My Internet radio thinks it knows me

When listening to internet radio, you're likely to hear advertisements customized for you. (iStock photo)

Santa Claus might know when you’re sleeping and when you’re awake. That’s nothing compared to what Internet ad servers know about you.

The Internet will know if you’re pregnant, or if you’re considering popping the question. 

It’s no secret that your browser cookies and search history influence the advertisements you see online. Try searching for a new pair of sneakers and for the next month nearly every website that you visit—from an online dictionary to your personal email—will feature web banner ads with precisely the kind of kicks you searched for.

Perhaps nowhere is this more alarming than on Internet radio stations like Pandora, where listeners are a captive audience to advertising that, in addition to the music, is specifically tailored for them.

In the weeks leading up to my engagement this time last year, seemingly every other commercial was from a jeweler and began by asking, “getting engaged this fall?”

I often have music playing with my girlfriend around, so I’d have to dive toward the controls to turn down volume or create a diversion during commercial breaks so the stupid Internet didn’t blow the surprise. Fortunately my girlfriend never caught on, but no thanks to that blabbermouth Pandora.

I was creeped out by what my music station had done with my ring shopping research, but in some ways I was a little relieved that it at least had the right idea about me.  The year before, I was often urged to join dating websites so I could meet a nice guy to take home for the holidays. They missed the mark on that one, but considering I have “Broadway Showstoppers,” “Spice Girls,” “Under the Sea,” and many other guilty pleasures on my list of 100 stations, I guess I can’t blame them for thinking I was a girl.  There would ordinarily be plenty of evidence proving that I was a straight man in my cookies, but that happens to be the only history I feel the need to delete.

The Music Genome Project algorithm that’s used to understand and predict your music preferences is already impossibly complex, so it’s difficult to tell what impact, if any, your musical tastes might have on the ads that you hear. Whether it’s through the songs we play or the websites we visit, users unwittingly provide ad servers with plenty of personal information.

One of my colleagues is pregnant-- a fact that her Internet radio knew before the rest of the office did. Or rather, it knew “pregnancy.” Something in her search history or musical taste tipped off Internet advertisers, and soon she was hearing presumptuous offers from adoption agencies who believed the pregnancy was unplanned and implied that she should give the child up. She's happily married and was planning a family, but based on the ad server’s commercial selections, the following narrative of her life ensued:

Thinking that her man had lost interest in her since the pregnancy, the station began peddling a mysterious service promising “nine powerful words you can say that remind him why he needs you.” A few songs later, she heard ads for engagement rings, an odd need under the presumed circumstances. Although it swung and missed with its first attempt, Pandora clung to that pregnancy intel and next tried pitching a fertility clinic. Another surprising choice considering her history of child abandonment.

When an advertisement for school supplies came on a few songs later, she reasoned that Pandora must believe that the child had grown up in the blink of an eye. Either due to the fact that she was an unfit mother to begin with, or because she refused to buy the school supplies, her child was then understood to be struggling in school and now needed to attend the online public school advertised soon after.

The manifestation of ad server intelligence in Internet radio ads creates an interesting—if not scary—sketch of the person it understands the listener to be.  I decided to pay closer attention to my Pandora ads in an attempt to find out who I was in the Internet’s eyes. Sure, it was as self-indulgent as viewing your own Facebook profile, but I preferred to think of it as a vision quest to gain total awareness in the digital age.

I thought back to a few memorable ads. One encouraged me to pay back the surplus in unemployment checks I received. I was working two jobs at the time, so I don’t know where it got the impression that I was ever unemployed. Maybe because I just gave the thumbs up to a Pitbull song.  And then of course there were the occasional “meet local singles” or adult novelty commercials that generate uncomfortable banner ads while having the station on at work.

The advertising robots redeemed themselves when they believed I was fit enough to be a personal trainer. “You already work out,” the ad began. “Why not get paid for it?”

I’m not sure if it made this assumption from my workout music station, or from a recent search for weight lifting routines, but one appeal to my ego and suddenly the ad server was brilliant.

An ad for a graduate degree from Saint Joseph’s University came next. Nice try, but I’m already getting a Masters at St. Joe’s. Was this ad chosen because of my known love for that school and an assumed interest in higher learning? Or because I seemed mired in a bad career and need to improve my situation?

I then heard a few commercials for luxury cars, albeit certified pre-owned vehicles and models priced below $30,000. So while my situation seems to have improved, I haven’t made it just yet. A meat company thinks that I have kids, and that I am concerned about artificial flavors and fillers in their lunch meat. Wrong on both counts.

My commercials are getting more boring and generic. They’re targeted to working professionals: car insurance, credit cards, banking. Dull grown-up stuff. If Pandora knew me as well as my friends, it would hesitate to consider me a mature adult. But it does know one thing: I am getting older and more boring.

I now long for the days when I was just a young girl looking for a nice guy to bring home to her family.