Gmail Intuition

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Were you as thrilled as I was when you learned that Google was resisting the government's efforts to obtain its Web-search data? Not since Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy had anyone stood up so forcefully for the public's right to privacy!

I was so impressed I actually switched my personal e-mail account from AOL to the increasingly popular Gmail, which is run by Google. I did notice that Gmail has a somewhat commercial flavor, linking my incoming correspondence to ads for various products. That didn't bother me much. Then I began to read the ads carefully.

When I got a letter from a photographer reporting that he had taken some "sweet pix" of dogs, it was accompanied by an ad for a company that hosts themed Sweet 16 parties.

Then, a colleague asked me for my thoughts on the historical accuracy of the story of Jesus. This arrived along with a solicitation to "Become Legally Ordained Today!"

Most distressingly, a friend wrote to express an opinion on the important sociological implications of pubic-hair topiary, a subject that had come up in a recent online discussion. This e-mail was linked to a product that guarantees "Bye-Bye Bikini Bumps."

So, don't worry, people. Google won't give your name to the government. It'll just take your innermost thoughts and harvest them for marketing opportunities.

It's all done automatically, and bloodlessly, by computer, so some amusing stupidities arise. My friend Caitlin wrote to me about her distaste for Faulkner, calling him "an utterly pompous, narcissistic, intentionally ambiguous snotwad who arrogantly and completely disregarded any sense of responsibility to his readers." This was linked to ads for discounted copies of The Sound and the Fury.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking I immediately canceled my Gmail account in a spasm of indignation. Well, you are wrong. This thing is simply too much fun.

I began to send myself Gmails such as this one:

"Mom, Dad: I know this will come as a shock, but I have eloped with a man I met yesterday in an alley. Mahmoud just bowled me over. He is a fanatic with smoldering eyes and a deep hatred of America, but he is very hott, and is taking me away to Turkey or Tora Bora, where we will live together in a cave, stuffing ourselves with goat's milk and roasted camel in yak gravy. I am on pins and needles awaiting your blessing."

The dire news in that letter produced ads for: turkey brining bags, bowling balls at a 50 percent discount, bowling shirts, The Beef Jerky Emporium (specials on turkey jerky), and a company that sells a deluxe, video-enhanced, puck-sliding, pro-bowling, arcade-quality game for $4,499.

Next, I sent myself this:

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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