Like most internet rabbit holes, the opening door was innocuous. A colleague in a Slack channel made a cheery reference to something being like Jello (or Jell-O depending how you feel on product names as words).
Jiggly, brightly colored, fun, playful jello.
Almost by reflect, I was compelled to respond with a reference to how Jello is made. I will leave that as an exercise for the link clicker:
Seeking a link to share in my response, I (sadly) went for I Feel Lucky with the first link to a site called “Live Science”
I see that box in the top left on a fairly regular basis. Why does a site want to sent me notifications? I see others that want to use my geographic location. I always decline.
But look again at that site. The “science” is buried by a stratigraphic layer of “Rekovver” ads and hemmed in on the right by a thick column of Amazon ads. Down the page are three more giant blobs of Rekovver ads and more Amazon. In an estimate of visual geography, this URL is 15% information, 5% site navigation, 70% advetisements, and 10% comments.
Like looking at that jiggly bowl of brightly colored Jello cubes, I wondered what this web site is made of. So I flipped over to Firefox, where I have the Lightbeam extension installed:
Shine a Light on Who’s Watching You
See who’s tracking you online
Lightbeam is a Firefox add-on that uses interactive visualizations to show you the first and third party sites you interact with on the Web. As you browse, Lightbeam reveals the full depth of the Web today, including parts that are not transparent to the average user.
Like a less ad-laden information site about the making of Jello, Lightbeam reveals the full depth of the Web today, including parts that are not transparent to the average user.
So I visited the Live Science site again. Lightbeam generates a visual and data list view of the communication of sites you visit with third party sites.
While that Live Science web page is loading it is sending information or at least communicating with 39 external sites.
What do you make of that? Some sites are familiar, many not. Some are connections to Connection Delivery Networks, some to things to load google fonts. But what is petametrics.com? servebom.com? revcontent.com? sonobi.com?
Welcome to the jello vat of the web, where the animal bones are boiling.
So I thought, maybe I would try another site in the results- the article from How Stuff Works. That’s a long running site, according to Wikipedia it started in 1998 as a hobby by a North Carolina State University professor. It was bought by Discovery Communications for $250 million in 2007 and last sold in 2014 for $45 million.
According to Lightbeam, a visit to How Stuff Works includes data visits to a cheery 75 more web sites.
Let that one sit for a while.
For one more comparison what happens when you visit the Jell-O article on Wikipedia?
Wikipedia tracks data to only two sites, and one of them is Wikimedia, the other google.
Once you start poking around your web traffic with lightbeam, you may be startled to see how your web browser is busy talking to all kinds of sites, silently boiling those bones.
The tracking for adsvr.org is connected to sites I visited in my history, but also a bunch I did not. Hence the third party data party.
This is not my expertise to explain what is going on here. But this is a call to wake up and at least notice what is going on when you click around the web, chasing the bright blobs of jello cubes. Get your lightbem on.
I plan to use Lightbeam in future workshops in digital identity.
Pass me another bowl of jello? No thanks.
Update Feb 29, 2020
Thank a comment spam for having me look back at this post. The original Lightbeam add-on developed by Mozilla was shelved in 2019 but the code released in the open. One of the original developers maintains a newer version of the Add On for Firefox and there is a version available as a Chrome extension.