"The story of your life."
With that phrase, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the company's new Timeline profile in the fall of 2011. The social network's original profile page, he explained, was the first place where most people "felt safe expressing their real self" on the internet, but it was only the "first five minutes of your conversation." A major redesign in 2008 extended that to "the next 15 minutes." Timeline, though, was the "next few hours." Your true self, in full.
To illustrate the point, Zuckerberg went on to show a promotional video that put This Is Your Life to shame by recapping one man's life from his own birth to the birth of his child (and then some) in just over a minute. Facebook has always wanted to be your online identity -- your internet, in many ways -- but it was now also bringing something else to the fore that once had a tendency to fade into the background; your memories.
Facebook has been collecting and neatly packaging information about you from the start, but that information has tended to mostly consist of that which accumulated since you began using the social network, making your Facebook identity more a reflection of who you are now -- and, perhaps, who you were in college -- than who you were pre-Facebook. With Timeline, Facebook was actively encouraging people to fill in the gaps. By default, it adds the date of your birth as the first "life event" on your Timeline. From there, you can add dozens more from the meaningful to the mundane, complete with photos that are featured more prominently in your Timeline -- itself Facebook's biggest visual overhaul to date. Most people likely won't fill in much beyond the basics, but every detail is another data point -- one that's stored and slowly helping to build a better profile of who you are and what you like.
But your Facebook profile isn't simply a curated page of photos and personal information -- the "first five minutes" Zuckerberg talked about. Those "next few hours" are increasingly being built based on your daily behavior both inside and outside of Facebook. And by extension, the more you share with Facebook -- directly or indirectly -- the more it becomes your de facto internet identity, containing a wealth of information about you that allows for more targeted advertising and entirely new products and services driven by that sheer volume of personal data. Indeed, for many it is already inextricably linked to their daily lives.
Connected, targeted and frictionlessSoon after the launch of Timeline, Facebook began integrating more and more third-party services. Apps like Gogobot and TripAdvisor brought your travel activity to your profile; Foodily brought your favorite recipes; Goodreads brought your reading habits; Nike and Endomondo brought your exercise routines; and Foursquare brought your check-ins from wherever you saw fit to check-in. A partnership with OPOWER and the National Resources Defense Council lets some users connect their homes to their Facebook profiles and share their energy use. Facebook users can choose which apps appear on their Timeline and which friends can see them, but it's all information that's tied to your Facebook identity once you link the app to your account, and it's continually updated whether you are directly using Facebook or not.
Of course, Facebook is hardly alone in this realm. Google, Twitter, Amazon and others are all also competing to be your single sign-on internet identity, offering respite from the need to create individual accounts and passwords for every website and application you use. Likewise, they collect an enormous amount of information about you through the use of their own services, be it your search habits or your propensity to share photos of your lunch. The differences are in the ways they use the information they gain about their users, and the degree to which they test their trust.
Not all that long ago, there was an uproar about ads in Gmail. Google began "reading" your email and displaying targeted ads next to your messages. An email thread between you and a friend or family member planning a trip, for instance, would result in ads for airfare or hotels. Even your location could be taken into account, resulting in a new set of ads when you end up at your destination. That tested the trust of Gmail users, and indeed Microsoft brought up the issue again more recently in its "Scroogled" ad campaign that criticized Google's targeted advertising practices, but most users have stayed and accepted (or learned to ignore) the ads framing their inboxes.
Facebook is likewise using your information to deliver more targeted advertising, but it goes one step further. It's using your information to also publicly display ads to your Facebook friends -- ads that can imply an endorsement on your part. Clicking the "Like" button on the website of a restaurant you're thinking of trying out, for instance, doesn't simply add that restaurant to your profile and news feed; it allows Facebook to show an ad (or a "Related Post") to your friends that says you like the restaurant -- even if you've since changed your opinion after actually going to it.
Even information that doesn't appear on your Facebook profile can influence the ads you see. One of the more surprising examples -- to the average user, at least -- involves an ad offering what Facebook has dubbed "partner categories." That vague moniker covers targeted advertising based on information gained from data brokers like Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon, who in turn get their information through loyalty card programs and other sources.
