opinion tech

Facebook’s Ad Network

Facebook came out this week with their real business plan – to leverage the network of people and the information they have on them to create an advertising behemoth. Using the ideas of viral marketing, combined with targeted advertising based on the interests and activities that many users list in their profiles, Facebook hopes to deliver an effective advertising platform that surpasses others simply because of the social power behind it.

It’s a great business move – with that much data on interests, and people piling in to add more, along with the value of the links between people, it’s an almost foolproof business case. Advertising targeted at user interests means they are more likely to react to it, allowing advertisers to tailor their messages and get the maximum payoff for their investment, which means advertising distribution agencies will lap it up.

Add in the viral marketing angle, where advertising effectively comes with a personal endorsement of someone you (vaguely) trust or at the very least have some shared experience with means you’re more likely to take a look at the message and consider it – for however many hundredths of a second – to be a real message, again making it more likely that you will follow through on it. Personal recommendations have always carried the greatest weight, and only recently have marketers tried to leverage it.

Great move, Facebook. I’m buying none of it.

I’m sick of advertising. It’s everywhere, to the point where finding something without it is a refreshing break. Where this is true of the real world, it’s doubly so of the online world, where free services galore abound on the back of ad revenue, least of all Facebook.

Google’s AdWords being the ultimate liberator and democratising technology to let anyone with a moderate number of regular page views to get some supplementary income, and with little effort – people view your page, a cent or something trickles into your account. You pay for hosting, generate content, and they will come. Its targeting based on surrounding content and text-based nature makes it that incrementally better than banners, but the text also aims to deceive.

Facebook aims to take this one step further. It takes the sincerity of personal recommendations and monetizes it, enforcing the message that everything is for sale, ethics included. It uses factoids you share willingly in an effort to connect to and discover more about your friends – the interests – and uses it to target the message, making the advertising relevant to you.

I don’t want to be surrounded by my existing world, though – that’s where I live, that’s what I already know. Targeted advertising creates cultural stasis, and strips away the ability for ads to be clever because they must follow a cookie-cutter format that is easily templatised. Also, chances are if it’s targeted at me and my interests, I’ll already know the brand.

I want advertising to make me want to try something new. When I saw Guinness’ new ad, I wanted to try it, because it was something clever and creative. I searched for this ad – not the other way around.

And finally, it’s one more zone to ignore. I don’t really ‘see’ advertising anymore, especially on the internet. Adblock Plus aside, it has become a mental blind spot where, upon seeing the outline pattern of advertising, I edit that part out of my vision. Increasingly though, there’s attempts to force advertising into my field of attention, in an effort to increase the click-through no doubt, and that annoys me more than having the advertising there in the first place.

So why would it annoy me that there’s more advertising being inserted into my screen when I mentally (or electronically) block it anyway? Because it’s there, even if I block it out. It’s clutter, it’s a visual element I need to avoid, it’s more scrolling, it’s something intruding into my world that I didn’t invite and am frankly sick of.

I was never an “old school” Facebook user – I joined after the Feed Fiasco of ’05 – but I remember the simpler days, when it was aimed squarely at the university network. I’m not a fan of the Facebook apps either, but it’s occasionally interesting (the Friend Wheel, or the Six Degrees apps are good examples of visualising your social network) and even fun. The commodification of relationships and interests disturbs me, though.

I’ve removed the interests from my profile to see what the resulting advertising attempts to target. I suggest you don’t hook in the viral marketing aspect either, as a socially responsible friend. Facebook can change their terms of service, but that doesn’t mean you have to play with their ball too.

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