On the most recent episode of This Week in Google (TWiG), co-host Jeff Jarvis was making his trademark point about social networks like FB having the ability to provide benefit to their users by knowing more about them. Mr. Jarvis is quite candid on his views of openness and the benefits that can be derived from being open. Typically, I agree with Mr. Jarvis with some reservations.
Something occurred to me this time as I heard him speak. It is true that many social networks do know a lot about their users from the content that they provide; and yet targeted ads still have a track record of being ineffective on those sites. Russ Pitts (of the http://www.theverge.com/gaming fame) said on Tech News Today (TNT), he encounters the rubber hose effect, which means that if you buy a rubber hose, the only thing you will see for the next while are ads about rubber hoses. Add to this the complaints of ads that people find irrelevant, and a problem arises.
So, if these social networks know so much about us, why is there this problem with targeted ads? The thought occurred to me that the social networks knew a lot about its users but failed to understand them. Put another way, the companies are hearing about us without understanding. I confess to dislike the thought of anyone looking at a significant amount of data and getting the results wrong, but that is what appears to be happening. It also appears that it is a familiar problem with context. Just because I do a search, post a photo, or share my thoughts on a subject, there is little understanding of how that fits into the consumer’s world.
The easiest rebuttal to this situation is that the system will get better with more data. I am not convinced of this. It already takes massive servers to parse what is already known; enough information that it is not that difficult to find the specific people through the piles of anonymized, aggregate data. The whole situation leaves me to ponder why it is that there is enough data to know who I am and where I live, but not know that I already bought the rubber hose and don’t need any more. This pondering also leads me to wonder about the entire assumption that knowing so much about us really is beneficial to the advertising revenue models of the Internet.