January
30th 2012
It’s hard to be truly evil when you’re just stupid.

Posted under: American history, Gender, technoskepticism, weirdness

I was concerned last week when I heard about Google’s plan to share information across all Google accounts.  But then prompted by this story on NPR last night, I dialed up my “Ads Preferences Mananger Page,” and this was the extent of the personal information I found:

Your demographics:
We infer your age and gender based on the websites you’ve visited. You can remove or edit these at any time.
Age: 55-64
Gender: Male
I wonder how many middle-aged or elderly men do their online shopping at (for example) American Girl Place, the Discovery Channel store, Zappos, Garnet Hill, Title Nine, and Athleta?  Seriously:  who else but women 30-60 shop at those last three places?  Maybe science geek transvestite grandfathers?  So by my lights, I don’t think I have a lot to worry about from the Google at this point.  I think they’ll have a hard time being truly evil when their guesses as to who I am are so completely wrong.  (I’ve been wondering why the Google ads I get are all asking me if I want to meet single women 40-50 in Greeley, Colorado.  Now I know!)  What links am I reading that make Google think I’m 15-20 years older and the opposite sex?  (What kinds of crazzy gendered assumptions do their algorhythms make?  That’s maybe the question that really interests me.)

Just for fun, please follow click this link to go to your own Ads Preferences Manager page, and report the results–and your assessment of their accuracy–in the comments below.

67 Comments »

67 Responses to “It’s hard to be truly evil when you’re just stupid.”

  1. Nikki on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:44 am #

    I am a male, aged 65+.

  2. Nikki on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:45 am #

    I should add that I am *not* an elderly gentleman.

  3. Katie on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:56 am #

    According to Google, I am a 35-44 year old male. Wrong on gender, wrong on age.

  4. wini on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:59 am #

    They got be right based on my interest in video file formats & codecs, and two geographical areas (the place I went to grad school and the place I do my research). Who knew so many 25-34 year old women cared about those things?

    Most of my friends were told they are 65+ year old men. I guess I show too much interest in getting videos to work right when I stream them in class, or something.

  5. Perpetua on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:00 am #

    25-34, female.

    Close-ish? I’m one age demographic up. Maybe they think I’m younger because I watch gossip girl. But I too would love to know about the age-gender assumptions. (Netflix for a while thought I was a gay man.)

  6. Flavia on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:10 am #

    Like Nikki, I am, according to Google, a man and 65+ years of age.

    They appear not to have noticed all my online shopping, and there’s no indication that I’m interested in arts & culture. They list a bazillion web-related categories as my areas of interest (maybe due to my reading blogs and checking my site stats?), and several political ones.

  7. Bardiac on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:12 am #

    It thinks I’m a 35-44 year old male. I fit neither category. I’m guessing my interest in fitness and cycling code male and about that age?

    Now some google employee is searching for stuff like these posts, and they’ll learn that tbey need to make better assumptions, and then they’ll borg us for sure!

  8. annajcook on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:22 am #

    I’m male, age 25-34.

    They got the age right, but not the gender identity. And I’m honestly a little baffled by that since all the pages I go to are heavily feminist, queer, and fan fiction. Gay male and lesbian pairings. Maybe they think only men are fans and geeks? It’s bizarre. I feel like an analysis of my search history in word cloud form would be all “m/m erotica is awesome” plus “feminism for the win!”

    And while I’m SURE there are men my age who agree with both of those statements … I’m a little surprised Google thinks those sentiments indicate I use the male pronouns.

  9. jgolden08 on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I’m a man with no interests! How sad! Thanks for posting.

  10. annajcook on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Further, I’m curious why age and gender are the two things they assess. Why not sexual orientation/desires, racial identity, education level, parenting status, profession, etc.? Why those two items?

  11. squadratomagico on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:30 am #

    45-55, female, interested in social justice & advocacy, apparel shopping, and building construction. It’s all dead on (I did a lot of work on my home this past year, hence the last item). They also have my location. So, yes: they can be quite accurate and detailed.

  12. Ally on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Age: 35-44
    Gender: Male

    when I’m a 30 year old female…

    and that was the result for both of my gmail accounts, both my “professional” one and my personal one!

