No hiding from this modern world

Trends

May 23, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The idea surfaced a year ago at a cocktail party: What if you opened your mailbox to find a national magazine with your name on the cover and the headline "They Know Where You Live!" - under an aerial photo of your house? And what if, when you turned the page, the editor's note and the advertisements included details about your neighbors?

It was too sexy a concept for Nick Gillespie, editor in chief of Reason magazine, to pass up.

So, equipped with subscriber names and addresses, free Internet downloads and some fancy printing technology, Gillespie's staff and a team of direct-marketing experts produced 40,000 unique copies of the L.A.-based Libertarian magazine - shocking and delighting readers with personalized June issues, which were sent out in the middle of this month. The cover photos are framed as if viewed through a telescope, and they reveal local landmarks - schools, post offices, football stadiums.

"It's a little creepy," says hypnotherapist Lon Waford, whose copy featured his office building in downtown Pocatello, Idaho. "They've circled in red exactly where my building is.

"All of us have read 1984," Waford says. "The possibilities of 1984 are more real than ever."

Reason's goal was to drive home the fact that privacy, as most people view it, is an outdated concept - and that too much of it can actually inhibit freedom.

"It's part of our mission of communicating sort of a contrarian point of view on this topic," says publisher Mike Alissi.

Internet search engines can use your phone number to map a path to your door, and grocery store chains have become experts in your buying habits thanks to those handy membership cards. But, as Reason writer Declan McCullagh explains in the cover story, the "databasification of America" also has great benefits.

"Why does so much information exist?" Gillespie asks. "The basic answer is that it facilitates, hugely, any number of commercial transactions. Most people voluntarily give up personal information about themselves because they know in return what you get is better services, cheaper prices and more customized products."

The customization of the magazine was a nifty experiment and a great promotional opportunity for everyone involved, but it was a logistical nightmare. A team of a dozen people in six states, from Connecticut to Arkansas to California, spent several months collating data and publishing test copies before realizing the final product.

The first step was compiling information. Led by San Bernardino direct-marketing firm Entremedia, the team downloaded maps and free satellite photos of each subscriber's mailing address - courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey and Microsoft's TerraServer.com. (Later, higher-quality images were donated by AirPhotoUSA.)

Then hundreds of details on each subscriber's neighborhood - from the number of children living with their grandparents to the percentage of neighbors with college degrees - were pulled off the U.S. Census Bureau's Web site http://factfinder.census.gov.

And that was just the free stuff available to anyone with Internet access. With a little bit of money, the issue could have included much more, from a reader's mortgage payment to his or her favorite brand of deodorant.

So far, the response from readers has been mixed.

One subscriber, a former Reason writer, said mail clerks wanted to keep his copy because their post office was featured on the cover. Others were "freaked out" by such a sensational use of personal information, Gillespie says.

"What it really illustrates," he says, "is what's out there, what we can just pull off the Web for free, and how we're kind of ambivalent about it all."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.