What, Me Register?

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired News, 08.04.04

I have a confession. I’m not always who or what I appear to be.

Depending on my mood, I’m a 92-year-old spinster from Topeka whose hobbies include snowboarding, macramé and cryptology; the CEO of a successful high-tech firm in Bumblebutt, New York, whose company has a market capitalization of four cents; or an Alaskan mango grower. What magazines do I read? Soldier of Fortune, Modern Bride, Granta and High Times. Date of birth? Dec. 7, 1941. July 4, 1976. Jan. 1, 1901. My name? Jed Clampett, Mustang Sally or Freddy Fudbuster.

And who’s responsible for my multiple personality disorder?

I blame the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post — and any other news site that requires that I register before viewing content.

I know I’m not alone in committing identity theft against my imaginary selves. Since no studies exist, I took an informal poll involving 50 friends and colleagues and, although I admit it’s not very scientific, it was revealing. More than half of respondents admitted they invent some or all of the information they provide to online news sites.

Some samples:

“I use a bogus identity (usually Margaret Thatcher) and a fake e-mail address. I usually list my birthday as 1/1/1970 (the beginning of the Unix era) and my ZIP code as 90210.”

“I have my Yahoo spam-catcher account I use for all those things, and my nom de guerre is James Bond. Or I put Dwight Eisenhower living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE in D.C.”

“With Ashcroft breathing down our necks, I’ve been moving away from (providing any personal information) and instead have been using a made-up name: Johnny Thudpucker” — a middle-aged, washed-up rock star from the Doonesbury comic strip. “Most people don’t get the reference, but he’s my alter ego.”

Others turn to free services like BugMeNot.com and Mailinator. BugMeNot.com offers communal login names and passwords to a host of media sites, while Mailinator offers temporary, throwaway accounts to circumvent the requirement that news site visitors provide a working e-mail address to receive final login information. A few diehards refuse to view any story from a site that requires registration. They simply surf elsewhere for news.

Even when people are honest, they find ways to gum up the works: “I can never remember my login information,” a wire service journalist told me, “so I have several accounts for the several computers in my life. That means the Times must think it has more people reading the online version than are really out there!”

Not just The New York Times, of course. All of them. Although media companies swear the information they cull is accurate — and they say they keep an eye out for telltale signs of fakery, like, say, a rash of 90210 ZIP codes — the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” comes to mind.

So why do news publishers insist that online readers fork over personal information? It doesn’t help them measure site traffic. They pay good money to companies like Nielsen/NetRatings and comScore Media Metrix for that.

“OK, so the primary use of our registration information is for targeting ads,” admitted Donald W. Marshall, a spokesman for The Washington Post, which in February began demanding extra information from readers about their work status — job title and description of duties, company size, the type of industry — in addition to the age, gender and ZIP code data the site required before.

Ah, you knew there had to be a money angle here somewhere. Because Web visitors get the same product for free that paper-and-ink readers pay for, news publishers believe it’s only fair they provide something in return.

“Oftentimes our advertisers want to reach users of certain ages, locations (and) occupations,” Marshall said. “By targeting the exact groups of people they want to reach, marketers can obviously improve the results of their ads. If you’re in New York City, you don’t necessarily care about the new show at the Kennedy Center, but you may very well be interested in Neiman Marcus’ big sale.”

Maybe, but I don’t even see advertising on the Internet. I tune it out, like, say, Yanni in an elevator. I also don’t understand why publishers aren’t more concerned about the integrity of their data — unless, of course, all they care about is the illusion of accuracy.

Not only do media sites wish to empower their advertisers, ultimately they want to learn who is accessing their sites, and perhaps more importantly, whether they would be willing to pay for content down the road. But what about my needs? Many of us online news consumers bristle at these ever-increasing demands for our personal information.

“If media companies feel I — or anyone else for that matter — am going to register individually to read 150 different news sources, they’ve gone mad,” blogged software engineer Corey Welton. He’s even come up with a catchy phrase to describe this phenomenon: “The Balkanization of online media.”

By putting their advertisers’ interests above their readers’, news sites risk alienating their core customers. Without us, there wouldn’t be any advertisers to appease. There’s no law that says we have to tell them the truth about ourselves, and news is news: I can get it from any number of sources on the Net.

But I’m tired of living a lie every time I log on to one of these sites, and am ready to strike a deal. Here’s what I propose: Web publishers should get together to set up a one-stop registration process for everybody. We sign up once and would be done with it.

I’m warning them, though. If I receive any spam, they begin asking too many questions, or I find out they sold my personal information, I’m heading back underground.

I have a very active imagination. Besides, I’ve always wanted to be Lance Armstrong.

Copyright 2004 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)