Why Does the Internet Keep Telling Me to Celebrate Father\u2019s Day With My Dead Dad?
It has become a recurring joke by now that our phones are always eavesdropping on our conversations. You can mention a movie or product in passing, either in a conversation with a friend or via DM, and what do you know, the next day you’ll be served a targeted advertisement for exactly that. This “ad stalking” is convenient in theory and frequently creepy in practice. While you might not mind getting an ad for a pair of sneakers that you were eyeing up, it’s less ideal and potentially a lot more embarrassing if you were googling something of a more sensitive nature.
But although targeted ads are becoming increasingly sophisticated, they are also far from accurate all the time. Which is why I find myself wishing my devices would just listen a little more closely, so that I would stop receiving sales emails, discount code offers, and ad placements for Father’s Day. Because my father died when I was 14. And short of literally typing into Google “my father died when I was a teenager” and hoping that the internet gets the message, I’m not really sure if there’s anything I can do to stop it.
In a way, I feel lucky that this technology is only a relatively recent development. My dad passed away in 2002, and if targeted advertising had been a thing back then, in the months after one of the supporting walls fell out from under my life, seeing a Father’s Day Groupon would have derailed my entire day. As it is, my grief is old enough to vote and drive a car. It is something that has been there for so long I have built my life around it, grown comfortable with it. It has taken much of my adult life, but I no longer hold onto the anger that I felt as a teenager. And so at a certain point, these digital reminders cease to be a source of pain for me, and more of a nuisance. But there are many for whom this kind of oversight might worsen their trauma.
It’s a phenomenon known as “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty.” Eric Meyer coined the phrase in 2014, specifically in relation to Facebook’s Memories. Seemingly entirely devoid of any understanding of context, the feature served him with a “here’s what your year looked like” gallery—on the anniversary of his daughter’s death.
“I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault,” he wrote. “This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house. But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.”
In a recent piece for WIRED entitled ‘I Called Off My Wedding. The Internet Will Never Forget’, Lauren Goode wrote about getting trapped in an inescapable feedback loop of bridal advertising, and described what many in tech circles call the “miscarriage problem”; when the algorithm fails to anticipate that due to an array of circumstances, not everybody will complete the same milestones, and neglects to shift course accordingly.
Author Cory Doctorow chronicled one heartbreaking example in a Twitter thread earlier this year, in which he described a couple who, after losing their baby, were then subjected to years of targeted advertising as a result of Procter & Gamble’s “lifecycle marketing” strategy.
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