As Facebook (and its advertisements) grow, your privacy shrinks
As a loyal member of Facebook for years, Nametha Srikanthan, fourth-year psychology student at York, finds it very difficult to weave her way through the ads on the world’s most popular social network.
On any given day, as soon as she logs onto Facebook, she becomes subject to intrusive advertisements; ones that never seem to go away.
“The ads on Facebook are ridiculous. No matter who you are or what you search, the ads will always be there,” says Srikanthan, recalling what she goes through on a typical day.
Today, the most popular social media sites among students are Facebook and Twitter. In 2007, Facebook reached over 50 million online users and in 2011, their user base grew to 750 million. Twitter reached 100 million users by 2011 with 230 million tweets sent per day.
And though these social networks have become our guilty pleasures, at what expense are we letting these networks rule our lives?
The cost is simple: advertising. The sponsored ads on the borders of your Facebook profile and the promoted tweets appearing in your timeline seem harmless at first, but what most students don’t realize is that they have become a target for market research.
In recent years, Facebook has let advertisers take personal information from user accounts, and that includes anything from a person’s gender, birthday, even relationship status. According to Vauhini Vara, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, what Facebook does is collect information about a person and then tailor each ad to fit a person’s lifestyle.
“Because of the way computer networks work, you are being tracked when you are online,” explains Anne MacLennan, professor of communications at York. “You are a targeted market that people are going to sell to.”
For some like Srikanthan, it’s an unsettling feeling.
“I don’t feel at ease posting my personal information on the internet.,” she says. “There’s no telling what they might do with that information.”
Founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook has gone through a number of public dilemmas when it comes to maintaining good relations among its user base and commercial sponsors. In 2007, an ad platform named Beacon was launched on Facebook, which allowed friends and acquaintances to see exactly what you were buying on websites advertised on Facebook. Due to public outrage, the program was altered to fix the consent issue not too long after.
“For [Facebook and Twitter], they’ll have to set things up in such a way that people can self-select into different levels of advertising intrusiveness,” explains David Bell, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “What has to be done is the systems have to [be] flexible enough such that it would allow me to willingly expose myself to advertising.”
According to Matt Liebowitz, a SecurityNewsDaily writer, Facebook is also making use of tracking technology with the introduction of online in-browser games like Farmville. The game is a cutesy approximation of the day-to-day practices that are required to run a farm, from planting seeds to harvesting crops. What seems to be an innocent social media game is really a money-making machine. To “win” the game (although the majority of online games have no real ending), a user must have the best tools and items; but these tools come at a cost. Real money must be paid in exchange for the best items. The game also gives virtual coins to users if they choose to participate in advertising offers.
“Ultimately these sites will need to be able to generate commerce,” says Bell. “The paradox is that generating commerce might upset the user base, so they have to do it in a way that is not going to be inconsistent with what the user base is looking for.”
Advertising is not something that we as students, or anyone for that matter, can escape. Ads will still be around even if we choose to look away from our television screens or cancel our Facebook and Twitter accounts.
As students, we need to be mindful of our own representations of ourselves on the internet. We have to learn how to limit the amount of personal information we post on our Facebook profile. Increased privacy settings or simply refraining from posting detailed information about ourselves can considerably reduce the amount of ads a person is subjected to.
So the next time you log into your Facebook or Twitter account, remember that you are going to be exposed to advertising no matter what, but what you do to make yourself less of a target is your choice.