OK, now I’m convinced Facebook is trying to be creepy

What if Facebook is just trolling us, carrying out the biggest social experiment in history by testing the limits of how much privacy-invading creepiness we’ll take before we actually quit using it?

I ask because Facebook’s newest attempt to boost ad revenues — it’s “partner categories” program — seems too dunderheaded a move to be real. A company that’s regularly lambasted and has even been sanctioned by the government for privacy indiscretions is now going to let advertisers place ads based on what users have purchased offline, or at least off of Facebook? And, worse yet, based on public records such as the type of car someone drives?

This type of advertising happens all the time, of course, but I just can’t believe it’s for real from Facebook. Is it oblivious to public opinion about its privacy record (a recent study, for example, ranked it 42nd in overall reputation, far behind Google, which is 4th, and even behind Verizon and AT&T)? Or how ineffective this type af advertising might be, especially on a platform where people are trying to interact rather than look at ads for things they already buy or have bought?


But here’s the catch: If Facebook wants more people to click on ads and still doesn’t want to be called a creep, it probably isn’t doing enough data mining. I think some of the best ideas we’ve covered have to do with intent — that is, serving up ads that are in line with what users are actually expecting, or at least receptive to, from the data they’re already giving Facebook. Surely, Facebook’s highly talented data scientists are aware of these methods.

Intent-based targeting might be a bit creepy, but it’s not blunt-force creepy like a peeping tom staring in your bedroom window. It’s more like a cute co-worker whose pickup lines are so on-target you know he’s been researching you, but you’re in the mood to go on a date and he’s there and speaking your language, so …

Solariat Founder and CEO Jeffrey Davitz explained the concept to me last year as mining “big, sucky data” in order to put ads in front of users at the right times on the right topics. It’s a 180-degree difference from showing someone a sponsored story every time a friend “likes” something, placing sidebar ads based on someone’s stated — and static — interests, or even the new partner categories method of advertising for things people might have already purchased and might not want Facebook to know about.

Here’s how I described it then:

Davitz thinks there’s a way for social platforms to overcome this problem by using techniques such as natural-language processing and machine learning to identify those instances where users really are expressing “query-like intent.” It will never be as clear as entering “best hiking shoes” into a search engine, but, for example, someone certainly might note in a wall post or a tweet that he’s going hiking and needs new shoes. He might specifically ask friends which shoes they prefer. If you sell hiking shoes, there’s your signal. Rather than simply peppering someone’s page with ads about hiking because he listed it as an interest, now he’s actually in the market for gear and might pay attention.

This approach could help get Facebook ads heard above the noise that’s surrounding users and coming from their intended purpose for visiting Facebook — social interaction — as well as external sources like Twitter, email and text messages. And if timed right, Davitz noted, users might notice the utility rather than the creepiness. An ad for hiking boots that comes hours later, for example, might be more like a guy gracefully playing the rebound rather than asking a woman out the second he heard she broke up with her boyfriend.

It’s some extra work, yes, but a little nuance might make Facebook seem like it’s not just trying to push our privacy buttons as much as it can before we crack.

NYU Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundararajan nicely summed up the risks of ignoring user intent leading up to Facebook’s IPO last year. He compared annoying — and possibly offending — users with ads at every possible turn with playing the stock market and only thinking about making money. “[I]f you’re investing in the stock market and you’re only thinking about returns and not risk,” he said, “at some point you’re going to lose your shirt.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Steven Frame.