Google Algorithms at Work



Everyone has noticed—and is from mildly to serious annoyed—that after we visit a website looking for garden tools, say, Google generates an avalanche of related ads. Last year I bought a scarf online and, for the next few months, my social media were draped in it. What gives? I already bought the darn thing! You’d think the system could distinguish between “Purchase completed” and “Still interested. Maybe? Nice, right? You like?”

Two RISD graduates—Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell—decided to test the limits of networked marketing by emailing to each other, page by page, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 scorcher, American Psycho. You’ll recall the book is about Manhattan businessman and serial killer Patrick Bateman, and is notorious for its graphic sex and violence. What ads would Google’s hard-working algorithms find relevant to these emails? Huff and Cabell wanted to know. The interesting results revealed what the author’s say was “GMail’s unpredictable insensitivity to violence, racism, and sex.”

A page that included the murder of a man and a dog by a knife-wielding attacker did generate ads for knives and, in a grisly touch, knife sharpeners. And a page with a racial slur carried no ads at all. But the most common ad across 408 pages of mayhem? Crest Whitestrips. Maybe a “just keep smiling and all this will go away” message there.

You can get a pdf of the book they compiled from their results, which includes all 800+ ads as footnotes (minus the contribution by Bret Easton Ellis). Something he wrote that appeared on page 27 stimulated an ad for “folding chair parts.” I can’t imagine. And, on the very last page, a way to avoid “3 Awful Guitar Mistakes.” Probably not one of Bateman’s top-of-mind worries.