How Facebook and Twitter may be escalating an invasion of your privacy

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Facebook intends to introduce new customized mobile ads that are informed in part by activity on other apps that use the Facebook Connect login (such as Amazon and Yelp).   I also posted today that the settings of Twitter now automatically allow Twitter to track your web usage within the “Twitter ecosystem” (defined as any site with a Twitter button).  It’s a brave new world.

My first reaction was that this was quite an indictment of social search if two of the biggest social networks don’t have enough organic data points to target advertisements to their users.  It may also indicate that there is too much noise in the feedback mechanisms they’ve developed.  On Facebook I may ‘Like’ Amol India (a lovely restaurant in Cincinnati – you should try the Saag Paneer here) and also ‘Like’ Cracker Barrel because they offered me a free piece of pie for the gesture.  I obviously have a more genuine affection for Amol India but Facebook sees that action as equal.  In a maniacal quest to accrue Likes, I wonder if that metric is too muddy to be informative.  For Twitter, if you reciprocally follow people back there’s no way that your audience or their content could inform targeted ads.  This would mean that only people running small, closed groups could be reliably targeted.

Twitter Personalization

So what is really happening?

The tacit assumption that I make about social and search is that my privacy is being exploited.  The details of the extent of the exploitation are debatable, but the platforms that host these services are funded with the intention to monetize.  Without an expectation of privacy, why would Facebook or Twitter’s actions violate our collective propriety?  I propose it is in their moxy.

The escalation of behavior in these platforms is what’s troubling.  Facebook tracked user behavior on external sites, then they devalued third party content, then they offered featured posts direct-to-consumer, and now they’re tracking off-site user behavior again.  Twitter is clamping down on the API and now tracking web behavior.  It appears that there is no propriety with these companies.  They are willing to do anything to make money and they consistently violate covenants with their users to do so.  That’s the issue.

Facebook and Twitter should have all of the data and mechanisms that they need to be profitable.  They have huge audience and time on site.  But what is the power of a Like, and how do you measure how diluted that power is?  Seems it’s much easier to be informed by Yelp or Amazon – and that’s a huge insight.  Likewise the fact that Twitter needs your browsing history to be informed of your preferences.  Ironically, Google Plus built their platform to collect and aggregate specific data points, and have a really shrewd way to incorporate social into search.  Yet they have no audience and minuscule time on site, so they’re irrelevant (right now).

I’m curious to understand if there will be blowback from these moves, and to see how well they handle the additional data that they receive.  My best guess is that they’ll continue to struggle.  If they can’t exploit Facebook or Twitter’s datasets now to target users, I find it hard to imagine that additional data is going to make a lot of difference.

But if your ad experience on either platform is improved, you may well have Joe Fernandez to thank.

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.