I'm Google's Little Bitch! (My Life as an Open Book)

Gmail's Algorithms (or Is It Voodoo?) Know Media Guy So Well

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First, let me state that I've given my life over to Google of my own volition. I was not coerced, nor was I under the influence of any controlled substances when I gave my life over to Google. Still, I've done it, and now there's pretty much no turning back.
Media Guy, i.e. 'Bubble Boy,' feeling a bit trapped within the Googleplex.
Media Guy, i.e. 'Bubble Boy,' feeling a bit trapped within the Googleplex.

Like virtually everyone who works in media I use Google's search engine every day -- multiple times a day. But I also use an alarming (to me) number of the growing array of Google communication and organizational products: Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar and Google Spreadsheets.

I don't, yet, use Google's image-organization software, Picasa, or its Craigslist-like classifieds service, Google Base. But I expect that I will, at some point relatively soon, stop using Microsoft Word and instead switch to Writely, the web-based word processor that Google bought in the spring and recently relaunched.

Inevitably, Google will fund more and more of these (mostly) free services with contextual-text advertising, which is what now funds Gmail.

Remember when Gmail first launched (in beta) and privacy advocates were alarmed that Google intended to have its computers "read" users' e-mail in order to determine which ads to serve them? Perhaps because there are so many other cool things about Gmail -- it offers virtually unlimited storage, for one thing, a feature that other e-mail providers have since copied -- and because Google still has a reputation for being a (relatively) righteous company, those concerns have mostly fallen by the wayside.

But the truth is, I'm still, every day, a little freaked out by how much Gmail knows about what I'm doing at any given moment, since I live so much of my work life through e-mail. Again and again I'm shocked -- and often, oddly enough, perversely delighted -- by the way Google's algorithms instantaneously read my mail and try to determine what I'm interested in and what products or services or information I might be sold. It feels like voodoo sometimes.

For instance, a recent e-mail to me that mentioned Jann Wenner yielded this sponsored link: "Jann Wenner Profile -- www.marquis-whoswho.com -- Read his Marquis Who's Who Official Biography."

Fascinating! So someone (Marquis? Jann himself?) is paying to have his official hagiography pop up into the consciousness of any Gmail user who might be exchanging e-mail about Mr. Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, a recent advertisement from Sears was bracketed in my Gmail by four sponsored links -- all from credit-card companies (i.e., a pitch to me begat more pitches to me -- a marketing echo chamber).

And a recent press release about Martha Stewart brought with it a bumper crop of sponsored links, including one that read: "Martha's Shocking Secret: How she really lost so much weight. And how you can, too! Her secret. www.WulongforLife.com."

(Really? Martha lost weight? I didn't notice.)

At least there's still a bit of a logical remove in Gmail. It can still only guess that because I seem to be interested in Martha, maybe I'm interested in how she (supposedly) lost weight.

But as Google continues to expand and perfect its contextual ad technology, and as Google products and services continue to permeate my life, Google Voodoo is going to begin to home in on the real me, not merely the guesstimated, triangulated, shadow me.

Picture, for instance, a free Google cellphone that serves up ads based on what Google's voice-recognition technology has gleaned directly from conversations. (Why not? Extrapolating from Gmail, it's no stretch at all.)

Having a conversation with your best friend about how you need to lose five pounds? Or uploading a picture of yourself to Picasa in which you look a little fuller-faced than in an older shot? Wu-Long Chinese Slimming Tea ad coming right up -- no Martha Stewart necessary.

It'll be life entirely, seamlessly within the Googleplex -- your brain a mere extension of the fabled Google server farms -- where your every need and desire is anticipated, and monetized, in real time.

You'll get used to it; I'll get used to it.

We'll all be like Jake Gyllenhaal in that "Bubble Boy" movie, rolling through town and country in our Google Bubbles -- feeling a little adventurous, feeling a lot trapped.

But it'll be OK, right? After all, we'll have signed up for it.

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