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The Boston Globe

Opinion

alex beam

If the Internet is so smart...

If the Internet is so smart, how come it thinks I was born in Oakland?

It’s true that I’ve lied to the ’net on more than one occasion — details to come — but I never, ever told anyone I was born in Oakland. Yet a Google search of my name reveals that I hail from Gertrude Stein’s birthplace, and Google knows everything, right?

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Or do they?

Thanks in part to my Google Chrome browser, which tracks my web surfing, I see plenty of ads for campmor.com, the outfitting website where I occasionally buy discounted sunglasses. I find it strange that Google, and Internet “retargeting” companies such as AdRoll, show me ads for websites where I just bought something. Wouldn’t it be smarter to show me websites where I might buy something else, instead?

“That’s called wasteful retargeting,” explains Drew Sharma, a web entrepreneur who now runs travelinsurance.com. “It proceeds from the assumption that 98 percent of visitors to a website don’t buy anything and advertisers should re-target those visitors who visited but did not make a purchase.” So, in this instance, the webbies either choose to ignore that I just bought something, or hope that I’ll buy more.

There is also more intelligent retargeting. Ads for Timbuk2, which makes those somewhat passé, design-them-yourself messenger bags, follow me everywhere, from newspaper websites to Facebook. That’s because Chrome told them that I’ve been sniffing around their site, coveting one of those bags. I’ve never bought one; I am waiting for the prices to come down.

Ha, ha.

Yes, I’m one of those writers who wastes time on Facebook. Facebook has partnered with the supermarket marketing company Datalogix — they crunch information off of store loyalty cards — to get smarter about selling me stuff. With its billion-plus users and oodles of money at stake, I would expect Facebook to target me with sniper-like precision, but . . . “Jews on Bikes”? Huh? Yes, I like to ride my bicycle, and Facebook may have figured out that I live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. But I’m not Jewish, and I’m super-nondenominational, indeed small-c catholic, in my recreational habits.

Facebook has likewise offered me “Hot Mormon Boys” — “that could be a gender misfire but still related to Mormon content you’ve encountered in previous browsing,” Sharma explains — and “Zen Dentistry for St. John’s Alumni.” (“Superior dentistry meets you in a relaxing, spa-like atmosphere.”) That’s because I told Facebook that I attended St. John’s College, the Great Books school in Annapolis, Md. I didn’t go to St. John’s, but I thought it would be neat to have attended a college where you actually learned something.

That was after Facebook changed my high school affiliation to Beverly Hills High, unprompted. The Internet really wants me to be from California . . .

If the Internet is so smart, how come they’re trying to sell me ladies’ shoes? Pandora is begging me to patronize justfab.com, which sells designer shoes and handbags. Apparently I listen to the kind of music ladies enjoy. What, Franz Liszt is effeminate? Josh Koster, managing partner of the digital ad firm Chong & Koster, offers a more rational explanation: “A lot of advertising is driven by time blocs, and they may have served men that ad before Mother’s Day, in case they were thinking of buying gifts for their wives.”

If the Internet is so smart, how come “crowdsourcing” misidentified at least three people who had nothing to do with the Boston Marathon bombings? I’ve always loathed crowdsourcing, which seems like a hipster rehash of the notion that 10 million monkeys hammering away at typewriters will eventually write “Hamlet,” if we would only let them.

As we now know, Internet monkeys published pictures of three kind-of-foreign-looking men who had nothing to do with the April 15 explosions. The website Reddit.com quickly apologized for “relaying what has turned out to be faulty information.” My “legacy media” brothers at the New York Post, which published photos of young men supposedly emanating from “law enforcement agencies,” defended its coverage.

The Internet may be stupid, but at least it has a sense of shame. But what do I know? I’m from Oakland.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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