Vortex, a data management game, may end online ad targeting as we know it.


One of the central dilemmas of the Internet is the pervasive pressure to represent yourself as authentically as possible. We want intimate exchange from the medium, but it can only host one-sided proclamations that require pre-existing intimacy to be fully sensical.

The data produced through these exchanges becomes a new kind of currency from which companies build shadow profiles about the most monetizable aspects of your life, discarding everything that can't be correlated to a shopping choice. You are never going to get what you came for in online interactions, and the most meaningful ones only point back toward offline relationships and the unquantifiable instinct for what's been left out of the data trail. 


Vortex seeks to break the feedback loop that subconsciously pushes a person deeper into an identity of consumption choices.


Rachel Law, a graduate student at New York's New School, has created a new program called Vortex, which allows people to interrupt their own data trails and the personas that result from them. The program turns the process of tracking browser history into a Pac-Man-style 3D game, in which users navigate an environment eating up sea creatures that correspond to individual cookies stored on a computer. The cookies a person collects during the game create a randomized online identity that interrupts the algorithms online advertisers use to target people based solely on cookie-scanning.

The ideal goal for Vortex is the creation of a catalog of cookie-built identities and a body of counter-data about what kinds of advertising behaviors those identities trigger.

"That's why it needs critical mass," Law told AdAge's Kate Kaye, "because only when enough people are playing can we start seeing patterns in what kind of cookies or attribute-identifiers companies look for and discriminate with."

Vortex would then be able to build a wiki-style database of cookie-profiles that users could selectively activate for their own benefit. If, for instance, you want to go shoe shopping but don't want all of your searches to steer you toward hightops and oxfords because you often read about sports and finance you could load a new cookie-self and get linked to water socks or espadrilles, and who knows, maybe you'd surprise yourself.

Vortex seeks to break the feedback loop that subconsciously pushes a person deeper into an identity of consumption choices, a way to make it more and more difficult to use the Internet as an agent for becoming something other than what you have been.

Because of our faith in productivity and efficiency, we have made the Internet's existential purpose an accelerant to getting things done. Everything from sexual arousal to job hunting are driven by efficiency and volume when done through the Internet. And since we don't need to question the mechanisms through which arousal or work are acquired, we can fixate on making the distribution channel as open and instantaneous as possible.


Inauthenticity threatens both efficiency and the structures we want it to serve, and so there is no greater taboo on the Internet than performing a false identity. Because there is so much truth that cannot survive being transformed into digital proclamation, and because we are all know how vulnerable we are to being led into false causes, we enforce a mode of dealing with it that is maximally defensive, favoring productive sincerity and not experimental inauthenticity.

The growth of personal metrics in Internet advertising is only a symptom of our need to see the Internet as a proxy for seriousness and scrutable reality. The Internet crowdsources a police state of mind by making it seem like there are physical stakes for artifice, and the presumption of those stakes are used to enforce consensus norms rather than rewarding the randomness of performative imagination.

The freedom to slip in and out of different personas made possible by Vortex suggests a freedom in online behavior that is only conceivable when we limit it to the distant matter of shopping. We can play around with our identities by manipulating the algorithmic presumptions of ad servers, which dumbly follow us around the Internet filling sidebars with the same thing over and over again, in most cases uselessly promoting things we've already bought and don't need anymore.

In a similar way, most of our online social interactions chase old values and ideas we've already bought into, the more predictable they become the more authentically we seem to offer them. In another world, we'd be able to use the Internet as a tool that freed us from the trap of our own presumptions and prejudices.

Perhaps one day there'll be a form of Vortex that randomly tags a person's social networks with random thoughts and assertions, turning social networks into places where we'd practice trying to rationalize all the strange things in the world that we hadn't known could be true. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.