    I’m wondering if the techie tendencies is what skews mine towards male? it’s a sad assumption for them to be making, but that’s about all I can think of (wouldn’t the amount of time I spend on knitting websites skew it back the other way for also the same kind of sad inappropriate assumption?)

  13. Tanya Roth on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Wow. Google thinks I’m a man over the age of 65. Wrong on both counts – and by a LONG shot on the latter!

  14. Brian Ogilvie on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Curiously, despite the fact that I use Google quite often, including Reader, I find the following information:

    Your categories
    Below you can review the interests and inferred demographics that Google has associated with your cookie. You can remove or edit these at any time.
    Reference – Humanities – History
    Reference – Humanities – Myth & Folklore

    Your demographics
    No demographic categories are associated with your ads preferences so far. You can add or edit demographics at any time.

    (I hope those blockquote tags work!)

    So, despite all my searches for cycling and insects–not to mention my name–they seem clueless about my gender. The categories are interesting, though. I wonder how those are determined.

  15. jim on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:37 am #

    I got:

    “Your browser’s cookies seem to be disabled. Ads Preferences will not work until you enable cookies in your browser.”

    which I assume is the result of running Ad Block Plus.

  16. Shadow Boxer on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Well, they got close on the age, but the gender wrong: 25-34, male. (I’m 34.) What is most interesting to me are the cookies they pulled:

    Arts & Entertainment – Comics & Animation – Comics
    Arts & Entertainment – Humor
    Arts & Entertainment – Movies
    Arts & Entertainment – Music & Audio
    Arts & Entertainment – Music & Audio – Urban & Hip-Hop – Rap & Hip-Hop

    Do women not like Movies, Humor, or Music? Are hip-hop and rap exclusively male? or is it impossible for a woman to like those AND comics? Sigh.

  17. Indyanna on 30 Jan 2012 at 11:15 am #

    I got the “no demographic categories associated” tag too. I guess that’s because I downloaded “Stealth Bomber,” which lets you buzz the Googleplex at treetop levels without any let or hindrance from “legal” over there. I’m hovering over Page and Brin’s skylit office suite right now, trying to Vacuum (r) up some strategic memoranda for an inside trade that I’m working on…

  18. tony grafton on 30 Jan 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Male, 65+, right on gender, a notch too high on age, and no visible interests. What do Flavia, Nikki and I have in common?

  19. sophylou on 30 Jan 2012 at 11:30 am #

    According to Google I am a female 25-34. This was nice to find out 2 days after turning… um… probably the next bracket up. (Is it fair to say that they got the age that I *feel* right?)

    Topics aren’t exactly wrong, but not really on target, and the locations are off — one is my previous location and one is NYC, where I’ve never lived. But hey, Google thinks I’m a NYC/Austin hipster 20something?

  20. sophylou on 30 Jan 2012 at 11:49 am #

    I should add that Google is WAY closer to being right than Klout is, which continues to identify me as influential on Twitter re cigarettes, addiction, and parenting, in spite of the fact that I’m fairly sure that I’ve never used those words in any tweet.

  21. Historiann on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Heh. Thanks for these data points–my guess (based on my own flawed profile, and confirmed by so many of yours) is that the academic blogosphere is pretty non-commercial, and so those of us who inhabit it or click there regularly just don’t register on the Google in the way that big-time commercial sites attract the Google’s attention.

    You’d think that publishers and book stores might be interested in our habits, but I guess we’re a niche of a niche market.

    Unfortunately, I think most of you are right that Google types politics and technology as male interests. I probably get my Google sex and demo because two of my home pages are political sites (TalkLeft and RealClearPolitics), and one of them is the National Weather Service webpage! (I’ve noticed a high correlation between retirees and interest in meteorology. Me, I’m just in it for the snow reports.)

    I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of Starbucks’ Names. Have we identified another pseudo-identity with the Google Sex?

  22. bc on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    You’re not alone, apparently: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2012/01/30/why-google-thinks-you-are-a-male-and-b-old/

  23. Fratguy on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Male 45-54
    I’ve been demographed.
    Far far creepier was signing up for online access to a brokerage account this weekend. Within 30 seconds of entering the account # and SSN the computer was asking me about every address I have ever occupied, as well as the make model and color of every car I have ever owned. In 1 minute the computer felt confident enough that I was who I said I was to grant me access to most of my (our) life savings.

