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In the early days of the web, as wide-eyed internet explorers anonymously scoured its provincial nooks, a cartoon appeared

in the New Yorker that would be its most reproduced illustration for the next decade. A dog sits casually in front of a computer, talking to another dog by its side. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Almost 20 years later, a lot has changed. The web has become obsessed with working out who we are, and serving us accordingly. Amazon wants to predict the books we should read. Facebook's algorithms toil to introduce us to friends we didn't know we had. Shopping sites can work out that you're pregnant before family members do by monitoring your vitamin supplement purchasing patterns. The internet wants to help. It wants to create a bespoke, recognisable experience when we're online, like a sofa that's moulded to your bum. This is a good thing, I think. But a growing school of thought believes quite the opposite. The internet's staggering efficiency, it argues, is shrinking, rather than broadening, our horizons. A recent article in Intelligent Life warned against the wise web's assault on serendipity. Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it cant tell you what you ought to be asking, the author moaned. [It] has become so good at meeting our desires that we spend less time discovering new ones. I'm the kind of person who instinctively thinks this is crap. I'm a web obsessive. I can't remember the last day I didn't use it, a lot. I've argued endlessly about its world-changing capabilities with my mum, a psychotherapist who likes to challenge modernity's fixations. I insist that it has improved my life. And if it's getting to

know me better, well, it's about time. I'll prove it. As I read to the bottom of the Intelligent Life article (which, of course, I'm reading online), an advert pops up. After 1500 words on how the internet is killing serendipity by serving up an infinite stream of more of the same, I'm asked, without irony, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE LIKE THIS? Thank you internet. Yes I do. I trust you. In fact, I'll do do whatever you tell me. For the next 24 hours, wherever the web points me, I will follow.

THINK WE NEED TO SET UP THE PIECE A BIT MORE HERE: FOR 24 HOURS I WILL DO EVERYTHING THE INTERNET TELLS ME TO. ETC. I click the link, and it takes me to a sign-up page for a six-month subscription to Intelligent Life. I begin typing my name into the info boxes, and it completes it for me after the first two letters. Thanks. This also fills out the address field, automagically. And so, for the next six months, a copy of Intelligent Life will be delivered to my exgirlfriend, in the flat we used to share. Bad start. Then I go to Amazon, and buy the first thing it suggests I should buy. The first 10 items are all Lego Star Wars figures, topped by a miniature Sandtrooper. Amazon, it seems, has never got over the fact that I once bought my nephew some Star Wars Lego for his birthday last summer. The figure costs 12.99. Lego figures weigh two grams. Either way, this is better - the internet has made me buy an unexpected present for my nephew.

WERE THERE OTHER THINGS THAT IT WAS SUGGESTING OR WAS THAT THE ONLY THING? WOULD BE GREAT IF YOU COULD LIST A COUPLE MORE THINGS.. Amazon, it seems, has never got over the fact that I once bought my nephew some Star Wars Lego for his birthday HOW LONG AGO WAS THIS?. But this is better. The internet has made me buy an unexpected present for my nephew. CAN YOU SEND AN EMAIL TO YOUR NEPHEW AND LET HIM KNOW AND CC HIS MUM AND YOUR MUM? OR IF HE'S TOO LITTLE EMAIL HIS MUM AND CC YOUR MUM DID THIS BUT NOTHING CAME OF IT. My phone hums at me as the confirmation email arrives. REALLY LIKE THIS. CAN YOU BRING IN MORE CONCRETE DETAILS LIKE THIS THROUGHOUT THE PIECE? WILL DO! Two emails below, I see a recent arrival from a dating site I'm on, offering people to suit me. Oh God. But it's fine. It's normal. This month, online dating became the second most common way for Brits to start relationships, behind meeting through friends. See: good internet. Match One'LADY' COULD BE TRICKY AS A TERM... likes chillout music, chick flicks, rugby and chocolate ARE THESE HER EXACT WORDS? CAN YOU INCLUDE BIT MORE FROM THE EMAIL, IN QUOTES, MAKE IT FEEL A BIT MORE DETAILED? .WOULD RATHER NOT DON'T WANT THEM TO BE IDENTIFIABLE Match Two keeps her cards close to her chest, but is spiritual, not religious. Match Three is very pretty - well played the internet - but, oh, describes her sense of humour as goofy. But I start constructing emails to them. I'm on good form, listening to a tasteful playlist that Spotify has chosen constructed for me by semantically cross-referencing my playlists with its database. It has

done well. This yields Fleetwood Mac, with a little bit of Hip Hop and indie sprinkled in. This makes me feel cool and confident. Hi! I'm Benji and I like Fleetwood Mac, how about you? Send.

