OMG Facebook Is Listening!

People say “I was talking to my friend about $THING and the next day I saw an ad for $THING on Facebook! OMG they’re listening!”

Chill. Facebook is not tapping the mic on your phone.

First off, remember the Ben Franklin quote “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” If FB were caught illegally spying it would be the biggest news story of the year; there are a lot of people prying into what FB is doing and they haven’t found anything like this. There’s no way a 44,000 person company full of twenty-somethings could keep a secret that big for even six months. Giant conspiracies happen in the movies; in real life people are sloppy and eager to blab.

Second, and more important, they don’t need to tap your mic, because you offer up the information willingly. You search Google for “kicky shoes”. You ask your friends on FB for recommendations. You browse Amazon & Nordstrom. You eventually buy something and the confirmation email lands in your Gmail inbox. Now the whole world of retail and advertisers knows that you’re interested in a pair of kicky shoes. You’re a marked person; for the next few months you’re going to see shoe ads everywhere you go (even though you’re done shopping).

So one day you’re out at lunch with a friend and they comment on your shoes. Later you see an ad for those same shoes and think “they’re listening!”. But really you’ve seen ads for those shoes may times since you bought them, so often that you no longer pay conscious attention to them. It’s only this time that you pay attention and remark on it.

Yes, you can poke holes in the particular examples I’m using, but the broad message remains. There’s a simple explanation well supported by evidence (advertisers watch what you like and spam you with ads) and a complex one relying on improbable ideas (Facebook is somehow keeping it secret that they’re violating laws and decency by spying!).

This stuff is all widely disseminated public knowledge. Nobody’s keeping it a secret, they’re shouting from the rooftops about it. Facebook, Google and Amazon are making billions from the information you’re handing to them. They don’t need to do anything nefarious.

The cynical take is “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product”. That’s a gross oversimplification, and wrong in as many ways as it’s right, but it’s good to keep in mind if you don’t get all tinfoil hat about it.