  24. Rachel on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Right gender, but it got my age wrong by over 3 decades, which seems to be a common theme! I find the categories google associates with me to be bizarre. What does “Business and Industrial” mean? What site could I possibly visit that got me that category? I have no intention of changing the categories though. It’s quite nice to not get adverts for maternity clothes / wedding sites / anything else that advertisers target at women aged 20-40

  25. undine on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Male, 35-44, and thus apparently an adman’s dream demographic.

  26. quixote on 30 Jan 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    I get something like (from memory): You have opted out of Internet Ads. You are nobody. You can become somebody by OPTING IN (big blue button).

  27. Bill Harshaw on 30 Jan 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Age: 55-64
    Gender: Male

    Gender right, age too young, not that I mind.

  28. Historiann on 30 Jan 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Thanks for the link above, bc, which basically confirms the male and older bias of the Google monkeys. I wonder if this bias is warranted–are the women on this thread really so odd?–or if it has more to do with the assumptions about what women and men “should” be interested in, plus an outdated notion of the internet as a masculine space.

    Whenever I’ve done that internet test of my writing to see if it’s gendered male or female, my writing always comes out as strongly male. But this is probably because direct, clear writing is presumed to be a masculine trait–not because more men *actually* write in a direct, clear fashion. In my experience, good and bad writing is equally distributed across all sexes/genders.

    So I wonder if Google’s algorhythms are just a big “just so” operation. Whatever. It’s not like I particularly want it to get more accurate. (And I woudn’t mind meeting some women ages 40-50 in my town, although I’m not looking to date them. . . )

  29. Profane on 30 Jan 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Male, 55-64 8-P

  30. Z on 30 Jan 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I had opted out so they don’t have any data on me.

  31. Nicolec on 30 Jan 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Male 65+ (don’t tell my husband his 32 year old, feminist, wife has the browsing habits of an older man)

  32. Nicolec on 30 Jan 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    and before you ask…no I am not looking at lesbian porn. This is my work computer…

  33. Z on 30 Jan 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    P.S. despite having opted out, they do seem to have a very partial web history on me. So be careful – any time you’re logged in, they are tracking you, like Amazon or Facebook. The reason it’s partial is that I’m not always logged in, and I have more than one account; that is why they have such imperfect results. What my web history shows: when people I don’t know e-mail my blog, I sometimes Google them. I didn’t realize I did that as consistently as I do.

  34. Ruth on 30 Jan 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    Hunh. It says I am a woman age 45-54, which is currently accurate.

    My “interests” seem to be based on my very recent browsing history. They include Shopping – Apparel, which I guess is a long term interest, but also Law & Government – Legal – Vehicle Codes & Driving Laws, which I can only think comes from my recent search for the correct form to report a fender-bender, and Reference – Humanities – Myth & Folklore, which probably has to do with this week’s lecture on Volsunga Saga. Nothing about politics, tech, or knitting, which are probably the three things I read about most on line.

  35. Fretful Porpentine on 30 Jan 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    On my work computer, I am a 65+-year-old woman, but on my home computer, I am a 25- to 34-year-old man.

  36. Nikki on 30 Jan 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    I also checked my home versus work computer. At home I am a 65+ female.

  37. Emma on 30 Jan 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    It was right on for me, as a 25-34 year old woman, and even got a lot of my interests pretty specifically. So I opted out of that, before it realizes I stopped searching wedding stuff and starts offering me ads related to baby products (as facebook already has). Why the differences in accuracy, I wonder?

  38. Feminist Avatar on 30 Jan 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    On my phone, I’m a ‎35-44 male; on my laptop I’m a 45-54 year old female, and on my work computor I’m a 55-64 year old male, interested in ‘goth subculture’ (I am actually a bit bewildered by the latter). Only one of these things is true.

    When I did this a few days ago on facebook, I was the only person out of 11 people, who got a female result. Which made us (admittedly all PhD educated people) wonder whether male was the default gender.

  39. Historiann on 30 Jan 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    “Which made us (admittedly all PhD educated people) wonder whether male was the default gender.”

    Ya think? That’s what I’ve been thinking all day long.

