Why is this horrible shirt following me around the internet?
The Worst Shirt in the World proves online algorithms are not as smart as we think
The worst shirt in the world, which is following Hugh Linehan around the internet.
We live in worrying times. The digital revolution has turned all humanity into a cash crop for Big Tech. Facebook and Google know so much about us that they can predict what we want to buy before we even know it ourselves.
Some people even believe those companies are surreptitiously eavesdropping on their conversations through their smartphones. Others argue that it only seems that way because so much personal information is being legally harvested through our social media activity and internet browsing habits. We’ve voluntarily turned over more information about ourselves than any police state could ever have dreamed of getting.
But if the evil overlords of the internet know so much, why do they keep trying to sell me the same stupid shirt?
Just look at the bloody thing. It is, objectively speaking, the most hideous garment ever made. It appears to have been constructed out of sample swatches from a 1970s carpet emporium. You would be embarrassed to line your dog basket with it.
So what has caused the sophisticated algorithms we hear so much about to arrive at the conclusion that this, above all else, was the product most likely to stir my pheromones and make me reach for the credit card? My search history does not include the phrases “Axminster blouson” or “long-sleeved burgundy mustard patchwork”.
And why don’t these same algorithms register the fact that they’ve been trying and failing for weeks now to get me to show any interest? Is it really beyond the wit of the world’s finest software engineers to build in a line of code that says “OK. This doesn’t seem to be working – let’s try some other idiot”?
In the real world, even the dumbest of salespeople would have realised by now that I’m a lost cause and will never buy their weird rug-shirt. And if they had persisted with the attempt for this long, the police would have had to become involved.
Irritating though it may be, there is a bright side to this (and to those equally horrible overpriced slippers which Facebook keeps trying to flog to me).
There is something rather comforting about the fact that, contrary to what you may have heard, much of the so-called business model on which the digital economy currently floats is composed of second-rate hucksters who either don’t know or don’t care what they’re doing.
Lowest common denominator
It’s no accident that The Worst Shirt in the World tends to crop up on websites from the US or other far-flung territories. This is the lowest common denominator of online advertising: huge slabs of offshore inventory sold at rock-bottom prices via automated marketplaces.
The cost per ad impression is so negligible that the business principle involved is more akin to that employed by the Nigerian minister’s widow who wants you to look after her bank account than it is to any expectation of encouraging rational purchasing decisions.
We’ve all had the experience of being followed for months around the internet by a product that we searched for briefly once. Even when you actually buy the damn thing, the ads still keep coming. Whatever this is, it’s not artificial intelligence.
Perhaps somewhere out there a subset of the population exists which, if harassed for long enough, will finally give in and make that purchase (at a very reasonable $11.99, by the way).
A much larger number will opt instead for one of those things you’re not encouraged to mention on advertising-dependent newspaper websites (hint: first word rhymes with “bad”, second word rhymes with “rocker”).
In the meantime, I’ve got an email to send to an African prince who wants to give me the shirt off his back.