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Does Targeted Advertising Work?

DanielMiller5 February 2015

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

Photo by Mike Licht (creative commons)

As Ethan Zuckerman noted in The Atlantic (14/08/2014) even though many groups and initiatives really didn’t want to go down that route, targeted advertising has become the default funding model for the internet, as people failed to find an alternative. A combination of developments such as big data and mining information from sources such as search engines and social network sites means that today it is possible for ads to be honed quite precisely to the interests of individuals as revealed by their online activity.

It is not at all surprising to find that English people who, as many of my blog posts have argued, are hugely concerned with privacy and keeping people away from their homes and intimate worlds, vociferously complain about the development of targeted advertising. The two most commonly quoted examples are Facebook and the supermarket chain Tesco. A typical complaint was ` Google will change your settings on your cursor, so that every time it goes back and tells them what you are using it for. Then they send you certain adverts….If you join Tescos, every time you go through the till it records everything you’ve brought. And suddenly they start sending you vouchers to buy meat… or this persons a drinker. Everything you do.’

In our project we anticipate cultural variation and it was interesting to read an article in the Financial Times recently (28/01/15) that suggested in China customers of WeChat felt personally insulted when they were not included in a targeted advert for BMW. This leaves us with at least two interesting possibilities. The first is that people say they resent the advertising but actually find them convenient and use them, which is why they continue to spread. Alternatively corporations tend to follow technological advances and do this simply `because they can’, even if in actuality these adverts did not in fact work. When I studied businesses (Miller, D. 1997 Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach) I found that fear of what the competition might do was much more important than evidence for what customers actually do in understanding business practice around advertising. The academic work on the topic is still slight, and it is starting to look like targeted adverts in some combinations might actually be sending people away from companies rather than building their profits (e.g. Goldfarb, A., and C. Tucker. 2011 “Online Display Advertising: Targeting and Obtrusiveness.” Marketing Science 30.3 (2011): 389-404). In the meantime I have been faced with some of the most egregious examples of such advertising through my research with hospice patients. As one put it `I’ve joined the moving-on group now, since I’ve finished treatment, try and move on. Sometimes I get a lot of feeds and it does get a bit much. Don’t want it in your face all the time, keeps coming up, so I had to stop a lot of the feeds, otherwise every other thing was cancer cancer cancer and I’m not moving on. Think I’ll get rid of these off my Facebook.’

Does Facebook produce reality?

ElisabettaCosta31 December 2014

Facebook meme

Facebook meme

Researchers of the Global Social Media Impact Study are currently writing a chapter about the visual material posted on social media. For this reason I’ve been carefully observing my friends’ Facebook profiles and I counted an incredibly high number of memes citing famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Differently from the Italian field-site (see Razvan’s last blog post) where highly educated people use Facebook to express their knowledge and abilities when these can’t be used in other ways, in Mardin young adults use Facebook to construct a well-educated, moral and virtuous self and make it visible to the others. As I’ve been told by many local friends, people in Mardin want to appear literate, wisdom, religious and moral, and they use social media to achieve this goal. In fact Facebook is also criticized for being used to construct an-ideal self that is quite different from the offline self. The discrepancy between the online and the offline was a discussed topic in Mardin, and it also emerged from my ethnographic observation.

On the public Facebook wall, people consciously post what they know is going to be under the gaze of others. The public Facebook wall in Mardin is a place to be observed and to be looked at. Young adults and and middle aged people don’t simply stage a successful character in that specific social context, but they perform a self that is imagined as continuously monitored, controlled and judged. In Mardin social media are spaces under surveillance, and people more or less consciously perceive themselves under the control and the gaze of others and of the State institutions.

In a region that has experienced decades of political violence and inter-ethnic conflicts, people’s traumatic experiences have led to the production of fears and suspicion towards the ‘other’, whether this is embodied by the State or by the social body, and whether the threat is real or not. These two levels, the State and the society, blend and reinforce each other. As result people tend to be aware of privacy settings, to be cautious about the material they share, and to post only what strictly confirms to dominant social norms. Surveillance is a productive force that generates specific performances and production of selves.

