This is Your Life: Facebook and the business of identity

"The story of your life."

With that phrase, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the company's new Timeline profile in the fall of 2011. The social network's original profile page, he explained, was the first place where most people "felt safe expressing their real self" on the internet, but it was only the "first five minutes of your conversation." A major redesign in 2008 extended that to "the next 15 minutes." Timeline, though, was the "next few hours." Your true self, in full.

To illustrate the point, Zuckerberg went on to show a promotional video that put This Is Your Life to shame by recapping one man's life from his own birth to the birth of his child (and then some) in just over a minute. Facebook has always wanted to be your online identity -- your internet, in many ways -- but it was now also bringing something else to the fore that once had a tendency to fade into the background; your memories.

Facebook has been collecting and neatly packaging information about you from the start, but that information has tended to mostly consist of that which accumulated since you began using the social network, making your Facebook identity more a reflection of who you are now -- and, perhaps, who you were in college -- than who you were pre-Facebook. With Timeline, Facebook was actively encouraging people to fill in the gaps. By default, it adds the date of your birth as the first "life event" on your Timeline. From there, you can add dozens more from the meaningful to the mundane, complete with photos that are featured more prominently in your Timeline -- itself Facebook's biggest visual overhaul to date. Most people likely won't fill in much beyond the basics, but every detail is another data point -- one that's stored and slowly helping to build a better profile of who you are and what you like.

But your Facebook profile isn't simply a curated page of photos and personal information -- the "first five minutes" Zuckerberg talked about. Those "next few hours" are increasingly being built based on your daily behavior both inside and outside of Facebook. And by extension, the more you share with Facebook -- directly or indirectly -- the more it becomes your de facto internet identity, containing a wealth of information about you that allows for more targeted advertising and entirely new products and services driven by that sheer volume of personal data. Indeed, for many it is already inextricably linked to their daily lives.

CONNECTED, TARGETED AND FRICTIONLESS

Soon after the launch of Timeline, Facebook began integrating more and more third-party services. Apps like Gogobot and TripAdvisor brought your travel activity to your profile; Foodily brought your favorite recipes; Goodreads brought your reading habits; Nike and Endomondo brought your exercise routines; and Foursquare brought your check-ins from wherever you saw fit to check-in. A partnership with OPOWER and the National Resources Defense Council lets some users connect their homes to their Facebook profiles and share their energy use. Facebook users can choose which apps appear on their Timeline and which friends can see them, but it's all information that's tied to your Facebook identity once you link the app to your account, and it's continually updated whether you are directly using Facebook or not.
Of course, Facebook is hardly alone in this realm. Google, Twitter, Amazon and others are all also competing to be your single sign-on internet identity, offering respite from the need to create individual accounts and passwords for every website and application you use. Likewise, they collect an enormous amount of information about you through the use of their own services, be it your search habits or your propensity to share photos of your lunch. The differences are in the ways they use the information they gain about their users, and the degree to which they test their trust.

Not all that long ago, there was an uproar about ads in Gmail. Google began "reading" your email and displaying targeted ads next to your messages. An email thread between you and a friend or family member planning a trip, for instance, would result in ads for airfare or hotels. Even your location could be taken into account, resulting in a new set of ads when you end up at your destination. That tested the trust of Gmail users, and indeed Microsoft brought up the issue again more recently in its "Scroogled" ad campaign that criticized Google's targeted advertising practices, but most users have stayed and accepted (or learned to ignore) the ads framing their inboxes.

Facebook is likewise using your information to deliver more targeted advertising, but it goes one step further. It's using your information to also publicly display ads to your Facebook friends -- ads that can imply an endorsement on your part. Clicking the "Like" button on the website of a restaurant you're thinking of trying out, for instance, doesn't simply add that restaurant to your profile and news feed; it allows Facebook to show an ad (or a "Related Post") to your friends that says you like the restaurant -- even if you've since changed your opinion after actually going to it.

Even information that doesn't appear on your Facebook profile can influence the ads you see. One of the more surprising examples -- to the average user, at least -- involves an ad offering what Facebook has dubbed "partner categories." That vague moniker covers targeted advertising based on information gained from data brokers like Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon, who in turn get their information through loyalty card programs and other sources.

Facebook has broken that data down into 500 unique groups advertisers can choose from (as of April), which get as specific as, for example, those who buy a lot of children's cereal as opposed to fiber or hot cereals. In another example, Facebook says "a local car dealership can now show ads to people who are likely in the market for a new car who live near their dealership." As Wired's Ryan Tate noted when that new advertising option was announced, Facebook isn't necessarily doing anything new by using that type of information to deliver targeted ads, "they're just doing it more effectively than everyone else."

Facebook's targeted advertising reach can also extend to other websites you visit if they participate in the company's Facebook Exchange program, which lets it deliver ads based on your browsing habits. As with the partner ads, these are some of the more subtly targeted ads from the user's perspective, as they don't require you to directly link your account or log in at the site in question; simply being logged into Facebook itself and having cookies enabled in your browser are enough. And, according to a recent report from Adweek, advertisers seem happy to pay a higher upfront price for those ads given the far better returns they deliver -- including the possibility of added exposure at no extra cost as other users comment on, like and share the ads themselves.

Those ads are also constantly evolving. Just last month, Facebook announced that it was streamlining its advertising options, cutting down the number of different ad units it offers from 27 to less than half that number. Not surprisingly, that new focus places an even greater emphasis on "social ads." In announcing the changes, Facebook said that it would "include the best of sponsored stories in all ads," and "automatically add social context to boost performance and eliminate the extra step of creating sponsored stories." Facebook went on to say that it knows "social enhances ad resonance," and cited research from Nielsen, comScore and Datalogix that shows "social context can drive awareness and return on ad spend," adding that it therefore wanted to "make it easier to add it to our ads."

Facebook Gifts takes targeted advertising yet another step further, prompting you to buy your friends an actual gift if they announce a "life event," which you can do without ever leaving Facebook. A recent expansion of the service even allows those prompts to appear if a person doesn't specifically choose one of Facebook's preset life events -- just a mention of the right keywords in a status update indicating a new job or a new home is enough to trigger a gift suggestion. In those and other instances, Facebook is getting smarter about who you are and what you're doing, but we're also giving it a lot of information to work with.

"YOU CAN'T GET AWAY FROM YOUR PAST."

As with the Gmail situation, Facebook's use of your data to drive advertising hasn't proven to be a dealbreaker for most -- indeed, its reach has only continued to grow, long since crossing the 1 billion-users mark (and, incidentally, the 1 million-active advertisers mark). But it does seem to have pushed more buttons, and it has been enough to drive some away from the social network. One vocal critic is author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who explained why he was finally quitting Facebook in a column for CNN earlier this year.

"It does things on our behalf when we're not even there," he said in the column. "It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and worse misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others." As Rushkoff sees it, Facebook's true end users are not its 1 billion-plus members, but "the marketers who want to reach and influence us." These are companies that he says used to do the hard work that we (with Facebook's help) are now doing for them: building consumer profiles with a level of detail that simply wouldn't have been possible before.


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