Facebook is acting like your mother, and she’s very disappointed in you

I hate online ads, in part because they are anti-user experience. Good user experience enables users by giving them positive interactions with the content and tools they want to access, while advertising steers them away from what they want to access. While user experience caters to users’ wants and needs, advertising attempts to hijack them. User experience focuses, advertising distracts.

Fair enough, we’re intelligent people and know that pinching the monkey won’t win us an iPod. But lately, I’m even more disturbed by Facebook’s acutely targeted advertising. It goes beyond critisizing your purchases and begins to critisize you. Mossop pointed out to me last week that Facebook is analyzing your profile and selecting ads which more than suggest a product, suggest you should be living your life differently. I checked my own profile, and here’s what I found:

Lots of engagement rings. Nowhere in my profile have I mentioned an interest in getting married, but I’m a female over a certain age and I fall in Facebook’s targeted social bracket. Facebook thinks it’s about time! Facebook wants grandchildren!

The trend here is disturbing – that as advertising becomes “better,” it begins to sound less like an annoying child and more like a judging peer group. You know you’re fat, because ads are telling you about diet plans. You know you’re old, because ads are telling you about wrinkle cream. We’ve heard complaints that advertising gives us unreasonable expectations from body image to income, but in the pre-digital age these expectations were leveled at no one in particular. With the internet, these ads are targeted at you – your life, your problems, and your choices. If we continue to not care how much companies like Facebook and their advertisers learn about us, the projection here is grim – that advertising becomes a more increasingly personalized, feeding on our insecurities and urging us to conform through consumption.

I’m not trying to be alarmist here, but only say that we must care about where our data goes. The game here is becoming more interesting, because the nature of the internet and even free speech is at stake. Yesterday, the Guardian wrote that the South Korea, a democracy, would like to more heavily police the internet and essentially terminate its anonymity (link). Steps away from anonymous data are harmful ones. Gabe’s dickwad theory aside, the anonymity of the internet is a wonderfully subversive thing – it can guarantee freedom of speech for those otherwise without it. Mitchell Baker has been posting recently about why Mozilla should think about and respond to data (introduction, related topics, what Mozilla should do). Here, she write that Mozilla’s principles of enriching lives, providing security, and giving us control of our online experience “are at risk if individuals have no control over the creation or use of the data that describes us.” How to protect users while still steering away from proprietary data will be a difficult problem to tackle, but we’re in a good place to start the discussion.

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  1. Mark Tomczak says:

    An excellent post about a complicated issue.

    I think it’s worth noting that advertising has always been targeted to some extent. When I’m watching “The Price is Right,” I see ads for products that don’t show up in the middle of an episode of “House M.D.” The difference now is a difference in quality and specificity. This targeted advertising isn’t the privacy threat of different companies sharing your personal information—that is a separate issue and one that should be carefully thought about.

    The thing about targeted advertising is that it works because stereotyping works. The theory hasn’t changed from the television and radio days; the internet just allows us to focus the demographic “hoppers” in new and exciting ways. This can sometimes be a good thing; I actually appreciate Amazon.com’s ability to prognosticate what I may be interested in purchasing, an ability that is uncannily (and harrowingly) accurate. It can also be off-putting to know that Madison Avenue (and by bizarre extension, the society) thinks that it’s time for you to get married. But I think that is irritating for the same reason stereotyping is irritating; to the extent it doesn’t apply to you, you don’t want to feel “lumped in.”

    Targeted advertising, in being so eerily specific, makes you a statistic and not an individual.

    If it makes you feel any better, Facebook kept advertising dating sites to me until I changed my status to “In a Relationship.” Now it suggests I post my resume to DICE and permanently remove my hair at home with the Epila Personal Laser Hair Removal System. I don’t know how they know I have this beard, but I’m going to pass.

  2. Ben Hollis says:

    Not that I usually see ads (thanks Mozilla!), but Facebook often tries to show me ads for dating sites. I’m married. It knows I’m married. Those jerks.

  3. Sebastian says:

    I understand that these ads are insulting, I’m completely on your side on that.

    The problem: It’s not Facebook’s fault. It’s not Facebook that shows these ads to you, it’s the advertisers that choose to show their ads to you, that select the criteria for which to show ads.
    The market will correct these mistaken companies if they realize that these kinds of ads won’t bring any sales.

  4. jboriss says:

    Mark Tomczak:

    Very good point about targeted advertising. You’re very right that it’s nothing new – if anything, the art of advertising has been learning how to segment the market more and more and more, and internet usage data is the latest segmentation. Soon they’ll be targeting individuals based on how they’re feeling on individual days (“hungover? try…”).

