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Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills


I had a friend once. He appears in my next book and, for legal reasons, we'll call him Q. He had a girlfriend (who, for different legal reasons, we'll call Corinne Stockheath). Q complained that, if he and Corinne ever argued, she would instantly start to get teary, knowing that he would agree to anything to stop her from crying. However, Ms Stockheath also complained that, if she and Q ever had a disagreement about something - whether or not to buy a new book, for example - he would instantly start to make 'big cow eyes' at her, knowing that she could never refuse him anything when he was in like mode. When it comes to cyberspace, it's easy to spot the less artful ways in which attempts are made to manipulate you: those adverts that leap out and scream BUY THIS NEW THING into your eyes, for example, or those promotions that follow you as you scroll up and down, like the world's neediest and most irritating puppy. You never get that when reading a good old fashioned book, do you? It's the stealthy methods that we need to be most wary of and, of course, by their very nature, they're the ones we're least going to notice. I'm an author, but even I was surprised, while leafing through a website called Dark Patterns (darkpatterns. org), at just how manipulative and underhand certain sites can be. A dozen or more Orwellian-sounding headings catalogue the myriad ways in which the innocent can be duped or controlled - 'Misdirection', 'Disguised Ads', 'Friend Spam', 'Forced Continuity' - the list goes on. Under each rubric, the practices of websites guilty of that particular misdemeanour are unveiled. I'd encourage you to have a gander because it's a real eye-opener. I like to think that readers of this column and indeed any of my other highly-praised work are pretty web savvy, but I'm afraid there's every chance you've been hoodwinked at some point into doing something you neither wanted to do nor were even aware that you were doing. Recently, Facebook admitted to manipulating news feeds to see if a user's state of mind could be altered by receiving mainly positive or negative tidings (surprise, surprise, it could - just as reading a good book can cheer you up). Meanwhile, dating site OKCupid told certain members they were extremely compatible with other members when they were wholly incompatible - just to see what happened. Cyberspace, of course, is no more or less ethical than the world of flesh and blood, so it should come as no surprise to stumble across places where a moral compass is askew. The important thing is not to imagine that it has to be the new normal. It's good to be wise as serpents but let's not become as cynical as [insert your favourite anthropomorphised cynical creature here]. And if, after reading this article, you feel like going out to buy my forthcoming book, that's fine too.