I’ve been a fan of Facebook pretty much since its inception, as soon as they let dinosaurs like me in. Continued to be a fan as Facebook grew, count a number of people there amongst my friends. [And no, I do not own any stock there].

There’s lots about Facebook I like.

When some people moved over to Google+, I did what most others did. Treated Google+ like a gym. Joined. Went there occasionally. And not much else.

I’ve marvelled at how Facebook makes a misstep, learns from it, adjusts and adapts in superfast time. I’ve waxed lyrical about how enterprises could learn from Facebook.

I’ve been frustrated by shenanigans to do with Friendfeed and with Instagram, especially when things haven’t quite worked the way I expected them to work. I’ve been discomfited by the way my blog content suddenly “lived” in more than one place, with comments and conversations fragmenting. Little niggles here and there. But not enough to worry me.

You could say I’ve been a Facebook fanboy.

And then yesterday I learnt something that made me go Hmmm.



Here’s the story. Some days ago, I happened across some delightful reviews of a product in Amazon, a whole new genre of writing that I’ve been aware of for some years, but only followed seriously since Three Wolf Moon. I enjoyed reading what was written in the reviews of what appeared to be a very expensive audio cable. And, as you would expect, I shared it with my friends. In Facebook. And Twitter. And even Google+.

And that was that.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, a friend of mine, someone I’ve known for thirty years, got in touch and pointed out that my act of sharing was now part of a “sponsored” something or the other, as shown above.

And that makes me go Hmmm.

There’s something I really don’t like about it.

When I share things, I share because I feel like sharing. Not promoted or sponsored or anything like that. Nobody pays me to write what I write, or to share what I share. Occasionally I write something that touches on, where I work. Work is part of my life, so why ever not? And whenever there is any risk of people misconstruing what I write, I make sure the relationship is made very clear. I write about work the way I write about music or about food or about anything else that forms part of my life.

I am not paid to share. And what I share I share because I feel like sharing it.

So when I see my name appear under the headline “Sponsored” it does not sit well with me.

Now, all of a sudden, I have to think about what’s happening in a different light. Where and how did I give Facebook the right to use something I shared and embed it in a sponsored link? Perhaps I did, buried deep in the terms and conditions. In this content I don’t care if I made my comment publicly (I did), what matters to me is that there is a perception that I was sponsored to say something. And that I am not happy about.

I have other questions now. Who else saw the sponsored link? Was it just made visible to my friends? Why was my act-of-sharing considered worth embedding in a sponsored link? Was it my perceived “influence”? I’m not exactly an A-lister. There are many more such questions.

The most intriguing one for me is “why”?

Did someone pay for that sponsored link? Why on earth would they pay? What I’d shared was really satire, complete and absolute corruption of the review process in Amazon, but a corruption I admire and enjoy. Nobody is going to pay thousands of dollars for an audio cable after reading what I’ve said. It’s not that type of review, it’s not that type of product. For all I know the product may not even be for sale.

I have this faint and lingering thought that the whole thing is some sort of Kevin Slavin algorithms-gone-mad situation. That nobody actually paid for the sponsored link (there was nothing to gain), that somewhere deep inside the denizens of Facebook people are experimenting with new revenue streams that allow advertisers to pick recommendations up from shared activity streams and use them as they see fit. That the requisite permision structures are still being built. That somehow something “escaped” into the blue yonder.

Am I being too charitable? You tell me.

I don’t have any answers. I’m still not “against” Facebook, I’m not that kind of guy.

What I do have is this feeling of Hmmm. And a wish to know more about what really happened before I decide to do something about it.



50 thoughts on “Hmmm.”