    I wonder if Z’s comment about being logged on is part of the issue for me. I only occasionally check my gmail account, and even then I’m logged in only for minutes at a time.

  40. annajcook on 30 Jan 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Just checked my personal laptop (vs. work) and they got the gender “right” here (as in: apparently I do things online they think womenfolk do?).

    Maybe that explains the tiresome ads for single men. Wonder when they’ll wake up and realize not every woman is interested in dudes as romantic partners?

    Since I do essentially the same kind of internet usage at work and at home, I’m a little baffled. Perhaps they think the webpage of my place of work (an historical society) is coded “male” so it skews?

  41. Janice on 30 Jan 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    “No interest or demographic categories are associated with your ads preferences so far.”

    Bwahahaaa! I have had a Google account pretty much as long as they’ve had Google accounts and they don’t have a clue. I love you so much, Ad Block Plus.

    Of course, I also clean out my cookies fairly frequently and sandbox sites such as Facebook so they can’t track me on my main browser (I hope). Google’s descent into evil may be slow, but it’s pretty pervasive. (Hint to Googlers – I don’t want you to link my Youtube account to the rest of my Google properties.)

  42. Katherine on 30 Jan 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    no cookies accepted; yea also for Ad Block Plus. It took me months to realize there were ads on Facebook.

  43. LadyProf on 30 Jan 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    Lady gender right but awww, Googie thinks I’m a lot younger than I really am. The list of interests is pretty accurate.

    I keep Gmail open out of habit. Should log out more, correct?

    So creepy. I feel as if a webcam is growing like a malignant tumor inside the machine, looking out at me. Must put in Adblock Plus.

  44. z on 30 Jan 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    @Emma – oh yes, it thinks I have a baby. I know this because it started e-mailing me on it about 3 years ago, when it got the idea I was pregnant. Sent me baby ads and samples by paper mail, too. Now it sends me advice on my putative toddler. How it got these ideas I really do not know.

  45. Roxie on 30 Jan 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Our computer overlords think that I am a woman 45-54 interested in yoga, blogging, and real estate. Please don’t tell them I am a dead dog obsessed with politics, pop culture, and basketball, ‘k? Thanks for pointing us toward this, H’ann. Creepily fascinating.

  46. nicolec on 30 Jan 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Creepy…home computer nearly dead-on accurate

  47. Anglachel on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    Remember – the reason that the information is to be shared across Google services is to improve those currently incorrect demographics. Reading the service policy changes, what struck me was they are aimed primarily at phone users, particularly Android users, who have Google profiles. Being able to connect the services dots rather than rely on cookies and browsing habits enables better targeting. Ad-block can’t stop your phone’s unique device identifiers from being harvested because those aren’t collected via a browser. If you use Google applications, the apps themselves have serial numbers per install that can be read. Local hard drive storage by applications other than (but also including) browsers add a whole new level of privacy fun.

    They are doing this *because* your ad profile is not useful in its current state.

    Anglachel

  48. Paul Harvey on 30 Jan 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    Male 65+ I’m guessing they assume all history profs fit that category. Am a little closer to that 65 number than I would prefer, unfortunately.

  49. Geoff on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Aside from pegging my age 26+ years beyond my actual 39, and assuming I have an interest in Bowling, it is accurate.

  50. Susan on 30 Jan 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    As a 65+ male with interests in software, I don’t see what the problem is. My geographical categories include Europe (true) and US Midwest (not so much). They don’t have any of my history interests, or books, or any such….

    But I’ve now opted out of the ad tracking.

  51. Susan on 30 Jan 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    P.S. I am under 65, and as my screen name suggests, not male. I guess my reading of Historiann hasn’t pegged me as female!

  52. Vanessa Vaile on 31 Jan 2012 at 12:38 am #

    Manager got my gender right but took off 30 years. Coincidentally (or not), Google Launches New Education Site is open in another window.

  53. Johanna on 31 Jan 2012 at 5:33 am #

    well, I scored as a 65+ year old male which is very exciting because it means I can go golfing today, rather than prepare my lecture for this evening and read graduate admission files [my real life as a female in her late 40s].

