Anyone who has survived middle school knows that publicly admitting you “like” someone can have serious repercussions. You’ve probably outgrown adolescent angst by now, but when you’re roaming the halls of Facebook, you might want to consult your inner tween before clicking a ‘Like’ button. That’s because Facebook, not unlike that nosy girl in seventh grade, wants to tell everyone about your objects of affection, via ads that make you an unwitting and unpaid celebrity endorser.
Facebook calls these ads Sponsored Stories. To create them, Facebook essentially repurposes users’ status updates and activities to hawk an advertiser’s products or services. Once you ‘Like’ a company page, check in at a merchant location, post an update mentioning a product, service, or company, or otherwise interact with a Facebook advertiser, your activity becomes potential fodder for that company's ad. Your friends could then receive an update informing them of your activity--whether you want Facebook to share it or not.
The upshot? A single click could make you that advertiser’s newest spokesperson. And since you can’t opt out, you really can’t do anything about it.
In a video on Facebook’s site, a product manager notes that the Stories go only to your friends, and they aren’t getting anything you haven’t already sent them. True, but isn’t there a difference between your recommending a movie to your friends, and Facebook taking it upon itself to do so?
Plus, the Sponsored Stories don’t always take context into account. Consider the case of blogger Nick Bergus, who made a funny post about an Amazon ad for a 55-gallon drum of “personal lubricant.” Next thing he knew, he was in ads hawking the lube to his friends. One pal told Bergus he saw the ad every time he logged in to Facebook.
If Sponsored Stories were to stay in the ticker feed, where they’re relatively easy to ignore or hide, they might not be such a big deal. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Facebook’s ads-masquerading-as-updates are no longer confined to the low-rent ticker district. Facebook has started subtly releasing them into users’ news feeds, and that could be a bigger issue for a lot more users.
You can’t stop Facebook from using you as an unpaid endorser or tainting your news feed with ad pitches, but you can minimize the noise by being judicious about your activities. Before you click a ‘Like’ button, check in at a shop or restaurant, post an update about a product or service, or install an app that tracks or shares your actions, ask yourself if you feel strongly enough about the product or service to endorse it to your friends. You might still end up being an involuntary shill, but at least you can be selective about it. After all, a little “like” can go a long way.