Facebook has broken that data down into 500 unique groups advertisers can choose from (as of April), which get as specific as, for example, those who buy a lot of children's cereal as opposed to fiber or hot cereals. In another example, Facebook says "a local car dealership can now show ads to people who are likely in the market for a new car who live near their dealership." As Wired's Ryan Tate noted when that new advertising option was announced, Facebook isn't necessarily doing anything new by using that type of information to deliver targeted ads, "they're just doing it more effectively than everyone else."
Facebook's targeted advertising reach can also extend to other websites you visit if they participate in the company's Facebook Exchange program, which lets it deliver ads based on your browsing habits. As with the partner ads, these are some of the more subtly targeted ads from the user's perspective, as they don't require you to directly link your account or log in at the site in question; simply being logged into Facebook itself and having cookies enabled in your browser are enough. And, according to a recent report from Adweek, advertisers seem happy to pay a higher upfront price for those ads given the far better returns they deliver -- including the possibility of added exposure at no extra cost as other users comment on, like and share the ads themselves.
Those ads are also constantly evolving. Just last month, Facebook announced that it was streamlining its advertising options, cutting down the number of different ad units it offers from 27 to less than half that number. Not surprisingly, that new focus places an even greater emphasis on "social ads." In announcing the changes, Facebook said that it would "include the best of sponsored stories in all ads," and "automatically add social context to boost performance and eliminate the extra step of creating sponsored stories." Facebook went on to say that it knows "social enhances ad resonance," and cited research from Nielsen, comScore and Datalogix that shows "social context can drive awareness and return on ad spend," adding that it therefore wanted to "make it easier to add it to our ads."
Facebook Gifts takes targeted advertising yet another step further, prompting you to buy your friends an actual gift if they announce a "life event," which you can do without ever leaving Facebook. A recent expansion of the service even allows those prompts to appear if a person doesn't specifically choose one of Facebook's preset life events -- just a mention of the right keywords in a status update indicating a new job or a new home is enough to trigger a gift suggestion. In those and other instances, Facebook is getting smarter about who you are and what you're doing, but we're also giving it a lot of information to work with.
"You can't get away from your past."
As with the Gmail situation, Facebook's use of your data to drive advertising hasn't proven to be a dealbreaker for most -- indeed, its reach has only continued to grow, long since crossing the 1 billion-users mark (and, incidentally, the 1 million-active advertisers mark). But it does seem to have pushed more buttons, and it has been enough to drive some away from the social network. One vocal critic is author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who explained why he was finally quitting Facebook in a column for CNN earlier this year.
"It does things on our behalf when we're not even there," he said in the column. "It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and worse misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others." As Rushkoff sees it, Facebook's true end users are not its 1 billion-plus members, but "the marketers who want to reach and influence us." These are companies that he says used to do the hard work that we (with Facebook's help) are now doing for them: building consumer profiles with a level of detail that simply wouldn't have been possible before.
Rushkoff's decision to quit Facebook was partly due to a realization that the company's behavior conflicted with the values put forth in his work, especially as detailed in his most recent book, Present Shock. "Your friends from the past show up and try to get equal weight to friends in your present," he told me. "There's no distance afforded by time. You can't get away from your past."
That state of "present shock," he said, is compounded by what the company does with the information it collects about you. "Facebook's big data computers are doing statistical analysis on your future choices and delivering marketing messages to you for things you don't yet know you want. Your as-yet-unrealized future is brought forcibly into your present as well." According to Rushkoff, "that's part of the reason why the interface feels so weighty, so cumbersome," and why the service itself "feels like a commitment."
From Facebook's perspective, though, its goal is to make sharing as "frictionless" as possible. That's evident not only in the ways it enables sharing through other websites and apps, but also in the ways it encourages sharing directly through Facebook -- something that's been particularly clear in its growing push into photo sharing.
The biggest example of that, of course, is the company's acquisition of Instagram. Facebook itself has always been a photo-sharing site, but it tended to focus more on photos that people have taken and then uploaded some time later. With Instagram, Facebook was not only extending its reach further into the lives of millions of users -- it was also getting a new stream of real-time information. People still choose and edit which photos they share on Instagram, but they generally do so at the moment they decide to take the picture. While there are plenty of exceptions, a person's Instagram feed is more like a series of visual status updates than a traditional photo album. It shows what you're doing, where you are and what you like, not what you've done.
