Peak Facebook

We have arrived. We are now at peak Facebook. That point of ubiquity where an online service has reached its maximum capacity in terms of active use and user base. From here on now, Facebook will decline in importance and slowly enter into a phase where it will be regarded as nothing but what its name indicates: a book with faces and names, but no meaningful networked sociality.

There are 2 billion monthly active Facebook users, roughly 26 % of the world’s population. But to see this statistic as indicative of the importance of Facebook in our lives would be a mistake. Surely enough, people log on to Facebook, even daily. I do, too. The amount of daily active users is still increasing. But for people who have been using the service for 10 years, the change is apparent. We used to upload pictures of each other, we used to add friends frantically, we used to express our thoughts. The personal is gone and all we see is promotion. Today, the type of content we see can be divided into three categories: advertising, professional publication, and self-publication.

The evidence is mostly anecdotal, as Facebook doesn’t really let us peak into its coffers. But there is a strong sentiment that ultimately, using Facebook is boring. We “share”, but mostly just odd links and op-eds dressed as status updates. Gone are the days where “Facebook stalking” was an actual source of entertainment (or problem, for that matter). Surely enough, Facebook is making more money than ever, but its becoming evidently clear that The-Once-Social-Network is becoming nothing more than an advertising behemoth and content aggregator.



Personalization paranoia or how I was stalked by Daniel Tiger

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 Fred Rogers Company

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.


Behavioural advertising – Always Be Creeping

There’s a new business logic which permeates most of today’s online commerce. The ABC is no longer Always Be Closing, it’s Always Be Creeping.

But even as behavioural advertising evolves and targeting becomes more sophisticated, sometimes companies may wish to be subtler when offering targeted ads to consumers. In a much-cited New York Times article from 2012, a former employee of Target said that

[W]e started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works. 

Tene and Polonetsky (2013) argue that it’s not the data collection itself which is creepy, but how statistical analysis is used to come to certain conclusions about you.

This is especially the case when “offline” purchases are combined with information on online behaviour, a practice referred to as “onboarding”. We have grown accustomed to personalised ads based on web browsing or Facebook likes, but today’s marketers want a complete picture of our everyday transactions as well.

Whether or not one sees this as invasive is up to each and everyone to decide, but one can bear in mind that one of the industry’s lead data brokers, Acxiom, has “information [on] about 700 million consumers worldwide with over 3000 data segments for nearly every U.S. consumer (FTC report, 2014).” Combined, the biggest data brokers have billions and billions of records on people and businesses.

In their defence, the Digital Advertising Alliance does offer consumers a choice to opt out of data tracking. If consumers know that such an option exists is another question entirely, and the registry only covers companies which have agreed to participate. In the end, such self-regulatory measures directed towards consumers are ineffective, as the most privacy-conscious are likely to use other means to conceal their actions online whereas the vast majority of people are unaware that such options exist.


Federal Trade Commission, 2014: DATA BROKERS: A Call for Transparency and Accountability. 

Tene, Omer and Polonetsky, Jules, 2013: A Theory of Creepy: Technology, Privacy and Shifting Social Norms [September 16, 2013]. Yale Journal of Law & Technology, 2013. Available at SSRN:

Big Data Dystopia pt 2: Newspapers and web shops join forces

In an earlier post, I discussed the possible implications of banks and insurance companies converging. This post will focus on the convergence of newspapers and web shops.

In a nutshell, a daily newspaper’s greatest assets have usually been its reach and its credibility.

The past 20 years or so, newspaper subscriptions have been declining in most countries. Other media outlets are just as popular as newspapers’ websites, and the reach of newspapers is no longer as dominant as it used to be.

Credibility, however, works differently. Increased competition does not affect credibility negatively. A good review in the New York Times can lift something or someone fairly unknown from the margins to the mainstream.

It’s not news that many newspapers are struggling in the online ad market, even though the market is growing. Google and Facebook dominate, and little suggests that newspapers will be able to compete with the two online ad powerhouses. However, the two have not yet been that successful in sealing the deal; that is, getting people to actually buy products online.