    And you bring up another good point, that targeted advertising provides individual focus in a way that more blanketed marketing does not. It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of people like seeing something like engagement rings, because it feels as though someone understands them and is focusing on them personally. Where we might be repulsed that Facebook is lumping us into a demographic, perhaps the people it works better on are happy to feel like someone’s listening.

    I’d say at a shopping site like Amazon, your intention is to purchase books – so in a way, advertising/prognosticating here is more like good user experience (getting you to the things you want) rather than advertising (making you want fairly things unrelated to what you’re doing).

    Ben Hollis:

    Facebook is telling you to stray. So for you, Facebook isn’t acting like your mother, it’s acting like your cheap whore. 🙂

  5. jboriss says:


    I would agree with you… if my Facebook profile weren’t protected. I have it available only for the friends I trust to look at, yet clearly this data is being used by advertisers. Facebook’s been slightly better about this, at least on external sites, since the horror that was beacon ( http://gigaom.com/2007/11/06/facebook-beacon-privacy-issues/ ). But still, I told Facebook not to share my data and it’s still being used by advertisers.

  6. Ed says:

    I am also cloistered and only permit friends in. But I do agree adds are trash I have no outside connect to TV and have been a very happy person to look up what I want to see in my life. Best of luck capitalism is all about letting yourself be media raped these days.

  7. Anant says:

    I clicked the down thumb icon on the ‘meet new single girls’ ads and now they don’t appear anymore. Phew 🙂

  8. dria says:

    I expect these are just the very rudimentary beginnings of Facebook’s (and other sites’) attempts to tailor the advertising on their site, and I expect that it will become increasingly effective as people push more information into the system and as it collects and collates more data through systems like Beacon.

    This is pretty much exactly why I killed off my Facebook account. I find this sort of thing intensely creepy, and really don’t want to encourage it in its current form in any way.

    That said, I absolutely adore Amazon’s personalized recommendations system, but Amazon (as far as I know) creates those recommendations based solely on my Amazon purchasing history. I’m OK with that. When I buy something on Amazon, I am making a very deliberate and voluntary statement about my book/music/movie preferences. When I go back to Amazon, chances are pretty high that I’m looking to buy books or movies, so having books and movies recommended to me is *useful* and *interesting* information. When I’m on Facebook, chances are I’m trying to catch up with friends. Having engagement ring advertisements shoved in my face? Not only not useful, it’s also insulting and profoundly annoying.

    Could Facebook change their system such that it provides useful and interesting information rather than essentially creepy and annoying advertising? Maybe. Probably, if they think about it long and hard enough. Right now they’re a long, long way from it.

  9. I don’t know – I’d prefer to see an ad for rings instead of the ads I always see :/

  10. I wonder if Facebook provides enough information to advertisers for them to know how long ago you set your status to “In a Relationship.”


  11. Sebastian: That’s a very simplistic view. While this excuse can work for small websites that just don’t have the resources to do anything beyond including a script in their webpages, I certainly don’t buy that argument for Facebook. A movie theater shows third party advertising but it will very sure check that each ad is appropriate. Can the same approach be applied to online advertising? Definitely. There are several sites where I know for sure that they are inspecting all advertisement offers they get before accepting. Facebook certainly has enough control over their advertisers to do that as well, so no excuse for them.

  12. Benoit says:

    I don’t think my mother would say that, but until I eventually informed Facebook that I was “interested in” women, the ads kept asking me “Are You Gay?”. Very creepy indeed.

  13. philip says:

    if you don’t like advertising, why are you advertising yourself on facebokk in the first place

  14. I wonder if I changed my relationship status from “Married” to “Single” if I’d start seeing ads for divorce lawyers?

    I agree that having advertising that feels this targeted is a bit uncomfortable.

  15. Sebastian says:

    Facebook is not sharing your data with advertisers. They’re offering advertisers to target their ads based on certain attributes, but they never find out who you actually are and that they are showing YOU the ad.
    This is a big difference.

    @Wladimir Palant
    I don’t see why Facebook should censor ads. It’s not possible to base these decisions on clear, enforceable rules (beside not being against the law and not being pornographic, both of which is relatively easy to track down and find), humans would have the last say – humans that have different world views. What happens if a religious person who believes that every woman should be married at the age of 18 sees this ad – they would probably think this is an awesome ad.

    Besides that, Facebook *does* offer you to vote down ads you don’t like, which, as somebody else said in the comments, made the ad disappear.

    Also, I still think that these companies will be forced out of the market (if most people think the way jboriss and others here think), because other companies will get their ad slots. (Facebook auctions these ad slots to the person who gets them the highest CPM.)

  16. Brian King says:

    I’d ask you to marry me if I were not already attached. Oh wait, you don’t want to. Oops, sorry.

  17. Very interesting.

  18. David says:

    I agree man, its all in the teapot 🙂

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