Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Facebook "Sponsored Stories" (26 Jan 2011)

At ReadWriteWeb, Sarah Perez reports on Facebook's unrepentant new marketing scheme, which it calls, nauseatingly enough, "Sponsored Stories." You, in the course of innocently and eagerly "sharing" updates about the wonderful products and services in your life, craft a magical "story" for your "friends," and advertisers would like to help your "story" reach more of your "friends" by co-opting it and featuring it more prominently on others' home pages. (Sorry for the Carles level of scare quotes, but social media's aggressive transvaluation of the language of intimacy seems to necessitate them.) This ruse allows marketers to indulge one of their favorite creation myths about their business; that ordinary people are always already enthusiastically advertising products to one another, and advertisers emerged to serve as shrewd editors of those conversations, standardizing them and elevating them into a clearer expression of the zeitgeist. We make ad discourse ubiquitous through our free choice. Advertisers just follow our lead.

Facebook's program extends that notion, putting forward the idea that anything we do is best understood as some sort of promotion for something (of course it's always at least self-promotion). Perez explains:
With Facebook's Sponsored Stories, your activity is now up for grabs, available to the advertiser associated with the brand, business or app you interacted with. Just checked in to a restaurant? That's an ad. Just liked a brand? That's an ad. Just shared a news story from the Web? That's an ad.
And naturally, Facebook doesn't allow its users to opt out of this program. You don't control when your endorsement gets adopted and redistributed. Your profile picture just shows up in a sidebar ad as though you're a willing shill.

The lesson here is that Facebook is systematically blurring the line between promotional discourse and nonpromotional discourse -- it acts as though an update and an ad are fundamentally the same, as though context doesn't color your willingness to celebrate a particular product. Arguably, being on Facebook and recapitulating your life there is the process of turning it into one long advertisement -- recasting experience into a media-commodity form. The more time one spends on the site, the more one will structure one's experience in those terms, preconceiving it for its promotional potential. It encourages you to understand yourself as a product requiring advertising, a brand seeking synergies.

The Sponsored Stories program makes that conversion absolutely explicit, and Facebook seems to assume everyone is on board, already accustomed to the idea of marketing discourse being the only relevant sort of public discussion. Facebook already filters potential content from your friends, using algorithms to generate what it thinks you should see. The existence of these algorithms invites efforts to game them, to figure out what will get your update noticed and disseminated the most. Sponsored Stories supplements the algorithms, giving users a chance to jump the line, to craft their updates more like marketing, so they will receive wider play. This then feeds the loop, making personal disclosures seem ever more like marketing, implying that they should be mined even more thoroughly for their advertising potential. Thanks, Zuck!

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