What Facebook Knows About Us

 

So I’m reading this opinion piece in The New York Times (Yes, I confess! I read it!) and thinking — hmmm.

Sandy Parakilis, who used to work for Facebook, writes that she knows this behemoth from the inside because she led the effort to fix privacy problems on its developer platform before its 2012 IPO. And she knows for sure, she says, that they don’t give a toss about your privacy. Now, you can judge her arguments on their merits (I’m sure she’s right), but they’re not my point. My point is about this quote:

Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you’re in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. It’s no wonder the company has ballooned in size to a $500 billion behemoth in the five years since its I.P.O.

The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers. That means it has no incentive to police the collection or use of that data — except when negative press or regulators are involved. Facebook is free to do almost whatever it wants with your personal information, and has no reason to put safeguards in place.

Okay, no surprise there. Of course I’m especially interested in this, for many reasons, but one of them is that I’d like to see serious, well-constructed research — not idle speculation — that would allow us to form reasonable assessments about whether this kind of targeted advertising on Facebook is effective. Might we be able to form non-totally-random conclusions about the probability that a Russian Facebook-ad buying blitz (or a Trump buying blitz, or a Hillary blitz) persuaded so much as a single voter to change his or her mind about anything, no less the way he or she would vote?

Don’t get distracted by “the Russians,” though — that’s a tangent: I’m just explaining why the question especially interests me. I assume this advertising works, or people wouldn’t spend money on it. But do I actually have any evidence of this? No. Facebook probably does. But does anyone else?

And here’s where I get especially doubtful. I don’t have access to their data, or to the data of other people they’re showing ads, but I do know what ads they show me. Judging by these (which, admittedly, is not the right way to judge, it’s a tiny anecdote in an ocean of data), their targeting is ridiculously bad. I reckon any human, even a child, who reads my Facebook page regularly would do way better. What might we hypothesize from this about the real state of their ability to microtarget ads effectively based on the extensive data they collect?

I put this question on my own Facebook page yesterday and then kicked myself, because obviously if I want a useful answer, Ricochet is the place to ask. The question below is roughly what I wrote. Maybe you guys can at least steer me toward the state-of-the-art academic research, or suggest who might know where I’d find that research.

Given that Facebook does know what I look like, my location, who my friends are, my interests, whether I’m in a relationship, and what other pages I look at on the web — not to mention what I buy — why on earth do they think Claire Berlinski’s going to go big time for “Zanzea Women Plus Harem Loose Pants?” (And I’m actually offended by that. They do have pictures of me, after all. “Woman Plus?”)

Why do they think Claire Berlinski would want to “Discover the London cultural season with the fashion historian Amber Butchart?” Why would she be entranced by “l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie,” or keen to know more about “The Incredible Story Of The 61 Year Old Makeup Artist Turned Super Model Who Is Now Changing The Way We View Beauty with Her New Makeup Line?”

What on earth have I ever said or done on Facebook — or anywhere on the Internet, or anywhere in the world, for that matter — that would give anyone, even a machine, the impression that I’m remotely interested in that? Those of you who know me in real life will be doubly doubled-over with laughter at this point. You know that I’m to fashion and makeup as kryptonite is to Superman. I am not only the least chic woman in Paris but in all of the Milky Way. The only reason I don’t regularly head up Mr. Blackwell’s list of “worst-dressed women” is that you have to at least try to be well-dressed to make it. As anyone who knows me in person will confirm, nothing comes between me and my Calvins — just so long as by “Calvins” you mean “some cruddy old pair of sweatpants that isn’t so badly covered in cat yak and cat fur that I’m genuinely worried I’ll be sectioned if I go out to buy a loaf of bread wearing them.” (That’s my standard: “Will I be locked up in a mental hospital if I wear this?”)

As for expensive jewelry, you’ve got to be kidding me. The only valuable jewelry I’ve ever owned, my great-grandmother’s wedding ring, was stolen by Maoist-Kurdish-separatist-PKK-slave-urchins. (Probably.) I’ve never replaced it. Make-up? I’m allergic to it. That’s why you never see me in it, unless I’m on television — and it’s why whenever I’m on television my eyes are so red I look like I’m on PCP. Even if I weren’t allergic to it, I hate it. I own the same stick of concealer I’ve owned since I was fifteen. I keep it in case of a major zit and a television appearance. If I have to put it on, I count the seconds until I can wash it off.