But probably the most interesting consequence of surveillance is that it makes the visible real. When the visible is monitored by the society and by its authorities, and for this reason it’s imagined as having real consequences, then it’s intended as real. It’s in this context of surveillance that the visible on Facebook becomes real. And this explains why many people in Mardin spend a lot of time and energy to accurately construct their idealized self on Facebook. In 1928 the two sociologists W.I. Thomas and D.S. Thomas formulated this theorem: “When men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. But we may also say that when one level of appearance is imagined as having consequences (and it does have consequences) then it becomes as real.

Regulating the body in Chilean cyberspace

NellHaynes22 September 2014

no desnudes

Last week, a friend here in Northern Chile posted on his Facebook wall a stylized drawing of a woman’s body with the words: “Don’t show your naked body on social networking sites. Gain the admiration and respect of your contacts and friends by showing your qualities as a person. What makes you sexy and beautiful is not your body, but your personality. Women and girls deserve respect.”

This was not the first time I had seen such a post. I have seen such memes circulating for several months, posted by grandmothers, mothers, and young men and women. But this post made me pause because my friend Miguel was the one who posted it. A few months into my fieldwork, Miguel was showing me a funny meme his friend had posted. As he scrolled down on his Facebook feed, he passed a post from Playboy Magazine that showed two women in bikinis. “Oh, those are my ugly cousins!” he joked. As he scrolled down there were several other posts from Playboy and he told me “My cousins post pictures of themselves a lot.”

Since the subject had been breached, he seemed to feel comfortable discussing semi-pornographic posts with me and I took advantage of the situation by continuing to ask questions. He told me all about “the new thing” of pictures of the underside of women’s breasts rather than their cleavage. He switched to Whatsapp and clicked a link a friend had sent him to demonstrate. There I saw “50 of the Best Underboob Shots on the Internet,” mostly taken selfie-style either in the mirror, or up one’s own shirt. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or confused.

With this previous discussion in mind, in which, quite openly he discussed how he enjoyed seeing overtly sexy pictures that women take of their bodies, it seemed strange that he would post such a meme chastising women for doing this very thing.

Of course, there is a big difference between the women who are likely the intended recipients of his message and the women who are displayed on Playboy’s Facebook page. That is: he expects his female friends to read his Facebook wall. He does not expect Playboy models, or even the women whose reverse cleavage pictures are floating around the internet to be his followers on Facebook. In essence, his Facebook activity is revealing of something anthropologists have long known; we treat friends and acquaintances differently than we treat strangers (for example see Simmel’s essay on The Stranger and our own blog about chatting to Strangers in China). In this case it is acceptable to objectify the bodies of strangers, but he hopes that the women he knows personally will not openly contribute to their own objectification.

In looking through my own female Facebook friends from Northern Chile, I don’t see any pictures that are overtly sexual and show body parts that one wouldn’t reveal on a hot summer day. However, in my “you might know…” suggestions, I do see several such profile pictures for accounts based in this city. Miguel, along with other friends—both male and female—assured me that these profiles were fake (see also controversies of fake profiles in India and Turkey). “They say they’re from here but I’ve never met any of these women. They’re definitely fake profiles.”

To me this suggests two related points about the ways the regulation of bodies and nudity are happening online. The first is simply that these “Don’t show your naked body” memes represent a way of surveilling and controlling what others do with their bodies. They use straw-women as a warning, suggesting that showing too much body on social media will result in people losing respect. This strategy seems to have worked as well. Young women in northern Chile shy away from showing their bodies in contexts connected to their public personality. Yet the pictures still appear in the form of anonymous or fake profiles. Using fake names and profile pictures, they still post faceless photos exposing body parts fit only for a very liberal beach.

While this in some ways may be seen as a victory for young women’s self-worth based on traits not connected to their sexuality or bodies’ likenesses to those featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the surveillance and judgment of their online activity represents another issue—regulation that denies young women agency over the representation of their own bodies. This is one thing when coming from mothers and aunts, but young men like Miguel present a double standard in which their social networking activity elevates the bodies of strangers—from swimsuit models to unknown women taking risqué selfies, while condemning their own peers for similar self-representations. It’s not hard to imagine then why fake profiles might be a good option for young women trying to find self esteem about their bodies and their own ways to fit into the world of social networking.

