You Think You Know Me, Facebook, But You Don't Know Anything
How well does Facebook know you? To the amusement — and possibly relief — of many, the answer seems to be not as well as it might hope.
A recent New York Times article highlighted a new feature on the social media network that allows users to see what interests Facebook thinks they have, and what advertisements might be generated to target those preferences.
Those targeted ads might spring up as the "suggested posts" you see on the sides of your news feed or scrolling down through your friends' status updates. As websites like Facebook and Google have learned to track where users visit and what they search online, they can better sell to advertisers their ability to place relevant products in front of interested people.
On its ad preferences page, Facebook groups user interests under a few major categories: "News and entertainment," "People," "Business and industry," "Lifestyle and culture" and so on.
"Things like your Facebook profile information, activity on Facebook and interactions with businesses can all influence the ads you see," the page reads.
(Facebook pays NPR and other news organizations to produce live videos for its site.)
Looking through what's listed can either provide an eerie guide into your unconscious browsing habits or be a six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon game of ad-by-distant-association.
If Facebook thinks that you listen to Dave Matthews Band because you liked its page during your jam-band phase in high school (hypothetically), then it might show you other singer-songwriter pages or an ad for a new drum kit. Or if you list your favorite book as The Zombie Survival Guide (because it is), then Facebook will go full-out showing you zombie-related merchandise.
The Times found that Facebook could even pinpoint users' political leanings, based not just on which politicians' pages users liked but also on their interactions with websites and products that might have a partisan leaning.
But people have noticed that not every targeted ad that Facebook picks is a gem.
Under the "Hobbies and activities" category, for example, Facebook thought this blogger was interested in "platypus" and "matter" — you know, the physical stuff composed of atoms. What advertisements could possibly be crafted from those is anyone's guess.
So, too, are people puzzled by Facebook's labeling of them as "cricket enthusiasts" or "away from family," or putting things like "patience," "tugboat" and "rotisserie" under their interests. Under "Fitness and welfare," users might see that Facebook thinks they care about "neck" or "sleep."
"Viewing facebook.com/ads/preferences alleviated all my concerns about AI overlords," quipped Gaurav Trivedi on Twitter.
One NPR colleague even had Facebook indicate "capitalism," which is probably a good thing to like if you're going to be advertised to.
Much has been written about the "uncanny valley" of targeted Internet ads and the uneasy feeling of realizing that your every online move is being tracked and quantified. For companies like Facebook and the businesses that buy targeted ads, this is a lucrative business.
For some users, though, it's a breach of privacy and trust — or even a sign of the dystopian future to come.
But unless you're "Weird Al" Yankovic, as long as Facebook believes it should keep serving you ads related to "keytars," the future is still a while away.