It was 1:45 AM on a Wednesday and I was staring at a striped shirt on Romwe (don’t judge). After a couple of minutes of deliberation, I decided not to buy it — mostly because Romwe is one of those fast fashion brands that’s so disturbingly cheap the quality is usually akin to that of a drugstore Halloween costume, but also because it was 1:45 AM on a Wednesday — and closed out the tab. In a better world, that would have been the end of things for me and that striped shirt, but unfortunately it wasn’t.
The next day, the shirt popped up in my Facebook feed. A couple hours later it was on my Instagram timeline (along with two other similarly shitty shirts). By Friday, it was everywhere: hanging out in the sidebars of recipe sites, shoved in the middle of articles, chilling in the corner of Reddit — it even followed me to other clothing sites. It was like being haunted by the world’s lamest ghost. After about a month of this, the whole process started over again with some other useless thing I’d almost purchased.
At the most basic level, cookies are to blame: browser cookies, the little packets of data about you and your web activity that get attached to your browser. They tell the website you’re visiting key information about you as a user (e.g., Have you been here before? Did you have anything in your cart that should be carried over? How many free articles have you read this month?), but they can also be used to determine what sort of ad you’ll be served.
If you’re online, you’re being tracked. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and basically any other website you visit (even this one, technically) keep tabs on what you do and don’t do in order to try and sell you things. Platforms like Facebook argue that consumers prefer this type of targeted advertising to the depersonalized stuff — and maybe some do — but it’s more about results. The more they know about you, the better their chances of getting you to click.
If you’re online, you’re being tracked.
Most sites these days use what’s called a “tracking pixel,” a little piece of code that records and reports your general activity across a site, to gather more information about you. This information can be used to do a number of things, but the most relevant application is ad-targeting.
In the case of the Striped Shirt From Hell, a quick peek at Romwe dot com’s source code reveals that there’s Facebook tracking pixel built into every page. Meaning, when I clicked on the shirt, I was digitally branded as a likely Romwe customer, with a specific indicator denoting that I’d almost been swayed by a particular shirt. So whenever I’d venture to another site that served ads from a network that used information from that pixel to decide what ads to show me, it’d know to serve me an ad for that striped shirt.
While the data for Romwe specifically is private, the omnipotence of its ads seem to suggest that the company paid both Facebook and others to serve highly specific ads to customers like me that have this sort of cookie attached. This can generally be accomplished either by becoming a client of an ad network, or by targeting a particular audience on an automated ad exchange.
When faced with the 43rd ad for that random pair of shoes you glanced at on Amazon two months ago, this idea of an idyllic consumer-centric advertising model starts to fall apart.
There are some workarounds available for those who want to live off of the ad-retargeting grid. Since the whole process depends on cookies and tracking pixels, disabling cookies (or even just resetting them regularly) works pretty well. Some websites won’t function properly without cookies enabled, unfortunately. Using private browsing modes (like Chrome’s Incognito or Safari’s oh-so-creatively named Private Browsing) can help avoid the collection of cookies, though it doesn’t affect the information collected by your ISP or third parties.
In his testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “What we hear from people is that, if they're going to see ads, they want them to be good and relevant.” On its face, this doesn’t seem half bad — I mean, better ads are supposed to be, well, better, right? — but when faced with the 43rd ad for that random pair of shoes you glanced at on Amazon two months ago, this idea of an idyllic consumer-centric advertising model starts to fall apart.
Of course, there are some sites and platforms that don’t operate like this (the Outline dot com, for example, shows the same ads to everyone), but a vast majority do. Regardless of the hellish side effects, if it works, it’s not ending anytime soon.