I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web

On the other hand, these are the tools that allow websites to eke out a tiny bit more money than they otherwise would. I am all too aware of how difficult it is for media businesses to survive in this new environment. Sure, we could all throw up paywalls and try to make a lot more money from a lot fewer readers. But that would destroy what makes the web the unique resource in human history that it is. I want to keep the Internet healthy, which really does mean keeping money flowing from advertising.

I wish there were more obvious villains in this story. The saving grace may end up being that as companies go to more obtrusive and higher production value ads, targeting may become ineffective. Avi Goldfarb of Rotman School of Management and Catherine Tucker of MIT's Sloan School found last year that the big, obtrusive ads that marketers love do not work better with targeting, but worse.

"Ads that match both website content are obtrusive do worse at increasing purchase intent than ads that do only one or the other," they wrote in a 2011 Marketing Science journal paper. "This failure appears to be related to privacy concerns: the negative effect of combining targeting with obtrusiveness is strongest for people who refuse to give their income and for categories where privacy matters most."

Perhaps there are natural limits to what data targeting can do for advertisers and when we look back in 10 years at why data collection practices changed, it will not be because of regulation or self-regulation or a user uprising. No, it will be because the best ads could not be targeted. It will be because the whole idea did not work and the best minds of the next generation will turn their attention to something else.

Images: Shutterstock.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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