The thing about personalized ads and content on Facebook is that you don’t know exactly why the content you see ends up on your News Feed. While this algorithmic black box is well known to many and probably ignored by most, academic analysis of behavioural advertising rarely take a closer look at what personalized ads do to a person’s psyche.
The other day I was taking a daily scroll through my News Feed when I noticed an article from the Atlantic titled Daniel Tiger is Secretly Teaching Kids to Love Uber. For those of you without toddlers or a peculiar interest in kids’ TV shows, Daniel Tiger is a friendly 4-year old tiger who teaches children how to cope with failure with happy-go-lucky songs.
Was the article served to me because I subscribe to the Atlantic’s Facebook page? I read several of their articles a week, so seeing an article from the Atlantic isn’t too strange. However, I don’t see all of their articles, and the ones I do tend to be focused on topics related to the Internet economy (for obvious reasons).
Was it, in fact, the article’s reference to Uber, not Daniel Tiger, that made Facebook present this particular article to me? Or was it because Facebook had identified me as a parent and tended to suggest similar content to parents? Or did Facebook register that I googled the show at some point, and if I did, had I been signed into my Facebook account at the time or used private browsing? Or did Netflix share some of their viewing data with Facebook?
In this targeted online environment consent to terms and conditions and privacy notices make little sense. It is impossible to keep track of the myriad ways companies share and collect data, and a carte blanche is usually required to even begin using the service. While the goal might be efficient targeting to make advertisers happy, it results in personalization paranoia. Calling Facebook’s targeting a black box is therefore not an entirely accurate metaphor. I would prefer to call it a one-way mirror — everything we do is monitored, we’re vaguely aware of it, but we have no idea who’s watching.