I recently got a Gmail account. For some reason, you have to be invited to get one, so I should take a moment and thank Victor Ozols for getting me in the club. The “By Invitation Only” aspect adds an air of faux exclusivity to it, and I have to confess that it encouraged me to usse the account more than I would have otherwise. I also like that it adopts the best features of Instant Messaging into its interface, making back and forth conversations of short emails easier to manage.
But what’s truly creepy about it is the column of targeted ads that accompany your emails. Automated programs comb through the text of your emails looking for key word matches, and then they generate a list of ads suggested by the conversations you are having. It’s extremely unsettling how pertinent these can be, at times they are like a shadow commentary on the substance of your life. At times, these ads seem to cut right through to the essence of your conversation, offering you a direct way to take action on the things you are otherwise merely blathering about. YOu might be talking about seeing movies, and in the column will be an ad inviting you to buy the tickets. You might be talking about the status of your relationship, and there in the margin are a list of self-help books and seminars on how to improve your love life. The talk you are having with your email correspondant is probably nice and all, but the real substance of what’s being said is in those ads, which allow you to vote with your dollar and exercise your chief American right, to express preferences through purchases. The ads are a commentary on your conversation, a kind of Occam’s razor analysis drawing a direct link from your personal issues to the way society would like to see them addressed — these ads allow for instant transformation of the personal into the socially relevant. They show you immediately how our consumer society understands your deepest personal desires and dilemmas.
Perhaps future email exchanges might be conducted entirely through the medium of those ads — just copy and paste them in to show how the world of commerce has parsed your thoughts into what purchases are appropriate, the only meaningful actions to whatever you are discussing.
But already its altered the way I write emails. I find myself throwing in arbitrary references to Chairman Mao or venereal disease or chess openings to try to affect the ad content my correspondants will receive on the other side. I can imagine this could be quite a fun game for those in the Gmail club to play.