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Monday, October 25, 2021

Column: You are the target

It’s an uncomfortable feeling to know that you’re being watched. Unfortunately, for those of us who regularly use social media, this sensation is omnipresent and always will be. If you’ve ever started a blog, made a profile page or published a tweet, bad news: you’ve got a peeping Tom staring right through your (computer) window who doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

This is not your run-of-the-mill peeping Tom, whom I imagine to be a pimply 14-year-old computer hacker who later went on to found Myspace. This is a much stronger force that uses tools and technology far more advanced than what was possible just 10 years ago. Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have harnessed this power, and if you’re curious where all the money comes from when it comes to their success, look no further. It’s called ad targeting.

The concept has been around for a while, but only with the introduction of social media has ad targeting become as effective as it is today. Consider this: Most of the actual content on Facebook and Twitter is information produced by their respective users — a fact that was crucial to both companies’ rapid ascent to success. Now the very same information is fed to advertisers who want their message to be seen, read and heard by the right people.

When you take a second to think about the whole idea, it’s actually pretty brilliant. Facebook and Twitter have, like Google (let’s not even get into their agenda for world domination), developed the ability to immediately sort their users into specific demographics based on the information said users have provided in their profiles. Potential advertisers can then come in and create a unique advertising campaign that will only appear to users of a certain age, sex, location (remember “asl?”) and so on.

Pull up your Facebook for a minute. Notice the ads on the right side of the page? They’re different for everyone. Currently, I’m seeing ads for a tech start up, health insurance and a program that fills out your taxes for you. My age is in the information section of my profile, as is the fact that I’m a student, so it makes sense that these types of ads are constantly appearing as both a collective buzzkill and a reminder of my impending graduation.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Not only is your profile information subject to the selection process, but also is the actual content you write, be it on your own wall or those of your friends. If you’re a music fanatic who hasn’t stopped posting about Adele’s Grammys domination/comeback from vocal cord surgery since Sunday, chances are you’ll see some music-related ads in the near future. With any luck, you’ll even come across an ad promising you the finest vocal cord surgery money can buy.

As ridiculous a notion it is that you could see ads for vocal cord surgery when you truly feel it doesn’t apply to you, it happens. Just the other day I noticed an ad for low-priced baby bibs. Let me make something very clear: I do not have a baby (nor do I want one anytime soon), I never talk about babies on Facebook, and most of all, I am not a baby (I think). So needless to say, I was a bit confused when I came across the ad. Clearly the advertisers themselves need a bit of practice in finding their audience.

Switching the conversation over to Twitter, the idea is essentially the same. However, instead of promoted ads, there are promoted trends and tweets. A promoted trend appears at the top of the “Trends” category for a whole day, regardless of the actual activity it generates. A promoted tweet tracks which topics users explore on Twitter and appears at the top of search results for keywords associated with it. It’s similar to Facebook, but with its own intricacies.

Ad targeting isn’t a perfect science, but it’s well on its way to becoming one. In a landscape where all the information advertisers need is provided for them by their potential consumers, it’s not hard to see where the advantage lies. So if you think you’re the sort of person who is too easily enticed by ads, try to monitor the information you put on your social profiles. Or start posting incessantly about babies.

VICTOR BEIGELMAN has never held a baby before and gets a lot of heat for it. He’s just never gotten around to it. Is that weird? Discuss it with him at vbeigelman@ucdavis.edu.

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