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slave to the algorithm?

as you might have guessed, i spend a lot of time on social media. i don't know if i'd qualify as a full-blown addict [that would be a topic for a future mental health mondays], but i do end up "wasting" a lot of minutes [hours, let's be honest -ed.] hopping from one digital lilypad to another, reading news stories and opinion pieces, doing quizzes that people have warned me compromises my online privacy, engaging in discussions from thoughtful to silly with others and of course, letting people know that i appreciate something they've tossed into the social ether by clicking "like" or "favourite".

i am aware that during that time, clever little bots are collecting, storing and eventually analysing my information in order to figure out how to get me to buy things, or go to an advertiser's site, or enroll in a program that will allow an advertiser direct access to me. unlike a lot of people, i'm not especially put off by this. using major social media is free, but it's far from free to operate. even if these companies were just breaking even, they'd need to generate revenue to pay for their equipment, offices and personnel. as someone who works in marketing, advertising is not inherently offensive to me; i have a professional interest in seeing what companies are doing to attract customers so that i can sense what might work for others.

of course, i'm also a consumer [and a damn good one]. so there is always the possibility that i could see something in an advertisement that i actually want to buy. how crazy is that? i know lots of people who assiduously guard their information out of fear that it will be used to target them for advertising and i understand that- to a certain extent. no one wants to get on spam mail lists, or get phone calls at home and even the idea that your personal information is being given out to third parties you don't know is fairly high on the creepy scale. but if we're talking about a platform where i willingly submit my information using that in order to figure out which of their advertisers have products that might be interesting to me, i fail to see the problem. i'm seeing the ads anyway, so why shouldn't they be tailored to my interests? i have sat through more than enough advertising for stuff about which i couldn't care less, with the result that my time and the advertisers' money has been wasted. that deal works for no one. so if, while i'm browsing the internet, i see ads for sephora instead of car insurance, that doesn't strike me as a problem. but i do have one problem

with all of the information they have about me, how can these sites go so bloody wrong in guessing what i'd be interested in?

they're not all wrong. but the ways in which they're not wrong are even weirder. web sites i visit, assuming i allow my visits to be tracked, actually have a pretty decent ability to pluck out ads that appeal to me. interesting enough that i have from time to time- crazy as it may seem- clicked on the damn ads to find out more details. the vast majority, of course, don't interest me whatsoever, but i can usually figure out why i'm seeing them.

similarly, pinterest has an algorithm that recommends other posts based on what you've already liked and/ or posted and a good eighty percent of the time, their choices are dead on. getting recommendations from them is a wee bit eerie, because it's like meeting a librarian who is able to direct you to all sorts of things that you'd like just from having observed you on a few visits. [it's worth noting that i don't generally use hashtags or even much text in photos i pin, which limits the information available to their bots even more.]

twitter, with access to my personal information, my network of followers and followed, a record of what i've liked, what i've reposted and of course, what i've said myself [including hashtags!], fares much worse. their suggestions of who to follow are reasonably good, but once they try to convert that into advertising, it becomes ridiculous. all i can guess is that they're unable to attract a single advertiser who appeals to any of my demographics. surely that can't be possible?! subjects i tweet about, in no particular order are mainly: insomnia, politics, soccer, media, stupid ways i injure myself, restaurants i like, my cats, what i'm wearing, events i go to and weird bits of conversation i overhear. all of which means that i see ads for major motion pictures [i've been to a cinema once this year] and auto parts retailers. algorithms are mathematical equations and all i can figure out from the twitter ads/ promoted materials i see is that their algorithms are being written by someone who did worse in math than i did. it doesn't add up.

twitter's other strategy seems to be to selectively look at your par-twit-ipation and latch onto one or two threads in the information carpet. i follow one member of the montreal canadiens hockey team on twitter. one. i don't follow any of their fan sites or anything else to do with hockey. one guy. as a result, at twitter makes sure to promote every possible hockey-related thing that it can, like that's the only thing they know about me. it's like someone overheard me saying i had a nice chicken dinner at a restaurant and is trying to impress me by bringing me kfc every day for the rest of my life.

but twitter does just fine when compared to the grand dame of social media marketing insanity, the almighty facebook.

