If you spend even a little time online, you must have had one of those interesting (read: creepy) online experiences.
You know the kind where, after a Google search or two, Facebook suddenly serves up the ad for the exact product you'd been looking for just moments before?
Or those times when the autocomplete search option on Google was just a little too accurate?
Even if we're not exactly tech-savvy, we all kind of know that somehow, some way, major companies and corporates are keeping tabs on internet users.
For reasons that aren't exactly sinister (or so we'd like to think), companies monitor and track the online habits of internet users so they can match up ads with users who will find them interesting or useful.
- Also see: Google's most searched how-to questions prove that the internet has officially replaced your mother and best friend
It's by no means breaking news and tech companies aren't exactly hiding it either.
We've seen those ever-present cookie consent notice pop-ups and we've clicked 'okay' to privacy policies we never read through.
Seems harmless enough, right?
The idea that this 'norm' could actually cause emotional pain is something few of us have ever considered, and yet this is exactly what happened to Gillian Brockell. In an open letter, she wrote:
"Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If you're smart enough to realise that I'm pregnant, that I've given birth, then surely you're smart enough to realise that my baby died and can advertise to me accordingly, or maybe, just maybe, not at all."
After losing her baby, the grieving mother was subjected to a continuous flow of ads selling baby products and services every time she used her phone.
The post is just devastating to read and calls some much-needed attention to an experience that may be more common than we can know.
Here's what she wrote:
"Dear Tech Companies," she starts.
"I know you knew I was pregnant. It's my fault – I just couldn't resist those Instagram hashtags – #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, stupid me!, I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up.
"You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girlfriends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling 'holiday dress maternity plaid' and 'baby-safe crib paint.' And I bet Amazon even told you my due date, January 24th, when I created that Prime registry.
"But didn't you also see me googling "Braxton hicks vs. preterm labour" and "baby not moving"? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like "heartbroken" and "problem" and "stillborn" and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?
"You see, there are 24,000 stillbirths in the United States every year, and millions more among your worldwide users. And let me tell you what social media is like when you finally come home from the hospital with the emptiest arms in the world after you and your husband have spent days sobbing in bed, and you pick up your phone for a few minutes of distraction before the next wail. It's exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive. A Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama. Every damn Etsy tchotchke I was considering for the nursery.
"And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click "I don't want to see this ad," and even answer your "Why?" with the cruel-but-true "It's not relevant to me," do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you've given birth, assumes a happy result, and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras (I have cabbage leaves on my breasts because that is the best medical science has to offer to turn your milk off), DVDs about getting your baby to sleep through the night (I would give anything to have heard him cry at all), and the best strollers to grow with your baby (mine will forever be four pounds, one ounce).
"And then, after all that, Experian swoops in with the lowest tracking blow of them all: A spam email encouraging me to "finish registering your baby" with them (I never "started," but sure) to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead.
"Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If your algorithms are smart enough to realize that I was pregnant, or that I've given birth, then surely they can be smart enough to realize that my baby died, and advertise to me accordingly - or maybe, just maybe, not at all."
Not the only one
Needless to say, the response to Gillian's post was overwhelming and included some commentary from the tech industry and others who have had similar experiences.
Can you relate to Gillian's post? Tell us by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.
- Also see: The stigma of miscarriage
A Year in Review when you'd rather not be reminded
In his article Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty, Eric A. Meyer shares a similiar experience.
Calling out Facebook's Year in Review feature, he wrote about the pain of having to see images of his deceased daughter in his feed.
"I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it," he said, noting that there aren't enough options for people who have had bad experiences.
A tech expert himself, Eric suggests that creators consider utilising empathetic designs with human experiences in mind.
And perhaps the increase in stories like Gillian and Eric's could lead to change.
What's been the most interesting Internet 'coincidence' you've experienced? Tell us by emailing to email@example.com and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.
- Would you trust a machine with your child?
- Here's how thousands of kids around the world use the internet
- Do men grieve over a miscarriage?
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