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.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Health & Fitness

JLABS injects some tech into the medical industry

Innovating health care is expensive, risky, and complicated legally. One company is trying to remove these barriers with clever and altruistic approach.
Digital Trends Live

DT Daily: Google Pixel Night Sight, Surface Studio 2, and Netflix at half price

Today on DT Daily, Greg Nibler was joined by Adrian Warner to talk trending topics like the new Google Pixel Night Sight and we got our hands on the $3,500 Microsoft computer that's giving Apple a run for its money.
Movies & TV

He created comics, movies, and superheroes. But Stan Lee lived for joy

Stan Lee was a creator, a celebrity, an icon, and beneath it all, a real-life good guy with all the same human qualities that made his superheroes so relatable. And his greatest joy was sharing his creations with the world.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Home Theater

I’ve seen the 8K TV future, and you should be excited. Here’s why

Samsung set the tech world on fire when it announced it would sell an 85-inch 8K TV in the U.S. along with several 8K screen sizes in Europe. Debates over the validity and value of such a high resolution have continued since, and we're here…
Mobile

Inferiority is a feature now! Palm's new plan is psychotic

The Palm is a smartphone to reduce your smartphone usage, or a small smartphone for when you don't want to carry your big smartphone. Palm itself doesn't seem sure which it is, but either way, it's a product that's so witless, we're amazed…
Home Theater

Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

Not all that long ago, budget TVs were only worth looking at if, well, you were on a budget. Thanks to Roku, not only are budget TVs now a viable option for anyone, but they might even be a better buy than more expensive TVs.
Mobile

Huawei and Leica’s monochrome lens is dead, so we celebrate its life

The Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro do not have a dedicated monochrome camera lens, unlike the P20 Pro, and various Huawei and Leica phones before it. It's the end of an era, and also the start of a new one, as Leica has worked on its…
Mobile

Smartphone makers are vomiting a torrent of new phones, and we’re sick of it

Smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, LG, Sony, and Motorola are releasing far too many similar phones. The update cycle has accelerated, but more choice is not always a good thing.
Opinion

Do we even need 5G at all?

Faster phones, easier access to on-demand video, simpler networking -- on the surface, 5G sounds like a dream. So why is it more of a nightmare?
Computing

Razer’s most basic Blade 15 is the one most gamers should buy

Razer's Blade 15 is an awesome laptop for both gamers, streamers, professionals, and anyone else needing serious go in a slim profile, but its price is out of reach for many games. The new Blade 15 Base solves that problem with few…
Gaming

Going to hell, again. The Switch makes 'Diablo 3' feel brand-new

I've played every version of Diablo 3 released since 2012, racking up hundreds of hours in the process. Six years later, I'm playing it yet again on Nintendo Switch. Somehow, it still feels fresh.
Home Theater

The Apple AirPods 2 needed to come out today. Here are four reasons why

Apple announced numerous new products at its October 30 event, a lineup that included a new iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, as well as a new Mac Mini. Here are four reasons we wish a new set of AirPods were on that list.
Gaming

‘Fallout 76’ may have online multiplayer but it’s still a desolate wasteland

"Is Fallout 76 an MMO?" That depends on who you ask. Critics and players often cite its online multiplayer capabilities as a reason it qualifies. Yet calling the game an MMO only confuses matters, and takes away from what could make…