  1. Well JP, I’m surprised and not, really. I guess if it comes to me, the exact word for me would not be “hmmmm”, but “WTF”, in an exact mindset as you. We’re not “paid” to share, or if we are, it’s concretely and transparent with a determined action to do so. And we might being called “ads agents”, and being considered as so by the whole community. I, like you, don’t really spend much time to be an ad support more, and if I “like” something, it could be withdrawn, and/or be for a moment, action…Im’ not married with any brand, but like values (and rarely products), moreover. FB seems to be an incredible story, but as “business” entered in, the serious things start…as doing money with us. That’s the way all startups end on, with funds, shareholders and executives that are request to do so. And I’m really disappointed about it, while it’s been a awesome disruptive “way/tool/utility”, but to me, not goaled as a “noisy ads place” more.
    History will tell us “what”, but I guess the force of community can spread the word and avoid such behaviors. The story of FB, well written in a book by Kirkpatrick, ends on such strategic problems: where is the strategic intent, now and tomorrow? ads/no ads, when “f…” will the machine enter a real “business”…Some may be impatient about it…
    Take care, and thanks for sharing.

  2. I wrote this in early March about a parallel issue with Google.

    I think the issues amount to the same thing. From Facebook’s perspective, there’s a lot of work involved in justifying a market cap of $80-100bn. The open market and institutional investors will only drive this kind of behaviour faster and further.

  3. The thing to remember is that Facebook has created an extremely enjoyable, ever-evolving sheep’s pen for us. But we must always remember that we are not Facebook’s customers. We are their product. It benefits them to keep us addicted, if not happy (e.g., occasionally violent reactions to Timeline and other changes). But their customers are the organizations that want to tap into that land of deep, voluntarily shared behavioral data.

    So yes, I’m sure that someone paid good money to acquire what you “enjoyed” so that they can advertise it. Because Facebook’s narrowcasting abilities are that strong and getting stronger all the times. Because they will attract more attention and most likely sell more stuff if they can say, “Someone very specific, someone you know, is interested in our product,” versus even, “hundreds of thousands of people love our product.”

    Moreover, the longer all of these trajectories continue, the blurrier the lines will be between what we do/say/share and who can take advantage of it..

  4. Agreed, re hmmm. FB’s sponsored posts have had this effect on me for months. Where on one hand I think it’s a brilliant marketing move (leveraging advocacy at scale), on the otherhand it feels like claiming someone’s kind words about your work as a formal endorsement you could post as a client referral.

    What gets weirder for me is knowing what’s coming down the pike in terms of location data. As David Berkowitz of 360i pointed out in a great blog post recently, FB paid 1B got Instagram not just for the need to keep photos on theirplatform, but to acquire the location data. So now think about your Sponsored Post example combined with SoLoMo features – “JP lingered by this coffee shop for 20 minutes” could become a sponsored ad, even though you may have lingered to stand and make a phone call.

    Long story short, FB is making piles of money off our behavior and words. In one sense, that’s fair because it’s a free service. In another, it’s highway robbery and deeply offensive since our data and relationships are priceless.

  5. I shared a link for your story on Facebook and some of my friends suggested that “settings” will do the trick – I am not convinced that it will :-) But this is where FB promises not to turn your social behavior into adds:

    FB also say the following about it:

    “Here are the facts:
    Social ads show an advertiser’s message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page
    Your privacy settings apply to social ads
    We don’t sell your information to advertisers
    Only confirmed friends can see your actions alongside an ad
    If a photo is used, it is your profile photo and not from your photo albums”

    And it still remains an open question if sponsored stories are included in this exclusion?

  6. Just as bad are the “Richard Holway read an article on xxxxxx from the Guardian” or whatever. One of my friends was interested in a particular medical condition and found the articles she had read on the subject were generating Status updates. It was very embarrassing. All this is ‘a step too far’ and is already creating considerable backlash – amongst my frends at least.
    I am now very wary about signing up for anything -or any App which might possibly generate such a post. This is surely not the intended consequence.

  7. @Trine-Maria I don’t believe for one hot second that they don’t sell our data in some form.

