Recently, I installed a software that blocks Facebook on my primary browser, thinking it’d help keep me from spending the majority of my waking hours social networking, instead of less rewarding things like eating, sleeping, or working. I only allowed myself to use Facebook on my Inferior Other Browser: and was reintroduced to the world of Facebook ads, which I’d been blocking for years.
Determined to maximize how annoying I found Facebook, I left them on — and soon realized just how weirdly inaccurate they were for my interests. I’ve never expressed any enthusiasm for babies, weddings, weight-loss schemes or dating websites on my Facebook wall, my friends rarely talk about such matters, and I certainly haven’t liked any groups associated with them. So why was I getting ads for baby clothes, pregnancy tests, and pictures of grinning gay couples “just looking to adopt” on a disturbingly regular basis?
I went out and “liked” all the Childfree groups I could possibly find, with charming names like
I also waged a two month war of ad-hiding against baby, wedding, and weight-loss ads, marking them as “offensive” or “not interesting.” Nothing seemed to change – calling into question why Facebook bothers with the questionnaire in the first place.
Fed up, I changed my Facebook gender. To male. But kept my sexual orientation. Suddenly, my ads became considerably more accurate. Bland and focused on financial planning and train-sets, sure. But stuff I found considerably more aligned with my actual interests than weight loss scams and low-cost pregnancy tests.
Just to entertain myself, I decided to become a straight male on Facebook with predictable results: an array of ads asking me if I’d like to meet Korean-American hot singles, date-planning schemes, and ads for mobile train sets. As well as a Meet Muslim Women website.
Curiously enough, when I switched myself over to a gay female, I continued to get the same advertisements as I did when I was a heterosexual female. This includes an advertisement, illustrated above, that I will define as Sparkly George Clooney Will Leave Your Whore Ass. Sometimes I even got it twice. The only absence? All the baby ads. Well, that’s a data point. About barren lesbians who want to date George Clooney.
A friend of mine who knows about Facebook advertising suspects that liking the child-free groups convinced the algorithmic powers that be that I’m interested in kids – subjects like something with the word “child” in it, suspect must thus be interested in children. I’m not sure this is the whole story, though. I was getting hit with dozens of baby-related Facebook ads before I went out and liked the child-free groups, which indicates I may have just made my problem worse.
It’s also possible that my feverish Internet usage — it’s both my job and my addiction — makes me a particularly tough nut to both track and crack for social media advertisers. I’m also the host of a rather eclectic set of interests, and I log on from a number of different countries. These factors probably make some people a lot harder to pinpoint than others. But shouldn’t the algorithm at least not be bombarding me with ads for things I’ve directly expressed my disinterest in?
Many people now believe that Internet companies have already just about perfected creepy advertising targeting technology. In the wake of the NSA, many ask, perhaps rightly: What don’t they know about us?
But Facebook’s total inability to advertise accurately to myself and some of the people I know indicates that the situation, at least right now, is not quite as dystopian-horrifying as we may think.
Advertisers themselves will admit their data isn’t as god-like as we fear. An ad exec told Digiday last year that intender cookies get the gender of a particular user on a data exchange wrong 30 to 35 percent of the time — and that’s a pretty big detail.
This also raises some interesting questions about how Facebook is marketing its intelligent advertising. Do people who buy Facebook advertising assume it’s more accurate than it actually is?
It’s just about impossible to deny that Facebook is busily attempting to construct a terrifying Orwellian advertising algorithm that will know your deepest desires by scanning your neurons, but our current system apparently is not even particularly good at determining your gender. Or your sexual orientation. Or the fact that you really, really don’t care about daycare.