In the end, what this tells us about social networking sites in this context, is that they are still very closely connected to the body. The internet is not a haven for free-floating identity, disconnected from our physical form, but is a place where bodies may still be seen as a representation of an individual, may still be regulated, and may still be a site of agency or repression. Rather than actually showing the respect that “women and girls deserve,” these memes further regulate women. Much as catcalls on the street regulate women’s bodies in physical space, memes that tell women what is acceptable for their bodies do so in the space of the internet.

If you are interested in themes of surveillance and control, see also Caste Related Profiles on Facebook in India, Facebook and the Vulnerability of the Self and Love is… in Turkey, and Social Media and the Sense of Autonomy in Italy.

Social media and the sense of autonomy

RazvanNicolescu23 October 2013

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

Photo by Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the usage of social media among teenagers in the Italian fieldsite and in particular about the idea of self-autonomy. The first thing to say is quite obvious: that is, most teenagers’ usage of social media happens between two main forces that act simultaneously and most of the time in opposite directions. On one hand, their peers encourage an active usage of new technology and social media, and on the other hand, parents and schools tend to drastically discourage and limit this usage. While online friends require more online interactivity and participation, families and teachers encourage more offline involvement. These kinds of misunderstandings are largely discussed in the anthropological literature (see for example Livingstone, Ito, or the Digital Youth Project) and I will not dwell here on this topic.

Another important issue related to teenagers’ usage of social media is that, like when playing in the playground, social media provides the setting where they learn and practice sociality inside the various peer-groups they adhere to and with no significant help or guidance from adults. At the same time, the famous psychologist Jean Piaget argued that roughly between 12 and 14 years old teenagers engage on the road from an ego-centric to a de-centered understanding of the world. In social terms, this process corresponds to a movement from a rather concrete to a more abstract understanding of relationships. Whether it is driven by an individual fascination or by a social imperative for the newly discovered relationships, may be debated. What is really important, I argue, is that the individual is entering int0 a vast system of communication and relations with a large number of peers in a relatively short period of time. There seems to be little time and space to filter out ideas and to be very strict in following some pre-defined rules for communicating, in adults’ terms. Instead, teenagers seem to sort out these rules on the go, while being active on social media.

Paulina is a 14 years old. She has been on Facebook for two years. She has around 800 friends on this platform, her profile is public, and she does not differentiate too much between her online friends. She is usually online two to three hours a day and logged into her Facebook account. She admits she does many other things online, including homework, however, most of the time she is busy answering different requests or messages she receives on Facebook. She does that because she feels she has to respond to these requests and she has to be quick if she wants her own thoughts to be heard. She is not interested if other people look at her online profile and why they would do that.

Paulina’s mother opposes most of these ideas. She has had a Facebook profile for around two years, but she was never too active on it. She has around 80 Facebook friends, most of them mothers. Actually, one of the reasons many parents started using Facebook was to friend their children so they could watch over their online behavior. She could not understand why her daughter would just post ‘everything’ on Facebook. She is quite confused in particular by the fact that her daughter seems to not make any choices in what to post and what to not post online, or in differentiating somehow between the audience of these posts. A private quarrel could go online, as well as an important prize at school. After some time of trying to control her daughter online, she gave up and started to mind more her own Facebook friends.

This story is very typical for the Italian town: teenagers introducing their parents to Facebook and young people introducing their parents to computer and skype. In a way, this seems to correspond to the process described by the term polymedia. However, when teenagers started to be active on twitter, things changed dramatically: they suddenly evaded the more socially accepted peer-to-peer communication for a much stranger one. Most parents do not even bother to ask their children what they do on twitter, not to mention trying to go to the site. Meanwhile, teenagers enjoy their newly discovered autonomy that corresponds to a sort of abstractization of social relations as detailed above. In any case, many teenagers seem to think that while Facebook became rather normative and predictable, twitter allows them to be more autonomous and innovative. And rules seem to be more difficult to be enforced here.