Things are about to get better for Facebook customers!
Not you. You are not a Facebook customer. Advertisers are Facebook customers. You are part of the Facebook product.
I know that for years we’ve thought of Facebook as a social network. It feels like a social network. That was the name of the movie and everything. It has always been the place we go to Like our friends’ professional, relationship and baby-related milestones (in Kim Kardashian’s case, two milestones at once!), whether we want to or not. That is what socializing is, right? The sharing of photos and typed statements, and the click of buttons!
But Facebook, at its moneymaking core, is a system for showing ads to people. It is holding our entire social lives hostage in order to force our eyeballs onto its advertisers’ sponsored posts. That is, after all, what people pay for it to do. Sure, you can also give it money to buy things for your imaginary farms. But mainly it’s about the ads. You can’t buy friends. But buy eyes? That you can do. Facebook is the billboard, and we are the eyeballs.
As always bears repeating, when you’re getting what feels like a great service for what feels like free, it’s because you’re not the consumer: You’re the product.
And Facebook announced Thursday that it is moving to make its targeted advertising even more precise. Now, there will be a little arrow in the right corner that we can click, then ask, “Why am I seeing this?” and Facebook will attempt to tell us what about our personality attracted this ad to us. I’m sure this will be quite a wake-up call. (“Facebook is showing you Ivy League Singles for an 89th time because … does Facebook really have to spell this out for you, Karen? Last night was Saturday, and you posted repeatedly about how you were staying home to eat cheese. All your friends are getting married and you have Liked these statuses, but it has taken you about a quarter of a second longer than it should have, and we detected a certain measure of wistfulness in your click. While you ate cheese, you went through Anna’s entire wedding album. Twice.” “Keith, Facebook is recommending Snake Handling Workshops and Dangerous Fire Exercises because your only ‘Like’ was Nickelback, and Facebook frankly doesn’t care what becomes of you.”)
But really, why we’re seeing this is because Facebook is not a social network. It is an advertising network. And the rest of the announcement indicated Facebook’s intention to harvest even more data on our behavior — beyond just the brands and individuals we have made a point of Liking within the site, gleaning information from our activity on other Web sites and in apps.
And it seems to be banking on what is always banks on: our unwillingness to change any default settings or think about the flip side of data sharing. When we think “Facebook overshare,” we imagine the public-facing end, with a prospective employer or weird kid from seminar sitting there looking mildly aghast at our newt pictures. We don’t think about the data we share with advertisers, who gleefully scoop up everything we leave for them. Why not? Corporations are people, too! But inertia has been the backbone of Facebook for almost as long as it’s been Facebook. Facebook is the Hotel California of social networks. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
The goal of this new step is, according to Facebook, to give us more control over the ads we see. Why not? Surely this is an advertiser’s dream come true: people expressing their desires for the kind of ads they want to click. (No more of these creepy group-date offers! No more “Meet Ivy League Men”! And no more of these UAE Tennis Open discounts! Just links to ModCloth, 100 percent of the time.)
But there’s not just a problem from a privacy perspective. There’s a problem from an advertiser’s perspective: that stubborn gap between what we actually want and what we say we want or think we want. What I say I want is Engaging Long-Reads from the Economist With Large Charts and Plenty of Tables! Also Socially Relevant Content. Just the most relevant. And music and videos, but only good music.
What I actually want is bullet lists about which character I would be on TV shows I have never actually watched, YouTube videos summarizing the twists of video games I have never played, and hours and hours of footage of newscasters accidentally cursing on air. And that’s just the things I’m not too ashamed to publish.
So you begin to see the problem. Consider the difference between your actual Internet Routine and what you would actually dare tell a living soul was your Internet Routine. As I like to say, there is not a soul alive whose browser history, if it were made public, would not fill the world at large with shock and horror.
This might be a problem for advertisers, who think they’re getting better, more targeted information and instead will be stuck advertising Dry New Yorker Cartoons With A Side of Brahms to everyone else who didn’t want to look bad. But fortunately for them, in order to give them this worse data, we will actually have to be proactive about what ads we want to see and what information we want Facebook to have. Here is a drawing of a Facebook user who is cautious and proactive about what data he shares with Facebook, riding a unicorn over a rainbow.
But it’s great for Facebook’s customers.