Generally speaking, I like Facebook ads. They’re surprisingly good at notifying me of useful products I never knew existed, and they help keep the Internet paywall-free.
I recognize that’s not a popular viewpoint. But as Facebook moves to build out its Atlas platform, you’re going to be seeing a lot more Facebook ads, and not just on Facebook’s web site — they’ll follow you around many web sites, just like Google ads do today.
Here’s why I don’t fret.
The anti-ad case
The ad hecklers can best be summed up in a manifesto in the new final social networking site, Ello, which bills itself as an alternative to Facebook. In their short, sweet statement, Ello’s creators proclaim:
Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.
We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.
Or, as Apple CEO Tim Cook has argued, Apple’s in a better place to protect privacy because it doesn’t regard its users as products to be exploited.
Our business is not based on having information about you. You’re not our product. Our product are these [points to iPhone], and this watch, and Macs, and so forth. And so we run a very different company.
In other words, critics argue, ads necessarily invade netizens’ privacy because they are omnipresent data collectors trying to skillfully manipulate them into buying things they wouldn’t otherwise.
Additionally, tracking people around the web is some nebulous variety of “creepy.”
Not all buying is coercive
Unless you sleep with a stuffed Karl Marx teddy bear at night, we can all agree that the market system of exchanging currency for goods and services is a fine economic strategy.
And in that context, sometimes ads can alert us to things we would love to have, but were completely unaware existed.
At least for me, Facebook has distinguished itself as a website that semi-regularly understands my tastes better than I do. For instance, it knows that as a single guy living in a city that is both the LGBT and tech capital of the world, finding single women is a perpetual game of “Where’s Waldo?”
It also knows that I am a journalist, went to an extremely liberal college, and belong to a group that visited the Holy Land. Thus, it made the not-so-crazy guess that I’m a member of the Tribe and figured I wouldn’t mind meeting a nice Jewish girl.
Hence, in a delightfully prescient ad, it introduced me to Jswipe, Tinder for Jews. I actually really like Jswipe; it’s a whole lot better than having to compete with the hordes of creeps that haunt girls on typical dating sites. Thanks to Facebook, my dating life has improved.
This isn’t the first time Facebook ads have worked for me, either. As a rabid Crossfitter, Facebook also predicted that I’d love Goat Whey protein — one of the few protein supplements that meets the stringent standards of the cultish Paleolithic diet. Facebook was right. The ad made my day. I’ve spent a rather silly amount of time trying to find a good protein supplement, and Facebook handed it to me on a time-saving platter.
Facebook ads aren’t perfect. I don’t like it when it thinks I want to marry a young Russian bride. But, overall, it’s been the best ad system for predicting products that I actually want to use.
So, if I have to choose any ad system that follows me around the net, I’ll take Facebook’s.
Information wants to be free
Apple’s Tim Cook chastised major Internet companies for hoarding customer data and barraging them with ads. Apple, of course, has the luxury of not needing user data, since it sells products to customers and not advertisers. Unfortunately, Apple sells devices that are only affordable to those at upper income levels, and it typifies the income discrimination that goes hand in hand with highly priced products.
The most popular operating system in the world is actually Google’s Android mobile operating system, since most people on earth can only afford cheap phones. Unlike Apple, Google can justify building a free operating system, because its users provide lucrative sources of data to better target ads. I don’t see how it’s possible to give poorer people access to a high-quality Internet experience on the Apple model. The financials just don’t work out.
The Internet was predicated on a radical idea that information wants to be free. But freely-flowing isn’t the same as costing nothing.
But so far, there are only two revenue models that work at scale to support the distribution of quality information: paid and ad-based websites. The smarter advertising becomes, the more of the web can remain free.
It’s a shame that some of journalism’s most venerable organizations, such as Time Magazine, have to use paywalls, thus more or less closing off their content to lower-income individuals. If ads get good enough at targeting, maybe no website will ever have to put a gated entrance.
If we don’t have universally accessible websites, available to all income levels, a large portion of humanity is simply left out of the information revolution.
Because Facebook both introduces me to cool products and helps keep the Internet free, it’s a welcome addition to the information age. It isn’t perfect, but we should be glad it exists and is helping make the Internet better.