Google Analytics tells me a lot about the visitors to this site. Operating systems, browsers, browser versions. Screen resolutions. It tells me the order of pages visited and time spent on individual pages. It tells me what links are clicked and what files are downloaded. It tells me whether a visitor has arrived via search engine, and if so, which one. Under certain circumstances, it even tells me a visitor’s age and gender … or at least the probable age and gender of the person whose data is associated with the visitor’s computer.
Yesterday, for example, somebody arrived here from Nashville, and for more than a cursory visit. Pages and pages viewed. I haven’t been to Nashville since Chaffin’s Barn closed its production of “Claptrap” there in the late 80’s, so the sudden spike in traffic from a single Chrome V37 browser in Music City caught my attention.
Somebody in the Charlotte area, possibly Monroe, spent almost an hour here yesterday reading about Acadia T. Katz, Cat of the Golden West. Hello to you, whoever you are. Acadia sends her regards.
Somebody in Redmond, Washington stopped by to read about teardrop trailers, and a surprising number of people arrived from various countries in South America to read about all manner of things.
All this information and more, sliced and diced and served on a shiny platter by Google, but never enough to tell me exactly who or exactly whence cometh. Never a name or a street address. Only demographics, only behavior.
In fact, because computers commonly are used by more than one person, and because internet traffic from one town can appear to have originated from another town miles away (see “Charlotte area, possibly Monroe” equivocation above), it’s aggregate data, not individual data, that folks who study these things care about most.
From my perspective as a site owner, visitors here are like Boxtrolls that never show their faces. I can count the boxes and be fairly sure that each box contains a troll. I can see tracks left by the boxes as they come and go. By studying the general characteristics of the boxes, I can make certain inferences about their occupants, but only inferences.
All the evidence available to me about who visits this site is indirect. Everything I “know” about them is circumstantial.
There’s a comparison to be made between the nature of the reality implied by Google Analytics and the nature of the reality implied by NUFORC data. There’s also a comparison to be made between respective predispositions. And underlying assumptions.
But I’ll save those comparisons for another day.
Because, while one man’s dataset might be another man’s Boxtroll, we all believe in the internet, don’t we?
Damn right, we do.