Everyone loves collecting data, nobody loves analyzing it later
August 27, 2021 4:24 PM Subscribe
Denial was always untenable, for Zuckerberg in particular. The so-called techlash, a season of belatedly brutal media coverage and political pressure in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s win, made it difficult. But Facebook’s basic business pitch made denial impossible. Zuckerberg’s company profits by convincing advertisers that it can standardize its audience for commercial persuasion. How could it simultaneously claim that people aren’t persuaded by its content?— Bad News by Joseph Bernstein in Harper's (archive.org link)
While Harper's focuses on political side of things, Avery Pennarun (who previously did "strategic analysis" at Google) writes about how none of the tracking these companies are doing actually works:
The advertiser has a tracker that it places on multiple sites and tracks me around. So it doesn't know what I bought, but it does know what I looked at, probably over a long period of time, across many sites.Joseph Bernstein points out that Facebook is aware of the same problems:
Using this information, its painstakingly trained AI makes conclusions about which other things I might want to look at, based on...
...well, based on what? People similar to me? Things my Facebook friends like to look at? Some complicated matrix-driven formula humans can't possibly comprehend, but which is 10% better?
Probably not. Probably what it does is infer my gender, age, income level, and marital status. After that, it sells me cars and gadgets if I'm a guy, and fashion if I'm a woman. Not because all guys like cars and gadgets, but because some very uncreative human got into the loop and said "please sell my car mostly to men" and "please sell my fashion items mostly to women." Maybe the AI infers the wrong demographic information (I know Google has mine wrong) but it doesn't really matter, because it's usually mostly right, which is better than 0% right, and advertisers get some mostly demographically targeted ads, which is better than 0% targeted ads.
That's a lot about profiling for ad targeting, which obviously doesn't work, if anyone would just stop and look at it. But there are way too many people incentivized to believe otherwise. Meanwhile, if you care about your privacy, all that matters is they're still collecting your personal information whether it works or not.
Online ads tend to produce clicks among people who are already loyal customers. This is, as Hwang puts it, “an expensive way of attracting users who would have purchased anyway.” Mistaking correlation for causation has given ad buyers a wildly exaggerated sense of their ability to persuade.
So too has the all-important consumer data on which targeted advertising is based, and which research has exposed as frequently shoddy or overstated. In recently unsealed court documents, Facebook managers disparaged the quality of their own ad targeting for just this reason. An internal Facebook email suggests that COO Sheryl Sandberg knew for years that the company was overstating the reach of its ads.
If you're interested in more unpacking of the narratives that tech companies in the United States are spinning, you may also enjoy the book What Tech Calls Thinking by Adrian Daub.
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