At the beginning of the first year of my undergraduate I saw an ad on my Facebook homepage for Walmart. It was at this moment that I noticed for the first time that there was a small “X” in the top right of the small ad, which I clicked and was given the option of hiding the ad (and funnily enough, all ads from Walmart!). The only thing Facebook wanted in return for the service of never showing me a dirty Walmart ad ever again was that I give them the reason why I wanted to never see the ad again. I told them it was offensive. It’s also important to note that at this time I had also changed my Facebook gender to female (which it still is) which was done partly to see how it would change the ads I saw on Facebook, as well as the fact that Facebook only operates within a gender binary.
For the next four years I proceeded to tell Facebook that every ad they presented to me was to be hidden, primarily for being offensive or sexually explicit. I don’t entirely know why I did this, but I did it for every single ad I saw. Sometimes I would go weeks at a time without seeing any ads, but eventually they would pop up again and I would notify Facebook that I hate them. Sometimes I would have fun deliberating why I hated them; a local framing store was repetitive, the Teen Choice Awards were misleading, and of course a Michael Buble concert was sexually explicit.
This had an interesting consequence for me. I have absolutely no idea how Facebook works, let alone the ad feedback system, so for all I know everyone is seeing the same ads as me. I don’t think this is the case however, as instead of the “personalized” ads that everyone has become accustomed to on the internet, I am now getting ads for the most abstract shit ever.
To begin with, a few months ago I was shown an ad for an eco-tourism company. This made sense to me as I often post about environmental issues and I have my job history on Facebook (which includes working for two well known environmental non-profits), I told Facebook that the ad was against my views. The next day I was presented with a similar ad, but only instead of eco-tourism it was an ad to visit Washington DC (sexually explicit) and then later Cuba (against my views). I no longer get any travel related ads.
The next wave of ads were decidedly cosmetic product related (which were all offensive). Then were followed by a wave of retail store ads (Sears was sexually explicit, The Bay against my views and Target is simply uninteresting) which were then replaced by promotion for artists and record labels which I had already “Liked” on Facebook (all of them were repetitive).
Now Facebook’s ad system appears to be grasping at anything, anything I like. Brazilian waxes for 19 dollars, guitar amps, screwdrivers and the list goes on. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes forget to tell Facebook I hate their ads because now they’re showing me ads for products I didn’t even know existed. Who’s interested in ice resurfacer rentals? Facebook thinks I am.
Everyone gets worried about “smart ads” on the internet and filter bubbles, but there’s an important thing we’re all forgetting. The internet is stupid. Remember when you were young and were prompted to give a birthday? The same principle applies. All internet use should be equal parts practical amusement, equal parts self disinformation. At the very least it nullifies ads on your Facebook news feed.
EDIT: Immediately after posting this I went onto Facebook. I had 4 ads up, all for gastric bypass surgery.