Most web users are now pretty aware that their browsing and searching habits are constantly tracked. This tracking data is captured by advertising companies that then feed our information into ever-growing profiles that presume to know our age, gender, income strata, as well as our preferences and shopping habits. It’s exactly these profiles that generates the ads that to follow you from website to website, to remind you that, “Hey, you were shopping for sneakers, right?”.
But you are not your browser history. Far too often, your browsing patterns can lead to inaccurate assumptions about your preferences and personal characteristics. These inaccuracies are melded into your internet persona, which then influences what ads you see or how much you’re charged for an item.
A few months ago, thanks in part to the generous support of the Ford foundation, I began working with Jer Thorp and the team at the Office for Creative Research on a tool to track the ads that are served during regular internet use. This was a follow up to the work I did with the WSJ to identify how users are profiled and targetted as well as the fantastic explanatory work by Jer to show how the ad machine actually works.
Last week we launched the alpha version of this effort. Floodwatch is an extension available for Chrome browser users that tracks the ads you see as you browse the internet. More than a peek behind the advertisers’ curtain, this extension also shows how advertisers use your browsing data to construct their version of your online personae, and how your browser ad views compare to other Floodwatch users. The project website includes details about the tool’s informative capacity.
The goal of Floodwatch is to “assemble the largest amount of advertising data we can” to allow us to learn and understand just how these systems work.
I sadly will have to take a break from development because of some upcoming conflicts, but I encourage you to read Jer Thorp’s blog post about the research that informed this project, and give the extension a try. It’s truly eye-opening, if not for anything but to see the volume of ads you see on a daily basis.
CBC: Interview with Spark Radio about Ad Tracking
Washington Post: Turning the tables on online advertisers
Betabeat: The Floodwatch Plug-In Exposes Exactly How Advertisers Are Profiling You
Business Insider: Here’s One Way To Find Out Which Advertisers Are Tracking You Across The Internet
Fast Company: Floodwatch Helps Track The Advertisers Tracking You