Facebook recently announced a significant change to its advertising policy which means that soon they will be able to track users’ browsing habits outside of Facebook. This activity will be monitored through the use of the ‘like’ buttons now found almost universally on websites across the web.
Importantly, even if users do not click on a ‘like’ icon, that site will still record a visit if they are still logged into Facebook. The most obvious issue from this change regards the egregious infringements of privacy- as well as tracking and analysing activity within Facebook, users’ online history will be collated and processed by powerful computers scattered across the world.
This news was announced with a surprising indifference across the UK media. Perhaps the recent revelations of mass surveillance of the population by British and American government intelligence agencies de-sensitised people to the concept of their private lives being systematically spied on and analysed in distant, anonymous data centres.
The small level of public anger over this change has mainly been directed at privacy issues. These are important, but I think what is equally concerning is the desired end result: more extensive targeted-advertising. This may seem like a rather niche issue; targeted advertising from user tracking is already used by Facebook – mainly based on what users’ “likes” are – and other online giants such as Google and Twitter. But it is not a trivial matter; firstly its widespread use of course does not justify its prevalence. And more importantly, it illustrates how Facebook is providing a service which is increasingly an uncomfortable blend of public and corporate life.
Facebook makes most of its revenue by acting as a marketing platform for companies- they get to share this platform with over a billion users from around the world. For many of these people Facebook acts a significant extension of their social lives. It is indeed a great way to share photos and links, or plan gatherings and parties. But, there is a cost to using the service, which is the exposure to incessant adverts trying to sell you products or services that you have never needed.
Facebook has never been a public good but in many ways it is treated like one. The general complacency about the nature of the service has helped to normalise the notion that at all times our lives should be peppered with commercial messages.
Advertising is nothing new, but never before have corporations had this level of intimacy with consumers’ private lives. Television –the most important distributor of commercials in recent decades –is of course saturated with consumerism but which mainly accompanies video entertainment. With social media, consumerism is now being mixed with our social lives in unprecedented ways. For example the Facebook ‘news feed’ contains advertisements that are integrated among the endless personal information uploaded by a multitude of friends. And now, the personal browsing history of Facebook users will be mercilessly exploited to provide tailored adverts- the online lives of those hundreds of millions who use it will be almost totally commercialised.
This is great news for online businesses but bad news for the integrity of our personal lives, as they become increasingly dominated by consumerism- a dangerous ideology that has helped cause the environmental emergency we’re in and desecrates cultures into mere shopping preferences.
Words by Andrew Knowles
Picture credit: Kris Olin