Commentary: If Facebook is so smart, why does it keep selling me slippers?

Commentary: If Facebook is so smart, why does it keep selling me slippers?

We are supposed to believe social media's sophisticated algorithms built upon data scraping and machine learning know us better than our closest friend, but how true is this? One Financial Times observer discusses the issues behind it.

Indoor slippers
Indoor slippers. (Photo: Pixabay)

LONDON: If Big Data is so spookily effective at knowing every aspect of my character, I just have one question. Why does Facebook keep trying to sell me US$80 slippers? 

Rare are my visits to Facebook or Instagram that are not rewarded with an advert for what look like overpriced espadrilles. I doubt I have ever spent more than US$15 on slippers or bought them anywhere but Marks and Spencer.

I have never googled them and can think of nothing in my online activity to suggest that, when it comes to slippers, I might be susceptible to the last word in style.

(In fact, this product has ugly detachable outdoor soles so they don’t so much say “last word in style” as “middle-aged guy who goes out in his slippers”.)

To be fair to the data-science geniuses, Facebook does not always offer me overpriced slippers. Sometimes it offers me overpriced earplugs or the chance to buy a mindfulness app.

SOPHISTICATED ALGORITHMS?

We are supposed to believe that the sophisticated algorithms built upon data-scraping and machine learning now know us better than our closest friends. 

Yet you would not need more than 15 minutes in my company to mark me down as a guy unlikely to spend US$80 on slippers or splash out on a mindfulness app. 

Likewise the ads based on browsing history. I understand why I see an ad for Airbnb apartments after looking at tourist sites for a city. What puzzles me, in an era of supposed data omniscience, is why I continue to see the ad even after I have made the booking.

It is always the same. Who has not bought something online only to find the same thing is advertised to you for the next six weeks? 

Last year, we bought an electric keyboard for the boy’s birthday. Months later, I am still getting ads for the same model. Either the data guys missed the purchase or they assume we are the Pet Shop Boys and that one keyboard is never enough. 

MORE TARGETED ADVERTISING

Far from looking like the work of a sinister data genius, the ads I see seem more to suggest an aged uncle who remembers you once liked bourbon biscuits when you were a child and so still buys them for you even though you turned 45 last birthday. 

Clearly, there must be more to it. Companies such as Facebook and Google would not take the immense trouble they do if it was not worth anything. 

We have to assume that the intense data mining leads to more effectively targeted advertising, which delivers better results for customers and higher returns for the platforms. 

I would just offer one caveat. However well these companies are mining my data, they clearly still have some way to go on the targeted messaging. I spend an inordinate amount of my day online, visiting sites that Facebook scrapes and via the Chrome browser, which feeds my every action back to Google.

The gist of my life is easily captured and, yet, I still get offered golden slippers. I’d like to think this means Facebook has me down as part of an international elite but, more likely, I am in a bucket marked "more money than sense".

It is easy to see the value of targeted ads. There is no point in advertising a bread shop in London to a person with gluten allergies in Paris, but it has been in everybody’s interest to overstate the abilities of the algorithm. 

KNOW ME BETTER THAN I KNOW MYSELF

One plausible view may be that the platforms have yet to marry the vast amounts of data they hold on me into useful actions. At the moment, their adverts only have to be better than the alternatives, such as newspapers and TV.

And while they may not be using the eye-watering amount of data they hold very well just yet, it is reasonable to think they will get better. This may be why the time has come for regulators to get serious about limiting the scale of the data harvesting.

There is one other explanation. Maybe they know me so well that they know I need these crappy overpriced products even before I do. They know that secretly I am the kind of man who treats his toes to US$80 house shoes. 

Maybe the Big Data revolution is as deep and sinister as many would claim and understands me better than I do myself. 

Perhaps I just need to give in and buy what it tells me. 

Oh, them golden slippers; oh, them golden slippers. 

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Source: Financial Times/sl

Bookmark