Things start getting weird when your behavior is compared to other people’s. “Subject’s cursor speed is slower than others,” the disembodied experimenter told me early on. If you make moves toward the close button, he gets desperate. “Subject is about to leave! That’s troubling! Don’t go! Don’t go!”
I’m not proud of how long I spent trying to complete the 100 “challenges” that reveal themselves over time. For some, I changed my computer clock to make it look like I was logging in at 3 in the morning. For others, I opened the site in every browser I have installed. As my score ticked up—70, 80, 85—the voice in my ear got more and more excited. “Whoa! I’m so flattered by your dedication and persistence,” he said at one point. “You are a truly valuable subject.”
That’s exactly the story that the site’s creators wanted to tell: “Everything you do online potentially has value,” said one Roel Wouters, the co-founder of Moniker, the Dutch design studio that was behind clickclickclick.
“A lot of people know that, but somehow you forget about it if you don’t experience it,” added Luna Maurer, Moniker’s other co-founder. “You don’t feel it.”
Wouters and Maurer described their site as a mirror: It shows you how you’re being tracked as you’re being tracked. It’s also nearly empty, and fills in only as you interact with it. You, the player, are the content.
Some of the information the site gathers has clear value to advertisers—time and frequency of visits, for example, or the type of browser being used. (The site doesn’t sell or give away your information.) Others, like detailed stats on cursor movement and placement, might seem less useful. But every data point helps: Mouse movements and clicks are often analyzed to understand what parts of a webpage attract the most attention.
The game only captures information that can be gleaned from the browser and user interaction. But in real life, more advanced tracking mechanisms actually follow you around the web, and data brokers sell information about users to companies who want a more complete picture of their visitors. Minute details like the exact size of a browser window can help identify a particular user as he or she visits different sites across the internet. Some particularly creative companies have tried using invisible light or inaudible sound to link all of a person’s devices to them, so that their activity can be tracked from cell phone to computer to TV.
The site is part of a project called “We Are Data,” and was co-produced by VPRO, a Dutch public broadcaster. Moniker and VPRO started work on the site in earnest three months ago, and released it earlier this month. The stripped-down site has a homemade vibe to it; the haunting voice that accompanies you throughout is Wouters’s own.
Clickclickclick was better received than its creators could have imagined. As of last week, about 350,000 different people had visited the site, Wouters said, and they’ve collectively completed 7 million achievements. At any one point, there are between 500 and 1,200 players on the site. The interest has been so high that a few weeks ago the team had to upgrade the servers that hosted it.