Grief in the Age of Algorithms
Targeted online advertising. We’ve all experienced it — you look at a pair of shoes and suddenly, you’re seeing ads for them everywhere. On social media, in the sidebars when you check your email, etc. Some us laugh, some of us employ ad blockers, and others simply ignore the ads as best they can.
Typically, I’m the first category — I find my targeted ads funny, especially when they get it so horribly wrong, as algorithms sometimes do. Occasionally, Facebook ads decide I’m a Spanish speaker, giving me videos and images captioned entirely in Spanish.
But (privacy invasion concerns aside), there can be a more upsetting side to the targeted advertising phenomenon. What happens when the internet horribly misreads the signs?
A few weeks ago, my 12–year-old cat passed away. When I found him lying in the floor sick, I Googled nearby emergency veterinarians, using my GPS to take me there.
After his death, the instances of me mentioning “my cat” on social media had a natural uptick as I shared memories and photos. I began searching Etsy for “cat memorial” items, trying to find something nice to remember him with.
Since I’ve owned a cat for 12 years, internet data collected about me already had me pegged as a cat owner, but seeing this new frenzy of data, it erred in the wrong direction. It assumed I should see… more cat related ads.
Suddenly a non-cat-owner for the first time in my life, I was inundated with more cat-related ads than I had for Artemis’ entire life. Ads for cat sitting apps, ads for special litter boxes, ads for organic cat food, and more. Each one a tiny stab in the heart, reminding me — you don’t need these things anymore.
Pet loss is already a strange kind of grief, where pet owners console you that your cat “really was part of your family” and non-pet-owners wonder why you’re so upset about this thing you knew was going to die before you anyway. Artemis was tiny, yet the hole his absence left in my life is massive, and I don’t think I’m the only pet owner who feels this way.
The first time I went to the grocery store and walked past the cat food aisle, tears pricked my eyes. All these tiny ways my life is different without a cat in it, from my morning routine to the way I navigate grocery shopping. And of course, when I paid for my groceries, the coupon machine scanned my loyalty card data and spat out, you guessed it, a coupon for cat litter.
On a good day, it’s a minor annoyance, or even funny. But some days, it hits me in the right (wrong) spot and sends me reeling back into my sadness.
Targeted ads aren’t the only place where the internet gets it wrong when it comes to death, loss, and grief, either. Social media itself can be a minefield. A few years ago, a college boyfriend of mine passed away unexpectedly, almost exactly a month before his birthday. When Facebook cheerfully invited me to wish him Happy Birthday, I began wishing there was some kind of “report death” button to let Facebook know it should stop reminding me to tell dead people happy birthday.
I started thinking about how these numbers would increase over the years, swarming me with reminders to speak to people I only wished I could talk to. Why isn’t anyone doing anything? I wondered.
Just a month before, I’d balked at the bizarre, social media pressure to perform grief. I’d watched college classmates who, as far as I knew, had barely interacted with this boyfriend post memorials on his Facebook wall and thought, “Do I have to do this?” Wondered, “What will people think if I don’t?” And now, merely a month after I’d caved and typed some bland, empty words that didn’t scrape the surface of my complicated grief, I was being prompted with a notification suggesting that I wish him happy birthday?
It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that if the internet’s collected data points on me can narrow in on alarmingly specific advertisements, surely the data can figure out what it means when someone’s entire digital footprint just disappears overnight? Or, what it means when a loving cat mom Googles an emergency vet and then, a few hours later, “cat memorial gift” on Etsy?
We live in strange, digital times — there’s nothing radical about me pointing this out. We’re all out here, watching online life shift and change with the times, choosing to connect or avoid that connection, deciding how much of our privacy to protect and how much to share. And certainly, there are many, many debates about the rapid, ever-changing online landscape and the ways in which is harms or helps us on both the societal and personal level. I get it — the whole “grieving with targeted ads and Facebook reminders” is a small microcosm of a much larger, more complicated question.
Yet I can’t help but wonder at these gaps in thought when it comes to death, grief, and other triggers. Of all the debates I see, this topic hasn’t really blipped across my radar. Are we talking about this weird piece of online life? And if so, why haven’t I heard about it?
If we can be reminded of that pair of shoes we left in our cart three weeks ago, shouldn’t there be some way to understand when someone’s Facebook page shouldn’t be asking for our attention in the same way, or when Unmarried 27-year-old Cat Owner suddenly becomes Unmarried 27-year-old with Recently Deceased Cat? I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping that someday, maybe, somebody out there will.
Thanks for reading! If you’d like to read more about my life as a pet owner, check out this essay about getting our dog spayed.