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News flash: Yes, Facebook is selling you to advertisers

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There’s a breathless report out today that provides an “exclusive look” at how Facebook plans to use the new Timeline feature to attract advertisers looking for more social ads. But is it really that surprising to think Facebook would be pitching brands on that kind of thing? After all, the social network has already said that it is launching “sponsored stories” into the news feeds of users in early 2012 — a development that also doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has thought about Facebook’s business model for more than five minutes. And it’s not just Facebook: making ads socially relevant is the future of advertising.

The piece at Betabeat — written by someone the site describes as “a former CTO… who was briefed on Facebook’s advertising strategy” — describes the announcement about sponsored stories, as well as the blog post that the social network has been promoting on the site that responds to frequently-asked questions about its approach to advertising, and then says that Timeline was launched in “what seemed like an unrelated move.” But it’s not clear who exactly would see it as an unrelated move, however, since virtually everything Facebook launches has some kind of ad-related component to it.

Yes, Timeline is also about advertising

The Betabeat writer seems concerned that the giant social network is somehow pulling a fast one on its users by offering them a feature like Timeline and then promoting it to advertisers as a way to connect their brands to users who identify with them. As the post puts it (in bold type, so you don’t miss it how important it is):

What most users don’t know is that the new features being introduced are all centered around increasing the value of Facebook to advertisers, to the point where Facebook representatives have been selling the idea that Timeline is actually about re-conceptualizing users around their consumer preferences, or as they put it, “brands are now an essential part of people’s identities.”

The Betabeat post then goes on to suggest that the name Timeline was “cleverly designed” to conceal the fact that your profile no longer arranges information chronologically, and that the “graph rank” algorithm Facebook uses to determine what content to show you in your stream is influenced by a range of factors, including “direct payments to Facebook itself.” Scandal! The writer even refers to this as “payola” — which conjures up images of men in trenchcoats exchanging paper envelopes in dark alleyways.

Is this really such a shock? As more than one person has pointed out during the meteoric rise of Facebook to almost a billion users, if you are not being charged for the service then you are not the customer — you are the product that is being sold. That’s a crude way of putting it, but the thesis is largely correct: since Facebook doesn’t charge you or anyone else for hosting the 250 million photos that get uploaded every day, something that likely costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it (like most other free services) makes its money from advertising and related features.

Social advertising is the future, like it or not

But more than that, the whole concept behind “social advertising” — whether Facebook’s version or the kind that Twitter is working towards, or the kind Google is trying to engineer with its Google+ network — is to find a way of making advertising more relevant to users. Banner ads are a dying medium, and have been for years. The clickthrough rates on typical ads are so low they can barely be detected, and even Facebook’s ads have relatively poor conversion rates. Ads like sponsored stories, which will feature friends and people from your social graph, are an attempt to solve that.

Plenty of people will undoubtedly resent this (or even sue over it), just as they resent being shown specific ads based on their browsing history or their search terms. But connecting users to the brands they identify with is happening whether we like it or not — and some people actually volunteer to do this, because they like a brand or a product. In any case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Facebook would be at the forefront of such an effort, since this is just a more sophisticated version of what it has been trying to do since it launched the ill-fated Beacon project in 2007.

Provided Facebook and other services give users an easy way to opt out of (or opt into) this kind of thing, as they have with “frictionless sharing” and other similar features, I don’t see how this is any different than what the social network has been doing since it first started offering advertising. In some ways, it might even be preferable to the irritating and untargeted ads we get everywhere online. And we can expect to see more of it, not just from Facebook but from every other free social service. If you don’t like it, there’s an easy way around it — cancel your account.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users dutchmassive and

26 Responses to “News flash: Yes, Facebook is selling you to advertisers”

  1. The original writer of the article you blast, has it right. The ‘average’ FB user has absolutely no clue what the company is up to and how much of their personal data is being mined – its the geeks like us who keep up to date on the new stuff, read blogs, and spend time understanding how it all works – that know what Zuckerburg is up to. Most people are still naive about FB’s intentions.

