I was in a shop the other day, looking at shirts. The selection wasn’t great: if there was something I liked, they didn’t have it in my size; if there was something in my size it was hideous at best and migraine-inducing at worst. So when the assistant asked if I needed help, I said no.
“What do you mean, no?”
“I don’t want to buy anything.”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
That’s when he started throwing shirts at me.
I ran from the shop, but he chased after me. He followed me into a bookshop, arms full of the shirts I’d already rejected, shouting “Look at the shirts! Look at the shirts! They’re lovely shirts!” He followed me into HMV, adding his own shirt-related soundtrack to the booming bassline of whatever was playing. He chased me in and out of coffee shops, newsagents and Burger Kings, bellowing, “Buy this bloody shirt, you bastard! Buy it! Buy it!”
That’s when I shot him.
The assistant, of course, was actually an online advert and my gun was AdBlock Plus.
So much for supporting the ad-based internet economy.
To me, ad blocking is as natural as breathing. However, I’d decided it was a bit hypocritical to moan about newspaper paywalls while running ad-blocking software, so I’d turned off my trusty ad blockers to experience the internet in all its annoying, intrusive, ad-plastered glory once more. I’d expected to be irritated, but I hadn’t expected items I’d looked at to follow me everywhere I went online.
These ads are new, and they’re known as retargeting. Cookies track what you’ve looked at and follow you around the internet, shouting at you to look at them. In theory, they’re supposed to offer extra inducements – “I see you looked at this shirt and decided not to buy it. How would you feel if I make it TWO POUNDS CHEAPER! Oh, mercy me, and here I am with a wife and three children to support” – but in practice it’s just the same things you’ve looked at, thrust in your face again and again and again. The implication is that you’re so utterly stupid, you’ll buy any old crap if you see it often enough.
What really gets me about it, though, is that it’s yet another online pain in the backside that’s enabled by default; opt-out rather than opt-in. If I were to scream loudly in your face, borrow your car without asking or press my buttocks against your living-room window as you tried to watch TV, my pleas of, “It’s okay, you can easily opt out by ticking this little box you see!” almost certainly wouldn’t stop you from calling the police or beating me to a pulp.
But online, it’s apparently okay for ads to harass you, for friends to use Facebook Places to tell the world where you are, or for Twitter to remember every shortened link you click because, hey! You can opt out if you don’t like it!
How about not opting us in in the first place?