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That’s not the real me: How vanity sabotages Facebook advertising

keyboard share buttonI’m not the real me on Facebook.

“Facebook Louie” records music, cofounded a record label, and is friends with notable musicians, producers, and visual artists. “Facebook Louie” is kind of cool, and, when he heard from at all, confines his views to the least controversial of topics.

The person writing this column is not “Facebook Louie,” it’s the Louie that has invested at least 150 hours into Diablo 3 (as nerdy as that might be), and adores The Real World/Road Rules Challenge (as embarrassing as that is). This “Authentic Louie” is less cool, but more real.

None of us are our authentic, honest selves on Facebook. We censor things which are embarrassing and which disagree with the personas we have constructed there. Social science agrees with me (well, two theories do, at least). That could be bad news for Facebook.

You vs. you

The sheer amount of information we pour into social networks like Facebook might make them seem like ideal advertising platforms, but they’re actually at an odd disadvantage in some ways: Facebook’s public nature makes us behave more like characters and less like our authentic selves. In that regard, Facebook has less accurate information about us than competitors like Google. That means that Facebook ads are often less relevant to us, and, therefore, less valuable to advertisers – a serious problem for a company that rakes in all of its revenue from targeted advertising.

All the world’s a stage

A theatrical metaphor developed by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman is useful for understanding our behavior on Facebook. First put forth in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman offered the following description of his dramaturgical theory of communication in his later work, Frame Analysis.

I am suggesting that often what talkers undertake to do is not to provide information to a recipient, but to present dramas to an audience. Indeed, it seems that we spend most of our time not engaged in giving information, but in giving shows.

According to Goffman’s theory, when communicating we adopt a role suitable to our environment and capable of achieving our goals. We are actors on a stage. Shakespeare, as ever, proves prescient.

social network facebookThis model describes my activities on Facebook with uncanny accuracy. My goal on Facebook is to cultivate new and strengthen existing social connections. Many of those connections are within Portland’s music scene (a word particularly apt to the metaphor), so I portray myself in a way that fits that scene and my goals within it. This means leaving some things — Diablo 3, for example — out of that portrayal.

Because of Facebook’s interpersonal nature, the version of self I reveal there will never be as complete as my portrayal when using Google search. It is unlikely that my Google search habits will become publicly known, so I don’t give censorship a second thought. Google knows about my love-hate relationship with Diablo 3. Facebook does not, because this trait does not fit the role I portray there.

Absent self-censorship, the information I reveal indirectly via Google search paints a more complete picture of me than what I disclose directly via Facebook. This is one reason that Google Adwords can be a better product than Facebook’s ads. Google knows more about me, and can therefore offer better targeting data to its advertisers.

Sex, drugs, and reality TV

Role-based censorship is just one of the ways that we limit the depictions of ourselves on Facebook. We may censor ourselves just as much or more when it comes to topics we find private or embarrassing.

Drawing on research dating back to the mid-1950’s, Robert J. Fisher writes of this bias in the introduction to Social Desirability Bias and the Validity of Indirect Questioning.

Unfortunately, the basic human tendency to present oneself in the best possible light can significantly distort the information gained from self-reports. … The result is data that are systematically biased toward respondents’ perceptions of what is “correct” or socially acceptable.

Questions about sexual behavior or illicit drug use often return skewed results, as research subjects will seek to avoid disparaging or incriminating responses.

Facebook login page article main headerBecause Facebook is a public medium based largely on self reporting through status updates and other posts, it’s susceptible to the same bias. Therefore, it will see fewer posts relating to subjects traditionally biased against, like sex and drugs. Because we all want to be cool, there will be more posts about subjects not traditionally biased against.

For example, I am a recent devotee of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. I’m ashamed to admit it, but Johnny Bananas’ epic season 16 performance hooked me. The Challenge might actually be my favorite show. However, you will see no mention of it on my Facebook profile. Why? Well, what would people think, if they knew? Suddenly I’m “reality TV guy.” Who wants to be “reality TV guy?”

There are sites out there that know my secret. Google, because my general research about the show, and Amazon, from whom I can purchase full seasons of the show. Once again, Facebook’s competitors have more information about me due to my tendency to reveal more information indirectly than directly. Google and Amazon can target ads based on those details. Facebook cannot.

Facebook’s problem

Of course, Facebook has problems beyond these, not least of which the astronomical expectations for the service at the time of its IPO. Facebook’s ads must improve if it is to meet those expectations. There are two ways that it can do so. The first is to roll out new products from which it can yield new sources of targeting data. The service’s rumored “Want” button may be the most significant step in this direction.

The second way Facebook can improve its targeting data is much more difficult, and challenges the two communications theories outlined above. Facebook needs us to share more honestly — even when we find that sharing out-of-sync with who we pretend to be, or when that sharing reveals embarrassing things.

However, it remains to be seen if the information we give Facebook voluntarily will ever equal the value of the information we give its competitors involuntarily. Facebook certainly has the ambition to change our behavior. The future of the company may depend on whether it is successful.