    *someone* made money (or stood to make money) from that sponsored ad, otherwise why bother

    FB will definitely have a long way to go to justify that market cap AND once they are public they will face the never ending cycle drama of quarterly earnings and shareholder bleatings.
    I think this is the slow descent of FB and people are waiting for something new to come along (something good/better, not google+)

  8. @Joe the image it conjures up is less about friction and more about feeling chafed…..

  9. @laurent I would have understood a Like button use more easily. Here what I did was share a link. And commented on the link I shared. So it’s a long hop to say I liked a product, and then to put that in the context of something sponsored….

  10. Yes, I think that’s what people are now concerned about, the post-peak-facebook behaviour. It shouldn’t happen for a while….

  11. @corey-jan I get what you’re saying, but the context still makes no sense to me. I linked to a set of satirical reviews about a fictional product. Why would anyone pay to sponsor that? And what possible value could there be in including me as an endorser-by-accident?

  12. @johnchavens I was prepared for the traditional usecase/ But, as I pointed out to Corey-Jan, the sheer lunacy of my example worries me. First, I didn’t Like something, I linked to an Amazon review. And commented on the link. Second, what I linked to was a set of satirical, often very humorous, reviews. Third, the product that was being reviewed was pretty much fictional… who pays $8500 for audio cables? So I cannot find a logical motive for someone to have shelled out money to get that sponsored whatever in place, and to put my share into it….

  13. @Trine-Marie, I have that option set now. But as you say the problem is in the definition. Was what I saw a sponsored story? because it wasn’t really an ad. if it is a sponsored story, who sponsored it? Why?

  14. @richard I tend to watch this spate of “story-reading-apps that spy on you and share stuff at random” very carefully. and usually decline to participate. On at least one occasion, even though I *declined* use of the app, and *never* read the story, the app still placed that action into my timeline….

  15. @antje yes, a few people have commented that this is post-peak-facebook behaviour… not here but on Twitter and on facebook….

  16. @Corey-Jan Great comment. Our data – proclivities, propensities, loves and location – should be a valuable asset we individually control, but currently if the service is free your life is the product.

    Facebook is a brilliant trap that seduces and flatters our egos but I can’t wait for this adolescent era of commercialized social networking to end and a new one, where we are more aware of our data and have some control over where it is exposed begins. The dark side of all this is a self policed STASI style state

  17. Yeah I had this WTF moment last month…made think very hard about what I choose to share on any social network, not just Facebook – which by the way I feel has become much more about ‘exploiting’ social data to feed more money to Zuckerberg and Co. You can’t even opt out of this exploitation and I hate that it makes it look like you are ‘sponsoring’ the link…somehow suggesting to your friends that they should buy it!!! Not cool. Not cool at all…

    If Google+ was better I would have split by now but the ties are too big and too deep – Google has nothing right now which is worth the pain of swapping.

  18. @oliver I’m comfortable with the trade in most cases. I’m used to the no-free-lunch idea. If I am not the customer I am the product. All that’s fine. Informed consent. So I love StumbleUpon and hate what RealNetworks tried to do over a decade ago. But what gets me here is that I don’t actually understand who the customer is. The recommendation, if there is an implied recommendation in my shared action, is that people read some reviews. Satirical reviews. Of a theoretical product. That is what’s really getting me…. who could *possibly* want to pay for my endorsing ironic reviews of nonexistent products…..

  19. Facebook traded part of your digital footprint in exchange for some social networking features (and a bit of kudos to you for looking at some cool audio equipment). They then sold that on to Amazon/AudioQuest as a paid ad.

  20. When this happened to me, my friends and I decided to just start posting FB links to anything on Amazon with a picture that we liked as a way to make our friends smile in a different way. The idea of sponsored ads popping up as a kind of alternative, intentionally non-economic / ironically economic link in FB’s ad/sponsor space amused us.

    Think of it as a way to coopt the ad space creatively.