That focus on a real-time photo stream was again highlighted with the release of Facebook's own Camera application for iOS devices in May of last year. Unlike Facebook's primary mobile app (which you can also use to take and share photos), Facebook Camera is only concerned with photo taking and photo sharing. Yet another example is the Photo Sync feature introduced last fall. With it enabled (it's a rare opt-in option for Facebook), every photo you take on your phone is automatically uploaded to a private album on Facebook (much like Apple's Photo Stream), from which you can then choose to publicly share photos with your friends.
Most recently, Facebook brought video to Instagram. Not video as we've known it all these years, but short videos of the sort Vine has popularized (15 seconds in Instagram vs. six in Vine). Those types of videos may have only caught on recently, but it's not hard to see why Twitter and, now, Facebook have embraced them: they're designed to be shareable.In addition to promoting more sharing to your own feed, photos or videos can also add a weight of sorts to a status update, encouraging more sharing and "liking" by others. In an essay published on The Atlantic website, Nathan Jurgenson took things further and suggested that we're in danger of developing a "Facebook Eye," with moments of everyday life increasingly informed by thoughts of "what might best be translated into a Facebook post," and what "will draw the most comments and 'likes.'"
That mindset is undoubtedly just fine with Facebook. Whether it's photos or status updates -- in a stream or on a static profile page -- Facebook's most valuable asset is not simply its millions of users, but the millions who are constantly updating their likes and dislikes, their friends and acquaintances -- and, increasingly, their daily behavior down to the minute.
Information, information and more information
The end result of that is not only more targeted advertising, but entirely new products and services based on all that information. Nowhere is that more evident than in Facebook's Graph Search, which launched in beta earlier this year and is rolling out more broadly this month.
Graph Search is a search engine, but not in the traditional sense. The "graph," as Facebook describes it, is a set of tools given to users to "map out their relationships with the people and things they care about." Graph Search, as explained in the post announcing it, is "a new way to navigate these connections and make them more useful."
Looked at another way, Graph Search is also a revealing example of just how much Facebook knows about its users. While it doesn't publicly reveal any new information about Facebook users that they haven't shared previously, it can resurface information that has long since receded into the background, and which many users may well have forgotten about completely.
Your "likes" and other personal information no longer exist in isolation. With Graph Search, they become a keyword of sorts, able to produce search results for queries like "restaurants my friends in New York like," or "favorite movies of my friends who speak French and like bicycling."
As with many new features introduced by Facebook, there were immediately concerns raised about privacy -- something the company sought to address in a follow-up post to the original announcement titled "Protecting Your Privacy in Graph Search." In it, the company explained that Graph Search adheres to the same privacy settings as the rest of Facebook, and it pointed to its latest privacy tools that users could use to control what they share. A video and some additional pages further detailed how users could adjust those settings.
Once you dive into those settings, though, it's not hard to feel the sense of commitment associated with Facebook that Rushkoff talked about. You can fine-tune your privacy settings to suit the current state of the social network, but its past history suggests that you'll also have to revisit them from time to time as it introduces new services that may again change how your information is used or displayed.
Another example of the sheer amount of information Facebook users have shared about themselves can be found not on Facebook itself, but courtesy of a third-party tool. Introduced earlier this year, Wolfram Alpha's Personal Analytics for Facebook offers just that, a detailed analysis of your life as it exists on Facebook.
Generating a report for your own account reveals an extensive look at the makeup of your friends (where and how they tend to be clustered), the subjects you tend to talk about the most, which of your friends influence you the most and which of your photos and posts have been the most popular, among other stats. Not surprisingly, the more you use Facebook, the more detailed that report will be.
Along with personalized reports, the tool also lets users opt in to a "data donor" program that allows them to contribute anonymous information to Wolfram Alpha for research purposes. That effort has already borne some significant results, which Stephen Wolfram -- himself a pioneer in the field of personal analytics -- detailed in a blog post in April.
