Big Brother Facebook Is Watching

Every week, I put out a social media trends report to my colleagues, and in it, I tend to write about either Google becoming a real-life SkyNet or Facebook taking over the world. But as the social  and search titans use my interests and search histories to figure out who I am, my faux-technophobia is beginning to seem less like a joke than an actual prediction.

No, I don’t really think John Connor is going to send a soldier back in time to stop Google from gaining sentience, but I am impressed by just how “smart” these algorithms are becoming. In fact, Facebook and Google seemed to know I was going to get engaged before my fiancé and I ever picked out the ring. Months before we made the announcement to our families, my Facebook ads included jewelry companies selling sparkly diamond rings, and Google has been ever so helpful in pointing out Atlanta wedding venues in its ads.

The result of this targeting is that I, the target, saw the ads and thought, How do they know?!

But once I recovered from my momentary paranoia, I did click through on a couple of the ads (and I am sure plenty of other recently engaged ladies and gents clicked through without checking their home offices for cameras). The reality is that I provided all the information that Facebook needs to allow businesses to create such a perfectly targeted advertisement. Facebook’s advertising platform looks at user-shared data, including their age, location and interests. For example, the Birchbox bridal advertisement currently featured under my newsfeed likely selected U.S. women, 18 to 34, whose relationship status is “engaged.” Facebook doesn’t know any more than what I have already told it.

Google, on the other hand, is getting smarter. Just a few months ago, Google thought I was a 25- to 34-year old man interested in technology, entertainment and PR.

Thanks to a recent shift in my search queries, this is no longer the case. Now, Google believes I am a 25- to 35-year old woman interested in jewelry, bridal wear and PR. Using the historical data saved to a local cookie, Google is creating a profile for me. With every search I run, Google’s profile of me is evolving, and the company is getting a better idea of who I am and what I am looking for. Although, like Facebook, the algorithm is completely reliant on the data I input, Google is using my search patterns to build a profile.

There has been much talk about how effective Facebook advertisements actually are, and Google has come under fire for privacy concerns, but the ability to so narrowly define your target is an incredible advantage over the generalized demographics of past campaigns. As a PR professional, I am ecstatic that I can fine-tune copy to reach my target demographic, but even as a consumer, I’m pretty impressed that I might discover a new band or photographer the next time I open up Facebook or visit a blog running Google ads. It makes me wonder if I should include Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page on our guest list.

What do you think – are these advertisements crossing the line into major privacy concerns, or are they beneficial to both businesses and the audiences they’re trying to reach?

2 Responses to “Big Brother Facebook Is Watching”

  1. Matt Cochran
    Matt Cochran says:

    It depends on whether you believe in the “slippery slope.” I don’t have a problem with what they’re doing now, but for what else could all this information be used? I don’t think we have a clear picture of that yet. Call me critical but accepting at this point.

    • Thanks for the comment, Matt. I agree, we don’t quite know how far Google and Facebook are going to take this information gathering.

      Interestingly, a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that the ads seemed to know when she was pregnant despite the lack of that information in her user profile. Facebook’s algorithms may be even “smarter” than I originally thought.

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