  2. Point is, there is a need to manage personal data (login/passwrd, licence numbers, etc) independantly of any machine, and the friction induced by all of these isn’t a myth.

    However, maybe it is time to recognize that this has to be handled as a new role or function in itself, with several organisations fulfilling this function, ability for users to move from one to the other with his “personal library of licences/contracts”, and high level of confidentiality provided by these organisations.
    Today it is seen as a fatality that the thing will end up around 2 or 3 “monsters”, however no fatality there at all.

    The way things evolve in IT today, is more or less as if to buy a share from company X you should have an account in bank B (and only B), share for company Y account in bank C, etc.
    And saying that for it to be different “everything should ne normalized” is totally false, almost everything already there for it to be different.

    And this is valid for non free contents as well, as access right or licence to some paid contents could also be an item in your “personal data account”.

    This a bit developed below (but in French for the time being) :

    And for contents aspects :

    Or text (2007) :

    Note : there is also a myth around needing to share a given ID for a user between actors for the thing to work, this isn’t true at all !

    Knowing that as the “root” of all this there is also a kind of “IT stupidity” consisting in considering that it is different in its need of common shared “flat” IDs spaces (GS1 bar codes kind) from other domains, when of course it isn’t different at all, and even needs a lot more of them.

    This adressed below :

  3. Nicholas Chase

    Social advertising isn’t the future. Free-and-open source social media is the future. We don’t need corporations to build the online communities we want to be a part of. Check out Diaspora if you think it can’t be done without advertising.

  4. I agree this not at all surprising. However:
    1. Caracal is exactly right. Canceling your account won’t have any effect, and is not. There is no real choice here.
    2. If this is whole thing is so obvious, why is Facebook working so much on concealing it? playing a prank on users with their timeline. some people think this feature is *for* them, and might be offended if they knew it’s all about money.

  5. A while back, I went and deleted as much as I could and have made a religious practice to check the “security” features and see what FB surreptitiously slipped in. I only say things I could scream out in the middle of a public plaza on FB, no more. I think they shot themselves in the foot. This constant corporate greed for more money has turned off many of us. On the positive side, maybe we’ll go back to talking to our friends face-to-face and email more? :)

  6. If someone says that I want to show my ad to people who are aged between 20-25, who like sports and who live in San Jose, and Facebook or Google just push the ads to those people (without personally identifying them), I don’t think there is anything wrong there.

    But, people will continue to be ridiculous about it, simply because they don’t have brains to think anything beyond.

  7. Radheevar

    It might appear frustating to get the same adds and etc. etc. always because of targeted Advertising [Paranoid], If there are a percentage of results i.e adds that are choosen random i.e not targetted that would ease I hope….

  8. ‘And we can expect to see more of it, not just from Facebook but from every other free social service. If you don’t like it, there’s an easy way around it — cancel your account.’

    Yeah, but when these things become so ubiquitous, it’s too much of a liability not to use them. It’s like refusing to use a phone or something because you don’t agree with the telecommunications company monopoly or paradigm – your life is semi-unlivable. And what’s more, your individual ‘boycott’ will just compromise your life and change nothing at Facebook’s end. Individual consumer ‘choice’ having power is an illusion.

  9. Mr_Zarniwoop

    I use Firefox and AdBlock Plus, as well as some custom filter rules to block a lot of FB’s ability to track my interests, as well as to put advertising on my profile page. I will also use the “Hide from Timeline” feature to get around that particular sucky feature.

    And I agree with Brian that Zuck is a douche.

    • If they could monetize it, they’d have monetized it themselves. They never realize that they are using Facebook without paying a penny from their pockets. Facebook has been helping them connect with their friends, family, communities. The revolution in Egypt etc. wouldn’t have been possible without Facebook.

      You use Google for free. All they try to do is connect the vendors to right people and vice versa. If you are clicking on ads and buying stuff, then that’s an additional benefit you are getting from using these services for free!

      • “The revolution in Egypt etc. wouldn’t have been possible without Facebook.”
        false, simply false, just ask the involve people, and not the ones wishing to go talk in Al Jazeera news rooms. Classical anglo saxon vulgarity in seeing facebook as the enabler there.

