Is Information really only Perfectly Targeted Advertising?

Dave Winer's illuminating comment in his posting When the Time is Right - "Advertising will get more and more targeted until it disappears, because perfectly targeted advertising is just information." begs a whole series of questions:

Is this what Facebook is trying to do? Does Facebook have a viable challenge to the Adwords machine? And what of individual privacy? Is that on its way to hell in a handbasket? What does this say about the rest of the web that is not busy trying to get poor saps to part with their money? Is information really just perfectly targeted advertising? Can information exist without the need to market to someone?

What is Facebook really offering?

  1. Facebook holds the profiles and online (inside Facebook) behaviors of its users, on their behalf
  2. Facebook iterates that you should have control over your information and that you should have access to information that others want to share
  3. Facebook provides options whereby the user chooses what their friends know about them
  4. Facebook does plant cookies on the user's machine that provide access to the data they hold about them
  5. Facebook allows advertisers to target an ad to the user based on the profile data facebook has about you - without revealing who you are
  6. Facebook allows advertisers to create pages and other users can be fans of those pages
  7. When you become a fan of a page, the advertiser whose page it is can now write messages to your newsfeed about your purchases with them - unless you decline that option
  8. You can opt out of a lot of this, but if everyone opts out of sharing their information, then the advertising by social networking model kinda falls over.

So Facebook seems to be treating advertisers as users and giving them access, by default to individual user's information, unless you bother to opt out. But what't the harm in that? Well, as David Weinberger comments, "Because privacy is not just about information. It's all about the defaults." So Facebook appears to be using the defaults and the laziness or ignorance of its users to capitalize on their information.

Do you have a problem with that?

There is a lot of comment about how organizations are tricking customers into parting with more and more of their personal and private data. This is nothing new, as Wendy Selzter points out, what Facebook is doing is merely a progression from what credit card companies and loyalty card programs already do.

As a consumer, what is the cost of doing business? Is my cost of living subsidized by me trading my data? Am I okay with taking the discount that I gain from my Safeway Clubcard in return for some very granular data? Do I use Facebook to communicate and interact with my friends and colleagues? Would I use it if they protected my data, but charged me by the message? Probably not.

Dreaming of tradable data

If I was as really concerned as I say I am over my privacy and I really believed that I could get a better deal on my information on the open market, then why don't I? Well here on this site at Too Much Information, maybe that's where I'm going just like Mr Data. But there will only be a market when there are more sellers and buyers (see Loome). Until then I will continue to allow Google, Facebook, American Express, Safeway, United Airlines... to buy my data at what seems to be a fair price - given that there are no other takers.

But that day will come, sooner than we think...


  1. Facebook's Privacy Default by D. Weinberger (November 14, 2007)
  2. Facebook changes the norms for web purchasing and privacy by Ethan Zuckerman (November 15, 2007)
  3. Facebook: Privacy versus cross-context aggregation by Wendy Seltzer (November 15, 2007)
  4. Facebook's Privacy Policy Last updated September 12, 2007
  5. A Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web Authored by Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington (September 4, 2007)
  6. Link Roundup on Facebook, SocialAds, and Privacy by Michael Zimmer
  7. The World of Advertising and the Web by Jay (November 15, 2007)
  8. Is Facebook starting to fade? from the blog of Shel Israel (December 2, 2007) .
  9. NYT: Facebook's Zuckerberg Misled Us; Coke: Ditto by Henry Blodget at the Silicon Valley Insider Beacon's reach extends to non-Facebook Users by Juan Carlos Perez, IDG News Service (December 03, 2007)