The Null Device
Facebook's uncanny valley of advertising
The social network site Facebook is supported by advertising. Being a social network site, it has the advantage of being able to serve (anonymously) targeted ads to its users, who volunteer demographic information about themselves in using the site; advertisers can target ads to users whose profiles or recent activities match certain criteria. Unfortunately, when handled clumsily, the effect can be disconcerting or creepy
One campaign that flooded the site in recent weeks, before Facebook cracked down on it, tries to take advantage of consumer interest in Apple’s iPad. “Are you a fan of Eddie Izzard? We need 100 music and movie lovers to test and KEEP the new Apple iPad,” one version of the ad says. Louis Allred Jr., 29, a Facebook user in Los Angeles who saw the ad, said he figured it was shown to him because he or a friend had expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Izzard, a British comedian, on their profiles.
Off-key and/or sleazy ads on Facebook are nothing new, of course; ads juxtaposing pictures of hot chicks with unrelated, often dubious-looking, offers
, for example, have been on the service for years, and presumably have snared a number of not particularly discerning individuals. But now Facebook are allowing advertisers to effectively write templates to be filled in with users' details ("SPECIAL OFFER FOR $gender AGED $(age-1)-$(age+1) WHO LIKE $interest"). Which sounds like a way to game unmerited trust out of punters, but, more often than not, falls into an uncanny valley
, falling short of being convincing and coming off as unsettling, or worse:
Women who change their status to “engaged” on Facebook to share the news with their friends, for example, report seeing a flood of advertisements for services and products like wedding photographers, skin treatments and weight-loss regimens.
And the knowledge that ads are targeted by some data-mining algorithm can, in itself, add a dimension of unease to what might well be coincidences:
Jess Walker, 22, from central Florida, was recently presented an ad for Plan B, the morning-after pill. “What do I have on my Facebook page that would lead them to believe I would need that?” she asked, adding that she did not want her sexual behavior called into question.
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