Facebook: It Knows You Better Than You Know You… or Does It?

Hello internet people! Perhaps inspiration strikes at 6:30 am, because here I am am, up and ready to actually write a blog post about something about which I have enough to say that I will probably actually end up hitting that “Publish” button up there this time. Probably.

This begins with the sort of things a sluggish mind recently awakened by a glass of Pepsi Max thinks about. As my eyes idly scrolled over Facebook, they came to the Ad column, and I thought of all the interesting ads I’ve seen there over the years (YEARS of my life on Facebook–can you believe that?). I then remembered a comment (okay, rant) that my Cognitive Science professor liked to have (I believe I heard it at least three times) about the fact that Facebook collects so much information about you that it knows you “better than you know you.”

Since the first time I heard him utter that statement and the subsequent explanation, I have had a different approach to Facebook. For a while, I was actually sort of terrified to think on it. Facebook sees not only all of the things you post and look at while on the internet (I’m saying “sees” as if its a sentient being… but isn’t it, kind of? I don’t know.) but all of the things that your friends post and how often you comment on those things and every thing you click that little “like” button on. My professor’s idea was that Facebook sees how you relate to the other people in the world in a way that you never can and it sees your patterns of behavior in a way in which you can never dream of understanding them. And for a few weeks, I logged into Facebook to check out what my friends were up to with an alarming amount of fear and respect for this great database of personal information I was unwittingly giving as I commented on pictures, posted statuses, and accepted friend requests.

And then, I looked at that beautiful little advertisement column. It’s a funny thing, the ad feature on Facebook. They’re supposed to be targeted to you personally, based on the concept of you that Facebook has built over the years. The fact that this is so usually not at all accurate is comforting to me–this machine, this internet THING can’t possibly know me better than I know me if it’s marketing things like Christian Singles.com and baby clothes to an admitted agnostic (admittedly, NOT proclaimed via the Facebook “religion” slot in my profile) who isn’t sure she ever wants to have kids. Or things like “Sugar Daddy.com” and weight loss clinics to a self-reliant girl who thinks her size 8 (yeah, that’s right, I went down a size) is just fine, thank you very much.

I thought about this for a while the first time it occurred to me, and how the professor said that Facebook knew me so well because it knew how I related to my friends. And yes, it’s true that I have plenty of good friends who are a great deal more religious than I will ever be–but who is to say that means I, who have indeed spent the vast majority of my time on Facebook with the “single” relationship status, would go to an online dating site to meet Christian boys or a site proclaiming I can meet a rich guy to rely on? And sure, quite a few of the people I accepted on Facebook are having kids now… but that hardly means I intend to run out and get knocked up at the next opportunity.

The thing that Facebook fails to understand, I think, is that we are not our friends. Some people, I suppose, collect friendships with like minded people. But I personally believe its the differences our friends have from our own beliefs that makes those friendships so interesting. If you’re willing to openly discuss those things on which you differ, you learn so much about other ways of looking at the world, and isn’t that much more interesting and useful than only associating with people who think exactly like you? I mean sure, there’s a certain level of disagreement that we can’t tolerate in the people who hold dear to us… but that doesn’t mean we’re all carbon copies of one another, does it?

Especially considering the difference between a “Facebook friend” and a “friend,” a phenomenon I think we all understand without further explanation.

So what, then, is my point? My point is that I don’t think we have to worry that Facebook knows us better than we know us, and the ad targeting system proves it beautifully. Sure, Facebook knows to advertise Doctor Who and Harry Potter and Rupert Grint related things to me. But who DOESN’T know that about me? It, however, also recommends pregnancy tests and weird dating websites and a plethora of other things that I would never think to click on. It’s an interesting thing to think about, the way Facebook sees you and the way that people see you because of the things you post on Facebook. But at the end of the day, I think you still probably know you at least as well as Facebook knows you, if not significantly better.

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