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By Scott Jacobs

I don’t know if this has happened to you, but lately I’ve been getting endorsed on LinkedIn for skills I don’t have. By people I don’t even know. What am I supposed to do? Endorse them back?

I am followed on Twitter by women who care less about my tweets than the possibility I am searching for a new wife from Russia. Pinterest notifies me when anyone in my address book joins. And don’t get me started on Facebook. Because of Facebook, I’ll never look at a friend the same way again.

My Page or Theirs?

Okay, I’ve started in on Facebook, so tell me: what happened to that social network we were so enamored with nine years ago? Twelve million users in 2005 have grown into over one billion today, but in my little corner of that world, my “friends” have turned into so much wrapping paper for ads touting the things they like––and so, presumably, will I.

“Over the last several years, Facebook has morphed from a sort of living room into a trade show of people trying to sell stuff,” Bianca Bosker complained in the Huffington Post last week when Facebook announced a new user interface. “Our friends, of course, were always selling us the fantasy of lives filled with lush dinner parties and adoring boyfriends. But now American Express is selling us its love for small business owners, while Lay’s sells us its new line of chips and a department store sells us the idea of dropping by its sale this weekend. Meanwhile, on top of it all, Facebook is selling our time and attention.”

The Early Days

I wasn’t the first in the door when Facebook opened its network outside the college campuses, but I joined soon after, overeagerly “friending” people to see how many I could sign up. I never really posted anything unless I happened to be promoting my new story in The Week Behind. (And I soon learned how to turn that task over to an algorithm.) But I enjoyed tracking the doings of my friends, occasionally clicking over to some article they “liked” or––if they liked too many things––tut-tutting that I thought they have too much time on their hands.

Over time, as my list of friends grew and Facebook redesigned its homepage, my Face space bubbled over with all these tidbits describing their daily lives. For reasons I could not fathom, people were telling me they liked certain car dealerships or cereal brands or resort vacation packages. When a friend stopped into Starbucks for coffee, I’d get a notice; if they listened to a song on Spotify, I’d get a notice.

This tendency to over share was bad enough when the friends initiated it, but it soon became clear that Facebook was accumulating all this data in order to sell “sponsored messages” on my page for Starbucks, and Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet, and Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits (thank you, Sjaack). The clutter reached the point where I just stopped checking in. And I’m not alone. About 60 percent of Facebook adult users at some point take a break from their Facebooking.

The New Facebook

Last week, Facebook responded to the clutter complaint with something akin to a step back to the olden days. And, of course, another step forward toward selling more ads.

Sometime this summer, the company will begin letting users configure and display news feeds that are either people or topic-specific. One feed, for instance, can be “All Friends” with no corporate or sponsored messages; another might be all photos, or all sports, or all music, or all Facebook Pages that you are following. Your primary news feed will appear larger than the others (or maybe all by itself with other feeds toggling on or off).

The clunky causal connection between a friend visiting Starbucks and a Starbucks ad suddenly appearing on your page will be a thing of the past, but only because the commercialization of Facebook has moved well beyond that. Because at the same time Facebook was heralding the new interface it was also announcing an agreement with four of the world’s largest data brokers to integrate their information about you with Facebook’s to create an “enhanced” advertising experience for you.

An “Enhanced” Ad Environment

The firms – Datalogic, Epsilon, Acxiom, and BlueKai – have billions of bits of data on individual consumer behavior gathered by tracking cookies from your web surfing and collecting information off supermarket loyalty cards, product warranties and other credit forms. Combined with Facebook’s other public information, advertisers now can do real-time, precise pinpoint targeting of potential customers in ways that were unheard of a few years ago.

“In practical terms, this means that limiting how much information you put on Facebook is not enough to limit how ads are targeted to you on Facebook,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation cautioned when the news came out. “Your interests, age, shopping history (including offline), web browsing, location, and much more could be stored by these data brokers and utilized to market to you – even if you’ve been careful not to share this type of information with Facebook.”

The net-net of these changes to the Facebook interface and the advertising algorithms is to undermine the notion that any communication through Facebook is among friends. Your friend’s posting about his son’s latest wrestling triumph is just another square on the digital billboard Facebook is projecting into my life (and not the most attractive one).

No Privacy Concerns

A few years ago, there was a great brouhaha about Facebook’s privacy policy. In December, 2009 and again in April, 2010, Facebook established a range of privacy options users can set to control what is displayed on your page. The settings are easily accessed and explained at the top of every page, but they only apply to what is displayed, not the information that Facebook uses to target its ads. They are also kind of irrelevant to users, and rightly so.

A six-year study from Carnegie Mellion University of the behavior of 5,076 Facebook users shows that social networking ultimately nudges people toward more information sharing. When the first surveys were conducted in 2005, researchers found Facebook users carefully limited what information was available on their page. Starting in 2009, however, even after Facebook extended the privacy options, those concerns started to fall away. Sharing preferences for books, music, movies and other entertainments apparently leads people to be less concerned about sharing other personal data.

“Like a modern Sisyphus, some consumers strive to reach their chosen ‘privacy spot’ –– their desired balance between revealing and protecting –– only to be taken aback by the next privacy challenge,” the researchers wrote.

“Contextual Collapse”

In my own estimation, privacy is illusory––especially in a social network. After my first comb through my address book, I didn’t much care who accessed my Facebook page. But my friends list keeps growing. An old classmate checks in. An intern at my company thinks being my friend will help him get a job. Someone I meet at a party decides we should be Facebook friends (even though we’ll never see each other again). Or Facebook itself suggests I friend somebody who my other friends like. Sure, why not?

I not only don’t know the names of all my friends, I don’t recognize half the faces. Which ones are friends and which are mere acquaintances? Social media researchers call this  a “contextual collapse” in our online network of people we call “friends.” They come from all corners of our life, and often don’t have anything in common with each other. But I still let these strangers into my social network because, hey, I’m nowhere near the 5,000 friend limit. And I don’t want anyone to be mad at me if I don’t.

I’m not a friend on Facebook. I’m just a data point in somebody else’s marketing strategy, and my Facebook page is just another dropbox for digital junk mail. Nothing will startle you more than going through your social network friends and trying to recall the last time you spoke with any of them.

Want to be a true friend? Pick up the phone and give me a call. We haven’t talked in a long time.


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