YOU NEED TO TELL US THAT YOU PRESS SEND. (DOES IT TELL YOU TO CC ANYONE?) GOOD CHANCE TO ADD IN SOME COMPUTER NOISE WITH THE TWEETS? I follow 10 new people on Twitter WHO ARE THEY, WHAT KIND OF PEOPLE, TELL US A BIT ABOUT 5 OF THEM, all suggested by the who to follow tab on the Twitter home page. I'm a bit underwhelmed. Writers, travelers, media types. Variations on me, basically. ARE THEY ALL IN LONDON. WOULD BE GOOD TO GET A SENSE OF GEOGRAPHICAL SPREAD/ AM GOING TO
REINTRUDUCE THEM LATER

One of them has written a book called Dirty minds: How our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships. Ooh. Back to Amazon. I burrow into a rabbit hole of books about sex and psychology, ending up on Sex at Dawn: How We Mate & Why We Stray via Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Sex and Science. I buy the Bonk one. I then panic, and check my Amazon recommended list again. It is now populated with lego and books the occasional book about pervy science. I assume I'm being added to a watchlist somewhere. REALLY LIKE THIS BIT COS IT LINKS BACK TO THE LEGO, KEEPS THAT STRAND GOING... WHY DON'T YOU DIRECT MESSAGE THE GUY TO SAY THAT YOU NEARLY BOUGHT HIS BOOK AND ENDED UP BUYING 'BONK' - DOES HE KNOW IT? GOING TO REINTRODUCE HER LATER I've entered what Eli Parisier, an activist who rails against the web's

new-found obsession with trying to be helpful, calls the filter bubble. This bubble, he thinks, is turning us all into boring narcissists. Writing for CNN last year LET'S UPDATE BY INCLUDING QUOTE FROM BOOK INSTEAD, Pariser warned that left to their own devices, personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar, and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown. LOVE THIS IDEA I google for videos about the dark territory of the unknown. I'm offered interracial porn and a ten minute YouTube computer game walkthrough of the entering unknown territory level on a game called Dark Earth. I flick to YouTube's recommended for you section, and become the 180,443rd person to watch an iPad surviving a 100,000 foot fall to earth having been hoisted spacewards by an inflatable balloon. HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE VIEWED IT? WHY HAS YOUTUBE RECOMMENDED THIS TO YOU Next I'm offered some clips of Cristiano Ronaldo scoring free kicks. Based on my viewing history, YouTube thinks I'm a neophile who also likes football. Reductive, but certainly not untrue in fact, I consider making that my tagline on the dating site. I then watch a dozen more free-kicks as suggested by the associated videos that pop up next to the Ronaldo clip. I message one of them to a friend on Facebook. DOES THE FRIEND GET BACK TO YOU AND IF SO CAN YOU BRING THIS IN LATER, COUPLE OF PARS DOWN? HAVE PUT MORE FACEBOOK STUFF BELOW Facebook is often denounced as biggest homogenizer of them all. A recent New York Times opinion piece by Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,turned its

fire on the mammoth social networking site, accusing it of shattering the web's early hopes for a realm of cyberflanerie. In Morozov's paradigm, Facebook plays the role of Baron Hassmann, the famed civic planner who re-ordered Paris in the 19th century, straightening the chaotic arcades that were once the domain of pootling, incognito flanuers.Everything that makes cyberflnerie possible solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity, mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking is under assault by that company. And its not just any company: with 845 million active users worldwide, where Facebook goes, arguably, so goes the Internet. And so go I. I send five friend requests to people Facebook suggests I should be friends with because of our mutual acquaintances. TELL US MORE ABOUT THEM One of them is my brother-in-law. Why were we not already friends? Awkward. Another request is quickly accepted, and my phone rattles. Patrick has accepted your friend request. Write on his wall. So I do. Hi Patrick. Facebook said we should be friends. What else do you think the Internet should make me do? I'm not totally sure who he is, but he's friends with my mate Will, so I go to Will's profile. Will Likes Inside Volvo UK. I now also like Inside Volvo UK. I register to be one of the first to get more details on the launch of the new V40, which will have remarkable fuel efficiency. I email Will asking him who Patrick is and why he likes Volvos. Google tells me I should consider including three other friends in the email. Every time I add one, it suggests someone new. I stop at eight. Volvo will be pleased.

WHY DON'T YOU EMAIL PHIL AND ASK HIM IF HE KNOWS DAVE AND WHILE YOU'RE AT IT, CC ANYONE IT SUGGESTS? IT'S HARMLESS AND RANDOM ENOUGH TO WORK I THINK DOES DAVE REPLY? IF NOT, CAN YOU PROD HIM/SEND ANOTHER MESSAGE EVEN IF IT'S JUST 'YOU INTO VOLVOS MATE?'- WILL KEEP THIS STRAND OF THE STORY ALIVE For years people trying to sell us things on the web were stabbing in the dark, spurting viagra emails in all directions while waggling adverts for hip replacements in front of 15 year-olds. The Internet clearly wanted our money, but was crap at getting it. It's upped its game. Almost every site you visit is now hard-baked with cookies, the web's getting-to-know-you tool. Where are you? What time is it there? Are you logged into Facebook? What page did you come from? Is this your first visit? What sex are you? Goggle gobble gobble. The info is harvested, and the adverts are scrambled accordingly. You're aged 40-45, with young children and a mortgage on a reasonably priced house? Here, have a seven-day package holiday in Tenerife. No more hip replacements for 15 year olds. Instead: computer games. If the web knows you, it can monetize you. Google has a remarkable stash of information on us. I go to it's ad preferences page, where the search engine giant stores everything it thinks it knows about you so it can sling targeted adverts your way. My page indicates that Google thinks I am a male Londoner aged 25-30 who is interested in travel, sports, and online communities. On the money. It even tries to predict your emails. I I email my editor, explaining what I'm doing, and wondering if our expenses policy covers lego

