A recent leak from Facebook’s Australian offices revealed how the social network has allegedly been deliberately targeting vulnerable teenagers, some as young as 14, with advertising specifically designed to exploit their emotional state. Facebook have denied the allegations.

Some people have been shocked by this leak, but I’m not. It’s far from the “dark turn in the evolution of social media advertising” that some pundits have suggested. It’s been obvious that Facebook have been targeting content and advertising based on emotional state for some time, and there’s only going to be more of it. Here’s why…

Understanding how a social network is “monetised”

Monetising something used by called “making a profit from”. But saying that they are “making a profit” from their users is not something social networks are very comfortable with. They don’t like their users to realize, much less think about, the fact that they (the users) are the product.

So, when we want to make a profit “monetise”, monetisation looks like this:

Number of Users x Engagement Percentage x £/Engagement = MONEY

Social networks thrive on having lots of users. Lots of users means lots of content and therefore lots of reasons for other users to come back. It’s a self-perpetuating system. Our friends post to Facebook, so we go to Facebook to see their posts and, whilst we are there, we post something too and the cycle continues.

But all of these “engagements” are non-profitable for the social networks. Facebook does not make one red cent out of you sharing pictures of your cousin’s wedding so that Aunt Mavis can look at them on her iPad from Australia. Facebook make money when you click on advertising.

The Challenge of Advertising on a Social Network

Advertising on social networks is not the same as advertising with a search engine, such as Google.

When you set up a “cost per click” advert with Google, you link it to a search phrase. We select the phrases that we advertise against with the intent of capture the user when they have the intention to buy the product or service that we are selling. For example, if you are selling kitchens then you might want your advert to appear when the users runs a search for “new kitchen”.  Pretty logical, right?

When you set up a cost per click advert on Facebook, you don’t link it to a search phrase. Instead, you link it to a set of demographics that you think represents your ideal customer. You can filter by age, race, gender, location, interests and other factors. The better your targeting of your advert the more likely you are to get clicks that will convert (e.g. the person will buy your product or service after clicking through on your advert). Conversion percentage is a fundamental metric when assessing how effective a piece of online advertising is. You might get clicks on your advert but no conversions and, if that is the case, then you will have wasted your money.

So, it’s in Facebook’s interest to give advertisers as many tools, and as much data, as possible to target their advert.

Facebook are also limited in the number of adverts that they can show to a user. Adverts are injected into your news feed and if Facebook overload you with adverts, then it’s possible that you will get bored or annoyed with the platform and stop using it. They can’t have that, so they have to control the number of adverts you see, and how often you see them. Again, it’s completely in their interest to ensure that they are showing you the adverts that you are most likely to engage with so that they are not wasting the opportunity they have to get you clicking on an advert and generating cash for them.

Slipping on your Social Media Mood Ring

Google have invested vast amount of money in improving their search engines ability to measure “intent” – e.g. what it is you are most likely to do with the information you request from them. For example, if you search using the name of the restaurant Google will look at a range of factors such as the time of day, the type of device you are searching from, and your location to predict your “intent”.

You can try this out for yourself – perform the same search from two different devices and two different Google profiles and see if you get the same result. The answer might surprise you.

The reason for this example is it shows that the more information a system has about you, the better it can be at predicting your preferences and measuring your intent. What more potent information could there be than understanding what emotional state you are in at any moment?

The problem for Facebook is that reading emotional state from text is hard. Human’s aren’t good at it – some people spend their entire professional lives studying literature, learning to read subtext and nuance. Think about all the times you’ve misunderstood the mean of a text message or an email – where do we start in building an algorithm to understand a user’s emotions?

Of course, such algorithms do exist and AI is getting better at this all the time as well. You can actually try a demo of this here, using IBM’s Watson AI.

But, AI is computationally expensive and not everyone buying advertising is a computer scientist, psychologist, or both. Social networks need simple emotions, simply expressed, to shift advertising. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easy way to do this? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if users just told us what they were feeling from a simple list of possible emotions?

Enter the “feeling/doing” drop down and emojis…

How Facebook Codified Your Life

Facebook changed the way that we post status updates some time ago to include a drop down selection of what we are doing and feeling.

Take a look at this list, really look at it. Why is there a special option for McDonald’s in the eating menu? Why are there specific films and TV shows in the “watching” menu? Are mine the same as yours, or different? And what the hell is Facebook doing with all this data?

Getting data into neatly organized categories like this is called codification. Software engineers use codification all the time to turn nasty, dirty, difficult to interpret information into something structured that can be manipulated mathematically. Instead of using AI to find people how like McDonald’s food by running status messages through an AI, isn’t is so much easier to just get a list of people who specifically told you they were eating it and how it made them feel?

Given the availability of this data, I think it is exceptionally naive to believe that Facebook isn’t processing this data to do the one thing that it needs to consistently do better than any other platform – sell and target and advertising.

Facebook vs. The Moral Imperative

If you expect Facebook to take a moral high ground on this issue, I wouldn’t set your status to “Holding Breath”.

Facebook have a pretty atrocious record when it comes to dealing with hate speech, revenge porn, and cyber bullying. I personally find it quite hard to believe that the moral imperative will suddenly overtake them on the matter of what they do with customer data. Turning customer data into profitable advertising opportunities is the entirety of their business model and there are new networks popping up all the time claiming that they can offer better engagement for a lower price.

The choice lies with you – do you want to hand this information over to Facebook or not?

If you don’t, here are a few tips on how you can continue to use Facebook without becoming a codified member of The Matrix.

1. Stop using codified states

If you’re happy, tell people you’re happy. You really don’t need a drop down or an emoji to do that. People used the word “happy” for centuries before the emoji was invented and it pretty much did the job.

If you’re feeling adventurous, branch out from “happy”. Get a thesaurus, go nuts.

2. Write a response, don’t just hit “Like” or share

When Facebook introduced alternatives to “Like” they got us to pass on more codified information about how we felt about the content that we were looking at. They were already showing us more of the type of things we “Like”, now they have the choice to show us more or less of the content that we “Love”, “Hate”, or that makes us “Sad”.

If you don’t mind your feed getting pretty screwy for a while, respond differently for a while. Try sending a message or leaving a comment on content that you like. Post to someone’s wall or send a direct message. You will notice a difference in the content of your feed very quickly.

3. Poison the Well

If you are feeling very adventurous, and have the kind of friends that will understand if you start to react strangely to their posts, try poisoning the well for a week.

  1. If you like something, say it makes you angry.
  2. If something makes you angry, say you love it
  3. Etc.

Flip or shift every emotional reaction and see how quickly Facebook adjusts not only the content that you are seeing, but also the advertising.

The results might shock you.

If you give this a try, I’d love to hear how it goes – leave a comment on the blog and I’ll get back to you!