First Click: I'm being chased around the internet by Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle

April 21st, 2016


Help, I'm being chased around the internet by Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle. He first appeared about six months ago, his impish face rising up from the bottom of hundreds of web pages, smiling serenely like he knew some catastrophe was coming that I'd be powerless to stop. Why was he there, this mildly famous child actor? What was he doing at the foot of almost every website I visited? What did he want?

Most of the time, it seems, he wants to tell me about what young stars did after the acting role that made them famous. Sometimes, rather more cruelly, he's trying to convince me that "ugly child actors" have finally grown into attractive people. Dewey's face appears to me via ads from companies like Taboola and OutBrain, content marketing platforms that try and tease me to click on stories "you may like" from "around the web."

These services promote everything from the worst kind of slideshow content farms to The New York Times, but for some reason, I got stuck with Dewey. Honestly, I was tempted to click the first few times. I found myself growing attached to his jug-eared face, developing a kind of Stockholm syndrome as he appeared at the bottom of everything from celebrity gossip to sports scores. I rationalized it to myself: as a child star who disappeared from screens following the finale of Malcolm in the Middle, I figured he would be uniquely positioned to tell me about his peers. Maybe he wasn't doing so well these days? Maybe I should help him out with a click?

Classically, these platforms have used aspirational images — fit and semi-naked figures, vast mansions, or stacks upon stacks of cash — to tempt viewers into clicking, but it seems lately these tactics have changed. Before Dewey, I was being menaced by a woman eating a bowl of ramen while seemingly dressed as a sunflower, a ring of pink ridged plastic firmly affixed to her face. She was, I deduced after the fifth time I saw the ad appear, wearing it to avoid getting noodle soup splashback onto her clothes or hair, but the picture seemed uniquely unsuited to the headline I commonly saw alongside the picture: "10 Things Japanese People Do Better Than All Of Us." If cosplaying as a Dilophosaurus just to eat dinner is doing life better, I'm happy living worse.

The targeting technology behind these ad services is mysterious, but I'm assuming that the ramen shield article was targeted at me because I live in Japan, and regularly use sites in both English and Japanese. By the same token, I often see sponsored links to cheap flights, foreign exchange companies, and expat insurance deals. But in Dewey's case, I'm stumped. The only connection I can tie it to is my wife's undying love for the Home Alone movies, and the day I spent idly Googling Macaulay Culkin's pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band.

So far, I've stayed strong, resisting clicking on both Dewey and the lamp-faced lady, but I've been burned by this kind of advertising before. I remember clicking on a small, clear, gelatinous blob on a web page sidebar. "Doctors say you should never eat this food," it said, and I agreed — blob-based diets are rarely recommended — but I was consumed by curiosity. What was this thing? I would brave hell, high water, and 50 pop-up ads to find out. But I never did find out. I was sent trudging through ad-infested pages for weight-loss pills and magic diets, but the blob remained unidentified. What was the blob? Why do doctors hate it so? What should I do if one day I ate one?

I don't want Dewey to become another blob, but I also don't want to let him win. I see him, smiling, welcoming, out of the corner of my eye for several hours a day, but I won't click. I could simply install AdBlock and remove him from large sections of my life, but as a fellow Content Creator on the internet, I'm loathe to deprive other sites of ad revenue, especially as parts of the internet are now starting to crack down on its usage. Instead, Dewey and I have reached an agreement — he lives on my computers, and I leave him alone.

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