facebook users [the vast majority of us] are already very aware of how our space is increasingly crowded by sponsored content, advertisements and "suggestions" we never requested. and as i said earlier, many of us are aware that money needs to be made and don't even mind seeing ads along the sides of our pages, particularly if those are selected based on things we've already said that we liked. but it is somewhat frustrating when those ads are disguised as content. [facebook does indicate posts that are "suggested", but it's much more subtle than twitter, which has a coloured icon to indicate when you've strayed into the paid.]

with more information on its users than any other social media network, facebook should be able not just to target shoe ads for me, but should be able to indicate which retailers have a ladies size six in stock. no matter how discreet we think we're being, using cagey fake names or being vague about our location, facebook possesses an awesome amount of information about us, even if it just works by looking at the information and interests of our friends. and yet the content it recommends is so hilariously wrong that it beggars belief.

for instance, i [along with many others] have recently been inundated with ads showing an obese woman with an average looking guy and a headline that reads something like "her husband was ready to leave her because of her weight- you won't believe what happened". there are links that appear to be to diet supplement sites- i've never bothered to click on one to find out. this is the best that facebook's targeting bots can do, even though they know things about me that i've probably forgotten.

i have never once made a comment about my weight, the shape i'm in or any insecurities i have about my appearance. i do remember that i at least once posted that i'd eaten too much sushi and was ready to explode [although i did it in devo lyrics, to make it funneh]. i know i've posted photos of food before and, of course, done blog posts about cooking. but i've never made disparaging comments about food. or eating. it's possible i made some unflattering comments about oversized bodies i've seen, but only because i was seeing way too much of them. when you weigh north of three hundred and are wearing an outfit that showcases a shock of hair the size of a tire tread bursting forth from your ass crack, i reserve the right to comment. i did not ask to see your vertical smile at eight in the morning on new year's day. [yes, that was an actual incident. and the person in question was female, which made it just that extra bit more disturbing.]

so all i can figure is that facebot noted that i am a woman, identified the target audience of the obese lady ads as women and therefore determined that i was the target audience. however, facebook sells itself to advertisers as being able to focus on the true target audience for their products by taking into account all the information at their disposal. if that were the case, you'd think that facebot would have made use of some of the other information it had about me, such as: i am in a relationship and have been for years, which means that threats of being tossed aside are likely to be less effective on me; i routinely like posts from feminist publications and follow several of their feeds, which would imply that i am less receptive to marketing that attempts to shame women into making a purchase; i do not follow any individuals or businesses whose primary purpose is to help people lose weight. all of those things should have combined in facebook's "smart marketing" to exclude me from the potential audience for these ads. but apparently the bots stopped at "she's a girl" and assumed that i wanted to know about weight loss.

the end result of this is that facebook showed me ads about women who decided to lose weight because their husbands threatened to leave them if they didn't. i find the notion offensive and i find using it as a way of flogging a product really offensive. so every time one of those ads pops up in my feed, i report it. that's my right as a facebook user. and this means that for all their bots and smart marketing, facebook is doing a worse job of marketing to me than most people who know nothing about me. seriously, i've posted ads that i like here on this blog, for no compensation, but just because i enjoyed them.

for those of you interested in following my lead, i should warn you: reporting ads gets them out of your feed for about a week, then they start to creep back. however, the more i report, the fewer ads and suggested posts i see in my feed at all, which would imply that facebook would rather not talk to you if you're going to be cantankerous. it also implies that the magic bots track not necessarily what you like or report, but simply how often you like or report things. i've been reporting a lot, which means that i see fewer ads. a friend of mine posted this cautionary tale [yes, on facebook] about what happens when you do the opposite.

so what is one to draw from all this marketing madness? well, i'm not an expert, but since it seems like no one is, here is what i've managed to glean:

1. anytime you like something that's been suggested to you on social media, the bots learn from your approbation. it means that they believe you want to see more of exactly that type of thing.

2. if you don't want to see something on facebook, report it. until the much-discussed "dislike" button is introduced, it's all you can do. you have the option to just say that you're not interested, or you can specify if and why you're offended [and facebook does look into these and pull the ads if appropriate- i've had it happen].

3. if the ads are really going to bother you, there are programs you can install to get rid of them. dom uses social fixer and swears by it. the only downside is that site upgrades and social fixer upgrades can get a little out of synch, so you can run into some problems during update times.

4. the promise of precisely targeted marketing may never be feasible on a large scale, or at least, it has a long way to go before it is. in order to work properly, you don't just need information, you need to be able to see it in context, as part of a larger whole and you need to prioritize it. until then, you're just throwing things at the facebook wall and hoping that something sticks.


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