  21. @rama I’m sure it’s been going on for a while, yesterday was the first time someone brought it to my notice.

  22. @mark if Amazon or AudioQuest were prepared to pay for that non-recommendation to a non-product then that’s fine :-)

  23. I *like* it. Now, rather than just have satirical reviews, we can have satirical “ads” where we take advantage of the algorithms. Now if that really does work….. Andy, you have brought a big smile to my face. I have to go off and hunt for other things to share/link to, which can then appear in sponsored stories somewhere. What a brilliant idea! Subversive to the core.

  24. Makes the issue of us being the raw material and the product pretty real and clear, no ?

    You/we become the means of continual product placement in all your/our current and potential friends’ lives. Whilst we pay for the privilege by letting our thoughts, feelings, intents and connections to friends become commoditized over time.

    Not really the party I want to attend every week for the rest of my life.

  25. Put me in the “WTF, not HMMMM” camp. But things like this are why my personal FB strategy is to create temporary “pop-up” accounts, using a pseudonym, that I open, use, and then delete (to the extent that FB supports actual deletion). It is worth deleting my account just to see the hilarious messages from FB including the emotionsl plea of how my friends would miss me and how my husband would no longer have a way to contact me if I went through with the deletion.

    The frictionless sharing or whatever is happening here is getting creepier and creepier. Each day I see something cringeworthy in my FB feed that I’m pretty sure that friend did not intend for me to see that he “read” or “enjoyed” or “viewed”, etc.

    Today, my hope and goal is that the community I am a part of (non-tech) that abandoned email lists and discussion forums in favor of FB, will move somewhere else. I keep having to open a pop-up account there because it is now virtually the ONLY way these folks communicate on events and news that matter to me that world (happens to be an obscure horse breed, but I am sure there are a zillion similar online affinity groups that essentially moved to FB).

  26. true. the next decade will prove very interesting. remember how hard it was for hippies as disco and glam and punk moved im? We have all that to re-live….

  27. @kathy I am very taken with one of the suggestions about subversion, from Andy Havens. Gaming the system. Having a competition for the best non-ad generated by algorithms.

  28. JP, is this not simply a function of the system not having a way of dealing with satire or irrelevant recommendations?

    If it helps give greater background, whilst I had seen this before – several years ago, but the time you appeared under the sponsor label, you were far from alone, I saw that several other of my friends had Liked this (again in many cases) and other satirical reviews like it. I wonder if it somehow (perversely) warranted the attention because it was particularly ‘hot’ / verging on meme-status or trending at the time.
    I doubt anyone is paying for these types of sponsored ads. Not wittingly at least.

    Two more things:

    Is this your fastest commented-upon post?

    And did you read this on the value of Facebook’s data and social network assets?

  29. @conor no, this isn’t the fastest in either “first response” or in “time to 20 comments”, whichever category you meant. Probably top 20 in the recent past. And yes, I did read the asset piece…..

  30. The recommendation, if there is an implied recommendation in my shared action, is that people read some reviews. Satirical reviews. Of a theoretical product. That is what’s really getting me…. who could *possibly* want to pay for my endorsing ironic reviews of nonexistent products…..

    I’m left wondering if that intention (paying for a endorsement even if/when it is absurd) is not really the point. The point may be, I think, that we are being shown an early example of the long-term social ‘architecture’ implications of existing in and on social networks. There will be (already has been) significant blurring of lines regarding the outcomes of informed consent versus commercial encroachment / enclosure of the user. And that, I think, will lead to an unhappy acceptance that our business models ‘r us and that we are captive and have less choice and control at the individual level than we actually have or would like.

  31. Ever since they started using Like buttons as a way of tracking you around the web I’ve completely divorced my FaceBook usage from everything else I do (separate browsers). I worry now that my mobile usage can’t be so carefully controlled. Of course similar precautions wouldn’t have helped in this case (as you had explicitly shared the link – I remember following it myself – some of those Amazon reviews are comedy gold).