Anyone who knows me at all, in person, would know these are ridiculous ads to show Claire Berlinski. What’s more, as far as I can see, my friends are no more interested in these things than I am. I mean, I don’t know them all in real life, but I sure know that if any friend of mine starts nattering on about celebrity makeup artists, I’ll lapse on the spot into a coma of boredom.

I don’t buy these things. I don’t post articles about them. And I never click on these ads. Because I am just. Not. Interested. So what does Facebook know about me that makes them think I’m not the woman I think I am?

If I wanted Claire Berlinski’s money, and if I had all the data Facebook’s got about her, here’s what I’d do: First, I’d look at all the book reviews she’s read lately and all the books she almost bought — to the point of putting them in the basket — but which she decided, at the last minute, not to buy. (They should easily be able to figure out, too, from my purchasing history and what I’ve done since my last impulse-splurge, that the reason I couldn’t pull the trigger was because I thought, “No, Claire, you can’t buy any new books until you finish reading the last ones you impulse-bought and never so much as opened.”)

If I were Facebook I’d be showing me ads, over and over again, not only for those books, but for the ones they could easily figure out — based on what I keep reading and writing and posting about — that I’d find near-irresistible. Why are they showing me Oversized Harem Pants when they could be tempting me with this?

I mean, you guys know me well enough that you know full well that if I see that ad often enough, I’ll crack, right? It’s so obvious. I’ve given them so much information that adds up to, “Show her that ad. Over and over. She can’t hold out more than a week. She’ll hit the button.”

One of my worries, based on the amount of data they clearly do have about me (because I no longer make even a desultory effort to keep it from them, or anyone) is that they actually do know something about me that I don’t. I mean, could they be right? You know how Facebook can supposedly figure out that you’re pregnant even before you do? What do they know about me and “Plus-Sized Loose Harem Pants” that I don’t? Are they checking out the number of times I order pizza and counting the minutes I spend reading The New York Times’ latest pumpkin pie recipes and figuring, “She’s gonna need them soon enough?”

Is there any way they could be checking my photos out against my friends’ profiles, and adding it up with my Twitter feed, weighing it up with time I spend almost-buying books on Amazon, looking at all the sites on the Internet where I waste my days flipping through article after article desultorily, and figuring, “Typical. Age 49. By February she won’t be able to keep her (increasingly fat) fingers off ‘l’interprétation du Tourbillon de la vie par Keira Knightley pour la plus irrésistible des collections de CHANEL Joaillerie.’ Start priming her now, because she’s so headed there. Didn’t you see the way she gobbled up that article about Martin Schulz’s fight for the future of the SPD? Not one woman in that demographic who read that whole boring article from start to finish failed to buy the Chanel jewelry within six months. And she devoured that “Stop sugarcoating the housing market” article in the Economist (which she read not just once, but twice), and she nearly — but didn’t — post it to her Facebook page. That’s solid. We’ve run this scenario often enough to know for sure that 87.3 percent of the white women in Paris with seven cats who read that article (twice) and who nearly (but didn’t) post it to Facebook will buy anything Keira Knightley flogs. Get Keira to sell her something expensive, too: She’ll be in for something big, don’t bother with the ads for a revolutionary new cat litter box or a microwave, no matter how much she thinks she needs a new microwave.” (And surely they know I need that: How many more times to I have to search “why is my microwave making that scary noise” and “microwave+consumer reports” before they get the hint?) But they never show me the ads. “Oh, and guys: check out her photos: The makeup? Seriously? We’d be doing her (and the world) a mitzvah if we got her to do something about that oily T-zone, that is is so totally unnecessary. Send in the 61-Year-Old-Makeup-Artist. She’ll crack. After all, she did post that article about the NSA’s data trove on Americans — twice! — and all the data tells us that women who read Conor Friedersdorff when they’ve got really bad insomnia and worry about the NSA hoovering up metadata on Americans just cannot resist make-up tips from a 61-year-old supermodel. Odds on a purchase: 77.86 percent.”

So am I doomed to buy this stuff? How exactly do they know?

And what on earth do they know — it’s clearly something I don’t — that made them show these ads to me today?

