group of ten million people is hardly an invasion of privacy. It’s only one step further from being lumped into the masses watching Dancing on Ice and being force-fed advertisements aimed at this group. Well, it’s going to start trickling down where you’re no longer being sold something as a group of ten million, but a group of one.

If you’ve signed up for the timeline you’ve basically given an advertiser a link not only to your likes and activities but also your moods over time. It gives them access to you as an individual, and now the technology is there so they can start selling to you like one. One day you may not be able to walk down a street and see an advertisement that isn’t relevant to you.

By watching your timeline develop advertisers will learn that you drink less in January, go on holidays in June, are liable to get the flu around October, spend more on Christmas presents than the average person and go to the movies a lot during Oscar season. Once an advertiser knows this, it knows what to sell to you, when to do it and, crucially, how to sell it to you.

‘We’re the cynical generation’

That’s okay though, we can handle it. We are the cynical generation, the internet savvy group of hipsters that don’t go ‘on trend’ when we’re told to, we know what the faceless corporations are up to. We go out and protest once a year against the greedy rich and may even pitch a tent outside the Central Bank and shout ‘down with capitalism’ and refuse to drink mochaccinos from Starbucks.


Except of course that we will be, and willingly so. We’ll sign up to the latest fad, we’ll ‘like’ a company so they can pat us on the head and say ‘well done’ while we drink those tasty mochaccinos.

We’ll buy stupid stuff we don’t need and instantly regret it; we’ll follow the latest fad and look back on the pictures with feigned embarrassment. In short, we’ll do exactly the same things our parents did, because all this gathering of information and advertising are just more sophisticated methods of old sales techniques.

But the digital age means we’re now moving on from these traditional methods of selling. Where once we would see an advertisement, be influenced by it, and then move on, we’re now beginning to have a conversation with those advertisements. We tell it how interested we are in it by spending longer than usual on the page, we tell it how cool we think it is by sharing it with our friends, we give it instant pleasure by clicking on it and asking it to tell us more.

When we like it, we actually click a button to tell it so.

And it’s only going to get weirder. How would you feel about personally endorsing a product? You do it already, ‘liking’ a company’s product on Facebook or following them on Twitter. Of course, you’re doing this so you can win free stuff, or supporting your friends’ business, or simply trying to associate yourself with a ‘cool’ product, but what you are really doing is putting your personal seal of approval for all your contacts to see.

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‘It’ll be your friend’s face on the cereal box’

The vision in Minority Report where a persons’ face is recognised when entering a shop and a personalised message appears targeting an advertisement at them is already old hat. The future will be where you, yes you, give the message to your friends. There won’t be a celebrity or a nameless model trying to sell you the latest product; it’ll be your friends’ face on the cereal box. And because those little robots know exactly what you’re doing all the time, that girl that you cyber-stalk will be the one selling you that new brand of jeans, telling you that you’ll look great in them. Maybe they’ll add in a suggestive wink.

My bank account would be empty in a day.

And this will happen to me even though I know exactly what’s going on. I wonder what I’d be like if it began to happen the minute I was born? If a marketing executive knows that a three-year-old girl is interested in Barbie dolls than they will also know they’re most likely to become obsessed by the latest teen ‘pop sensation’ when they become a teenager. And, what’s more, through their online musings on that pop sensation’s wavy hair, that marketing executive will have their contact details to follow that child throughout their entire lives, hitting the right sweet spot at each age level. It’s efficient.

Your ‘friend suggestions’ on Facebook and Twitter will become linked to products you like rather than by whom you know. You will, in short, become friends with people because you have the same commercial interests as them, not because they make you laugh or you had a drunken fumble once. And others will sow those commercial interests in your mind from such an early age you won’t even notice it.

Sucked into a homogenous void where every action and interest is categorised into a column on a spreadsheet, you can be then kept on the right path by being selectively shown those friends that are doing the same things. Even if you’re in a minority sub-culture, you’ll feel surrounded by like-minded people and be safe in the knowledge that the product you’re buying will help you fit in even more.

You will advertise products to others.

So that giant megastore of sameness that the internet is now will change into a billion different megastores of sameness; one for each individual. The illusion of choice will in reality be a prison, keeping you trapped inside a universe you created so you won’t ever want to leave, and buy everything in the store while you’re there.

Big Brother isn’t being created so the government can watch your every move, it’s being created to sell you stuff. And it will not be formed by a shadowy cabal in a smoky room or whatever the conspiracy theorists are saying that week; it will be created in your bedroom, by you.

You’re being watched. Be careful out there.

Hugh Torpey writes at Mocking Dickens.

About the author:

Hugh Torpey  / Irish Management Institute

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