One evening a few months ago, I was researching some camera equipment on Amazon while trying to figure out my next purchase. I had been doing more and more photography at the time and was really interested in lighting. As a result, I was considering adding an inexpensive second speed light to my mix of accessories. I could do a lot with one off-camera flash, as I had recently learned, but I knew there was even more that I could do with two of them. It was a situation where “the more the merrier” really made a lot of sense in my mind. Of course, my brain can justify the purchase of just about anything when it really wants to. Little did I know that I was about to really begin to learn about targeted advertising.
The following morning, I logged into Facebook (part of my daily morning routine) and was a little taken aback to see that the exact same model of speed light I’d been researching the night before on Amazon appeared in an ad in the sidebar to the right of my feed. [Side note: If you’re confused about my description of the location of this ad and thinking that Facebook only has one column, then perhaps you’re young enough to have only ever viewed it on a smartphone. In which case you may want to visit the home of someone a little older and use the computer that they own to see what I’m referring to.] Of course, like a lot of people, I’m used to sponsored ads showing up in that area of Facebook. I don’t use any add blockers even though I’ve considered doing so many times. However, it seemed far too coincidental to me, and I’m not even really paranoid.
The Facebook ad incident led me to start looking into targeted ads, how Facebook tracks you and online privacy in general. I had no idea that things like local storage objects (a.k.a. Flash Cookies) or “super cookies” even existed. It was a pretty eye-opening experience to say the least and one that became the subject of an online course that I began developing shortly thereafter. I’ve been surfing the Web since 1996, and I’m a pretty savvy computer user. So, if I wasn’t aware of how online ad tracking worked, then how many others out there had no idea what information of theirs was being tracked and how? That was a little unnerving in my opinion.
Something pretty unexpected happened, though, after I was well into the research phase and gathering a bunch of information about targeted online ads – I began to think that they weren’t all that bad after all. In fact, I kind of liked them.
Now, at this point, fierce advocates of online privacy are probably getting upset with me (if there are any even reading this article that is), but just take a deep breath, stay with me a little longer and read on. I’ll explain. I promise.
Giving In [A Little] to Targeted Advertising
My acceptance of targeted advertising online is clearly the opposite of what I thought would happen when this all started. After all, I should feel violated or something. Right? I mean how dare social media sites like Facebook sell us out to advertisers the way they do? If you stop and think about, though, it’s really a trade-off. Granted we aren’t the ones making millions of dollars from the huge amounts of data that social media sites collect about us. However, they are providing a free service and one that a LOT of people really enjoy using. In fact, for many people, it’s the ONLY social media site that they use. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re almost totally addicted. So much so that the mere thought of giving it up causes you premature physical symptoms of withdrawal.
Now, Facebook can even collect data for targeted ads based on your activity on other websites in some cases. My Amazon search for camera equipment is a prime example of this fact. However, there is also a LOT of information that we put out there ourselves, and we do it voluntarily as a means of socializing. We almost make it too easy for them. Just because your profile is considered private doesn’t mean that Facebook isn’t still mining the data that you post. The information that you put out there will undoubtedly end up in some large aggregation of data by the site at some point. Likes, dislikes, biases, favorites, vacation spots… We put it all out there without any thought whatsoever the majority of the time.
In my opinion, though, there are some benefits to targeted online ads. As a matter of fact, I would much rather see an advertisement for an upcoming web design conference vs. something like a breakthrough feminine hygiene product for example. If it’s something that doesn’t relate to me, then I probably won’t care to see it, and it’s wasting space in my feed. However, if there’s an ad for something that I am likely to be interested in, then I’m far more likely to give that advertisement a click and explore the product(s) further. That’s what the advertisers are relying on, too. Chances are I probably wouldn’t own one of my favorite t-shirts (“Keep Calm And Code On”) today had it not been for a targeted ad that I saw on Facebook. How about the ad for the speed light on Facebook? Sure, I already knew about it, but it served as a reminder after leaving Amazon.com that I might still be interested in purchasing it. This, in my opinion, is as good for me as it is for the advertiser even though I haven’t actually gone back and bought it… Yet.
In the end, like most things, targeted online ads are really just a matter of preference. Major browsers have ad blockers that some people swear by and always use. There are other ways to prevent targeted ads as well, but that’s a much larger topic for another day and another place. Other people don’t mind or even care that their personal information is being used in this manner. Me? I guess I kind of like it.