I mean … they do have access to information I don’t. So how do you imagine I should bring this up? “Honey, you seem great to me, but Facebook thinks you’re emotionally unavailable. And it kind of sounds like they think this thing we’ve got going here is a dumpster-fire-in-prospect. That’s a little worrying, since they know what you do when I’m not around. And I don’t. Maybe we should talk?”

But seriously — and some of you guys would probably have pretty good insight into the state of Facebook’s AI and the way these algorithms are apt to work — what on earth is keeping them from taking the information about me that any human who looks at my Facebook page would, putting it together with all the other information they have about what I read, what I buy, and where my attention lingers, and showing me ads that I would find utterly irresistible?

I bet every one of you could guess what ads might tempt me to push the button. Give it a try in the comments. And I bet none of you would think, “Oversized Harem Pants.” And you’d all be right. 

What ads do you see on your Facebook pages — or on the other parts of the Internet where these ads are supposedly so perfectly integrated with your personal data, in such a diabolically cunning way, as to to make you unable to resist clicking on them?

Are they things you might ever buy? Do they even make sense?

If not, why do you think that is?

 

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  1. Justin Hertog Inactive
    Justin Hertog
    @RooseveltGuck

    The ads are totally stupid.

    Yes, I think Facebook is doing all those things with our data and selling it. So is Google. And LinkedIn. And Yahoo. And Twitter. And all the digital marketing firms. And the U.S. government has a much easier job tracking people because private enterprise does so much of it for them.

    I haven’t used FB or LinkedIn for years but their trackers infest almost every page I browse.

    Over the last year, my VPN blocked over 280,000 trackers. They claim to have saved me 27gb of data and 13 hours. Maybe the best way to be compensated for this negative externality (which is measurable, possibly, by the cost of the VPN) is to buy their stock and benefit from a share of their profits.

    It’s striking that some progessives are now saying that using social networks is analogous to eating junk food and calling the data we generate and that social networks collect with pollution. I wonder how much of this criticism is attributable to the results of the last election.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Yes, I think Facebook is doing all those things with our data and selling it.

    I don’t doubt it for a second. I just wonder why they don’t seem to be as good at it — at least in my case — as I’d expect them to be.

    • #2
  3. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Maybe we should start by examining the real practices of Facebook, what it’s really all about, as recently disclosed by former Facebook President Sean Parker. Here’s just a part of the interview:

    • #3
  4. Mike Rapkoch Moderator
    Mike Rapkoch
    @MikeRapkoch

    Here’s a bit more from Mr. Parker:

    New advances in the life sciences are allowing humans to “live much longer, more productive lives,” Parker said during an Axios cancer innovation event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare so… I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords.”

    Citing the nature of compound interest to accumulate exponentially, he continued, “Give us billionaires an extra hundred years and you’ll know what … wealth disparity looks like.”

    • #4
  5. Justin Hertog Inactive
    Justin Hertog
    @RooseveltGuck

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Yes, I think Facebook is doing all those things with our data and selling it.

    I don’t doubt it for a second. I just wonder why they don’t seem to be as good at it — at least in my case — as I’d expect them to be.

    I fear they’re not very good for anyone. I fear that a lot of ad buyers are being ripped off. I have a hard time believing the clicks they think they are getting are real. I hope there is no fraud.

    • #5
  6. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    My wife made me a Facebook page once, but I never even learned how to log on, so she deleted it after about 6 months.  Twitter?  Ha, ha, ha.  I use DuckDuckGo in lieu of Google.  I still get targeted ads.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: [S]ome of you guys would probably have pretty good insight into the state of Facebook’s AI and the way these algorithms are apt to work …

    With extraordinary and occasionally amusing imprecision. Else why would they spend eight week trying to inform me about something called LuLaRoe? I mean really. When I buy dresses, I prefer off-the-shoulder numbers by Valentino Garavani. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing LuLaRoe.

     

     

    • #7
  8. Guruforhire Inactive
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I think its because advertisers pick the demographics of who they want to target.

     

    • #8
  9. Guruforhire Inactive
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Yes, I think Facebook is doing all those things with our data and selling it.

    I don’t doubt it for a second. I just wonder why they don’t seem to be as good at it — at least in my case — as I’d expect them to be.

