Beware, YouTube is now watching you

By Jonathan Jacobson

On a recent night over winter break, I was sitting alone in my room surfing YouTube. Of course, this is nothing out of the ordinary. But it is amazing how quickly things can turn strange when you’re alone in your room and it’s late at night.

So, as I was saying, everything was going fine. But then it happened. And I must say that I was surprised, if not disgusted. It was something I had been waiting for, something I had been afraid of for too long. Sort of like a new installment in the Rambo franchise. But this, to be sure, was absolutely worse.

On my little YouTube screen, at approximately 2:37 a.m., a pop-up advertisement appeared and blocked a small portion of the video I was watching. I knew at this moment that things were going to be very different from now on.

To the average person, this is not a big deal. Most would merely let the little rollover ad block the screen for a few seconds and then go back to watching some kid beat Super Mario World in seven minutes flat. But I could not resist clicking on the pop up. After all, who doesn’t want to know why Cingular can save me more money than Sprint?

Clicking on the advertisements on this new feature – YouTube rolled out the service, called InVideo Ads, a few months ago – will actually pause the video you are watching while the new ad plays on top.

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The problem here is not immediately obvious, which is generally the case for most small annoyances in our lives. It is easy to avoid these ads. They only block the lower fifth of the screen and, even then, only for a few seconds. And you, unlike me, don’t have to click on them. The problem is an underlying one.

Google, which owns YouTube, has developed new and, frankly, frightening ways to allow advertisers to access the exact market they want at all times. Even at 2:37 a.m., when most advertising executives are snug in their 1,000-thread count sheets, advertising software is checking my e-mail for me to determine that I need, by way of example, a hip T-shirt and a freelance job.

Even if this were the case – and I’m not saying it’s not – I am uncomfortable with inanimate computer programs tracking my desires.

After consulting with my brother – who is a business major at this University and a far less finicky person than myself – I determined that I am nothing if not a walking market segment. A potential customer to the world’s commercial interests. This is, apparently, what they are teaching in the business school. The world has now become, for all intents and purposes, an enormous shopping mall that I can never escape.

And all I wanted to do was entertain myself for a few minutes before bed.

This issue is nothing new. Advertisers have long been trying to extract information from the Internet and tailor their message to a specific target. YouTube was hardly a year off the ground when the “world chief creative officer” at Leo Burnett, the most prestigious ad agency in the world, touted the video-sharing site as a greater potential source of revenue than MTV.

This guy’s job title – which, by the way, could only exist in the modern world – is part of the problem. Creativity, in the advertising realm, is now equated with finding me in my pajamas, silhouetted by the warm glow of my monitor, and telling me the things that I want.

I certainly don’t believe that every ad exec is Scrooge McDuck, poised ponderously at the end of a diving board above a pool of gold coins in his money bin. My concern, as usual, is on a far grander scale. Put simply, I don’t like to know that people and machines are watching me.

These new InVideo ads are only a symptom of the greater disease, for which there is only one cure: lock yourself in a room and cover your head with tin foil. That way they can’t get you.

Jonathan is a senior in English and rhetoric and he is, truth be told, somewhat excited about the new Rambo movie.