Advertisements for ourselves

by Rob Horning

11 July 2008


In Technology Review, Bryant Urstadt has an interesting article about the potential for advertising on social networks. Obvioulsy, Facebook’s flubbed Beacon program, which notified member’s networks about the stuff they were doing on other internet sites, has raised suspicions that users may demand better privacy protections, but this doesn’t seem to correspond to the generational cohort’s general eagerness for indiscriminate online sharing. You would think people will eventually embrace something like Beacon, because it makes them seem like theya re so famous and important, their every mundane action must be tracked and reported. Maybe they are savvy enough not to be flattered by automated attention, and I’d probably just be creeped out if some friend of mine told me, “Hey, I saw you went online and bought a new pair of New Balances.” But then, I’m not of the generation whose members are supposed to be preoccupied with their own notoriety. But perhaps no one wants to be recruited without their consent and without recompense into an endorsement campaign. I’m sure if Beacon credited Facebook users a few cents for every time it blasted out a user’s shopping activity, more people would be eager to opt into it.

As Urstadt notes, “The problems with social-network advertising revolve around three main issues: attention, privacy, and content.” The privacy issues include not only the mining by advertisers of the personal information you supply to facilitate your social connections, but also, as with Beacon, the use of that personal information—some of it collected passively as your online activity is surveilled and logged—as leverage to persuade others. People may not mind being targeted thanks to information they supply—in fact that can often be somewhat flattering (though I don’t feel particularly important when Amazon sends me emails recommending books for me to buy). MySpace is going full steam ahead with “HyperTargeting,” which seeks to show you ads that you’ll find relevant based on the information your online activity makes available:

In 2007, MySpace launched its HyperTargeting system, which scans users’ profiles for information about their interests and demographics. It sorts the profiles into 10 rough categories—such as sports and entertainment—that are subdivided into more than 1,000 narrower categories, such as baseball or a specific film. (E-mail and personal messages are currently not scanned at either Facebook or MySpace.) Says Adam Bain, president of the Fox Interactive Media Audience Network, “People are essentially hand-raising every single day on MySpace and other social-media sites. What we want to do is take that and put it into easy-to-buy segments.”

Since these ads are more likely to be relevant, users, so the thinking goes, are far less likely to be turned off by them. (The danger is that the social networking experience will become so unpleasant that users will abandon them altogether—that MySpace, Facebook etc. will go the way of AOL and that nice cluster of advertisment targets will be dispersed to the winds.)

But it is a different matter when your personal information is not being used to target you but to target your friends—this makes you into a collaborator, an informant, part of the panopticon administering distributed surveillance in our postmodern dystopia. The temptation for advertisers and the networks themselves to take advantage of this possibility, to use you for your connections, may be impossible for them to resist.

Urstadt also highlights the problem of “content adjacency,” i.e., what the ads are placed next to, which can be unpredictable, as users frequently change the content they supply. Companies don’t want to be perceived as sponsoring some webpage full of neo-Nazi slogans and Prussian Blue videos, for example, though Facebook apparently performs a lot of “user content moderation” according to one of its spokespeople. Content adjacency is obviously a problem for advertisers, but it’s also problematic for content providers—I’m always surprised to see how this blog is contextualized by the ads, and how what I’m writing about is at times trivialized and my authority potentially undermined. The same would certainly happen for the cool-conscious, if attracting the right sort of ads on one’s profile pages could be brought into play as a mark of distinction. Advertising always has the potential for calling into question the credibility of what it appears to be sponsoring. Perhaps you really are trying to be very authentic in your profile—the presence of ads, which are generally oblique and often intentionally misleading in their presentation of information, undermines that authenticity and makes it seem like you are posturing too. The ads create a climate of persuasion, affecting all the discourse that is near it. Rather than mount a futile fight against this, users are likely to assume that the pages are advertisements for themselves and present their information accordingly, with the intent of convincing viewers of something about themselves rather than merely being. (It seems like this is generally true already. One doesn’t just exist within the virtual world of the network; one instead develops a profile and a network and then grooms them.) The social network then becomes a place where one can acquire no experience directly, where one cannot simply be in the moment and taking in events. Instead one is always positioning, repositioning and posing, and collecting people’s responses. In other words, it’s a place to revel in self-consciousness.

An unrelated question. Who is dumb enough to do this: “Chamath Palihapitiya expects Facebook to generate revenue by selling a variety of such services to users. The site has rolled out a “gift” program, in which friends spend real money to “give” friends virtual items, such as an image of a box of tissues with a get-well note.” This makes even less sense to me than spending real money to trick out your Second Life avatar. This seems like conspicuous waste par excellence, however, with an audience roped into the transaction by definition. So maybe it will really take off.

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