One of Amazon’s greatest feats is doing exactly that.  With the help of its elaborate recommendation system, Amazon recommends products based on previous purchases and browsing history. Amazon’s algorithm can even identify you (and help you on your way) as a potential drug dealer if you choose to buy a certain scale.

What Amazon tries to achieve is increased credibility  through crowdsourcing customer reviews. Still, an anonymous, non-professional customer review is nothing like an article in The Guardian.

In 2013, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Bezos’ editorial aspirations aside, the move is likely to spur innovative cross-ownership business models. Similarly, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat has also launched their own web shop, Mitä Saisi Olla.  Although significantly smaller in scale, the message is clear: if online ads fail, online shops might be the answer.

Now, based on innovations in behavioural targeting and automatized tracking of reading patterns online, newspapers have more information on their readers than ever. Not all newspapers track their users of course, but those wishing to remain attractive to advertisers in this day and age should at least consider doing so. A third asset for newspapers has emerged: Deep knowledge about reading patterns can tell as much or even more than a person’s  Google search history. The articles we read, how much time we spend reading them and whether we recommend them to our peers are essential for understanding not only who we are but also who we strive to be.

This could lead to at least two outcomes. First, reviews and product benchmarks might be published alongside convenient links to the web store. A great book review can be the catalyst for a spontaneous one-click-buy.

Second, data on reading patterns can be  compared to consumption history, creating an even clearer picture of consumer interests. The web shop is no longer fully dependent on browsing history but can also rely on actual information on  consumers’ interests. Similarly, the newspaper can not only speculate on its readers’ consumption patterns, but actually convince advertisers that they know exactly what products their readers will buy.

The crux is  that such actions might damage the newspaper’s reputation. Let’s hope that the newspapers won’t be reduced to mere barkers for web shops.

The Golden Age of product placement

It began with file-sharing and continued with streaming services: the traditional television ad has run its course. Why? Because consumers either don’t care about or love advertising. If they love it, they will flock to YouTube and watch it in the millions.

When an ad is really good, it goes viral, and when it goes viral, sales go up.

But for most ads, either on television or in video streams, your fingers itch to just skip the ad. Numbers vary between 70 and 85 %, but it is clear that the majority really doesn’t want to see ads. Over 15 million installed adblockers is a clear message to advertisers. If I were an advertiser, I would stop buying tv or online pre- post- or mid-roll ads right away.

So what advertising counts? Product placement.  But isn’t the medium the message, or distribution King Kong? Over 10 billion sold cigarettes say otherwise.

Mad Men Lucky Strike sales

Source: Ivey Business Review

People will continue to watch tv shows and movies, but providing platform based advertising is just reactive. With product placement, every illegally shared file is a victory.

Memes and ads

The local transportation in Stockholm recently launched a new campaign for their summer tickets with the widely popular “doge” meme.

SL’s version of doge

The meme, featuring the same style of writing and imagery used in countless internet jokes, is on posters all over Stockholm’s underground stations. What is interesting is the timing of the ad. From Google trends we can see that the meme peaked sometime late last year and the beginning of this year. The past months its popularity has begun to dwindle, indicating that people will have lost interest almost completely by the end of this year. For the moment, however, the campaign seems to have been a success, receiving both mainstream media coverage and social media exposure – apparently people are even stealing the ad posters.

What we have here, then, is an example of  using (or some might say colonizing) internet culture for ad purposes. When the meme reached the mainstream, it also attracted the interest of advertisers, or perhaps more accurately, ad agencies.

In an article from last year, Digiday listed 5 memes that later became ads:  success kid, grumpy cat, Y U No guy, Chuck Norris facts and Honey Badger.

While the Hipchat billboard was introduced when Y U NO was still on the rise (and the billboard was deemed a success), Virgin Media’s Success kid campaign started when  the meme was on its way down. Similarly, the more Grumpy cat appeared in the mainstream, the less interested people were.

From this we can speculate on a few conclusions:

1) If the brand is less popular than the meme, it can ride on its popularity
2) if the brand is well-known, it might raise resentment for “colonizing” an internet joke
3) larger companies are often a bit late to the party.