    It’s desperately sad that ads seem to be the only way that’s being used to monetize the social graph (as it’s useful for so many other things), and that scraping the last few cents out of the long tail (there’s a blog title if there ever was one) results in this type of behaviour. For me FB crossed the line some time ago, and whilst I’m not yet ready to delete my account I’ve killed almost all of the apps I once used and withdrawn from active participation.

  32. And that, I think, will lead to an unhappy acceptance that our business models ‘r us and that we are captive and have less choice and control at the individual level than we actually have or would like.

    Thus, the interest and potential delight expressed above re: gaming / subverting the system .. ?

  33. @Andy Havens – really like the idea – a bit like yarn bombing :-) I will have to look more into the sponsored stories and the satirical version – I run the Facebook page for a small local non-profit cinema in the country side – we ought to be able to have some fun with that

    @JP – i totally agree that the problem is who is paying, why and how many settings are fair to ask us to consider.

  34. I moved from suburban America to a small village in Gabon, Africa. There I had the charming and singular (at least for me) experience of being approached by total strangers and having details of my life expounded upon. I had not realized that my sense of privacy, based mostly on an anonymity that I took for granted, simply could not exist in a small village. These new tools for sorting and connecting are having a similar disorienting effect. I suppose there will be technological alleviation through greater, more robust encryption and the like; but fundamentally the destruction of anonymity is going to make us rethink a lot of our most cherished notions of privacy.

  35. @KathySierra How great to see you post! I have a similar experience to your horse breed community friends around obscure old cars; that community too is uploading vast amounts of images and information to FB, mostly oblivious to IP protection etc, although many still regard vertical forums and wikis as their core. My approach to FB is a bland presence under my own name; I don’t share much about myself or my activities. I’m resigned to the fact my every online and gps tracked move is being picked over by a huge Turkish bazaar of marketers; Doc Searls new book touches on that reality.

  36. @JP I’d like to see individuals get some composition for sharing about themselves in this appalling economy for most people outside the tech bubble. “Comfortable with the trade” won’t cut it forever as people realize they are being sold out. The post Facebook generation are likely to be a lot more digitally savvy about what they share and for what…I’d like to think….

  37. Did you perhaps also get the full URL that was being used in the sponsored ad JP – and have you compared it to the one you originally posted? I had two thoughts:

    a) Imagine if Facebook modified or added an affiliate field to the link. That would be a interesting monetization strategy….and not unlike what other sites (sadly) do. That doesn’t make it “sponsored” though.

    b) Perhaps it was sponsored – by Amazon. Or at least, I can imagine that being a valid strategy on Amazon’s side. Imagine, you’re a retailer – and a popular social media host says, “sure, we’ll promote links to your site by influentials for a fee”. That feels like another valid monetization strategy. (Of course, little do they know it was a satirical link – but it’s early days. Satirical or not, you’ve driven a lot of folk to Amazon in the past few days).

  38. You are a victim of legalised identity theft. If you want it to stop, you need to quit Facebook. Life on the outside of the ‘book is just fine.

    Twitter is the honest social network, as the default is clearly “public”. Facebook’s privacy policy might as well say “you don’t have any!”, whereas Twitter’s could say “why would you want any?”.

  39. Posted a version of this comment in the Facebook thread a couple of days ago, but reading some of the wonderful comments here inspired me to update and re-post – hope you’ll forgive me.

    It’s the spread of this kind of leaky algorithmic marketing that is starting to really discourage me from sharing or, sometimes, even consuming content. And I’m a sharer by nature – I’ve been willingly sharing and participating in all this social bollocks for a heck of a long time now, as you probably know JP. Think I joined my first social network in 1997 ( – remember that?). I started blogging 12 years ago and have been an enthusiastic early adopter of all kinds of social media and social sharing tools.

