After reading Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic piece on how Google and other web companies track our clicks, I installed Collusion, the Firefox add-in Madrigal mentioned. I was interested not in how many ad companies tracked me, but how they did it—what did I pick up where? (And yes, I’m thinking that, too).
It was a good few hours for a test—I had too much work for more than 5 or 6 idle clicks. I went to the NY Times, which added a few cookies. No surprises. From Tumblr, I clicked through to the Discovery News piece about the first grey wolf in California since 1924. That added a lot of cookies, but they all remained separate branches, with Tumblr as the root. I went to my bank, and paid my Massachusetts excise tax. Then I went to an NPR piece about a giant walking stick rediscovered near Howe Island, off Australia. At the end of the NPR URL there’s this: “?sc=fb&cc=fp” appended to the actual page address. Boom! NPR itself didn’t add many cookies, but immediately the cookies from the Times and Discovery connected—and immediately Facebook, which I hadn’t visited that day, was tracking me on nearly every site I’d been to, including my own (which of course it doesn’t know is mine).
Facebook’s tracking was mostly limited to actual sites I viewed. Google’s, YouTube’s and Doubleclick’s—between the three of them they tracked me on nearly quadruple the domains Facebook did—was mostly with other ad sites. The worst culprit, not surprisingly (location data! yum!) was Map My Run, which both added trackers and linked them into Doubleclick.
Quantserve/Quantcast intrigues me most. Tumblr uses them, through an invisible .PNG, to keep track of users’ dashboard activities (you can see it if you view your Tumblr’s source). But I hadn’t known how the Quantserve tracking cookie would connect to other ad servers. Does it correlate their information with my Tumblr habits? I delete most cookies from my browser every day or two anyway; but it does suggest revenue avenues that might be undertaken without the vaguely seedy omnipresence of ads on Facebook (are they really making all their money from “10 tips of a slim belly” and “you’re getting robbed on [your state] car insurance”?)
Among Silicon Valley types, apparently, the big question is who’s going to be the next Facebook, the next Facebook-like thing? Ad views, ad tracking, smart ads, smart video are what has everyone buzzing (so says my family connection in the biz). I love the web of 2012—most of my writing is there, I’ve connected with writers and editors I never would have otherwise so quickly. But I wonder where all this money and hours and ingenuity are going. I wish the gold rush were for something more difficult and solid. I wish any of things I’d like those brilliant young entrepreneurs to be working on—greener cars, solar cells, spacecraft—were as solid as Mark Zuckerberg’s billions.