While not entirely representative of the general Facebook populace (only those inclined to share their data with Wolfram Alpha), the data is nonetheless telling, offering details on everything from the median number of friends a person has (342) to more general trends of when people get married and how their interests change over time. Asked what has surprised him the most about the data he's been able to analyze so far, Wolfram told me:
The single most surprising thing to me is how regular the data looks. People with all their life choices and activities seem in aggregate to follow remarkably regular curves of behavior.
It's also surprising to me how stereotypical some behavior seems to be. While one might wish it otherwise, the curves of peoples' interests as a function of age and gender seem to follow typical prejudices remarkably closely. We were able to do one comparison between our results from Facebook and results from the US Census. It surprised me how well they agreed.
There were lots of details that surprised me too. For example that teenage girls on average have fewer friends than teenage boys. My teenage daughter has the hypothesis that although girls tend to be more social, they are also more selective in who they friend.
As for whether he has any concerns about the amount of information Facebook collects about its users and what it does with it, Wolfram said:
Obviously Facebook can only have data that people choose to give it. And there's great value to Facebook users in being able to store so much on Facebook, and being able to see their friends' information there. It's clear, though, that one can learn a great deal about certain aspects of a person from their Facebook data. Having all this data exist in one place is a new thing for society. I don't think anyone can know what all the right ways to handle it are. But from what I can tell, Facebook is trying hard to do the right things given all their constraints. No doubt there'll be some gotchas, but I think individuals and society are going to be better off as a result of the existence and responsible large-scale use of all this data.
Facebook itself is also unsurprisingly excited about the possibilities afforded by all the information it knows about users -- even beyond its use in advertising. Speaking with MIT's Technology Review last year, the head of Facebook's Data Science team, Cameron Marlow, said that for the first time "we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behavior at a very fine level that we've never been able to see before, but [also] allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to." Marlow later went on to say that "it's hard to predict where we'll go, because we're at the very early stages of this science," adding, "the number of potential things that we could ask of Facebook's data is enormous."
To be sure, there are also many clear benefits to using Facebook from the user's perspective. Specifically, it's the biggest social network around, which means it's where your friends and family are most likely to be.
In a recent essay titled "Facebook is just fine," designer and writer Craig Mod explained how he can recognize Facebook as an "ad machine" and a "personal data farm," yet also find enough value in it to outweigh all of that. For Mod, the key to maintaining that value lies simply in hiding and pruning things so that his news feed is "almost all signal."
"If I don't find value in your postings," he said, "you get hidden. If you're a high school friend I friended just to be nice, I hide." The end result of all that hiding, Mod said, is not only a better Facebook experience, but also one that gets better the more that he uses it, and better still as more of his friends and family use it.
Of course, you can't hide or opt out of everything Facebook does -- the background noise, if you will -- but many, understandably, seem willing to accept those trade-offs for the experience they get in the end. And for its part, Facebook is continuing to do all it can to encourage more sharing and embed itself even further into your daily life.
While its long-term success remains to be seen, Facebook Home extends the social network from a website or app to your phone's actual interface -- in effect, cutting through the "noise" of the Android OS itself to put the focus squarely on Facebook sharing and Facebook consumption, both of which are now fewer taps away. A recent experiment that the company has been gradually expanding even offers free WiFi in exchange for a check-in at participating businesses. Who can say no to that?
When to say no, though, is perhaps the key question each Facebook user should ask themselves. For many, that may not necessarily be a stark question of when to say no to Facebook in its entirety -- it's, as they say, complicated -- but Facebook is providing plenty of other opportunities for it to be raised. Be it whether it's worth sharing a piece of information or connecting yet another app to it, or whether it's worth making Facebook (or any other single company) your default internet identity for the sake of convenience and a more personalized experience. The latter has its benefits, but it often comes with costs that aren't always immediately apparent, or which could change in the future.
As with many things, it's a question of making the trade-offs that you're comfortable with, and doing so in as informed a manner as possible -- something that, as we've seen, isn't always an easy thing to do. It's also a question that's worth reconsidering now and then as Facebook and other companies embed themselves into more services and more devices, and ask for more of your time and more of yourself.