    But now… well, I’m really starting to worry about the path we seem to be headed down. Or should I say, the path we’re being led down.

    For example, I’m very uncomfortable with the insidious growth of these social sharing widgets in Facebook that want me to hand over the keys to my FB account before I can read the story one of my friends has posted. If I inadvertently click through an interesting link only to find that SocialCam or Viddy or somesuch malarkey wants me to accept its one-sided ToS, then I nope the hell out of there pretty darn fast. This denies the content creator of traffic and views and ensures that I *won’t* engage with their ideas, no matter how good they might be.

    The next step in this – as evidenced in the weirdness you just experienced JP, is the tip over into leaky algorithmic marketing, as I call it. It’s a case of developers trying to be smart in applying their algorithms to user-generated content – attempting to nail the sweet spot of personal recommendations by guessing what kind of ad inventory to attach to an individual comment, status update or tweet.

    This is unsubtle marketing leaking across into personal conversations. It’s the loud, drunken sales rep at the cocktail party, shoe-horning a pitch for education savings plans into a discussion about your choice of school for your kids.

    As experiences like yours make all too clear – it’s a brute force approach that just doesn’t work. It does more to piss off than promote.

    And I really wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so awfully bloody cack-handed as a marketing tactic. I mean – what the hell has an ad for motorbike holidays got to do with you linking to snarky reviews of fancyass (and possibly non-existent) speaker cables? Where’s the contextual connection? Your algorithm is bad, Mr. Marketer, and you should feel bad. Maybe I should call it Leaky Algorithmic Marketing Engagement – LAME for short.

    Seriously, though – it’s the growing prevalence of weirdness like this that is slowly nudging me in the direction of Internet recluse. I’ve always been very comfortable about sharing who I am and what I like online. But now I find I want to hide behind proxies just to read an online newspaper – not just because I’m upset that marketers are trying to harvest meaning from every pixel I poke, but also because they’re just so woefully, pathetically bad at it.

    My friend Jon Husband (who peeled a couple of onion layers earlier in this thread) just let me know that he saw a Facebook ad saying “Michael O’Connor Clarke likes Aleve”. Well, yes – I do. It’s an effective muscle relaxant and pain reliever and helped a lot when I badly sprained my ankle running a few years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to shill for the damn thing.

    When Jon told me about this, it immediately set me stomping off in high dudgeon to check my Facebook privacy settings. Here’s what I found:

    “Facebook does not give third party applications or advert networks the right to use your name or picture in adverts…”

    Ah ha! I thought. Got you, you duplicitous, praetorian, algorithmic bastards (sorry, “algorithmic” seems to be word of the day here, for some reason). But then I read on…

    “Everyone wants to know what their friends like. That’s why we pair adverts and friends — an easy way to find products and services you’re interested in, based on what your friends share and like.

    Here are the facts:
    Social adverts show an advertiser’s message alongside actions you have taken, such as liking a Page”

    Hmmmmm… indeed. Or as a sage elsewhere in this thread has commented: WTF?!

    Perhaps it’s just me, but the delta between “we don’t do this” and “we do this” in this particular case is almost too fine to be discernible. FB doesn’t give others the right to use my name for advertising third-party products, but they’ve absolutely no qualms about doing precisely that themselves.

    A little higher up on my Facebook news feed the other day was a link telling me a very straight-laced management consultant I know watched a video called “Hot contestant on Wheel of Fortune”. I wonder if he even realises SocialCam is promoting this fact? Frankly, I couldn’t care less what the dude watches. But I resent the fact that our every online action, every click, every gesture, every page I choose to offer eyeballs to seems to be considered fair game for the crappiest kind of marketing.

    This is not the intention economy I signed up for.

    I should know better, of course. I fully understand the basic precept: if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. I get that.

    But in these examples I’m not even the product being sold – I’m the unpaid and unwitting salesman for someone else’s product, and that chafes my social bumpy bits.

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