  10. Tom Bielecki

    Deleting my account as my new years resolution, which is a big step for me because I’m such a heavy user.

    I’m uncomfortable that this website is pushing the idea that brands are part of my identity, just because it’s profitable for them. I’m uncomfortable that they think they know so much about me that they can algorithmically “write my life story”. I’m uncomfortable that through the timeline and subscription settings, they are forcing me to submit my intimate “life events” to be targetted ads for; I refuse to let them profit off of the death of a family member, or my graduation, or the breaking of bones. I’m uncomfortable that even if I choose not to give the service my location, close friends, and family, the service retrieves that information from my friends and loved ones. I’m deeply disturbed that this company can collect the private browsing histories of users and non-users alike (a billion people) and continue to exist without punishment.

    Facebook is disturbing, and there are so many quotes from executives and employees that people aren’t compiling and analyzing. I’m disturbed that my friends and family have been coerced into giving up their privacy little-by-little just because the company has made it “cool” and “easy” to do, because it brings them more revenue. It’s fucking disturbing.

    It may be “the future” for some people, but I’m deleting my account and removing all my content from the service. Data poisoning doesn’t cut it anymore.

  11. Jon Pincus

    Most of the people I talk with don’t like the idea of their pictures and words being shown to their friends as ads for products. Most of the people I talk with don’t like the idea that things on their profile and in their feed are influenced by how much money Facebook can charge from ads. Most people I talk with are already sick of Facebook changing their interface and pretty skeptical about Timeline (they don’t have the time to invest in tweaking it, they’re concerned about old status messages and photos becoming a lot more visible) so get irritated when reminded that it’s main goal is to maximize -exploitation- revenue.

    So yeah, it’s true that at some level nobody’s particularly surprised by this any more. People are sick of Facebook and waiting for what’s next, and for most of them Timeline will just reinforce those feelings.

  12. You make a number of great points here that I think most reasonable people would agree with. Facebook offers a lot to people who use it regularly and it’s obviously not free to use so advertising shouldn’t come as a shock any more so than it does when you go to Google or your favorite blog.

    As long as Facebook continues to make it clear what’s an ad and gives people ways remove brand connections, it’s really rather reasonable and in fact, with timeline I’d argue that there’s a big shift in business as you’re really showing the brands and tools you like so it’s on companies to be that much more relevant and not just another banner out there.

  13. Good thing I’ll be deleting my Facebook account soon. For me, it isn’t so much the advertising as it is their pretty shady privacy practices. I don’t know if I’m in the minority, but I actually wouldn’t care if they sold my “aggregate information” to advertisers IF they were totally transparent about their practices AND gave users an easy way to control what information was being shared.

    Instead, they take the say-nothing-unless-we-get-caught approach. And on a personal note, I think Zuck is a douche.

    • You are just paranoid. Everytime you use your shopping card, your “personal data” is stored. Imagine, you buy a lot of stuff from pharmacy etc., and all that is known to them. They use that data.

      When you go an purchase a shoe from the Nike store, it analyzes the demand and makes more of those, or improves it. They use this aggregated data.

      When you are watching a TV program, they know you are watching that program and show you an ad. So, they do have your personal data (that you are watching this show).

      They are not selling your credit card data bloody. And they are not giving your name or address to anyone.

      If someone says that I want to show my ad to people who are aged between 20-25, who like sports and who live in San Jose, and Facebook or Google just push the ads to those people (without personally identifying them), I don’t think there is anything wrong there.

      But, people will continue to be ridiculous about it, simply because they don’t have brains to think anything beyond.

      • I dont think I’m paranoid at all. For one, I rarely use discount club cards and if I ever do, they’re all registered with fake information. And your examples about TV, shoes, credit cards, etc fall through because advertisers don’t have a mechanism for knowing EXACTLY who (down to the individual) is watching or buying goods.

        While I certainly respect your opinion, I think it’s a little misguided to think that Facebook — a company that has repeatedly shown the public that it has little regard for their personal privacy — isn’t as honest as they’d like you to believe.