Thursday, September 24, 2009

gmail ads: cool or creepy?

I've been using hotmail for years. (I'm suevanhattum there.) I hate the ads that blink on and off, and the ads that suddenly take up more screen space if your cursor accidentally goes over them. I've also accumulated about 70 pages of old email in my inbox.

So when I needed another email account for the book I'm working on, I decided to try gmail. (I'm mathanthologyeditor there.) I have loved it. There are almost no ads. (None when composing a new message.) The interface is cleaner and usually quicker. I'm delighted.

The ads that do appear are one-liners at the top of the list of messages. They are targeted by what I'm interested in. When I first noticed this, I thought it was kind of cool. I saw an ad for a math camp, and it seemed like almost useful information.

But I just now realized that they use the text of my email to decide what ads to post. A friend mentioned playing guitar in a message to me. He mentioned it a bunch of times in the message (5 times, I just counted). I have never looked at a guitar site, or done a search using the word guitar. I've never written about guitars (until now), and it wasn't in the subject line.

But there it was:
3 Guitar Scale Mistakes - - ¤ 99% of guitarists make when they practice. Save years of p...

Yikes! What if someone sent me a message about guns, and I replied to them? I guess I'd get an ad for guns, huh? What if I wrote an intimate message to a lover describing something we might want to engage in? (I used to exchange some steamy messages long ago, with a long-distance lover.) Would Google send me ads for strange equipment? This 'feature' begins to feel creepy.

I experimented, moving from my inbox, to all messages, and then to a particular message. The ad changed depending on the location. (If you have gmail, try it.) Kinda cool (how do they do that?!), kinda creepy.

I have thought of the text of my email messages as private. This knocked that notion out of my head. Email. Is. Not. Private. (Repeat 100 times: Do not equate email with old-fashioned postal mail. They are not the same.)

I'm wondering what others think of this brave new world we're writing in. What do you think? Is this cool, or is this creepy?


  1. If a robot searches your email for keywords (without saving search results) and then shows you messages based on its finding, without showing them to anyone else... is your privacy invaded? Is the answer different when results are saved?

    Google backs up all the information passing through it. So, it has copies of all our emails. Authorities sometimes want that information and have ways of obtaining it. It is similar to the old-time police seizing someone's paper archives.

  2. Yeah, I understand there may be no people involved in this. But I still have this gut reaction to it.