“Oh, you are truly my favorite subject!” exclaimed a soft voice in my ear. “Would you allow me to … see you, please?” My laptop’s webcam asked for permission to activate. Any other time, I’d have denied the request and closed my browser immediately, but I put my thumb over the lens and clicked “Allow.” I needed the points, after all.
Welcome to the strange, creepy world of clickclickclick.click. (That’s a URL. Go ahead! Click!)
When you arrive, you’re asked to turn on the sound. That’s so a quiet man’s voice with a European lilt can encourage and taunt you as you click around. The setting: nothing but a big green button and a scrolling background of text cataloguing your achievements. Big achievements these are not. You’ll get points for clicking the button five times fast, or moving your cursor in a straight line, or making the browser window as big as possible.
Poke around for 30 seconds and the site seems silly. Stay a little longer and the absurdity starts to mean something. The site is showcase of the ways, big and small, your browser can be used to spy on you. It turns the browser window into a circus ring, and asks you to perform flips to rack up meaningless points. For the curious and obsessive (me), it’s impossible to click away.
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.
Wouters and Maurer haven’t heard of anyone who’s won the game yet. They were moderately impressed that I’d made it to 85 percent, but they say the vanguard is closer to 98 percent right now. But they confirmed a suspicion I had: The game can’t be won without cheating. Some challenges—like one that requires you to click the button 25 times in a second—require some basic programming to complete.
Ultimately, the site’s creators hope it reminds users how closely their every online move is tracked. “If this little seed is implanted, that these things that we do they all have value, and that quite often we’re completely unaware that we’re funding or empowering other people by doing that,” said Wouters, “that would be a fantastic small step.”