With Facebook in the news again because some people were surprised to learn that the massive amounts of data the platform harvests about us might be used in ways we don’t like, I thought it was a good time to tip toe behind the curtain a bit and get a sense of the person Facebook sees, and sells, me as.
Everything you do while logged into Facebook, every application you use your Facebook account to access, every mobile device, every website you access through the platform or that you access Facebook from is all tracked, collated and organized into easy to digest categories for the purposes of marketing. Facebook is a massive enterprise, but most people tend to see it as a public service: living their lives through the lens of their newsfeed and never once considering the fact that none of us are paying for the service the platform provides us.
If you walked into the grocery store and found that they were giving the goods away for free, you might be a little suspicious.
“So, then how do you pay your bills?” You might ask the bagger as he hands you this week’s spoils, free of charge. However online we, for some reason, imagine websites to work like a socialist enterprise. One where we get things we want. That’s it. End of transaction.
Of course, the internet, for better or worse, is an extension of real life – and just like in real life, nothing is ever actually free.
The price we pay for admission to the happening spots on the internet like Facebook is, as you may have guessed, the plethora of personal information we willingly offer up in the form of likes, caps lock tirades and clicking on that ever-important “share” button. That data is fed through the platform’s algorithms, and in some cases, human employees, to be spit back out in easy to consume demographic information that is then used to find advertising that hits you just right.
Those ads are what pays Facebook’s bills. As much the younger generation may think the world runs on likes, utility providers are behind the cultural curve on accepting them as currency.
If you don’t like the way Facebook or other platforms use your data, simply stop using them. In fact, that’s really one of the only ways you can elicit change in the model that has proven so effective for Zuckerberg and Co. If, however, you still plan to use the platform to keep up with your nieces and nephews on the other side of the country, share funny memes and occasionally check to make sure your ex’s new husband is still fatter than you. The best you can do is be aware of what’s being collected about you – and how you’re being sold to advertisers.
I won’t encourage you to do away with your Facebook account, nor would I encourage you to keep it. I spent a good long time without a profile and my wife still doesn’t have one – but in my line of work, maintaining a social media presence is pretty important, so I’ll be chained to the platform until enough people migrate to whatever becomes the next dominant means of mass communication. I don’t hate Facebook anymore than I hate other platforms, or most everyone, doing cardio or getting up in the morning. It’s simply a part of the world I occupy until it doesn’t have to be anymore. Once the zombies take over, I’ll finally get to settle into the type of work I was born to do: raiding local towns for fuel to feed the generators that power my security fence.
In the meantime, here’s how you can find out what Facebook knows (or thinks) about you:
Start by going to this page: Your ad preferences
From here, you can see “your interests” as determined by Facebook. Some of these are drawn from pages you’ve clicked “like” on, others from posts you’ve interacted with. To give you an example, here are some of the interests Facebook has attributed to my personal Facebook profile.
They’re not all winners – for instance, I am not a real estate broker, I don’t own any property, and I don’t really have a strong understanding of how mortgages work, but I have recently been looking into buying a piece of land to shoot the guns that are too big for my backyard on and it seems like Facebook is aware of that.
On that same page, you can also see companies that have run ads that you’ve clicked on at some point or another. These are particularly important because they represent successes in the platform’s algorithm. Facebook decided, at some point or another, that I’m the sort of guy that might be interested in Dark Angel Medical (in fact, I carry one of their kits in my day pack) – and Dark Angel paid for ad reach to place their ads in front of guys like me. At some point, one of those ads found its way onto my newsfeed, and I clicked on it – confirming that their algorithm is right, and adding to the statistics they can use to ensure the accurate targeting of further advertising.
As you keep scrolling down you’ll get to a tab called “Your Information.” Click on that, and then on the link below it that says “Your Categories.”
These are the categories Facebook uses to sell your profile to advertisers. In effect, this is your marketing essence, the very soul of your Facebook profile. By cross referencing these categories with your above interests, Facebook can sell companies on very specific demographics. I’ll admit though, despite being well aware of Facebook’s methodology, I was a little taken aback to read through who I am as a marketing demo, as determined by Facebook’s software.
I’ve heard people complain about the accuracy of the political party Facebook affiliates them with (often because it says something like “extremely liberal” or “extremely conservative.” In my case, I feel like they’re not too far off. Despite the number of firearms within arm’s reach as I type this, I really don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone in either party is a “bad guy,” and I do try really hard to at least listen to both sides of a debate.
If your’s happens to say “extremely” one thing or the other it might be worth your time to consider how you’re interacting with others online, the type of content you’re sharing, and the like, rather than shouting about the platform’s sneaky attempt to put baby in a corner. If you’re surprised by what Facebook thinks of you, you probably haven’t been putting much thought into that sort of thing before. If Facebook thinks of you as extreme, then the real people on your friend’s list might think so too.
At the end of the day, Facebook is a tool that’s operated by a for-profit corporation run by real humans with biases. It’s flawed, it’s greedy, it’s under the control of a man that I’m terrified fancies himself as a presidential candidate, and, at least for now, it’s nearly inescapable. It’s really only powerful because of how much we feed it, though. Be aware of what you’re giving Facebook. Be aware of how Facebook is using it.
Because remember, nothing’s free and Facebook didn’t become a multi-billion dollar corporation by keeping secrets.
If you aren’t scared away from Facebook after finding out what it thinks about you, you can follow me here.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press