My mp3 battery was completely drained this morning, so I flipped on the Fresh 102.7 for part of my commute (I'll save my bizarre attraction to this station for another post). A "not too old, not too light" song was coming to end and one of the morning hosts (Jim Douglas, of Jim & Kim) began a live commercial for Microsoft's search engine Bing. Well, technically it may have been a prerecorded commercial, but the point is that it was one of those testimonial type commercial that an on-air personality handles. I assume that advertisers feel this style raises the trust level by having a familiar voice throwing the pitch at you. It also tricks listeners into not realizing they're hearing a commercial, and it probably saves the client money because they don't have to pay an audio production house put a slick radio ad together. Personally, I always feel like these pitches are phony, but what do I know, I'm just the catcher (in the rye).
Anyway, Jim starts his Bing spiel and for the "personal touch" portion of the ad, he brings up a vague anecdote about getting his wife a present. Now, Jim is a consummate radio guy with a clear, professional radio voice, so I really can't tell if he's speaking from his heart or simply reading from a script--it all sort of sounds the same to me. My guess is that the Bing folks have some "make-sure-to-throw-this-in" bullet points on a piece of a paper, and it's up to him to string them into a coherent monologue.
Basically, Jim's story so matter-of-factly described him not knowing what gift to get his wife, but thanks to Bing, all he had to do was click a button to dig through his wife's search history for ideas. And because Bing so conveniently categorizes search history, he had no problem deducing what to buy her (probably that special rock t-shirt she wanted so damn much). While I don't think Jim's story really happened, I am confident that Bing wants it to happen... all the time. Is it just me, but doesn't this seem like sort of a potentially evil way to promote your search engine? I've only used Bing a few times, and I assume that this feature can be voluntarily turned on or off much like search history on Google. I also don't know what the default setting is, or if people are informed that their searches are being logged and categorized. I certainly don't think most people are aware that others are being encouraged to go check your search history when you aren't around and they're stumped on a gift idea. I realize the realization that in reality there's really no privacy on the internet, especially with search engines, but secretly going through your spouse's search history seems a bit like an invasion of it to me.
It's possible that I'm just overanalyzing something rooted in good-natured intention. There is presented a problem we can all relate to--being stumped on gift ideas--and Bing is simply stepping in with a logical solution to that problem. But paranoid me wonders if it's really that simple. I'm sure I could come up with great ideas for gifts by reading your secret diary, looking at your credit card statements, hiring a private investigator to follow you around all day, or implanting a miniature video camera in your glasses that records your window-shopping habits, but those are clear lines we shouldn't be crossing. Is search history any different? Is it just a 2010 version of circling items in a catalog, or is it more complicated?
Just knowing the search terms that bring people to this website make me afraid of what people might find looking in their partners' history. The 19 people looking for a "centaur sex doll" would obviously be easy to shop for, but what do you give your husband when you find the term "extended labia lady gaga" in his search history? Something tells me he's going to get a hard time and not the Deluxe Edition of The Fame Monster.
I know when it comes down to it, maybe it's good that we're being encouraged not to hide things from each other. I mean, I get a little voyeuristic kick out of knowing what people are searching for and how they end up on my site. And yeah, I can narrow things down to their city and type of web browser they use, but it's still quite anonymous. It's a different story when you start at the other end--knowing the person and the search--and speculate over where they ended up. I can't even imagine what my internet searches say about me.
Now here's my anecdote... Last Xmas, I got a bunch of DVDs from the RoBeastress that were suspiciously familiar. I must say that I felt a little uncomfortable when she admitted that she spied on me while I was browsing FYE, and took notes on what I pulled off the shelf to inspect closely. As it turned out, some of her choices were on the mark and some weren't. My crude conclusion is that simply browsing someone's browsing is just not necessarily an accurate way to measure their degree of interest. Personally, I disable search logs, so I can't analyze my own search habits (and more importantly, so others can't either). I do know that I like my humor black and my entertainment edgy, so my internet searches tend to run on the curiously morbid side. I can't imagine what would happen if The RoBeastress had relied on my internet history in search of ideas. I'd probably have ended up with The Best of Russian Army Executions and Beheadings Volume 8 in my stocking. With Tubgirl wrapping paper.