    I fear they’re not very good for anyone. I fear that a lot of ad buyers are being ripped off. I have a hard time believing the clicks they think they are getting are real. I hope there is no fraud.

    Unilever reduced their internet marketing by 100 million and it had no effect.  Every major social media platform has gotten caught faking metrics to their paying customers at least once.

    The tech bubble 2.0 is going to be harsh when it pops.

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Percival (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: [S]ome of you guys would probably have pretty good insight into the state of Facebook’s AI and the way these algorithms are apt to work …

    With extraordinary and occasionally amusing imprecision. Else why would they spend eight week trying to inform me about something called LuLaRoe? I mean really. When I buy dresses, I prefer off-the-shoulder numbers by Valentino Garavani. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing LuLaRoe.

    What are you trying to tell us?

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):

    Yes, I think Facebook is doing all those things with our data and selling it.

    I don’t doubt it for a second. I just wonder why they don’t seem to be as good at it — at least in my case — as I’d expect them to be.

    I fear they’re not very good for anyone. I fear that a lot of ad buyers are being ripped off. I have a hard time believing the clicks they think they are getting are real. I hope there is no fraud.

    That is it in a nutshell. A great deal of advertising is sold under the “greater fool” theory of capitalism. Moreover, the chin-pullers have been arguing the effectiveness of “subliminal advertising” for sixty years. There are studies conducted by all kinds of experts that range from “mind control” to “codswallop.”

    Maybe the CIA is running a mind control operation to make the FSB think they can conquer the world via Facebook …

    • #11
  12. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    The only ads I get on Facebook is for stuff I’ve already bought. I am currently being stalked by bathroom vanities on Houzz. Dude: give it up. I already spent $1500 for a vanity that included a mirror I don’t want or need. And both are sitting in the dining room awaiting installation. (over / under on how long they’ll be in the dining room???)

    Tiresome, tedious and something else I can’t remember. (tense?)

    But def ineffective and a waste of money.

    • #12
  13. Guruforhire Inactive
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    On the side of instapundit there has been an ad for an article about the strangest theory on what happened to amelia earhart, with a thumbnail of a colorful crab.

    Crabs are freakish things that have no business existing, so I do really want to read an article about Amelia getting eaten by crabs.  I have so far resisted the bait.

    • #13
  14. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Annefy (View Comment):
    Tiresome, tedious and something else I can’t remember. (tense?)

     

    Boring tense repetitive

    (you’re welcome)

    • #14
  15. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    I don’t Facebook and I use an adblocker so my life is free from all these very amusing musings. And Harem Pants. (Although I bought a pair of stylish harem pants in Montreal in the late 80s trying to be trendy. They weren’t plus size though. When did I unload them? I can’t recall…)

    • #15
  16. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure
    @Patrickb63

    Mike Rapkoch (View Comment):
    Here’s a bit more from Mr. Parker:

    New advances in the life sciences are allowing humans to “live much longer, more productive lives,” Parker said during an Axios cancer innovation event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare so… I’m going to be like 160 and I’m going to be part of this, like, class of immortal overlords.”

    Citing the nature of compound interest to accumulate exponentially, he continued, “Give us billionaires an extra hundred years and you’ll know what … wealth disparity looks like.”

    Am I a bad human for hoping his driver-less car gets stalled on a railroad track just before the 5:05 freight comes blasting through?

    • #16
  17. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    I get ads for shaadi.com. And also MuslimMatrimony.com

    • #17
  18. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure
    @Patrickb63

    I looked at wire rack kitchen shelving a few months ago on Amazon and Wal-Mart.com and did  Google and Bing searches for local stores where it was available.  since then about 3/4 of the ads seem to be for wire rack kitchen shelving.  I really don’t pay too much attention to ads online.  I am on FB a few times a year, a little more lately because of the amateur theater company I’m involved w/ right now communicates through a FB group.  No ads for theater goods though.  Just wire rack shelving.  I am sure FB has a large file on everyone on there, most of which is useless.

    • #18
  19. Patrick McClure Coolidge
    Patrick McClure
    @Patrickb63

    Zafar (View Comment):
    I get ads for shaadi.com. And also MuslimMatrimony.com

    I could add your name to KentuckyCatholicSingles.com if you’d like Zafar.  The Aussie accent would go over big.

