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"Engagement Ads" on Facebook

Nothing can be for its own sake anymore. Why waste a good marketing opportunity, a chance for engagement? What else are friends for if not to leverage them?

Brad Stone's Bloomberg BusinessWeek article about Facebook's advertising strategies gets at several different ways that marketing through social media is nefarious. It's moving beyond the already creepy technique of silently scanning your data trail (far more intimate, presumably, in the Facebook realm) and presenting you with ads that it predicts will be relevant to you. Since it has so much more data on you, it can refine its target on you, hit you square between the eyes.

Facebook takes targeting even further. If you recently got engaged and updated your Facebook status to reflect it, you might start seeing ads from jewelers in your hometown. They've likely used Facebook's automated ad system to target recently engaged couples living in the area. If your profile mentions your appreciation for old-school hip-hop, the right local wedding DJ can find you, too.

Those who are looking to be sold to may enjoy this experience, even though giving in to predictive marketing essentially means closing off certain horizons while having them superficially broadened. If you accept that identity has become a matter of consumer practices and what niche we find ourselves in, then you have to accept the conclusion that the data trail we create online can hem us in and trap us, restricting our ability to deniche-ify ourselves. I can imagine a future service that "likes" a bunch of random things and browses through a bunch of random sites on our behalf to throw off the ad targeting -- in the same way those tags you can put in your Gmail email (words like murder and funeral) can shut down the contextual ads. (One could theoretically browse in "private" mode and eschew social media, but then one risks becoming an outcast. All those people who send out invites to things only through Facebook are dragging all their friends into the marketing cesspool, and normalizing the whole sordid process.) But right now, our past history becomes inescapable, shaping the contours of the online experience we can have, which more and more shapes the kind of life experience we can have generally, limiting what we know about, what we do and how we are seen and what we accomplish.

But it gets even more depressing than that. Facebook wants its ad system work (which, by the way, you cannot opt out of no matter how you jigger its byzantine privacy settings) by making one's friends seem like the marketers rather than the companies buying the ad space.

[Facebook] talks up more ephemeral measures such as recall and brand recognition, which it argues can be boosted by social activity that occurs around an ad. Facebook calls its ads "engagement ads," because they ask users to take action: play a video, vote in a poll, RSVP to an event, or just comment or click a button to indicate that they "like" it. The "like" button, which Facebook has gradually attached to just about every piece of content on its site and others across the Web, is intended to convey a general recommendation to a member's friends. So while a great majority of users ignore the great majority of ads on Facebook, the numbers change when, say, an ad for a local restaurant is footnoted by friends' names: ("Jordan, Jen, and 3 other friends like this").

I have a tendency to "share" things in Google Reader when they seem provocative to me, and I suppose that is not that different from "liking" a Nike ad in Facebook. By sharing those posts I think I am trying to extenuate or complicate or further arguments I have written about before that I think anyone who bothers to follow my shared items would also be interested in. But I also have this uncharitable suspicion that people, including me, "like" and "share" things to publicize their gesture of liking and score some general recognition for their good taste. To some degree, they are promoting themselves through these likable things rather than the things in question. This is how social media works to exploit our identity-making process, to extract productive labor out of our ontological insecurity in ways never before possible. The more we construct ourselves in social media (a move becoming more and more necessary), the more we have to rely on liking and sharing as the building blocks of the self, and these building blocks automatically becoming marketing gestures. And the fact that everyone knows they are marketing gestures reflects back on the self we build, commercializing it, opening up to the sort of judgment we reserve for corporations or other strictly profit-seeking entities. That's another way of saying that making a self in social media instrumentalizes it to an unprecedented degree.

Social media generally diminishes what it means to belong to a community. "Likes" for instance are effort-free gestures of faux reciprocity, casually recognizing someone else's sharing, which itself is often automated by the medium itself. As Jodi Dean points out in this post, social networks are "community lite, thin connections, disposable friends (they don't even have to know when you've moved on!)." Facebook is essentially a "consumer space" where the contacts between people are engineered to be convenient and more or less friction free, and without that friction, there is no true possibility of building solidarity or political engagement -- a point Malcolm Gladwell makes in this New Yorker piece. He argues that the "weak ties" of social media are not conducive to activist commitment, which requires the strong ties of true intimacy. Gladwell:

“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

The increasingly commercial and instrumental world of social networks is not likely to inspire you to die for a cause; you won't risk a police beating in hopes that someone will "like" your sacrifice. And someone who "likes" a Nike ad as well as a protest march is unlikely to inspire to many people either. The "like" draws a demeaning and diminishing equivalence between different orders of experience. This is one of Facebook's chief accomplishments, to reduce all sorts of different aspects of social life to a uniform pap that can be liked or unliked. This makes participation trivial enough that people will market for companies for free, because there's an outside chance someone will think they are cooler for doing it. And participation of this sort seems so ephemeral that it does not dent one's social capital at all; it doesn't cost anything. Social media, as Gladwell points out, offers a

form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.

Activism on social media is indistinguishable from self-promotion and congratulatory participation at a distance. It lowers the bar for that feeling of doing something about some sort of injustice. We all can feel like we're making a difference without looking away from our phone. Individual agency gets supplanted by a collective relay of buck-passing referrals until someone else at some point actually does something about it.

But what depresses me most of all about Facebook's "engagement ads" is how they threaten to shift the modus operandi of advertising practice generally.

Facebook's promise to advertisers isn't to get consumers to buy their products—or really even to get them to click through to their website. Instead, it wants to subtly park the advertiser's brand in the user's consciousness and provoke a purchase down the line. More immediately, it also aims to get you to "like" the brand yourself, which then serves as a sort of all-purpose opt-in, allowing the advertiser to insert future messages into your feed.

The ads are meant to be no different than your friend's status updates -- it's all just social-media content. So there is no separation between the edit and ad sides, as they say in the magazine-publishing business -- no suspicion that there is any conflict of interest or pretense of neutrality or objectivity. So to extent what may be a useless metaphor, our identity, as it's constructed in social media, is not "pure edit" content, it's not objective but can be seen as having been co-opted by the advertising it sponsors. The self consists of the same "content" as the ads; there's no wall between the self doing the "liking" and the stuff "liked". Not surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg strongly endorses this approach:

Zuckerberg says that ads, just like videos and news links, make it into the main stream of activity only when friends want to share them. "The most important thing for ads is that they work in the same way as everything else on the site," he says.

In other words, ads should by design be indistinguishable from non-ad content; that is, all content should be subject to the suspicion that it is an ad; that is, everything is an ad and why should that even bother you? It's the attention economy, and everything you do is just a ploy for "earning" more attention. Nothing can be for its own sake anymore. Why waste a good marketing opportunity, a chance for engagement? What else are friends for if not to leverage them?

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