and magazine subscriptions for ex-girlfriends*. Gmail helpfully suggests I should include three other colleagues into the email. One of them is his deputy, one is a senior audio producer, and the other is our Readers Editor. I'm worried about the latter, who usually has very important things to deal with, I add the Guardian's Readers Editor into the email, because Gmail tells me to. I'm worried about this. He usually has very important things to deal with, like Leveson Inquiries, but I go with it. An email comes back from him, pointing out some spelling mistakes. Crap. I decide that the mistake was caused by my inability to see repeated letters in small font. I buy some premium contact lens solution on Tesco's website, and my phone buzzes again. Will has got back to me. I learn that my new Facebook friend, Patrick is a delightful Irishman currently enrolled in clown school. Will then launches into a paragraph-long explanation of how the Side Impact Protection System was a trailblazing safety initiative spearheaded by Volvo in the 1980s. I remember that Will is a marketing director. New replies pop up before I've finished reading his message, from those I added in at Gmail's bequest, asking me why I'm emailing Will, and them, about Volvos. Because Will likes Volvos I reply, adding in three more recipient suggestions from Gmail. One of them emails back asking if I'm having a crisis. My new Twitter list chirps every time it updates. The sex psychology writer is incessantly flogging her book. Unfollow. Twitter suggests I should replace her with the Telegraph's Washington correspondent, who I tweet at to introduce him to a journalist friend of mine in New York. As his name disappears from my suggestions list, Twitter lines up Healthy Imagination, a General Electric well-being PR campaign,

as a potential replacement. I add it. A travel blogger from Wisconsin appears in its place. I add him. I notice that since I followed the sex writer I have three new followers with the word fuck in their bios. None of them are real. My dating matches haven't got back to me. I re-read their profiles and realise that none of them have logged on for the last three months. I'm annoyed that I didn't see this on first read, but reassured by a new email updating me on the delivery status of my premium contact lens solution. I also remove Fleetwood Mac from my Spotify playlists, having failed to coax my three matches out of their dating hiatus. The Telegraph's Washington correspondent has responded. He knows my friend already they recently had a beer together in Iowa. I've had no response from my matches on the dating site IS THIS STILL THE CASE? CAN YOU EMAIL THEM AGAIN IF SO? IS IT NORMAL NOT TO GET REPLIES? IF STILL NO REPLY MAYBE THAT'S COS SPOTIFY GOT THE SOUNDTRACK WRONG AND YOU SENT OUT EMAILS WITH THE WRONG TONE..., who I assume think I'm a weirdo WHY WOULD THEY THINK THAT?. I have spent 40 on a book about sex, lego, and a magazine subscription. I have three new friends on Facebook (two didn't accept), one of whom still hasn't responded to my question on his wall AH, I SEE. CAN YOU CONTACT HIM AGAIN?, and I'm worrying about whether my brother-in-law likes me. I've also needlessly pestered a senior editor at work, who now thinks I can't spell. IS FACEBOOK NOW SUGGESTING MORE PEOPLE FOR YOU TO FRIEND? CAN YOU FOLLOW ITS NEW RECOMMENDATIONS IF SO?

Patrick, my new Facebook friend, has also got back to me. He thinks that if my experiment went on for too long, I would risk being trapped in a whirlpool of ever diminishing returns. To illustrate his point, Patrick the Irish clown sends me to a video of Will Self pseuding off on YouTube about how he wished Amazon would stop recommending books like books he'd already read. He'd rather it told him he was spending too much money on books and should probably get out a bit more. All sorts of aspects of the internet masquerade as potentially personalised relationships that are, of course, anonymous at a fundamental level. I rub my eyes, and notice an advert for laser eye surgery hovering at the bottom of the video. The premium contact lens solution will be delivered next Tuesday. The internet promises the idea of actualising ourselves in an essential way, but in fact we fall victim to a much cruder kind of sorting, Self concludes. I switch him off and watch seven more videos of free kicks, feeling more pleb-like with every click. I wish I hadn't thought about it so much. I decide that I hate my experiment, but steady myself by concluding that in its quest to get to know us, perhaps the internet is at the stage of the well-meaning auntie who buys you crap presents at Christmas. It kind of knows you, but doesn't really know you. It needs to work harder if it really wants to be our friend. It will. But anyway, it's the algorithmic thought that counts, isn't it? The email chain about Volvos is drying up. It has become selfaware. After a handful of ironic emails about the light-sensitive responsiveness of Volvo headlights, the final message lampoons

my little experiment, attaching an image of a dog dressed up as a scientist in a mock laboratory, captioned I have no idea what I'm doing. On the Internet, people call you a stupid dog in front of your friends. I return to YouTube for more free kicks.

* It doesn't.