    • #19
  20. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    @claire The real test of Facebook’s algorithms is: do you see advertisements for Chinese take-out on Christmas?

    • #20
  21. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    To add to what Guru said above, I was under the impression that advertisers themselves bid on the keywords that would trigger their ad being shown, at least for Google’s AdWords.

    If it really is the advertisers selecting keywords and/or other attributes, that would imply that they don’t understand their target demographics, not that Facebook’s or Google’s algorithms are skewed. But of course, the only people who really understand how those algorithms work would never be allowed to explain them in detail anyway.

    • #21
  22. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Mendel (View Comment):
    @claire The real test of Facebook’s algorithms is: do you see advertisements for Chinese take-out on Christmas?

    Or cat toys?

    • #22
  23. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    I guess I’m lucky. Ever since I began using the internet, I have been blind to ads. I take for granted there is nothing I want. They don’t register. I quit Facebook years ago, no longer use Google to search, and am in the process of stopping business with all who contributed to the SPLC.

    • #23
  24. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    I’m still kind of weirded out by that ad warning me of “emotionally unavailable partners.” I mean … either every American woman of my age gets those, or they know something I really ought to know, right?

    • #24
  25. Bob W Member
    Bob W
    @WBob

    If you log out of FB when you’re not using it, do they stop tracking your internet use?

    • #25
  26. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    I’m still kind of weirded out by that ad warning me of “emotionally unavailable partners.” I mean … either every American woman of my age gets those, or they know something I really ought to know, right?

    I think this is one of the psycho-nostrums automatically dealt out and applied to every interpersonal problem. It is part of a pat hand of blame (but not labeled as blame, since we mustn’t be “judgmental”), derived from the sure knowledge that all men are dogs. It is usually used against men. but I suppose the fear of being such a defective, deplorable being can also be used to tar women and prompt them to take some consumer action as therapy.

    • #26
  27. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Can facebook actually know anything about anybody?  Until they ask a specific question it’s just an infinity of dead data, it can’t be averaged and to zero in on individuals must have minimal value to advertisers.   Thinking about it makes me wonder if Flynn just popped up from a key word search or did they go after him and other Trump people from the outset?

    • #27
  28. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Claire Berlinski, Ed. (View Comment):
    I’m still kind of weirded out by that ad warning me of “emotionally unavailable partners.”

    Otherwise known as cats.

    • #28
  29. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Honestly, I think advertisers sell nothing so much as themselves. They are forever producing more ads than clients need to fill their own pockets.

    Want of busywork explains the dearth of recycled ads for enduring products. Reese’s peanut butter cups use the same TV ad every Halloween, but that’s about it. You don’t see the Budweiser frogs anymore. Maybe someone got greedy with royalty demands.

    People are as commonly foolish in spending money as with any other activity. That billions of dollars is invested in something doesn’t mean that something is worthwhile. CEOs and business managers are just as human as politicians and bureaucrats.

    • #29
  30. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Direct marketing success rates are famously low, fractions of a percentage point is the norm and the highest I’ve ever seen reported was about 4%.

    Suppose, through the miracle of targeted advertising, the social media giants could double that success rate.    That would be impressive.   As a potential advertising client I’d be thrilled.   Sign me up.

    So assume that by targeting the ads for Plus Size Harem Pants at women who clicked on dessert recipes, Facebook increases the Harem Pants seller’ssuccess rate from 1% to 2%.   That’s an outstanding success.   Yet it still means that 98% of the people who viewed that ad had your reaction…”Why are they showing this to me?   I’m not interested.”

    The central issue is that we are giving away the store.   We are allowing these social media companies to make billions of dollars mining our data….for free!!!    We wouldn’t let an oil company drill for oil on our property without some remuneration.    We wouldn’t let some mining company dig for gold in our backyard without getting paid.   We laughed up our sleeves when as children we learned that the Indians sold Manhattan Island to the Dutch for beads and trinkets.   Yet we let Facebook and Google harvest our data and earn billions in exchange for what… stupid pet trick videos?    Forget UBI and equal pay for women.   You want to earn real money?   Demand  to be compensated for your data!!!  Or, as @justinhertog suggested in the first comment, buy their stock.

    • #30
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