Stamatakis: Facebook advertising descends into the uncanny valley

By Nick Stamatakis

“Just woke up. I think I’ll use some of my Listerine-brand… “Just woke up. I think I’ll use some of my Listerine-brand mouthwash. So refreshing!”

This is the future Facebook envisions. Statuses like this are what will move the company forward.

At least, this is what I have ascertained from the flurry of interviews and news stories surrounding Facebook’s entry into the New York Stock Exchange. The value of Facebook isn’t just that it knows a bunch of information about you — Google, which is valued lower, knows just as much — but that the company will somehow be able to tap into the site’s social element to extract massive payoffs.

When it comes to the specifics of achieving these payoffs, details are somewhat lacking. In one interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke of how companies can aggregate the ‘likes’ of various product lines to get a good sense of popular opinion. While the site no longer uses Beacon, an ad service designed to broadcast purchases to friends, the practice of “friending” brand pages sends a similar message: “I, your friend, like this brand. You should, too.”

These two programs, along with a number of others, are admittedly in their beta phases. The specifics of how Facebook will make gazillions of dollars are hazy, but the broad picture is clear: Something about the social aspect makes the company valuable.

But before quitting college to buy shares of Facebook stock, remember that there is a potential stumbling block in the company’s search for billions.

The problem is the uncanny valley.

Many people know of the uncanny valley from robotics. The idea is that we love robots that are only slightly humanlike, like Roomba vacuums and Wall-E — with their disproportionate bodies and little buttons, they are actually cute. We can also handle robots that are 100 percent indistinguishable from humans — we simply don’t know they are robots.

But it is the weird sex doll robots that creep people out. The extra-slow blinking and ultra-smooth movements confound us. Everything about them screams robot cyborg attack.

So, too, exists the uncanny valley in advertising. Non-specific advertising is not a big deal — even geographically or demographically-centered ads in newspapers and television don’t feel incredibly invasive. In this way, these old media outlets are just like Wall-E — quaint and unassuming.

On the opposite side lies Google, which aggregates searches made over months to directly target users through banner ads. All over the Internet, Google’s AdSense targets you directly with services and products you probably want. This might seem terrifying in concept, but in practice, it is all almost too tricky to be detected. Cataloging thousands of searches, it is hard to pinpoint a search for fly-fishing rods and an eventual ad on an unrelated, but somehow relevant, topic.

Facebook exists solely in the uncanny valley. Facebook is not just a net catching our every subconscious whim via web searches — what we put on Facebook is very precise. Instead of our private activities, it reflects our public personas. So when you see an advertisement on Facebook, you can quickly guess what prompted the match.

A recent example of this popped up on my newsfeed. A Pitt student took a screenshot of his ads, and it was very apparent all of the information was based on one or two points from his profile. This was not like Google’s sneaky ads — all it did was prompt him to call the whole thing ridiculous.

In fitting irony, everybody else who commented on the picture started talking about Facebook’s targeting. It was obvious to everyone that ads were based on profile information. Facebook users were using social networking not to talk about the newest flavor of Listerine, but to complain about the obviousness of the targeting.

Perhaps Facebook can overcome this. Maybe there is a way to make their methods a bit less obvious. When Target got in trouble for using purchasing patterns to send targeted advertisements to people they judged to be pregnant, they developed a far more subversive method of alternating targeted ads and general ads — leaving customers unaware of the tracking and more open to the messages. After a dip in sales from the creepiness, sales have recovered and customers are now generally unaware that they are tracked.

But don’t just assume Facebook will make this leap. Everybody knows all our activities are tracked on the web, but when this reality smacks us in the face, we don’t like it. What we search in Google or buy at Target just seems more anonymous. Facebook, being a much more limited and concentrated avenue than Google while serving as a shrine to everything “us,” will always have the problem of anti-anonymity.

So you shouldn’t be too jealous that Zuckerberg has more money than you will ever possibly have. At least you can rest easy knowing he probably won’t be able to completely control the world.

Email Nick at [email protected]