A Los Angeles Times “expose” on Facebook’s targeted advertising is hilarious, from the headline — “Facebook Looks to Cash in on User Data,” because the social network hasn’t been doing that for years — to the stereotypical responses from stunned users — “It’s brilliant social media but it’s absolutely creepy” — and then some one-liners that are just plain precious: “privacy watchdogs are aghast“; “For Facebook users, the free ride is over.”
The free ride has been over for some time. Facebook is a service that you pay for with your data — kind of like the rest of the Internet…
You set your Facebook profile to private and are still receiving targeted ads? You shared that information with Facebook, no one pointed a gun to your head. We warned you Facebook privacy is an oxymoron. Wanna use a social network that doesn’t target advertising based on your profile information? There’s Tumblr, which has yet to introduce a revenue plan, but Twitter is likely to target you with Promoted Tweets based on who you follow.
Think about Facebook targeted advertising this way — instead of annoying, flash ads promising you one secret trick to a flat stomach, Facebook serves a display ad to you because your data matches the profile an advertiser is aiming for. Frightening, absolutely frightening.
It’s almost dumbfounding that in the middle of 2011 The L.A. Times went so ridiculously sensational with this non-story. Now breaking on The L.A. Times: Google uses keywords from subscriber emails to deliver targeted Gmail ads! One user says, “It’s creepy!”
Even our favorite privacy advocate, the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeffrey Chester, stops by: “Facebook users should be cautious about whether the social networking giant ultimately has their best interests at heart.”
Facebook won’t make any ad revenue if user’s best interests aren’t a high priority — it will end up like MySpace, which put user experience in the back seat to ad revenue. Facebook has definitely learned this lesson over the last few years.
However, this brouhaha is kind of a microcosm of the bigger online behavioral targeting debate. Arguably Facebook should be more upfront with users about why they are seeing targeted display ads — perhaps the social network should introduce something along the lines of the Forward I, or just a few lines that explain why a certain ad was targeted at that specific person.
Added transparency is never a bad thing, but have you notice that it’s always print-based publications that run these faux-scandalous stories about online targeted online advertising? (Cough, WSJ.) It just feels like the real debate here is being obscured by media sensationalism, in particular by a media channel with dwindling advertising revenue that will continue to decline as online behavioral targeting grows in prevalence and garners more revenue.
We should be asking why do people find behavioral targeting creepy, and how do we change their minds? Because just like it will make Facebook more $2 billion in revenue this year, behavioral targeting has the potential to bring in serious revenue for all online publications.
There is one bit in The L.A. Times in which you won’t force your palm to your forehead, though of course, it’s buried deep in the article. A Minneapolis-based wedding photographer used smart targeting — aimed “college graduates, aged 24 to 30, who had just gotten engaged and lived within a 50-mile radius of Minneapolis” — to turn a $1,700 ad buy into $110,000 in sales.
That is crazy. That is awesome. That photographer is the poster boy for Facebook’s local business power. Especially after hearing Google is killing its local-business-focused Tags product, that anecdote is astounding.