Automated gender analysis of my writings often marks me as male, probably because I write about technology, and also about war. But our algorithmic overlords are onto me: I mostly encounter three types of ads online: weight loss, beauty products, and online degrees from shady for-profits. “They” know I’m a woman so they serve me an endless stream of predatory ads which play on gendered—and economic—insecurities. I choose not to block all ads partly because it’s useful to my research to see how things work online, and also partly because I thought this had little to no effect on me, personally.
Except, you know, when I actually needed to lose weight after an ankle injury immobilized me for two months and I wanted to ask my smaller online social network for advice. Unfortunately, my smaller social network online mostly lives on Facebook, where I get the worst, ugliest and most predatory ads (which alternate with products that I already purchased but seem stuck to my screen, following me from tab to tab, ohai carry-on luggage I already own).
I couldn’t type the words into that box.
I feared that “I want to lose 10 pounds” would be the magic words that conjured up endless streams of headless women in bikinis with measuring tapes around their allegedly newly-skinny waist, who would follow me online till the sun went supernova.
My problem was simple, and not one that requires major secrecy. After an ankle injury sidelined me from even walking much, let alone my daily hour of exercise, for just two months, I swiftly gained 10 pounds. No big deal, that’s just the way my family’s genes run, but the injury part was new. Everything for recovery was in place: I was motivated (especially since I hate shopping and weight gain implies shopping), willing to undertake necessary changes, and already knew how to exercise hard.
Yet, a hobbled exercise routine and recovering from injury made it all complicated. Risk of reinjury scared me, and robbed me of my usual way of doing everything.
So, I decided to be proactive. I wanted to ask my friends for advice, and use online social media to do so.
It’s 2014, right?
Losing 10 pounds was one thing you think being on the Internet could help with.
But my awareness of what could happen if I typed “I need to lose some weight while recovering from injury, any advice?” into Facebook stopped me in my tracks.
If I type this, I thought, I’ll never get rid of these ads. These ugly solicitations to women to hate their bodies will follow me everywhere. The judgmental misogyny of the online weight-loss ads which makes my skin crawl also makes me want to run to the nearest great restaurant, preferably in Istanbul or in Tuscany, for a beautiful long, meal, so there’s that blowback effect I’d rather avoid as well.
Facebook has a history of changing its privacy practices, always for the worse except for small walk backs after the routinized backlash, and it had just recently announced that it will do what it had for years said it would not do: track you outside of Facebook using the “like” button embedded in pretty much every major website. (Facebook even tracks when people start to post, but then decide not to). Combined with the way Google also aggregates my information, and that I have an android phone, I felt cornered. I pondered my options.
Do I let the Web learn of this vulnerability?
I considered what my friend Janet Vertessi did, trying to hide her pregnancy from Big Data: she used Tor to browse babycenter.com, and used a locker and gift-cards purchased with cash to shop at Amazon. But that wouldn’t solve my problem, as I’d still have to log on to Facebook. (Besides, she got treated like a criminal for her efforts).
A fake Facebook, to be opened at a browser I never use, and refriending everyone seemed like an overkill, though I did consider it. I could go back to blocking ads, but after years of never clicking on them, the misogynistic ads had taken a bit of a dive, and the thought of voluntarily resurrecting them was too distasteful.
I went halfway there, and posted on Facebook about recovering from ankle injuries and it turned out that a couple of people in my social network had such an injury. I learned that it takes a long time to fully recover, and reinjury would greatly prolong things, but, darn, none of my friends talked about lower mobility and weight gain. I was still wary about asking. The conversation left me even more concerned about reinjury, and less sure of the path forward.
Yes, I saw a doctor. No, he didn’t have much to say because my issue didn’t seem like a medical emergency to him, especially given I was still at a healthy weight and clearly a lifelong exerciser who was itching to hop back on the bandwagon. “Umm, take it easy, and it will be fine long-term”, was all he had to say as he handed me a sheet with physical therapy exercises that were good for my ankle but did not involve exertion.
Then I went to Istanbul, Turkey, where dodging algorithms on Twitter is a national past-time. People actually tweet like this:
The Turkish text of her tweet has no “mentions” of the names of the people whose tweets she has “screen-capped”. She’s talking about them, but without their names or words. Hence, she’s tweeting about three people (sniping at them acerbically, in fact) without a single algorithmically processable character that ties her words to those Twitter handles.
As part of my research, I interviewed people about their use of Twitter and social media, and the subject of using “screen caps” (or “keps” in Turkish lingo) came up. Why, I asked one of them. Why post like this, and talk about people without their Twitter handles? He laughed.
“We want to be able to talk behind people’s back,” he said.
And that made complete sense, we obviously want to be able to talk about people but without talking with them. And that meant dodging the algorithm that showed each other when we talked about them.
And that’s exactly what I wanted to do, except I wanted to talk to my friends, behind the Web’s back, rather than talk about people behind their back. I wanted to reach my friends behind the ad-driven, Big Brother web’s back.
I could figure out anonymous or pseudonymous solutions, but I wanted to talk to my friends who’d understand me and separate my “how to lose 10 pounds” from the global “how to lose 10 pounds” or someone else’s “how to lose 10 pounds”. That’s the point of friends, no? I could, of course, go back to email, though I admit to using Gmail, which would of course scan the content of my emails to serve me ads. My university email is subject to FOIA so I tend not to want to draw my personal friends into that universe. I do have my own domain, and my own email on that domain, and this incident added to one more example on how convenience and livability came with surveillance and control. And email, while always a possibility, is a clumsy, cluttering tool.
Overall, it’s true that I could change my options, but I have time and know-how. How many do?
Meanwhile, weeks passed and my ankle healed enough to let me exercise a little, but not enough. I brought up this problem with my friends offline, including a close friend of mine who is a polio survivor and thus deals with this issue as his legs were affected. His tips were useful, though it turns out this is a thorny problem. Meanwhile, I found forums of people dealing with knee-injuries that had extensive discussions that were helpful (and I searched for these on a different browser to avoid the ads).
But I write this not to find a solution to my small, piddling problem, but to talk about our large, growing problem: algorithms and data are tracking, surveilling more and more of our lives, and that is not simply a matter of ignoring them, as they are not ignorable. Our social networks, our news, our mundane existence and our important moments are all mediated by algorithms, whose proprietary, profit-driven, ad-financed nature seeps into every small micro-interaction.
And that, unlike talking about my ankle injury, is a conversation we cannot, should not avoid.