  54. Tuesday Teasers: Stuff I’ve Been Reading [#4] - The Pursuit of Harpyness on 31 Jan 2012 at 5:53 am #

    [...] @ Historiann | It’s hard to be evil when you’re just stupid. Speaking of scripts, Historiann recently discovered that Google’s ad rubric assumes [...]

  55. Perpetua on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:26 am #

    @Emma – Facebook keeps giving me ads for becoming an ultrasound technician. They are really creepy ads (a giant hand holding six tiny babies in it, for example). I have no idea what this mean.

  56. Perpetua on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:28 am #

    Oh, and I just checked my categories that made them assume I was female: fashion and cooking/baking, before higher ed stuff. Girls = clothes and food, boys = ideas and stuff.

  57. History Maven on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:40 am #

    What? No polka? They totally got me wrong.

  58. Western Dave on 31 Jan 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Google thinks I am a 65 year old male who likes Football. Two out of three ain’t bad. I’m curious, however, how bad the info on my children is since they often log in as them, and then I kick them off my computer to do work. I suspect it’s something like 6 year old male who likes Phineas and Ferb, football, and politics. 9 year old girl who likes Fantage, football and politics. (I’m assuming it got the football from my reading of Gregg Easterbrook’s football column at the ESPN site – where I have an account, as do my kids since ESPN is owned by Disney and I discovered that if I kick the 3 year old off Toontown to check a score, ESPN thinks I am the three year old.) And btw, I like football, but I love baseball.

  59. the Viking Diva on 31 Jan 2012 at 9:28 am #

    Female gender is correct but age is 2 categories too low. Would that my chin also appeared 2 decades younger in photographs! Teh google correctly identifies my interests in computer software, shoes, and the Rocky Mountains but these are not in fact the types of sites I look at most from this machine. So it appears to be picking up only activity on commercial sites and (like H’Ann) ski hill snow reports, while ignoring blogs, news, and academic sites. I clear the browser cookies every few weeks just to keep it confused; sometimes I just search and delete the ones with the phrase ‘ad’ in them.

  60. CNS100 on 31 Jan 2012 at 10:26 am #

    It turns out I am a 3 year old marmoset.

  61. Leslie on 31 Jan 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Gender correct on home desktop and on office desktop. Home has me one demographic too young; work has me one demographic too high. Laptop has gender correct, but apparently it can’t infer an age from what it’s picked up on that computer–music & audio, multimedia software, mac OS, casual online games.

  62. Contingent Cassandra on 31 Jan 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    At least on this computer (which was relatively recently pressed back into service after another one developed serious problems which I’m still in the process of fixing), it’s got my gender (female) correct on the account associated with both my real name and my pseudonym. It thinks I’m still 35-44, which is only a few years out of date. I’ll be interested to check my work computer, where Cassandra never logs in, and (more relevant) where the browser is set to clear the history each time I close it. Theoretically, if the preferences are associated with the account, you’d think the result would be the same.

    My interests, too, include “Business and Industrial” (huh?) as well as “Computers and Electronics” (for reasons mentioned above, I have been looking a lot for solutions to computer problems, and shopping for hard drives and other equipment) as well “Finance–Credit & Lending — College Financing” (no thank you; no more degrees or debts for me), and a couple of higher ed jobs categories (makes more sense).

  63. k. on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    have one browser window open buying maternity clothes, the other informs me I am a 65+ yr old male. Good work Google!

  64. Tenured Radical on 31 Jan 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    Male, age 45-54; interests? Biology and snowboarding. Okay…..

  65. Grad Student on 31 Jan 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    They got my gender correct (female), but aged me up to be 55-64. So…more than double!

  66. comparatrice on 01 Feb 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Yeah, boring as this is: hooray for tossing cookies once a week (e-bulimia?) and AdBlock Pro — they had no data on me. I’m so accustomed to AdBlock at this point that I’m completely shocked whenever I use a different browser. However, I am only hurting myself, because browsing the internet with ads enabled would be unpleasant enough to keep me from doing it 800 hours a day. That’s how they win anyway, I guess.

  67. Melissa on 02 Feb 2012 at 5:56 am #

    Male 18-24. Which is funny, because other than the basics (gmail, facebook, wikipedia) I pretty much only visit feminist sites and my guilty pleasure, healthy living blogs. Both seriously female-dominated. They’re close on my age, though. I’m just one age group up.