The real problem with Facebook’s latest ad targeting move

Cotton Delo in Facebook to Use Web Browsing History For Ad Targeting:

But what Facebook is now enabling is far more expansive in terms how it uses data for ad targeting. In a move bound to stir up some controversy given the company’s reach and scale, the social network will not be honoring the do-not-track setting on web browsers. A Facebook spokesman said that’s “because currently there is no industry consensus.” Social-media competitors Twitter and Pinterest do honor the setting. Google and Yahoo do not.

There’s going to be a lot of handwringing about this over the next few days. And then we’re going to forget about it and move on. I’m guilty of this myself — the number of times I’ve quit and rejoined Facebook over the last few years is embarrassing. But I do think this might be the time I unfriend Facebook1 for good. Here’s why.

I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how online data collection is driving product decisions. If a product’s sole source of revenue is advertising, then the design is going to reflect that. The product is going to be optimized for data collection so that it can provide better accuracy for advertisers. And if a product’s direction is driven by anything other than user needs, that product becomes worse for end users. That is inevitable. Nothing you can do about it.

This is why the “Well, what’s wrong with better ads?” argument doesn’t hold water. It’s not that I want to see less relevant ads (or no ads at all). It’s that I don’t want a company’s design decisions to be driven by a need to get as much data out of people as possible (as apposed to how to meet their core needs better).

I think Nicholas Carr summarized the problem with this type ad targeting very well in his post A complicated courtship:

Anyone who has a car accident today, and mentions it in an e-mail, can receive an offer for a new car from a manufacturer on his mobile phone tomorrow. Terribly convenient. Today, someone surfing high-blood-pressure web sites, who automatically betrays his notorious sedentary lifestyle through his Jawbone fitness wristband, can expect a higher health insurance premium the day after tomorrow. Not at all convenient. Simply terrible. It is possible that it will not take much longer before more and more people realize that the currency of his or her own behavior exacts a high price: the freedom of self-determination. And that is why it is better and cheaper to pay with something very old fashioned — namely money.

I want to use products that I pay for, so that I can say with reasonable certainty that those products are designed based on my needs, not to satisfy the never-ending data hunger of a faceless entity.

(link via Daring Fireball)

  1. Sorry. I’m putting myself in internet time-out for that joke.