I forget why but I once searched Amazon for the soap opera actor Dean Gaffney. There weren’t many products on offer. A keyring bearing his face. A printed copy of his Wikipedia page priced at £45. But it was the items listed along the bottom of the screen that really caught my eye.
“Customers who viewed this item also bought…”
There were a number of products for sale but what intrigued me most of all was the box of miniature swastika flags. I wanted to know what the connection between the two was so I clicked the link and my screen was filled with a suggested list of gift ideas for the Nazi in your life.
There were pieces of replica SS jewelry. Swastika decals in a range of sizes. An Aryan blonde wig. And while I couldn’t find a direct connection between Gaffney and the iconography of the far right, it seemed that there was a troubling amount of crossover.
I thought this was funny so I tweeted about it and moved on to the next distraction. It wasn’t until I visited Amazon again that I found cause for concern, discovering that my “recommended” suggestions had been transformed into a solid basis for including me on a government watch list.
They suggested that I buy a replica Iron Cross and armband set. A hardback guide to Nazi regalia. And a canvas clock of the actress Pam St Clement, the hands turning from a bore-hole between her eyes. If I’d discovered a bag in the street that contained these items I’d have assumed they belonged to a serial killer. Or, at best, someone I’d be upset to have sitting next to me on a bus. I was mortified. Who else had access to this information? How far was it going?
And this was just Amazon. What of Google, which I used as my second brain? Throwing it my every random thought. I inspected my recent search history and immediately started to worry.
“Hulk Hogan choke video”
“Hilary Swank running”
I thought of the tantalising Buzzfeed sidebar links that I regularly clicked with impunity. The idle curiosity that without context could be treated like an obsession.
“12 Tragic Child Stars”
“32 Incredibly Weird Deaths”
“Top 10 Most Handsome Vampires”
It’d only take one person to stumble upon this information, misinterpret it and create for me a reputational Frankenstein’s monster.
It took weeks of judicious and determinedly innocent browsing but I was eventually able to undo my negative profile and return it to something that would be acceptable to anyone who might stumble upon my laptop. From that point on, I kept my Internet nose clean. Carefully selecting the links I clicked on out of a fear that I might be mistaken for something I wasn’t.
So when I began to receive targeted ads on Twitter offering a cream to relieve anal itching, it was only natural that I wondered how. I’d been so careful. What had I said or clicked on that made me their target audience? The advert itself offered no clues.
“SORE, ITCHY BACKSIDE DRIVING YOU MAD?” it blared in block capitals. “THEN YOU NEED ANALCARE CREAM.”
It was a striking message to say the least, the image beneath it showing three different rear ends. A man’s in baggy jeans, another in business attire and a woman’s wearing candy pink hot pants, each of them clawing between their buttocks. Delving deeper than even a customs officer would dare.
The message was clear: “Whether you’re a stoner, a member of the business elite or a smokin’ hot chick, all of us can fall victim to an itchy bottom.”
While the ad was something of a master class in getting bluntly to the point, it didn’t explain why it had been presented to me. None of these backsides matched mine. I was at a loss. So I began investigating.
I trawled my online purchases. My Google history. Through months of posts on social networks. Looking for triggers. Checking if I’d ever referred to someone as an “asshole” or “irritating”. I looked for butt, bum, arse, ass and rump. Itch. Scratch. Sore. I pondered the packet of Aloe Vera wet-wipes that I’d once added to the online grocery shop. But nothing seemed to tie in. So I turned to the place that I had been curious about since I first noticed the link on the ad; the customer testimonials.
This, more than anywhere, was where I expected to find my answer. Or at least people like me, asking why Analcare had sought them out. But what I found was a world I’d never known existed.
It was like flinging open the doors to a secret society. Or rather, a support group. Pages of people, pouring out their stories about the world of misery that lived in their underwear. It was a secret life revealed. A bathroom life. These people kept their woes from their families and loved ones but they posted them here. Because now, thanks to the miracle of this cream, they were free. And so joyful. So willing to share.
I learned that prior to her liberation by Analcare, Sue had resorted to finishing off toilet visits by gently swatting her bottom with a washcloth before blowing it dry with a hairdryer. Her story setting the tone for the testimonials. Small examples of distress and private, trial and error-based procedure that were nonetheless fundamentally funny.
See Margaret, for example, who stated. “I will not be buying anything else. Just to have a good night’s sleep is like the next best thing since sliced bread.”
The next best thing, I thought, considering her priorities in order of importance:
No.1: Convenient bread products.
No.2: Relief from the permanent sensation that she was sitting on an ant’s nest.
“I am in Heaven — literally.” She added. Because not for her a death spent drifting on clouds, dozing to the blissful soundtrack of a plucked harp. For Margaret, heaven is a place on earth and involves a tube of cream and a disposable finger condom.
And then there was Alan, who found it so useful on his rear end that he tried it out on the acid burns he’d received while removing bind weed in his garden. And later, on his wife’s mosquito bites.
It was easy to picture her backing away at the suggestion of giving the cream a try.
“Wait, isn’t that the stuff you’ve been wiping on your…?”
On and on they went. Tale after tale of people at their wit’s end, contemplating surgery and even suicide before being saved by Analcare. But after I while I stopped reading. It felt invasive. Like I was peering through someone’s bathroom window and making fun. In any case, I’d read enough to know that none of these stories resonated with me.
So I left the page and logged into Facebook, looking for a diversion. And it was then that I discovered a couple of sidebar ads that weren’t there on my last visit. It seemed that my trip to the testimonials had slotted me into an entirely new demographic.
There was now a link to a dating site offering me the chance to meet hairy men in the Manchester area, an advert for a pair of revolutionary slippers and below it an image of what appeared to be the skinned head of a woman. This transpired to be a silicon Barbie mask that I could purchase, slip over my own head and experience life as a living doll.
And it was here that I experienced one of those moments in life. The ones that offer you a sensation of personal clarity, as if you’ve briefly been granted the power to step out of your body and view yourself as others might see you. And what I saw was a grown man, sitting in front of a computer, worrying about novelty clocks, intimate creams and the notion that someone out there thinks he might get his kicks from wearing a woman’s face. I clearly needed to have a very strong word with myself.
Because the clear and overwhelming evidence is that the Internet doesn’t know what you want or who you are. Not really. It just picks up scraps of information, processes them then tosses things at you in the hope that you’ll be interested. It’s like throwing a stick for a dog and it running back to you carrying a similar stick, a squirrel or maybe a severed arm.
Just a quick look at the search engine results that led people to my blog last year proves the theory. Not a single one of them looking for me. Instead these were desperate pleas for advice that read like Ernest Hemingway 6 word stories.
April 14th: “Rat infestation toilet pipe please help”
December 6th: “incontinence shop Barnsley helplessly incontinent wife”
And then there was the endless parade of disappointed masturbators, searching in vain for very specific forms of pornography that I just could not provide.
“hot f**king with pipe line worker”
“balloon whisk sex”
“six boys do porn wildly with a girl & do toilet on her together. Com”
So I gave up trying to find out why certain adverts sought me out, certain now that Big Brother isn’t building a profile on me. That at least right now, the All Seeing Eye is as myopic Mr Magoo. And once I dropped that anxiety it was liberating. I was free to click wherever I chose. The 25 Funniest Autocorrects of 2011 would no longer have to be a mystery to me. And just as I was not a living doll or secretly plagued by bathroom traumas, I now felt, with a reasonable amount of certainty, that Dean Gaffney was not a Nazi.