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The meosphere and behavioral targeting

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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2007

Why use the Internet to find out the world beyond your nose? Wouldn’t that just ultimately be a waste of time? Aren’t we all wishing for more sites about the topic that truly interests us, namely ourselves?


This seems as though it should be a parody, but it’s not: In today’s WSJ, Walter Mossberg’s minion Katherine Boehret writes about Meosphere, a new website that prompts you to make lists about yourself so that you may then use the site to regard yourself, preen and plan for the future. The site bills itself as a kind of Web-based scrapbook where you can store memories and have dormant ones reawakened by prompts devised by Meosphere’s staff and by the site’s other users.


This free site is a lot of fun to use, not to mention addictive. Once you start checking off items in one list, you’ll want to complete other lists to beef up your meosphere. And when friends and family share their meosphere with you, you’ll learn things you never knew about them.


The idea here, as with every social networking tool, is that the site provides a central repository for signaling information about yourself that might otherwise be lost or underexploited—we don’t generally blab to strangers about our many fascinating experiences because we may have the strange idea that we are not universally and inherently fascinating at all times. Like booze or sodium pentathol, the site seeks to disinhibit us. (Writes Boehret, “Chances are that almost everyone you meet has done something fascinating, but it’s not always easy for people to spit out these facts about themselves. Meosphere gives you a chance to do so, through the Web.”) On the internet, no one needs have any scruple about putting themselves forward or to convert all their experience into ruses to impress other people. Even if we had no thought other than the experience itself as we did thing in our lives, sites like this one allow us to retroactively convert them into conspicuously consumed commodities.


So on the one hand, these sites supply encouragement for us to turn activities into identity-fashioning goods that signal our place in a consumer economy. We generally do this without thinking, regarding ourselves as little more than a catalog of belongings (our memories are objects belonging to us from this perspective)—they bolster a possession-oriented subjectivity, rather than a process-oriented one. At the end of the day, it’s not what you’ve done but what you have that makes you who you are. On the other, these sites supply marketers with extremely useful data in order to better target ads toward you. As Boehret explains,


Web sites know how valuable lists can be; wish lists and automatically generated recommendation lists provide encouragement for online shoppers.


When you are enticed to feed these recommendation generators, they become that much more persuasive in convincing you that you need more stuff than you imagined, a thought that many people likely find reassuring—I’m always glad when I “discover” new albums I need to buy or books I need to read; future consumption plans make me feel like I have a purpose. 


This article, from yesterday’s WSJ details how thrilled companies are with what advertisers call behavioral targeting, “in which marketers analyze consumers’ online activities to figure out who is most likely to be interested in its product—and then place ads on whatever sites those consumers are visiting.” Now, though advertisers love this technology, let’s not forget that it’s really for our benefit, helping to construct a more perfect meosphere:


“The future of digital media is less about distribution and more about understanding the audience’s interests and being able to project that anywhere,” says Bill Gossman, president and chief executive officer of independently owned behavioral-targeting firm Revenue Science.


The web is about projecting our interests, which couldn’t in the end be anything but bound up with commercial interests—what could we be interested in doing that wouldn’t open up the possibility of selling us stuff, stuff that would extend our interests further? When we volunteer information on social networking sites, it’s close to affirming the idea that we don’t mind targeted ads, that we are in fact in a way soliciting them.

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